In a crazy time, remembering to breathe

“Please do not forget to breathe.”

I follow former CBS news anchor and journalist Dan Rather on Facebook, and this was the opening sentence of his Saturday (Oct. 29) post. “We wonder and we worry,” he went on, referring to the current U.S. election. “We refresh our social media feeds and favorite news sources by the minute looking for affirmation of our hopes or amplification of our fears. There is always more information–always more spin.”

It probably shouldn’t matter to me as much as it does, but this election cycle twists me in knots some days. H. and I watched the debates, we watch the news. Even while trying to write, I keep refreshing the feeds, the sources, always looking for signs that Mr. Trump will not succeed, for how could it be possible, a man so ill-prepared, so incapable of logical thought, so undisciplined, so so so… So dangerous, really, bottom line. And I find myself getting worked up when people I know differently on these matters, and… well, I’m sure you know how it is.

My point is not to persuade anyone or enter into those arguments here, though I suppose I haven’t been exactly subtle about where my hopes lie. I’m Canadian of course, and thus an observer, not participant, but the mouse is always keenly aware of where the elephant is moving next.

The point, though. Mr. Rather said that in the “hurricane of insanity” that is this American election, he’s making a habit of putting his phone away to go outside, to go for a walk, to let himself be refreshed by nature. Yes, I thought yesterday, reading his wise words, it’s time to breathe. So we went for a walk at Brunswick Point in Ladner. And the wind was cold and foul, but we walked into it, breathing hard, and we saw two magnificent eagles and birds on a wire and the light on a distant mountain and tiny flowers and more and if the roil within didn’t dissipate completely, it calmed remarkably, and like any effort of sabbath-keeping, along with prayer, continued to produce calm. I was surprised, and pleased, that throughout the evening I had no need or desire to check where the news cycle might be at; I knew there was a week-plus ahead for all that. The break was a gift. img_5912



Good advice from the kids

The palm trees down the middle of this small city’s main street still seem surreal to me. It’s not California, but Tsawwassen, north of the 49th parallel but just barely, tucked into the southwestern corner of the B.C. coastline, and somehow, in spite of our visits to our son and his family over the years, I’d forgotten about the palms. And now I’m walking by them nearly every day and they’re disturbing my notions of Canada. The cold north and all that. img_5900

It’s not a bad adjustment, I don’t mean that, just an adjustment. We’re here and more or less moved in, books unpacked, numerous trips to IKEA behind us, some pictures hung. Car insurance and driver’s licences and healthcare applications and internet installation are done and when I complained to our son about one of these procedures, which managed because of a system error to last several hours, he reminded me that these are things we only have to do once. Right.

And our daughter texted (following some other since-forgotten dilemma we were trying to solve), “Settling in may have challenges, but there is no deadline for it. Take all the time you need.” Right to that too. Things have switched up: I have to listen to the kids. The longer process of feeling at home, which involves friends and connections and sense of purpose and belonging, begins now and is not automatic. I hasten to add that we do quite like it here so far.

I’ve recently enjoyed reading Nino Ricci’s 2008 The Origin of Species (I can still remember reading his Lives of the Saints but had not kept up with his work; my, he’s good) and the poignant The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by the late Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Best of all, post the move and all that, I’ve got my Writer-self back on. I have an assignment for an anthology, about which I can’t say more at the moment. Settling in may not have a deadline, but this assignment does, so that will be my September work. And speaking of writing, I want you to know that my personal essay “Return Stroke” is in the current issue of The New Quarterly. If you can get a paper copy, you’ll be glad, because TNQ is a great journal. Otherwise, my piece is online here.

Bye for now.


Last week we spent a couple of days in the Waterloo area with my brother, street photographer Al Doerksen, and sister-in-law, artist Agatha Doerksen. First up was the opening of Agatha’s stunning new show, “Off the Wall,” at the Red Brick Cafe in Guelph. The first pieces in this series were inspired by layers of peeling posters in downtown Toronto. Agatha gathers material life wherever she finds it–lists, wallpaper, bits of text, buttons, old photos, and much more–which she then maps and collages in new arrangements. These “remnants and discards” of daily life are variously re-layered, re-configured, revealed, perhaps covered again, perhaps painted upon, but thus preserved. The result is sometimes whimsical but more often–to my view–boldly provocative, and deep. Here’s “A Single Leaf,” one of my favourites in the show. If you live in the Guelph area, do stop by to view the exhibit, or see more of her work at the Art by Agatha page on Facebook.13645115_830262967108427_4770586795850250156_n


The opening itself had a layer of unexpected drama when one of the largest pieces was stolen the day before the opening. CBC told the story.

I always enjoy visiting with Agatha, and now back in Toronto, I’ve been mulling over what I heard her say about her artistic process. Although she works in a very different medium than I do, so much of what she talked about resonated with my writing life: curiosity that motivates the gathering and gleaning of material, the complex interaction of theme and content in the actual production of the piece, the surprises that emerge, how the piece happens both with and yet also (it seems) without the artist’s conscious intention.

I’ve been mulling the notion of layers and collage also in reference to this period of transition we’re in and its increasingly thick layers of experience and emotion. I’ve found myself a little frustrated that they don’t easily form articulate patterns. But perhaps life is art-making too, with its necessary process; perhaps this stage is a gathering, picking-up, peeling off the wall. Surely the meaning of it can be formed later, out of the fragments. I’ve been conscious too of living all this on a backdrop of troubling world events; places of unrest, uneasiness, violence like France, Turkey, U.S.A.; a sense of challenge and uncertainty. What is the “keep” of all that; its ultimate effect? 

Agatha sent me these lines by Franz Kafka (translated), which she included in a number of paintings. I like it for its counsel about the necessary processes of both life and art. 

You need not do anything.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
You need not even listen, just wait.
You need not even wait,
just learn to be quiet, still and solitary.
And the world will freely offer itself to you unmasked.
It has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.