December 18, 2009

Temporal Homes

As winter settles in every year, I often think about the homeless. In particular, I am thinking about a homeless couple who settled into my neighbourhood for a week or so last spring. The woman was always reading a book as they asked for spare change outside of the liquor store, and they had an adorable dog that was always snuggled up beside them. Wherever they are staying this winter, I hope they are warm, healthy, and that their dog is still with them. Below is a snapshot of my impressions while they were sleeping across the street from my rental suite:

A homeless couple and their dog emerge from under their tarp and slowly begin to pack their blankets, pillows, books, and empty bottles into a shopping cart. The woman shakes the dust out of their blankets and fluffs the pillows before piling them on top of the loaded cart. She places a glass vase on top of the concrete wall that frames their sleeping quarters and inserts three red tulips, which emerged from somewhere inside the dismantled bedroom. As the man and woman make their way towards Cambie Street, they temporarily park their portable home near a colourful mural on 18th Avenue.

I stare at the vase full of tulips and wonder about the woman’s intention. Perhaps it is a thank you gift to the space for giving them shelter for the night. Maybe it is a claim of home. The couple only manages to sleep in the concrete nook for a week or so before someone in the neighbourhood calls to have them evicted from their makeshift home. Not long after, I witness an altercation between a resident and one of the regular bottle collectors, each defending their territory and butting heads over their mutual right to exist in the same space in their own way. It is like watching two worthy opponents in the boxing ring, throwing harsh words instead of jabs and hooks.

But the couple disappeared quietly. They left the transitory scent of tulips to waft over the smell of urine and garbage that permeates the liquor store parking lot.

November 29, 2009

Now

"I will only drive down last week's road once in my life." --Carmen Joy King

Lately, I have been missing it. The moment. In fact, I have probably been missing it for most of my life. I know how it feels though, to be in it: a tickle up the length of my spine, a lightheaded sensation of giddiness, a sudden realization of fleeting happiness. It is an accumulation of all that was and all that will be, distilled down to the moment.

It's been awhile though. I was recently chatting with an old roommate of mine via Facebook and we spontaneously hacked out a plot line for a Reality Bites style film, but focusing instead on a bunch of friends fumbling through their early thirties: unexpected layoffs and financial crises; the isolation of single life; sexless marriages; the humbling responsibility of parenthood; passions relegated to hobbies; unstable mental and physical health. My friend and I were indirectly discussing our own group of friends and acquaintances, but we were also exploring the dangers of succumbing to the voice within that chides and discourages us from enacting real change in our lives when it is required. Too often, we resign ourselves to living out an "existence" rather than a "life."

I know that I have the ability to reinvent myself; I am my own agent, whether I believe it or not. At some point in the last few years, I forgot this reality and hit a concrete wall of lost opportunity. For a moment, I felt as though those opportunities were irretrievable. I lost a sense of the largeness of life--something that was second nature to me as a child, and again as a young adult. I put myself in a box.

As my dear friend Carmen Joy King points out, we can only drive down last week's road once. I like the immediacy of last week; it keeps me from looking too far behind. Last week just passed. This week is here. What am I doing right now that is not serving me? What part of my spirit, or my mind, or my body is stalled and needs a jump start?

I'm here, with a persistent heartbeat, fuelled with blood that propels me forward. I will only be here once.

November 21, 2009

Written in Skin

"Lord my body has been a good friend / but I won't need it when I reach the end."
--Cat Stevens

We cannot shed our bodies, like clothes, at the end of the day. They're always with us ... until they're not. However, those of us who have been fortunate enough to enjoy relative good health and physical ability often take our bodies for granted. We assume they will always be there, like Stevens' "good friend."

I've been thinking a lot about death lately. Having attended several funerals over the past few years, some of them the result of tragic, untimely deaths of friends and relatives, I have become more and more aware of a spiritual void in my life. When someone close to me dies, I find myself flailing without a filter, dodging a lot of thoughts and emotions that I can avoid facing on a normal day. I envy those who have some form of faith to turn to during these times. Words and rituals that offer solace.

Funerals rarely do this for me--at least traditional North American memorial services. We tend to wear primarily black and opt for summary, anecdotes, silence, a somber song, choked tears. I always feel the inappropriate urge to laugh, or scream, or chant, or dance, or moan. I desire a ritual around death that doesn't appear to exist in my immediate surroundings. I want to sing a dirge, but I don't know the words. I feel the need for something more authentic and of the earth than stark funeral homes, rows of mourners, caskets, and one-dimensional photos of the deceased.

The deceased. Passed away. I desire a new language for the dead. Something less gentle and polite, more in tune with the raw, heaving experience of loss. At the same time, there is also a place for silence. Something like the practice of the Liberal Friends of Quakerism, who gather in silent worship and speak only if/when they are moved to do so. I want to negotiate and understand quantum physics, the nature of energy transformation and the deceptive nature of solid material forms.

