“I love Marx brothers movies. I still do. I still watch them when they’re on or I’ll rent one, or something. Because what they do…they turn the world absolutely upside down, and look at things from a totally different way. … that’s what you really have to do. You have to constantly look at things as if you’ve never seen them before. Or look at them in a way that nobody has ever seen them before. Or turn them over and look at the other side of everything.”
To those who gave me books (even when I wished for toys)…
Thank you Grandpa for ABC Word Book (received in 1973).
Thank you Daddy for Where the Sidewalk Ends (1977).
Thank you Auntie Kenie for Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret (1981).
Thank you Mark for The Pear Tree Pomes (1993).
Thank you Davee for G (1996).
Thank you Jackie for Asservate Exhibits (2006).
Thank you Hiromi for Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008).
Thank you Nancy for The Principles of Uncertainty (2009).
Thank you David for Magenta Soul Whip (2011).
Most of us have a central practice (writing, teaching, counselling, building, etc.) but alongside this work is often a parallel practice from which we draw energy and inspiration.
These days, my parallel practice is yoga—for which I could easily replace the word “breathing” (with intention) or the word “emptying” (as in emptying my head sufficiently so I am actually able to take in more than echoes of my own thoughts.) Yoga is a beautiful flight from the awkward daily consciousness of writing.
Don’t get me wrong. I think writing is worth thinking about, from time to time. But not all the time. Usually, in my experience, it’s preferable to think about other things.
Which brings me to John Cage and his mushrooms. John Cage was not only a major figure of the musical avant-garde but also a passionate mycologist, who first got into collecting wild mushrooms while walking in the Stony Point woods near his house. His knowledge of the fungal world was so sophisticated that in the late 1950’s he even won 5 million lire on an Italian TV quiz show with mushrooms as his specialty subject. In the 1960’s he supplied a New York restaurant with edible fungi, taught a mushroom class at the New School and helped found the New York Mycological Society.
“It’s useless to pretend to know mushrooms. They escape your erudition,” wrote John Cage in For The Birds. Haphazard and anarchic, defying the classifying intellect: “I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom.”
Yesterday’s New York Times has a good piece about the contribution “contrarian children’s authors,” Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, and Shel Silverstein, have made to children’s lit. (They each have a new book out this fall.)
Once upon a more staid time, the purpose of children’s books was to model good behavior. They were meant to edify and to encourage young readers to be what parents wanted them to be, and the children in their pages were well behaved, properly attired and devoid of tears. Children’s literature was not supposed to shine a light on the way children actually were, or delight in the slovenly, self-interested and disobedient side of their natures.
Seuss, Sendak and Silverstein ignored these rules. They brought a shock of subversion to the genre — defying the notion that children’s books shouldn’t be scary, silly or sophisticated. Rather than reprimand the wayward listener, their books encouraged bad (or perhaps just human) behavior. Not surprisingly, Silverstein and Sendak shared the same longtime editor, Ursula Nordstrom of Harper & Row, a woman who once declared it her mission to publish “good books for bad children.”
On Tuesday evenings, I sometimes attend “being a person” classes (a.k.a. yoga and meditation.) This week’s homework: offer your face. Truly. Next time you greet the bus driver or your child or the woman who sells you milk, try not to avert your eyes.
I’ve been working at it. It’s not so easy. That’s why I’ve chosen John Cassavetes, unflinching master of the close-up, to be my Patron Saint of Faces.
Cassavetes understood faces. He gave a face to the basic human need to be recognized. He gave faces to characters who often behaved awkwardly or badly or bizarrely in misguided bids for attention. His faces laughed and seduced and sang and crumpled and cried. They were twitchy and beautiful and sometimes out of focus. Above all, his faces sought our love.
There is a mausoleum of minor achievements in my mother’s apartment dating back to my grade six math award. She used to claim that she was keeping them for the Museum of Kyo, but then at some point in my mid-twenties she decided that there wasn’t going to be a museum so out went the old photos, school assignments and report cards. The chintzy plaques and certificates were saved and if you’ve seen or read The Joy Luck Club you’ll know why—it has something to do with plumage and immigrant currency, i.e. proving one’s worth. (Looking at my grade six math award still instills a sense that I’m washed up.)
Perhaps because my own childhood was chock-full of expectations, I have tried to allow my children more breathing room. For instance, our weekends tend to be sprawling and non-eventful. There are no piano recitals, soccer league tournaments, or early morning hockey practices. At noon, there’s a good chance that the table will still be strewn with dirty pancake plates and rogue blueberries. My children will often be draped on the couch like boneless humans listening to the radio or reading comics. I’m aware that this can look like laziness from the outside. But this “down time” has been a revelation to me.
