A bucketful of sweat

Why would artistic endeavours be any different? At times writing can be magical, when you experience what is now called “flow”: everything else falls away and you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the only thing you could be doing. But since it’s magical at times, we forget that writing, playing music or acting is mostly a workaday kind of thing. There are only a few drops of inspiration, mixed in with a bucket of sweat. And maybe a few tears.

Recently, I posted a question on Facebook about doing art, whether it be writing, visual arts, music, theatre–anything creative. My question was, how do people deal with feelings of intimidation, discouragement or even paralysis when it comes to their art?

I was humbled by the thoughtful responses I received from musicians, fellow writers, photographers, actors and other artists. If I didn’t know before, now I am certain that being an artist is the same struggle for everybody, with minor variations. Some folks don’t feel worthy, others find it hard connecting to an audience–but we’re all the same.

I should have known this, since there is struggle mixed into the joys of every other area of life. Why would artistic endeavours be any different? At times writing can be magical, when you experience what is now called “flow”: everything else falls away and you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the only thing you could be doing. But since it’s magical at times, we forget that writing, playing music or acting is mostly a workaday kind of thing. There are only a few drops of inspiration, mixed in with a bucket of sweat. And maybe a few tears.

When I was younger I wrote poetry and put together a chapbook called Gathering Medicine which I launched at the Tree Reading series here in Ottawa, and gave away to many friends. But I stopped writing poetry, because I found it was so much work, done in isolation, and in the end, only a few hundred people (at most) would ever read any of the poems. As Chris Bose, a multi-media artist and writer says, in this country, you’re a hit if you sell a 1000 copies of a poetry book.

My biggest thrill was getting a single poem published in Prairie Fire magazine and one in Arc poetry magazine. I found it depressing.  I thrive on social interaction, and I have political activism in my nature, and poetry didn’t fulfill either.

So, instead I wrote reviews of poetry books, including some by Indigenous poets, for a couple of journals. I enjoyed doing it. I wrote art and book reviews for the Canadian Medical Association Journal. My favourite is a review of Gail Valiskakis’ book Healing Traditions. It’s a collection of essays on Aboriginal mental health, and I was so happy to profile it for medical doctors, since I am sure at least some of them went on to read the book, and perhaps improved their practices as a result.

I have also written a series of profiles of Indigenous artists for Rabble.ca, as well as a review of an exhibit at the National Gallery on Indigenous identity. Then I forayed into online privacy, because I was inspired by Ed Snowden’s actions. I ended up writing two articles for Rabble.ca, while exploring the issue through reading and learning about technologies for encryption and privacy. I asked a question when Glenn Greenwald spoke in Ottawa, and he retweeted the video recording of the question and answer, because he liked it. That was really a thrill! He has over 700,000 followers. That moment, the question and answer, fit perfectly with the sociable activist within me.

Last year, I reviewed The Red Post exhibit, which marked the 25th anniversary of the Oka Crisis. Then a year of relative silence, until I wrote a stream of consciousness essay inspired, among other things, by driving through southern Ontario on the day of the final Tragically Hip concert, swimming in Lake Huron and reading Downie’s lyrics, which are also poetry.

Writing “On the adventure” was special for me, because it was so liberating to write. Words, images and joy poured forth. It was also gratifying to have a close friend and editor make it better by working on it with me.

It hasn’t been published anywhere except my blog, and I don’t really know what to do with it, to be honest. It’s not an essay or a poem, but something in between. I’ve had maybe a hundred viewers for it and a few nice comments. It’s a quiet piece, not a quick read, and not topical. But writing it led me to ask that online question of other artists, and come to the conclusion that like all artists, I need to maintain a quiet, warm corner in my heart; a place welcoming enough that I can write in stillness and feel inspiration when it passes through me; see it surfacing among the words.

I am not prolific, and I am often frustrated by the lack of an audience and feedback. I write mostly for free, and only outside of working full time, having a family and maintaining a martial arts practice, which is another kind of creative endeavour–one that plays a big role in maintaining mental, emotional and physical balance.

But whether I write in obscurity, or have a big audience–I don’t know how much it matters. Nobody does art for others. We need some feedback and community, but it doesn’t have to be a stadium full of people.

I now see that if you cultivate your creativity, and respond to your readers, both will grow. It’s as simple as that.

Impossible Things

When I first started doing karate, I had no expectations at all, and therefore no baggage. When I was a white belt, I felt that if I managed to get a yellow belt that would be awesome.

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” –Doris Lessing.

This quote from the British novelist sums up how I feel about the martial arts. Except, I don’t know if karate is what I am meant to do. It’s just something I started, and have kept close to my heart since the beginning. I am not the best, and don’t bring to it any special talent or physical advantages.