I believe I had a fleeting encounter with my grandmother after she died. I have had psychic readings and genuinely believed in them. I talk to the dead as if they can hear me. I talk to my own spirit (for lack of a better word) as if it exists outside of my body, an older and wiser entity than I. I realize that all of this could be a lie I tell myself. My own construction of comfort in the face of all that is unknowable.

In our chaotic and conflict-ridden world, I am grateful to have this freedom: to write these words without censorship, and to seek, articulate, and practice my own beliefs without persecution. Much like my body, this is something I have taken for granted most of my life.

Let this be an acknowledgement of gratitude, written in my skin.

October 31, 2009

Tales from the Dark Side

Halloween, like so many other cultural celebrations, has emerged from ancient rituals associated with several different historical eras. According to History.com, the Celtic festival of Samhain (a celebration that acknowledged the blurring of worlds between the living and the dead) and the later Roman festival of Feralia (a commemoration of the passing of the dead), both took place at the end of October and serve as the origins of what is currently referred to as Halloween. Due to later Christian influences, November 1st was dubbed "All Saints' Day," a time to honour saints and martyrs. In Middle English "Alholowmesse" means All Saints' Day, and over time the Celtic Samhain festival began to be referred to as "All-hallows Eve" and eventually, Halloween.

We are tapping into a rich cultural tapestry each year on October 31st. It is a time when people, young and old, are permitted to transform and become something "other" than what they are. I believe this to be a fascinating and important ritual. As adults, we are given the rare opportunity to become anything from ridiculous, to cute, to bawdy, to grotesque, and for one day, friends and strangers alike laugh and nod and allow us this transgression. It is a day to inhabit our own personal angels and demons; we can be that which we wish we were, or that which we could never imagine being. What a gift it is to experience the "other," both within and without.

Tonight, I am going to be a Pink Lady from Grease fame. Past costumes include a gypsy, a forest nymph (one of my personal favs), a garbage bag (I had confidence issues in elementary school), a gigantic sock, a hippie (another fav), Cleopatra, Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly!, and the list goes on.

I have, of course, seen many versions of Michael Jackson wandering around this year. The cultural phenomenon of Thriller and the legacy of his life are acting as a resurrection of sorts. And is this not the heart of this ancient ritual? To blur the lines between the living and the dead and honour their contributions and their sacrifices?

I am eager to see what the inhabitants of Vancouver bring out of their closets, costume stores, and Value Village pillages on this ancient night of the dead. My black cat, Cleo, will sit in silhouette on the window ledge, watching numerous souls haunt the streets, perhaps perceiving more than me.

October 20, 2009

3 Questions for Steven Pressfield (part 3 of 3)

Welcome to the final instalment of my Q&A with Steven Pressfield. He discusses the process of revision and how sitting down to do the work is really just a matter of will power, commitment and the strength to conquer RESISTANCE ...

MS: I always have trouble finding the motivation to revise my work (although I know this is just as important as the initial creative output). Do you have any tools or tips for approaching the revision process?

SP: Just will power, Melissa. Someone once said (and I agree): "There's no such thing as writing, only re-writing." To me, the revision process is not only very important, but fun. I'll do twelve or thirteen drafts on a book--and each one changes the original significantly. When I read someone's work that hasn't been strenuously edited and revised, I can see it. It's not good.

I read an article once, where the reporter was watching Barbra Streisand record a song. She did it over and over. The reporter was rolling his eyes. But he said in the end, "I couldn't tell the difference between Take Six and Take Seven, but I could tell the difference between Take One and Take Thirteen."

If you're having trouble finding the motivation to revise your work, my advice would be to regard that trouble as Resistance. In other words, it's internal self-sabotage. Thus you have to regard those thoughts as "not your own" and dismiss them. No matter how subtle or convincing those thoughts may be, recognize them at once as Resistance and don't give them credence for a second. Put on your professional writer hat and make yourself sit down and revise. The pool is icy when you first plunge in, but after a minute or two you'll be swimming with ease.

Pressfield explores these ideas further in his blog post: Writing Wednesdays #12: Self-Talk and Self-Sabotage. He offers an in-depth analysis of how Resistance manifests itself through the voices in our heads. Stop listening and change the channel! Fill up the static with your creative energy, in whatever way it manifests itself.

Thank you for these invaluable insights, Steven!

October 15, 2009

3 Questions for Steven Pressfield (part 2 of 3)

I'm back with part two of my Q&A with Steven Pressfield. This week, he offers insights and suggestions for writers with regards to time management (and staying sane) while juggling multiple projects and responsibilities. If you do not currently have the luxury of devoting all your working hours to one project, Pressfield's suggestions may be just what the "Muse" ordered.

MS: Do you work on more than one project at once, and if so, how do you organize your time in a way that is productive?

