I’ve been sitting down to write this blog post for a few days, but it keeps changing on me. Circumstances keep changing. Time keeps moving and things keep happening, and I can’t decide what, exactly, I want to say. I even wondered, last night, whether maybe it was time to stop publishing random inner thoughts on a whim, sending them into the universe without taking time to reflect on why I’ve wanted to share what little I know (or think I know). But here I sit again, typing words into a blank rectangular space.
I write in other places too. I write in my notebook, in pen, words few people could decipher even if they tried. I like not knowing what will come of that material; I like knowing it’s likely nothing will come of it, and it will just exist as a muddy river of unfiltered thought.
I also write stories, using Scrivener or Word, and that always feels like I’m doing something different, too, than what I do here, on this blog. There, I have time, I take time, sometimes years, going over and over the lines of neatly spaced words. I polish. I revisit. I consider. I restructure. It’s satisfying, and while I do write these stories knowing they could be published, someday, the outcome is difficult to guess and in some ways doesn’t matter. I have to work them over till I feel done with them, or they’re done with me.
This blog is a different space. Immediate. Gratifying. Immediately gratifying. When I skim through the years’ worth of postings (nearly 11 years, now), it’s like looking through a scrapbook. Quite pleasant, though I don’t do it often. It can feel like I’m looking at a stranger’s life, in some ways. I’ve been and done many things in the past 11 years, I’ve had my enthusiasms, responsibilities, interests, routines. I’ve been knocked off the path by fortune and misfortune. As ever, I don’t know what happens next, exactly, but I trust that more change will come, and I’ll be pulled onward, to new (or seemingly new) revelations, interests, insights, and errors. There will always be something to write about, in one medium or another.
I had an experience on Friday night that disturbed me; I can’t think what to do about it, so I’m writing about it here. On Friday afternoon, I went to Stratford with my sixteen-year-old daughter, who is off to camp this weekend for a month; we saw Billy Eliot, a musical that confronts ideas about masculinity, among other subjects. That same evening, Kevin and I went and saw Booksmart, a movie about best friends graduating from high school, that was also endearingly, hearteningly queer-positive without making a big deal of it. I could think and imagine that the world was becoming (had become) a better place, a safer place. And then, almost as soon as we’d left the movie theatre, Kevin and I found ourselves in between two groups of young people who were shouting at each other. Actually, it was really only one young man who was doing most of the shouting, and what he was shouting was disturbing, bigoted, violent. He was with a group of other young men, and while I don’t think they participated, they also didn’t intervene. They all looked the same to me: white, early twenties, athletic, clean-cut. The angry guy was shouting past us, at a teenager in a red sweater who was standing some distance away with two friends, a young woman and a young man. It ws the boy in the sweater who was the target of the other man’s rage.
I don’t want to repeat the language used. It was derogatory and homophobic. And finally, the kid in the sweater, whose body language said that he was tired of this, weary, not quite resigned, shouted something back. And then the other guy really cut loose. One of the things he shouted at that point was “you little bitch.” I turned around when he said that, because I wanted to shame him, because I wanted him to know that people were paying attention, and the angry guy said, “Ha ha, not you, you’re fine, I was talking to that other bitch, the one in the red sweater.” And then he started shouting again, possibly because I lifted my middle finger to him (not my finest moment), although it’s equally possible he didn’t even notice the gesture, and was still shouting at the kid. Kevin and I kept walking, and the group of young men kept walking too, in the opposite direction, and I thought it would be okay now, probably, the shouting was over. We passed the boy in the red sweater with his friends, and I wanted to stop and say something, but I couldn’t think what. They seemed to be trying to put the scene behind them and decide where to go to get a drink.
I said to Kevin, “This is the world our kids will have to live in.”
And he said, “They’re already living in it.I’ve spent the weekend reading John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, which follows the life of an Irish man from birth till death; it’s also the history of gay rights in Ireland, from the time of the protagonist’s birth when men could be arrested for being in a homosexual relationship (or beaten up, murdered, blackmailed or banished), to the referendum that legalized gay marriage in 2015. The trajectory is optimistic (which isn’t giving too much away — you should read it), but having witnessed what could only be called a disturbing scene of homophobic rage on the sidewalk on Friday night, when I got to the novel’s happy ending this morning, I felt my heart sink rather than rise.
