Beyond happy

SONY DSC

We spend a lot of time in search of happiness, which I define as a blissful state of satisfaction. Being happy makes everything a little easier—work, family, life—and even where there are hard tasks ahead, happiness seems to make them less daunting, less onerous, less tasking.

When I am happy, I can roll with whatever punches life throws at me, and nicely have found that life throws fewer punches when I am happy.

And although not perfectly so, I find happiness is infectious. When I exude happiness, I am no longer perceived as a threat to those around me and therefore allow others to stay in their own happy place, or in some cases, make it easier for them to experience happiness.

alison_me

Although happiness may initially have an external source or motivation—a job you love, good friends—it is very internal. It is a state you choose to be in. And any external impact it has is purely passive; a choice others make in its presence.

Thus, I believe, there is another level beyond happiness that is more active, more empowering, and if taken wrong, possibly more intimidating.

Joy.

Where happiness is about contentment, satisfaction and peace, joy is the embodiment of love, laughter, engagement and play. Joy takes happiness and dials it up to 11.

me-and-duke-1

Joy is the ultimate expression of freedom, and as such, it cannot be easily contained. It exudes from every pore, every movement, every thought. It is an aura that precedes your entrance into any space and remains a gleeful echo long after you have moved on.

Joy changes how we see the world around us, finding glimmers of light in even the darkest of moments. It is not about self-delusion or selective memory, but rather a complete reframing of the question of the moment.

Like happiness, joy is a choice we make as individuals. But it is a more difficult choice to maintain because it ultimately demands an expanded consciousness to what is around us and an eternal openness to the possibilities in life.

agah-me

As such, joy demands more faith than happiness, which is more easily rationalized.

Happiness, when you choose it, makes sense. Joy doesn’t have to make sense. And perhaps, the less sense joy makes, the more joyful it is.

To embrace the irrational is to truly be open to the possible.

Because it is difficult or impossible to suppress joy—not sure I know why you would want to—joy can be seen as obnoxious or intrusive to those who have yet to find their happiness or joy. That is unfortunate for those individuals.

For those in joy, however, this is another opportunity to explore, understand and exchange. In this way, joy begets joy, even if not always from person to person.

All this to say that while I continue to explore happiness in my life, I have chosen to embrace joy and hope to share it with as many people as I can.

It is my gift to myself and to others.

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Authenticity

who-is-this

This election is about authenticity.

Michelle Obama’s speech resonated with so many people because she was the most authentic person on stage.

There seems to be a great need in the world for people to be authentic, to be honest about their needs and desires, hopes and dreams.

His word is his bond.

What you see is what you get.

I work every day to be an honest practitioner of me, and yet, it continues to be a struggle if only because I do not yet know who I am.

In my defense, however, I never had a fighting chance, because from our earliest days, Western society impels us to fit into molds.

In school, we are taught to behave in a specific manner; to sit in regimented rows and speak only when spoken to. Our excellence is constantly measured against that of our peers on a scale that doesn’t really seem to prepare us for anything except more of same.

When we find employment, we are slotted into roles beyond which it is counterproductive to stray. We are hemmed in by job descriptions and told not to get above our station. To strive for something bigger is to earn the threatened enmity of our “superiors”, as well as our supposed equals.

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More often than not, to break from our confines and achieve improvement let alone greatness is to go it alone; to be ostracized from our fellows. And even in achieving something, there is a vast pool of people waiting for you to fail, snapping at your heels, if only to validate their decisions not to strive.

And while I find that sad—and admit to having wallowed in that group myself—I cannot blame these people for feeling, thinking and behaving in this manner. They, like I, bought the lie that if we behaved ourselves, if we followed the rules, if we lay our souls down to society, to industry, to community, we would be taken care of, we would be protected.

The lie is crumbling, however. It is becoming more difficult to not see beyond the façade. To remain blind is becoming increasingly difficult even for the most determined.

Children are graduating from school to find nothing awaiting them. Get your high school diploma; get your Bachelor’s degree; get a graduate degree. The bar keeps moving if only to delay arrival at the precipice, an abyss that grows deeper with every tuition payment.

Middle-aged and older employees who remained bound to a company, addicted to seniority, pensions and steady salary, are suddenly finding themselves cut loose after 15, 20, 25 years and staring back at a ravenous pack of un- and underemployed juniors—local and international—willing to work for lower wages.

In many ways, these poor souls are the victims of the very investment portfolios and pension funds they fought so hard to build, stakeholder groups that demand increasing returns with little concern for how companies achieve those returns.

lockedgate

And so the cry goes up for politicians and administrators and executives to be more authentic, to be more honest with those they oversee, to live up to their promises.

