April 6th, 2015
Last week I headed to Banff to attend a “Hope Decoded Summit” at The Banff Centre. The summit coincided with my children being gone for spring break, and also with the 27th anniversary of my dad’s death (an event which initiated my own exile from that innocence in which hope — one’s own relationship to hope — is not yet an explicit factor in living), and perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, with a deep loneliness.
I did all the things one needs to do to leave home, even for a short time: packed a bag, emptied the garbage, kissed the kids, and got on the road. I was making pretty good time when, a few kms past Red Deer, I glanced up at a passing truck to see a passenger and driver gesticulating helpfully in the direction of my front driver-side tire. “You have a flat!” they mouthed. A message soundless yet unmistakeable. “Thank you!” I mouthed back.
I pulled to the side of the road and assessed the flatness of my tire, the aptness of the metaphor. I have had lots of practice accepting the less-than-ideal, and I enjoy a good extended metaphor. So I drove to Didsbury, rather cheerfully, and got my tire fixed. It took some time, but I got back on the road again, with an approximately suitable tire–the nearest match available–fitted to my rim. It did the trick. But perhaps the metaphor could have extended itself, thereafter, a bit less: for after the flat tire, there was a train stopped for 40 minutes in/on its tracks, then the reminder that as much as I love the sublime beauty of mountain drives I am also somewhat terrified by them. And, then, almost comically, despite my having stayed at The Banff Centre half a dozen times before, I somehow missed the town of Banff completely, and found myself headed, several hours after the Hope Summit had begun without me, not toward “Hope” at all, but toward Lake Louise.
By the time I arrived in Banff, I felt–pardon the pun–a bit deflated. As much as I had been hoping to make it in time to catch some of the afternoon workshops, by the time I actually made it to the second floor of the Kinnear Centre where the registration table was, the last thing I wanted to do was register for my conference, put a plastic name tag around my neck, and sit in a room with my back to the mountains to “tackle hopelessness,” in the words of the conference registration form. So I made like an artist–there are plenty of them walking around at The Banff Centre–and turned around and went back down to the ground floor.
I have learned enough about myself by now to be quite comfortable changing my mind abruptly. I wasn’t there on behalf of anyone else or for any reason except because I wanted to be: so I was free to change plans. I sat down on an outdoor patio in the sun and ordered a burger and a beer, and tackled those, while facing in the right direction. There’s no way hope is indoors right now, I thought. 15 degrees and sunny in the mountains in late March.
Of course, I sat there thinking about hope, anyway. What is hope? If I had arrived on time, I’m sure I would have found a lot in the conference activities to learn from, think through, be challenged by. Why, tired by the drive and a few small setbacks, did I instead need sun, and food, and that indescribable light that shines through the amber of beer in a pint glass more than I needed anything anyone could have said, however wise or grounded, in one of those breakout sessions?
What do we actually need? It is easy to assume, when the crisis is hopelessness, that what we need is hope. But maybe hope as an abstract idea will always fall short of meeting real needs in a concrete way. Or maybe hope, as an abstraction, is useful as a short-term solution, a stop-gap measure, like a spare tire–something to keep the car on the road until we get where we’re going.
But once we get there, we probably need something more.
My childhood home–which I remember now as something out of an idyll–had a dimmer switch in the living room, a round knob I could reach and use to adjust the lighting. I loved this switch, by the manipulation of which I had the capacity to throw the room into an alluring multiplicity of aspects. I loved how the very same furniture could be dim and shadowy, or brightly illuminated.
I loved being the agent of these quick or slow back-and-forth transformations.
I think, now, that hope has something to do with that dimmer switch. Being comfortable with the full spectrum of possible transformations. Knowing that even in the darkness, there is a switch we can fumble for, find.
Knowing, too, that there is more to the room than can be seen in full light.
I think there are two ways to reach that switch: innocence and courage. We don’t always use it to turn the light on. Sometimes, in attunement with someone else’s darkness, we have to be willing to dim the light.
I think there is a form of despair that looks like hope. It cranks the light as hard as it can. It means well. It wants to help. But it is actually afraid of the dark.
Maybe this is why it can feel so bad when we are sitting in the dark and reach out for help and someone tries to give us abstract hope — when what we need is care, for our darkness to be given a home, for someone to make a place for us and our darkness in the very room where we know there has also been before, and one day will be again, something other than only darkness: hope, light.
