end of the beginning

Today signals the end of my first writing course through U of T. When I began, I decided I would see how this one went before deciding to sign up for another.

I signed up for two courses for the spring. Obviously it went well.

It’s not about marks here; you get a pass/fail. It went well because I started down a path with guidance. I have walked the writing path many times throughout my life – writing stories and poems. I have often worked through issues by writing, but usually came up short to really working past anything. I continued to be stuck.

This course has been good in keeping my hand moving and my writing and understanding of the craft has improved.

What more could I ask for?

Coupled with this has been the time I spend at my writing sanctuary run by a wonderful collective every Friday afternoon. This is a workspace tucked in a storefront on the Danforth. I had to do an errand a couple of weeks ago on a Friday which put me two hours away by bus and subway – but it was completely worth the effort to carve out a few hours of silence and writing.

This wonderful group, Firefly Creative Writing also have a subscription service where they send you a monthly snail mail package full of inspiration and activities. My response to this month’s ‘play’ activity is above.

When I gift myself the time and space to follow this writing dream, I’m never sorry.

I decided to unearth my voice and my stories and the paths I’ve chosen have been fruitful and rewarding.

I cannot help but reflect back on my dream to return to university. That was the same pathway, and it was different. It’s the same because I wanted to do both for as long as I can remember.

The difference was that I had to prove something to myself by returning to university. I had to prove I was capable of doing academic, intellectual, tough, demanding work and not give up. Honestly, I often think I could have done courses like that forever, with regularly scheduled breaks, of course!

Then I started to write and take courses and focus on that, and I know I’m on the right path and it is a path that is much richer and productive because of the university experience.

The other way the two experiences – writing courses and university courses – are the same is that I never knew what I would do with my degree when I was done (other than put it on the shelf over the television where it remains to this day). I don’t know where this writing adventure is taking me. I have a fiction idea I am writing small pieces about and may put them all together. I have loads of nonfiction things I have written over the years and more in my head.

I do not know where I am headed.

So today is the end of the beginning. Let’s just see where it goes.

 

Undermining resiliency

Every day, it’s something new and, most often, detrimental coming from the Ontario Education Minister. It’s hard to keep up with what’s happening in education in Ontario, but to date, I cannot think of anything that’s been done in the true interests of students. I understand that education is a heavy draw on the financial makeup of a province. That being said, it does not even make good business sense to make cuts which will end up crippling the system. This is a poor business model and an even worse social program model. (I cannot even touch the issues around funding for autism programs. It will have absolutely devastating effects on children and families.)

The Education Minister yesterday, on a CBC morning program, stated that making high school classrooms bigger would make students more resilient.

High school classrooms – all classrooms – are not the place to download the mental health skill development for resiliency while also making significant cuts in both supports and funding.

What parents, teachers, industry specialists or university educators specifically said, increase teacher to student ratios so students are better prepared for university and the world? Is it like the ‘sex ed’ consultations where in reality a small number of people were opposed to concepts like consent, but the Government said the majority wanted it out?

Maybe people who believe in 1960s education models – where kids come to school, learn by rote and had significantly fewer pressures, distractions, and expectations than today’s students – also believe that schools should be solving all the woes of the world while providing exemplary education using limited resources. (That was a time when teachers gave the strap regularly – hopefully that’s not part of the next announcement.)

Again, I encourage the Minister (and anyone else making these decisions) to spend time in a classroom. Work in it. Spend a week, a month, a year.

Teachers do everything they can to create environments which nurture independence and build resiliency in students.  Classrooms are currently dealing with huge differentials: in learning abilities and disabilities; mental health strengths and areas for development; family dynamics; economic variability and instability; and a host of other impactful factors.

Ask any school social worker, teacher or counsellor and there are a significant amount of circumstances which can thwart the growth of resiliency. As parents, we are instrumental in the growth of resiliency and we also need to accept that being a helicopter/snowplow parent (guilty) is counterproductive to this concept.

The Government has a responsiblity in the mental health of all citizens. They need to lead, not chase after savings in the budget without fully understanding the trickle down impacts. They need to stop speaking off the cuff and making statements that are unfounded or based on facts. When children are surrounded by a 24 hour news cycle in which the elected leaders are not leading with any conviction or substance, this negatively impacts resiliency.

We all play a part in building environments to set up student success and the place where students spend the bulk of their waking hours – schools – should be supported and funded. The decision to increase classroom sizes will have the opposite effect to building resiliency and coping skills. And, if history is any indication, the blame will be also be downloaded onto teachers and schools.

don’t give yourself away

The final assignment for this course was to write in any genre. I worked with two pieces, one fiction, one non-fiction, wanting to leave my options open. In the end, I went with the non-fiction, for one simple reason: I had something I needed to work through. And the only way to do that has been to face it, head on.

