The Ally Bill of Responsibilities #1

(Cross-posting from Facebook – I’m going to be posting over the next couple weeks as I work through Dr. Lynn Gehl’s Ally Bill of Responsibilities.)

If you are non-Indigenous and feeling overwhelmed and not sure what to do as you watch the ongoing colonial violence committed on Wet’suwet’en lands, consider this an invitation to find one specific and tangible action to take.

You can start with the Wet’suwet’en Supporter Toolkit 2020, which is full of resources and ideas. There are places to donate, articles to read, historical and contemporary information to learn.

If that feels daunting for you, and you’d like a single specific task, you can join me in spending some time with Dr. Lynn Gehl’s Ally Bill of Responsibilities.

There are 16 responsibilities listed in this bill, and I’m going to be working my way through these, focusing on one per day, for the next two weeks.

The first responsibility is –

“Do not act out of guilt, but rather out of a genuine interest in challenging the larger oppressive power structures.”

This requires us to examine our own hearts and find where guilt is our motivation. This is hard work, but it’s important.

What do you feel when you read stories and articles about what is happening on Wet’suwet’en land? When you read the racist and anti-Indigenous comments on articles and scattered throughout social media?

I think that many white settlers, like myself, are feeling guilt in these situations, and we know that we are implicated in the violence because we are part of the dominant group.

How can we recognize and validate those feelings of guilt, but NOT keep those as our motivation for being in solidarity with Indigenous communities?

Acting from guilt positions us as the ones with agency, the ones who can take actions to make things right. Acting from guilt can lead us to think that we’re the ones with the power to harm, and therefore the power to heal. It can lead us to think that our job is to “help” Indigenous communities. But this isn’t right. These larger oppressive power structures harm everyone, and challenging them is not an act of charity towards Indigenous communities, it is an act of mutual aid towards our mutual survival.

How can we shift our motivation so that we are acting from an awareness that these larger oppressive power structures must be challenged?

What will help us stay connected to an awareness of moving towards justice, rather than simply moving away from guilt?

Acting from guilt can also lead us into trying to gain absolution from our Indigenous friends and community members. Trying to be reassured that we’re not “bad”. Seeking out comfort for the uncomfortable feelings of guilt.

But acting from genuine interest in challenging oppressive power structures means that we can just do that work, without asking for reassurance and comfort from the people we are trying to be in solidarity with.

For myself, this responsibility feels more possible when I have other white settlers to discuss my feelings of guilt with, so that I’m not just ignoring or dismissing those feelings, but I’m also not allowing them to be the motivator of my actions. Accountability companions who share my white settler privilege and won’t be harmed when I talk about my guilt are important.

What helps you with this responsibility?

David Maxwell Memorial Reading Challenge

David Maxwell Memorial Reading Challenge

David Maxwell Memorial Reading Challenge

Created by Tiffany Sostar

In joyful memory of their dad, David Maxwell:
lover, collector, and sharer of books

January 12, 1953 – November 30, 2019

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.

Welcome to the David Maxwell Memorial Reading Challenge!

Make yourself a cup of David-style coffee: not too strong, with a generous-leaning-to-excessive helping of sugar or maple syrup, and more milk swirled in than seems reasonable.

Settle in and read your way to memories and connection.

This reading challenge has been created by me, Tiffany Sostar, David’s oldest child, in honour of dad and as a way to invite friends, family, and community to reflect on memories shared with David and to create new memories and experiences connected to David.

This reading challenge has a bias. It reflects my story with my dad, and it highlights the parts of dad’s story that were most impactful in my own life. It’s a gift from me to him, and to you.

There are other stories of dad’s life, and perhaps there are categories of reading missing that would help reflect the nuance and complexity of David Maxwell’s personhood and experience.

If there is a category you wish were here, please let me know.

I will be collecting stories and titles shared by reading challenge participants and will be creating an updated reading challenge next year, along with a book of stories.

I would love for that second iteration to include a broader view of my dad.

But for now, this is what I have to offer, from my own perspective, from my own heart.

If you would like to get in touch with me, you can find me at sostarselfcare@gmail.com, or online at tiffanysostar.com. I work as a narrative therapist, a community organizer, a writer, and an editor. The love of stories that dad and I shared has extended into every part of my life and is present in every aspect of my work.

A reading challenge is a bit like a literary treasure hunt.

Each category is a clue, and you must go searching for the book that will check that category off.

Both books and treasure hunts were cherished parts of my relationship with dad, and almost every treasure hunt that he created for me (each Christmas for 3 decades of my life!) included clues hidden in books, book titles as clues, gifts hidden behind books, books as the gift at the end of the hunt – books and treasure hunts, treasure hunts and books.

At a time when I miss my dad so much, and when I am overcome by the loss and the grief over pages left unturned in our relationship, and the sudden ending of our story together in this life, it has been a balm to create this reading challenge. This treasure hunt.

Dad left many legacies that continue in my life. Books, stories, and the determined pursuit of clues and threads of connection are among the shiniest.

How to participate

This document is part invitation and part remembrance. You can participate in either or both.

To participate in the invitation, you can join the treasure hunt by reading a book in each category and, if you would like, sharing your completed list back with me at sostarselfcare@gmail.com.

I will be keeping track of the books read in each category and will send out a list of all the shared titles at the end of 2020. I hope that this will be one way to maintain a connection to David and to create new memories and experiences that connect us in our memories of him.

The reading challenge invitation is open to anyone, whether they knew dad or not.

I love the idea of stories and inspiration connected to dad travelling beyond his circle. If you didn’t know dad and you participate in the challenge, I’d love to hear what books you read, what these books made possible in your life, and how the stories of my dad’s life moved you, if they did.

For those who knew dad, you can also participate in the remembrance by reading the stories (there could have been pages and pages more) and by sharing your own stories!

I would love to hear the stories that these categories remind you of, and to hear about the books that dad recommended to you, and to know what from him and his life has stayed with you.

These stories and memories will also be collected, with the hope of creating a story book of David’s life and his influence in others’ lives. You do not need to be limited to the categories listed here for your stories – share anything that sparkles in your memory!

You’ll find the categories listed first, with stories and suggested titles after.

