“Mama, I tricked you! I lost a tooth at school yesterday, and I didn’t tell you, and I put it under my pillow last night and nobody left me any money! So now I know that you’re the tooth fairy!”
Today is/would have been my mother’s 70th birthday.
And now I’m stuck on tense: past or present? The date, after all, remains the same, no matter what — it is her birthday, even if she’s not here to celebrate it. Let’s stick with is, then, go with the present in all its meanings, the gifts she gave me and the ways in which they still, always, enrich my life.
Like this painting, the first piece of art I ever bought and still one of my favourites (although that doesn’t say much: all the art is all my favourites, but especially this one).
The year 2000, living on Trinity Bellwoods Park, off Queen West in Toronto, surrounded by galleries when they could still afford the rent. And I’d been hankering, the urge building slowly but powerfully, to buy a painting. Dana Holst had a show at the Angell Gallery right on the corner of my street, and I remember walking in the day before it opened, on my way home from some errand, and being transfixed by Holst’s glowing, creepy babies and angry children, those girls floating on their black backgrounds, and wondering if (ha!) $500 was too much — even possible — for a single, huge, work, if I could be part of that world. That show sold out within days, without me.
I remember talking to my mother about it, saying, “I like this painting, but I really don’t know if I should spend the money.” I think I had expected her to nod in sympathy, to counsel me to be prudent, conservative, with my cash, to spend it on something more practical than art.
But she said, “Of course you can afford it. Always buy art, especially if it speaks to you.”
And so, I made an appointment to visit Shaan Syed at his tiny, cramped studio space somewhere near Queen and Parliament. Shaan was maybe in his mid-20s. He’d been a roommate of a good friend of mine in Montreal, and I’d been taken with his work whenever I visited. He’d just finished this painting, one in a series about swimmers. And there was something, again, about the way that girl glowed, hovering in midair in her striped bathing suit and water wings, that captivated me. The canvas wasn’t quite dry. He’d painted over a different painting, Shaan explained, one of him and two friends at day jobs they’d held while trying to make it as artists — in the bottom right-hand corner, you could still see the vague outline of the paint roller he’d held in the underpainting. I love knowing that detail.
Reader, I bought that painting, with the word “heroine” etched into the paint at its top. You can barely make it out, but I know it’s there.
And she hovers, now, my water-winged angel, over the desk in the back hall on the main floor of my house, looking out onto us, looking out for us, as we cook and eat and clean and play and come and go. She’s a gift to myself, from my mother, a constant reminder of what’s important, what to value, what you can never lose even in the spectre of its absence. That's where my mother is, etched into my soul — always is, has been, now and forever.
Because I'm a late adopter, I’ve just now got around to reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. And now I'm trying to wrap my head around the whole concept of vulnerability, which in theory seems like a great idea but in practice can still fill really skeevy. Which is usually a sign that maybe I need to pay more attention to it all. I'll keep reading.
But I wanted to tell you about the section about what Brown calls “foreboding joy,” because I never knew until now that that thing I used to do all the time had a name. “I was convinced,” Brown writes,
that I was the only one who stood over my children while they slept and, in the split second that I became engulfed with love and adoration, pictured something really terrible happening to them. I was sure that no one but me pictured car wrecks and rehearsed the horrific phone conversations with the police that all of us dread.
One of my favourite pieces of my own writing is precisely about foreboding joy. This was written when Rowan was a toddler and Isaac was a baby, and it was published a couple of years ago in Stealing Time magazine, but I think it’s time to share it with you here. It's called “A version of upright.”
* * *
“Granddad Bob die?”
My three-year-old son is currently fascinated by his Granddad Bob. More precisely, Rowan is fascinated by the death of his Granddad Bob, after a short and brutal stint with lung cancer, years before Rowan was even conceived.
“What Granddad Bob say when he die?”
The questions come at random moments: while I help him take off his snowpants, on the toilet, playing trains. Bob was father to my spouse, Rachel — a charming, secretive man, a gambler. He and Rachel moved uneasily into and out of each other’s lives for years, and then, suddenly, dramatically, he was gone. We got the call at 3 AM from Rachel’s sister, who had been jolted from sleep by the silence of the baby monitor, stationed in her ailing father’s room.
“Why he die?”
I hesitate — how do you answer this? Every response seems dangerously loaded as I run it through my parental scanner.
“He was sick with a disease called cancer,” I say. And again, I pause. Because what pops into my head, what I really want to say, is that Rowan’s Baba Ruthi — my mother — also died of cancer, that the disease appeared first in her ovaries when she was 37 years old (I was 9) and came back again a decade later in her right breast, and a decade after that everywhere. That she died on Mother’s Day. That her death was and remains the biggest heartbreak of my life, that I still randomly, suddenly, weep with the realization that she’s really gone, never coming back, no matter how good I am, how patiently I wait.
I want to tell him that, even though I hesitate I get what he’s doing. I get the need to make it make sense, and how it doesn’t. I get how death is always hovering.
Over, say, me at 10, practicing handstands over and over in the front hall, willing myself to stay upright and counting the seconds until I topple over, the one Mississippi, two Mississippi, in syncopation with a larger goal: Fifteen seconds and Mom won’t die. Fifteen seconds and Mom won’t die.
Over me as teenager, waiting at the mall for my mother, perpetually late, to pick me up from my part-time job. Ten minutes past the appointed time and I am well into the car crash, the solemn police officers arriving in her stead, my swoon at the news, her funeral and what I would wear and say at it. Every single time, every single minute of tardiness, a fantasy so familiar it was comforting. So familiar that I had a sense of déjà vu at her actual funeral.
They continue today, my death fantasies, when Rachel drives in a snowstorm, when she’s a few minutes later than she said she would be. I putter around the house, calmly figuring out where I will live after the funeral, where she’d like to be buried, how soon afterwards I would date again, how to explain it to the children.
