I have just finished reading Sandra Djwa‘s biography of P.K. Page, which bears the title Journey With No Maps. While I am not generally a fan of biography — I mean, how can you convey a life? — I surprised myself by being profoundly moved by this book. Indeed, after I moved past the scholarly appreciation for the meticulous research, and my frustration over the necessarily arm’s-length tone of the biography as a genre, I discovered I was riveted by the life of a woman I had only met on the pages of Canadian Literature anthologies.
Page is a foundational Canadian poet. She was born in England, a child in Alberta and the Maritimes, a young woman during the Second World War, and came of age in Montreal just in time to play a key role in developing an important literary magazine. She travelled the world. She struggled with depression. She loved, lost, carried on, and wondered. Above all, she was an artist who made her work her friend. It would seem, in short, that she lived a full, rich, and inspired life. At a time of year in which my own anxieties, uncertainties, and frustrations about the future feel very much like unmapped and impossible terrain, I find that I’ve learned a few helpful things from the inimitable P.K. Page. Here’s a selection:
1) Fall in love with your work:
Page began writing poetry as a young woman, and she ultimately published more than two dozen books. When she found that she couldn’t write, she turned to other mediums. She was a prolific and well-respected painter. She studied an immense variety of techniques, from oil painting, to water colour, to etching and working with gold leaf. Djwa’s biography notes that Page had periods of profound loneliness in her life. Yet, if she could, Page would work to immerse herself in her craft as a way of creating a path through the loneliness. Several times she describes her work as a consistent and ever-evolving relationship.
2) Cast your net wide:
Page’s husband Arthur Irwin was a Canadian diplomat, and they lived internationally for many years. While she initially felt lonely and isolated upon moving, Page eventually threw herself into her work and into developing her relationships with her new and old communities. She befriended painters, artists, diplomats, and housewives. She wrote letters. She threw parties. She had a pet monkey. It seems to me that Page had an incredibly diverse and rich network of people across the world.
3) Spirituality comes in many forms, and happiness is work:
While she was not religious, Page developed a life-long spiritual practice. She was introduced to the teachings of Sufism in her mid-life and quickly developed a Sufism study group. She continually refined her affective and emotional sensibilities, and to apply her knowledge to her sense of self, her relationships, and her craft. Here is an excerpt that details her growing consciousness and approach to work (where “work” means the development of your own consciousness)”
It’s very difficult to explain. [A fellow learner] gave me a totally new concept of love
as is I have never understood the definition before; she made me understand “waiting” —
that nothing can happen outside its own time (and I mean understand emotionally — I
had understood intellectually before). And she made me understand that one aspect of the
work is being happy — not apparently happy — but happy. That you cannot “work” from
4) Don’t ever say “I’m too old for…”:
Page began painting in mid-life, she constantly learned new forms of poetry, and her studies of Sufism were constant; she worked up until her death in 2010. A dear friend of mine, EB, had the profound experience of helping to pack up Page’s house. When she was in the kitchen she noticed that Page had magnetic poetry on her refrigerator, and there were several poems clinging to the door. Imagine!
Djwa’s biography of this remarkable woman has not alleviated my stress and anxiousness around employment, nor has it provided me a map, but reading about P.K. Page’s life has reminded me that there are no maps. The journey is the thing entire.