Writing grants instead of working in the studio which is where I yearn to be. So as a break and with your indulgence I’ll share a list of some learned things from this CoVid self-isolation summer.
I have only a handful of decent insights – notes to self – that pull their weight for me. Looking forward to comparing these notes with others’, since we’ve all been navigating. In the meantime, randomly…
Thinking with just your mind is wildly overrated.
Sea Legs, if you want to function when the ground keeps shifting: you need to find them.
Anchor yourself with a flexible sense of humour, and functioning – at any level – is a lot easier. Use discernment in all things, but specifically the things you put into your mind, your heart and your body: information, love, food.
Trust your intuition, especially if it’s running against the prevailing cultural current. Rest when you can; move your body regularly and with appreciation.
Grant writing has changed only a little. It’s still a translation of a lovely round idea into a fixed number of words that give it square corners, like a stamp or a block. That said, writing and submitting applications is an extremely useful exercise – I would recommend it to all artists who want their work to resonate with other people – translation, like objectivity, is necessary. And it’s your job.
We still use the word Merit as though it justifies a subjective judgement, as though the idea of a meritocracy was EVER more than a way to support the Eurocentric worldview of white people (mostly men) and at the expense of all other people. Language is full of antiquity though, and I’m sure a better word will be found.
Habits are interesting. Invisible little nasty-sweets posing as daily comforts. Some are seriously dangerous addictions, disguised as fluffy quilts that were handed down from your ancestors. Others are regular ways to hide yourself away in a fold of time. Oh, I always do this at 4pm….
Habits tend to support a conflated ego, which is what makes them so damned difficult to unravel and repurpose. They are reliable, reassuring and extremely difficult to resist if you’re feeling vulnerable. but The thing that makes them habits and not rituals (which are conscious and deliberate) turns them into a hole in your memory. The more you rely upon them, the larger the hole gets.
I don’t think habits are the same as naps. I could be wrong.
Rain is like love. Nourishing, and not always comfortable.
I know people who choose to live in forests – with forests, that is, rather than with humans. I am one of these whenever I am able, though I recognize a balancing urge also, to interact in the world of people, thoughts and ideas. So, internet connection, car, art studio, city streets cloth face masks for me, too.
My ex is perhaps still friends with what seemed to me to be an alarming number of men who have ended up in the eddy of inherited? houses they could not afford to maintain, or had no desire to. Each room filled with stuff piled on top of stuff, the whole house and yard choked with stuff so that they are left with only a corner of the old kitchen to live in. Perhaps a different kind of forest, thick and impassable with once-useful things.
Amazing, these worlds that exist outside of what’s considered acceptable in our wealthy consumer culture: old blankets repurposed as blinds to cover windows, yellowed wallpaper and institution green paint left to peel, rusted coffee tins full of square nails and lost tools on top of old newspapers piled two feet high. Some who live this way have dogs, some have books; they all know things most people haven’t considered.
Others I know live on boats and work in solitary construction jobs, are friends with their faraway daughters who visit occasionally, but regularly. They yearn for Scotland, and home.
Some, widowed, sit in a room at a retirement lodge and practice naming the people in the dresser-top photos. When he turned ninety, one friend of mine told me that being in such a place was like being asleep all the time until someone came to visit. He’d been a musician, passionate in connection and love. As a widower in a care home he existed in a kind of almost-death, waking into life and memory only in the presence of an other.
Through injury or illness, some of us exist in a vegetative state. Non-responsive, but physically stable and alive. Some stay in this state for years then emerge, slowly, achingly into interaction with the world.
Neuroscientist Adrian Owen writes about his research into the this liminal place of being alive and yet not in his 2018 book, Into the Grey Zone. It’s been a good thing to read in these strange times, and I agree with The New Yorker review: “Strangely uplifting…the testimonies of people who have returned from the gray zone evoke the mysteries of consciousness and identity with tremendous power”
I’m wondering if these extremes are what we fear, we who live connected to others through children and jobs, the exchange of goods and thoughtful engagement with community and neighbours. To be alone without external interaction, to forget how and who to be, with others. Fear is a great blocker of insight and greater awareness. In our fear of forgetting, what do we miss? What do we not notice?
Ondaatje’s The English Patient; Trumbo’s Johnny Got his Gun are just two of many stories that have fascinated me – both crafted around disconnection from our senses and our memories. Do we identify memory with Self? I am the person who did and felt these things. I am identified by what and whom I can remember.
What a mystery then, that though he had no memory left, my Dad in his last days was still fully present with me, still communicating, responding, as the person I know.
Swing forward twelve and a half months to 8am on this quiet, wet Monday. I’m in the place I’ve been coming to meet myself every morning for many months now. Here is where, pre-dawn, I gather my thoughts with dreams from the night before and put them on the table in front of the third-floor, east-facing window.
As the light seeps slowly into the world so my thoughts and rememberings return to me in different shapes, intertwined. If I’m still enough, If I keep my willful, active self at bay, I can give them form in some appropriate language – words, or pictures, or sounds. I think this morning it will be my cello I go to, to play them through and out.
We are afraid to be alone with ourselves, maybe. To be unwitnessed by another human is to be without an important anchor of external self-reference. He thinks I’m funny, she loves my smile, they like my work…. I feel permanently fragile in the loss of these warm things. I miss the quickness of laughter, the lift of an eyebrow, the intensity of a lean-forward response. I miss body warmth and touch; I miss the complexity and resonance of in-person humanness.
#StayHome is a difficult gift, but a gift nonetheless. The isolation challenges me to be fully here, by gum, without worry or anxiety about how important I am, what I do in the world, how others might respond to me, what I’ll do next. I have no idea about any of these things, after all, nor control over which way the world shifts, since what I remember the world to be is no longer what it is. I can only bear witness, show up into my creative space, respond in whatever way feels right, and stay as open as possible to change.
