Monday, July 4, 2016

if you've managed to do one good thing

The World Has Need of You

by Ellen Bass

everything here
seems to need us
                                 - Rainer Maria Rilke

I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.
Here I am, suspended
between the sidewalk and twilight,
the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.
What if you felt the invisible
tug between you and everything?
A boy on a bicycle rides by,
his white shirt open, flaring
behind him like wings.
It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much
and too little. Does the breeze need us?
The cliffs? The gulls?
If you’ve managed to do one good thing,
the ocean doesn’t care.
But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple.

- from Like a Beggar

It's a hard time to be human, but yes, you, you must remember the one good thing you've managed to do.

It's been a while since I've cracked open my books by Ellen Bass. She has a way of saying things that you feel but hadn't though of putting into words. That feeling: the invisible tug between you and everything.

Don't Expect Applause

by Ellen Bass

And yet, wouldn't it be welcome
at the end of each ordinary day?
The audience could be small,
the theater modest. Folding chairs
in a church basement would do.
Just a short earnest burst of applause
that you got up that morning
and, one way or the other,
made it through the day.

You soaped up in the steaming
shower, drank your Starbucks
in the car, and let the guy with the
Windex wipe your windshield
during the long red light at Broad Street.
Or maybe you were that guy,
not daring to light up
while you stood there because
everyone's so down on smoke these days.

Or you kissed your wife
as she hurried out the door, even though
you were pretty sure she was
meeting her lover at the Flamingo Motel,
even though you wanted to grab her
by a hank of her sleek hair.

Maybe your son's in jail.
Your daughter's stopped eating.
And your husband's still dead
this morning, just like he was
yesterday and the day before that.
And yet you put on your shoes
and take a walk, and when a neighbor
says Good morning, you say
Good morning back.

Would a round of applause be amiss?
Even if you weren't good.
If you yelled at your kid,
poisoned the ants, drank too much
and said that really stupid thing
you promised yourself you wouldn't say.
Even if you don't deserve it.

- from The Human Line

And this. How she gets at how monumental the simplest acts can be. How difficult, how easy.

One of the books I read this past week is titled Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age by Katherine Ozment which I read about on Lindsey Mead's blog, A Design So Vast. She also reviewed the book on Great New Books

So I was reading this book and at the same time my daughter had her 18th birthday, followed by her high school convocation and banquet which happened over two evenings as her school is so huge. The first page I open to - Chapter 10 - has an epigraph by Kurt Vonnegut:

"I recommend that everybody here join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life." 

The background to all this, I suppose is that while high school was pretty much fine for her until the 11th hour when one of her friends dumped her (and also dumped the others in the friend group), it wasn't exactly her cup of tea. In fact, while she's been a great student all through the past 13 years, I think it would be fair to say school hasn't been a terrific fit. It's had its horrible moments, but at the same time, in general it's been fine. The thing is that when you're the art kid in a sports world or whatever else, you don't really have a sense of belonging.

At the grad banquet they showed a video of all the goings on at the school that past year and it was pretty much all sports and girls with long perfect hair lip-synching to the music. Very cool. You know. Not a glimpse of my daughter. Which sort of summed up the whole experience for me in a rather symbolic way.

Let me say here that she's been pretty much unfazed by the whole thing. She's been living this for the past thirteen years and is ready really to put it all behind her and move on. She's wise that way.

But even before seeing the video, I had this awful aching feeling about it all. Her entire time in the education system started flashing before my eyes and I couldn't help but feel that I'd done so. many. things. wrong. You know, should have put her in different schools, lived in a more community minded neighbourhood where what kind of car you drive is never a topic of conversation, or at the very least fought to get her in classes with different teachers. I should have joined more groups, with her and without her. I should have found ways to get more people in her life, in mine.

Which is a problem when you're an introverted writer who needs masses of time and a clear head to just get to the freaking page.

In her book, Ozment talks about the need for belonging. "...a sense of belonging is not the same as simply having an active social life and a lot of Facebook friends. True belonging does more for us." 

How do those who are secular create new rituals, find meaning, find community. I'd never heard of Sunday Assembly which is one way people have found of gathering. From their website:

The Sunday Assembly was started by Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, two comedians who were on the way to a gig in Bath when they discovered they both wanted to do something that was like church but totally secular and inclusive of all—no matter what they believed. 
The first ever Sunday Assembly meeting took place on January 6th 2013 at The Nave in Islington. Almost 200 people turned up at the first meeting, 300 at the second and soon people all over the world asked to start one. 
Now there are over 70 Sunday Assembly chapters in 8 different countries where people sing songs, hear inspiring talks, and create community together. 
Why do we exist? Life is short, it is brilliant, it is sometimes tough, we build communities that help everyone live life as fully as possible.