It continues with Rowan, and now his baby brother, Isaac. There’s the newborn stage, where they — finally — sleep for a few hours in the middle of the night and you’re so exhausted and irrational that you think, Well, I suppose the baby’s dead, but I might as well go back to sleep since there’s nothing I can do about it. Or when Rowan, uncharacteristically, sleeps in till 7:45 and I imagine quietly over my tea what it will be like to find him, cool to the touch.
It’s there for Rachel, too. Like yesterday, when Isaac’s morning nap extended to noontime, the buzzing in my head starting quietly and growing louder as the minutes ticked by. Just as I was getting up from my office chair to suggest to her that Maybe we should go— she opened my door, hand over her heart, eyes panicked. “Go get him,” I said. And we did — fighting the urge to take the stairs two at the time — and he was fine, fine, just rolling over, waking up, whimpering at being rushed in the process. She thinks reflexively, as she does (I imagine) about her baby brother, who at six weeks old did not wake up from his nap, even when her mother went in to check. No baby monitors then.
We’re not the only ones who do this, are we? Not the only ones who storyboard the deaths of our loved ones while we make dinner, take out the garbage, run the evening bathwater? It could happen at any time, we imagine, and so we’d best think it through, so as not to be completely unprepared.
Except, of course, that I feel completely, utterly unprepared every time Rowan asks me about his Grandad Bob, muddling through my answers, trying to find a balance between honesty and the need to protect him from the weight of my own losses.
I feel completely unprepared, likewise, for a life without my mother, despite a lifetime’s worth of practice. And yet, how would I ever know the difference? All those handstands, all those practice swoons at the mall entrance — maybe they have made a difference. Maybe without them I would have never have survived the actual event, the moment the home care worker stepped into the kitchen to say, “Excuse me? Miss? I think that your mother is not breathing.”
Maybe Rowan asks these questions as the beginnings of a strategy to cope with the inevitability of loss. Maybe I’ve somehow managed to telegraph to him the need to be on the lookout for death, to notice and interrogate its hovering, even at the perimeters of joy.
Maybe I need to talk with him about my mom.
And so I do, showing him photos of her as a young mother, holding me at Isaac’s age. That’s your Baba Ruthi. That’s me when I was a baby. She was my mommy. She loved me the way I love you. You know? I don’t know if any of it sinks in, however, until a few weeks later, as I help Rowan struggle into his pyjamas. As I turn out his light, he calls, loudly, into the sudden darkness: “Oh. Oh. Do you see her? Do you see your mom?”
“No,” I say. “I don’t see her. Is she here?”
“No,” says my son. “She’s not here. She died.”
“That’s right,” I say. “She did.” And I pause. And then: “I miss her.”
“Because you can’t have her?”
“Yeah,” I say, “I can’t have her. But you know who I do have?”
“Yeah, you.” By this time he has crawled into bed.
“That’s okay,” he says. Yawns. “I’ll be your mom.”
He falls asleep, his small, warm back again against my chest. Downstairs, Rachel does the dishes in the kitchen. We are all, at this moment, safe. Across the hall, Isaac sleeps — for a few hours at least — in his crib. If we turn up the monitor, we can just make out his breathing. Somewhere, if only in my imagination and that of my older son, my mother hovers, keeping the balance, holding us up in our own version of upright. I listen to the second hand ticking on Rowan’s Thomas the Tank Engine clock, marking out the moments, one Mississippi… two Mississippi… at a time.
Hey there – today I'm posting over at VillageQ, on talking to Rowan and Isaac about Transgender Awareness Week. (Spoiler alert: my conversation didn't go as planned.)
I was going to write about how we watched the Arcade Fire video “We Exist,” which features a young transgender woman, how I pulled out a recent issue of the New York Times magazine, which features three transgender men on its cover, all students at Wellesley University, an historically “women’s” college, now grappling with how to understand and acknowledge the increasing numbers of trans male and female students on its campus.
I was going to tell you about the nuanced and careful conversation we had, where they asked questions and I answered them and we all emerged slightly more enlightened after 10 or 15 minutes of pleasant chat.
But, here’s the thing: my sons are seven and 10. I don’t think they have ever in their lives had a serious, 10 or 15 minute, sit-down, nuanced, focused, and enlightened conversation about–well–anything, really.
Please click on over to read the rest!
Isaac’s jack-o’-lantern, carved entirely without any parental support. My one contribution was to suggest — when he was scrounging around for how to give the thing some “hair” — the industrial-sized bucket of roofing nails in the basement.
Still knitting: this is the second thing I've made from the guilt wool. Found the buttons in a funky store in Minneapolis on my recent road trip there. Packaging up to send out into the world, because I'm still having a love affair with snail mail.
My new “Pink Freud/Honda” Franken-tunic, cobbled together by AnnRocks Apparel from various recycled T-shirts. Seems appropriate for Halloween.
Yoga. I used to do yoga all the time but in recent years I haven’t practiced all that regularly. But this week was “Power Week” at the Body Mind Centre, and I bought a pass and did a bunch of classes, and my brain was all like, “Dude, why don't you do this more? Do you hate yourself?” So I’m going to try to do that more.
Right before I got pregnant with Rowan (a.k.a., in a different lifetime), I actually did a yoga teacher training program and taught for a while. The owner of the studio where I studied and taught was decidedly one of the most non-yogic people I have ever met: moody, capricious, self-involved, disorganized, late for everything, wildly sexy and entirely aware of it as she cultivated her own little cult of personality. A few months into the program, which had no curriculum other than what she felt like doing that day, the various students in our class finally decided to have it out with her, to voice our complaints about her style, her lack of organization, her unreliability, her playing of favourites, what have you. And I remember her sitting at the front of the room, on her mat, listening to all of us bitch with this dark, Cruella Deville, look on her face. And when we were finally done, she said, “I want you to take every single thing you hate about my classes and the way I teach AND DON’T DO THEM IN YOUR OWN CLASSES.” End of discussion.
It’s still some of the best advice I’ve ever received.
