Written by Blake Brooker, BA’78
A good friend of mine had an annoying and repetitive habit. Almost as irritating as my regular question, “What are we doing?” was his answer: “We’re doing it.” It became a bit of a catchphrase between us.
What started as a little joke between us became codified, a kind of foothills Zen koan; a little paradox subverting a dependence on reason and appearing to deliver a welcome shred of intuitive insight. As we began our early faltering steps on the treacherous and never-ending path to adulthood, this thought delighted my young mind. Or, at least, it calmed the questing, questioning mess of what passed for awareness, mid-’70s-Calgary-style.
Through that time, our mantra remained: “What are we doing?” “We’re doing it.’”
The University of Calgary was the centre of my cohort’s scene, and the library was, in turn, the centre of that. Library between classes; library at night. An island of quiet on campus, to be sure, but the inner tumult of all the students was anything but. What ambitions, fears and hopes attended us? All student-y on the outside, but inside, if anything like me, outsized frets and fervent impossible strategies ruled the day and the night.
We would study and put in the hours, but, if I was honest, I may have spent more time doing something else: I couldn’t resist the desire to move from my cubicle or desk to the stacks and browse. Selecting one book or two, I would return to my spot and leaf through their pages. Who knows how much time I spent at this random, pleasurable and possibly universal activity? Half my total study time? More?
Procrastination is a funny beast, a relentless and formidable adversary. A potential career-crippler. Was I delaying important tasks to focus on easier and more enjoyable pursuits? I would remind myself that what I was doing was not laziness. I was not possessed by an unwillingness to act; more like a willingness to not act. I was busy. My behaviours were repetitive. Day by day, for weeks, months and finally years. Always studying, but not, technically, the stuff I was meant to be studying.
Surrounded by books, we were surrounded by the world, my friends and I, not the orderly suburbs from where we had hatched. Amidst these books and their contents, subject to the great spiralling hormonal winds of youth, time passed, and we approached our lives, slowly at first, then all at once. I began the tentative steps into the world, portended and represented by the library, with a few of my library companions.
The world teems with chaos and patterns, and we appear to be hardwired to parse and untangle them both. We are meaning — and mystery-making beings, above all and after all. Calgary was a heady and curious scene in the late ’70s — part-Bohemia, part-rodeo, part–corporation — and we wanted to see things and do stuff. For a certain demographic of the young, the world gleamed with possibility. We rushed in with purpose and energy, if not coherence and success.
My friends and I chose the category of performance among all the art forms or, more accurately, the category chose us. All you needed were people, space, ideas, and the ability to combine them together — hopefully, with some measure of intelligibility and affect.
I have come to understand that the initiating idea and the final product of creation are but small parts of the whole. The main part of the whole is repetition. Doing things over and over and over until you arrive where you arrive, which is generally at the beginning of more repetition. What is language if not the fruit of thousands and thousands of repetitions? Say a sound enough to denote something, then it catches on, others say it… the repetition efflorescence.
The French word for rehearsal is répétition. It really describes the process better than the English term. Many activities don’t just require repetition, but demand it. Most of the intricate forms of human culture stand on the shoulders of repetition: dancing, sport, music, writing, sex and conversation. The more you practice, the better it gets. The better you get.
Repetition can be grueling, difficult and, in many cases, even boring. But, out of repetition other things emerge.
I never set out to be a terminal repeater. Repeating things has turned out to be a pleasant and serendipitous accident upon which much of my life is based. You could say it is my happy place; however, in practice, a rehearsal is many things, many of which are not happy. A rehearsal, at its best, is challenging, complicated, meaningful, and fun. Like anything of great value, it requires liberal amounts of sacrifice and work. Inside it dwells sorrows and exhilarations both large and small, and setbacks and victories, too. Within this complex repetitive vortex there is something else — a constant that does not change — and in this state I find my preferred circumstance. The beauty of arriving someplace that no one predicted, where no one has been, and all together. A human matrix of mutual discovery, unjudged in that moment and peculiarly satisfying.
There is a goodness I find in that moment, a goodness in others as they brush gently against the fabric of time, a goodness that reflects to me and elicits my own goodness, and, ultimately, the untrammeled goodness of our world.
I didn’t know when I was younger what I know now. Savour the moments of calm afforded by odd thoughts and random occurrences. Life is an incoherent brawl we are all invited to, and we must attend whether we want to or not.
What are we doing? We’re doing it.
Blake Brooker, BA’78, co-founder of Calgary’s acclaimed One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre, as well as one of its writers and directors; he was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2016.