Things are better. And things are still frighteningly not better.
And I don’t know what to do about it. Life asks us to be the best we can be under the circumstances. To use what talents we’ve got. To be true to ourselves. I believe that, just as I believe that every human being deserves dignity. That dignity is always worth fighting for. But the obstacles are enormous, and when you get right down to it, the horror of it is that the obstacles are almost all human-made. I can’t possibly list all the indignities humans are forced to endure, all the ways humans prevent other humans from being free, but it’s everywhere I turn, especially when I turn on the news.
Tap, tap, tap. I’ve typed for too long, and come up with too little. But I guess I haven’t yet given up on pressing publish, even when I don’t quite know what I’m trying to say.
This is an ideal day, wide open, warm. I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt and sandals. I’ve gone for a run in the park, walked the dog, hung the laundry, and meditated in the back yard listening to the birds and the traffic.
It is possible to be quiet and still.
And yet, there is an undercurrent of anxiety. Feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, grief, panic. When you strip away the layers of busyness, you have to look at yourself, pay attention, listen. Maybe you were busy for a reason. Maybe you didn’t want to scrutinize the uncomfortable emotions and their uncomfortable causes.
What a question. Oh boy. Rejection hurts. Not meeting my own expectations and hopes hurts. Feeling purposeless in my vocation hurts.
Is this true? Do you feel purposeless, directionless, or is your purpose and direction so attached to outcome that you’re standing in the way of recognizing what is before you? The here and now. Not what came before or what may come, but what is here before you in this very hour.
I come inside and draw a picture. I write this meditation.
I ask: Is my vocation, my purpose more closely related to being a writer, or to leading a life of contemplation? What connects these two points on the map inside my mind? What separates them?
A writer writes, of course, but more importantly, she publishes. Produces. Makes her ideas manifest on the page. Her work can be seen, recognized, appreciated.
What do you even call a person who leads a life of contemplation? How quiet and interior is a life of contemplation? How is such a life made manifest? Is it a life in which its purpose is entirely untethered from production, from recognition, from approval? Is it a life without notice? What would that mean?
Mini-meditation for today: Every experience is an opportunity to express and deepen your connection to your own values. Every experience has meaning.
As I drove the back roads, early this morning, following gravel trucks and farm machinery and backlogs of commuting traffic toward Orangeville, and beyond, to the 404 north to Barrie, where I was meeting a book club at a care home, I noticed my breathing. Sometimes I noticed that I was holding my breath. Sometimes I noticed that my breathing was shallow. Other times, I would draw air deeply into my lungs and exhale — and that felt good.
I was afraid of being late.
But what if I were late, would that constitute a crisis? No. Deep breath. Ah.
At the care home, I spoke for an hour to a group of older people, all women, who were interested in the life of a writer, and who indulged my passion for a feminist history of running and sports in Canada.
Driving home, my breath came more easily. I turned off the radio and let my mind wander. I thought about how my general life goal (if I were to put such a thing into words) is to express myself truly, to embody my values, to articulate in any setting my belief that experiences are what carry meaning in our lives, not things, not brands, not objects, but connections, being in the same place at the same time with the world that surrounds us, and being present there. In believing this, I open any experience to its potential to be meaningful, by which I mean: any experience has the potential to be purposeful, joyful, and deepening — to bring me closer to others, and closer to my hopes for who I might be becoming.
So this is my thought for today: Inhale, exhale. Be as present as possible under the circumstances. Inhale, exhale.
I’ve entered a new phase in my life. It should have a name, but it’s a little too nascent to be properly defined, as yet. In this phase, I’m not teaching and The X Page Workshop has wrapped up, and collectively the team has yet to decide what comes next. My focus, therefore, turns not outward, but inward.