Elan Morgan tagged me in an old-school meme project to share five random things about myself. Interestingly (randomly?), she also tagged Vikki, at whose dining room table in Minneapolis I am currently blogging. It’s like duelling bloggers around here: me coming up with five random facts about myself downstairs while Vikki comes up with five facts of her own upstairs in her office. That’s how we roll. (Elan also tagged, for the record, Suebob, Alexis Hinde, and Eden Riley.)
Without further ado:
1. My undergraduate and master’s English degrees both focused on African-American slave and post-emancipation literature. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and my MA thesis on “passing” — the complicated phenomenon (and I won’t do it justice here) of black people passing for white and vice versa, as well as queer people passing for straight, etc. I was so consumed by that literature, by thinking through and analyzing those texts for patterns, trying to make meaning of it all. And while I imagine that all that thinking has shaped the way I look at life today, that period of intense academic analysis now seems so far away.
2. When I was about six, my parents took what I believe was their first-ever holiday without children. They went to Aruba, and my father’s mother stayed with me and my brother, in the spare room. While my parents were gone, their bed caught on fire. A frayed wire from my father’s clock radio sparked on their metal bed frame, and that spark caught their bedspread, and — flames. I remember being woken up by my brother yelling “Fire!” I remember the smoke billowing out of my parents’ bedroom. I remember witnessing that smoke, and then going back into my own bedroom and getting back into bed. To this day, I can’t quite decide if this story is one of immeasurably good luck or of immeasurably bad luck.
3. I used to teach yoga.
4. I am missing a tooth. My right adult eyetooth just never materialized. Since I was 12, I’ve had a series of more and less successful prosthetic teeth and bridges. Occasionally, a bridge has come loose and I have had to spend the weeks or days before I can get to the dentist holding my tooth in place with my tongue. Sometimes, this results in hilarity.
5. I assign personalities and memories to inanimate objects and unrelated moments. The colour of paint in Isaac’s room reminds me, every time, of an otherwise insignificant friendship I had in grad school. At a certain point in a exercise class in the gym, I always think of a certain client. Related, I used to imagine that that dust motes dancing through sunlight were fairies. I used to think that I must be the only person who experienced the world in this way, but now I imagine that most people do. That's both comforting and kind of disappointing.
Here are some things that have made me happy lately:
The Sunday New York Times in general, but this copy of the New York Times in particular, because my friend Nikki brought it in specially for me from Ottawa after my somewhat desperate call for newspaper culture. Thank you!
This quote from Flaubert, which I got out of a previous edition of the Sunday New York Times (you’re sensing a pattern here, aren’t you?), from an interview with the actress Julianne Moore: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Apparently, this is how Moore structures her own life. I’m thinking there’s some merit there.
Knitting! I am re-ravelling, slowly and gleefully, my unravelled guilt-blanket. So far, I’ve made this:
And I’m onto a second one, and a third one (because multiple projects on multiple needles, yo — I’m going to learn how to do cables this time round). On the Monday of the Thanksgiving long weekend, I spent a blissful couple of hours on the kitchen floor, sorting and untangling and colour-coding yarns, which are now propped up on one of my office bookshelves for inspiration.
Inspiration is contagious: Rachel is now knitting a scarf, and Isaac is getting in on the action with some gods-eyes (is there another name for that craft with the popsicle sticks? If so, let me know).
This post by my friend Elizabeth Jayne Liu, which combines stunning writing with stunning beauty:
I’m not a fan of hard work, but very occasionally, I can force myself to do it. So at the end of June, when I made the commitment to get real and work through the ugly shit I’ve kept cordoned off in dark corners, I thought that a monthlong break would be enough time to address my demons, and I would come back, like, perfect. Allotting 36 days to clear away debris like addiction and anger and depression seemed pretty generous, and I actually made a list of things I might try in case I finished a few days early. I watched a tutorial on how to make an owl zipper pull using the Cra-Z-Loom, and of course that bitch was #1 on my list.
I’m not sure how 36 days turned into 102, but I just want to take this opportunity to mention that if any of the coping mechanisms you use to stay functional involve pushing down grief and pain and rage about your past or your present, and you unlatch the gate that’s been corralling those feelings and they all escape in a mad rush and you have to chase each one down to see if it really belongs to you or it can be returned to the wild, um, you’re not going to have time to make that owl zipper pull. Yeah, I know, it was a surprise to me too.
Letters — as in, letters handwritten (or typewritten, but only on vintage typewriters with no connection to the Internet) on paper and sent via the post. When Ello came out, something visceral twisted in me. I don’t need more online social networks and status updates — I need deeper, one-on-one, social connections; long, meandering, run-on paragraphs. Ink on paper. The New York Times. I’ve sent a few missives into the world in the last few weeks, and several have found their way (or are on their way) to me. Alexandra sent a bunch of clothes, including this greased-lightning belt, for Isaac.
Brent sent a bunch of pig-themed notecards. I’ve sent chocolate, and books, and notes and letters out into the world — and I’m sure some knitted projects are going to find their way into envelopes and to the mail in the not-to-distant future (see how I tie that up so nicely there, bringing it back to the knitting?). Write to me. I'll write back.
Benedict Cumberbatch — yes, yes, I know I’m very late to this party, but on Wednesday evening I saw his 2011 performance as the monster in Frankenstein, piped in via satellite from London’s National Theatre. And man, he was brilliant. He and Jonny Lee Miller traded the roles of Frankenstein and the monster each evening — and now I can’t decide if I want to see Miller’s version of the monster or whether I just want to hold on to Cumberbatch’s brilliance. For reasons beyond my control, I can't embed the link to the preview, but it should be playing at various theaters in North America next week. You should go see it, and we can compare notes.
Have a good weekend, full of things that inspire.
You know what I love? You know what makes me feel lighthearted and fancy free and oh-so-breezy? When Isaac says, “Mama? Don’t come in my room, okay?”