I remember reading about The School of Life years ago and thinking how that would be a rather lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon - going to lectures or course etc. 

But what there is - the pull between needing to be alone, needing vast open spaces of time and quiet, and this other need for community. 

Which I suppose has something to do with blogging - why I continue here in this space.....And also why we're drawn back to social media in spite of it not being entirely fulfilling - it's what we have time for often. And it's part of our need to find community, to feel connected, less lonely. I (naively)  think it has the capacity to do a little bit of this on its good days. 

“I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.”

- Rainer Maria Rilke

“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.” 

-  Virginia Woolf

“My Solitude is my Treasure, the best thing I have. I hesitate to go out. If you opened the little gate, I would not hop away—but oh how I sing in my gold cage.” 

- A.S. Byatt, Possession

“Find meaning. Distinguish melancholy from sadness. Go out for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a romantic walk in the park, spring at its most spectacular moment, flowers and smells and outstanding poetical imagery smoothly transferring you into another world. It doesn’t have to be a walk during which you’ll have multiple life epiphanies and discover meanings no other brain ever managed to encounter. Do not be afraid of spending quality time by yourself. Find meaning or don’t find meaning but 'steal' some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. And you need to be.” 

- Albert Camus

This is one of my favourite Rumi passages:

There is a chase where a falcon dives into the forest
and doesn't come back up. Every moment,
the sunlight is totally empty
and totally full.

- Rumi

I really admire Jean Valentine's work. If you haven't read any, Door in the Mountain is a good place to start.

The question in this poem, so profound:

you who I don't know, what is it like for you there? 


by Jean Valentine

      People pray to each other. The way I say "you" to someone else,
      respectfully, intimately, desperately. The way someone says
      "you" to me, hopefully, expectantly, intensely ...
                   - Huub Oosterhuis

You      who I don’t know      I don’t know how to talk to you

—What is it like for you there?

Here ... well, wanting solitude; and talk; friendship—
The uses of solitude. To imagine; to hear.
Learning braille. To imagine other solitudes.
But they will not be mine;
to wait, in the quiet; not to scatter the voices—

What are you afraid of?

What will happen. All this leaving. And meetings, yes. But death.
What happens when you die?

“... not scatter the voices,”

Drown out. Not make a house, out of my own words. To be quiet in
another throat; other eyes; listen for what it is like there. What
word. What silence. Allowing. Uncertain: to drift, in the
restlessness ... Repose. To run like water—

What is it like there, right now?

Listen: the crowding of the street; the room. Everyone hunches in
against the crowding; holding their breath: against dread.

What do you dread?

What happens when you die?

What do you dread, in this room, now?

Not listening. Now. Not watching. Safe inside my own skin.
To die, not having listened. Not having asked ... To have scattered

Yes I know: the thread you have to keep finding, over again, to
follow it back to life; I know. Impossible, sometimes.

Read more of Jean Valentine's work here

Below is the aftermath of the bouquet which leads this post:

And oh, how often do I come back to these words:

"Every poet's words. (1) I am alone, you who are alone come with us, this will not break the solitude. (2) Whoever says: 'I am alone' breaks the solitude and affirms it by this act of speech."

- Helene Cixous in Stigmata: Escaping Texts

Okay, some soup. Why not. Bacon, egg, and kale ramen. Weird, perhaps, but good. 

Next, a bit of celebrating. For, if I have managed to do one good thing, it's to bring Chloe into the world, and whatever misgivings I have about her years in school, she's turned out awfully well. We ate cake in her honour a few times, at a few different restaurants, including Tiramisu Bistro

The always comforting carbonara:

I had an asparagus risotto with a poached egg on top.

And Rob opted for pizza.

For dessert, red velvet cake for Chloe

A cake from the Bonton Bakery on the actual day of her birthday.

Last things. As usual.

Today, July 4th, is the first day of voting for the Alberta Readers Choice Award. As you likely know, my Rumi and the Red Handbag is a finalist. I'll be adding a button nearer the top of the blog when the voting is open and will probably be mentioning it from time to time over the next few weeks. I don't have any real expectation of winning but I'm thrilled to be part of it all and to have my book in a tiny sliver of limelight, and in such good company, so long after its arrival. 

My understanding is that anyone from anywhere can vote - once per IP address. Will keep you posted etc.

In the meantime, thanks for being here. I wish you all calm things in the week ahead, and may you find community, meaning, solitude in all the right measures. 

- Shawna

{update: the voting for ARCA is now open} 



  1. oh friend, we have a lot in common. I so get that "art kid in an all sports world" as my boys were into drama and music. I could tell you so many stories. I really don't think you could have done anything different,'s like that everywhere. The good news is that college is so much better and she will definitely find "her people."

