Precipitations

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No. 6 County Road, Picton

If you could bottle up a storm, what would it look like? Would it be cloudy white, with swirls of purple? Or ink-black, with raw seams of lightning that would shock your hands if you touched the surface? This image is rather dire, but I welcome it because I depleted my stock of images last year when I finished my book. What would keep this storm in? A wax seal? A cork? There is something plugging up the top of my head. Otherwise, why these headaches, these surges of resentment? Usually I’m not capped tight. But what is usual for me? My life has not been usual for a long time.

It’s the end of summer and J. calls me. He’s applying for non-teaching jobs, even though he’s one of the most caring teachers I know. I’m in Picton and go out onto the front lawn and sit in the dry grass. We’ve both just finished a 2-month teaching contract for international ESL students where we rolled around campus like marbles on high speed, flicked here and there by long hours and endless prep. But it has ended, and I’m staring out at fields of snowpea shoots where I’ve come to write for a week. We’re exhausted in a way that sleep can’t solve. J. has been teaching for longer than I have, 5, 6, maybe 7 years. There is impatience in his voice, prickling up like the sun-bristled grass. We make enough to pay bills, but it’s not enough. When we hang up, I seethe from room to room, from the studio to the front living room of this lovely farmhouse, carrying the rough drafts of the first new poems I’ve written in months. They’re full of sheds and dirt roads and it feels fake because I didn’t grow up in the country. What’s with all the fucking fields? I write at the top of the page. If I’m not from here, then where am I from, and didn’t I try to answer that in my last book? But the question has shifted. If I’m not from here, then what do I love? 

I don’t sleep well when I’m not in my own bed, but I think it’ll be different when I go to visit my parents later in September. After all, I used to live there, used to have mountains pinned to my back. I slept in the upper floor of the one-bedroom loft-like apartment my parents still live in. They bring down a single mattress from storage and set it up next to my dad’s workbenches and easels. The apartment has no doors, no privacy, yet I’m comforted to be there. I’d forgotten my family’s penchant for old wood furniture and their makeshift, minimal ways. In the bathroom, my mom has suspended two antique frames over the bathroom mirror, draped green ivy over it so it feels tropical. I remember we’ve always been a family that has cobbled our living from odds and ends, things other people discarded.

I wonder who this ‘Phoebe Wang’ is whose name is on the cover of my book, who gets invitations asking her to read at festivals. I must go in her stead. It has never been a name that as felt like it fit properly. It’s an amalgamation– the first name Greek and abstract, the surname an approximation, often mispronounced. My Chinese middle name I never use, wouldn’t recognize it if someone did. I make up a personality for this Phoebe Wang– cheerful, helpful, respectful. I see her clothes hanging in my closet, navy lace and sheath dresses, and when I do a reading I alternate each dress like costumes. Performance anxiety is the best diet– I’ve lost close to 10lb this year thanks to sleeplessness and hyperactivity. I didn’t even know I had 10lbs to lose. I buy dresses at consignment shops, because all year, clothes don’t fit the same way. I feel like a life-size doll, applying lipstick and wearing another woman’s clothing. I move my limbs onto the stage, smoothly, like I’ve had lots of practice.

When I still lived with my parents, I’d visit houses my friends rented, crashed on couches after parties, envied their mismatched furniture and the bric-a-brac texture of their lives. They were fully immersed in it, while I was hovering somewhere between land and the upper stratosphere, waiting to land. I couldn’t accept my long walks, looking into lighted windows, as any kind of practice. Now I buy two, large smoky black Japanese bowls. My apartment sat mostly empty for the first year I lived in it until I found the kind of old wooden tables and shelves I wanted. My parents took us to galleries and they’re still the spaces I’m most comfortable. Seeing my parents’ white walls, I realize they curated my childhood, down to the typefaces. Aspiring to minimalism, though, is like aspiring to a vanishing point. No wonder I wonder about whether or not I’ve disappeared. Viewed from a certain angle, even the longest strand of noodle is a mere dot. I must be careful not to view my life this way. I must turn my head.

