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?
August 16th, 2014
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter,
and weep, but not all of your tears.
I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about love and fear–how both love and fear are places to stand. Anne Lamott, in her classic book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, quotes an old man from her church who booms in the middle of service “God is your home.” This is one of my favourite takes on that thorny question–What is home?–and like any good metaphor this one is better and more resonant than a more explicit formulation. “God is your home” kind of cuts through the whole question, changes its ground. I’ve been thinking a lot about love as a home in this world, a kind of shelter. Not a bomb shelter, by any means. Maybe even the opposite of a bomb shelter. But a place to live, nevertheless. A form of habitat.
This fall and winter, thanks to the support of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, I’ll be busy writing the first draft of a non-fiction book about habitat. So I’m thinking a lot about what we need as creatures in order to flourish, what we need as artists in order to create. Thinking, too, about what those of us who are mothers and artists need, as far as supportive conditions go, in order to get the work done. Single mothers, especially.
In my Grade 12 year, I had an extraordinary English teacher who pulled my best work out of me through a combination of inspiration, intellectual/ethical rigour, and encouragement. I wrote an essay for him about Alan Paton’s beautiful novel Cry, the Beloved Country. I would give a lot to see a copy of that essay again, as I’m sure it would amuse and embarrass and impress me, probably in equal measure. What I do remember is that I wrote about fear, and love. I quoted 1 John 4:18. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath torment. [S]he that feareth is not made perfect in love.”
When my daughter was very young, I first realized how difficult the concept of “opposites” is to explain. I used to sit on the floor with her and read, over and over, a lovely little board book by Tad Hills, The Book of Opposites. Duck and Goose and Bird illustrate what I found difficult to articulate: that part of the work of coming to understand the world is inherently about reciprocity, relationship. Up; down. Happy; sad. Heavy; light. It is easy to lift a feather. It is hard to lift a friend.
As everybody but me already knew, children come to understand opposites not by way of conceptual explanation but by the accumulation of examples. So my daughter can now pair the classic oppositions along with the best of us. Meanwhile, my ability to pair oppositions is deteriorating. Are happy and sad really opposites? What about brokenness and wholeness? Doesn’t true wholeness include brokenness? What is the opposite of anger? The working title of my (recently completed) poetry manuscript for years was a rip off of Tad Hills. The Book of Opposites. An interrogation of thresholds.
I suppose at the root of my thinking about love and opposites all these years is the implicit claim made by John the Apostle in the verse quoted above: that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. I’ve been tuning in, more, to the way that fear displaces the generosity of love–particularly the kind of fear that comes up as a self-protective reaction between individuals. I’ve been trying to learn what it means to live in love instead of in fear. I think it has something to do with the lilies I sat beside in a community garden a few weeks ago, the way they didn’t change their posture at all when the hard, sudden rain began to fall. Even though, had I stayed long enough, I’m sure I would have seen that rain tear some of their petals from them. Love, I think, has something to do with being that open: alive, tender, defenseless.
Beautiful–now!–like lilies–and not for long. Seeing everything in this way. As my sister often reminds me, quoting Jeff Foster, “Loss has already transfigured your life into an altar.”
To be like the lilies sometimes, unafraid of being open, even though the hard rains will fall. I aspire to this. I think this is love. I think this is a way of being with each other. I think this is a way, even when all the other ways have vanished, of going home.
To live in love that has no fear in it. An impossibility, like peace, but one worth heading toward and navigating according to, anyway–as Aung San Suu Kyi has said of peace–like a star in the night sky. Not to make one’s home merely by being “in love,” infatuated (you don’t need to be an etymologist to spy the fatuousness at the root of that word). But, instead, no matter where we are–in love or out of it–to make the effort to learn what a more robust love might be, as a habitat.
Not an Eden. Not a place without predation (and hence–sometimes–legitimate fear), but habitat nevertheless. A place with nourishment, a way of being there that supports flourishing. Not a place, only, of peace and pleasure–as Khalil Gibran says, in the quote above, with aphoristic clarity.