Simple pleasures

If you’d like some guidance from dad, here is a list that he shared with me last summer of some of his favourite things. Perhaps these will spark memories for you, invite you to consider things that you cherish in your own life, or guide you to titles that excite and engage you.

(I included the parts of the list that mention specific people, because I think dad’s love for Glenda, for his siblings, and for my sister and I are worth recognizing. I know these specific items, unlike the more general pleasures he lists, might not lead you directly to books, but they are a balm for my heart, and perhaps they will lead you to memories and stories of cherished people in your own life.)

  • Reading and Collecting books
  • Collecting an eclectic selection of Christmas ornaments
  • Setting up the upside-down Christmas tree
  • Stepping off the plane in Italy
  • Eating Italian food as prepared in Cinque Terre, Puglia and Rome
  • Eating authentic Gelato
  • Working hard to provide a service to avid readers
  • Swimming
  • Spending time with my amazing partner – Glenda
  • Gardening with Glenda
  • Talking to two people of whom I am so proud – Tiffany and Domini
  • Talking and staying connected with friends around the world
  • Watching my brother succeed so admirably at saving Prairie from financial ruin and rebuilding its heart
  • Watching my sister do her job so well around the world, especially in Asia
  • Drinking good wine
  • Making an awesome BLT
  • Cooking a thick, juicy steak with eggs over easy
  • Ethiopian food and coffee
  • Laying under a warm tropical sun
  • Listening to Mozart, Telemann, Holinger, Chopin, Haydn, Salieri, Boccherini, Bach
  • Praying to my Heavenly Father
  • Driving

Travel with David:

Each of these categories is based on a location where David either spent time or planned to.

  • A book set in Nigeria, or written by a Nigerian author
  • A book about backpacking through Europe (consider focusing on the Cinque Terre)
  • A book set in, or written about, the mid-Western USA
  • A book set in, or written about, rural Alberta
  • A book set in, or written about, Calgary
  • A book set in Italy, or written by an Italian author
  • A book set in Croatia, or written by a Croatian author
  • A book set in Costa Rica, or written by a Costa Rican author
  • A book that includes walking the Camino

Imagine with David

Each of these categories reflects a speculative genre or type of book that David particularly enjoyed.

  • A book of hard science fiction
  • A book of high fantasy
  • A book of historical fiction
  • A retelling of a myth or fairytale
  • A pop-up book

Take a stand with David

Each of these categories represent an action David took to either take a stand in solidarity with a targeted community, or to take a stand for his own beliefs and values.

  • A book about education or pedagogy
  • A book of Christian theology
  • A book about Islam or a book by a Middle Eastern author sharing their lived experience
  • A book about LGBTQ2+ community
  • A book about healing after abuse or trauma

Read along with David

Each of these books have specific cherished memories attached to them, and are books that dad particularly enjoyed and frequently shared with others.

  • The Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
  • The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  • The Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner (any version!)
  • Anam Cara by John O’Donohue
  • Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
  • A Tintin comic
  • An Asterix comic

Memories

This section includes why I chose each category, along with a few brief stories and remembrances, and some suggested titles. This section will be significantly expanded in the second iteration of this reading challenge, hopefully with titles and stories from you!

Travel with David

Each of these categories is based on a location where David either spent time or planned to.

A book set in Nigeria, or written by a Nigerian author

Dad was born in Jos, Nigeria on January 12, 1953. He loved Nigeria and had endless stories of his time there. One of his favourite stories to tell was of rock climbing with a school friend and reaching up over the top of the climb to find a massive snake sunning itself at the summit!

Consider:

One Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi. This book is set in Nigeria during the Biafran war from 1967-1970. After I read this book, Dad and I had some really meaningful conversations about his memories of this time, and about his parents’ actions during this war.

A book about backpacking through Europe (consider focusing on the Cinque Terre)

Dad backpacked through Europe by himself as a teenager. This is when he first encountered and fell in love with the Cinque Terre in Italy.

Consider:

Rick Steves’ Pocket Cinque Terre. This little guidebook didn’t exist when dad backpacked the Cinque Terre as a youth, but dad was a huge fan of Rick Steves’ books!

A book set in, or written about, the mid-Western USA

Dad’s years in the States, including the years he spent in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were formative for him. During this time, he taught dance and danced professionally, and he also did a lot of work to support vulnerable communities. It was during these years that he worked on a suicide prevention hotline, and with survivors of rape and abuse.

Consider:

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. Set in the Midwest, this contemplation on the seasons in that part of the world is lovely, and Annie Dillard was an author dad often had on the shelves at Logos.

A book set in, or written about, rural Alberta

Dad lived in Three Hills for quite a few years, but his roots in rural Alberta are generations-deep. His grandfather founded Prairie Bible Institute (now Prairie Bible College), which dad attended. He also ran the Coffee Break in Three Hills for a time. I still remember the ham and cheese sandwiches, and the picture of a red soccer ball on his office wall!

We also camped most years in Kananaskis Country, and I have so many cherished memories of our camping trips.

Consider:

Maxwell’s Passion and Power by Harold Fuller. This book is about dad’s grandfather, L.E. Maxwell, and about Prairie Bible College, which he founded in Three Hills, Alberta.

First Spring Grass Fire by Rae Spoon. This is a book about growing up queer in rural and religious Alberta, and close to my own heart. Dad and I had many conversations about queerness within religious spaces.

A book set in, or written about, Calgary

Dad lived in Calgary for a long time. He managed Logos Bookstore for almost 30 years, and although he never loved the climate here, I know that he loved his community. He gardened here, enjoyed the restaurants here, and grew deep roots within the bookstore and in the communities that he served – especially the community of teachers and educators, and the various religious groups that brought him in for booktables (many, many days spent at the FCJ centre!).

Consider:

Since John Gilchrist is no longer publishing the My Favourite Eats series (which dad loved, and which guided us to many fine meals – dad and I shared a love of fancy food!), try Gail Norton’s Calgary Eats, with a foreword by Julie van Rosendaal (who has taken on John Gilchrist’s mantle as CBC food reviewer). And if you cook from the book, consider adding a fried egg to the recipe for Modern Steak’s steak with peppercorn sauce – a good steak with a fried egg was one of dad’s favourite meals.