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A temporary workspace

My alma mater has asked me to visit and do a reading. I can’t believe how much they are paying me to do this. They want me to speak for 45 mins but there’s no way I’m going to read poems for 45mins because I’m not Anne Carson or Bishop or Plath returned from the dead. I make a Powerpoint presentation of pictures of my parents when they’re young and my sister and me in the backyard holding vegetables and the island my mom grew up on. Memory is a strange thing– the more you spend looking back, the faster the time goes. Afterwards, the students ask me incredibly intelligent questions for almost an hour. One of them says she notices that the predominant colour in my book is white and asks what this could mean. When the visit is over, the two profs and the TA take me to dinner in a French restaurant. I want to be good company, worth their time– not the shy woman I usually am, but one that tells funny stories about their publisher or bizarre anecdotes about other writers’ eating habits. My mom has stories– she told one of my boyfriends about seeing the Jackson 5 on the subway in 1971. I’d never heard it before. Then I realize that my mom’s stories are my stories, that all I have to do is to keep talking about my family, which is easy to do because they are always flipping through me, squares of coloured light against a white background.

In Calgary, S. drives down to see me. This is the first time I’ve been put up in a big hotel. A young concierge with a lilting voice informs me I need to put down a $100 deposit for the keycard, preferably on a credit card that won’t be charged, otherwise, it’s $200 cash. I don’t own a credit card and am almost cashless, because of Picton and the Vancouver trip and barely having worked since August. If I go to the festival office, I can pick up my reading fee, but in order to get to the office, I need the keycard to get up the elevator, and before I can have my keycard, I need to pay the deposit. This is one of those income stalemate situations that writers are frequently in. Thankfully, S. texts me that he’s arrived and has parked outside. Thankfully, he has a credit card and the stalemate with the uptalking concierge ends.

With S. here, I feel more like myself, but I’m a poor festival attendee with him around because we’ve known each other forever and instead of drinking late with writers at the hospitality suite or going to other events, we roam around downtown Calgary glimpsing our friends’ art in the big office atriums, we get tired of eating out for every meal and drive back to his arts co-op in Edmonton. The drive is a long relief, and I realize the reason why people don’t feel landlocked in the Prairies is because the eye can travel across fields for 100 miles and it’s like an ocean, an ocean of cadmium yellow and lemon yellow and ochre, as if Van Gogh had mixed his palette here.

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White is the colour of a blank piece of paper and of canvas. It’s the colour of snow and to me, comfort, as I’m a winter child. Though it’s also a menacing colour, as the poet David Harsent claims. It’s the colour that is the absence of history, the erasure of specific ethnicities so that a dominant culture can rush in to fill the void with white pom-pom hats, white latte foam, white sugar, white plastic bags. Here, it says, you can be a part of something new so long as if you give that up, that looking backward, that nostalgia for land that was never yours, that vanishing point of blame.

Others, I know, share my design aesthetic. While taking our students to an outing to Kensington Market, J. & I walk along a beautiful, tree-lined street and play that old game of which-house-would-you-live-in? Both of us point to the white painted bay-and-gable house with black trim. Severe. Meticulous. Orderly.

I’ve worked three different colleges this year. Sometimes people mistake me for a student, other times for faculty. Sometimes I get complimented on my English, my lack of accent. Last week, I watch the picketers circling the building, thinking, that might’ve been me. One of my favourite students, an older Spanish woman who has returned to school for social work says, “Phoebe, I’m losing momentum.” She comes to see me every week. She says the problem with Canadians is that they’re too passive, too uncomplaining. She wonders why capitalism has co-opted us. Usually I’m helping her with syntax, or research, or even her résumé, but today we look at OPSEU bulletins and I show her how to find updates about the strike. Next week I’m going to show her how much our college president makes. Reading his whitewashed emails every few days makes me so furious I can hardly swallow. I’m part of a generation of teachers that has come to accept that full-time work will be nearly impossible until I’m at least 40, and even then… when did we accept this? How did our bones and our bodies accept it? Like sleepwalkers laying down in a fallow field, or like small animals falling into ditches?

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Belleville VIA station

My first royalty statement arrives in the mail, in a big 8 1/2″ by 11″ envelope as though uncreaseable. I’m still a couple of hundred in debt to my publisher, but I can fold up this information, tuck it away. I’ve made tremendous gains in the months of the book’s existence but having moved backwards for so long, it’ll take some time to be in the clear. In another six months, it’ll be my turn to be owed something.