All this year, I’ve been seeking space. Last fall, when I was drowning in responsibilities, the word SPACE became my mantra, and my goal. I worked so hard to give myself this gift. It’s here now. And I’ve recognized that my new goal is to allow the space I’ve elbowed open to remain spacious, not to clutter it with new pursuits. What if I give my writing the attention I’ve given everything else? That is the question before me. It’s an experiment. I wonder: will the writing life, its necessary solitude, its self-generated energy, continue to call so loudly now that I can turn toward it?
Here is the gift of time, to explore.
Here is where I inevitably get caught up in looping guilty thoughts, ranging from, can we afford this?, to if we can afford this what have I done to deserve this?
There lives inside me a desire, an impulse, to give rather than to receive. The discomfort I feel when receiving — praise, thanks, gifts, anything good — is profound; it makes me almost ungracious. I’ve been trying to learn how to say thank you for years. To say it and to absorb it and to accept it. I don’t want to hoard my riches. But I don’t want to squander them either. If I am to accept this gift of time, I have to accept it despite not knowing whether anything good or useful will come of it. That’s hard. I know that if I put my time into teaching, into running workshops, good and useful things will come of it. So it’s hard to step away from purposeful actions toward an activity that seems indulgent, self-indulgent, even, and not obviously of use to anyone else.
You see, in this new phase, I am a writer.
I mean, I am writer whose focus is on writing. Stories, a new novel, cartoons. I’m not, in this phase, a writer whose focus is on sharing her skills with others. I’m a writer who is practicing her skills. I need the practice. The practice calls me.
I am setting new routines, in order not to squander my riches: these gifts of time and space. Exercise early. Meditate when the house has emptied out. Follow the rituals that ease me across the border into a creative state: open my notebook, listen to a song while drawing a self-portrait, write for three minutes (or more) answering the question: What’s on your mind? And then writing, or editing, or cartooning. Also, and as important, reading. Books, fiction. On Monday, I read an entire novel (Normal People, by Sally Rooney.) Today, what’s on your mind? turned into a meditation on love, a spoken-word poem, inflected by the Kendrick Lamar soundtrack I’d been listening to. I hung up a load of laundry in the sudden sunshine. I meditated while standing in the grass in the back yard. I decided to write this post before setting up at the dining-room table to work on cartoons.
It feels easy.
It feels pleasurable.
It feels good.
I’m not a hedonist by nature. I’m ashamed, maybe, to enjoy feeling good. To enjoy ease. Something whispers that I’m not deserving. What a strange barrier to fulfillment. Truth be told, I’m drained and exhausted, teetering on the edge of burn-out. I know in my bones that this phase is as necessary as the other phase. The inward feeds the body and the spirit to prepare it for the outward. It’s good to feel good. To swim with the current. To sit quietly and breathe deeply. The scent of flowering trees is especially intoxicating just now. Am I ascending or descending? It’s too early in this phase to know. Either way, it feels good.
We did it! The X Page storytelling workshop culminated in a show in front of a sold-out audience, and the experience was so profound and meaningful that I don’t want to try to peel it apart. Suffice it say, we could feel the attention and support of the audience as the performance unfolded on stage; and throughout, I felt pure joy to be witnessing these unique personal stories told with such confidence and personality, and staged so brilliantly and effectively.
I’ve been thinking about the material world. How we attach value to things, and how we measure value according to a concept so abstract it only exists because we’ve collectively agreed to believe in it — money. We seem to believe that for a thing to matter it has be material, its worth evaluated and determined on the open market. It’s a formulation that makes no sense to me at all. It seems to me, instead, that a material thing only has value when it is attached to meaning that is beyond its material form. Things don’t matter to us because of what they cost or what we can sell them for; things matter because they connect us to the ephemeral, to experiences, to memories, to images and stories.
So much of what I do has no monetary value attached. Sometimes I get paid for my work; often I don’t. I have a new story in PRISM International that took four years to write. It’s a little over 1,000 words. I earned $90 for it. I was thrilled and happy to earn anything at all (literary magazines are run on a shoestring and a prayer, and I don’t take payment for granted). My point is not that I should have been paid more, or even that I should have been paid anything, but that the value of that story, to me, is unrelated to monetary compensation. It’s unrelated to material compensation of any kind. I wrote it to explore an idea. I loved working and reworking the words on the page. The language and structure were surprising. I felt rich every time I waded into its words. I felt fed. I felt alive.