Increasingly, I’m convinced the critical choice (i.e. the crisis) we face as a species now is not hope/hopelessness so much as care/carelessness. Hope seems like an individualistic–an essentially private–balm. Care, on the other hand, is inherently relational, reciprocal (even self-care requires a kind of imaginative giver-and-receiver). But we have to be prepared to bump into pain — our own and others’ — because that’s what care will touch when it’s really needed.
Hope — it seems to me — asks to be justified by the circumstances. Care does not: care does not need to be sensible. It is always a gift, unjustified, prodigal.
Rather than justification, care requires motivation: love.
We might have to proceed for some time without hope, about some things. Perhaps indefinitely. We have to care anyway.
To reclaim something we must care for it, take care of it. Whether “it” is our plastic-polluted oceans, our desecrated landscapes, our traumatic injuries, or the ways we have hurt others. Maybe “it” is small for you. Take care of it anyway. As Wendell Berry says, “to fulfill the possible is to enlarge it.” It is a radical choice to take care of one’s own pain, especially if it seems to be ordinary. But maybe this is how we will finally learn to honour the pain in one another, instead of minimizing it.
I think hopelessness is a belief that pain is final: that care cannot be offered, that healing cannot occur where harm has been so deeply sustained. Hopelessness asks that we be willing, sometimes, to wait in the dark knowing that damage has been done, that we are hurt, or that someone else is. Maybe we all are. Hopelessness asks that we not force the light.
But we can offer care, even when things seem hopeless.
Rachel Naomi Remen says this beautifully: “Perhaps our only refuge is in the goodness in each other.”
I keep finding this refuge, over and over again. I am so grateful for those who offer it. Loved ones. Strangers. I keep doing my best at offering it. I think I am getting better at noticing it, even in its minor forms, too.
“You have a flat!”
If only we never had to wait in the dark, or on the side of the road, alone. We do. Many do. I do.
Care as an ethic that always, when courage begins to strain, returns to the care of the self as a primary responsibility with repercussions for all other relationships, an ethic that asks us to come home to ourselves not as isolated individuals but as creatures in relationship to other creatures and this earth– such an ethic might do more to help us do our part to reclaim what we have collectively ruined than any of us, alone, might otherwise dare hope.
We can care even in the absence of hope. We can care for ourselves and each other until hope is something we produce just by living, rather than simply a fuel we consume in order to live.
Sometimes it is 15 degrees and sunny in the mountains in March. Make like an artist. Ditch what looks like your responsibility if it isn’t really. Adopt a disguise. Do whatever it takes, really, whatever you can, to take care of this moment, your heart, someone else’s. Admit what you need (literally, admit it: let it in). Throw the world into an alluring multiplicity of aspects. Give everything you can to the work, whatever it is. Let yourself care with all your heart about someone who has been hurt, something that’s been destroyed. There’s no shortage of work: we’ve more than enough to go round.
Notice the hue of the light as it passes through. Care enough to reclaim something. Even if it’s you.
March 23rd, 2015
I’m heading to The Banff Centre to attend a Hope Summit next weekend, and am really looking forward to being in the room with more than 150 delegates–from government, community organizations, arts, media, non-profits–all of whom want to talk about hope. The organizers have asked participants to say something about why they think tackling hopelessness is important. I’m looking forward to thinking and writing more about all of this in the coming weeks, but here’s what I’m going in with.
I believe what is possible is constrained by the stories we tell ourselves (and one another) about what is possible. Right now, both collectively and individually, we really need better, more robust, more hopeful (while still sharply realistic) stories about who we are as human creatures, where we have been, where we are now, and what the future can still hold. We need culture adequate to us and to our particular problems at this moment in human history. The American environmentalist and writer Wendell Berry has said: “Good work finds the way between pride and despair.” Hope enables us to do good work in what seem to be impossible circumstances. Or maybe doing good work in what seem to be impossible circumstances enables us to have hope. Probably both are true, reciprocally. Wendell Berry again: “to fulfill the possible is to enlarge it.”
I’m looking forward to having a conversation about all of this with people thinking about hope and hopelessness in a lot of different ways, from many different points of view.
