So, yeah, I met Julia Cameron (in the flesh!): The power of story, dialectics and the creation of god

I’ve left paradise and I’m in a crowded parking lot. It’s tucked between the Ukrainian Catholic Church that, I guess, presumes to be a conduit to paradise for its worshippers, and the cultural centre it runs as both a community service and a modest revenue stream.

Even churches need to keep the lights on, somehow.

The Church is St. Basil’s, an unusual and beautiful name that always makes me think of both Sherlock Holmes and John Cleese (and OMG, people, John Cleese playing Sherlock Holmes, why has that not been a thing?).

(Excuse me—I’m googling “Has John Cleese ever played Sherlock Holmes?”)

(OMG, people, John Cleese played Arthur Sherlock Holmes, the grandson of the great detective, in a 1977 British film called The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It, and you can watch it for free on Open Culture.)

(Back to regularly scheduled programming…)

I’m here because in 2015, then-Conservative MLA for Edmonton-Decore, Janice Sarich, lost her job.

Follow me for a while; I’ll explain.

I’m actually here for Julia Cameron’s first Canadian appearance in more than 20 years. Julia Cameron is the author of The Artist’s Way—and more than 40 other books, several musicals, plays, screenplays, etc. She’s also the director of an art film, the creation of which is a study in synchronicity, serendipity, and also, perseverance past the point of reason.

Julia has been my writing teacher and creativity coach for five years. Today is the first day we are to meet. And when I say meet, I mean, I will be in a church hall with 300 other people while she talks. It’s not going to be a particularly intimate experience. But still. We will be in the same room, I will have seen her, truly, “live,” and this brings me much anticipatory happiness.

Back in 2014, when I was drowning (metaphorically, although the flood was real enough), The Artist’s Way threw me a lifeline and turned Cameron into my first real teacher, and the one I keep on going back to, again and again and again.

And again.

I don’t like her.

Let’s make this clear right away, so that you are not expecting a hagiography. We are not friends, Julia and I. I do not have a rose-coloured schoolgirl’s crush on her. I am neither the Peter nor Paul to her Jesus, nor the Mardana to her Guru Nanak.*

* You can google Mardana and Guru Nanak. Or, you can read The Singing Guru, a marvellous novel by Kamla K. Kaur (also author of Ganesha Goes to Lunch and Rumi’s Tales from the Silk Road), about the life of the founder of the Sikh religion—that’d be Guru Nanak—and his faithful companion, Mardana.

If we were closer in geography and fame, we would not be friends, meeting for a coffee and a chat. I don’t accept Julia’s tools and wisdom uncritically, as gospel. Frankly, I argue with her, fight her every step of the way. I call her names—throw her struggle with alcoholism and co-dependent romantic relationships in her face (repeatedly and unkindly). Tell her that if she spent less time gazing out her window and writing Morning Pages and more time perfecting the craft and refining technique, maybe she’d be famous for her poetry or her musicals. Or her novels would be, like, good, and they’d sell.

I am mean to her, so mean to her.

I hate her.

She is my most beloved teacher.

My refusal to be an uncritical acolyte notwithstanding, I’m here to pay homage. I’m quite aware of this, long before I get into my hic-cuping (Please don’t die!) 2007 Nissan Versa (grey) (I’m telling you this because Julia likes specificity, just as much as Writing Down the Bones author Natalie Goldberg does) at 5:30 a.m. that morning to drive the 300 km that will take me to St. Basil’s Cultural Centre in Edmonton.

I know I am here to give gratitude and pay homage long before Julia Cameron enters the hall and I leap to my feet, giving her a standing ovation before she utters a word, because, fuck, Julia, there you are, after all these years, in the flesh, you’re real, would I be where I am, who I am, right now if you hadn’t been thrust upon me back in 2014?

Julia Cameron is 71 now, and an old 71, a frail 71. My mother is 68 and a) she looks much younger and prettier and b) she could easily take Julia in a fight. Janice Sarich—the organizer—warns us before the Godmother of Art, the Midwife of Creation enters the hall that Ms Cameron has health issues, and because of them, there are some rules we need to follow. We are not to badger her, approach her, crowd her—there’s a red velvet rope strung as a barrier to separate us from the lectern and we are not to cross it. There will be no book signings or requests for selfies. We are here to get what she is willing to give us—and to demand no more.

I know from her books that Cameron is a highly introverted, very sensitive and anxious—neurotic really—and has suffered at least two nervous breakdowns.

Those are all the things about her that annoy me when I read her (Could you be a little less neurotic, Julia?), those are all the things that make her such a sensational teacher.

If I am a doubting Thomas and a pre-conversion St. Augustine—maybe even a Rene Descartes, who, had he lived half a century earlier may well have been burnt at the stake—the woman who brought Cameron to Edmonton—to me—is a less critical disciple. Former MLA Sarich is in the honeymoon phase of the student-teacher relationship, you know, when Socrates can do no wrong in the eyes of Plato, when Jung nods his head enthusiastically at every word Freud utters… even though, if he lets himself think, he’ll see that actually, um, ah, I dunno, maybe the old man got it just a little wrong?

I’ve never had that phase with Cameron. I’ve never had that with anyone. Hero-worship, goddess worship—I envy it when I see it.

Sarich lost her job at the Alberta Provincial Legislature when my socialist, progressive, feminist, “Damn straight I will dance at the Pride Parade!” premier unseated the oligarchy that had been lording it over the province for 44 years. So as soon as Sarich introduces herself and her story, I know some pretty core philosophical differences separate us. In 2015, I celebrated with abandon—if not precisely her loss, then my premier’s win. When the Conservatives returned to power in 2019 under a reprehensible platform that offended virtually all of my values as well as my reason, I mourned.

But when I talk to Sarich, all I feel is gratitude and admiration. Because she turned her tragedy and trauma—and job loss is traumatic, no matter how common in the modern economy—into this opportunity, not just for herself, but for me and for 300 other people. To meet Julia, to work with Julia.

For an emotionally exhausting eight hours.

