Something From Everything  

Dealing with the precarity of life

Uncertainty of our lives

It was early September when I saw it—the remains of a creature so mangled and disfigured that it was nearly unidentifiable.
As I drove closer, up the curving road that neighbours a nearby pond, I could see the pieces of shell, the distinctive green and salmon-red colouring. I was looking at the remains of a full grown, red painted turtle.

It had been struck (presumably) no more than 10 feet from the giant, bright yellow diagonal street sign posted to warn drivers of increased (turtle) crossings in this area between the months of May and September.

Unbidden, I remembered reading that turtles have a surprisingly long life cycle. In North America, the average painted turtle will grow to nearly full size in five to eight years, and have a lifespan of between 20 and 40 years.This was a large specimen, with a shell the width of a dinner plate. How long had it been moving between ponds, warming itself on the hot pavement without incident before this? Five years at least. Maybe as many as 40.

Though endangered now, red painted turtles have been survivors. Non-marine turtles have remained largely unchanged for more than 200 million years, and have survived multiple catastrophic extinction events.

It felt as if an animal as armoured, ancient and well-adapted as this should somehow be protected from such a senseless and sudden end. Whether I was looking at a creature whose expansive future was stolen, or a long life abruptly ended, it felt absurd.

I realized I was expecting a consistent trajectory to life, but life stubbornly takes unexpected and drastic turns. An ancient forest is set ablaze by a single spark. A marriage is ended when one partner decides it. A life is built over thousands of days, and ends in a moment. Despite all its adaptations, vibrancy and resilience, life never stops being fragile and precarious. I knew this truth, but I did not like it.

If you begin to see the precarity of life, it’s hard to unsee it.

My work at the hospital reminds me of precarity daily. I meet so many people at turning points in their lives, the fulcrum between “before” and “after”. Before the car accident, and after. Before when a patient had only vague symptoms and after the received a life-altering diagnosis. Before they held the hand of a loved one for the last time and after.

Couldn’t the whole world be divided into “befores” and “afters”? Those who lived through a cataclysmic event that now divides their lives and those who remain blissfully ignorant to the fact they are currently living in the “before”?

Of this, I am certain, the precarity of life does not affect everyone equally, but it will affect everyone.

What do we do with this inescapable, universal precarity of life? Do we ignore it? Do we try to insulate ourselves from it (in ways both practical and superstitious)? Do we try to diminish or control it, having a ready reason for even the most absurd tragedies?

I suggest an expert in the field, Kate Bowler, who has attempted to answer the question “what do we do with precarity of life” for nearly a decade.

She knows a great deal about absurdity and fragility. At the age of 35, married, a new mother and having just reached the academic starting line of professorship at a prestigious university, Bowler was given the unforeseen and life-dissecting diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer.

As she has repeatedly said, “there is no stage five”.

I read Bowler’s bestselling book, “Everything Happens For a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved)” when she first received her apocalyptic diagnosis. I felt the frantic determination in those words, the impossible weight of trying to get a whole life down in those few pages, and confronting the most thoughtless condolences and aphorisms along the way.

Her follow up book, “No Cure For Being Human” was written from the liminal space between hope and dread. She was a survivor for months at a time, planning her life between treatments and CT scans. In this time of uncertainty, she bore witness to the (occasionally well-meaning, occasionally deceptive) toxic positivity of the self help industry.

And for seven seasons now, I have regularly listened to her podcast “Everything Happens”, in which Bowler gets to interview other resilient, vibrant and heartbroken guests, who are intimately familiar with both the beauty and horrors of life. Often occurring at the same time.

The fact that Bowler’s public work has continued for this long is something she regularly celebrates in the face of its unlikeliness. Despite there being no stage five for colon cancer, she is still here and recently was declared to be in stable remission, cancer-free.

If anyone knew a secret to overcoming precarity, I believe it could be Bowler. If she wanted to, she could write “12 simple rules to overcoming colon cancer”, or using her theological beliefs and training to explain the absurdity of why she is alive and some of those beloved friends she sat in therapy with are not.

