June 29th, 2014
When I was a teenager, a not-very-intuitive psychologist I briefly saw thought I might have seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Perhaps I did, but if so it was the pea buried beneath twenty down quilts and twenty feather beds, and I did not at that life moment have the necessary stillness to discern or listen to anything so minute. There were too many definite torments in the room for me to start dealing with the indefinite ones.
Now, gratefully, all that has changed. For the most part I have the freedom and peace of mind to attend to the indefinite, to intuit the presence of peas under mattresses and to go down looking under each layer, each quilt which is different from the last.
And here is what I’ve found in the last little while. It has something to do with seasonal affective disorder, which feels like a beautiful metaphor. Clinically, SAD is understood to be related to lack of light in the winter–specifically to a lack of full-spectrum light. Sunlight is full-spectrum light. Most artificial light is not. Some of the symptoms of SAD can be alleviated by sitting under a full-spectrum light bulb in the winter. (This is all anecdotal, and poorly researched, but that is okay because I am mostly interested in the figurative implications at the moment). I’ve been thinking about what happens to us, to our bodies, to our souls, when we are missing part of the spectrum. I recently watched a commencement speech given by Jim Carey, a surprisingly insightful talk in which, at one point, he asks his audience, “What, you didn’t think I could be serious?”
This question illuminated something for me: the inverse. My life and work have been dedicated for decades to the intuition and articulation of peas-under-mattresses, those large and small fragments of grief that bruise us in our sleep, but that are also the source of every story, every art. And suddenly I think there is so much more going on in the room. So many other curious, illuminating, nourishing things.
So the extraordinary shift that is taking place in my thinking right now is this: even this amazing thing, the intuition of peas, to me right now, seems–for all its mystery and necessity–like only a part of the spectrum. Can this really be me speaking? / “What, didn’t think I could be (less) serious?” But it is me speaking. I’m opening up to the rest of the spectrum in a way I have not since, probably, I was a child in my parents’ garden, the garden of my living parents.
Children come full-spectrum. They come up to their knees in soil, still rooted in what nourishes them and unconcerned about where future nourishment will come from. They are open to what they feel: laughter, tears, anger, delight. And they need to be consoled! They are not little Buddhists, sitting in their pain without wanting to move away from it. But they are amazing at letting it go, once it subsides. We grown-up children live in exile, for the most part, from this creaturely inheritance: presence with the energy that comes up and buffets and nourishes, and humanizes, us.
When my son was only a few weeks old, I used to lie in bed with him and play and watch his face, how quickly he moved from distress to pleasure, from smiling to squeezing his face up in pain, and back again–and I thought to myself: this is resilience, he is teaching me resilience, how not to stay unhappy, how to just let something go.
And now I realize, too, though it should have been obvious at the time, that I was teaching him resilience. I was teaching him to trust that someone would love him no matter what he felt, that someone would mirror pain and love and happiness, so he could know what they were, and that none of them would last forever, and that each one would return.
So now I’m thinking so much about the other halves of things, how reciprocal everything is in this creaturely, natural world which is full of emotional processes that are also natural, and have phases, and spectrums which will be as full, I think now, as we are willing to make them. I’m thinking these days not only of resilience, of how to let something go, but also about openness: how to let something come. How to let it all arrive and depart like the sun. Or — more accurately — like the weather and the orbit and the phase and the tilt and the direction and the openness that make up our relationship to something that is, on its own, fundamentally unchanged.
Because, if we know anything, we know this. We know it’s not the sun that turns away.
June 17th, 2014
When I first began this blog, I wrote my initial post on the topic of perishable gifts. I had a six-month-old and a nearly four-year-old. My posts were brief, with an emphasis on imperfection. Somehow I made time for them, then, when there was less time objectively speaking. Now I have more time, so expect more of it. I miss the ability I had then to relax (sometimes) into the ephemerality of days and time and thoughts and words.
Now my oldest is six, my youngest is not-quite-three, and the tidal pull of early parenthood, the unavoidable submersion of everything I wanted to hold onto, is mostly history. The waters have (mostly) receded. And though many gifts in the meantime have perished I’m not so worried about this perishability anymore. Maybe because it’s clearer to me now that the gifts just keep on coming.
I am, however, still extremely interested in the whole idea of the gift, and the given. I’m especially interested by the idea of the given as a way to acceptance, to reconciliation with what is. What is given? We could do worse than to spend our lives in earnest pursuit of answers to this question.
All of our rituals around gifts honour the reciprocal quality in them, the importance of acknowledging not only what is given but also the one who gives and the one who receives. Anything received with gratitude as a gift is a kind of blessing: If it’s an object given or made with care, the object can be a kind of talisman, radiating love, or hope, or courage.