We point vehemently to the walls of the molds into which we poured our lives as though they were legally, morally and ethically binding contracts, and implore others to save our lives.

And as has happened in every decade that preceded this one, we will fail and we will fall as institutions redefine and reconstruct themselves on the old models.

The same hue and cry that triggered the Reformation and the Renaissance also triggered the Inquisition and Fascist Europe.

What I have come to believe is that I cannot change the world. Rather, I can only change me or perhaps more correctly, stop changing me. The person who needs to be authentic, to be honest, to live up to promises is the one I see in the mirror; he is me.

Rather than distort myself to fit boxes constructed by society and its micro-collectives in the mistaken belief that this will keep me safe, I need to risk all and not only discover who I am, but also express that person to the world.

My first steps to do just this have been awkward and timorous. It is uncharted territory and demands a certain amount of trial-and-error.

But as I continue to move toward authenticity, I am finding the footing firmer. Dirt-grasping shuffles are becoming steps, and will hopefully one day be strides.

And whereas society is not always welcoming of my decision, I have been lucky enough to find that the people in my life have been almost universally supportive.

It is unlikely that I will change the world, but it is a certainty that I will change my world.

And if I am authentic, that is enough.

authentic

Big Love a big challenge at Toronto Fringe

Big Love

When you first walk into the Randolph Centre for the Performing Arts’ Annex Theatre, you are struck by a musty darkness. One deep breath and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d mistakenly walked into a derelict used-book store.

Tonight was a little different though. Although the smell was still there, the stage was not barren. Rather, it was populated by a half-naked DJ, pumping the jams in high heels and a gold lame mask, ready to celebrate Big Love. And that’s when the party started.

Big Love tells the story of 50 reluctant brides, who escape to Italy to avoid marriage to 50 cousins. As they try to talk their way into an estate, the cousins arrive to claim their women. The battle of wills–both within and between the camps–has begun.

As someone who likes a lot of story in my drama, this very much felt like a 20-minute play stretched out over 70 minutes. The other 50 minutes? Long-winded soliloquies about sex, gender and conflicting agendas for the hard-of-thinking.

50 brides for 50 cousins

50 brides for 50 cousins

There was a moment, however, when I thought the playwright (Charles L. Mee) might reach for something more than a steroidal rendition of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. A couple times, the speeches floated to the plight of refugees and women pushed to the edge, abandoned by their families, communities and countries.

For that fleeting moment, I wondered if the mass marriage was a metaphor for a larger message about slavery and subjugation. I walked away disappointed in this regard.

That being said, the actors’ performances were generally quite good. In particular, I tip my fedora to Matt Lacas (Piero) who I felt did a wonderful job as the perpetual salesman and host, stuck between the warring camps and knowing no one could ever be happy.

I also greatly enjoyed Rosie Callaghan (Olympia) who I felt gave a scintillating performance as a young woman struggling with a personal civil war of self-identification versus the need to be loved.

The choreography feels like a work in progress, however, the many numbers feeling slightly or grossly out of step. And although the women seemed to move smoothly enough, I saw little synchrony in the men’s numbers.

And then the unexplained flinging of bodies to the ground completely baffled me. I can only hope it was a metaphor for something, but goodness knows.

What I thought the actors lacked in coordination, however, I felt they more than made up for in vocal skills. Each of the handful of songs felt like a masterpiece in harmonies, most sung acapella. For me, these were the magical moments in the performance and left me wishing the entire play had been set to music.

Had Big Love been even a third shorter, I might have enjoyed it. But I didn’t feel my dissatisfaction was for lack of effort on the parts of the performers. This fell squarely on the shoulders of the playwright and director.

Case in point was the play’s ending, which felt like a complete cop-out.

Big disappointment

Big disappointment

[Adapted from a review that originally appeared in Mooney on Theatre.]

In other words

Word up!

Word up!

According to a Global Language Monitor survey from 2014, there are 1,025,109.8 words in the English language. (Not sure what the 0.8 word is.) And based on further research, this tally makes English anywhere from 5- to 10-times larger than most Western European languages.

Depending on who you ask or possibly where, a native English-speaking adult has a functional vocabulary of anywhere from 10,000 to 75,000 words. Thus, on a regular basis, we use about 1-10% of the words available to us.

Many of those words have similar if not identical meanings and can often be used interchangeably with slight variations in implied meaning or significance. Hell, a British clinician with a list-making fetish famously went out and tried to catalogue these word relationships, offering encyclopedic lists of alternates to the most commonly used English words.