Fortunately, neither of my kids is particularly good at keeping secrets yet. Although I don’t how long Isaac could have kept this particular secret. Maybe only until someone walked into his room and punctured their foot on one of the couple of dozen or so industrial nails he’d masking-taped to the floor. Tips upward. Ready to thwart all intruders. “But it’s my trap,” he said, in response to my, “Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. No.”
Maybe it’s me, but sometimes, there’s just no room for a little bit of flexibility. Sometimes, things are just a bad idea. Sometimes, you have to take all the sharp, pointy, industrial nails off your floor right now, because there is creativity, and there is stupidity (not to mention liability), and I know which side of the line I would like to be on. Even as I admire his ingenuity. Even if I'd love to see him take out a warthog.
Because I am a terrible mother, I insisted on him taking down his trap. And because I have at least a shred of common sense, I took it down for him when he stalked away huffily. But of course I took pictures first, because, seriously? His trap was amazing.
This? This is the last Sunday New York Times I will be able to buy in Thunder Bay for the foreseeable future. I picked it up on Thursday and I’m going to try to read it as slowly as I can, savour every last word. I’ll probably even read the sports section — I often do anyway, because it’s that good.
I’ve written recently about trying to bridge the distance, close the mental gap between where I live and where I wish I lived, about trying to be here now, be here happily, even. And, truly, there is much to love about this city, chief of which are the people who live here. But it’s also true that part of what makes this city livable for me is that I get to leave it a fairly regular intervals for doses of big urban spaces, the chance to lose myself in cities.
And when I’m here, part of what makes living here possible has been the Sunday New York Times.
When we first moved here from Toronto, 10 years ago, you could still get the Globe & Mail delivered daily. And that was a decent thing, but the best thing about it was that if you were a Globe subscriber, you could also get the Sunday New York Times. I admit, after a while, I started vacation-stopping the Globe during the week, emerging from my pseudo-vacations long enough to have the Times arrive on Sunday. I felt bad, but I started to get tired of seeing the same stories from the Sunday Times appear in the following week’s Globe. And with babies and toddlers, I didn’t have time to read a daily pretty good paper, so why not hold out for one, fabulous, newspaper that would carry me through the week? My sneaky workaround came back to bite me in the face when the Globe & Mail — you know, Canada’s self-declared national newspaper? — stopped delivery to Thunder Bay, leaving us with the digital edition at best, and a sudden dearth of Sunday Timeses.
And no, I don’t want the digital edition, so don’t ask me about that. I stare at a screen all day, anyway. I want paper.
So, when some guy in Thunder Bay — let’s call him Gary — began driving to the border each week to pick up all the good newspapers for us diehards, I was elated. First, Gary delivered them to the local comic shop, but after that got to be too inconvenient the owner, he switched over to Charley’s Ticket World in the mall, where I lined up dutifully each Sunday afternoon with all the other addicts, although they were mostly buying lottery tickets and cigarettes, and I was buying the paper. And every time I got my paper from Charley’s Ticket World, I was always kind of surprised it was there, because really, how long was it going to be before Gary decided that driving an hour and a half minimum each way on a Sunday to cross the border to bring back newspapers in generally inclement weather was going to get old?
Not long at all, my friends. Not long at all. Gary, bless him, has seen the light, and I am counting out my last Sunday New York Times pages and trying to see how long I can make them last.
And yes, let’s go on and on about our First World problems, and say what you will but I adore this paper and I really wish I lived somewhere real big enough so that I could read it regularly without relying on the crazy kindness of enterprisers like Gary.
So: a plea. If you happen to be lucky enough to find yourself on a Sunday in a place real, I mean, populated enough to carry the Sunday New York Times, and you happen to be travelling shortly thereafter to Thunder Bay: message me? See if I’ve managed to get my hands on a paper for that week, and if I haven’t, please do pick one up for me. I will pick it up from you. I will pay you back for it. I’ll even bake you cookies. I just want my big-city culture fix. I hate that it’s so much to ask.
I’m reading Pema Chӧdrӧn’s How to Meditate. (What do you mean, how do you meditate? You just sit there and breathe, right? And focus on your breathing, right? Well, yes. Go.)
I want to underline everything Chӧdrӧn writes, just whole pages of underlines and highlights, because, thus far, pretty much every single sentence resonates, like I could pick each one and write pages and pages about what it means to me, even as “the settled nun” suggests that, as you develop a meditation practice, as you begin to “really get in touch with the feeling, the underlying energy, of your emotions … you begin to let go of the words, the stories, as best you can, and then you’re just sitting there.”
Just sitting there.
I wonder if there’s a special category of meditation for writers and storytellers.
Right now, though, I’m not meditating. I’m just sitting at my computer, dictating words into the screen while I knit, and I am thinking about this particular passage:
Meditation is a transformative practice, rather than a magic makeover in which we doggedly aim to change something about ourselves. The more we practice, the more we open and the more we develop courage in our life. In meditation you never really feel that you “did it” or that you’ve “arrived.” You feel that you just relaxed enough to experience what’s always been within you.
What’s always been within you. Transformative practice. The yarn I’m knitting with is yarn I’ve had for close to two decades, maybe more. When my brother got engaged, I decided to knit a blanket for him and my future sister-in-law. I picked this crazy Kaffe Fassett tumbling blocks pattern — dozens upon dozens of colours and strands of yarn, woven together in this complicated, three-dimensional riot. I spent weeks measuring out yarn and winding it onto individual bobbins, weeks and months more beginning to knit it, and I don’t know how much longer fretting over it, cursing every dropped stitch or tiny mistake and all the implications that followed from those. And then, finally, I gave it up. I never gave my brother and his wife a wedding present. And I shoved all that gorgeous yarn into some bins in the cedar closet in my basement.
Recently, though, I’ve retrieved the wool from its basement prison. I’m in the process of unravelling my work, pulling out all those painful, painstaking, jubilant, beautiful stitches, rewinding the strands onto the bobbins. I’ve looked up new patterns, for simpler projects, ones that won’t tax my hurt arms and wrists, that will keep me and other people warm, that will harness the beauty and the potential that have been sitting there for so long, waiting. (Rowan and Isaac are so upset by the apparent destruction of this project; they want me to keep it, finish it, and while I love their faith in me, I'm hoping that maybe they will learn something about boundaries and letting go from this example. But I guess that's their business.)