I felt the same during our Tuesday night workshops. I felt the same during the performance on Sunday.
I believe the value of the workshop was in the connections made, the space carved out for stories to be told and heard, and the hope and joy, and sense of belonging, that comes from working with others toward something bigger than yourself.
I believe the value of my little story “Early Onset” is in its existence: strange and unsettling, and, to paraphrase the words of its main character, “terrible good, terrible good.”
We need to have enough material goods to live more than a life of struggle, survival, and trial. Beyond that, what we long for won’t be answered by the material. No prize, no public acknowledgement, no stack of cash will satisfy; quite the opposite. If we’re doing what we’re doing for material reasons, receiving material reward only makes us hungry for more, greedy for it, like addicts. Trust me; I know. I know what we’re longing for can’t be bought or sold. I know that meaning and purpose, belonging, are not commodities. I know that within us is always enough; and I know that we’re always seeking, nevertheless. We’re seeking to connect, even briefly, with mystery, with the unknown and unknowable, from whence we’ve come and to which we will return, carrying nothing.
We’re always becoming who we might be.
I am a maker of experiences, not things. Even when I make things, it’s because they’re attached to experiences — stories, cartoons: my attempt to translate experience into a form accessible by someone else, its effect ephemeral, the tiniest vanishing ripple on the greatest lake. Enough. I am enough. You are enough. We are enough. And isn’t this life just terrible, terrible good?
Sometimes my skin feels too porous, and emotions pour in almost painfully. Yesterday, I started reading a personal essay in the newspaper written by the mother of a child on the autistic spectrum who was being bullied by classmates, people he thought were his friends. I had to stand up and walk away, so strong were my feelings of sickness and pain, gut-deep, a grief and horror that seemed to wash through my bloodstream.
I stood by the sink and wept.
Stories of exclusion, cruelty, judgement of others trouble me so deeply I can hardly tolerate the pain. I guess here in my mind, I live in a world in which people see each other, are kind to each other, have compassion for each other; but in the real world, there is a lot of pain inflicted even by people who are trying to be kind; pain is also inflicted by people who only want to be left alone, people who don’t want to engage, people who don’t care, who are struggling with their own troubles; and there is pain actively inflicted by people who fear and hate others for their differences, people who don’t want to understand or learn or listen, people who actively target others, weaker and more marginalized than themselves.
I can’t make sense of it.
It just doesn’t make sense in my brain.
I don’t have solutions. I can only to attempt to make spaces for that version of the world that exists in my mind to exist in real life. I’ve tried in the classroom, on the soccer field, inside my own family, and in this storytelling workshop. I know I’ve gotten things wrong. I suspect I’m sometimes the person who’s inflicted pain when trying to be kind, and acting in ignorance. But I’d rather try than hide. There is no alternative that makes sense to me.
For the past 11 weeks, I’ve been privileged to be part of The X Page Workshop. It was envisioned as a creative and collaborative undertaking that would bring together women from different cultural backgrounds, all of whom are making lives for themselves and their families in Canada. Each week, a group of almost 30 of us have met to work on writing and staging stories. Together, we’ve made something that’s rich and enriching. Just with stories! Just with stories and goodwill, trust, kindness, and effort. When we’re together in the beautiful space at the Centre for Peace Advancement, as we have been every Tuesday evening since March, I feel immersed in the possibility of the world inside my mind becoming a real place. It feels like a real place, then and there.
Just thinking about being there brings me a sense of peace and ease.
It isn’t perfect. Why should it be? This world in my mind has conflict, but it also has ways of talking about conflict, because there is trust, and the trust is constantly being earned. Each small thing offered, in this world in my mind, is actually a really big thing. Our gifts to each other don’t have to be grand gestures, large acts, or come from a place of material wealth.
I think the best gift we can give to someone else is to see and acknowledge them without wanting or trying to change them in any way.
To live in this world in my mind, I have to try to live with unconditional love. And that means feeling too porous sometimes to the brokenness in the real world. That means loving what’s broken, too, unconditionally. And that hurts. But it’s the only thing that makes any sense to me at all.