I have discovered that there is a quality of boringness that comes with being a parent and I don’t mean this disparagingly. In fact, ‘boringness’ isn’t the right word at all but I don’t know what is—maybe “dreaminess” mixed with “repetitiveness” combined with “unproductiveness.” In any case, it’s a terrifying and existentially-threatening state to be in for most “normal” adults.
Which is precisely why we should spend time with children (and/or animals and/or among plants or rocks): because it is a healthy antidote to our normal ways. We have our stoneage brains that are so focused on short term goals (“a bird in the hand…”) that we often lose sight of how to move towards long-term goals (happiness, equanimity, attentiveness).
This past Sunday, I took the kids to Kensington market for lunch. The sun was out and it felt like a mid-summer afternoon. There was a vintage bubble “blaster” on the street pumping out hundreds of bubbles. I don’t know if early hominid children had the same reaction to bubbles as my children, but Y&M have an atavistic need to greet every bubble they see. Yesterday, they simply would not be tempted away. The park? No. Swimming? No. Ice cream? Maybe—No. Eventually, I just gave in and watched. And watched. Who knew bubbles could be so maverick? One floated into a passing cab and tickled the nose of the driver. Another escaped across the street and snuck in an open door. A gang of a dozen made headway down an otherwise cheerless alley.
I looked up again at the sky full of bubbles and remembered that it was 9/11… And that was our Sunday.
First day of school. I saw my two children off this morning with a mixture of elation and anxiety. (More time for writing! Will they be okay?) Ah, September, that time of renewal, a chance to honor sharpened pencils and crisp notebooks.
I have a few projects in the early stages and I’m excited to have more focused time to see what develops. But before I do… One of my yoga teachers asks that we always start our practice by setting an ‘intention’ so I thought I’d set down three for the coming few months:
1. Be social. I can be somewhat introverted at the best of times so one intention I am setting (not for the first time!) is to cultivate solitude without becoming a social hermit. (I have been told that being moody and conversationally monosyllabic are unattractive qualities in a human… Note to self: Why are so few writers known for their sunny dispositions?)
2. Play. Solid schedule, open methods. In other words, be sloppy at first, turn strange corners, stray and get lost, be unroutine (even anarchic) in my routines.
3. Pay attention. Don’t stop noticing. This isn’t about parsing each moment for potential dialogue or character attributes, but about living life with all senses OPEN and RECEPTIVE. Julian Barnes once said (and here I’m paraphrasing and probably incorrectly) that each book he wrote was a form of ‘diminished life’—a miniaturization of the real world AND a reminder of years given over to the work. i.e. Each book means you’re a little older at the end. So stay awake.
If you’re interested in how writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days, my friend Kelsey sent me this fun link:
What you’ll discover (if you don’t already know it) is that there are no pristine working conditions. Life is always lurking, insinuating itself between the writer and the page—and thank goodness because that’s where most of us find our pulse and our fuel, not to mention, our best ideas.
We live in the built world. Our exposure to wild things and wilderness is limited. We have a garden that tends towards shaggy and we enjoy our trips to the local park but our circadian rhythms are tuned to the city with its various machines and priorities.
But sometimes we find ourselves shorn of our dependencies and flung into a different comfort zone. Such was our August. We’ve just returned from a month of travel that gave my children a rare and amazing glimpse of the natural world. We went hiking and swimming in northern Ontario, and kayaking on the Pacific Ocean. We saw ravens and deer, dolphins and seals. We picked wild blackberries. We learned how a starfish digests its food and how to smooth out an eagle feather.
Now for many Canadians, such outdoor experiences might be commonplace but for our urbanized immigrant family, they have an undeniable exotic appeal. I grew up with metropolitan parents (one London-born, the other Tokyo-born) and didn’t have much contact with cottagey types. (My parents were a bit “different” so their idea of a vacation tended to involve black jack tables, Rothmans and tumblers of Bacardi.)
Given my own city-bound childhood, it’s surreal for me to see my children find their feet in nature. I can’t believe Y knows how to “wet exit” a kayak and that M can deftly explain the difference between an Orca whale and a Gray whale. Yesterday, my dearest friend sent me this great post linking outdoor experience to environmental values.
The same friend who sent this to me is down in Washington D.C. today protesting the Keystone XL pipeline project, a multi-billion pipeline that would carry oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast. It’s highly possible she’ll be arrested as others have since the two-week long civil disobedience campaign began in front of the White House. I’m thinking of her and all the activists who are taking this issue of climate destabilization and fossil fuel dependency to the streets. (Sometimes is takes wild things to speak for wild things…Just ask Dr. Seuss.)