February 2nd, 2016
A bit of literary excitement: the editors at Up the Staircase Quarterly came across my Poets Respond poem on Rattle (“If You Really Aren’t a Racist Take This Online Test”) and asked me a few questions for their spring issue, as part of their interview series “The Landing.” Check out the whole issue (no. 32) of this pretty sweet literary quarterly here.
December 24th, 2015
Light and warmth: what I keep wishing people these days, and wishing for myself. Light! Warmth. It seems simple enough. But, for some of us, this time of year–though not, of course, only this time of year–there is a gap that opens up (a gap neither warm nor bright) into which we can readily fall. A gap between the part of us that aspires and the part that remembers, or between the part that is healing and the part that still grieves, or between the loss we inherit and the gifts we wish to bring–and in that gap, trying not to lose our grip on where we want to be, we can easily lose sight (at least I can) of the crucial dignity of being where we actually are, and also honouring where we have been.
I think those of us minding the gaps this time of year–but not so far inside them the only option is applying basic forms of care–those of us who can manage it this year might benefit from gently, intentionally creating or adopting new forms of personal culture, and family culture, if that’s relevant–or artistic culture, or religious culture–any form of culture we can make or borrow or find–that gets us over the gaps intact, or out of them, when we do fall in, once we’re ready again to leave.
If you–or someone you love–has fallen into one of those stubborn gaps–or if you are sitting on the edge of one staring down–at a memory of yourself, or someone you love and have lost–or if you are, maybe, just this moment picking yourself up and dancing boldly around the edge of a gap you have been way down in before–or even if you are running in the opposite direction saying to hell with anyone sitting on the edge of that gap I’m getting myself out of here–to you, to me, to all of us, light and warmth, warmth and light, enough light to flood the room until we know the gap is not all there is, though it is real.
A gap, which is another way to say a wound, arises when the parts of a thing that are supposed to be together lose touch with one another, because of damage. Wounds heal when the sides come together. Recently, a friend of mine called to tell me her sheep had been attacked by a neighbour’s dog. This is a beautiful story, and one I will have to tell more carefully another time. But the short form of it is: my friend figured out how to save the sheep’s life, though she had no training in wound care, simply by educating herself enough to create the right conditions for the deep bite-wounds in her sheep’s neck to heal. By the time we talked on the phone, the ragged wounds had resolved into healthy pink flesh, and the sides of the wound were coming together. Even when the wounds look (and feel) pretty bad, healing happens–provided the right conditions are supplied. I think we can get better at supplying the right conditions: to ourselves, and for each other. Not just privately, but collectively: culturally.
This time of year some of us might need to clutch the pain of the past and our hope for the future like two sides of a favourite winter coat in the middle of a blizzard and not let go until we have fastened those two sides together with whatever implements are available. We are all in such different spots and it is our work to honour our own spots so well that our default position in the world is curiousity about the spots others are in, and deep honour for whatever stories people tell us about where they are now, where they have been, where they would like to go. Maybe some of us need to stick our old coats on the nearest pyre and let them, finally, catch on fire. Maybe some of us are going to need or want something other than a coat entirely now. Maybe some of us just aren’t going to be able to stay here, where the winds blow so cold. My elderly Swiss neighbour is a snow bird: she spends the winters in California. Last January, her husband of 61 years died in the night. What do we offer to one another? Warmth. Light. We find and try to make the rituals and traditions and habits that make life habitable for us, given our resources and the materials available, and we try to make more than we need, and to share what we have with others.
When I wish light and warmth to people, it is because I know the holidays can be cold and dark. But, friends, whatever our circumstances, whether we are patching our old coats or crafting new ones, we should not be at home hacking the serviceable buttons of our present lives out of raw materials and sewing them on alone. We should have button-making, button-sewing, button-doing and -undoing parties (because it is gonna all come apart, sometimes, let’s face it, especially this time of year). But if we want to do this work in good company, we will need to find places where we can show up with our coats and our skins in the shape they are actually in. And we will need to learn–insofar as we are sufficiently/safely clear of our own ravaging wounds and ragged gaps–how to open that door to others who are standing there in need of care, in need of the supportive conditions for healing. We are all–in such different ways!–going to need to do our work, whatever it is: wound care, tradition making, warmth-and-light-bringing–to make space for ourselves and the people we love to show up to the warmth and the light still available. Because while there is always more darkness, light keeps returning as well.