A book set in Italy, or written by an Italian author

Dad loved Italy, and he lived there for a couple years. And even when he wasn’t living there, that’s where his heart longed to be. He loved the food, he loved the architecture, and he loved the people.

Consider:

Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King.

How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci by Michael Gelb. This book isn’t technically about Italy, but it’s one of the books I read when I was 18, when I designed and undertook my first self-guided “transformative year” project, which dad supported by guiding me to books like this!

A book set in Croatia, or written by a Croatian author

Dad lived in Croatia for a couple years and treasured Dubrovnik and his friends there. When I visited him, he took me for a walk through the wooded area down to the ocean. It was gorgeous.

A book set in Costa Rica, or written by a Costa Rican author

Dad also lived in Costa Rica!

A book that includes walking the Camino

Although dad did not have the opportunity to walk the Camino, it was one of his cherished dreams. I’ve included it in this section because although his feet never carried him on the pilgrimage, I know that his heart did.

Imagine with David

Each of these categories reflects a speculative genre or type of book that David particularly enjoyed.

A book of hard science fiction

I have so many memories of hard science fiction and my dad! Not only books but also movies and tv shows. Dad had a deep appreciation for science fiction, and our house was filled with science fiction novels.

A book of high fantasy

In his last week of life, dad was talking about the difference between a fantasy story and a fantastical story. This is such a sharp memory for me, and dad and I did not come to a clear conclusion in this discussion of what makes a story a fantasy story and what makes it a story with fantastical elements. This interest in fantasy, what constitutes fantasy, and what fantasy writing makes possible in our lives is one that threaded through my life with dad. He loved fantasy novels, and he had a particular appreciation for how fantasy writing allows us to explore complex issues of values, morals, and relationships.

A book of historical fiction

Some of my favourite recommendations from dad were historical fiction – Pauline Gedge’s Egypt books, Sandra Gulland’s Josephine Bonaparte trilogy, Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.

A retelling of myth or fairytale

I was in grade 6 when Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose was released as part of Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale series, and this retelling of the sleeping beauty story, set in a Nazi concentration camp, was profoundly moving. I cried, and talked with dad, and this story has stayed with me in the decades since. And it is not the only fairytale retelling that dad introduced me to. He loved William J. Brook’s Untold Tales and read the funniest passages out loud to whoever was in the room, and he also introduced me to Sheri S. Tepper’s Beauty, which bridges fairytale and science fiction.

Consider:

Book Riot has a list of 100 best fairytale retellings to invite you into one of dad’s favourite expansive genres. I would point you particularly to the Terri Windling anthology, the Neil Gaiman books, and Terry Pratchett.

A pop-up book

We were listening to CBC interview the man with the largest privately owned pop-up book collection in Canada. We raced downstairs and started counting. Yep… dad had over 100 more pop-ups in his collection than the collector being interviewed! Dad had a particular love of Robert Sabuda’s paper engineering, though he added any new feat of paper craft to his collection.

Take a stand with David

Each of these categories represent an action David took to either take a stand in solidarity with a targeted community, or to take a stand for his own beliefs and values.

A book about education or pedagogy

When Chapters moved in across the street, dad had to think quickly to keep Logos in business. He decided to move the bookstore strongly towards education, and his choice kept the store afloat during a decade that saw so many of Calgary’s independents close. In the many years of Logos focusing on education, dad built strong connections within the school boards in Calgary and was a yearly presence at the Calgary Teacher’s Convention. He also supplied educational books to book clubs and schools throughout the year. Even if education isn’t your field, there are gems in this category for any reader.

Consider:

Turning to One Another by Margaret Wheatley. Although this book was first published in 2002 and the world is significantly different now, Margaret Wheatley was one of dad’s favourite educational writers, and this book’s message of listening and finding common ground is one that dad appreciated.

The Politics of Education by Paulo Freire. Less well-known than Pedagogy of the Oppressed (which is brilliant and also worth reading!), The Politics of Education can be a bit more accessible for readers who aren’t already engaged in issues of pedagogy.

A book of Christian theology

Dad’s Christian faith was important to him, and he thought deeply about what he believed, and why he believed it. He read a diverse range of theological texts and pulled threads of insight from a wide range of traditions. I remember many conversations with him about thinkers as diverse as Catholic theologians Thomas Merton, Peter Kreeft, and Franciscan Richard Rohr, Evangelical theologians Dietrich Bonhoeffer and CS Lewis, as well as mystics like Hildegard von Bingen and Julian of Norwich.

Consider:

Dogspell by Mary Ashcroft. I cherish this small book, which dad brought into the store specifically for me and then kept on the shelves for many years. If there is a vision of faith that appeals to me and rings true in my heart, this is very close to it.

A book about Islam or a book by a Middle Eastern author about their lived experience

After 9/11, dad saw that Islamophobia was rising and he took an active stand against it in the bookstore. He brought in books on the topic of Islam, with a particular focus on books that highlighted points of connection and shared humanity.

Consider:

A History of God by Karen Armstrong. This is one book that was frequently on the shelf at Logos and looked at views of God through each of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. As conflict with Iran escalates and we see another rise in Islamophobia across North America, there is even more reason to return to this book about growing up in Tehran after the American-backed Islamic Revolution. Dad introduced me to this book.

A book about LGBTQ2+ community

“Oh, I think I got your genders wrong! This they/them stuff is tough for an old man like me, but that’s not the important thing.”

My dad said that to me in his last week of life, after using the wrong gendered terminology to refer to me (I am non-binary, and do not identify as a woman). My dad knew, accepted, and supported both my non-binary gender and my bisexual orientation. I hold this close to my heart.

But even beyond this theme in my own life, I remember when dad helped a long-time customer undertake a personal research project on the topic. This customer was clergy in a non-affirming denomination, and one of his congregants had come out to him as gay. His choices were either to break with his church in order to fully accept his congregant, or align with the church’s stance that homosexual behaviour was a sin. Over many months and many books and many conversations with dad, he decided to break with his church in order to stand with his gay congregant. Dad kept some of the titles on the shelf, despite pushback. This was a powerful experience for me, a queer youth who had not yet come out even to myself. I knew that my dad would support me, and when I did finally come out years later, he did.