But instead, Kate’s public work is a consistent, considerate and fierce rejection of all the simple (and false) promises we can explain, outwit or adequately insulate ourselves from the precarity of life. Somehow, the soul of Bowler’s work does not deny or run from the precarious nature of life, but unflinchingly draws closer to it.

Who else would we possibly want to talk with when our world is falling apart? We would want to sit down with someone brave and compassionate enough to see our world as it really is.

What do we do with the precarity of life? Perhaps we begin by simply accepting it. Which is neither as simple, fatalistic or passive as it might sound.

If we really knew how precious and fragile and absurd life can be, how would we live differently? Perhaps more gracious with others and ourselves. Perhaps we would be more aware of the suffering both within and without. Perhaps we would become more alert and cautious. Perhaps we would slow down, both with people and along back roads with turtle crossings. Or, perhaps we would place more value on this one, wild, absurd and fragile life.

What do we do with the precarity of life? We spend the rest of our lives attempting to answer that question.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


When is conversation too much talk?

Vulnerability, a la carte

I glanced down at my hand cart. I had no business being in the express lane.

I entered the grocery store for a few essentials—fruit, milk and eggs. Now, laid upon the ground to temporarily give my arm a rest was the overflowing porous green plastic grocery basket: a testament to consumerism, spontaneous purchases and shoddy building practices.

Dairy free ice cream bars that were on sale sat vertically jammed against the side. Chip bags, (three for $8) sat stacked on top of each other. Oranges sat precariously over the edge, threatening to rip their flimsy plastic bag and release in all directions, in bouncing, rolling, joyful abandon. Two packages of soft tortilla wraps sat over the towering mound, like tarps tucking in an oversize load, attempting to contain this most undisciplined of shopping trips.

I conservatively had 20 to 30 items. I took a last longing look at the short, fast-moving lines of the express lane, and shuffled my way towards the regular tills, joining the outstretched snaking lines with everyone else.

I surveyed the lineups beside me, trying to size up whether I had made the right decision. Each que seemed equally long and painfully slow moving. Still, I had a phone with an internet connection, subscription to a music streaming service, multiple episodes of my favourite podcasts waiting and wireless earphones.

Even if I only had the last item, it might be enough. Sometimes I’ll put the headphones in, and never press play. A necessity in the Value Villages, Superstores and Costcos. I immediately appreciate the instant noise dampening and effective “Do Not Disturb” message they send to the outside world.

I removed the headphones as I approached the till and began loading items onto the black shiny conveyer belt.

I was watching the cashier’s animated conversation with the customer in front of me, but had heard none of it. She was a slight woman in her late 30s or early 40s. She had giant hooped earrings, bright pink lipstick, wide eyes and an easy smile.

I returned the smile, and the barrage started.
“How’s your day today, hun?” / “Up to anything interesting?” / “Me, I’m just working, as always! I probably work too much, but what else am I going to do!?”/ “Yeah, your kids are lucky with all these treats!” / “I don’t have kids myself”/ “No family for me... just two dogs!”/ “I always thought I’d be a mom, but I never really settled down” / “Never really found the right guy for me, you know?” / “I dated one guy for a couple of years, thought he might be the one, but we just wanted different things” / “Nobody's fault I guess, some things just aren’t meant to be” / “Still, you can’t help but wonder some days how life could be different”.

I stared at her, smiling uncertainly in our brief moment of silence.

“Will that be debit or credit?”

“Uhh... debit”. I focused on the pin pad, lost for words and reeling from the machine gun chatter and odd coupling of smalltalk and unexpected naked vulnerability.

I gathered my groceries into the available boxes, took my receipt, thanked my unnervingly honest cashier and walked out of the store to the parking lot.

I didn’t know what to make of the encounter, so I carried it with me for weeks. Maybe that cashier was particularly lonely. Maybe she just wasn’t comfortable with silence. Maybe there was very little filter between what was thought and then immediately spoken. I’ve been guilty of that. More than a few times.

But I’ve experienced this phenomenon a few times now. This isn’t the first time I’ve had an uncomfortably vulnerable conversation with a complete stranger. And I’m guessing you’ve experienced this as well.

Certainly if you spend any time online, you’ve doubtlessly run into a level of exposure and sharing that you may immediately feel uncomfortable with. Intimate secrets and deep traumas being broadcast as if over a megaphone. It certainly seems that a lot of us don’t know what to do with our vulnerability.