And I can honestly say, I did.

Perhaps it was best that hubby was on the other side of the world cycling up incredibly high mountains (like 3275 m mountains). I have never believed in my ability to survive without him to catch me whenever I tried to work through my past.

I was wrong.

This was a REALLY hard week of emotional work. I could not get comfortable in my own skin. Midweek, the tears came: sadness, joy, victory. It was all there.

It was such a relief.

Back in the early 1990s, I testified in court, in support of another victim who was suing the Calgary Board for negligence. After testifying, I stood outside the courthouse, looked up at the sky, and felt like a superhero.

A man who had sat through my testimony approached me and asked me why I didn’t just tell someone.

My super powers left me, my super hero cape flew away.

I found those powers and the cape again this week because the piece I wrote was different in a fundamental way. I acknowledged the ways in which systems and people let me down.

Self blame is an exhausting way to live and as unnecessary as assholes confronting witnesses on court house steps.

I know that there will still be days ahead in which the past comes back to bite me.

It’s okay; I’ve got a cape for that.

***

As is often the case for me, I had a song rolling through my brain all day, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. The most important line:

if you care, don’t let them know, don’t give yourself away

Both sides now
Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all
Moons and Junes and ferries wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way
But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away
I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all
Tears and fears and feeling proud,
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way
But now old friends they’re acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day.
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

 

 

some things the world gave

I am presently spending a lot of time on my final assignment so I give over this week’s posting space to Mary Oliver. Again.

Some Things The World Gave

1
Times in the morning early
when it rained and the long gray
buildings came forward from darkness
offering their windows for light.2
Evenings out there on the plains
when sunset donated farms
that yearned so far to the west that the world
centered there and bowed down.3
A teacher at a country school
walking home past a great marsh
where ducks came gliding in —
she saw the boy out hunting and waved.4
Silence on a hill where the path ended
and then the forest below
moving in one long whisper
as evening touched the leaves.5
Shelter in winter that day —
a storm coming, but in the lee
of an island in a cover with friends —
oh, little bright cup of sun.

this life has taught me…

Recently, in my snail mail subscription package from @hellowriter (part of the wonderful Firefly Creative Writing group), there was a prompt to write about what life has taught me.

This is far from a thoroughly exhaustive list, but here goes:

This life has taught me that raising my children was the greatest gift to myself.

This life has taught me that friendships are hard work. Beauty lives in the time you spend together; carving out that time is the work.

This life has taught me that I need to examine all assumptions (labels, prejudices, beliefs) I have towards others and about myself. That includes assumptions about “right” and “wrong” and what any one person’s life (including my own) should look like.

This life has taught me that my past is something to embrace – or at least carry more lightly; it is what made me who I am and placed me where I need to be to experience all the stellar moments of today.

This life has taught me that art and photography and words can bring clarity and acceptance and compassion and create community – if people engaging with the works are open to those gifts.

This life has taught me that writing about the hurts and disappointments and the trauma is healing yet so hard that it makes me hurt all over.

This life has taught me that writing brings joy – that all the characters living in my head have a place in the world, too.

This life has taught me that there is still much to learn.

poetic license

This week in my introductory writing course we covered poetry. I am not much of a poet though I tried my hand at poetry in junior high and felt pretty sure I was the next…well, good poet (I didn’t actually read poetry so there was no one I was aspiring to be). I occasionally wrote mushy or cryptic poems the year I met my hubby.

At that time, I was all of 18. In 1982, when I was 20, I wrote A LOT of poetry. Apparently I REALLY loved my (now) husband.

One poem (pictured above) I wrote in junior high garnered some attention from my teachers. It’s not because it was well written, but because I used the word “caressed”.

Now, this is 1974 and apparently that was not considered a 12-year-old student’s type of word.

My dreams of being a great poet came to a crashing halt. I recall having a very intense discussion with my English teacher about that word and explaining that my mother owned a rhyming dictionary, a regular dictionary and a thesaurus (she was/is a writer/broadcaster). Words were a big thing in our house.

I was one of a very, very small number of children that came from single parent families at the time; as a matter of fact, I cannot actually recall any one else whose parents were divorced. I always felt our family was under scrutiny. A few years earlier, at this same school, my brother had been suspended because he (and my mother) refused to have his hair cut – it was below his shoulders at the time. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised about the line of questioning from my teacher about my word usage. It did crush me that he questioned my ability, though.

