Roasting marshmallows in the light of a million finished words

I was going through boxes of old papers last week — you know, the kind of task you can do when a child is home sick from his March break camp and therefore actual writing is impossible. Not that I entirely minded having the sick child around (at least, not until he broke a bottle of red nail polish across the bathroom counter and then attempted to clean it up with a new hand towel), because this going-through of papers was a task I had long neglected.

I have approximately 25 years’ worth of journals, and the idea that all this cringingly personal writing was lying around the house, somehow uncategorized and — more to the point — vaguely available to prying eyes, has been weighing on me of late.

It’s not that I think that anyone would actually be interested in reading through several thousand pages of my handwritten notes. (Actually, I just did some rudimentary math, and it’s approximately 20,000 pages, conservatively. Ye Gods.) It’s not that there’s anything particularly scandalous in there. It’s just that these decades worth of journals are glimpse (more accurately, an exhaustively thorough probing) into the most trivial, boring, tedious, repetitive details of the inner workings of my brain. This is the stuff that I get out of my brain and onto the page each day in an effort to be a functional human being, to write (hopefully) better and more interesting things that people were actually meant to read. These are 20,000 pages of to-do lists and whining and anxieties and ideas and ruminations on my weight, on what I did and what I didn’t do but wished I had. Ad nauseam. These journals are writing for nobody but me. (I’ll be fair: there’s likely lots of happiness in those 20,000 pages, too, but I’ll wager that the happiness isn’t any more interesting than the less happy stuff.)

And, while some people would argue that the above is a precise description of blogging, blogging to me has always been a conscious decision to write for other people. It’s a highly curated, carefully chosen, absolutely non-daily slice of life. And, yes, I strive to be “honest” online, but honesty isn’t the same thing as subjecting any of you to the ongoing monologue in my head about whether there are enough leftovers for the kids’ lunches.

In my organizing, I came across this, the earliest journal I have:

Don’t judge.

The diary has only two entries. The first, dated, Saturday, December 3, 1983, is also, coincidentally, the day I got my first period. It is, predictably, appropriately, histrionic. Thirty-three years (whoa: thirty-three years? Gah.) later, it still feels too embarrassing to read out loud, or to transcribe for you here. Not because of the biological facts of the entry, but because of my tween-before-tween-was-a-thing need to write about it as though I were performing for an audience. It includes lines that may well have come straight out of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, to wit, “‘I am now a woman’ as they say’” and, “I feel so fat. Now I know why I’ve been so edgy all week.” Yeah, like I had any idea.

This is 12-year-old me pretending to write for myself but really writing for other people.

The next entry is a bit over a year later, and my 13-year-old literary critic agrees with me:

This is me. I hate it here. The last entry is a year ago, and it’s stupid. I was trying to write in a dumb way. I’m more open now. I just feel lonely, and wish this whole thing never happened.

Well, then.

I have no idea what “this whole thing” was about now, but 13-year-old me doesn’t care to explain, because she doesn’t need to. She’s writing for herself, in her moment, not for the woman she actually became. And I respect her curmudgeonly little self a little bit more for that, even as I’m trying to applaud the 12-year-old version of her for at least getting some words down on the page. Because that's hard shit.

All my old journals are now arranged chronologically in bankers’ boxes. They have been sealed, with instructions on the top of each box to destroy immediately — without reading — in the event that I die or am incapacitated. Don’t say you weren’t warned. I authorize an Internet posse of you all to ensure this happens.

Or maybe, one day soon, I’ll have a beach bonfire and roast marshmallows in the heat of all those words. I’m not quite there yet, but if I don’t need you to read them, then why on earth am I still holding onto them?

Eight year old (2)

Dear Isaac,

On the morning I began drafting this letter to you, I woke up early — earlier than you, at least, at 6 AM  — and snuck downstairs to my office in order to try to squeeze in some journalling before you and your brother woke up. (Or, really, before you woke up: Rowan will reliably sleep in well past seven these days, but you have never really varied from your preferred 6 AM-ish wake-up call, slipping in to my room to cuddle and ask questions and steal my covers and wonder about French toast. You know. I can barely fault you for it — I've always been terrible at sleeping in, and I'm not getting any better at it as I get older.) It's a crapshoot, my early-morning attempts at pre-kid activity: you wake up at the slightest noise and so I often forfeit tea, try not to put too much weight on the stairs, pee in the basement rather than risk using the bathroom upstairs, all in the name of having you sleep longer.