There is something excessive about flying someone in from across the country to read for 15 minutes, but I find most things excessive, too much salt, too much sugar. By the end of this year, I’ll have visited nine different cities, including my hometown. I have set my clock forward, then backwards, while my career, after long years of stalling, now leaps ahead of me. All of the festival and event organizers whirl about whiteboards with pick-up times and have thought through every one of our needs. They hold the flaps of book covers open when I sign them. An older, award-winning poet tells me to go to everything, go everywhere, go to all the free dinners because “you’ll sit beside someone different every night.” I cannot even picture this. At the small party I had before I left, how I had just enough seating for everyone. When someone wanted to get up, they had to switch places with someone else.

With my festival gig money, I buy a new pair of Levi’s 501s and order a t-shirt from a band who stopped making albums in 2001. This was my uniform in my 20s, along with regulation black Converses and a black corduroy jacket, which I still own and which has holey pockets because my sister kept her drawing pencils in it when she borrowed it. This itself was a kind of costume that allowed me to pass among the crowd at hundreds of shows and concerts. In another of her long attempts to turn me into another version of herself, my mom has foisted upon me two black-and-white silk blouses, a striped t-shirt and a camel cashmere coat she found at Value Village. Wearing one of the blouses with the high-waisted Levis, I don’t look like my mom even though this is exactly her uniform, and I feel her lack of self-consciousness cloak me like a warm, wool hug. Don’t worry about that, she’d say, There’s bigger things to think about.

And another time, as I’m washing the dishes, she asks me: Where did you come from? You, yourself?

As if I could make something up to tell her.

Writing a book emptied me out. I’m like a raided vault, my bank of images empty except for the most dire– two lovers buried in ash, a crumbling aqueduct, a deranged leader. We came out of a debt, and we’ll go back into it, bandaged hand-in-hand. I hold that hand up and wait for the drops to form, for memory to condense. When I turn to a new page, white as a curtain, it isn’t completely vacant.

 

Self-portrait with antique frame

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High Tide

Heaps of thanks are due, feathery piles of thanks to those who have thought Admission Requirements worth their attention and time. To Terry Abrahams for his lucent Sunday Review (the first review of my book to appear) in The Wilds in May. To Klara Du Plessis for her lithe response poem in Debutantesa new and very necessary space edited by Plessis and Aaron Boothby for reviewing debut books of poetry in Canada. To Stevie Howell for her stacked attention in her review in The Globe and Mail in June (who is now bestowed upon the citizens of NYC and who I greatly miss striding through Bloordale with as we get up in arms and lay into the maddening schisms of #CanLit).

Lately, thanks to Tamara Jong for her energy and her #litmaglove on the Room Magazine site (don’t miss other interviews with Rachel Thompson, Sierra Skye Gemma,Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and more). To the rising star poet and organizer Tess Liem for sharing “Yard Work” on the triumphantly reincarnated Lemonhound 3.0. And to Susan Gillis and her seamless, tireless Concrete & River blog, where she shared my address from/to Hélène de Champlain, “The Child-Bride: A Letter” as well as thought my answers worth having to her wide-reaching questions.

A high tide of awe and gratitude nearly overwhelms me. Conversations, reflections, the watery looseness of words that paradoxically, bears me up. And suddenly, we are afloat and in our natural element.

Tough Acts

After a spring that included co-hosting Ontario Arts Council’s Fuel for Fire, launching my book in Toronto and Montreal, and attending over a dozen festivals and events, I no longer recognize my life.  I don’t know if this is a normal or abnormal number of invitations for a debut poet. I don’t know if this is normal for a poet with a major press. I don’t know if this is normal for someone whose first book appeared after the age of 35. All I know is the warmth and interest that Admission Requirements has received has me dazed with gratitude. 

I know what my life is supposed to look like: head-rolling commutes to teaching or tutoring across the splayed-out city and hours milled under lamplight with line-edits. Equal measures of discipline and obscurity, with teaspoons of socializing and success. I find routine sustaining, because of how long it’s taken me to be independent and to write on my own terms. Though my small taste of being in the spotlight, AirBnb stays and book signings has been modest compared to that of more established authors, I found myself quickly drained by the logistics of book promotion, socializing, travel and the anxiety of reading poems about personal family matters to a curious, expectant audience. “Why didn’t you warn me it was so exhausting!” I cried half-accusingly, half-seriously to my writer-friends. There was no way they could have– every writer is treated differently by the book promotion machinery, and every writer views doing events differently. Some thrive on public performers, others wilt without constant snacks intervals of solitude. 

