Niagara Falls of Fear (October 2018)

Delivered for University of Guelph MFA Creative Writing Class
Dundas Square, Toronto

I’ve just come back from Russia, and the best part of the trip was that I stopped having a recurring fantasy. You see there is a man in this city who has hurt several of my friends, he has harassed them, stalked them, made their lives miserable. He fills my heart with hatred and darkness. And in my fantasy I take revenge on him, over and over again. These fantasies make me feel sick, I am disgusted with myself. When I see your young perfect faces I can tell that you are far too virtuous to have these kind of thoughts, but perhaps you can imagine, perhaps you can suggest: what does one do when one is filled with disgust, with shame?

Actually there’s a machine that’s been invented to deal with this, maybe you’ve heard of it, it’s called Netflix. I just watch one episode after another until all the feeling in my body goes away. This works very well for a while, but then the fantasies, the bad feelings returns. So a couple of days ago I started a radical experiment. When the bad feelings came, I didn’t go on the internet. I didn’t eat two large bags of sour cream and onion potato chips. I just sat there and felt my feelings. And they were vast and powerful, and I realized that because I didn’t like it, especially because I didn’t like it, the hope of my humanity lay in those bad feelings. The hope of my becoming an artist, lay inside those bad feelings.

At first I didn’t think I could survive them. It was like standing next to Niagara Falls, except it was my Niagara Falls, each of one of us has our own Niagara Falls, the source of this immense forbidden knowledge, and mystery and power. As an artist, as a writer, I need that, I need to be close to that place. In order to be human I need to stand inside my fear and shame. I approach them the way I would approach a child, or a stray cat, quietly, gently, softly, I approach them with my soft hands. I haven’t come here to kill my fear, I haven’t come here to kill my shame, I’ve come here to wrap my arms around it, I’ve come here to be a mother to my shame, to hold it.

That’s what we’re going to do today. And what’s strange is that it’s going to be so pleasurable, and so much fun. Because on the other side of the fear that each of us carries inside us, is everything, a vast universe of sensation.

Now as an artist, a writer, I always work inside a frame, the frames of our culture, the frames of my family, the frames of my city. When I went to school a thousand years ago, every school I went to, from kindergarten to college, created a frame for my body. And this frame said: your mind is beautiful, and we’re going to make it more beautiful. But my body, hahaha, was not beautiful. It should never be talked about because the body is disgusting, embarrassing, something to be avoided. Actually my body was framed as a kind of pedestal made out of meat, my body is just a meat carcass and it carries around my beautiful mind.

Today we are going to work against the dominant habit pattern of our culture, of our schools. Today we are going to step into the frame of our bodies, and notice moment by moment sensation. And I would encourage you to do this with as little judgement as possible. It’s very popular to be a judge. I like this, I don’t like this. Who cares? I would encourage you to be curious, to explore: where does fear live in your body? You’re going to feel it right away, and that’s ok, and then you’ll get through that, and something else will happen. Mystery and wonder.

So could everyone here find someone in the group that you know the least. You have one minute to do it, find someone in the group that you know the least.

(carry around bag filled with silk scarves, let each group pick one)

OK, here’s what we’ll try to do. (With volunteer demonstrate putting scarf on as blindfold, show how they will want to walk too slowly and how you will guide them with some speed, how you should take them onto the subway, the streetcar, feed them a meal, lay them down on a comfortable bed in the homewares section of the mall, let them touch and smell everything. Encourage them to notice where in their body fear arises, and to explore that place, what is it doing in your body? What are the sensations? What is fear made of? Very important: no talking. Please. You the guide are not the point of this practice, let them be in the world, let them experience the whole world, instead of narrowing the whole world down to your voice. After 45 minutes you’ll switch places. And the second person who is wearing these special glasses, is going to wind up at Ben McNally Bookstore, which is located at 366 Bay Street. So by 3:30pm we’re all going to meet up at Ben’s place, where our adventure will continue. Please remember: no talking.)