The first Existential Dread Club conversations happened in July, 2021. Things were bad, then, too.
In those conversations we talked about what was contributing to our experiences of existential dread.
Here’s some of what we said in our first meeting conversation;
I don’t know if existential dread is quite the right word for it, but like, a feeling of hopelessness and overwhelm and uncertainty about the future, because it seems like every time we do something to make some kind of progress – like we have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and they generate this phenomenal body of work. We have the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2 Spirit final report and they generate this incredible body of work. And within that body of work, there is so much education, so much emotional labour of Indigenous communities, and then it does nothing! The government does nothing with it and that contributes to my feeling of like, “Why? And how? And what even is the future?”
We went through that historic heatwave just, you know, 10 days ago. And that left me feeling more intensified feelings. I’ve been thinking about what kind of world we’re leaving for the people who come after us, and what we have done to this planet.
I think capitalism and how to actually deal with capitalism so that we can do something about all of these different things. Because there’s not really any incentive under capitalism to stop making money quarterly.
I see a lot of initial momentum towards maybe challenging capitalism, but I fear that this is just people online, on social media saying ‘yes, this sucks,’ but thinking that there’s no actionable things attached to challenging it in any way. And so I fear that it’s this moment where it’s possible but probably not gonna happen. And that’s really tough.
Definitely the general feeling of, like, hopelessness that’s reflected back to me when I chat with folks… it’s a lot.
We talked about friendship and trust and hope, and the effect of feeling hopeless and despairing and lonely. And we talked about what helps.
We talked about not being able to control other people, and how that makes things hard – how the actions we see people taking that cause harm can invite us to feel both responsible and hopeless, and how turning our energies towards the relationships where we can make a difference feels more possible, more hopeful, more generative. In those spaces of relationship, where trust has been developed and care exists, it’s not about control, it’s about influence and connection.
One participant said, “The smallest things we can do are the things that just help us personally, that we can only do for ourselves not to feel so much dread. And then as you get bigger it’s about trying to affect maybe your friends and family. And then it gets to trying to affect society and that’s where it gets bigger and bigger, but it also gets harder and harder.”
A Weekend at the Existential Dread Club is my attempt to widen my circle of influence just a little bit, for just a little while.
I haven’t been doing much organizing lately. I have mostly been hanging on by my fingernails to this life. Doing what feels possible, acknowledging that what feels possible is most often the smallest, most personal thing.
But I feel an intense amount of dread these days.
Things are bad.
Things are so bad, in so many areas.
Issues around the pandemic, and how we are watching ‘the easing of protections’ (to use a phrase from a dear friend) sparked the idea for this second Existential Dread Club event. There is growing existential dread for those of us who are disabled, chronically ill, medically complex, or otherwise at increased medical risk (due to personal factors, sure, but also due to structural factors like medical racism, transphobia, fatphobia).
But between having the idea and actually organizing anything, so much more has happened. War in Ukraine. Floods in Australia. Cost of living shooting up fast enough that people I know and love can’t pay their bills. Texas coming after trans kids and anyone who tries to offer trans affirming care. The ‘convoy’. Anti-mask demonstrations every week.
Everything present in those first conversations, escalating. Colonialism. White supremacy. Climate change. Capitalism.
And alongside all of this, I really miss organizing. I miss facilitating events. I miss conferences and retreats. I miss community spaces and the conversations in those spaces and the documents that grow out of those spaces. I miss being the past version of me who had energy for that kind of work, time for that kind of work, space for it.
So, this is a virtual retreat. A weekend to talk about what we’re afraid of, what we’re holding onto, how we’re getting through.
There will be three facilitated conversations:
Friday, April 1 from 6:30-8 pm MST
Saturday, April 2 from 1:30-3 pm MST
Sunday, April 3 from 10-11:30 am MST
There will also be a gather.town set up for the weekend, where we can chat, post messages, maybe have a watch party together on Saturday evening. I’m hoping to capture a little bit of the casual conversation and social connection that I miss so much from facilitating retreats.
There will probably be a writing workshop, too.
You can join for whatever part of the events feels best for you and fits into your schedule. You can register here. There’s no cost, but there’s an option to donate if you want to.
For now, only the three facilitated conversations are formally scheduled, but as we get closer to the weekend, other events will be scheduled.
This is for my trans siblings. The entire amazing spectrum of us. The way we are part of every community, the way we hold every possible intersecting identity. This is especially for my trans siblings who are on the margins, not because of anything internal but because of enforced marginality, the pushing out from the centre, the unnecessary creation of scarcity and risk. This is for my trans siblings who are Indigenous, Black, and brown, disabled, neurodivergent, young or old, fat, unhoused, sex working, un- or underemployed, who are in unsafe and hostile contexts.
I love us.
In this year of intense and layered grief, I love us with a love that comes from the root of anger – love that is also rage against injustice, love that is also a refusal to accept injustice as inevitable. It is *not* inevitable.
But, if it’s not inevitable, what else is possible?
What other worlds and ways might be possible?