January 9th, 2015
“After his death, his daughter said, ‘Papa is gone, not Wolinski’” (from “The Pen vs. The Gun,” by Philip Gourevitch, The New Yorker, Jan 8). Gourevitch’s piece could do with less hagiography, and I don’t think he sat with the gun/pen question long enough to resolve it with true insight. But: this daughter’s voice. We need anti-racist narratives and narratives that include the grief of children for the same reason: because we are human and the whole work of everything is to see this in one other, especially when/where to do so is painful or difficult. There are good stories and bad stories about what it means to be human. You and I might not agree about what makes a story good or bad: that’s the crux of the whole problem. But this lack of consensus doesn’t mean we abandon the work of creating culture robust enough to honour our differences. Satire is a story — at its best, satire makes us all more fully human. Religion and wisdom traditions and faith are stories — at their best, they make us all more fully human. At their worst, both religion and satire harm us. And in between they carry on the necessary work of culture, of telling stories about who we are as human creatures. “Papa is gone, not Wolinski.” With this sentence, this little girl is telling us her story, our story. Let’s, please, listen. Let’s see if we can make the stories better, instead of worse.
January 8th, 2015
Free Expression Matters. Here’s this, with which I begin every writing class I teach, and applicable to any art: “When we say ‘I haven’t got the words,’ the lack is not in the language nor in our emotional state, it is in the breakdown between the two. The poet heals that breakdown and not only for those who read poetry. If we want a living language, a language capable of expressing all that it is called upon to express in a vastly changing world, then we need men and women whose whole self is bound up in that work with words.”
–Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery
December 5th, 2014
Happy 80th, Joan Didion. Thank you for making things worth celebrating, even decades after you made them. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear” (from “Why I Write,” 1976). I wish more of us would take time to do this, to touch the desire and fear in ourselves and in one another, to understand. Our world would be better. We would be better to each other.
November 29th, 2014
Excited like a kid to be one of the writers for round two of Jason Lee Norman’s very cool coffee sleeve project for #yegwords. This guy knows how to put the life back in the literary. If you’re crazy enough to be out today, stop by Elm Cafe or Transcend Mercer and pick up a hot drink and a poem or some prose: something to face the cold with.
November 23rd, 2014
Talking to my kids this morning about Burnaby mountain, civil disobedience, justice, and peace. I kind of love it that until this morning my three-year-old had a concept for “anemone” but not “an enemy.” A good way to stop demoralization in its tracks is to have an earnest conversation about a serious issue with two beautiful and curious little people whom you have no choice but to give hope to, and take responsibility for.
October 2nd, 2014
This will be my last post for a while. I began this blog, when my children were not-quite-7 months old and 3 1/2 years old, out of a desire to catch some of what I wanted to think and write about in those days that would otherwise pass through me and leave no trace. At that time, writing a blog post was better than writing nothing. But now, nearly three years later, I find myself often on the far side of that feeling, wondering if I’ve rushed something into form that should have been given its time in the dark to accrete and grow and become a thing forged by craft and time and effort into something less ephemeral. An essay, more than a post.
So I’m going to take a break from showing up here, and see what comes of this. I’ll have to let more of the perishable gifts go. I’m okay with that. It’s lovely to see what’s accumulated here in the last couple of years that otherwise wouldn’t have been nudged even this far into form. And now I want to see if I can take certain of the gifts that arrive and nudge them a bit farther.
As Flannery O’Connor said, “No matter what form the dragon may take, it is the mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will be concerned to tell.” To write less, perhaps, to collect fewer of the gifts that arrive, but to do justice to the depth of the passage past, or into, the dragon’s jaws. This is the part of the path I have found myself on lately, heading toward my mountain. I’ve been thinking a lot this past year about pilgrimage. About exile, and setting out, leaving one’s former home. About intention, sacredness, danger, purpose, accident, injury, rest, perseverence, companionship, ascent and descent, steadiness. Beginnings, destinations, journeys. Our companions arrive and we walk with them for a time, then we part ways. Some are guides, some are fellow pilgrims, some are not the right travelling companions for us at all. Sometimes we walk alone.
One day I want to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St. James, perhaps with a dear friend, perhaps on my own.
Maybe next year, maybe once my children have grown: who knows.
Who knows! The pilgrim’s mantra. Make it a hashtag, a T-shirt, a prayer. Spray it on the bridges you cross over, or under, as you stand there doubting, or ecstatic with hope.
You can walk wounded. You can heal as you go. This is what pilgrims do: they put their feet on the path. They go.