Vulnerability is a double edged sword. We need it, but we also need the right amount. Too little of it and there is no chance of connection. We can be left feeling alone and detached, even in a crowd of people. But too much vulnerability, vulnerability in the wrong setting, or vulnerability not safeguarded can leave us exposed or embarrassed. This is especially true when our conversational partner has no clue how to respond.

It’s not that I don’t want to have these types of conversations. My friends know how excited I get about a real, honest exchange. I can tolerate small talk at the grocery store or in brief interactions at work, but I despise when surface pleasantries and idle chatter dominate an evening with close friends.

A few years ago I decided to be more intentional about these conversations. We began inviting groups of family friends to dinner with the expressed intention of having an honest conversation around a given topic. We opened the evening with a big question: “What activity makes you most come alive?” or “What are you most excited or scared of for your kids?” or “Do you think you’ll stay in your current career, and why?” and even the simple and ambiguous “What comes next?”

What came next was, predictably, a lot of things. Heartfelt responses to these questions could be hopeful and inspiring, but they could also be loaded with (reasonable) apprehension or even dread. Those evenings drew us together, but they also showed their extreme fragility. If a person spoke over another, or too quickly dismissed an anxious fear, it created a tangible tension within the group, and that intimacy was immediately damaged.

I wanted conversations that promoted vulnerability, but I was woefully underprepared when I got it. Vulnerability is a hard thing to master in any setting, grocery store or living room, casual conversations or even close relationships.

Thankfully, we have many allies in this world. After a few brave, ignorant attempts at these big conversations I came across Priya Parker’s sublime book, The Art of Gathering.

Just as the title implies, Parker considers gathering an art, worthy of imagination, preparation, boundaries and safeguarding. I recommend this book constantly, for those who are passionate about gathering a group together, or even anyone who wants to have more meaningful conversations.

The boundaries and safeguarding were especially important. And unexpected. Setting group rules and norms at the beginning of a dinner party doesn’t sound very fun or spontaneous (and I still find them clunky and awkward), but they turned out to be absolutely necessary when we want to promote, protect and value vulnerability.

Our vulnerability is a personalized gift. Which of course means it’s not for everyone.

We might think that being vulnerable means being an open book, but there’s wisdom in only showing a paragraph or page at a time to a few trusted people.

Boundaries treat vulnerability with the respect it deserves. Good boundaries create safety, both in places and in people.

Because everyone should find a safe place to share their story.

Just maybe not in the supermarket.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

How poetry can help us think differently

A new way to hear

I am standing in a crowd of thousands.

It feels like a spiritual ritual. Our breath is synced to the music. The palms of our hands strike together rhythmically. And we all stand tall, swaying collectively like great tall grasses blown by the same wind.

I came for this experience. To stand on the sloping hill of the natural amphitheater for hours, feeling the ache in my calves. To hold an overpriced beer in a plastic cup in one hand, and a melting ice cream cone in the other. To lose myself in a sea of sound. To sing words, both familiar and strange.

The band’s first ending occurs at 9 p.m. but I know it’s a feint. We all know it. All around me there is shuffling, the packing up of picnic blankets and ground level camp chairs, the preparations for a hasty exit. We still haven’t heard some of the best tracks from the band’s new album, and I know local bylaws shut down all live music at 10 p.m.

We have time.

Sure enough the band reappears, and to my immense pleasure, their final four songs of the evening are all deep cuts, one all the way from their initial 2004 EP, Cherry Tree.

For it’s final song, the bright lights fade to only the sparsest of stage lights, and the horn section starts low as the singer and musicians step away from their microphones. They all step to the very front, and the lead singer steps impossibly close, his feet partially over the edge of the stage as he arches his back, and bellows to the amphitheater:

“Vanderlyle, crybaby cry,
Oh the waters are rising, still not surprising you.
Vanderlyle crybaby cry.
Man it’s all been forgiven, the swans are a swimming.
I’ll explain everything to the geeks”

If you’re not a fan of The National, I’m pretty sure that last part gets lost in translation. But this is the song, the one each of us hopes is the last song of the evening. As I look around, everyone is singing those lyrics. And not just mouthing the words, but bringing them forth from the deepest places within them. I see a few eyes closed, I see a couple crying, overcome with the emotion of the moment. For a brief while, we all speak the same language.