On this day, I am reflecting on these questions, and I am inviting you to join me:
What are the stories that you were first told about trans lives and trans people? Do you remember the first time you learned that we exist?
If these first stories were hostile, skeptical, or degrading, how did you learn to resist them, refuse them, or re-author them? What has been the effect of these stories on your life? What has been the effect of your refusal?
If these first stories were welcoming, affirming, and honouring, what did this make possible in your life? What has been the effect of these stories on your life?
Who told you these first stories? What was their relationship to trans lives and trans people?
What was the first story you heard directly from a trans person about trans lives and trans people? What changed for you, what became possible, when you started hearing stories directly from trans people?
When did you first feel grief for how trans people are treated? What did this grief change in your life? What did it make possible?
When was the first time you learned that trans experience also includes joy and ease? What did this learning make possible in your life?
If you are a trans person, what has kept you connected to the possibility of your own life? What do you hold onto? What do you cherish? What do you know is true about you, even in moments when hostile contexts might seek to distance you from this self-knowledge?
Today, we honour our dead. There are too many. Too many of us track our lives against the average and know that we are in danger.
But also, today we fight for the living. Care for the living. Hold space – cis folks, especially, make sure you hold this space! – for what is vibrant and vital about trans lives, trans communities, trans people. Listen to stories from trans folks.
Read stories about our possible futures, not just our traumas or our pasts. If you need a book recommendation, pick up Love After the End, edited by Joshua Whitehead, full of Indigiqueer and Two Spirit speculative fiction.
It’s TDoR, and we are breathing in unbreathable circumstances. We are naming and honouring those who are no longer breathing with us. We are naming and knowing that access to breath is differential, even within the trans community. We are not each equally under threat, even though we are all under threat.
Hold the margins in the centre of this day. Gather them all in. Everything we are told is unloveable and unliveable, bring those threads in. Find their stories. Breathe.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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!).
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
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.
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
A book set in Costa Rica, or
written by a Costa Rican author
Dad also lived in Costa
A book that includes walking
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.
Each of these categories
reflects a speculative genre or type of book that David particularly enjoyed.
A book of hard science
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
A retelling of myth or
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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+
“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,
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.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
Read along with
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
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
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
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.
(An earlier draft of this post was available to Patreon supporters.)
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.
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.
An Invitation to Celebrate has been completely updated to include an option to celebrate the life of a loved one.
The other day I responded to a post about politics and said:
I feel like the last couple years have really pushed me away from the faith I had in electoral politics, and there are times when I feel so much grief for losing that thread of hope. Most of the time I am thankful, because letting go of that opens up space to do other things and to imagine other ways of making change, but sometimes it does feel like a loss, and it is a feeling of grief.
Maybe there needs to be a little collective narrative projects for newly disillusioned folks to talk about this grief, which really doesn’t have a lot of space for expression.
Well, here is that little collective narrative project!
Over the next few weeks (until November 8), I’ll be collecting stories about our feelings about politics in 2019.
Submit your piece of poetry, art, or non-fiction by emailing me at email@example.com. Submissions will ideally not be more than 1000 words, but, as with all of these projects, I’m flexible.
If you are struggling with how to express your feelings or what to write, there are a few options. You can get in touch with me and we can have a chat that will hopefully help you clarify what you want to express, or you can use the following narrative questions to guide your writing:
When you think about the current state of electoral politics, what are the feelings that are evoked?
Are these feelings the same, similar, or not at all similar to feelings that you used to have about electoral politics?
If your feelings have changed, do you remember a specific experience or story that contributed to this change?
What do you miss about your earlier feelings, if there has been a change?
Do you have a sense of grief or disillusionment?
What are you grieving?
What feels like it is lost or more distant?
Do you have a sense of what you wish or hope that electoral politics could be like?
What does this hope say about what you value?
Where does this hope come from – are there particular political histories or thinkers who have inspired and nurtured this hope?
What do you hold onto when difficult feelings about politics arise for you? What, or who, keeps you going?
What are the actions that you are taking in your life that align with your hopes and values?
Have you ever had a moment of realizing the elected officials or the institutions of power were not responding in alignment with your values, and taking some kind of action? This action may be as small as reaching out to an LGBTQIA2+ friend when legislation threatens our safety, or it may be something like reading the 291 Calls to Justice in the MMIWG Final Report, or getting involved in community organizing and protests. People are never passive recipients of harm and trauma, and I would like to include stories of response in this zine!
My hope is that, regardless of the outcome of the Canadian federal election that is happening today, this zine will bring together stories of how we are continuing to do work in our communities, how we are continuing to hold onto our values despite our feelings of disillusionment and grief over the state of politics. I hope that it will bring our voices together, and give us a sense of how we can move forward together, organizing together, supporting each other, doing the work of responding to the problems in our lives regardless of the politicians who hold so much power (and the corporations who hold even more).
I’m looking forward to your contribution!
(Although this zine is inspired by the Canadian federal election, contributions are welcome from anyone. These feelings about politics span so many spaces.)