At 4:30 p.m. that day, I revise my estimation of Julia as old and frail. Fuck, the woman might be 71 and battered by life, but she’s also tough and committed. She might have health problems. She may pause at the lectern for a long, long while here and there, to catch her breath or to recall her train of thought. But she gives us her all for the entire day, shepherding her energy carefully, resting in-between when we break off into our mini-clusters—but, at the end of the day, still giving it all, as fully engaged, as fully present as she was at its beginning.

I bow my head and come the closest to hero-worship, goddess worship I will ever feel.

There are several points during the day when I wish I hadn’t come. The first happens early in the day, during one of our first break-off clusters. The workshop for 300 of Julia’s biggest fans is surprising intimate, because Julia (clearly, she’s done this before) speaks for a little bit, gives us a written exercise, then has us break off into clusters of three, four or two. Each time, we are to connect with new people; each time, we are to share ourselves with strangers.

I fucking hate this. There is immense creative power in being vulnerable, open, exposed. I know—I’ve just come off a 10-day stint in Paradise in which I gave myself like that, completely. And I am still so very vulnerable and leaking tears and love. But these people, here? I don’t know these people at all.

And this is a fact, not an opinion: being vulnerable and open with people you don’t know and trust is stupid.

This is also a fact, not an opinion: The Artist’s Way exercises Julia is leading us through are useless unless one is stupid and open. I mean, vulnerable. Ugh.

I hate her. I wish I hadn’t come. Fine, Julia. I’m here. For you. My stupid list… numbered one to five. Things people in my family thought about Art. Imaginary lives. Things I’d do if I knew I didn’t have to do them perfectly. U-turns…

My first two clusters are marvelous. The women—the audience is 90 percent female, and also, 95, 99 per cent white, and this is sadly relevant—are all also open and vulnerable and loving. And so they set me up for what happens next.

Fine. No blame. I set myself up. I relax into the vulnerability. I start to feel safe.

Bam!

Julia says, she’s going to dictate some questions for us, and we are to answer them in our best Obi Wan Kenobi impersonation. I’m not a Star Wars fan, and while I know the difference between Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda (Yoda’s the green one, right?), I’m not sure which one of them it is who says, “There is no try. There is only do.” But I think that’s what she’s asking for. Right? Anyway. Jedi master advice to the Padawan. This much I know. Jedi, wise.

She dictates.

What do I need to do?

I write:

Write and build.

She says:

What do I need to try?

I write:

Rejuvenate, recharge, restart.

(I actually think, “I need to let go,” BUT I AM NOT LETTING GO OF ANYTHING, analyze that!)

Number three, says Julia:

What do I need to accept?

Motherhood is forever.

Corners of my eyes tingle, sting.

Number four:

What do I need to grieve?

I don’t want to do this fucking exercise.

But I write:

Loss of freedom. And time.

Tears stream down my face, hot and sticky.

Last one.

What do I need to celebrate?

This one’s hard. But I find the words.

Love. And my talent. I’m fucking amazing and I’m still here.

My face is wet, soaked when we break off into the clusters. Fuck you, Julia, I wasn’t quite ready for that. Fuck honesty. Sometimes, a little bit of distance and delusion is good. And now, in this state, I need to be with people? Why would you do this to me?

We’re a  group of four, a young stay-at-home mom, a woman who could either be my age or be a decade my senior, hard to tell, and a post-menopausal matriarch. And, me.

I want to stay to stay open, so I tell them the exercise really triggered me and I was crying and I pretty much can’t stop. They make supportive noises. We share our lists, without details, context, backstory. Then, the matriarch starts asking questions. Who, what, why. She likes to be in charge. The young stay-at-home mom says something about motherhood, challenges, sacrifices. “You will never regret this time,” the matriarch says authoritatively. “There is so much time to do everything you want after…” And she launches into the story her of her perfectly sequenced life.

I can’t bear it. Because sometimes there’s no time, there’s no more time. Sometimes, just as you think there’s more freedom, more time, everything comes crumbling down, and then what? Is it still worth it?

Right now, to be perfectly, brutally honest, I don’t know. I don’t know if it was worth it. Maybe I should have been more selfish, more focused on what I needed back then. I’ve lost so much time, I’m losing so much time now, I’m wasting the time I do have…

What happens when you find out there will not be more time, more freedom? And you will never get back what you lost, and you have to figure out how to work with what you have?

And what is it with this crap of telling women—sacrifice everything you are, everything you want now, because sometime in the future, when nobody needs you anymore, you can do the things that you…

Fuck that shit.

My tears come again. Hot.

What do I need to accept?

Motherhood is forever.

What do I need to grieve?

Loss of freedom. And time.

I don’t want to out Flora, her story, her struggle to strangers.

But they are looking at me, confused, but, I think, also, compassionate.

“I have a sick child,” I say by way of an inadequate explanation. “I don’t have more time, now, that she’s older. My challenge is to figure out how to work with the time I have.”

I don’t add that I’m having a really hard time making use of what time I do have. That I spent most of it exhausted, non-functional.

The matriarch looks at me. I don’t really expect words of wisdom. Just, what? Acknowledgment? That it’s hard.

“I know this couple,” she says. “Married thirty-two years. Never a cross word between.”

There’s no more to her story, although her mouth keeps on moving and she’s making words. I excuse myself and go cry in the washroom for a while.

I’m not angry. Just unsupported. And reminded that it is stupid to be vulnerable in front of strangers.

I recover sufficiently to be present and to listen to Julia. But I know that even though I carry out the exercises, between myself and the page, fairly honestly, I will not be naked to strangers again today.

This is not unfortunate. It’s smart, safe, necessary. Just as necessary as, when walking home late at night, choosing the well-lit paths or opting to call an Uber instead of taking a shortcut through the dark alley or ambush-point filled urban park.

The next point of pain comes during the Q&A on Morning Pages. The Morning Pages, if you’re not an Artist’s Way acolyte, are the primary tool Julia gives us for creative recovery—and perseverance. Three pages, written in longhand, first thing in the morning. Other than those guidelines, anything goes.

In my Morning Pages, I often tell Julia she’s an idiot and this is a stupid exercise, and surely there’s a more productive, creative, enjoyable way with which to start my mornings?