Early on I realized I couldn’t let myself, my editor or my publisher down– they had invested in me, so to speak, and I owed it to them and to myself to become a strong performer of my work. I couldn’t read the way I had before my book was published, lightly, without a sense of lastingness or consequences. I had to deliver. I had to reach into the emotional heart of a poem. Which meant that even after a 10 or 15 minute reading, I could be shaking, close to tears. It was especially strange to be explaining Chinese ancestor worship, or the Hong Kong democracy protests, or telling the story of my parents’ immigration to Canada. I don’t know if this added to my underlying paranoia, but no matter what, insomnia struck in the night before a reading, the anxiety doubled if I needed to catch a flight or train. I’d have trouble sleeping the night after too because conversations swirled in my brain hours afterwards. The lack of sleep led to headaches and difficulty eating. As the weeks progressed, I became even more anxious, knowing how little rest I’d get before and after the event. I Skyped a close friend who had worked hard to promote his book widely. I asked him how long it took him to recover from his slew of cross-country festivals and events: “I’m still recovering,” he said ruefully.

At the same time, I’ve been able to let go of some vestiges of fear and dread around the book, fears that it was not what I’d wanted to be, or that it was too muted and polite, or that my publisher and editors would be disappointed in me. Amidst the hectic weeks, they always managed to find me in the crowd to press their warm hands on me and to whisper their encouragement. Their pride in me and the warm reception of my work is slowly eradicating the three decades of believing that I was somehow not enough, not doing enough, not good enough, the way a flaming knife or pure alcohol gradually sears a crawling wound.

I was still puzzled at why I was often the only writer of colour on the bill. Even as I saw and heard assurances that I was invited for my work, of course I couldn’t help thinking I checked off an awful lot of boxes: female, of colour, with a big-name publisher, a U of T MA grad, with work that’s for the most part, accessible in its lyric mode. In my insistence that I had been asked for other reasons than the quality or impact of my poetry, I could give everyone the benefit of the doubt except myself. If I couldn’t push away this self-destructive negativity, I wouldn’t benefit from all the opportunities I was being given by those in the position to manifest change and who are determined to bring more diversity to local festivals, reading series, events and communities of readers, even if that spectre of diversity is still illusory or flawed. I’ve been buoyed up by the energy, activity, and dedication I’ve seen in those communities I’ve been lucky enough to visit, while there’s still work to be done. At the very least, I can do my job, which is to be present, thankful, and a tough act to follow.

 

Declarations of Bookselling Independence

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of the amazing independent booksellers who have sold books on my behalf and also to receive support from local booksellers. With Author for Indies Day coming up on April 29th, if you’re looking for copies of Admission Requirements, please do buy it from your local independent bookstore.

Here are some of the independent bookstores across Canada that are carrying Admission Requirements:

Ottawa– Perfect Books, 258A Elgin Street

Hamilton– Bryan Prince Booksellers,  1060 King St West

Toronto–Ben McNally Books, 366 Bay Street

BookCity, 2354 Bloor Street West, 1430 Yonge Street and 348 Danforth Avenue.

Glad Day Bookstore, 499 Church Street

Type Books, 883 Queen Street West & 427 Spadina Road in Toronto (Thanks to Type Books for their recent write-up of Admission Requirements in their April 2017 reading list. I will be reading at Type Books on May 24th.)

Vancouver– The Paper Hound Bookshop, 344 W Pender Street

If you see copies of Admissions at your local independent bookstore, please do let me know. In the meantime, visit your neighborhood brick-and-mortar booksellers and make the trip even more worthwhile by asking the owners how they came to run a bookstore in the age of Amazon. There’s some fascinating stories, from one owner who after a career in teaching was retired and bored out of his mind, to another who worked over a decade in used bookstores around Vancouver’s vanishing ‘book row’. I’ll leave you to uncover the rest.