Consider:

Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity by Elizabeth Edman.

Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner. This book was hugely influential in my undergrad work, and dad and I had meaningful conversations about what I was trying to do in my work, informed by Eisner’s book. My “undergrad work” included two honours theses, and the creation of Possibilities: Bi+ Community Group, which has now been running for over ten years. In 2018, dad and Glenda attended my Bisexual Visibility Day event, which was just one of the ways he supported this work.

A book about healing after abuse or trauma

Dad had a heart for those who were suffering and had been hurt. This was a thread throughout his life in many of his dealings with strangers and friends who came to him for help.

Consider:

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

Read along with David

Each of these books have specific cherished memories attached to them, and are books that dad particularly enjoyed and frequently shared with others.

The Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Pay attention for the moment when the dragon pushes its head up above the forest canopy and shouts, “EAT YOUR GREENS!” Imagine dad hooting with laughter, and reading this line out loud from his beloved glider in the living room of the house on 35th Ave.

The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon. Consider racing us through this book. Dad finished in three days! It took me an extra half day. How long will it take you?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. The book. The movie(s). The BBC mini-series.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Dad loved this series, and we both read it multiple times. Stop at the Ender books, if you’d like my recommendation!

The Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner (any version!). This was one of the most special things that dad and I shared. We watched a live broadcast of the opera when I was in elementary school, and then we shared this story in many formats over the years – the music, the sheet music, the graphic novel adaptations (both P. Craig Russell’s, and Roy Thomas and Gil Kane’s), the limited edition translated and annotated hard cover of The Ring of the Nibelung, The Rhinegold, and The Valkyrie with illustrations by Arthur Rackham, The Ring of Power Jungian analysis of The Ring Cycle by Jean Bolen… Despite Wagner’s abhorrent politics, this piece of music and writing remains close to my heart.

Anam Cara by John O’Donohue. Dad took the title of the Logos Bookstore newsletter from this book, and took much comfort from the contents.

Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. Another beloved book, which he recommended frequently.

A Tintin comic.

An Asterix comic.


This memorial reading challenge was created for and first shared at my dad’s celebration of life on January 12, 2020.

You can download the full PDF here.

You can download a checklist PDF to track your progress through the reading challenge here. (This PDF does not include any additional text – just the categories.)

Light and the Long Night

Light and the Long Night

(An earlier draft of this post was available to Patreon supporters.)

cw: death

Yesterday was the Winter Solstice, and it was also three weeks since my dad died. 

It was a hard day. It has been a hard three weeks. It was a hard stretch before that. It has been a long night, and the night is not over. But the light returns. I know that the light returns. I know that even in the darkest night and the deepest gloom, there is light.

The stars exist. And some of the stars that light our night skies are many centuries dead – still, they glow. Legacies of light, a physics of remembrance. I think that there is something like this in grief, too. A way of light continuing.

And there are fireflies and other bioluminescent plants and animals. Lights in deep gloom. In the further depths of dark ocean, in the forests, in the wide open spaces that can feel like endless empty. There is something like this in grief, too.

There is always light, somewhere. There is always light returning eventually. Sometimes it just takes time to travel to us, for us to travel to the light, for us to find a way to glow, for the small and precious glowing thing to show itself. The long dark is hard, but it is not forever.

I’ve been reflecting on the legacies that my dad left me, the legacies that I want to continue. 

I wrote to my friend about the memories of my youth and my feelings about my dad. Hugh said that, in reading my letter about my dad, they could see that he gave me “part of the thing we need most in this world: a sense of urgent justice.”

And this is true. When I think about what my dad gave me, and what I cherish most in myself, it is that sense of urgent justice.  

This urgent justice was, in its best and most cherished expression, justice tied to love. Justice tied to acceptance. Justice tied to empathy. Justice tied to an awareness of power and privilege, and an intentional choice to side with the marginalized.

I saw my dad express this justice tied to empathy and awareness of power many times in my life. Those stories have been close to me these last few weeks, surfacing again and again. Luminescent.

In the week after his death, when I was updating An Invitation to Celebrate to include him, and to invite people to celebrate the life of a loved one, I wrote – 

“He taught me to always watch for the hurting people and to connect with and care for them. That’s still how I live my life, and it’s my favourite thing about myself. It comes from my dad.”

This is justice.

This is the urgency of justice – to watch for the people who are hurting, to connect with them and to care for them. Justice and love are tied together, braided into a strong triple-strand with the hope that justice and love can light the path to something better, something more possible.

My small Solstice ritual included writing my dad a letter – the first letter I’ve been able to write him since he died. I told him that I love him, that I will not forget him, that he was good and worthy and that I will hold onto many of the things he taught me. I named the threads I will hold onto:

  •  a sense of urgent justice
  •  a deep appreciation for the power of good story
  •  a commitment to compassion and acceptance

These are some of the lights my dad offered me. Lights that are still in my sky.

And every light casts a shadow, so along with these lights I acknowledge failures and complexities. Actions that align with injustice, stories that cause harm, cruelty and rejection instead of compassion and acceptance. These shadows were present in my own life, and in my dad’s life and in our relationship, but they do not cancel out the light. Part of how I will honour my dad is by holding the light, and not denying the shadow. 

What those failures and ruptures and omissions, those shadows, offer is the invitation to return to alignment with values of justice, good story, compassion, acceptance.

Fail, and return.

Fail, and choose to come back.

Fail, and then breathe, cry, grapple with guilt and shame, and return again, again, again.

I did not include this in my letter, but it is also true that another legacy I will carry forward from my dad is a deep value of connection. In this, too, we both failed and returned, failed and returned.

I wrote this two weeks ago –

One week since dad stepped out of this story and into another.

I woke up at 4:30. I set an alarm. I didn’t want to sleep through it, to sleep through the slipping from the first week to the second week, to sleep through marking and remembering those ten minutes between when Domini woke me up and when dad slipped away.

I had a plan for the day, to get through this day. It was a pretty good plan, I think.

But I got the wind knocked out of me before I could do it, knocked off the plan, smashed hard into a wall I saw coming but still somehow didn’t expect. Maybe just didn’t expect the timing of it. Didn’t expect it this morning, like that.