But it’s been more than five years now and I’ve missed perhaps five days. The Morning Pages have given me three novels. Renegotiated most of my existing relationships, opened me to new ones. They are saving me, keeping me anchored to life and why I want to live it during this latest, shittiest chapter of my life.

They work.

They work, very very well, for writers.

Julia prescribes them for everyone.

The question, asked by a woman I don’t really see, but the top of whose head suggests she might have African roots, is this:

“The Morning Page tool is so powerful. But it’s all about writing. Is there way for people or cultures without writing traditions, to use it?

Julia answers it like a 71-year-old white woman.

The first part of her answer is ok. She says that she’s a writer and she comes at this process from that lens and she doesn’t have any experience elsewhere.

Would that she just stopped there, it would be ok.

But she doesn’t. Her next sentiment, communicated as much by tone as actual words, comes across as, “I’m not interested in making my tools work for non-writing cultures.”

Bang. Ouch. Wah.

I can’t tell if the woman asking the question is African or indigenous—she’s far, the room is crowded, I’m blind (I meet her later, she’s a Canadian with Jamaican parentage), but OMFG, Julia, how could you?

Well.

She’s no goddess, she’s no hero, she’s blinded by her class and her privilege, and she’s a product of her time.

She’s also a product of her culture, which has over-privileged writing as a cultural and communication form almost since it invented it.

And it’s so weird, really if you think about it at all.

This urge to write shit down. Not even important shit. Just… anything that happens to you. Or crosses your mind. Imagined shit. Stories about robots and unicorns and alternate universes. Murders that didn’t happen. Love affairs that go right or wrong—but that don’t actually exist.

How weird is that?

Nothing natural, inevitable about any of it, right?

What would all we writers be doing if we were born into a pre-literate age?

We would be… story tellers. Song makers. Poem reciters.

Writing is a tool, a technology, a cultural invention we use to express, communicate both the very mundane (“Sold three sheep for two wheat barrels”; “Pick up toilet paper and eggs on your way home, will you love?”) and the absolutely divine…

“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”

― Rumi (Coleman Barks translation)

The Morning Pages are magical for writers. My non-writing son finds a similar peace and cleansing when he runs. His father finds it in meditation (which Cameron near-dismisses during the workshop, wilfully misunderstanding what it is that happens in meditation—“You meditate until you push the problem away,” she says—as most failed meditators and non-meditators do).

My great-grandmother found it in prayer or the rosary.

I find it in the Morning Pages.

But that doesn’t mean everyone will, everyone should.

Julia. You too old to be open-minded?

Sigh.

My last moment of pain comes when Julia wants to talk about God. She’s a highly spiritual person and this, and her highly personal relationship with an anthropomorphic God the Creator, God the Artist permeates all her work. It is another point of contention between us. I’ve had to “get over” Julia’s god thing to work through her books. Don’t laugh. It’s possible. You can read both the New Testament and the Q’ran for life lessons and reject the existence of both Jesus’s God the Father and Muhammad’s Allah. Ditto the Vedas and the Upanishads. You can learn from the Bhagavad Ghita without praying to Krishna, you know?

Siddhartha Gautama, the “first” Buddha, figured it out—he also realized the average person needs God and I don’t expect he’s surprised either by his own deification or the veneration of Boddhisatvas and statues that make some schools of Buddhism look as theatrical as Roman Catholicism. But I digress, yet again. Point: Julia loves God and trusts that he’s running the show.

I think it’s… well, now, occasionally, I think it’s nice. Why not? Whatever gets you through the days and keeps you sober. But I can’t join her there. Not even because, Syrian civil war, genocide in Rwanda, the Jewish Holocaust, and also, the disease my daughter is battling. Just because… it seems so infantile.

Fake.

In the workshop, we first deconstruct, as a group, the idea of god we grew up with. I’m silent. I’ve put the pedophiliac “You are born in sin and you will die in sin” anthropomorphic, misogynist God the Father of my childhood religion away a long time ago. So I think, anyway. Many of the people in the group though had a similar experience. They share it. I don’t understand why anyone would worship, deify, believe in such an entity past the age of reason. Well. I do. Children are impressionable, life is uncertain.

Worship is seductive.

 

Next, Julia wants us to construct a joyous God the Creator, God the Artist. “What sort of God do you, as an artist, want?” she asks. “Let’s make him!” The room enters into the exercise enthusiastically. I’m silent again. I think making art to celebrate a thing that doesn’t exist is, while not as evil as making war in the name of a thing that doesn’t exist (“She was a virgin mother!” “No, she wasn’t!” “He was the son of God!” “No, he was just a prophet of God!”) is just as pointless.

But because I’m not busy building false deity, I am looking inward, and when I look inward, the “Why? to what purpose?” question inevitably looms large.

And because “it’s god’s plan” is not an answer available to me, I must find the answer myself, in myself.

This is hard to do when one is empty…

Julia ends the section, and the workshop, by asking us to first, write a letter from ourselves to this god we create, and then a response from him. (Yes, it’s a him. Of course, no gender neutral pronouns for Julia. We don’t get into it. But I feel we would fight about that too. Anyway, I don’t think she’s thought about it very deeply. Her god has a definite, also material penis. Or so I think as I seethe at her. I told you. I don’t like her. This is not a hagiography.)

At the beginning of the workshop, she introduces us to two characters who will accompany us on the journey, the Tyrant and the Rebel.

The Tyrant is also, I think, the Inner Critic. My Aunt Augusta. “Your list of five imaginary lives is so stupid.” “See, you couldn’t come up with 25 things that you love. I knew you wouldn’t be able to do it, because you suck. You’re stupid.”

The Rebel says, “The teacher is so stupid. Why is she making us do this shit?”

My Rebel is rising, but as I have done since I’ve first started working with Julia five years ago, I acknowledge that she, the Rebel, is absolutely right—but we’re going to do this stupid exercise anyway.