What’s always been within. Transformative practice. The yarn is there. Just like the yards and yards of fabric that I cut, years ago, into strips for a log-cabin quilt. There’s a longer post there, but the short version of it is that in the past couple of months, I somehow managed to resurrect the project yet again, to begin again the seemingly overwhelming process of sorting and pinning and sewing and pressing and ironing tiny bits of cloth into larger versions of themselves. (It helps so much that Isaac is interested in the project and that he can now iron. I have a homegrown quilting buddy. That's awesome.)
What’s always been within. I’ve wanted to learn how to play guitar for God knows how long, and now I am slowly teaching myself how to, by the simple virtue of the two friends who have dropped off guitars, no strings attached (oh my God, I didn’t even realize that was a pun, let alone such a bad one, until I reread that — both guitars had literal strings attached, for the record), for as long as I need them to learn, by the boundless resources of my friends who play, by online teachers. It was never difficult to get supplies or knowledge, but the impetus has always been within me, just waiting for me to sit down and commit to figuring it out, to showing up and focusing so hard I find my tongue poking out of my mouth as I try to play an F chord fluently. I will one day, won’t I?
What’s always been within. Transformative practice. Like how little, really, we actually need to go grocery shopping. The pantry, the chest freezer, the cupboards — they’re all overflowing. For a few weeks, now, I’ve been avoiding the grocery store, trying to see what I can whip up with those dried beans, that odd cut of meat from the quarter cow we purchased back in November, that can of rice-stuffed grape leaves, the beets and carrots and zucchini and garlic from our own garden, that cylinder of gourmet tea. I’ve written about this before: It’s amazing, what’s here already and what we can create from it.
Just like it’s amazing how many pairs of shoes I have, how many beautiful items of clothing that I forget about until I pull them out and try to combine them into new outfits. There are so many books to read in this house, and more at the library. I have some of the best friends imaginable, and they are lovely and generous to talk with. I have thousands of hours of music that I barely listen to. I can get on my year-old, gorgeous bike and be somewhere new in minutes, can drive out to the Cascades and lose myself in the rush of water and the permanence of rock.
Same with writing. The material is there, if I dig deep enough in the cedar closet or the pantry or the shed or wherever it is that I happened to stick and ignore it. I finished a draft of a short story today, one that's been brewing for close to a decade. (I wrote it while knitting; some kinds of multitasking seem to work together, the hands busy with their repetitive stitching while the words flow.) All I had to do was sit there (with the Internet turned off and my phone hidden in my underwear drawer, obviously) and get the words down, sometimes slowly, sometimes awkwardly, but down.
There’s a mistake in the knitting project I’m working on now — a knit stitch that should have been a purl or vice versa, several dozen rows down from where I’m at now. I’m ignoring it.
I’m trying to stay in this space, to remember it especially when a longing or anxiety or dissatisfaction (the Buddhists call it dukkha, Pema tells me) take hold of me. I'm trying to remember how much of this action is very likely propelled by that very dukkha, that I can do all those things when apparently consumed by it. It doesn’t actually matter how I feel. And I can do all those things in the hopes that the dukkha will dissipate, but mostly I just have to do them to do them.
I’m not intending to be all Pollyanna-ish here. I’m not chastising myself or anyone else for our blindness to our plenty. I'm not ignoring the reality that many people don't have the resources, the space, the time, the sheer luck and the luxury of having so much and the space and time for transformation. I’m not saying that everything will be better if we just wake up to what’s within. I’m just trying to stay awake and alive to what’s actually, objectively, almost always available to me if I simply slow down enough to access it, work with it. And sometimes I look up and realize that I’ve forgotten about everything else except the next stitch, the fashioning my awkward fingers into the next chord, the peeling of the beets, the downward thrust of my foot on the pedal. It's always, all of it, already there.
I haven't been called a fascist by total strangers in what must be WEEKS now, so I decided to write a little post for Today's Parent on why in the H-E-double hockey sticks I will not be giving the Gideons permission to give my fifth grader a New Testament:
Sure: the Gideons don’t just hand out the Bibles any more — although they used to. Sure: I do understand that, nowadays, parents do have to give permission. But the fact that it’s even an option to give permission is problematic. Permission forms that come home from school aren’t neutral, no matter what anyone says. When my kids come home with permission forms, it’s understood that the default, encouraged answer is YES. Yes, Johnny can go ice skating with the class. Yes, Fatima can go on a field trip to the museum. Yes, I give permission for Enrico to join the chess club. Yes, Sook-Yin will take part in the public health dental program. Permission forms imply good things, wholesome things, healthy things, things you should participate in. Just by sending home a permission form, the school has already set itself up as suggesting that receiving a Bible is a good thing. And it may be, and it may not be, but it’s simply not a decision that a public school board should get to make for any of our children.
(Seriously — I can't believe that this practice is continuing at the Lakehead Board of Education. It's been discontinued at the public school boards that cover the overwhelming majority of Ontario's students: Toronto, Peel, York, Durham, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Bluewater, Ottawa-Carleton and Niagara district school boards, among others, as well as in most of BC, New Brunswick and in Iqaluit. Why is it still happening?)
Back in the summer, I got an assignment from Today’s Parent magazine to write a story for the “behaviour” section of the book. The topic? Ha. A thousand words on — wait for it — why kids don’t listen and how to get them to.
You know, no biggie.