I went swimming instead.

Dad and I used to swim at the same pool – Vecova. Helped my fibro, helped his pain, too. We crossed paths a few times. Not enough.

I have spent the last hour reading old emails.

‘Hello my first born, you know, I hope, that I am proud of you. I miss you.’

‘Hi dad, haven’t heard from you in a while. I miss you.’

‘Good morning, Tiffany. I sometimes feel that you and I are growing further and further apart and I do not know how to counter that.’

‘Hey Dad, how are you? I miss you. I love you!’

‘You have no idea how much I miss talking to you; working on a treasure hunt for you; and just being able to connect with you. Even though you are a fully realized adult and are demonstrably moving forward I still think of you as someone who, at one time, counted on me to help you work through some of your issues. I wish that were still the case.’

‘Hi dad, I know you’re probably busy but I thought I’d try again. How are you doing?’

We both tried so hard, for so long.

We both wanted something different.

We were both reaching and reaching and reaching and not quite getting there.

It is hard to read these emails, each of us repeatedly reaching out, somehow not able to get past the missing and find connection.

There is a deep ocean of grief in me, for what we had and have lost, for what we wanted and were not able to find, for what was painful between us, for what was precious between us.

It is a very hard day, today.

Despite how hard it was, we kept trying. We valued connection – we both valued connection with each other – enough to keep trying. To keep coming back.

And I will carry that with me, the knowledge that continuing to try holds value, and that even when it isn’t perfect, it is good and worthy.

I lit four candles for the Solstice.

A black candle for the grief, the loss, the long dark.

A green candle for justice, and for the growth that comes from aligning with justice.

A red candle for love and compassion and empathy and acceptance, the sparks that tell justice where to focus, how to grow.

A white candle for hope and renewal, for the willingness to fail and come back, for the light that we can turn to, phototropic, moving towards what is good and life-giving.

I put the letter to my dad in the center.

I let the light flicker into the long night.

***

Listen to Shelby Merry’s When The Night Is Long 

Trajectories

Trajectories

(content note: death, dying)

The photo is of my hand in my dad’s hand. I took it on Thursday, as I sat with him. Holding hands will always remind me of what he taught me – three squeezes for “I love you,” four squeezes for “I love you, too.”

I will write this up in different ways over time but for now I want to share that I spent a lot of time in the last week holding my dad’s hand.

We tried, for so long, to find our way to each other. 

We did not always have an easy time of it.

There was distance that neither of us wanted and neither of us knew how to resolve. There was a lot of pain. 

We spiraled in towards each other – a phone call, a dinner, a visit. And then we spun out again, distant, disconnected. Not able to find a way to feel close. I believe that we both wanted something different. I believe that my dad wanted the kind of closeness that I also wanted. We did the best that we could. 

(My sister, who had her own hard path and deep valleys of disconnection with dad, keeps reminding me of this – We did the best we could. We all did the best that we could. It is enough. It was always enough. It will always be enough. We all did the best that we could. My sister is a miracle. I spent a lot of time over the last week holding hands with her, too.)

There were also so many cherished moments, both in my childhood and in the long apartness of adulthood. 

There were so many gifts in the relationship. So many legacies that continue in me, in my life, in my values and my skills and the way I approach my work and the world. As I move through this process and write my way through my feelings, I hope that the stories of these gifts, legacies, values, and skills will be captured in shareable ways. I want to find a way to make these things visible, to give them names, to rescue them from memory and put them into narratives. I treasure them. I cherish these sparkling memories and gifts from my dad, and the distance we sometimes felt does not eclipse them.

There is never just one single true story. Not of a person, not of a place, not of a relationship.

I am thankful to my dear friend Patti who, echoing my sister’s wisdom, wrote to me and said, “I hope you find solace in knowing that for as  long as I’ve known you, you’ve worked so hard at being in good relation with your dad. You carried some weight because of this and I’d like to gently suggest that you have been there for him and others in your family as part of your loving kindness, your gifts… Although our minds try to trick us that we might have done more or differently, you did everything the way it was supposed to have occurred.”

On November 14, my dad and his partner called to let us know that the doctor’s appointment had not gone as they had hoped. Just the week before, my dad had said he felt that the latest treatment was working. It was not. The doctor let them know that a likely timeline was 3 weeks to 3 months. 

I was in Toronto when I got the call. I flew back as scheduled two days later, attended the Ally Toolkit Resource Fair on the Sunday, presented my Networks of Care presentation at a lunch and learn and again at the Ally Toolkit Conference on Monday. I was supposed to see him Tuesday, but the roads were terrible and I hadn’t got winters on my car, he told me to stay home, that we had time. I worked 13 hours on Wednesday. Writing this, I feel hot shame and regret settling behind my sternum. I wasted a whole week.

But we had been chatting daily over that time. I sent him pictures of art my littlest stepkid had made, and he asked if she would draw him a picture of an upside down Christmas tree (he has had upside down trees for years – they have more space for ornaments). 

On Thursday, my nesting partner and littlest stepkid and I went over, and he snuggled with her and saw her art. Her picture is now framed and sitting by his tree, a 5-year-old’s rendition of an upside down Christmas tree, and presents, and ornaments, and stick figures, as he had requested. He and I chatted, and my sister came over, and it was good. It was hard to see how quickly things had changed, but it was good to see him.

I saw him almost every day after until his final moments at 4:40 am on November 30.

There are a lot of memories I want to capture from this week of time together, but right now, in this post, I just want to name and honour and make visible that in this week, we found our way to each other.

In this last week, he wanted Domini and me to be there. 

He let us be there.

We orbited each other for so long, our trajectories never quite lining up to allow us to move together, to be in closeness, to be, as Patti insightfully named it, in right relation. But in this last week, we were there. We were there together with him and his partner. It took a long time, and it’s so hard that it only happened in this way at the very end, but our circuitous path lead us finally together.

This is the tribute my sister and I wrote for him and shared on Facebook. 

David Maxwell loved books and travel and people. He loved justice and kindness and connection. He loved the precious life that he had co-created with his partner and his friends.