I write:

Dear Creativity God,

You don’t exist because, well, you don’t. I don’t believe in you, or ghosts. But Julia Cameron exists—she is very real, right here, and I believe in her. And in myself. And I believe—most of the time—that my urge to create, to write, to put all these stories down on paper is a worthwhile one. It’s important to bear witness. To document.

Look at that. This is how Jesus and the Buddha became gods.

Julia calls time. Now, it’s time for the Creativity God to write back.

Jesus.

For three minutes, I need to write in the voice of something I don’t believe in, that doesn’t exist. Fun.

Fine.

When I commit to doing something, I do it.

I write.

Yes, M., you’re absolutely right. It’s important to bear witness, to document, to interpret, even. How did you put it in that love letter to your crew? To make sense of the world and share it with other people. Not everyone can see either the whole, or the unique angle with which you can illuminate the most ordinary experience. And so, yes. Believe in your urge and in yourself and in its value. Believing in me is not necessary. Unlike Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, I exist whether you believe in me or not.

Well, fuck what the hell is this?

I hate Julia Cameron.

I love Julia Cameron.

Both statements are true. That’s dialectics, that’s where all the best ideas happen.

(Note to self: re-read American Gods soon. I love Neil Gaiman. But it’s his wife Amanda Palmer who is, occasionally, my teacher.)

We give Julia Cameron a standing ovation to close the day and then, I end up at dinner with three other fascinating attendees, including the woman who asked the question about non-literate people and cultures. (She’s brilliant, Julia, working on a doctorate on how we can use art to heal trauma—you really should have paid more attention to what was behind her question).

We de-brief, dissect. I am very pleased to find myself talking with critical thinkers, not mindless acolytes.

I love Julia, I hate Julia—I think the reason my work with The Artist’s Way has been so fruitful for me is because I fight with Julia, argue with her almost every step of the way. Resist and then surrender, for a little while. Fight some more, grow some more.

She is my most beloved Teacher.

Thank you, Janice Sarich, for giving me this time with her.

xoxo

“Jane”

PS In case you forgot where we started: John Cleese + Sherlock Holmes = The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It (1977). Give it at least 13 minutes before giving up. The 1970s were a different time: people still expected/accepted awkward foreplay in their books and films.

Finding Water, grateful for Julia Cameron, kinda whiny anyway

I’m re-reading Julia Cameron’s Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance, one of her “sequels,” if I can be permitted to call them that, to her revolutionary creative recovery program, The Artist’s Way. I have a cynical suspicion that both Finding Water (2006) and its predecessor Walking in the World (2003)—as well as Cameron’s myriad The Artist’s Way spin-offs, including The Prosperous Heart (2012), The Artist’s Way for Parents (2014), It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again (2016)—were written more at the behest of her publisher than her muse. “Julia!” I imagine the publisher saying. “We need The Artist’s Way 2!” “But I said all I have to say on this in the last book!” Julia protests. “Julia! The people want—need—more! Also, money!” And she sighs, and she looks at her 12-week structure, and she thinks, sure, I can come up with another variant of this, and she writes. And writes some more…

What you need to know: Neither Finding Water nor Walking in the World are nearly as good or life-changing as The Artist’s Way. Because she did give it all away in that first one: the “sequels” are just refinements. Not as good, not as profound. And yet, I re-read both every couple of years as part of my The Artist’s Way refresher. And when I do, I always find something “new,” something I need to hear, learn, affirm at that particular joint in my artistic journey, personal life.

And on this week’s trip with Julia Cameron—the woman who, six, seven years ago now, gave me permission to think of myself as an artist, and what a frightening thought that was—I find Julia’s mid-life insecurities reassuring. I love reading about her sudden foray into music and piano lessons at age 45. Her attempt to stage musicals in New York City in her fifties. I’m not clear if they’re successful or not. I rather think they’re not, or she’d give me the happy ending now, wouldn’t she? Or is she holding it back so that I value the process regardless of what happened to the final product?

When I teach writing (or marketing, for that matter), I draw on a lot of Julia’s ideas, and I’ve read and re-read her so many times now that you’d think nothing would be new… But today, this, if not new, is necessary, and it lifts my heart. Julia says:

One of the greatest disservices we can do to ourselves as artists is to make our work too special and too different from everybody else’s work. To the degree to which we can normalize our day, we have a chance to be both productive and happy. Let us say, as is often the case, we are resistant to getting down to work. We have a choice. We can buy into our resistance—Writer’s block! Painter’s block!—or we can simply say, “I don’t feel like working today, and I’ll bet an awful lot of other people are in the same boat.”

I don’t feel like working today.

I don’t feel like dealing with my shitty first drafts or my marketing analysis or my synopsis or anything, and OMFG, the taxes, I don’t want to do that either. My process for today, I decide, is going to be reading Julia. Because, today, I need to read about how on some days (months) she doesn’t feel like working (more than 20 books later), I love reading about her shitty first drafts, and agent’s rejections of her novels. This is Julia-fucking-Cameron, after all, author of The Artist’s Way, the former Mrs. Martin Scorsese, if anyone should have people beating a path to her door for a book, any book, surely it should be her—how many copies of The Artist’s Way has she sold? (Four million, at 2016, and she still can’t place every novel.)

I find this reassuring. Not because Julia’s suffered and struggled—if I could take that away from her, from anyone, I would. It’s just… reaffirming. Nobody’s entitled to success, fame, an easy ride, an easy second or seventeenth contract. We do the work… because we must do the work.

I’m corrupting young minds part-time these days, teaching journalism courses at a post-secondary institution to “aspiring” writers, artists, photographers, journalists. I’m giving them all I’ve got a la Annie Dillard, although sometimes, I worry I’m teaching skills as obsolete and unvalued as typewriter repair. I hope the core of what I’m giving them is still valid. They want to know how I built a freelance career, and most of what I did, had to do, could do, doesn’t precisely apply to them. But this does—I sent out 97 pitches before I sold my first story.

…spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Their reaction to this story—most are horrified—tells me what their odds of succeeding are in whatever career or artistic path they choose.

Perseverance. How hard are you willing to work for this thing you love?

My industry has always been an industry of attrition. We the survivors, the “success” stories? In some ways, we’re the idiots who persevere well past the point of reason.