A man with a list (or maybe that's just how he sits)

A man with a list (or maybe that’s just how he sits)

So, given this profusion of synonymic wonder, why am I seeing an increasing number of stories—novels, screenplays, etc.—that seem only capable of the low end of the vocabulary spectrum?

And I’m not even talking the big words here. I am talking the simple words we use every day and yet which hold little more meaning than their strictest definition. Words like “said”, “walk”, “enter”.

Now, I am not suggesting people necessarily have to write with a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus next to them, something of which I have been accused on occasion. But while exsanguinating your latest cerebral machinations into the fibrous folds of the human record—sorry, I digress—why not make the most of the words that are at your disposal?

For example:

Hearing a cry from the other room, Cecily walked through the door.

Now, Cecily may indeed have “walked” through the door, but that tells me absolutely nothing other than her transitional geographic location.

What was Cecily’s emotional state and how eager was she to discover the source of the cry?

There are so many other words—common words—in the English language that will tell us so much more about Cecily than the fact that she moved.

What about strutted, strode, skipped, crashed, bolted, dashed, raced, blasted, crept, snuck (sneaked?), sauntered, staggered, bounded, tripped, stumbled, inched, crawled, or fell?

Each of these words tells us so much more about Cecily’s relative state of confidence and sense of urgency, and any one of these in place of “walked” prevents the writer from having to later explain her emotions with a second sentence.

In some cases, people will append adverbs to offer greater insights into the emotional state of a character, but again, even this can often be avoided through use of more descriptive verb.

For example:

“You’re crazy,” Philip replied angrily.

Definitely better than just “Philip replied”. But what if Philip did more than reply? What if he screamed, shouted, barked, bellowed, screeched, roared, or cried?

Again, each word offers a slightly different take on Philip’s emotional state and gives us a sense of whether he is angry at his target or terrified by her.

All the kids are doing it

All the kids are doing it

And what holds true for verbs, also holds for adjectives, and particularly as some of the simpler ones can be relative.

The precise height of a tall man varies significantly between someone who is 5 ft 2 versus someone who is 6 ft 1. And again, the adjective has an opportunity to add an emotional or psychological angle to the description.

Rather than “tall”, what about towering, mountainous, tree-like, statuesque, cloud-scraping, looming, or neck-straining?

Or instead of a specific age (unless the precise number is vital), what about world-weary, worn down, spry, vivacious, ancient, wizened, infantile or cadaverous?

Got your back, kid!

Got your back, kid!

Again, I don’t think we need to discard the presocialized anthropoidal biped with the bath water, but particularly in our writing, I think we need to make better use of the wealth the English language affords us and open ourselves to more precise and effective word choices.

Together, we can strut the walk and hallelujah the talk.

Write…as rain

I write.

I write because I love playing with words.

I write because my head will explode if I don’t.

I write to explore ideas.

I write because I’m interested in a lot of stuff.

I write because I’m a narcissist.

I write because the stories flow through me.

I write because I’m funny (some of the time).

I write because I have thoughts worth expressing.

I write because the blank page beckons.

I write to release my pain.

I write to share my joy.

I write to add beauty to the world.

I write to keep moving.

I write to share the magnificent visions I see.

I write to exorcise and exercise the voices.

I write to play.

I write because I am a writer.

 

Why do you?

Writer’s Block-ed – Part Two

In Part One, I discussed the idea that the only difference between creatives and non-creatives or people who are blocked is a psyche filter that has become clogged; a filter that sits between thoughts generated deep within and expression of those thoughts to the outside world.

Below, I offer some thoughts on what I have found effective in unclogging that filter.

Step over it or go around it. Nowhere is it written that you must solve this problem right now. Depending on the nature of the project in which you find yourself stuck, is there an opportunity to simply mark a placeholder for where you’re stuck and move to the next part? Personally, in any creative endeavour, forward momentum is key and once lost is hard to regain. It’s easier to push a car that is already rolling than to get one rolling. A number of my manuscripts contain notes to myself along the lines of [something exciting happens here].

Likewise, for a written work, don’t feel like you have to solve all of the plot details early on. I had one screenplay that required my protagonist be in disguise. I had no idea how to do this logically, but proceeded as though it would come to me later…and it did. If you’re in a good space, the spirits will guide you and you will find your answers. But you have to be open to those answers.

Walk away. For most of us, these are very personal projects the only deadlines for which we hold internally. So, screw the deadline. Walk away from the project for a bit. Go see a movie. Read a book. Listen to music. Go for a run.