He lived in Nigeria, America, Canada, Croatia, and Costa Rica. And he lived in Italy, too. His favourite place in the world.

Wherever he went, he collected friends and he kept them, tucked away into his contact list, cherishing and reconnecting with them regularly. His Christmas Day and New Years phone calls to friends around the world, often starting in the early hours of the morning and going for hours and hours, were a feature of our childhood home and a tradition that continued long after we had all left that house, dispersed in four directions.

We will borrow his own turn of phrase and share that in the early morning of November 30 our dad stepped into Eternity. A long and difficult battle with cancer has come to a close. He knew that God was there with him, waiting for him. His faith was important to him, and he had an incredible ability to connect with people of many faiths.

Domini, Tiffany, and his partner Glenda were with him. His sister Ruth, who had been with us for most of the previous few days, arrived shortly after. He went with grace, surrounded by the kind of love that holds space for a whole person and for all the complexity of that person. It was deep and intentional love that surrounded him in his last days.

This experience has been incredibly challenging as we battled to process how quickly things changed. But it was also a beautiful and precious experience that we will be eternally grateful to have had with him.

We each knew him in different ways, we each have a different story of David Maxwell – not a coin with two sides and an edge, he was a TARDIS, bigger on the inside, full of rooms that few people had seen. He was a pop-up book, full of pages that became something totally new when you pulled the right tab or turned the wheel. He was an upside down Christmas tree, unexpected, decorated with unique and beloved ornaments – old ones and new ones, soft ones and hard ones, some that glitter brightly and some in the shadows.

He took that last step on his long journey while he was at home, his bed set up by the window and the view, as he had always wished.

We miss him.

We love him.

We turn the page into this new chapter, not ready. How could we ever be ready? But we are better prepared because of what he brought to our lives. His legacies in our lives will continue, will live through in our kids, in our own values of justice and kindness and connection, in our own love of books and travel and people. In our own complexity.

We know that Dad’s influence and connections stretch across decades and oceans alike, his chosen family and friends have lost a precious connection. We offer our love and support to all those who will be grieving alongside us. We would love to hear your stories of him, his life, and who he was in your life. We would love to know him better through you.

Among other books on the go, dad was most of the way through Lindsay Buroker’s Dragon Blood series and he was enjoying the books immensely. If you need a gift for a fantasy lover this coming season, consider one last recommendation from David Maxwell.

Originally posted on Facebook

I’m taking this week off, and then I’ll sit down and figure out how to move through this time.

I had an idea this morning of something I would like to do, a way of creating a project around this time, and when I expressed anxiety that I was doing this ‘wrong’ by thinking about projects, my beloved Nathan said, “You have literally always taken what you are working with and gifted community with the opportunity to connect directly and in parallel.  It is one of your ways. One of the ways your light shines so people who have belongingness with you can find their way to you in the dark. I could not think of a more you way to grieve. And I could not think of a more honourable tribute to your relationship with your Dad.” 

So, we’ll see what happens with that after this week of gentleness and space.

I know that this experience has been profound.

I know that it will change the trajectory of at least some of my work.

That it will change the trajectory of some of my own stories of myself, and of myself in relationship with my dad, and of my dad.

I know that I will find a way to bring this experience into my community work, and I am thankful that this community of support is here with me.


Edited to add: I did create the project I mentioned.

http://www.tiffany-sostar,com/courses/an-invitation-to-celebrate

An Invitation to Celebrate has been completely updated to include an option to celebrate the life of a loved one.

(Originally shared on my Patreon.)

Starting and ending

Starting and ending

(Image description: A waning moon in a dark sky. Photo from Pixabay.)

It’s the end of the year.

It’s New Year’s Eve.

I was going to write a year in review post (and I’ll do that eventually), but I thought for right now, sitting here on my couch, wondering what each of my community members are doing and feeling – I thought I would write about the pressure of this night. Because let me tell you, my pals! I am feeling the pressure right now!

Are you?

If so, how are you managing it?

Do you have any insider knowledge to help?

Do you have histories of responding?

I’ll tell you a bit of the history of my relationship with the particular pressure.

So.

In high school, I had the most amazing bedroom. It was painted a bright blue, and it was full of books and candles and song lyrics on the walls, and there was a little tea and coffee nook in the corner, and a fold-down desk where I wrote endless words, and there was so much love and pain in that room. Tonight, I am remembering New Year’s Eve moments in that room. Sitting on the floor with candles and a journal, writing goals and resolutions that would fix my life. That would fix the sadness and the loneliness. That would guarantee success, in whatever way I was defining success at the time. Mostly to do with writing a lot, being creative, sometimes about being a good Christian, sometimes just about being a good person. In all of these longings there was a desire for security, safety, stability. A strong base to build a life on. Safe footing.

I wanted magic.

I wanted that night – this night – to be magic.

I think a lot of people who are hurting want magic.

And in this moment, which echoes all those other moments, I can feel the intensity of the pressure. The desperation.

“Start the year on the right foot.”

I strongly believed that what I carried through this night would influence my coming year – that I had this one night to get it right, set the right intention, feel the right feelings, want the right things, be good enough, be calm enough, be strong enough, be generous and gracious enough, be good enough, be good enough. This night would set the tone for the year to come. Get it right.

Get it right.

Because if it’s wrong…

I don’t believe in the law of attraction. But on this night it shows up, demanding that I attract just the right things with just the right ways of being.

Tonight, I find myself again feeling the intensity, the desperate desire to find the right foot and be on it when the year rolls over.

Because although so much was accomplished in this last year, there was also so much grief and loss and fear and scarcity and anger and shame, and I do not want to carry this into the new year. I want a new year.

Specifically, I want the kind of year that I always wanted when I was in that bright blue room, surrounded by candles, writing with a fancy pen in a fancy journal.

I think that’s why I’m feeling the same pressure in the same way.

I want to feel stable, secure, safe.

I want us all to feel stable, secure, safe.

I want us to have a strong foundation to build our lives on.

I want us to have safe footing.

And I feel like on this long exhale of a night, it would take magic to get there.