One of my favourite things about re-reading The Artist’s Way and Finding Water etc. are the encounters with the quotes Julia (I feel we’re on a first-name basis now, it’s been so many years) sprinkles in the margins. It’s here that I first “heard” George Nathan say that “Art is the sex of the imagination,” and Irving Layton assert that “If poetry is like an orgasm, an academic can be likened to someone who studies the passion stains on the bedsheets.”

Yesterday, I read this:

It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else.

John Cage

Where I am right now is not awesome. Irritating doesn’t begin to describe it. The family therapist, who is part of Flora’s ever-growing medical team, and whose job, I think, is to medicate me without drugs—although, really, I keep on waiting for her to give me a marijuana prescription, it’s the most useful thing she could do, except, of course, she doesn’t need to, I can just go to the Co-op and get it—well, except that weed isn’t really my thing, but, OMFG, every time I think about the family therapist, I want to get stoned, where was I? The family therapist tells me not to think of this time as the new normal. She says this is still the crisis, a stage, things will get better. Also, things have been much—much—worse. She counsels… hope, and focusing on the future.

I wish I could fire her. I’m not sure if she’s incompetent or if I’m just being obtuse. But I can’t live on hope. I can’t endure today simply by thinking that tomorrow—next month—next year—2024—will be easier, better, more functional.

Thich Nhat Hahn—my favourite monk—and the Jewish Buddhists I read (seriously, so many of the modern American Buddhist teachers come from the Jewish tradition—why is that? I should find out) want me to be able to enjoy the sun on my skin, the beauty of a flower—Flora’s excited smile as she puts together her Pastel Goth wardrobe for high school. And I do. This, right now, is a happy moment. Unfortunately, odds are pretty good it will be followed by an hour in hell, and that hell is not all in my head, fuck you, Bodhisattva Junior.

Breathe.

When the hours in hell outnumber the happy moments by a substantial factor, I dream of running away, and I apply for a job in Dubai, an arts residency in the mountains.

You: Yeah, what happened with that?

Jane: Didn’t get the job in Dubai. Got the arts residency.

I am very excited about the residency. But I’m also aware that the 12 days in the fall that I will spend away from the demands of my life, while giving me time for focused work and, also, uninterrupted sleep, will not change anything, in the present, in the long term. In fact, they can damage the work I need to do in the present. “I can suffer now, I can sacrifice now, because I get those 12 days soon!”

This is the way most people think about their shitty jobs and vacations.

This is not the way I want to live my life.

Neither does Julia. In the week of Finding Water I’m reading now, her doctor notes that she’s tired and recommends renting a cabin in the country for the summer, so she can get away from it all and write.

I didn’t want to rent a cabin in the country; I wanted to write right where I was, smack in the middle of New York City. I wanted to write about the excitement of the flower district, the garment district, the antique district. I wanted to write about exactly where I was planted, in the rich soil of a bustling metropolis. I wanted to write, period.

I had a lust to simply lay some track, to put some words to my experience, to try to achieve an optimistic balance by putting things onto the page.

I must be serene in the place where I am planted.

Me too, Julia, me too. (No hashtag.)

So, I’m trying to figure it out. To make the present inhabitable, fulfilling. So many things completely beyond my control and unpredictable. What can I change, affect? What anchors, routines, predictability can I create? Where can I thrive?

I’ve kept writing in the mornings, my Morning Pages as Julia taught me in The Artist’s Way all those years ago. (Six years now? Seven?) Trying to jump from the pages to creative, constructive work when the mornings are calm. But life does not always allow this, and I cannot pressure myself. “I must set my own gentle pace,” Cameron writes in Finding Water. Something else, someone else is setting my pace. I must accept it and work with it. Not hope that tomorrow, maybe, next month, maybe, for fuck’s sake, next year, surely, will be better.

What can I do today?

Sometimes, only the basics. Morning pages, Flora’s current morning routine, Ender’s breakfast, potato chips and pickles for lunch. A meditation session that turns into a nap, because, interrupted sleep. Apologies to the dog for not taking her out for a walk—ok, fine, five minutes, to the end of the alley and back, hey, we did it!

Sometimes, a 12-hour marathon. I try to take Saturdays away, mini-arts residencies, maxi-Artist’s Dates. Sometimes, work, work, work, work, and I am so happy—fucking family therapist and her bubble baths as self-care suggestions—just because she hates her job, can she not imagine that what I want, more than anything, is more time for mine?

Sometimes, silence.

Today, a few hours with Julia.

Julia says,

When joy is elusive, we must actively seek it out. We must put ourselves with people and things that bring us delight. Sometimes, when we are at our most depressed, it can be difficult to even recall the joys in life. It is for this reason , that one more time we must take pen in hand. Turning to the page, number from one to fifty. Now list fifty things which you love.

Do it.

xoxo

“Jane”

PS If you’re in yeg or yyc or thereabouts, Julia Cameron is coming to Edmonton on October 5! Of course I’m going.

TICKETS HERE

PS2 Here’s a recent New Yorker article on Julia Cameron’s utility to 20-somethings in an age of self-promotion:
https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-artists-way-in-an-age-of-self-promotion

PS3 And here’s a recent New York Times article on Cameron, kinda an overview/homage:
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/02/style/julia-cameron-the-artists-way.html

If any of my students are reading this, and you’ve clicked on the above article and read it, please note: if you ever write a sentence like this:

“On a recent snowy afternoon, Ms. Cameron, who has enormous blue eyes and a nimbus of blonde hair, admitted to the jitters before this interview.”

I will fail your ass. Today’s lesson. WTF, NYT?

The cage is will, the lock is discipline (Week 14: Up and Down)

monday

… started and ended in tears, but in-between, it was a good, good day. It flowed. Isn’t that kind of amazing?

tuesday

… was a hard day. I struggled—to focus, to breathe, to do. I took Ender swimming, drank in his joy. Made a good supper. Struggled. If you ask me about what, why—I can’t even really tell you. It was just a hard, hard day.

I’m reading Natalie Goldberg’s The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag life. Also, Karen S. Wiesner’s Writing the Fiction Series and Jesse Warren Tevelow’s Authorpreneur.