I’ll admit it: wrapping my head around that topic and writing a coherent article nearly broke me. Such a huge subject, so many perspectives, so few words, so much at stake. In a behind-the-scenes article for the magazine’s website, I talk about exactly why this article ate my emotional lunch, and what I learned from it:
I was … wracked with anxiety. How on earth would I ever do justice to the topic when I couldn’t even get my own kids to close the refrigerator door or come downstairs for breakfast? And how on earth would I even begin to approach a topic that enormous? Almost every parent I know could fill pages just listing the ways in which their kids ignore their seemingly reasonable requests: What could I possibly say that could make a difference? […]
I realized that I needed to rethink my whole approach to the subject—not to mention the way I interacted with my own children. Here are some things that I learned:
First, kids don’t listen to us, their parents, because kids are human beings with their own agendas. And sometimes—often—our agendas simply don’t match up with theirs. My agenda might be to make sure everyone gets to school on time. My seven-year-old’s agenda, though, might be to find and rearrange all the glittery rocks in his room into a three-dimensional collage that simply has to be finished right now, because that’s where his creative vision lies. My nine-year-old’s agenda, on the other hand, might be to read the book that he is reading, in bed, in his pajamas, even though, “Breakfast is ready, Rowan. Rowan, breakfast is ready. Rowan, if you don’t get up and get dressed right now and come down for breakfast you’re going to be late. Rowan—are you listening to me? I’m not going to say it again: You’re going to be late!”
[Ten minutes later: “Late!”]
You can read the rest here. The full article — with all its transformational tips and tricks and insights and good stuff — is out now in the magazine’s October issue (and online). Check it out! And fill free to leave me a comment with your best tips or your most maddening “not listening” anecdote. Or both.
Lately, I’ve been craving vastness.
I’m blaming it on small-town (fine, small-city) life: not enough urban density, strip-mall architecture instead of cityscapes and soaring buildings, the same old same old round of a half-dozen restaurants and bars and cafés. I keep thinking of big cities, everywhere I’ve been in the last 12 months — San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles — and I’m chafing against the familiarity of this place, the way I can recognize the supermarket cashiers, the way everyone looks the same. I’m longing for somewhere big enough to be anonymous at the same time as I’m aching for my far-flung comrades. I’m chafing against the stark contrasts between home life and vacation life and my desire to integrate them, find some way to find the common ground between room service and no obligations or bedtimes and packing lunches and taking out the garbage and, oh, working for a living.
I’m blaming it on this parenting gig, the way it circumscribes my schedule, keeps me close to (closed in by) home as I navigate life with two small people in tow. Rachel is out of town, and so I am feeling acutely the pull and stress of amusing children, getting them to their various activities, the driving and the drop-offs and the back-and-forth of where are you and are you safe and can you wait to talk to me until your brother is done? It’s hard to leave the house some days with these two sets of often-competing interests, but of course staying home all day on a rainy Sunday leads to sure and utter disaster. The kids are alright, just fine, but I’m telling myself that parenting isn’t necessarily expanding my horizons at this very moment.
I’m blaming screens. I’m blaming the one I’m staring at right now as I compose this blog. I’m blaming the ones about which my children negotiate constantly. I’m blaming the tiny one that goes with me everywhere, its constant feedback or lack thereof both a lifeline and a stranglehold. Again, it's the problem of integration: how to come to a place of peace between virtual and physical worlds? How is it that the vastness of the Internet can fit into my pocket and give me tunnel vision? I had a massage yesterday, and my lovely, snarky massage therapist worked all the angry muscles in my neck and arms and shoulders and said, gently, “Do you think that you might look down a lot at your phone? Do you ever take a vacation?”
I’m blaming, I’m blaming. And even as I blame, I know that all this railing and blaming don’t particularly expand my horizons. And so what I try to do when things feel small, when my ribs constrict my lungs and my heart doesn’t have space to beat and pounds against my chest, is to stretch, find space.
On Sunday, that meant availing myself of a lovely friend to babysit and then getting on my bike and riding as fast as I could to the movie theater to see Boyhood — revelling in the big screen, in the Houston and Austin cityscapes and the hugeness of Big Bend Ranch State Park. Last night, it meant actually shelling out for a babysitter and watching (with the same friend) Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster, and Vanessa Kirby in A Streetcar Named Desire — even if I couldn’t be at the Young Vic Theatre in London, I could watch the live satellite stream of the production, and that was pretty amazing. (Yes, what I wouldn’t give to have been in the flesh-and-blood audience, but I’m trying here, people…). It means playing hooky from the obligations in my head to have a beer with a grieving friend on a weekday afternoon, and finding myself surprised by the intensity and emotion of the conversation that ensued at that bar. It means taking a chance on Tomlin, a new restaurant in town, and feeling life relax and melt over pork chicharrones and charred broccoli and grilled trout in a lovely space that could have been anywhere else I’ve been over the past year.
And, many days, making my life feel bigger means this: the Cascades. You walk a short distance through the woods and then end up on a vast, exposed chunk of the Canadian Shield, some of the oldest rocks on Earth. You can't get cell reception at there. Yesterday, a friend and I went there. We had planned for a quick walk around the neighbourhood to save time, but she showed up at my door and said, “I really think we need to go to the Cascades,” and I hugged her. And we scrabbled up and down the worn stone, next to the rushing water. And we talked — another one of those so many conversations I’ve had of late that brings tears, unexpected, to my eyes, nothing in particular so sad, just that everything right at this phase seems to bubble and rush to the surface.
And in that space, so big, so old, so primal, things shift — at least temporarily — into the proportions that I need. For a few moments, in this exact space, in this exact moment, life is the right size in relation to everything else.
I'm trying to learn how to hold onto that.
I've mentioned before that one of my superpowers is getting artists to sell me works of art that they don't actually want to sell.
It's not as though I'm some mercenary art trafficker, stealing art-babies from their sad parents just for kicks (which makes it sound as though the LAST thing that any working artist would like to do is — horrors! — sell a piece of work). It's more that I seem to hone in, coincidentally or not, on the pieces that resonate with their creators. I prefer to think it's not coincidental, that I am in fact some kind of artist-whisperer who can tell, just tell, when an artist is truly in love with something they've made and then earns their trust enough to let me give their work a new home.
