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.
“We are changing all the time. You become what you love.
You’re always asked to sort of stretch a little bit more. But actually, we’re made for that.
There’s a song that wants to sing itself through us. And we’ve just got to be available. Maybe the song that is to be sung through us is a most beautiful requiem for an irreplaceable planet, or maybe it’s a song of joyous rebirth as we create a new culture that doesn’t destroy its world. But in any case there’s absolutely no excuse for our making our passionate love for our world dependent on what we think of its degree of health. Whether we think it’s going to go on forever. Those are just thoughts anyway.
But this moment we’re alive. So you can just dial up the magic anytime.”
– Joanna Macy in an interview with Krista Tippett (On Being)
I heard today on the radio that Teva Harrison died this past weekend. If you don’t know her work, you can read this piece by Teva in The Walrus, which includes her artwork, on finding four-leaf clovers. Teva was 42 years old when she died. She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at the age of 37. In the years in between, she became known for her work documenting her life with cancer, in text and illustrations / cartoons. Here’s another example from The Walrus. She also published a book called In-Between Days, which combines text and illustration into a unique form of non-fiction (reviewed here in The New York Times).
I don’t want Teva to be gone from the world.
I’m thinking of my stepmother, Marg, too, whose photograph sits just above the upper lefthand side of my computer screen. I can look at there anytime and she smiles back. And although she’s been gone almost exactly one year, each time I look at her photo, I experience a fresh, breathtaking disbelief that lasts for no more than a nanosecond — when I don’t believe she’s gone at all. How could she be, when she seems so alive and smiling at me, as if about to speak?
“Rilke invites us to experience what mortality makes possible. Mortality links us with life and all time. Ours is the suffering and ours is the harvest.
– from In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows
Sometimes I think that art is a tiny sacred task that involves carrying fragments of material toward the light. We can’t carry too much at one time. Eternity is too vast for us to understand, but our mortality gives us a window, an entrance. So we pick up a grain of sand and swim with it toward the surface we imagine far above us. This is art. We don’t need to be great to do this work. We don’t need to be visionary. We don’t need to be anything but ourselves.
“This great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: in taking from us a being we have love and venerated, death does not wound us, without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.” – Joanna Macy reading from her translation of Rilke
This moment, we are alive. You are alive and reading these words, as I am alive, writing these words. What song wants to sing itself through us? The task sounds so easy, so joyous — doesn’t it? We just have to make ourselves available. Offhand, here are a few ways I personally dial up the magic: go for a run; talk with a friend; share an experience and share some experience; pet a puppy; meditate; read that book; cry; draw; stretch; be outside; write a story; sit for awhile and think, and breathe.
Hold, love, release. Repeat.
Too much. There’s too much on my mind. The kids were home last week on March break, and I looked at the surfaces around our house, covered with debris, and I thought, this could be a metaphor for the surface of my mind. I’m drowning in details, in crumpled to-do lists, in scattered responsibilities, in unmet needs, in forgotten or neglected tasks.
My solution is multi-pronged, and does not, as one might think would be prudent, involve a lot of cleaning. Whenever I clear a surface, more debris appears.
Instead, my solution is in connection. Connection outward and connection inward. I go to a kundalini yoga class, and chant, whirl, and root myself deep inside my body. I go to church and rest within an hour of spiritual reflection. I draw and I write. I go for a walk with a friend. I meditate. I help lead workshops, and I stand at the front of a classroom trying to connect students to the transformative magic of their own creativity.
I’ve been sharing a journal with one of my children, as a way to “talk” back and forth about big subjects. Our household currently has three teenagers, a time of life that is especially full of big questions — what is the purpose of my life, what am I supposed to do next, who am I, where can I find meaning? There aren’t one-size-fits-all answers to these questions, it seems to me, so I can only offer ideas, suggestions, places to search.
One of my teenagers said to me, earlier this week, that people are looking for connection with something bigger than themselves. That’s it, isn’t it. That’s the general answer. I think it’s why religion has played such a critical role in human society: religion is explicitly about connecting with something larger than oneself. Most religions involve community, ritual and practice, and some personal sacrifice; all of which are important ingredients, in my experience, to feeling connected to a larger purpose and meaning. It’s important to be aware that there are healthy connections, but there are also dangerous connections (if you’ve connected with something that demands that you hurt or denigrate other people, or yourself, for example, that is not a healthy connection with a larger cause).
Sitting in church on Sunday, I thought about who I am becoming as I age and grow more rooted within myself. I’m not someone who needs a clear surface to thrive. I don’t need to live in a clean house. But I am someone who needs to pay attention to the things that are causing the clutter, the people whose lives coincide with my own, whose interests interest me, the people who share my space (and I don’t just mean my own family); I carry their cares close, in other words. The debris isn’t all mine; I’m not even sure a quarter of it really belongs to me; certainly I generate far less than I take responsibility for. And that’s where I need to take care, be more mindful — recognize and accept responsibility for the choices I make, and recognize and let go of that which is not mine to tidy, clean up, or carry.
Somehow, it’s my spiritual self that recognizes what matters. Yet the spiritual self is the easiest to neglect, and the hardest to talk about. Here’s what I’ve been telling myself to maintain those connections, inward and outward, that give me meaning and purpose: If you don’t have time to meditate, you’re too busy; if you don’t have time to go to church, you’re too busy; if you don’t have time to talk to a good friend, you’re too busy; if you don’t have time to be alone, you’re too busy. (Here’s the thing: even though I’m busy, I almost always have time.)