Meh. I don’t know.

Mostly, I think despite writing about them for the better part of two decades… I’m not an entrepreneur. And I’m not an entertainer either.

I’m not so sure, today, Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way Koolaid notwithstanding, that I am an artist.

Who am I?

Natalie is writing… memoir. Again. As always. I lie in memoir. Again, as always. So I suspect everyone else does too. But maybe she doesn’t. Maybe it’s all true. Maybe she really remembers things like this… (She doesn’t. It’s all story. I know.)

But—there are some true things there. She really loves, loves, loves some of the places she has lived in. Taos, New Mexico in particular. (She writes as if she loves them—which is more or less the same thing, as far as the reader and posterity and manufactured history is concerned.)

I wonder what it would be like to really love… a place.

I don’t love my city. I don’t mind it. Sometimes (not in February or March, or this fucking snowy April, why?), I like it, a lot.

And I love my tiny little patch of it, my Sunnyhill, my hill, this bit of river, wilderness, the Common, my weed patch.

But this city? Not so much. Have I loved any place I’ve ever lived?

I tell people I loved Montreal. But I didn’t, not really.

Today, I don’t love anything. It’s one of those days.

Struggling.

The day will end.

Maybe, as it ends, in the end, I will love. Or. Cry.

Sleep. Will Wednesday be better?

wednesday

yes.

thursday

Thursday starts with a disappointment. No, that’s not quite true: Thursday starts with my morning pages, this habit Julia Cameron inculcated in me about four years ago now. And say what you will about Julia (there are moods in which no one is more critical of her than I), in the four years since I’ve been doing morning pages, I’ve written four novels, dozens if not hundreds of poems, and my creative non-fiction output has been… beyond steady.

So Thursday morning starts with my morning pages. Then the disappointment. I text you to share it—Julia taught me that too. Before her, I used to suffer alone and be proud of it. You say, this time, all the right things. Almost.

You: What did I do wrong this time?

Jane: It doesn’t matter. You tried.

You offer to come over, to offer solace in person. I refuse. I don’t want you to hold my hand while I weep. I don’t even want to weep. I have plans for the day—a routine and tasks—and I don’t want them derailed by a text, an unplanned disappointment… or even your visit.

When I make decisions like this, you sometimes think I don’t love you. It’s not that at all. It’s just that… I know I have to follow my schedule, my planned rhythm. Today HAD to be a work day. I am two weeks, more, behind because of my illness. So. Thursday, I work. I am disciplined, and that soothes me much more than talking with you about what sucks would.

In the granola-New Age-voodoo circles that I move in, people place a high value on flexibility and spontaneity. They equate them with creativity and freedom, and they define freedom as lack of structure, lack of planning, lack of… routine.

I value freedom too. But I define it different. Not as a lack of constraint or structure. Nor as chaos. Freedom is… the freedom to do the work, live the life I want to live—the passion I want to embody.

And that kind of freedom requires discipline.

Internal discipline. Self-discipline.

My self-discipline manifests in routines, rituals, commitments to self… and following through on those commitments.

I like a touch of chaos, too, of course. There is a lot of chaos, creativity, unpredictability in my life. But what makes my life and its creative chaos possible—makes me thrive in it—is routine and discipline.

Morning pages. Coffee. Work sprint one—do day’s critical task here. Breakfast. Shower. Meditation. Reading with Ender. Work sprint two, the less-creative-but-necessary-task—these are the anchors of my morning, the building blocks of my morning routine. They make it possible for me to be FREE to take two hours of the middle of my afternoon to go to the Y, to my culty yoga… or to spend the afternoon smoking sheesha and staring out a window… Return to chores, kids,  and work sprint three (mundane tasks) in the hours that abut prepping supper or cleaning up after it.

Flora’s martial class, three times a week. Chore? No. Routine. Focused one-on-one time with my girl—sometimes all she gets from me, that time in the car, but sometimes, that’s all she wants, needs. And for me: an hour and a half, every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday to write-read-proof-reflect.

The Y on Monday and Friday, Kundalini yoga on Wednesday and Saturday.

Anchors.

Have you noticed, though, that when people say, “You’re so disciplined!” it’s this odd compliment? They’re not sure if they’re giving you (me) a compliment… or telling you (me) that you’re boring.

Freedom to do what you want, if you what you end up doing is squandering your time and passion and talent, is worthless.

You:  I’m not mad you didn’t want to see me on Thursday.

Jane: Good.

What was this little segue about?

Disappointment. Discipline.

Routine.

Freedom.

interlude: The Great Spring

It will not stop snowing in Calgary—no one has told the weather gods that it’s April and for fuck’s sake, enough with the unique snowflakes, give us some boring, same-everyday sun and some green grass and leaves and shit, will you?

I’m still reading Natalie Goldberg’s The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and the Zig Zag of Life.

I start reading it on Monday, and it disappoints me. I don’t like it. I bitch to Sean about how all Natalie knows to write is these stupid memoir vignettes (and who wants to read those?), self-indulgent blog posts really (shut up), and who is she to be a writing teacher anyway? She’s only written one novel. And nobody’s read it. It’s probably bad.

Sean shuts me down. Not intentionally—I think he’s a) trying to be fair to the Great Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones who changed the way writing is taught in North America and b) trying to redirect me from what we both know is a destructive unproductive place: envy, resentment, anger, defensiveness, insecurity.

I turn my anger and resentment towards him and to go bed crying. And hating Natalie and the literary establishment that made her god. With only one crappy novel under her belt.

But I keep on reading the book.

I finish it on Wednesday, and by Thursday, I think it’s good. I also realize that for Natalie, writing is not what it is for me. It is, in the end, a spiritual practice for her. Another way of reaching Zen. Enlightenment. Ironically—for one who is a writing teacher—writing is not really about communicating. Sharing with an audience. That purpose of writing is, to Natalie Goldberg, secondary.

But I think our commitment to practice—writing practice—is similar. In one of the closing chapters of the book, “Lost Purse,” students ask Natalie for… what else, the secret to writing.