All of which is by way of saying that Kathleen Baleja did not want to sell this little series of nested glass boxes to me. And yet, here they are:
I bought these pieces when Rowan was a baby. Kathleen was participating in a cross-border studio tour featuring Thunder Bay and Northern Minnesota artists, and we packed the baby into the car and went for a drive to see pretty things, counting on him to be fairly placid in the car and to fall asleep on the drive back. Which he was, and did, and it's nice to have memories of when babies did sleep as well as all the memories of when they didn't. I remember, vaguely, singing lots of "If you're happy and you know it" on that little road trip, and popping in and out of studios to see whether Rowan was still asleep in his carseat. It was during that stage of babyhood where I could leave him for 45 seconds to, say, pee, and he would grin and coo and clap his hands when I came back into the room. EXACTLY like he does now. Except silently, in his head, while reading a Big Nate book.
I've always had a thing for tiny treasure boxes, vials, wee lidded ceramic jars, what have you — they hold the possibility for endless potential, for surprises every time. Isaac has a similar fetish: his room is littered in layers of mason jars; fish tackle boxes filled with beads and Rainbow Loom elastics, sparkly rocks, coins pressed into clay, sand, glitter, Valentines, metal curtain brackets.
And these stained-glass boxes take the concept to an entirely new level: one inside the other like rainbow-hued Russian Matryoshka dolls (also totally fascinating and evocative to me as a child — and check out these ones), until you get to the red one (the size of my thumbnail!), which holds a tiny feather. Kathleen said that she was experimenting to see just how small she could go to create a functional container, and that was it.
Both kids adore the glass boxes, and will frequently ask to look at them. Sometimes I say yes, when I can handle the thought of a child’s fingers opening and closing delicate glass lids, sliding one highly breakable tiny glass box into another. Sometimes I tell them I'm simply not up for the stress. I want the boys to get as much tactile and visceral pleasure from the work as I do, but I also want to work to survive. So, mostly, they sit quietly on my desk, and sometimes when I'm working, I un-nest them and line them up next to me on my desk (they are lined up just so right now), and I open and shut their hinged lids just like Isaac and Rowan do, and I check that the feather is still there (it is). And I stack them one on top of the other, and I, eventually, put each one back inside its sisters, and I took them gently away in my little desktop altar of things that inspire.
Back in August, I came home one day to find my gay husband on my back deck, sweaty and intense, his arms elbows deep inside my … barbecue. What did you think I was going to say, gutter mind?
My gay husband, whose actual name is Rob, was deep-cleaning the barbecue. That’s one of his jobs, as was assembling the barbecue. He also washes dishes, makes lattes, occasionally batch-cooks vast quantities of stew or gazpacho (depending on the season), acts as our in-house tech troubleshooter, and holds the ladder while I clean out the eavestroughs. (He holds the ladder with one hand, while in the other, he manages to balance a latte and browse Grindr on his phone.)
Go thee and read the rest posthaste.
It's Labour Day. With a U, because we are in Canada. And I'm writing this at 5:24 in the morning, because — yet again — I can't sleep. Which reminds me of what it was like to be pregnant and constantly awake. Which is making me think about how the summer itself parallels pregnancy: nine weeks, instead of nine months, ending with a Labour Day.
At the beginning of it all, you're sort of surprised and giddy and excited and just slightly nauseated at the thought of summer: on the one hand, I mean, you made it through that craptastic winter. But now the reward is, you know, nine unstructured or only semi-structured weeks to carefully fill with day camps or travel or camping trips or — what we're doing right now — JUST HANGING OUT.
By the middle of the summer, like the middle trimester, you're more or less used to how summer works — the slower, more casual pace, the later bedtimes, the raspberries and swimming, the not deciding what will be for dinner until half an hour or so before dinner when you throw something on the barbecue. You're even enjoying yourself. It's like it's always been summer/like you’ve always had a tiny human growing inside you and it always will be/and you always will. And it's manageable, sometimes even pleasant, if occasionally slightly unsettling.
But now, at the 11th hour of summer vacation, at Labour Day, I'm done. I am done with the free-flowing schedule and the lack of structure. I am done JUST HANGING OUT and its accompanying nonstop requests for screens or to bake cakes or to arrange playdates, of juggling work obligations with childcare, of trying to write between 7 and 9 AM and conducting magazine interviews with two boys and two friends thundering screaming to the house. I am ready for these children to vacate the premises, much as one is ready, at 40 weeks, for said infant to vacate the uterus and give you back your body.
Except. Except that our school district, in its infinite wisdom, has seen fit to add a [insert loooong string of exclusives here, beginning — ironically — with "mother”] PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT DAY IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING LABOUR DAY to the school schedule. What kind of asshats schedule a PD day for the day after Labour Day? (I know what kind: the number-crunching, budgetarily minded kind, but that's a different blog post.) For the record, I really haven't experienced full-out labour: Rowan was breech and therefore a planned C-section; Isaac emerged naturally after approximately eleven minutes of intensity. But I kind of imagine that this is the equivalent of being told, after 24 hours’ worth of mind-numbingly painful contractions, that one is only two centimetres dilated and, well, nothing to do but push through the next 24 hours.
Which is what we’re going to have to do.
When these two children leave the house for school on Wednesday (Wednesday!), I will take their picture, and I will hug them both tight, and I will — very likely — get teary. And those tears will be equal parts joy — at my two enormous, beautiful, growing boys making their way out into the world — and part relief: that the labours of summer are over and those two enormous, beautiful, growing boys are back, thank God, in school.
– Hey Isaac?
– How did you feel about walking to B’s house all by yourself yesterday?
– [Two thumbs up]
– Did you feel like you knew you were doing?
– Like you knew where you were going?
– Yes, but I had to stop and smell some of the roses along the way.