If you’ve done any writing workshops with me, you’ll remember the X page, which is a Lynda Barry staple, a page in your notebook on which you draw a big X — you “wreck the page,” as she says — and on this page, you pour out your sensory memories that emerge from whatever image you’re exploring. In the photo below, you can see that blank X mark amidst the text that surrounds it on the board, behind the writer, Tasneem Jamal. This photo was taken yesterday evening, when Tasneem was leading the writing session of The X Page, a writing and theatre workshop for immigrant and refugee women, which I’m coordinating with the help of many wonderful local partners. Last night was our first workshop session!
While the women were writing their stories in their notebooks, I modelled Tasneem’s instructions on the board (those are my X page scribbles). I got to write two new X page stories, which are brief 7-minute recollections based around an image anchored in memory. Our prompt for the evening was “suitcase,” or bag or backpack or purse.
“Backpack stuffed with my life”
I am sitting on the floor in the Detroit Airport, leaning against my backpack, a hiking backpack, that is stuffed with my life, or the life I expect to be leading in this place I’m going, somewhere I lived as a child and have not returned to for a decade. I’m 19 years old. I grin into the camera my dad is holding, already sunburned. My jeans are hot, as the day is warm. I just want to say goodbye and go — get on the plane and fly away, mostly because I am scared, though I would admit that to no one, certainly not myself. I feel as though I am fulfilling a calling that I am meant to return to this place that in my memory was a kind of paradise — Managua, Nicaragua. It was not a paradise in any way that is easy to explain. I was a child when I lived there, and I felt free.
“Grandma King’s purse”
I am inside a memory I didn’t know I’d kept. I can see my grandma’s purse held open, and I am being permitted to dig through it to look for candy, but I see all kinds of treasure here — tissues, lipsticks, keys, a wallet I want to open, gum in stick form, pens, an address books, yes, candy, wrapped; mints. Peppermints striped red and white in crackling plastic. I sit on Grandma’s lap and smell her scent, nothing fancy, her hair spray. She gets her hair set at a salon, but I wouldn’t know that, not yet, it’s a detail that will fascinate me when I’m seven or eight. She does not touch her hair in between appointments. She is not a snuggly grandma. Yet here I sit on her lap in the front seat of a car on a hot day, windows down, in the parking lot of — maybe — a grocery store. We are waiting for someone to return. I did not know I’d kept this memory. Yet here it is.
Walking home from campus this afternoon, I kept formulating and reformulating my “artist’s statement”; writing an artist statement is something I’ve asked my Creativity Unplugged students to think about doing for our end of term launch party. What would mine be? What would yours be?
Maybe this is my statement:
Life is about seeking beauty: go and find it, record it, and share it.
But I think my statement would also have to include this:
Life is about seeking beauty: go and find it, record it, and share it. We can go together.
I’ve been doing an intensive writing week. I have little transferable advice to pass along regarding strategies for how to write a novel, unless you’re interested in the pathological approach. I’ve spent seven days writing almost non-stop, abandoning all else, and I can report back to you that the overwhelming sensation involved is: compulsion; essentially, it felt too psychologically painful to stop until done. So I wrote till I was done, and the whole book was out of me. (Important side note: Much editing awaits ahead.)
I finished this morning. I was working off a previous draft, and an outline, so this wasn’t material conjured from thin air, these are characters I’ve been exploring in one form or another for several years now. I know them. Writing scenes felt like describing events that I’d witnessed. I just had to look around, pay attention, and write what I was seeing.
I marked each writing session by drawing — the drawings I’ve used to illustrate this post — while listening to music (the song titles are incorporated into each drawing). After drawing, I wrote for three minutes — “What’s on your mind?” — the same prompt I use when leading creative writing classes, and it’s brilliant. Just dump it out. And then GO.
There must be another way to do this work, of course, and my goal is to give myself enough space during my regular life that I can aspire to write under more regular, ordinary circumstances. Because, I’ll be honest, all I crave is more of this. More and more and more and more. Writing like this feels as natural as breathing. Effortless? In truth, yes. The way that going for a hike in the woods is effortless. Because I was so occupied, it was like I was living in another world. And now, thankfully, that world exists outside of me in a form accessible to others.
The relief I feel is extreme. I can’t describe it accurately. I was so afraid that something would happen to prevent me from pouring the whole thing out — the whole story. And to imagine leaving those characters half-formed, half-finished with their tasks, was excruciating.
I’m writing this now to help myself remember what it feels like to be in this rare place. I want to record what it feels like to be inside this altered state, because I can’t assess it clearly from inside, yet I know I’m not exactly myself, even now. I’m still too attached to that other world, which feels more vital, more marvellous, more enticing than the mundanity of this real world, which is loaded with responsibility, distraction, good intentions (mine) causing problems, irritating details that mustn’t be overlooked. I know it’s good in the real world too, but this other world — it’s like getting to live inside of a novel, which is somehow even more profoundly affecting than simply reading a novel. If you know the pleasure of reading a novel, and falling into that other world (or any invented and stylized world, of any form), I hardly dare tell you that writing a novel is a million times more intoxicating, more absorbing, more wonderful, because that will sound like hyperbole. (Or maybe, too, I fear sounding like a junkie craving another hit.)
But it’s not hyperbole, it’s true. It’s that wonderful, that absorbing. I must make space to do this — just this.
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