For ourselves, and our loved ones, and our neighbours–not just our next-door neighbours, but our parable of the Good Samaritan-style “Who is my neighbour?” neighbours, too–we are going to need traditions and habits that allow us to not be either happy or unhappy during the holidays. We are going to have to let ourselves and each other be bereaved and loved, miserable and hopeful–and all the rest of it–either, or both, and all of it flexibly, as needed. Despite the ability our capable, critical minds will always have to see how swiftly more dark and cold can come, our work is to cultivate stories and rituals and traditions and ways of being together that persuade us, like love does, that comfort is possible, that light and warmth are good things to procure and share and rest in. What we are looking for are rhythms of the body, sub-rational yet fully intelligent rhythms of being, that persuade us that something can be made, and made again, out of the available materials–whatever they are. Something that will fit, and keep us warm, and that we can make more of; let’s each see if we can’t make a bit more warmth, and light, this time of year, than we ourselves personally need. If that is too much to do, ask someone you trust to bring some warmth and light to you.
December 2nd, 2015
“…and it was an illumination — one of those things one has always known, but never really understood before — that all sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel the roughness of a carpet under smooth soles, a delight to feel heat strike the skin, a delight to stand upright, knowing the bones are moving easily under flesh. If this goes, then the conviction of life goes too.” -Doris Lessing, from The Golden Notebook
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately–the ethics of subjective personal choices about how to live, particularly in light of ongoing systemic injustice and horror in the collective sphere, our objective political (and environmental) circumstances. Doris Lessing gets at something in the quote above that can be difficult to formulate privately or articulate publicly: that private delight, the capacity to delight in ordinary beauty, the willingness to not squander ordinary pleasure, might be a necessary precondition for the resilience (her word: “sanity”) necessary to make anything better instead of making it worse, politically and otherwise.
November 26th, 2015
I had a poem up a couple of days ago on Rattle, which is a pretty exciting thing for me. Rattle is a pretty great journal. I subscribe to the print edition, and regularly recommend to my writing students that they check out “Poets Respond,” a really amazing cultural project created by Rattle editor Timothy Green that publishes one poem online every week in response to a current event. The deadline to submit to Poets Respond each week is Friday at midnight, and Green reads all of the submissions each Saturday, which is an extraordinary committment. I have a lot of respect for him, based on this fact alone, but also based on the poems he chooses. You can check out the archive here. “Poets Respond” is a bit of necessary culture. Here is the blurb about the project on the Rattle site:
“On average, poems in Rattle are published six months after they were submitted. Then they appear online six months after that. Real poetry is timeless, of course, so usually it doesn’t matter—but this is the age of information. News cycles rarely last more than a week, let alone a year. One reason poetry lags behind other forms of contemporary media might be this delay—how can poetry be part of the conversation when it enters so late? Moreover, poets do often respond to current events in real-time, so why make them wait for our print schedule?
Our solution is Poets Respond—a poem written within the last week about a public event that occurred within the last week will appear every Sunday. Our only criterion for selection is the quality of the poem; all opinions and reactions are welcome.”
This past week, out of 250 submissions, Timothy Green picked two poems instead of just one, and one of the poems was mine. So I am elated. You can check out my poem “If You Really Aren’t A Racist Take This Online Test,” if you are curious, and while you’re at it you might also want to read “Perpetuation of the Species” by Jessica Goodfellow (the other poem selected last week). It contains these extraordinary lines:
When we say refugee crisis, we mean the sum of the parts
refuses to be whole
Poetry matters. We need it, as we need every form of adequate culture that we can find or make. Respond, friends!
November 22nd, 2015
Today’s parataxis: retired battery chickens in little knit vests plus theoretical physicist Richard Feynman on how to begin solving problems: “The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile.”
And, there’s this, from American poet, essayist, and environmentalist Wendell Berry: “Despair is the too-little of responsibility, as pride is the too-much….Good work finds the way between pride and despair.”
November 15th, 2015
My mom was dying of brain cancer during the War in Iraq. My private grief and catastrophic tenderness in those brutal months made my political imagination and compassion more acute than ever before. “There is only ever one death // So many names for the unnameable,” as I wrote at that time. Paris, Beirut, Iraq, Bonita. So many names. All love can be a light, even grief, even if it is a painful light. I am quite sure our work in speaking to one another about painful things is the same thing the Buddhists say and that I ask my children often to try to learn to consider when they are really worked up and upset: what is going to make matters better, instead of making them worse?
August 15th, 2015
This was a fabulous little fringe show. The kind of thing fringe exists to make space for. Edmonton fringe folks, check it out and support these two talented women (Dana Wylie and Kirsten Elliott) who are gently challenging blues histories and futures. And you might want to stick around for a drink by the fire on the Cafe Bicyclette patio in the candlelight after dark…HTTPS://m.facebook.com/profile.php?id=797582173690963
Dana Wylie and Kirsten Elliott of “The Second Line” at the 2015 Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival
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.