Lewis Hyde, whose excellent book The Gift I read years ago, writes with a lot more rigour about the economy of the gift than I’m capable of bringing to the table in the evening after a day of being with little people (speaking of giving…). But for me there’s something even more primary in all of this, something that goes all the way back to childhood: the offering basket passed down the rows of chairs, over people’s knees, the way it felt to be a child placing coins into the basket.
We all want to have something to offer. Though I stand now on very different theological ground than my parents did then, I have retained many of the basic impressions they made on me with their wild faith, including this: the implicit idea that giving and receiving are not so much opposites as phases of one another. My dad used to sing a song that went like this: “Give what you have and the Lord will give you more.” My parents believed in this fundamental generosity: the more you give, the more you are able to receive.
Maybe they were right. Maybe giving and receiving–like ice, water, and vapour–are different phases of the same substance, whose basic identity does not alter despite changes in its physical form. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we always had something to offer, if what we needed was always waiting to be received?
This year I have run on empty. I have survived the perishing of gifts and walked through that dark place where it seems the giving and receiving of gifts has ceased. For a long time I felt I had nothing to give.
But now I find myself ready to give again. Able to host friends, prepare food, offer care. Writing poems like a house on fire. I’m giving what I have, and it is enough. I’m open to receiving more.
Listening is everything, I increasingly think. Admitting where we are, in whatever cycle we’re caught up in, accepting what’s given. Listening is the ground of artistic practice, the ground of self-knowledge, also the ground of care, of generosity, of all relationship. Lately I’ve been aware–if imperfect in the application of this awareness–that listening to the given, to what’s given, and letting it be what it is, as it is, is perhaps the first duty, the core generosity. Perhaps it is the whole thing.
The novel I’ve been working on for a shocking number of years now is deeply thematically invested in thinking about care and harm, about dereliction and responsibility. And since I’ve also been caring for little children for the past six years, I’ve been thinking very concretely about care, what it is, how to give it, etc.
It occurred to me a few years ago that care, like harm, involves the crossing of boundaries. It’s just that care crosses boundaries gently, carefully, in attunement to the Other–while harm crosses boundaries selfishly, perhaps angrily, but certainly for the wrong motives, and always without the requisite attunement. Harm is not always intentional; care is. Though, of course, we are responsible for outcome regardless of intention.
Generosity–giving what it is in us to give–and gratitude–seeing what the gifts in fact are–both depend on listening. And listening means accepting what isn’t given, what the gifts are not, no matter how we wish it could be otherwise.
I remind my kids often of the importance of accepting what’s offered, what’s not offered. “What’s offered?” they often ask me now, when they’re hungry for something to eat. It’s a practice, not always an easy one, for them and for me too, to accept the answer, whatever it is.
Very recently I’ve also been learning something new: that as much as we might wish to offer care, if it isn’t invited, that’s something we must listen to. I’m learning to listen with greater attunement to what is and is not invited, as well as to what’s offered. What’s wanted. As Wendell Berry says, “The teachers are everywhere. What is wanted is a learner.”
To listen to and accept our limits, and the limits of those around us, is to learn. It is also, perhaps, the first act of generosity.
To attune ourselves to others sufficiently to ascertain whether the gift is apt. That’s stage two listening. More practice will be required.
Maybe we have a gift but it isn’t the right one. Maybe sometimes we are empty handed, even when we aren’t.
I think this is ok, even good, to accept.
February 17th, 2014
with my friend and co-conspirator, Jessica Hiemstra (left)
I’m so pleased with this piece on How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting by the Edmonton Journal’s books columnist, Michael Hingston. Speaking with him about the book was a great pleasure, and I’m quite pleased with his representation of the book in this piece (not to mention with the space the Journal devoted to our little book–a full page of Friday’s print edition of the Books section!).
Hingston writes: “How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting…is, at heart, an attempt to normalize miscarriage, and thus locate it as just one part of the larger narratives of pregnancy and parenthood.…For moms and dads alike, it opens up a space to grapple with a kind of grief that remains extremely difficult to put into words.” Yes! I’m so glad to see the book given room to be itself–a book for diverse audiences, about a subject matter that is larger than the gender of either its readers or its writers (several of our authors are men, but I still notice a strong tendency for people to see women as the book’s target audience). It’s also interesting to see that bookstores have for the most part been filing the book under “Parenting.” In fact, the book is full of extraordinary literary essays. Period. They appear together in one book because they happen to be essays about a particular species of loss. But this does not diminish their excellence as essays, and I hope that in addition to readers who find the book because of their own experiences with the kinds of loss the writers here explore, How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting will also prove to be a book worthy of the readerly attentions of those who have not experienced this kind of loss themselves.