 

What the Whirlpool Will Bring You

The Unboxing

Books arrive at my doorstep, waiting for their readers.

What I can say about the process of writing a book that has not already been said in countless memoirs and biographies and Paris Review interviews? When people ask me how it feels to sign a contract, to push through the editorial process, to receive the typeset proofs of my book and to be couriered that first bound copy– I waver between disclosing, and not wanting to spoil it for writers who have yet to experience the ordeal for themselves. No one should be foolish enough to tell the swimmer about the whirlpool.

“You must be very excited,” people say, and I don’t contradict them. Yes, there is excitement, but there is more gratitude, terror, relief, exhaustion, and bafflement that I ever thought it necessary to pour so much time and energy into a thing. That I will continue to think it necessary.

Last week, I was invited to read at a fundraiser for the Al Purdy A-Frame Association, and with a bit of trepidation but a lot of gung-ho I showed up early, as the performers were promised a free dinner. I didn’t know the organizers, any of the performers except one other poet who called in sick that day, or what the audience would be like. The free dinner turned out to be pizza from Bitondo’s, and as the hosts and organizers grabbed a few slices before heading to set up, I turned to the tall, gingery-haired man beside me on the bench. I assumed he was one of the musicians asked to perform and we introduced ourselves.

The musician asked me about how often I read my work and how I chose my set, and I asked him about how often he toured and how he gauges a room. Rarely does talking to a stranger yield moments of contemplation, and we both mused silently for a brief interval on the energy that an audience can create before becoming cognizant to the fact that we’d better hustle downstairs. Later I’d realized he was Doug Paisley, an accomplished country singer and songwriter whose voice and guitar fingerings wove the entire room into a dense, nestled cocoon.

This, then, was the reason why any of it mattered, the long hours of solitude so that what you have to offer becomes unwrapped and places you into contact with other creative forces.

 

A Year in Page Views: Race in Writing and Publishing

I’ve been collecting for a few years now— essays, think pieces, responses, blog posts, podcasts, toolkits and maps that relate in some way to diversity, identity, ethnicity and race. Often, I find them shared by a loose network of writers and teachers and journalists who self-identify as people of colour, minorities, immigrants or first generation. It might seem obsessive– why read so much about these topics?  Why force myself to parse the ways in which race is discussed and not discussed, the ways discrimination and cultural insensitivity and micro-aggressions take place in the passive?

As always, the answer is not a simple or straightforward one. I read about these issues because I want to feel like I’m not just imagining things, that I’m not being oversensitive. When scholars and writers of colour powerfully pull apart and deconstruct instances of racism that are so often dismissed and minimized, they give shape and space to my unspoken shock and pain. I read these topics for strategies on how to mitigate my own anger and depression, how to conduct a meaningful discussion and how to draw courage from others’ outspoken critiques. I read because my own experience as a Chinese-Canadian is limited and I want to learn about the variations of subjugation and embodiment for other cultures who experience marginalization. I read to offer support and solidarity to racialized others. I read helplessly, and helpfully. Yes, sometimes it is emotionally wearying. Sometimes I want to dim the volume and take refuge in a season of The Americans and the newest Nigel Slater cookbook. But it’s always there, the conversations about race that aren’t just about race– they’re also about who we are as subjects and as global citizens.

What does it mean, then to read the year through the eye-needle of race? To be attuned in that way,  so that literary controversies are not isolated, but form a pattern of how as English-speaking cultural thinkers we view belonging, citizenship, culture and outsiderness. Here, then follows a calendar of reading alongside race in regards to writing and publishing in 2016.

In January, a US children’s book publisher, Lee & Low, conducted a survey on “Diversity in Publishing” in 2015. Molly McArdle collected responses from editors and publishing professionals in “‘You Will Be Tokenized’: Speaking Out about the State of Diversity in Publishing” in Brooklyn Magazine and Oscar Villalon wrote an urgent call-to-action in LitHub.

The situation for writers of colour do not appear better across the Atlantic, as in April, BBC Books reports on how non-white writers are shunned in the books industry:

Bakare-Yusuf comments: “Western publishing is out of step with a real world that is very mixed, global and diverse. Publishing is civilisation-building. Sometimes, builders of civilisation can forget to innovate, to experiment and to feel the pulse of what’s going on around them.