Is it strange then that I have absolutely no idea what most of the words in that language mean?

For more than a decade, The National’s music has been in regular rotation. I know most of the words to their catalog, and I feel their authenticity when Matt Beringer sings them. But a comprehensive understanding of their lyrics almost always eludes me.

Of course this shouldn’t surprise me, since I find nearly all of my favourite poetry elusive.

For most of my life, I didn’t know how to read poetry. Despite appearing in books, most poetry is not served by sitting down and reading quickly from start to finish. Even a short poem can be deceptively daunting. If you handed me a paragraph of prose, I could likely understand it on first read. This is almost never the case with poetry. If you are uncomfortable with ambiguity, a poem can drive you mad.

A few years ago, I discovered a (now beloved) podcast devoted to making poetry more accessible. The podcast (Poetry Unbound, with Pádraig Ó Tuama) was both brief and brilliant. Each episode, the host reads a poem slowly, then reflects on it for a few minutes, and ends the episode by reading it a second time.

Interestingly, the host’s reflections on the poem are rarely explanatory. Instead they tend to be curious and personal musings about how a phrase was significant to the host, or what images the author might be inviting.

Somehow, this helped unlock poetry for me. Rather than miraculously understanding the entirety of the poems, I began to appreciate the parts I didn’t understand. I would take an episode with me while walking, washing dishes, driving to work, or any number of everyday solitary tasks. I could save my favourite poems, play a short episode multiple times, or just listen to the sections where the poem was read aloud.

Unintentionally, listening to poetry allowed me to turn the dial down on my analytical mind. I didn’t have to know what each line meant, or even what the whole poem was saying. I could appreciate the articulation of the words, the intentional structure of a given line, even particular words that resonated.
I was embracing partial understanding. I was valuing repetition and memorization. I was enjoying structure separate from the comprehensive understanding. I was starting to listen to poetry the way I had been listening to music for years.

It’s ridiculous I never appreciated the poetry that was always the most accessible, snuck in so many of my favourite songs. Despite my ignorance, all that sung poetry was doing something important over the years. It was teaching me a new way to hear old language.

We know and value if something is true when we hear it, even if we can’t articulate why or how it is true. And good poetry is always uncomfortably honest. But because we don’t fully understand what we are hearing, our brain is stuck with the paradox of considering something that is both valuable, and ultimately unknown.

Our mind, excellent at categorizing and judging, does not love this. Our mind likes to know the summarization of a story in advance. We like to know if a thing is good or bad, helpful or harmful, useful or useless. Good poetry just smirks, and says “good luck trying to figure out where I fit”. A line from your favourite poem or song could be any of those things. It could be a few of those things all at once.

It’s worth keeping a few unresolvable tensions in our mind, reminding that computing brain of ours that much of life is ultimately more valuable and unknowable than we might like to admit. Also, reminding us we can listen to old language in a new way and reminding us we don’t have to fully understand and categorize a thing to enjoy it and be swept up in it.

Maybe a line from our favourite poem or song can help us think this way. Or maybe, it simply brings a smile to our face as we sing along.

Either way, rock on.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Liz Gilbert and her 20 foot face

Inspired by author

Liz's Gilbert's face was at least 20 feet tall.

The auditorium was buzzing, vibrant with the hum of hundreds of excited, imperceivable conversations all around me. At the front of the stage was a giant picture of Gilbert, author of a number of bestsellers, including “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Big Magic”. She holds her face in her hands, a knowing and weary smile just touching her lips and eyes. It was the face of someone who had a secret, but held it in a way that conveyed both apprehension and excitement.

In front of the giant portrait sat a massive audience. The theatre held nearly a thousand - a packed show. Some members of the audience had young unblemished skin and tight curls. Others stood hunched, their faces marked by age spots, laugh and worry lines etched deep, and had brilliant silver hair that had long since lost its original colour. One mother brought her daughters, no more than 10 years old. Many brought their moms.