    I love my alone time and constantly struggle to find the right balance between solitude and being social. Always loved the Virginia Wolf quote.

    Your images jump off my screen, so beautiful. And you know you can count on my vote. Thank YOU for being here. xo

    1. Imagine the stories we could swap :) But yes, I'm really looking forward to her finding her people. xo

  2. I voted for your book and hope you come out on top. Your writing helps me so much, every week. One small vote seems so little to repay you. Best wishes.

    1. Carol - thank you. That means A LOT. I so appreciate it.

  3. You think this, yes (have been there three times): "Her entire time in the education system started flashing before my eyes and I couldn't help but feel that I'd done so. many. things. wrong." But then your children go onto the lives they were primed for by being your children and you realize that it was inevitable. Who they are. Who you are. And what a wonderful thing -- your daughter in all that beauty.

    1. This is reassuring. And lovely. Thank you Theresa.

  4. Chloe is beautiful and her Mother is so so special. I know the feeling though, we set out to be perfect parents, so sad we didn't know there was no such thing. I am excited for Chloe to find a like-minded group of talented people who will help her grow into her adult self, people who will be her life long friends. Brenda

    1. You're pretty beautiful yourself. Thank you for the good and kind words. xo

  5. I don't know you, or your daughter, but I think it will all be OK. I am now 40-ish and I have gone through periods in my life when I'm solitary, and times when I am surrounded by people. I don't think high school, or uni, or a job will have any lasting effect on who we are as people. I have just lately met a group of creatives who when I'm with them, I think "these are my people." They understand me like no one else. The fact that I've only now, after 40, met these people, almost seems more special. I certainly appreciate them. I think the fact that I've found these people is that I do whatever makes me feel good because if I'm happy with what I'm doing, I will attract others who are happy with what they're doing, or at least attract others who are also searching.

  6. As one who made a career supporting schools and their leaders, my heart ached when I read about your daughter's experience in school..the final, parting video, intended as tribute, yet exclusive in its depiction of the predominant "story" in our schools. (And being a world view, the exceptions do not even register as being present, let alone valued.)

    And yet her resiliency, partly who she is, partly what you and your husband give her, model for her, as artists being true to yourselves with no guarantees of an applause at the end of the day. Brava to her, to you both.

    And thank you for so exquisitely writing my dilemma, too - to be alone, together, alone together...

    PS - You and Rumi got my vote. Natch!

  7. Your daughter is beautiful and wonderful and you have given her you, which is far more than so many people get. Also, high school is vastly unimportant in the grand scheme, and I say that having LOVED school. But as I was loving it, I had no idea how much all of it would cease to matter. xo

  8. Thanks, everyone, I loved hearing it will be okay. And yes, I think she will find her people. Motherhood though, am I right? xo to you all.

  9. When my daughter was going into 4th grade, we moved from San Francisco, to Berne, NY. Where is Berne, NY, you ask? Good question...nobody knows. It was a hard, heartbreaking transition and for at least six months, my daughter cried every day after school. In fifth grade, they had a "moving up" ceremony to celebrate the 5th graders graduating to middle school. In preparation for this event, they asked for parents to send in photos of their children for a slideshow. Knowing that my child would be in none of the other kids photos, not having grown up in Berne, and not having been welcomed and included in any of the cliques, I made a point of collecting a selection of photos of her and her friends on both coasts and I gave it to the moms that were putting together the slideshow. After the ceremony, we had a special reception during which the slideshow ran on a loop on one of the walls at the back of the gymnasium. Knowing very few people (because I, too, am an introvert and no one had welcomed us to the area or the school), I gravitated over to the slideshow and watched as it ran through the photos not once but three times. I was incredulous; they had not included a single photo of my daughter. I wasn't asking or hoping for much, just to have a few of my daughter's photos included so that we could feel like we existed and mattered to someone, somewhere. I was pretty devastated.

    Now we are preparing to return to the west coast and while there are things I will miss here in Upstate NY, there are an awful lot of things I won't miss. We never fit in here. Every victory came with a struggle and there were far more failures. I am sorry your daughter had a lonely time and that her friend ditched the group. Those things are heartbreaking. I was that kid too, as was my daughter. Most of the time I didn't care. I prefer to be by myself. But there were moments when it mattered a lot. I guess I am just sharing this to let you know that I can sit with you in this moment. I can't know what it is/was like for you or Chloe, but I understand an approximation of those feelings.

    It takes so little effort to see someone, to acknowledge them and make them feel like they are not invisible. I don't know why it has to be so hard.

    1. It's so SO true. It's not all that hard. And yet. Your story is heartbreaking. I'm so glad you're going 'home.' And thank you thank you for, as you say, 'sitting with me.' I think that's really what we crave and need from each other. This means so much. big hug, xo


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