As Kim Jernigan writes in the book’s Foreword, “We all belong to the country of the bereaved.” This is true regardless of our private biographies. How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting is one of many books published every year that aspire to add something meaningful, and yes perhaps in some way alleviating, to the store of what has been said about our perplexing and sometimes painful embodiment. Yet, despite its explicit topic, as I said to Michael Hingston, How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting “is a very optimistic book. It’s a take on loss as not the end of the story. There’s an important balance between giving loss its due — not minimizing it — and also giving it its ecological place inside of a life.”
December 30th, 2013
Okay, this is for all of the poets out there sparring over negative reviews and negative reviews of negative reviews and the entrenchment of prejudice and power and the importance of the canon and whatever whatever (it matters, I know, it definitely matters, and we’ll need to come back to it, but can we just blow the whistle a minute and think?). Saying something publicly is not always the best course of action at times like these, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway. So I guess this is also for those of us who haven’t said much out loud about all of this but who have been listening.
I want to say something about principled argument, about its basis. Literal vision, as we know, is an amalgam of two points of view—what is seen by the left eye merged with what is seen by the right eye. The brain reconciles two slightly-incompatible images and the effect on vision, for those of us who have this doubled/reconciled view of things—because not everybody does—is 1) depth and 2) the ability to navigate with greater accuracy.
Principled argument, as a process, can be to understanding as the brain’s visual reconciliation process is to literal vision. Principles, which guide discernment, matter. But we do not share principles. Enter conflict, the human condition, the Canadian poetry “conversation.” What do we do?
Well, first, as philosophy majors and advocates for freedom of expression know, we have to be able to say and consider and come to understand and say and consider again—to revise both privately and publicly—what we in fact think. For this process to be most effective, we must have the opportunity to do so in the presence of others who disagree with us. Conversations in absence of agreement are indispensable. Arguments with ourselves and with one another—including negative evaluations of work, whether of critical work or of creative work—are essential. Without these, we are impoverished. At their best and most exciting, these conversations have the potential to change our minds. In the course of disagreeing articulately with someone else, we (or they) might let go of, or modify, ideas we’ve held for most of our lives.
But what makes these conversations possible? One word: charity. To the disappointment of brilliant undergraduates everywhere, philosophers have something called the principle of charity. The idea is simple: before you start shooting down somebody else’s bad idea—as tempting as that is, and as clever as the sentences are that you’ve already started composing in your head—before you begin constructing your counterargument, which will blow your opponent’s shoddy metaphors right out of the…well, out of the potty he’s been training on, ahem—you put in some real time and your best philosophical efforts and you work to understand your opponent’s argument on its own terms with as much charity as you can muster.
You want to do a very good job of this, because otherwise you’ll look bad: you’ll look like your vision lacks depth. And it will lack depth. But there’s also this: the more persuasively and charitably you restate your opponent’s argument, the more precisely you work to understand your own objections and the more astutely you articulate those objections, the better—and more persuasive—your thinking will be. The more people will agree with you, including those who didn’t already agree with you before you ever sat down to think and write. And this is, if not the whole point of conversation, at least a very big part of the point. Or am I missing something? I often am—it’s a hazard of vision.
Here’s another thing philosophers do: they locate the crux of an argument. They train themselves to sniff out the viscera, and—if they’re going to gut anything—gut that. They don’t seize upon the weakest, most frivolous, carelessly appended sentences in an argument. They locate the crux, and let it have its weight. Then they skillfully cut what’s legitimate, as far as they can see, free of its illegitimate ligature, its invalid conclusions. Interlocutional theatre! Surgery at its finest! Philosophers know that your antagonist is your helper: look, he’s showing you where the gold is, just by standing there with his knife drawn guarding it.
Let’s see if we can learn something from a discipline with a long history of generative conflict. Let’s be wary of logical fallacies: straw persons, red herrings, and the like. Here’s the thing: principled argument isn’t actually easy. You have to get past all the knee-jerk stuff, like thinking somebody’s an asshole or an imbecile. But here’s the thing about charity: it might actually change you, or at least your mind. Or maybe it’s your antagonist who will be changed by the process of being charitably understood, yet rigorously disagreed with. Who knows what great change might occur?
So here are some questions: what role might criticism (pushed by charity toward heightened precision and clarity) play in sharpening the wits—instead of the knives—of poets and readers and future critics? In what ways do pre-existing power structures and imbalances control the conversation and decide who is included? How do our choices as critics participate in and help to reproduce these structures and imbalances? What is the proper relationship, if any, between this kind of political question and the work of attending to what poetry, in its essentially specific and atomic way, is saying or doing? Finally, how can we individually and collectively write criticism that serves the vitality of the poetry being diversely and divergently written and read and talked about in this country?