I was really meant to be a famous Canadian poet. Except I’m not. But I probably have some special talents and abilities in that direction. Writing is for me, at times, an act that satisfies a deep need to communicate about essential things, like love and art. But it also carries with it the heavy baggage of expectations, since I was groomed from a young age to succeed as a writer. (For example, there are all kinds of awards I should have won by now, like the National Magazine Award, the Governor General’s Award for poetry, the Archibald Lampman Award, the CBC poetry contest, etc., etc.) Writing’s a good and essential thing, but despite being a great gift, writing is my job.

Karate, on the other hand, is a gift that I received unexpectedly. My husband and son had been doing it, and I finally decided to try it out, because I liked the atmosphere of the dojo, and the attitude of the teachers. So one day I found myself kneeling on the dojo floor, reciting the student creed.

When I first started doing karate, I had no expectations at all, and therefore no baggage. When I was a white belt, I felt that if I managed to get a yellow belt that would be awesome.

I liked doing it, so I kept going, and since I was mostly working contract, I was able to attend a lot of daytime classes, which made it easier to continue. And so I kept on learning, becoming more fit and getting new belts, until I arrived at the brown belt, with three stripes.

Karate is a gift to me because it’s offered me a space to unfold and transform without pressure. I have worked mostly with Sensei Fortunato who teaches the daytime classes, and his gentle, non-judgmental approach to his students has helped to create this positive atmosphere. And every chance he gets, Sensei Dom reminds us that we are trying to achieve our own personal best, and not to compare ourselves to others. Neither of these outstanding sparring athletes is ever judgmental or impatient with their students. Their approach has helped create a special environment where renewal and self-discovery are possible.

In this place, I’ve been inspired, as I watch people with serious medical conditions become some of the best karateka, and even saw my teacher recover from a potentially career-ending injury with grace and patience. And I know almost everyone who comes to the dojo has their own difficulties, worries and stresses, even if they’re not necessarily obvious.

I suppose I was meant to do karate, because I have done it, and continue to do it, against all my expectations and preconceived notions. And I’m glad I didn’t wait until I was fitter, or weighed less, or had more money. The conditions do seem impossible at times, so it’s important to just show up, however you are feeling, and join all the other miracle workers on the dojo floor.

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the snow globe

In Being Human, ghosts are like snow. Like embracing someone who’s just come inside on a cold day. They bring grey sky in the door, and the clean air; they etch you with frost and ice crystals, making your cheeks red and your breath into clouds.

A ghost opens your door and shows you light shining through. She turns your lamps on at night and burns out your light bulbs. Blows the fuse in the bathroom. Boils pot after pot of water on your stove, making herself at home on the chesterfield. Full cups of tea appear all over the house. You look out the window at the full moon; it’s come down from the sky to inhabit you.snow globe

Mitchell tells Annie her lips are cold, a bit tingly, like kissing someone who just came in from outside. Mitchell knows Annie’s in the house. He feels a cold draught under the door; sees her by the window, colour of the moon. He’s burning up with memories of blood; all the people he’s left for dead in abandoned buildings and empty fields. They’re boiling over. Dripping down his skin. Faces of his victims press against the inside of his skull. Voices in the drains at night. He’s a twisting, moving fire.

He reaches for Annie. She soothes him with her cooling touch. He covers himself in her colours—grey and white, winter in the city: starlight and streetlight shining on paths of snow between the cinderblock buildings. She’s nighttime and the moon’s unblinking gaze.

Annie wonders, will she drift through the house forever? She’s so light she doesn’t even dent the cushions; she has no place in this world or the next. She looks through open doors and sees light, but no welcome. How long will it be? How long by the window, looking out? 

Mitchell says
Things move and shift and settle again. It’s like those— what are those snow storm things called?
Snowstorms.
Yeah, ’bout so big, glass?
No, they’re called snowstorms.
Right. Well, them. You shake them and it’s all mad and then it settles again. That’s what time is like.

That’s what Annie’s like, her translucent body. The world shifts and stirs in her, a frenzy of colour and sound. Outside, she hears footsteps on the walkway. Tires screeching in the road. Voices rising over the walls. Then everything settles once more into a cool bank of snow, shining in the streetlight, enveloping the world, cooling its fevers.

Being Human – Love, loyalty and friendship

“You could say we’re all from different parts of the same country.”
– Mitchell, Being Human

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Imagine if some unspeakable change took place in your life, and you found yourself on the outside during every moment of every day? This is the story of Being Human, the story of a ghost named Annie, a vampire (Mitchell) and a werewolf  (George) who become roommates in a rundown flat in Bristol.  As Annie says, “we’ve driven off the edge of the map but we’re still travelling.”