In my post this week on Today's Parent, an open letter to Isaac about just which of our sons get to be safe on our streets:
You probably could’ve taken this step—this series of steps—earlier. You’re seven, starting second grade. But we’ve held off for several reasons, chief of which is fear. Not fear that you couldn’t do it. Not fear that you might be abducted, hurt, or worse. We were scared of what people might think of us for letting you walk down (not to mention cross) neighbourhood streets alone at age five, six, seven. We were scared that we might get arrested, or cited by the Children’s Aid Society.
Which is ridiculous on so many levels. Statistics Canada reports that Canada’s crime rate is the lowest it’s been since 1972, both in terms of absolute numbers and severity. Child abduction by strangers is astonishingly rare here, too—overwhelmingly, children who go missing are taken by family members and close “friends.” In other words, our kids may be better off playing alone or with their peers in the park than under close supervision by people they know—although you wouldn’t know that when police in the United States lock up parents of seven-year-olds and nine-year-olds for walking by themselves to or playing alone at the park (things I did freely at your age, by the way, Isaac).
I resent that fear. I resent its effects on your own freedom and independence, as well as on mine. I resent the warped view it gives us both of society and its relative safety. I resent the misplaced focus on this so-called well-being of our children, of the misguided reliance on police involvement to keep them safe—and I resent it these days especially in light of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the police shootings of so many other young black men in the United States. Sure, lots of people are not safe on North American streets, Isaac, but (and this is entirely unfair) you’re not one of them, at least not on our street. And I deeply resent, on behalf of society as a whole, the sharp racial and class divides that make going to the police unthinkable for some people and entirely too easy for others.
You can read the rest here. Have a peaceful weekend, everyone.
Here's some stuff that's inspiring me lately:
The soundtrack from Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World. I saw the movie with my friend Peter sometime during a Montréal summer in 1991, and then I listened to the soundtrack obsessively for years. I pulled it out it out during a recent road trip and it's still so evocative. I need to watch the movie again. The premise — (loosely) people becoming addicted to revisiting their dreams — seems so prescient/relevant these days, when so much of our lives is chronicled and available online. How long will it be until we can see each other's dreams? Here's my battered CD copy.
(Speaking of movies, we watched the original Karate Kid for family movie night a week or so ago. Still totally awesome, and I love the kookiness of its premise: in six weeks, YOU TOO can not only get the girl but ALSO become California's reigning black belt karate champion! All you have to do is landscape Pat Morita’s yard! More seriously, though, I love how director John G. Avildsen just lets the story unfold in its own sweet time. They don't make patient movies like that any more.)
New pens! I’ve been writing with these since forever and still love them.
My new “shark” bag from bag Platinum Dirt: I splurged on this one while I was in California, and am now regretting not splurging further on a couple arm cuffs and other accessories. You guys, this bag curves around my body and is made from recycled Cadillac leather upholstery. Plus it has two inside pockets and one of them is lined with fuzzy, fuzzy material. It holds everything, and it doubles my cool quotient just by wearing it. Plus it looks like a shark fin in backpack mode.
This cheese. I hear Norwegians eat it for breakfast, which is another reason why Norwegians are so sexy. It's like caramel. But cheese.
These guys made me laugh and laugh.
And this, Deb Rox's briilliant takee on Robin Williams's life and death and work, made me cry.
My latest post on Todays Parent explains why, as an atheist, I still take my kids to synagogue. Reason #1: Community.
Community: We live in Thunder Bay, Ontario, population 110,000. Of that 110,000, approximately 50 people are Jews. I’m not kidding. When I take my kids to synagogue and they celebrate Shabbat and Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah with a couple of dozen (or just a few) other Jewish people, it lets them know that they’re not alone, that they’re part of something larger, that they’re not freaks.
You can read the other reasons here.
I’m working on a big client project right now. The subject? Ha. Pain. Specifically, pain for cancer patients: what it is, what causes it, what it feels like, how to talk about it, how to treat it, people’s fears and emotions around it. Yesterday, I spoke with a lovely, lovely man who was so open and generous with me about his (ongoing) physical pain: what he lives with, how this disease has bankrupted him, how difficult it was to make his needs for relief to hospital staff understood and respected. He broke down a couple of times during the conversation, and we sat in silence for several moments while he collected himself and I focused hard on keeping collected.
And yet, the first thing he said to me when we got on the phone was, “You sound tired.”
I am tired. I’m not sleeping all that well. These are painful times for so many of us, at so many levels. Acute and chronic individual physical pain; anxiety and depression, as so many of the responses to Robin Williams’s death have brought up; the ongoing atrocities in Ferguson, in Gaza, in Syria, in places too numerous and scary to mention. It feels as though we’re all living a little closer to the surface right now, more nerve endings exposed, rubbed raw and referring outward, pinging off of other things so that we don’t know exactly why we’re weeping in the grocery aisle, doubled over in the archway between the kitchen and living room.
From this project and others similar to it, I know that people find it hard to describe their pain, to remember it once it’s passed, to articulate it in the midst of it. Personally, I've found it difficult to say much articulate, coherent, about world events, but I'm not comfortable sitting in silence either as people's humans rights are violated, over and over. I don't want to be the hospital nurse who could do something to alleviate the pain and chooses not to. It’s exhausting to live in the midst of pain, to get up as it literally and figuratively knocks you over again and again, to stand and move forward. Some of us don’t get to stand up and move forward. Too often, that’s through no fault of our own but an accident of geography, chemistry, skin colour, gender, sexuality, heritage. And guess what? In my research for this project, I came across this: “Inadequate pain treatment in patients with cancer remains a significant problem and appears to be more frequent among minorities,” who are nearly twice as likely as white patients to receive inadequate pain treatment.
No wonder I’m so anxious these days.
Pain is information. It’s a sign that something is wrong, that something needs to change. We need to change things, because we are all too tired, rubbed raw and living too close to the edge. We need to take care of each other, every single one of us, to ask what we can do, to do what we can without being asked. We need to say, "You sound tired,” to open up about what’s going on and — if nothing else — sit in silence for a moment or two of acknowledgment, and then find some way to speak up, to help.