I started this post feeling like a storm trapped in a bottle. I wanted to share that feeling, because I have found that I am often not the only one in my life struggling in the ways that I find myself struggling. And I think we are stronger together. I think telling our stories of struggle and responding to struggle can be a powerful act of community care.

As I wrote the post, I connected with a few friends. I watched an episode of Travelers. I felt my body, which is always aching. I felt my heart untangling from the intensity of desire for magic, and found myself wrapping it up in something softer.

As much as I am desperate to start this year on the right foot so I can summon the magic, I find myself remembering that the foot you start on doesn’t have to be the foot you stay on. And I am also remembering all the magic that we have made together, in all of our myriad skills of resistance and response, and our values of justice and care.

Narratives of Work – a tarot exploration

Narratives of Work – a tarot exploration

(This post was available a week early to my patrons. My Patreon helps support this work, and I appreciate my patrons more than I can say!)

Tarot is an important part of my life, and has been for quite a few years.

I use tarot as a way to think about what’s happening in my life, with tarot spreads acting as invitations to think about situations in specific and focused ways. I have also used tarot in narrative therapy in a similar way – inviting community members to engage with the cards as a visual way to explore their stories. I also use tarot as part of my slowly developing spiritual practice. I’ve written before about how I use tarot as self-care, in this post that introduced my tarot practice, and in this post about how to use tarot as a self-storying tool.

I participated in parts of the Owl and Bones August tarot challenge on Instagram. There was a prompt for each day, and it was an interesting process to notice was came up, what kept coming up, and how I responded to the cards. (I will admit that my participation was a bit more hit and miss while was away, mostly because I was so sick.)

On August 22nd, the prompt was “Where are things out of balance?”

I drew the Nine of Wands.

Image description: The Nine of Wands from The Wild Unknown tarot deck, against a black background.

This card is about stamina and inner strength – it’s about continuing on the long path.

Carrie Mallon, a tarot blogger who has written posts for each of the cards in the Wild Unknown deck (which I’m using here) writes about the Nine of Wands:

“The Nine of Wands shows that sometimes we need to draw on our inner reserves. We need to protect what is important to us, we need to protect our energy. We need to keep going, even though we may feel a little tired from being so on-guard. This kind of perseverance can be admirable, but can also lead to weariness.”

I thought, of course. Work is out of balance! I’m working too much. I’m always on the edge of burnout. I’m too busy, there’s too much going on, there’s too much pressure and stress. Work. This is about work.

But for some reason, I paused before posting the picture and that little response to it on Instagram. Instead, I sat with it for a few days.

I wondered why it was so easy to come to that interpretation.

I wondered about what the effect of having this story so prominently in my mind might be – how does it impact my days to always be framing myself in terms of “the edge of burnout” and “doing too much”?

I was a little uncomfortable with this line of inquiry, because I am always cautious when I feel myself edging towards “shift the narrative.” So often, this is used as a bludgeon against people who are legitimately struggling with injustice.

“Just shift your narrative!”

“Just focus on the positive!”

How about, just bite me.

However, this idea of shifting my own narrative is a theme that’s been coming up for me in a lot of areas lately. I have noticed that I’ve pushed so hard away from weaponized positivity that I sometimes feel like I’ve lost my connection to any kind of positivity at all. It’s easy, lately, to find myself feeling hopeless, trapped, powerless.

Even though it is unjust to demand that hurting people “focus on the positive,” that doesn’t mean there is never a time to re-frame.

In my narrative therapy training, I’ve been taught to “linger with intent” in the problem story – to invite community members to talk about their problems without shame or judgement, and to look for ways to strengthen their connection to preferred outcomes and preferred selves within those stories.

What this looks like in practice is that I listen to the stories that community members bring into narrative therapy sessions with an ear open to “double-storying” – what’s not being said here, but might be present anyway? In a story of anger, for example, there is sometimes a sense of justice that refuses to be silenced. In a story of hopelessness or exhaustion, there might be a cherished belief that things could be, and should be, different.

This means deepening stories of resistance and response, looking for those moments of choice and asking questions that connect people to their own acts of agency and to the ways in which they’ve responded to the problems in their lives. It also means looking for what people are valuing – what they hold to be precious or cherished, what they want for themselves and the world, what they hope for and dream – and working to strengthen their connections to the histories of those values.

This feels different than telling people to “shift their perspective” or to “think positive.”

It’s hard for me to write about this in clear and confident ways because I’m in the middle of the struggle myself.

What I do in a narrative therapy session is try to help people shift how they are oriented towards their problems and their own stories. I try to shift the narrative!

But outside of narrative therapy sessions and the respectful framing that I’m learning in my narrative therapy training, what I see in so much self-help writing is demands to “change your perspective and change your life,” with a subtext that seems to say that people have invited their own suffering, that they’re experiencing the consequences of their own “low vibrations” or “negative thoughts,” or that they have both the power and the responsibility to single-handedly and through the power of positive thinking change their external context. I hate these demands so much.

But what I’ve noticed in myself is that in rejecting the culture of “manifest your best life” positive thinking, I have also rejected a lot of helpful wisdom (wisdom that shows up in narrative therapy, too, and that I love in that context!) In rejecting the idea that individuals are responsible for changing social contexts that they can’t control, I have found myself also rejecting the hope for any change at all. I have focused so much on the harms of individualizing problems that I sometimes think I have forgotten the hope of collective action. I have focused on resisting narratives of “manifestation” and I think that I have sometimes lost sight of narratives of agency and choice.

I don’t know what to do about this.

But I do know this – when I pulled the Nine of Wands, my mind leapt to a very specific narrative of myself. It is the narrative of overwork. The narrative of “the edge of burnout.” It is a narrative I know very well, and anytime a narrative comes that easily, it’s worth questioning.

Because, even though it is a narrative that comes with my critique of capitalism and my feelings of powerlessness in the face of late stage capitalism, it’s also a thin narrative of myself. (“Thin description allows little space for the complexities and contradictions of life. It allows little space for people to articulate their own particular meanings of their actions and the context within which they occurred.” – from What is Narrative Therapy on the Dulwich Centre’s excellent site.)

I started wondering, what if the thing that’s out of balance isn’t work, but my narrative about work?