The longer you focus on the problem, the more inflamed it becomes until it becomes a creative cancer. Let it rest. Give the rest of your brain something to do. Let it do the heavy lifting for a bit. You may just find that the rest of the brain has ideas your creative centre wasn’t able to deal with and those ideas may just sneak past the filter (so have a notebook in your pocket, just in case).

Move to another project. I think a mistake a lot of new writers make is only having one project, as that blows the importance of the project way out of proportion. At any given moment, I have at least a dozen different creative projects on the go, at various levels of completion. That way, the minute I see the first signs of boredom or frustration with a project, I can move to another one to maintain my personal forward momentum. Perhaps the one thing that clogs a filter quickest is creative fallowness as lack of movement breeds insecurity.

The nice thing about working on multiple projects is that the creative act on one project often stimulates the creative response on another. You may have your answer to project one; you may not just be able to see it until you work on project two. Which leads me to…

Try another creative activity. Creativity breeds creativity. For me, photography stimulates writing (I suspect it works the other way, too). When I’m taking pictures, I am focused on the task at hand, the object on the other side of my lens, but because I am a storyteller, part of my brain is applying context to that image. You may have seen examples of this in some of my other blog posts. It allows me to visually tap into other emotions and contexts not previously obvious in my mind and those may inform my writing dilemma.

The key is to actively engage your brain. If you want to do something more passive like reading a book, as suggested earlier, try reading it aloud. Forcing yourself to actually engage with the written material will stimulate different parts of your brain, including your auditory centres. Responding to the movie screen, however, will likely get you thrown out of the theatre.

Hang with other creatives. First off, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with a pity party. It can be good to commiserate and share war stories from the trenches. It helps us to understand that we are not alone and that there is another side to the current blockage. And who better to help you with that than fellow members of the society.

Likewise, simply sharing your dilemma opens the floor to multiple brains with filters at various stages of clogging. Hopefully, around the table, there is enough creative force to blow the walls of those filter pores and clear things out. Yes, it’s your project, but you don’t have to do it alone.

If you think screaming at the gods will help break your writer's block, give it a go! (Photo taken in Hope, BC, ironically enough)

If you think screaming at the gods will help break your writer’s block, give it a go! (Photo taken in Hope, BC, ironically enough)

Writer’s Block-ed – Part One

Anyone who has stared at a blank page or screen and been incapable of adding words to it understands the living nightmare that is writer’s block. The whiteness of the sheets or the blinking of the cursor mocks you as you struggle before it, desirous of wondrous expression but incapacitated and mute. You feel incapable, devoid of ideas, and worry that your creative ju-ju will never return.

But are we correct in feeling this way? What is writer’s block?

To my mind, the only difference between creatives and non-creatives is a willingness to create. We all have it within us; it is just that some of us move unbridled to the fore while others linger back. It is as though there is a psyche membrane or filter that separates us, or perhaps, to be more granular, it separates thought from expression.

Think of any filter in your house. The air filter in your car, for example. The filter keeps particulate matter—dust, dirt, debris—from damaging your engine while still allowing air to reach the combustion cylinders that convert fuel to power. When that filter gets clogged, however, less air can reach the cylinders and therefore the car underperforms or does not run at all.

I think the psyche filter works similarly but with a twist. In creatives (and likely in children), the filter is clear and wide open, allowing thoughts generated deep within to pass through freely and find expression in the outside world.

In non-creatives and people experiencing writer’s block, it is less that the pores of the filter have become clogged, so much as the pores have shrunk to microscopic size—a self-clogging filter, if you will. This prevents almost all of the generated thought from reaching the surface to be expressed.

You are generating ideas, but for whatever reason, your filter is keeping you from letting them free.

Alternatively, the filter works more like the car filter in that your psyche requires stimulating input to convert brain energy to creative power. In creatives, the filter lets in everything (or a large part of everything), whereas in non-creatives, again, the pores are too small to let anything more than the rudimentary information needed for survival enter and so the creative engine stalls.

In either case, the capacity to generate thought and to express those thoughts is the same in both groups of people. It is the nature of the filter that distinguishes us.

I wish I could present you with the secret answer for unblocking that filter when it becomes troublesome, but the working mechanisms of each filter are unique, yours attuned to your psyche.

In Part Two, I’ll offer some thoughts on what I have found effective in dealing with a clogged filter. They don’t always work, but by having multiple outlets, I hedge my bets that something will work.

The following gallery explores colour at one of my favourite buildings in Montreal, the Palais des Congres.