(That being said, a year or so later, when my marks plummeted and I withdrew from all extracurriculars, not one teacher asked why. I’m not sure I would have told them that one of the coworkers was sexually assaulting me, but it would have been great if their concern was at least consistent.)

This week, I wrote a ton of poems. The criteria for the assignment was that it had to be focused on our senses, full of descriptive language. I realized, through this process, that my writing is not particularly descriptive. And, also apparently, I am very stuck on the experience of drinking tea.

Let me explain.

At least 5 of the 10 or so poems I ‘shortlisted’ for submission were about tea. Mainly about an experience I had a month or so ago.

On Fridays, I go to a writing workspace in east Toronto. A group of anywhere from 3 to 10 writers go to this space and write in silence for 3.5 hours.

I mean silence.

The kind of silence that when I poured my tea, I could hear the tea pour into the cup. I could hear it swirling. I could sense the motion from the sound. It was striking.

It was crazy loud in this quiet space. And every time someone else poured their tea, I heard it again. I was so enamored with this sound, I wrote about it that day and it became a bit of an obsession with all my writing.

I am working on a longer fiction piece and I put it into the piece. I wrote about it regularly in my daily freewriting. Finally, I put it into my poem this week. I even called the poem awoken because I felt like that tea experience was a bit of an awakening.

Tea and writing – a good pairing.

awoken

my breath
enters my body
cascades like a soft wind
down my throat
fills my lungs
then departs
with the unwanted
residues of the night

a chinook
clearing winter’s chill

the tea
pours into the cup
a sound unheeded
in the thousand times
I brewed before
ears attuned
to the soft spinning
of liquid in the cup

an eddy in
the hot current

the beauty
of snow on the path
crisp, glistening
filling my heart
my waking and
sleeping selves
spirits lifted
burdens displaced

fireflies illuminating
the direction home

sometimes I need only to stand

all italicized quotes by Mary Oliver, poet, 1935-2019

Sometimes I need
only to stand
wherever I am
to be blessed

Many times lately I have said to hubby, we have such a great life. That’s not new; ups and downs have been happening for 56+ years, but attentiveness to those waves has been a more recent practice.

These past few years, there have been a lot of moments in which I only needed to stand where I was to recognize the blessing – and then I voice it, to myself, or to whoever is there with me. I “over emote” on social media, unapologetically.

Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

Life is not always rosy and paying attention to that is also important. I have shared about loss, fears, anger, frustration, and trauma.

I find the down drifts easier to deal with if I remember to be swept away by the beauty of a sunny day, or a sunset, or a giggly baby, or an elderly couple holding hands, walking slowly down the street.

Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.

The beauty of art, well, that is a whole other wonderful wave of emotion. A photo, a story that takes me somewhere – all are things that make you stand still and be astonished.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

to share or not to share

A friend of my daughter sends out an email weekly with “insights, info, thoughts and other things”. I really enjoy the emails; they are funny, thought-provoking, and candid.

This week, the author, Jess, spoke about sharing. Not in the “here’s half my bagel” sharing, but the kind that comes from telling people the real deal in your life. That you’re struggling or confused or sad, or…whatever.

When it comes to writing, I believe that sharing is a big deal. I have literally hundreds of pages of stories and poems and thoughts. I have rarely shared them. One of the reasons is simple, and probably something lots of creative types experience: I don’t know if what I write is of interest to other people. (You’re reading my blog, so obviously I put that concern aside on occasion.)

The biggest hold back comes in two forms. I don’t want to throw my burdens onto those I love. Working out certain issues or problems or trauma through writing has meant thoughts or experiences I have not previously shared in-depth are starkly put onto paper. Sometimes though it’s as simple as me not wanting to embarrass those loved ones. I grew up with a mom who is a broadcast journalist on radio and television and occasionally she said things I would rather she hadn’t.

The second hold back is an old comment another mom said to me. I was answering a very pointed question about my childhood and after I responded, this person said, “You know what? Get over it. We all have stuff in our lives.”

It’s interesting because in the email from Jess she addresses this second hold back. She stated that others can benefit from you sharing what you have gone through. And she’s very right. I know that I have found reading something in a book or a magazine or an email that I can relate to, or that eases a burden – well, it’s a game changer. I’ve never been sure my experiences have that kind of value to others.

This type of thinking has kept multitudes of people silent and was core to my thinking around sharing my #metoo story – and I definitely was not alone as the thousands of stories flooding out proves.

“One should try to write as if posthumously. Because then you’re free of all the inhibition that can cluster around even the most independent-minded writer. You don’t really care about public opinion now… You don’t even care what your friends, your peers, your beloved think. You’re free. Death is a very liberating thought” -Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens definitely followed his own advice; as a very controversial writer (once claiming that Mother Theresa was a fraud, for instance), he wrote whatever the hell he felt like, consequences be damned.