Notably, the audience was almost entirely women. As we walked towards our seats, I estimated there might be 10 to 20 men in the whole auditorium. I was struck by how unfamiliar that felt to me, how rare a thing to be in a space completely dominated by women.

I laughed at the strangeness of it. This tour was based on “Big Magic,” a book about living a creative life with wholehearted courage. When the tour was announced, I was reading and enjoying that book, so my partner bought the tickets for me as a gift. But no one looking at the audience would ever believe the evening was for me. I looked the part of an unfortunate and unsuspecting husband, dragged along on his wife’s insistence. The optics of it were immediately apparent to my wife, annoying her and giving me no small amount of amusement.

My partner and I were silent as we took our seats, aware of the buzz of expectant excitement all around us. The space was pregnant with anticipation. But anticipation for what? We didn’t know exactly what this evening would be.“Big Magic” was released years ago (in 2015), and Gilbert had written a handful of books since then that didn’t seem to be a part of this tour. Would she be reading to us from the stage? Was this even a book tour?

We started the evening with so many unanswered questions. And Liz Gilbert’s 20 foot tall sly smile wasn’t giving out any answers.

And then, with a brief introduction from her publisher, the real Liz Gilbert emerged. Dwarfed under the backdrop of her 20-foot face, she appeared positively pedestrian in her short cut hair, thick rimmed glasses and khaki pants. The audience erupted with applause, and then settled into attentive silence.

And then Gilbert spoke. For over an hour, she held our collective attention fast. There was no covert multitasking, no faces washed in cell phone glow checking time or notifications. Instead, there were bursts of laughter, there were murmurs of agreement, there were fingers slid across eyelids, wiping away the occasional tear. There were gasps of shock, the collective intake of breath, and smiles of understanding and connection between complete strangers.

I wouldn’t describe the event as a comedy show, despite some of those tears being those of laughter. It was not strictly a motivational speech, despite the fact that many of us came away profoundly moved, motivated to approach our lives with renewed passion. I also wouldn’t call it promotion, despite the fact I came away with even greater interest in Gilbert, and her writing projects.

After the show ended, as we left the auditorium and walked along the busy sidewalks to our car, I wondered what, exactly, we just saw. We were part of something special, but what exactly, and why was it so impactful?

It was a performance, certainly. There could be no doubt that the material of the evening had been meticulously practiced, curated and masterfully performed. Sitting down to listen to someone talk for a solid hour could either be a joy, or considered a form of torture. But care was taken with this evening and these stories. The audience knew they were in good hands from the first moments. No joke felt canned, no story over dramatized, no life lesson fabricated.

At its core, the event was a surprisingly simple one. Years ago Gilbert started writing advice and observations on how to live a creative life beyond fear, and was suddenly confronted with the realization she better practice what she was preaching (or “smoke what she was selling”, as she put it). She committed to follow her curiosity and creativity wherever it went, even (and especially) when it terrified her.

In the years that followed, she wrote a collection of stories about how that authentic bravery was both an invaluable gift and how it cost her dearly and remained a constant challenge. Those stories were deeply personal, but the themes of authenticity and courage were universal.

Those two traits are actually inseparable. You cannot have one without the other. Those who aim to be brave and courageous without authenticity are really only posturing. Those who dare to be authentic, to be fully themselves, they require the courage to look both within and without with clear eyes.

The evening wasn’t captivating because of Gilbert’s particular set of skills or status as an accomplished author. It was captivating because she was brave and vulnerably authentic. It was much less about her books, and more about the conditions she keeps herself in to be able to write them.

It was her humanity, rather than her celebrity, that called to us that evening.

Liz Gilbert, the New York Times bestselling and celebrated author, who travels the country with 20-foot tall promotional portraits was pretty impressive. Liz Gilbert, the vulnerable, creative and courageous human was even more so.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author


Matthew Rigby is a grateful husband to one, and father to three. He works as a registered nurse in emergency care, and has spent more than 15 years in healthcare. 

Matt, an avid reader and podcast enthusiast, is committed to great questions and honest discovery.

You can find his podcast "Something From Everything" wherever you listen, and find all his writing at www.somethingfromeverything.com.

You can contact Matthew at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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