When you’ve driven off the edge of the world, fallen out of human society so completely that you cannot find your way back, your redemption becomes the company of others who are also on the outside: your companions in an unbelievable world, a world you have been thrown into. You come to  know each other and love each other more than ordinary humans ever could.

The BBC 3 program Being Human explores the lives of three characters who are no longer human. They have been cast out, but they find each other, as Annie says: “So. What have we got left to look forward to? Us refugees. The flotsam and jetsam of death. Maybe, if we still deserve such a thing as mercy, we find each other.”

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Being Human is a courageous program – like its characters, it drives off the map and encounters its audience there, in a strange, unbelievable world. But even if a vampire, and werewolf and a ghost are not human, they turn out to be more human than we are. Like three strangers who meet on a train and have only a few hours to connect before parting ways forever, in a short time, these characters come to love each other as deeply as life-long companions. They reveal everything. They are already broken beyond repair, and are freed of the need to prove their worth to others.

The premise of this show—that these characters are thrown here as the flotsam and jetsam of death—reminds me of Heidegger’s description of the human condition in the twentieth century. “We are thrown into the world,” he says. We don’t emerge from a tradition, since traditions have broken down. We are not a part of an eternal and orderly fabric created by an all-knowing God, because that God is dead. And in His place is a God that Walter Wink, an American theologian, tells us is trapped in a cage by the brokenness of creation. God made this world, but God is not its master. When we pray, we rattle God’s cage; we wake him up, call on him to break himself free.

Mitchell: “God made man in His own image. What if that included His rage? And His spite. And His indifference. And His cruelty. What if God made us too? We’re all his children, you see. God’s a bit of a bastard. Look at us both. Covered in other people’s blood and talking about morality.”

In this world where we cannot call on God the all-knowing, God the arbiter of right and wrong, our actions take precedence. We act out our love for one another; we rescue each other from the ends of the earth with our compassion. God is found in these moments of grace, as when Sister Helen Préjean says to the condemned prisoner when he’s about to be executed in the movie Dead Man Walking: “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. I’ll be the face of love for you.”

As when the character Mitchell crosses into Purgatory to rescue Annie and bring her back, not to the world of the living, but back into the knot of love that binds the three friends together, like blood vessels intertwined—warm, pulsing and enveloping.

Or like the eternal Celtic knot of love, loyalty and friendship. The ghost, the vampire and the werewolf are cold out there on the edge of the world, but they are transformed by their humanity, which, it turns out, is no longer about being biologically human, or even alive in the usual sense. It is an ineffable connection that emerges as more than the sum of all its parts.

Maybe I should write a letter to Toby Whithouse, the creator of this show, to thank him for showing me that television can be a platform for such a courageous art form. I was raised on a steady diet of American commercial television, with a little CBC and BBC thrown in.  American TV can rarely, if ever,  match programs like Being Human, which despite a small budget,  has wonderful script writing, carefully designed sets, and is permeated with a sense of the importance of nurturing the humanity of its characters as well as the audience. Little, if anything, that appears in the show is there by accident. Every prop, costume element and relationship serves a purpose.

Having read bell hooks, I learned to critique American mainstream television, which seems to be afflicted by an inability to move beyond certain racial tropes that it plays out again and again. For example, the African-American as confidante to the white protagonist; the African American who has special spiritual powers (e.g. Guinan in Star Trek, played by Whoopi Goldberg); the tendency to kill off African-American characters within the opening moments of many programs; the African-American as criminal. The total absence of Arab (or Arab-seeming) characters who are not terrorists.  The repeated rape and/or murder of women and the the avenging these crimes, without any sense of pushing back against the source of the violence. The endlessly-repeated theme of redemptive violence permeates pretty much everything:

“The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational and primitive depiction of evil the world has ever known.

According to this myth, life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos. Ours is neither a perfect nor perfectible world; it is theatre of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society.” – Walter Wink

Lack of attention is part of the myth of redemptive violence. Instead of attending to the other, you attack the other. Instead of risking disorder, you preserve certainty by deferring to the violence that ensures security and predictability. You never attend to the disorderly facts of real life and their meaning.

This lack of attention is at the heart of a great many American TV programs. Instead of creating detail and having deference for a unique story and characters, there is formula: each episode the same as the last. The triumph of order over chaos, safety over danger, again and again. Simple and dumb, in the sense of being unable to speak to the heart.

Outside of the borders of the myth of redemptive violence, we find a wealth of stories, like those of Being Human, tracing acts of courage and love. They are so numerous they cannot be contained. We find these stories on television, in theatres, in books, on the stage, on canvas, in galleries, music halls, churches, temples—everywhere.  Small acts of love that need only to be noticed in order for them to become miracles.

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