As I mentioned last week when I wrote about submitting my work to a writing contest, putting things out in the world has become something I’m doing for myself. I am not interested in being controversial or having a hate fest arise on twitter. I am interested in sharing, in hopes of lifting burdens, mine included. And if, down the road, my fiction stories bring some happiness or entertainment value, that will be great, too. I don’t think I’ll ever write like I’m dead, but I think that ‘putting it out into the universe’ without any expectation of approval or accolades is a doable action plan.

say yes

When I said yes to hitting the ‘submit’ button to a writing contest last January, the weight of the world lifted from my heart.

The piece I submitted is my #metoo story. The writing of the story was in itself a big leap of saying ‘yes’; I said yes to doing the very hard work of dealing with the trauma of being a victim. The piece was raw and painful and it physically hurt to write.

The first draft was freewriting: I simply let my fingers race across my keyboard and I said what I was feeling and what I remembered. I was able, through writing, to reconnect to the girl that I was. I was able to be present in the pain and the sadness.

The biggest yes came when I realized that I was healing.

I recently began reading the book Hunger by Roxane Gay. There is a passage in the book in which Gay states that her “body was broken”, and she “did not know how to put myself back together”. Gay goes on to say that she is “writing my way back to her”, the girl she once was.

That is exactly what saying yes to writing my story was like.

In a Twitter Q & A recently, Gay responded to a question by stating that you don’t always move past trauma and pain. You learn to carry it forward.

The funny thing is, the minute I hit the ‘submit’ button and entered my story in that contest, I no longer carried the story. It was a part of me, a part of my life story, but it no longer was the burden that had weighed me down so heavily. It no longer was the first thing I thought of when I sat down to write.

I had been set free.

The writing of the piece was very important. The submitting of the piece was critical. In that act, I was telling myself that my story mattered. That it deserved to be seen, that I deserved to be heard. It was the best thing I had ever written, in all its rawness and truth. It was the most honest and most painful truth I had ever told myself.

The piece made no traction in the contest. And I am totally at peace with that. The point was not to be recognized; it was to set my story free.

I have reworked the piece, weaving in bits and pieces from the trial judge’s statements. It contrasts the sanitized legal wording and the judge’s sympathy for the perpetrator against my view from the inside.

This new version is an equally beautiful, haunting, sad piece of work as the first.

I hit another submit button and I feel buoyed once again. I am happy to pay $25 once a year to give the universe an update on how I view my story.

It is no longer a stab in the heart; it has become a point of pride.

say yes.

all that matters is what you leave on the page

I was all ready to write a blog about writing – or rather the big uptick in my ability to prioritize writing.

And then I got into a live chat with Bell about my internet bill. And now all I want to do is rant.

Ranting has been no small part of my blogging experience to date.

I’ve written about education issues, specifically special education funding (on several occasions), violence in schools, the importance of voting, and a reality check for the Wynne government about what life is really like for Educational/Teaching Assistants.

We all pay too much for the internet. We all are with companies who by and large have sub par customer service.

Rant over.

Writing, on the other hand, is something I’d like to stand on the rooftop and shout about.

I am enrolled in a writing class through the University of Toronto which means deadlines and assignments and all sorts of parameters to make my big daily resolution to ‘prioritize writing’, well, a priority.

This week, there were readings, daily writing exercises and an assignment. There are three discussion threads going and this is the most engaged group I’ve been ‘in class’ with in all the courses I’ve taken. People really want to be here.

It’s been a great week of writing.

Another big support for writing is a writer’s group in Toronto. I head to east Toronto every Friday afternoon and write (or read, or think) for 3+ hours. There is complete silence, other than the occasional pouring of a cup of tea (which in a very quiet space is quite loud). For a brief bit at the end, we chat.

It’s been a great month of writing.

A final act of prioritizing writing is to create a permanent space in the house for writing. And that was the easiest part – we had all the pieces and I simply had to pull them together.

I know that not every day or week or month will go this well. And there’s been definite struggles. I could not find the words to describe the snow outside this morning (and not because I was up til 3:30 a.m. – I simply could not find words to capture the beauty).

Writing is hard and illusive.

And wonderful.

***

One of the readings from my course this week is by Zadie Smith. The article, Rules for Writers, is from 2010. Smith’s rules are an interesting mix, and one speaks strongly to something I am slowly accepting: “You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.”

all that matters is what you leave on the page

Simple, but not. I am in the stage of leaving everything on the page – freewriting and letting the thoughts pour out. Editing will come later and will help me only leave behind the words that really matter.

Stay tuned.