(And, since it’s Sunday when I’m writing this, and Sunday in the Tender Year is when I pick a binary and challenge it, what if it isn’t either/or, but rather both?)

I started asking myself what is rendered invisible when I focus only on the part of my working self that is so tired and overwhelmed?

The answers came slowly, especially because I was sick. But they did come eventually.

What gets erased is the joy I take in my work.

What gets erased are the positive effects of my work.

What gets erased is the support I have in my work (including from my patrons!) and the growth that I am inviting into my life by continuing to do this work.

My choices get erased in this narrative, which is a narrative of work being foisted on me – work that I have to do in order to pay the rent, work that I have to do in order to get where I need to be.

But I do feel joy in my work.

There are positive effects that result from my work.

I have so much support for my work, and I do make choices.

After sitting with this idea of work / narratives of work, I laid out another tarot spread for myself.

Image description: A Wild Unknown tarot spread and a muffin on a wooden table. The spread includes the Nine of Wands, the Four of Cups, the Ace of Wands, the Four of Wands, and the Son of Pentacles. The Father of Cups is also visible on top of the deck.

I pulled out the Nine of Wands, and then laid out my favourite spread with that as the focus.

My favourite spread is the elements – a five card spread with a focus card (or a card that represents the situation or the whole), and then cards for air/mental self, water/emotional self, earth/physical or material self, and fire/creative, passionate, or spiritual self.

In the air position, I had the Four of Cups.

The Four of Cups in the Wild Unknown always strikes me as being a card about feelings of scarcity – that rat is trying so hard to keep control of all the cups, to make sure they don’t tip or get stolen. The Four of Cups is often about feeling like there isn’t enough, and in this deck (more than most others) it makes me think of the way scarcity can invite us into desperation and a desire to control our situation more tightly than we need to, more tightly than we actually can. This card says, “I can’t let go of anything, or I will lose everything.”

It landed like a hammer and I almost didn’t even flip the rest of the spread. This card speaks directly to what I had been thinking about over the four days since originally pulling the Nine of Wands.

Maybe I’m out of balance about this because I am so focused on scarcity. I am so terrified of scarcity. I am terrified of financial insecurity – I have experienced acute financial scarcity in the past, and I am chronically on the edge of it (and have been since my divorce), and those thoughts consume me sometimes. Especially when I think about work, and about throwing myself more fully into my narrative work.

I noticed the moon in both the Four of Cups and the Nine of Wands. That dark crescent in the Four is a rich golden colour in the Nine of Wands – two different narratives of the same moon. Am I working towards that bright sliver of light, or am I clutching what little I can in the shadows? It’s the same thing, but it’s a very different story of that same thing.

So that first position is air, how I’m thinking about the situation.

I moved on to the rest of the spread.

Water – how am I feeling about this situation? Where are my emotions here?

The Ace of Wands. This is a card about new beginnings, and about passion. When I think about work, I do think in terms of scarcity – a lack of time, a lack of money, a lack of resources, a lack of faith in myself. And a lot of that is justified, but it isn’t the whole story. Because when I feel about work, particularly about my narrative work, my community organizing work, my writing work – I feel passionate and excited. I feel like I’m building something! I feel like there’s value here, and the potential to do something new and needed. This card resonated for me, too.

Then across the spread to Fire – where is my passion and creativity here?

The Son of Pentacles. I see the same golden crescent moon as in the Nine of Wands, and notice the pentacle (a symbol of earth and grounding and materiality) centered in it – another narrative of this same story that adds stability to the potential and “enoughness” of that rich crescent.

Carrie Mallon writes about this card:

The Son of Pentacles leans into the card, pressing forward slowly but surely. An orange crescent moon frames a pentacle above him. The background is dark, but lightens where he gazes.

The Son of Pentacles is not one to act with great haste or passion. He is purposeful and careful in all that he does. Once he has decided to move in a given direction, that is simply where he goes. He sticks the course and slugs through the mud to reach his goals. He doesn’t always trust easily, but if someone does earn his trust, he stands by them without fail.

On the positive side, this attention to detail can be essential. The Son of Pentacles is thorough and has unparalleled determination to finish what he starts. On the negative side, he can fall prone to tunnel vision.

…[The] Son of Pentacles is looking down at his chosen path. He is so resolute in his endeavors that he may forget to look up and assess his current surroundings. He may have a difficult time with changes and flexibility.

That also resonates with what I’d been thinking about this whole work/narratives of work thing. I recognize my own determination, but I can also see how sometimes I get focused on a particular idea or narrative and it’s hard for me to deviate from that. I also find this interesting because this card is in the fire position – it’s all about passion. But the Son of Pentacles is not a passionate card. He’s determined, focused, attentive but not passionate. And I am passionate. I am passionate in general but I am especially passionate about my work.

Except, not so much lately.

Lately, I’ve been so tired. I’ve been so fixed on how hard it is, how hard I’m working, how hard I have to keep working, and I haven’t been feeling my fire. I’ve been feeling sad and hopeless lately – climate change, economics, politics. I’ve been doing my work, but I’ve been doing it more like the Son of Pentacles than I would like.

And the lovely thing about that is that I can make choices about whether I continue like this! The cards are not fixed, fatalistic. The cards are a conversation. And I can make choices, make changes. I can invite more fire into this part of my life.

Finally, Earth – where is my physical and material self in this?

The Four of Wands. Where the Four of Cups is about scarcity and lack, the Four of Wands is about celebration and reaching milestones.

I’m interpreting this card as an invitation to notice successes as they happen, rather than constantly watching for upcoming failures or challenges.

The fact is, some things have gone really well in the last while! I have First Class Honours in my first course of the Masters program. My birthday offer of $37 narrative therapy sessions has been popular, and I only have 25 of these sessions left. (If you’d like to take advantage of this offer, get in touch! I’d love to work with you.) I have a lot of ideas for posts and projects, and lots of people are interested in participating in these projects. The next zine is almost ready to be printed!

I’m going to try to notice those things when they happen, and to let myself linger in those stories of success and hope.

It’s really difficult looking at our narratives and allowing them to shift (or even acknowledging that a shift might be possible or desirable).

I appreciate the way that tarot invites me into these difficult and rich conversations with myself and with my stories.

Onward!