SP: For years I only worked on one project at a time and treated it exactly like a job: a daily routine, a steady working rhythm that would let me build momentum over time, patience to view the overall project as a marathon and not a sprint--and thus take time pressure off myself. But in the last couple of years, opportunities have presented themselves where I am working on more than one at once. I don't really like it. It's hard. Really requires mental compartmentalization. I will literally block out blocks of time (and hold myself to it), where I'll work on Project X from ten to twelve, then cut it off and go from twelve to two on Project Y. The Muse doesn't seem to mind. She seems to be able to switch over without missing a beat.

But, obviously, it's harder to juggle multiple projects because it demands rigid time management. One thing I DON'T want to do is let one project languish, if I'm working on more than one. It's important, for me anyway, to "touch base" with a project every day, even if it's only for a short period. Projects are like children; they get lonely if you don't tuck 'em in each night. Then they can start causing trouble--and we don't want that!

Check back next week for the final installment of my Q&A, in which Pressfield discusses the process of revision and how to conquer resistance. Until then, take care of your children, fellow writers.

October 8, 2009

3 Questions for Steven Pressfield (part 1 of 3)

Through a fortuitous connection via Twitter, I was given the opportunity to ask author and historian Steven Pressfield three questions about the writing process. I am going to post one question/answer per week, starting today. Read below for his thoughts on navigating form and genre. I have been grappling with this issue a lot lately with regards to story ideas and how to decide on the manner in which they should be told. Apparently I am not alone, as Pressfield reassures me in his answer below.

MS: Considering that you work in multiple genres, do you ever have trouble deciding what form a particular idea/story should take?

SP: I ALWAYS have trouble deciding what form a particular/idea story should take. In many ways, that's the hardest part. What's the theme? What's the point of view? If it's first-person, who's the person? If it's not, what angle is the story being told from? How does it start? How does it end? What's the tone of voice? What's the "voice," period?

I have no method for answering these questions. I just trust my instincts. I try to "feel" the story and let it tell me how it wants to be told. I'm not sure why, but for me a lot of the time I use intermediate characters--like young Hardy in "Bagger Vance" or Xeo in "Gates of Fire." Someone who is relatable-to by the reader and can serve as a "way into the story." But not always.

I'm not sure this answer is helping too much. Bottom line: each story is different, for all of us, and each one demands a response all its own. I don't think it ever gets easier.

Well, my fellow writers, let's keep asking those questions until the story reveals its nature and form to us. Stay tuned for question #2 next week! Pressfield will discuss the nature of a writer's workday and strategies for time and project management. Best on your words until then ...

October 1, 2009

He Sang, He Danced, He Stole the Show

I just returned from the Jason Mraz concert in Vancouver and can't seem to stop smiling. Something about his incredible talent, positive energy, and generosity emanates outward and is infectious. He's one of those musicians that you cannot truly appreciate until you see him perform live. As one fellow concertgoer put it, while she walked behind me over the Cambie Street Bridge on our way home: "I knew I liked him, but I had no idea he was THAT talented." Here, here!

The depth and breadth of his vocal stylistic range (from reggae, to pop, to skat, to operatic) is a marvel to witness, but what impressed me most was the diversity of fans that Mraz has managed to gather around him. The audience consisted of individuals from a variety ethnic backgrounds and age ranges. From a young boy of seven attending his first concert, to an older man in his 40s or 50s singing along to his anthem-like track "I'm Yours" with the exuberance of a teenager, Mraz is an artist who knows how to bring people together.

Some of his lyrics reflect more serious themes, such as the struggle so many of us have with self-love and learning how to honestly look at ourselves and our actions. In "Details in the Fabric" (probably my favourite song by Mraz), he encourages us: "If it's a broken part, replace it / if it's a broken arm then brace it / if it's a broken heart then face it." Kind, but firm. He wants us to heal ourselves and live from a place of gratitude instead of victimhood.

I will sign off with an inspired charge by this wonderful musician (lyric taken from the same song): "Hold your own / know your name / and go your own way." I'll try my best, Jason. What will you do, dear reader?

September 25, 2009

Re-emergence

After an embarassingly long absence, I have returned to my lonely blog. I have, in a sense, returned, to a former state of relative optimism (by what miracle I cannot say). Could it perchance be that I have finally committed to being a writer in earnest? The first few weeks of my MFA in Creative Writing at UBC have been, as one of my fellow students put it "a shit show," but in some hazy image of mid-autumn leaves and fog I forsee some kind of reprieve. Some form of becoming.

You know when you're feeling pretty self-satisfied and sitting on your laurels of imagined future accomplishment and constructed complacency, telling yourself that one day (when you stop escaping into movies every evening and swatting away the persistent little voice that patiently asks you why you're not doing what you were put on this earth to do) you will in fact be a [insert passion here]? Well, I've been doing that for [insert embarassingly long time here]. No more I say! And I say it again! Every morning ... until I act upon it.

The thing about finally committing to a course of action is that, for good or ill, it transforms your current state of being. You might lose people who don't want to see you change. You might not recognize your life at the end of this detour. Fate seems to be a matter of recognizing readiness. Shit storm? Bring it!

This gale's got nothing on me.