In these morning moments with the table and the dawn I feel more like dad seemed in his last days – absent to my measured, measuring self, maybe, but entirely and fully present to wonder. Curious.
There, a breeze in the sway of the birch, heavy with catkins. Leaves pushing open at the tops of the big trees. A busy chatter of sparrows and starlings. The through-wet-glass blur of the house across the street.
I had such a great plan, before CoVid-19 changed us. A working car-trip across Canada to Banff residency in the summer or fall (Banff is of course now closed, all programs cancelled into early fall), an artist residency in the Shetland Islands for a month, where the shore meets the land and the land calls to my soul. A beautiful story of seeking out my ancestral story, rooted in Scotland, but so deeply connected to Canada. A working study of the migrations of people, because of poverty, climate, famine, colonialism – humans move constantly now, as water does.
If water stops moving, it stagnates. This is rare though, since water will eventually find a way to flow even if through evaporation, then into rain. People are like that too, by nature. It’s my observation, so far at least, that humans will eventually find a way to transform themselves and their circumstance – in some direction. Those who don’t are the most miserable.
If ever there was a recipe for simultaneous, global human transformation, this would be it, right now. Here we are in week four of self-isolation, and all our outer quests have become inwardly turned questions. We’re all on a new level of RIGHT NOW: parents full time with their kids, partners full time with all the fault lines in their relationship; writers full time with their blocks (and no cafe’s to write in); siblings with their mutual woundings; extroverts climbing the walls and narcissists in denial.
I’m on my own, with a foster cat. Not a problem, I say, in the first week. I’ve been in self-imposed isolation for a over a year here in Hamilton – a city where I know perhaps three people socially. In the second week I get lost in news, definitely stagnant, as the truth sinks in and statistics climb.
In week three I realize how wide open and vulnerable I am in this solitary space. I’ve become deeply grateful for Cat’s presence and companionship, since I miss simple touch beyond what I could have imagined. I realize how relationalI am, and how I must now relate meaningfully with ME – there is no one else, no one else is coming. I can’t hide from my own gaze; my heart, my ache and my joy is all right there on the table (or the floor, depending). There’s a lot I can see that I love, but also much that I’m deeply, richly uncomfortable with. In my bones I know that this long isolation is going to change me, permanently.
I am afraid – of everything I can sense but don’t understand. Then I realize I’m okay. Safe, just not in control. Thank heavens for the old trees in Gage Park. I lean on them, and into them.
It’s in week three that I go back into the studio. I’ve been avoiding it but now the building is closed to the public, and very few people are there working. What a relief, to be stretching those muscles, flowing again. After some good forward motion with my commission work I try out the online instructions* for a DIY cloth face mask, on a whim – not difficult, even for a pretend sewer.
I have a great old 1956 Singer and plenty of black and white thread; I see the stash of batik fabric I’ve been hauling around for three years and there’s enough to make a modest social media gesture – I will make and send a cloth face mask to you gratis if you need one – PM me your address & colour preferences.
I Imagine making ten or so, perhaps 20 over the next week, but over the next 3 days I receive orders for 100. Donations too – generous ones – to cover the cost of making and delivering. Orders continue to come in steadily, every day.
The first 12 are urgent – high-risk friends and family. I make them – oh so slowly, in retrospect – then drive 3 hours north to deliver them, personally, invisibly: I’m outside your house right now, will leave in your mailbox.
Home late the next evening I’m feeling overwhelmed by the response. …so okay, but what about my other work? and how do I triage these orders, from front line delivery folk to L’arche workers to Factory workers to people with high risk health issues and wow everyone in my family needs these too… What ARE the delivery costs, then? No idea. Orders from BC, Quebec, and five cities in Ontario so far – I did say anywhere, didn’t I. Damnit.
I figure out a system that could fulfil 100+ orders in a relatively short time, and learn how to be more efficient. I also figure out that if I want to to keep making and sending these masks, I need to cover my costs in this time of no-income. Inspired by Hamilton’s hugely successful 541 Eatery and Exchange I build a model whereby those who can afford to donate are given a pay-it-forward figure – one that will make the project sustainable for me (tho not profitable, on principle), and also include a percentage towards a mask for someone who needs it but is financially stretched, for whatever reason.
Orders keep coming in.
In Toronto this afternoon I drive past familiar and loved places, now closed and inaccessible. Old apartments, my beloved B&B, Dufferin and College, Parkdale, Queen East. Two masks there (high risk), three here (high risk), two more there (front line worker). The streets are like ghosts.
I’m still working on the Water/ Human Migration research project. I’m collecting tree stories from people (that’s another post). I’m working with these marvellous commissions which teach me more than I’d ever imagined a project could – so very appropriate to now.
And I’m making cloth face masks, too, for whomever needs them.
If you need a cloth face mask (or a few), please write to me here: firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be happy and honoured to make and send what you need. If you are able to donate, the minimum suggested donation is $10 per mask. $20 pays for someone else who is stretched and some delivery costs… etc. $200 which pays it forward to a bunch of people, and their mask deliveries (thank you thank you to the generous person who did this – I just ordered more supplies with your help). Wait time depends on the triage – health risks and front line workers are top priority – I’ll give you an estimate for when you can expect them.
*If you’d like to make your own, then Hooray!! Here’s the link to the instructions I’m using: https://www.instructables.com/id/DIY-Cloth-Face-Mask/. I like it because the masks are reversible (fashion or mood options – black or pink today?), there’s a sturdy nose wire (mine require pliers to bend and anchor nicely on the face), they require high thread count cotton or cotton / poly (which I have a fair amount of) and most importantly, they are hand-washable – so, re-useable.