In the same month, US writer Esther Wang asks us to move beyond the stereotype of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ in the stories we tell about China.

April also saw the publication in The New Yorker of Calvin Trillin’s satiric poem, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet”, in the voice of a speaker who lists the fluctuating popularity of various Chinese regional cuisines. Timothy Yu responds in the New Republic with his essay, “White Poets Want Chinese Culture Without Chinese People” and 14 poets speak back with poems of their own on the Asian Americans Writers Workshop’s The Margins post “We’re in the Room, Calvin Trillin.” Celeste Ng and Karissa Chen engage with the poem on Twitter and it can be read in full on Storify.

In May, Canadian poet Sachiko Murakami began the site Writing So Hard featuring numerous diverse writers who speak out about the challenges of writing, mental and emotional health, gender, activism and how these and many other topics are interwoven and inseparable from the writing life.

In July, Dr. Grisel Y. Acosta writes on Vidaweb.com of the “The Invisible Latina Intellectual.”

September in Brisbane saw Lionel Shriver putting on a sombrero during her keynote speech at the  Brisbane Writers Festival to espouse her hope that cultural appropriation is just a ‘passing fad.’ Yassmin Abdel-Magiel critiques Shriver’s position in The Medium with I Walked out of the Brisbane Writers Festival Keynote Address. This is Why.” and Suki Kim also responds in The New Republic with “What Happened in Brisbane.”

Also of interest is Suki Kim’s 2014 nonfiction work, Without You, There Is No Us, an undercover reporting of North Korea during the time she worked there as an English teacher. She spoke on NPR about how her work was mislabelled a memoir rather than as a work of investigative nonfiction.

In October, Montreal-based writer Klara Du Plessis curated a month on The Puritan’s Town Crier blog on Writing in English from a Multilingual Perspective. Pieces contributed include Ndinda Kioko’s “Writing the Good English”; “English and Aboriginal Ethnic Identity”by Kalina Newmark, James Stanford and Nacole Walker; “Hypenated Fluency” by Jihyun Rosel Kim and many more.

In November, Michelle Chihara writes about the fall-out of the Japanese internment in Trump’s America in a moving personal essay, “Neighbors,” in the LA Review of Books. Lelia Lee reflects in Ricepaper Magazine on a new CBC show that portrays a Korean-Canadian family, “Kim’s Convenience From a Critical Race Perspective.”

Long before the end of the year, I and most of my community were feeling utterly worn out by the various affronts to identity politics in publishing, writing and social media. Thank goodness for Jael Richardson, director and founder of the FOLD who offers a series of effective columns on Open Book Toronto including “The Burden of Positivity” and “Six Tips For the Tired Activist.”

Just when we’d thought that 2016 had exhausted its reel of identity-related controversies, comes the questioning over the indigenous identity of Canadian writer Joseph Boyden. While some over-the-top claims have been made, it’s a necessary ongoing conversation about who can speak for whom, and how systemic oppression is reinforced by those who claim an identity. Thus far, I think the most thoughtful and useful orientations have been offered by Hayden King, who asks “Joseph Boyden, Where Are You From?”; also from The Globe and Mail, Denise Balkissoon on “Why the facts behind Joseph Boyden’s fiction matter” and Teika Newton just yesterday on National Observer who observes, “Boyden may yet end up being a catalyst for anti-racist learning.” I have no doubt that more opportunities to learn will emerge in the new year.

Whew. In the following weeks I will endeavour to post the links and pieces that relate to topics outside of literature and publishing, such as education and affirmative action, Black Lives Matter at the Toronto Pride Parade, Canadian reacting for and against the settlement of Syrian refugees, intersectionality and inter-race solidarity and many more invigorating topics. Please share any links and pieces that can help to further discussions around identity and diversity in the comments below or to my Twitter @alittleprint.

It’s a scary, gut-churning and humbling thing, to read about instances of racism, trauma and pain. I don’t have some any platitudes about how to feel good about this kind of learning because I myself don’t feel good, but neither am I proponent of guilt and unnecessary grief. It’s been a senseless year in a senseless world, and all I can do is look up across the table and see my own confusion reflected with grace and strength in the faces that surround me.