The students say:

“I have to be trust myself!”

“I have to have courage.”

“Speak from my heart.”

“Know myself!”

Natalie sighs.

Crinkles her nose.

“No. No. No. Not even close. It’s not about how you feel.”

“You. Have. To. Pick. Up. The pen—and write. Just. Write.”

“For years, that’s all I’ve been saying. If it’s hot out, write in the heat. If it’s cold, pull on a sweater and write. … Act. … Writing doesn’t ask you to be any different from who you are right now. Not better. Not more.”

Pa-dum-pam.

friday

I finally feel myself. Awake. Mind sharp. My faith in my capabilities mostly back. My demons, caged.

Funny, you know, I use a few metaphors with my demons—in all of them, they are contained. Not banished. Not invisible—I am not safe when I can’t see them. No, I’m safest and happiest when they’re caged—not lurking in the shadows of the edges of my consciousness. Caged, contained—the cage is my will. They exist. I acknowledge them. I see them—I put them in the cage. The lock on the cage, what is it?

I suppose it’s discipline.

Back to discipline again.

Such a loaded word these days. Perhaps it always was.

I often wonder—is it an innate quality or something that needs to be—that can be—cultivated? When does discipline—of the self—morph into self-repression? Or inflexible near-OC behaviour?

Why am I thinking about this?

I guess because I’m planning, effectively, a 31-month—33? maybe 36 actually… fuck, my math sucks, probably even more… 40?—a 31+ month experiment that will require more sustained discipline than I’ve deployed in my life for a while. Can I do it?

Sean says cautious things.

Jane: You don’t think I can do it.

Sean: That is not what I said!

Ok. It isn’t. But that’s what I heard. And it’s fair. What I’m planning is bigger, x7, and longer, x10, and scarier, and harder than all the crazy shit I’ve done so far, and it requires a tenfold leap of faith and…

You: Can you just tell us what you’re planning?

Jane: No. I don’t want your advice. God knows I don’t need a reality check. Or input from—excuse me—lay people. Full of opinions but no experience.

You: What are you saying?

Jane: Your opinion and input will carry no weight with me.

You: Bitch.

Jane: And I can’t afford to be infected by your fear or doubt.

You: Like I said—bitch.

Whatever. I prefer… self-aware.

speaking of self-aware

I’m taking a course that requires me to take the Myers-Briggs / Jungian personality test.

I come out an almost perfect midline personality (I’m also, btw, on every test I’ve ever taken, 51/49 right-brained and left-brained):

  • Introverted (I) 61.11% Extroverted (E) 38.89%
  • Intuitive (N) 53.66% Sensing (S) 46.34%
  • Feeling (F) 55.88% Thinking (T) 44.12%
  • Judging (J) 53.33% Perceiving (P) 46.67%

Except, as you see, the introvert is in some ascendance over the extrovert. (If you want to take the free version of the test, btw, here ya go: http://similarminds.com/jung_old.html

Jung, by the way, coined the terms Introvert and Extrovert, as well as synchronicity. Jung was an introvert, and Freud was an extrovert, and there you probably have the root cause of their break-up.

All week, I’m reading The Introverted Entrepreneur: Amplify Your Strengths and Create Success On Your Own Terms by Beth L. Buelow.

This resonates:

Introverts are internal processors. Their primary source of information and point of reference comes from within themselves. This doesn’t mean that they are self-absorbed or oblivious to others: they simply rely first and foremost on their inner thoughts to guide them. … When an introvert receives information, she takes it in and flips it around in her mind until it’s right side up enough to be shared with the world.

I’m not always an introvert. But I’m always an internal processor.

Sean: I know.

(He’s not.)

I’m also reading Seth Godin’s We Are All Weird: The Rise of Tribes and the End of Normal

and I find myself thinking that, ultimately, there are two kinds of people. People obsessed with slotting everyone into Category A and Category B…

…and people who think Category A and Category B aren’t sufficient. Should we perhaps subdivide Category A into A1, A2, A3, A4 and so forth?

I want to be neither.

You: Unique snowflake.

Jane: I want to recognize and worship everyone as a unique snowflake.

You: That doesn’t sound like you.

Jane: You don’t really know me.

…the landscape of you and me

When I am still feeling ery said and sick and unsupported, I text with my friend the practicing Buddhist almost-monk. Er, nun. About life, sex, relationships, dharma.

She says:

“You’re brilliant and adorable and wonderful and everything is going to work out perfectly. Smooch snuggle kiss.”

And also:

“What would happen if there was nothing to fix, nothing wrong, nothing ‘fucking complicated’ about you?”

Jane: I would be terribly boring and that would be even worse.

Ego.

I want to be a unique snowflake.

Demons: You are utterly ordinary.

*I also take the DISC test. Here are my scores:

week versus day

When I am having a bad day, I will sigh and cry, “Will this day never end!” And, when it is a very very bad day (like the Wednesday of Week 12), I will actually go into bed, turn off the lights, pull the covers over my head, and wait for the day to be over.*

*I have three children, of course, so this is generally a figurative rather than a literal act.

When it’s a bad week… month… you can’t do that.

Anyway. It wasn’t a bad week. Or even a rough week. It just had some… you know. Rough spots. Bad thoughts.

You: And that disappointment.

Jane: It’s all good. I’m already over that. It’s Sunday.

I was happy on Wednesday. Productive on Thursday and Friday. Playful among all the chores on Saturday.

But I’m looking forward to Monday. My mini New Year. Blank slate.

kids report

I do want to tell you that this week, I was a very present mother and I experienced minimal guilt. Ender and I read every day—with a view to him mastering the art, not just at bedtime. I sprayed Bactine on Flora’s had when she cut it falling down in the alley and I paid attention to her fully when I played her chauffeur. I encouraged Cinder to NOT rush into his math test until he understood the material, and I helped him figure out how to identify the range of a quadratic equation (thank you, Khan Academy, fuck you, official math textbook). Ender and I went swimming, too. Everyone seems happy, thriving.

Can I sustain THAT for 31-36-40 months?

Maybe.

And I can’t start until I believe the answer is yes.