Here’s something pro-visional—what if we could, by extending the olive branch of charity to one another’s arguments and choosing to see the crux instead of getting snagged on the branches, create a new criticism? Okay, not that new criticism. A Canadian polyglot criticism, in love with language and the history of poetic form, and, yes, with charity as the ground of generative conversation. Criticism that, if it “wins,” does so because of how finely wrought its understanding is. A criticism, while we’re designing it, of compound eyes. We could be the mantis shrimp of poetic conversation. We could let the complexity of our vision be the thing that distinguishes us from the blunter creatures.
We could be in love with our own private rational and irrational principles for evaluation and with the demanding work of externalizing these in language. But, oh, is it too much to say we could simultaneously be in love (i.e. in charity) with otherness, with trying to imagine all those ecstatic forms of rational and irrational thought not our own?
Too much, yes, it is certainly too much to say all this. I will certainly be reproved. But, if so, let it at least not be done reflexively, let it not be decided before I even began writing this, determined by some primitive cognitive sorting process that identifies pre-conceived differences. Let’s see if we can elevate our conversations so they are more than a crude form of pattern recognition, a variant on that old arcade game, alligator whacker, or whatever it’s called, the one where you earn points for standing guard with a mallet and swiftly hitting on the head whatever unfortunate creature shoots out to try its luck with your attentions.
December 21st, 2013
This year for me the winter solstice seems a significant marker, a waypoint on the path, a useful cognitive lever with which to flip the storyline–to say, hey, maybe the worst of the darkness has passed. Here’s hoping. For we must, always, keep hoping, no matter what–though there will always be reasons to stop.
To all of you who are also hoping in the darkness that the worst has passed, to those of you hunkered down and awaiting more, to those of you who have lost all faith in the return of light, I’m wishing you whatever grace you need to weather the darkness, to inhabit it, to be where you are.
Some of us are flickering in the darkness. Here’s my hope for this longest night. That we imagine one another grieving. That we celebrate joy and love even when they aren’t our own. That we open up our imaginations to make room for one another. That, as we grieve our losses, we know that in this we are not alone.
C.S. Lewis famously said “We read to know we are not alone.” Many of those of us who write do so because reading once shattered our alienation. Here’s a new, brief piece I wrote for Huffington Post this week. They asked me to write something on motherhood and loss, and I am pleased to have been able to have taken the chance to also write something about making room for loss this time of year. (Read it here.)
Warm wishes for bright days, for hope in darkness.
October 17th, 2013
I have written before–here and elsewhere–about fear of heights and the sublime, so I won’t go on at too great a length. But, in the spirit of this blog’s origins, I’ll say something about what I’m thinking today. Driving across the bridge over the North Saskatchewan this afternoon on my way to the college where I teach, I felt the precariousness I always feel at any height at all–whether bridge, or mountain peak, or tenth-floor balcony–and thought of a practice I’d developed a few years ago, while at the Writing Studio at The Banff Centre. It emerged while I was hiking solo one day along a precarious little trail. That day, I felt my usual unease at the precipice below me, but then (as most people must usually do) simply considered my sturdy hiking boots in combination with my reasonable experience at choosing where to plant them and decided to think, instead of thinking about falling, about steadiness. So for a few weeks, I practiced steadiness–worked on cultivating a mind that believes in its own steadiness, a body that–even when confronted with a great height–believes in the not-falling, too.
You have to understand that my drive to work across this bridge is uncommonly beautiful. The small campus of the college where I teach is classically charming. From the bridge, the view across is old brick buildings at the top of a steep hill covered in deciduous trees that descend, in every colour an Alberta fall has to offer, to the river. The river is equally beautiful in both directions, but the suggested speed of traffic on the bridge is 80 km/hr. To drive across the bridge is an experiment in balancing traffic safety with one’s own intractable need to ingest certain daily quantities of transfiguring wild beauty.
Today, perhaps because the river valley is slowly turning a dull yellow brown, getting bare with departure, I felt with particular acuity the urgency of attending to the beauty as I passed it. And into my mind returned this word from the mountains, “steadiness.” You’ll have to understand that I am capable, if my wayward imagination is in the ascendant, of feeling genuine alarm crossing bridges. In the brief seconds I had today to contemplate the beauty of the river, the terror of the falling, and the urgency of looking, this word steadiness managed to sweep everything into a single exiting contemplation.