August 29th, 2014
Today is the last work day of the summer months for me. It’s been a strange, amazing, unexpected, inimitable summer. Rough and exquisite. I’m ending it with Seamus Heaney at my favourite public workplace with a great cup of coffee. The last poem in Heaney’s 1996 collection The Spirit Level is called “Postscript.” I ordered my copy of this particular collection entirely on the strength of this one poem. Some day, I will “make the time to drive out west / Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore, / In September or October…” In the meantime, I’m reading Seamus Heaney at the approach of fall, and considering my own postscripts to summer. This season has been nourishing and difficult, as ephemeral in its beauty as “the earthed lightning of a flock of swans.”
When I was a girl, writing letters to my distant grandparents, for a time I wrote P.S. at the end of each letter, faithfully, as they did in their letters to me. Since I hadn’t noticed that their P.S.‘s were used to introduce hastily appended messages, I left my P.S.‘s hanging, scriptless, an unwitting irony. I thought the letters were meaningful in themselves–like xo–a valediction in their own right. At that age, I was in the habit of reading beyond my level, in more ways than one. I knew how to run, quite happily, with only a provisional understanding. If pushed, I would have said the “P.S.” I pencilled at the end of each letter to my grandparents meant something like “Please write back.”
Until the day my mom looked over my shoulder and pointed out I had forgotten to add a message, my postscripts to my grandparents went out blank–intending one thing (desire for reciprocation), but implying another (forgetfulness).
Now I think this childhood misunderstanding–or pre-understanding–is an excellent metaphor, especially at this change of seasons, for everything we do not yet fully apprehend. And how okay that is, how lovely, and how we should treasure it. The way my daughter’s father and I refused for years to correct her misnomer for “hornets.” She called them “hormorants,” a charming conflation of hornet with “cormorant.” With our children, we treasure each incremental, partial understanding for its particularity, its ephemeral beauty, its own strange truth. Why not with ourselves?
How I would love to lose my adult anxiety, apprehensiveness, about the unknown–to exchange it for my childhood enthusiasm for each provisional experiment. Or at least to split the difference. I want to get curious, excited by what I discover, even if part of what I find is that I’ve been making an embarrassing mistake.
For everything that falls away, that we lose, what do we gain? What gain in this loss? What now? Aren’t these the questions the forced resilience of the lifelong relentless changing of seasons ought finally to teach us to ask elsewhere, and anywhere, of anything?
Seamus Heaney writes: “You are neither here nor there, / A hurry through which known and strange things pass”.
How lovely and sad to think of all the things that have passed through this summer, some known and some strange. All of the things that could have been added but weren’t, and won’t be. I’ve been mourning these things, in my way, but perhaps only to pry myself loose, like a leaf, to turn toward the fall.
For every provisional misunderstanding that will one day prove inadequate, what do we now know that we will then forget? And what might we celebrate in our failure to know? What might we enjoy in our beautiful errors?
I’d like to find a way to love what’s been left undone, what’s been partially understood, the mistakes that have been made. To hold onto the beautiful ephemeral evidence of a mind still working its way toward an understanding of the world, in ways that will be soon again be totally changed.
I’d like to learn to love each season’s unwritten postscripts. To appreciate in its own right whatever error of apprehension–whatever fraught hypothesis–underwrites the space opened up within a silence that would otherwise be totally undifferentiated. P.S.
It’s easy this time of year to fall into the making of ambitious, unachievable lists, to begin writing anxious pre-scriptions for the next season, as much as appending nostalgic post-scripts to the old.
But I like the possibility I knew of, for a short time, as a child, before I was corrected and gave up the habit of leaving my postscripts blank.
We could leave some spaces open. We could leave some silences to bear the freight of what we are not yet able to know, or say.
Please write back.
August 21st, 2014
I have been thinking, for years, about pain. Trying to tell myself a story about it. Writing a novel about it. Every poem, every essay, every walk along the river, is a part of the conversation I’ve been having with it. I have known the wrenching pain of grief for loved ones, the positive but annihilating pain and pressure of labour, the entirely different pain-as-jubilation of birth itself. I have known migraines, loneliness, the vicarious pain of witness, the tenderness of compassion, the misery of demoralization, despair. And this is what I’ve come to. Each pain is its own intelligence of the world.
In recent weeks, I have been undone by private pain and by reports of pain from other places, other people. Lately I’ve felt like pain is the whole story, or most of it, instead of seeing the spectrum along which pain sits as one (but only one) form of essential information about what life is, who we are as creatures. Will I ever learn—though each time I think I have learned—to trust the necessary, tidal work of grief? To believe that what sweeps me up and carries me away from myself, what wears away the ground, will also bear me to the only home that is possible now? To the present? What’s given?