You: Idiot.

Jane: Shut up.

You: Also, hypocrite.

Jane: Fuck off.

I know… I know… the secret. Chunk it. Think in segments. Days—weeks—months (hours and minutes). Chapters—scenes—paragraphs—sentences—words.

Buildings blocks.

But I need to see and trust and commit to the big picture.

You: Well, I think you should…

Jane: Shut up. I did tell you, did I not? I don’t want your advice.

I’m just sharing some of doubt and process and demons because I’m tired of you thinking I have no feelings.

But that’s another story.

Ender: Mama! Tortilla?

Sigh.

Jane: Coming.

It’s the sixth cheese tortilla I’m making him today…

i’m hungry

When Flora says “I’m bored,” she means her demons are rattling the cage and she needs to be held and loved and told she exists and is an important, unique snowflake.

Ender’s code phrase is “I’m hungry.” When he says he’s hungry, he means “I need you to show me that I’m important to you and that you will take care of me.”

So while, when Flora says, “I’m hungry,” I can tell her to eat an apple or go scavenge in the fridge, when Ender says, “I’m hungry,” I have to make him the fucking tortilla.

And not grumble if he doesn’t eat it all.

It’s sort of a metaphor.

These days, though, he’s going through a growth spurt, so he eats most of the love I make for him.

When Cinder experience existential angst, he punches holes in the walls, runs up and down the hallway, or throws himself on the floor and cries.

He’s the kid I understand best.

(I leave it to you to slot us into the Introvert/Extrovert categories if you like)

I love them all so much it hurts.

speaking of pain

I’m now 100% sure the Buddha was wrong about pain, suffering, and desire. Cowardly rather than enlightened, actually. So is that… a meditation fail? Or my own enlightenment?

lifestyle

Sean’s trying to diplomatically describe to Flora why we don’t spend a lot of time with a family with whom it would be… convenient, let us say, for us to have more of a relationship with.

Sean: In case you haven’t noticed, they don’t really share our hippie lifestyle.

Flora: Wait. We’re hippies?

Sean: The only reason we don’t live in a tent on Vancouver Island and shit in a hole in the woods is because I’m here.

Jane: Hey!

Flora: OMG, you’re right. I never thought about it. If it was up to Mom, we’d be like Pippa’s family and travel around the world in a camper van, wouldn’t we?

Ok, so that’ s been my dream since I’ve been, like, 12, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to make it happen with them for years, and those three months in Cuba were the closest I managed to come to it, and…

Flora: I love you so much, Dad.

Jane: Hey!

Flora: I love you too, Mom. But you know what else I love?

Cinder: Toilet paper and flushing toilets?

Flora: Word.

Ungrateful bastards. (For context, see POSTCARDS FROM CUBA)

saturday

On Saturday, a stranger from Egypt helps me articulate an odd truth about myself,* we put together Cinder’s bed,** and Sean and I take a trip to the 1920s, where I taste Virginia Woolf (she’s too sweet, I tell the bartender, and he sours her with a twist of lemon) and Sean puts Daisy Buchanan to his lips.

*It’s not an epiphany, exactly, but it’s this…

You: Another thing you’re not going to share?

Jane: No, you can hear this one.

I don’t expect people to be there tomorrow.

Ponder the implications of that for a minute or two…

**When I say we… I guess I really mean Sean and Cinder, although I helped carry things up and down the stairs, and cleaned the gooey corners in the teenager’s room.

Also, there was this:

Cinder: Mom! We lost a dowel! Where is it?

Seriously. How the fuck should I know?

But. Here’s the thing:

Jane: It fell on the second landing—I’ve put it in your room on the Lego shelf next to the castle!

Also, this:

Sean: We need the vacuum cleaner!

Jane: It’s broken! Broom?

Sean: No! Gum and a pencil!

I’ll leave the “why” to your very capable inference capabilities.

i really said this to my son

Jane: While you’re up and I’m here sitting on my ass, could you get me my Guinness from the fridge?

Cinder: Doesn’t it have wheat it in?

Jane: It’s my binge day.

Cinder: Isn’t it illegal for me to get you alcohol?

Jane: I can’t send you to the liquor store to buy me beer. I can send you to the fridge.

Cinder: It still sounds sketchy.

Jane: For fuck’s sake just get me my beer!

sunday

I know exactly what I want.

And how to get it.

Oh, if only I could package that feeling in a pill, tonic, or mantra…

xoxo

“Jane”

PS This week, I’d like to give the last word to Seth Godin. Two non-sequiturs, but they connect dots for me:

“Some people are more comfortable believing that there are no edges, that everywhere is like it is right here. That they are normal, that everyone is normal, and that ignorance is bliss. If everyone could just be normal (like them), they’d be happier.”

“I’m running out of patience for people who would further their personal or media goals by dividing us in exchange for a cheap point or a few votes. If members of a tribe encourage schisms and cheer on the battles, is it any wonder that it’s hard to create forward motion? When we’re not in sync, power is dissipated.”

Seth Godin, We are All Weird: The Rise of Tribes and the End of Normal

2018

The year started with a Monday; so does every week (Week 1: Transitions and Intentions)

Easier than you think, harder than I expected: a week in eleven stanzas (Week 2: Goodness and Selfishness)

A moody story (Week 3: Ebb and Flow)

Do it full out (Week 4: Passions and Outcomes)

The Buddha was a psychopath and other heresies (Week 5: No Cohesion)

A good week (Week 6: Execute, Regroup)

Killing it (Week 7: Exhaustion and Adrenaline)

Tired, petty, tired, unimportant (Week 8: Disappointment and Perseverance)

Professionals do it like this: [insert key scene here] (Week 9: Battle, Fatigue, Reward)

Reading Nabokov, crying, whining, regrouping (Week 10: Tears and Dreams)

Shake the Disease (Week 11: Sickness and Health… well, mostly sickness)

Cremation, not embalming, but I think I might live after all (Week 12: Angst and Gratitude)

Let’s pretend it all does have meaning (Week 13: Convalescence and Rebirth)

—->>>POSTCARDS FROM CUBA

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