I sped down. Steadiness, yes. But not if it’s achieved by dulling the imagination to the great, sublime precariousness. We need our steadiness most in the presence of what alarms us. To be sure-footed is not to be certain, but to set one’s boot on the path, and to do it again. To live with–to weight equally, and thereby to balance–the possibilities of falling and of not-falling.
October 2nd, 2013
Recently, an interviewer from The Malahat Review asked me this question. He meant to ask about the effect on a writer’s life of being awarded a significant prize, but of course I always take these questions personally. A year ago I could never have predicted the place I’m in now. Life is amazing. Beautiful and turbulent. Sometimes terrifying, true, but so often nourishing, hospitable. I will never stop being interested by this complexity at the core of our embodiment–that being alive keeps us perpetually open to the possibility of grave loss, and we have to live with that (however it manifests itself: as fear, as denial, as compassion, as selfishness), but at the very same time being alive and being vulnerable in this way keeps us aware of the extreme preciousness of our circumstance. Allows us to experience beauty, and love.
Ten years ago I took a walk with the grief of my mom’s death raw in my heart, and brought back, from a path along the river, fistfuls of aspen leaves. I packed them in a mason jar, boiled river water with salt, and poured it into the jar. And preserved the leaves, the walk, that day. They changed immediately, of course. And became, the instant I tried to immortalize them, something radically other than what they had been. The veins in the leaves turned soft and slightly brown. Ten years ago, what I had made was less than what I had wanted it to be.
But a decade later, the jar is a treasured object. The leaves are lovely as they are. They are an ordinary miracle: here instead of not here. And once again, life has taken me in the direction of what is no longer here. I am living with loss. Trying to wrap my head and heart around what’s gone, learning to embrace unsolicited, large-scale change.
Thinking about that jar, the decade it possesses in its squat presence on my desk, gives me something it is difficult to name: perspective, yes, but also courage, and a reminder of the simple fact (or possibility) of endurance.
How would you answer this question, “In what direction has life taken you?” How has your life–your heart, your art, your jar–endured or changed?
If you like, you can read the rest of the interview here.
September 17th, 2013
Today, more than four and a half years after my co-conspirator Jessica Hiemstra and I had our first conversation about making a book like this, How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood, and Loss (Touchwood Editions) makes its way into bookstores. This is a necessary book, friends. A book about loss and heartache, hope and love. A book of sorrow and consolation. A book brimming with resilience, beauty, grief, and above all with language that knows precisely what it’s doing.
If your local independent bookstore doesn’t carry it already, you can order a copy from them and in so doing bring some small but tangible good into the world. The book is also available from amazon.ca and, for those of you outside of Canada, from amazon.com.
Making this book has been a labour of love for me and Jessica. We are so proud of the thing we have made. I promise you, the essays in this book are worth every minute you will spend reading and rereading them. Here’s how Kim Jernigan begins her excellent foreword to the anthology: “This book, the one you hold in your hands, this book about loss and longing and the half-life of grief, is a wonderful book, one you will want to read, and read again, and share with someone dear to you. This might be a surprise, at least it was for me, for it’s a book in large part about the greatest of heartaches, the loss of a child. And yet this book is more than that…”
We would really love it if you would help us to get the word out about this book! Tell your friends! Please consider reviewing the book on your blog, or on amazon, or posting about it on social media. This book is medicine. We want to get it into people’s hands.
Keep your eye on the book’s very own Facebook Page for events and updates.
Here is the complete list of our wonderful writers: Chris Arthur, Kim Aubrey, Janet Baker, Yvonne Blomer, Jennifer Bowering Delisle, Kevin Bray, Erika Connor, Sadiqa de Meijer, Jessica Hiemstra, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Lisa Martin-DeMoor, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Susan Olding, Laura Rock, Gail Marlene Schwartz, Maureen Scott Harris, Carrie Snyder, Cathy Stonehouse, and Chris Tarry.
And, last but not least, one very big thank you to Shawna Lemay, whose beautiful photograph we are so happy to have on the cover of the book. (Check out more of her photography, writing, and curation over at Calm Things and Canadian Poetries).
August 30th, 2013
Saddened to hear this morning of the death of Seamus Heaney. Rest in peace.
“It [the poem] knows that the massacre will happen again on the roadside, that the workers in the minibus are going to be lined up and shot down just after quitting time; but it also credits as a reality the squeeze of the hand, the actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures. It satisfies the contradictory needs which consciousness experiences at times of extreme crisis, the need on the one hand for a truth-telling that will be hard and retributive, and on the other hand the need not to harden the mind to a point where it denies its own yearnings for sweetness and trust” (from CREDITING POETRY).