After each shipwreck, we build a better boat, or drown. Pain is the blueprint for the better boat, but it’s etched in a braille of nerves, a scrambled code we might never manage to read. I want to build the boat, tell the story. I don’t want to be with the pain. So it goes. So each pain is made worse by the effort to escape it. So compassion begins, but not until we learn to touch, first, what is untouchable in ourselves. Then others. That’s the way this goes. And so gratitude begins. For in our pain we are at the mercy of everything.
Humility begins when there is no boat, no story—not yet.
There will always be times when we are undone by our circumstances—perhaps by a single, devastating blow, or by its aftermath, or else by trivial accumulations, cumulative weight. Often the unmooring is sudden, perplexing. Pain, like any other natural phenomenon, does not always behave in predictable ways—though I do think how pain behaves (and how we behave in pain) is often intelligible after the fact, and the effort to understand and learn from pain can offer hope of change, improvement in the circumstances. But as anyone who has suffered severe pain of any kind over any length of time knows, sometimes it’s just not possible to get there, to that place of hope. In these times of unmooring, of deep destabilization, in these precious but brutal times, we truly are at the mercy of everything else, of what is not in our control.
Recently, I’ve struggled in ways that remind me of what, in labour, is called “coupling.” Contractions that land one on top of the other, without rest—the last ditch effort of a uterus to unstick something that has become perilously stuck. (If you can’t get something loose by applying reasonable effort, you might panic and start yanking.) So, in an effort to improve the affect of my circumstances, I’ve been taking myself walking. Though I should know by now how restorative it can be to be so close to nature, to return oneself to habitat, I’ve still been surprised by how profoundly and immediately my truculent misery has responded to the simple adjacency of the river. The dried-mud paths, the shrubs and trees that grow along the paths and whose summer incarnations are beginning to blush, to shrivel, to darken—to turn toward fall—these are all medicinal in some profound way that is the opposite of self-medication. None of this anaesthetizes the wound. Rather, it restores health to the organism as a whole.
All the heads of the fireweed have fallen down now, been blown away, so there is no trace anymore even of the white puffs of seeds that appear after blossoms go. I know August in Alberta like I know August nowhere else on earth. I have walked here with my grief, in this season, time and time again. Among wolf willow and red osier dogwood, the trembling leaves of aspen, yellow sow thistle, triune leaves of sarsasparilla, black-pointed eyes of snow berries. The seasonality of things here is an embodied consolation. Reliable recurrences, natural cycles. I find these things reassuring in the way of family rituals sustained over generations, which I see in the lives of others and find beautiful, imagine to be deeply nourishing.
If culture—family culture, the broader culture—lacks continuity—as it does for many of us—if it lacks sustained and sustaining rituals that help us absorb and survive all the discontinuity—all the private untimely death and public avoidable but unaverted disaster—if we have nothing to do with our pain other than suffer through it alone—what will we do with our increasingly uninhabitable lives?
From the Latin root habitare, to dwell: Inhabit. Habitat. Habituate. Habit. Uninhabitable.
To live here. To be where we are. How?
Summer is leaking out of things. Even the goldenrod has passed its prime. The rosebushes are empty even of the dried remnants of their blooms and many of the rosehips have begun to shrink and darken. The chlorophylls in the long grasses are no longer being replenished, so their splayed blades are streaked with red and purple, but not yet with yellow. To walk along the river now is to witness the turning of the season, to be present to the arrival of survivable changes. Changes we can live with.
Though the grasses glow with their own undoing, nothing need be mourned.
Where, in our cities, is the comparable art? What artifice exists to remind us of what we, in nature, know?
To live in a culture separate from the rhythms of nature, from rituals that encode a collective response to these rhythms, is to be deprived of basic consolations. What would a culture more attuned to loss, and pain, and death look like, at the street-level? A culture that puts pain back into the spectrum of things we might reasonably expect to experience, even sometimes at length, instead of pathologizing these things and the people who experience them? A culture more adept at living with pain, inhabiting it, and co-habitating with it, when it inevitably arises. A culture too robust for nihilistic aversions to whole aspects of the life cycle.
What is this pain saying, in its deep intelligence? What kind of a pain is it? What does it feel like?
What does your pain feel like? What do you think might help?