Lorri Neilsen Glenn
Every so often something shatters like ice, and we are in the river of our existence. We are aware. –Louise Erdrich
Why do I write? I think it’s because writing forces me to pay attention. The worn decals on the repairman’s flatbed truck, a grimace on the face of the young mother struggling to lift the rain-soaked stroller into the bus, the nest of tubes hooked up to my mother’s arm in the ER. These moments of human despair, joy, resilience and triumph are atoms in our macrocosm, ordinary stardust, according to theoretical physicists--and, of course, Joni Mitchell. They’re the basic stuff of life. Paying attention, according to philosopher and activist Simone Weil, is the purest form of generosity.
When I turn the pen inward, paying attention to my own responses to losses or grief or perplexity, I am buoyed by the revelations; buoyed, that is, until the words begin to ask me uncomfortable questions. Who do you think you are? What have you learned? Are there other perspectives you’re not listening to?
Or, as Lee Maracle says: Where do you begin telling someone their world is not the only one?
When I read poetry and prose, I am, to paraphrase the Brazilian activist Paulo Freire, reading worlds. I’m in the hold of the ship with Aminata Diallo, at the Colonel’s table with Carolyn Forché as ears fall to the floor, walking in the reserve’s graveyard with Louise Bernice Halfe.
I linger inside the richness of another universe, admire the exquisite workings of the human imagination.
Reading can challenge me, but writing seems to ask more. If I truly attend to what’s going on around me, my assumptions will be pried apart and I’ll be pushed into uncertain territory. Most writers know this uncertainty. And, as Pema Chödrön says: Sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos.
And, lately, that’s where my mind is: in chaos. Climate disasters, political goat rodeos (as one wag put it), shootings, unsafe water in countless Indigenous communities, the volume of the abhorrent and absurd raising higher and higher. Add to those the cold breath of mortality—time is short. If it’s critical that I pay attention now, and I believe it is, how much attention -- and to what -- is too much? too little?
Chaos finds me measuring out my life in the online equivalent of Eliot’s coffee spoons. My mind floods with inchoate fury at another incidence of violence against women, BIPOC and non-binary people; erasures of whole communities; and the rising tide of everyday mean-spiritedness and injustice. I am over aware.
And torn: the written word seems impotent.
Yet more necessary than ever.
Enter the uncomfortable questions. Who needs your privileged tears? Yes, you’re mortal, so where will you focus your efforts? Why can’t you, like the inimitable Diane Lockhart advises, work on keeping your own little corner sane?
Albert Einstein was right: The only thing that can defeat absurdity is lucidity.
I admire writers who overcome their uncertainties and work their way through chaos. I’ll start with Einstein’s word, lucidity –a word whose origins refer to light.
Simone Weil said only beauty and affliction can pierce the human heart. When I first began to write, I felt that truth in my bones. If I can step away from the clamorous racket around me, if I am to effect any change or wrest any beauty out of the goings-on in my corner, I have to return to the elemental, to small illuminations, seek meaning again in particulars. My Métis grandmother’s enigmatic smile in the last and only family photograph. The frenzy of gulls behind my neighbour’s fishing boat, returning home.
Word by word by word by uncertain word.
Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s latest book is Following the River: Traces of Red River Women (Wolsak and Wynn), a multi-genre memoir about her Cree and Métis grandmothers and their contemporaries. Professor Emerita at the Mount, Lorri is the author and editor of fourteen titles, and her award-winning poetry and prose are widely anthologized. Lorri has led writing workshops across Canada, and in Chile, Ireland, Australia and Greece. She teaches in The University of King’s College MFA program in creative nonfiction. @neilsenglenn