This particular morning, I made it! I got all the way into my office and even got through a paragraph before I heard the unmistakable sound of you, stumbling out of bed and across the hallway, peeking into my room and not finding me there. I heard you grab a pajama shirt, the fall of your feet down the stairs and then there you were, poking your head into my office and crawling into my lap. I admit that I thought, Damnit. We spent the next half-hour and three longhand pages like that. You pulled The House Book off my shelf and flipped through it, chattering to me about all the different buildings by famous architects as I attempted to write ("Is that a mansion?" "Do you think a house like that would cost 299 million dollars?” “I would really, really like to live in that house."), squirming in my lap, all elbows and sit-bones into my thighs and ribs and sides. We jockeyed for space on the desk — me with my notebook and you with your massive hardcover. We negotiated: you wanting breakfast and me wanting to finish, you wanting to sit on my lap exactly as you wanted to sit and me wanting you to sit so that I could feel my legs. Etc.

If I look back on those pages, which I'm doing right now, they are annotated with notes about you, ranging from annoyance to pleasure, fatigue to adoration.

Because you're eight, all skinny and snaggletoothed, long-limbed and flexible (you trim your toenails with your teeth; you can still do the splits all ways, although you don't drop suddenly into them and scare people now as often as you did, say, a year ago), legs covered in bruises and picked-at mosquito bites. You shaved your head about four months ago — your hair, your choice — but it's mostly grown in. Last week, I quietly snipped away the beginnings of the mullet at the nape of your neck, because we do still have some standards around here and hockey hair isn't one of them. Yet.

Because you're eight, and these kinds of cuddles, these extended, one-on-one moments of physical closeness, are fewer and further in between. Sure, you prefer to fall asleep in my bed and would stay there all night if I could sleep next to your squirminess and sheet-stealing, but I can't, and so each night that you're here I gather up your sleep-limp body and carry you to your own bed. You're still little enough, light enough, to do that, although it's starting to get awkward: those never-ending legs catching the sheets as I try to move you. One night a couple of weeks ago I heaved you gently onto your bed and your weight shifted so that I lost my balance ever so slightly and fell, gently, onto the mattress with you, your cheek coming to rest against my chest like you were a baby again. I stayed there for a few minutes, remembering.

That’s it, isn't it, what it means to be eight? Still small enough for so many things — laps, late-night bed shuffles — but not for much longer, with those long legs of yours. You're starting to be a real menace in those tickle fights you suggest almost daily. You still prefer to be read to out loud — and I love to read to you, so that's a great thing. (We just finished E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, one of my absolute childhood favourites, and I thought about how much fun it would be to take you to New York one day, go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art together.) But still, lately I catch you with a book on the couch, and I hear you whispering the words under your breath, and I wonder just how much longer we’ll be reading together: will I notice first that you’re too big for my lap or that you’re too independent a reader to sit with me any longer? Either way, there are going to be some feelings about that. We’ll discuss those later.

First, I will tell you that if I had to take bets, I would predict that you will be an archaeologist or jeweler. Or a curator: you are fascinated with rocks, have turned your bedroom into a display case for the various fossils and specimens that you collect on your own and with your still-beloved former babysitter, Clair. You're convinced that they’re worth millions, which would be a good thing because of your above-mentioned mansion fantasies. We're having lots of talks about money these days, but I fear it your context for the numbers is still underdeveloped. Which is fine, given that I can barely wrap my head around the fact that you are eight. And nine and ten can't be far behind, can they?

So much for distractions.

Isaac, you are a goofball, a dancer, a ninja. You love Minecraft and your best friend. Your best meal is still breakfast, preferably copious quantities of French toast or oatmeal, covered with copious quantities of maple syrup. Many things in your life are copious — the more the better. You are equal parts sweet but wildly unsentimental; you don’t cry at goodbyes and would prefer not to say them at all; it's hard not to want to hug you anyway but I'm learning to give you your space. Which makes the morning cuddles, the bedtime reading, extra sweet. (It would be disingenuous not to note that now you are here for only half your bedtimes. I want you to know that I notice your absences, miss you when you are not here — even as I welcome sleeping in past seven, even when I can wake up and journal and drink a cup of tea uninterrupted. I want you to know that know that you're okay exactly where you are.)

You are eight, and I will watch you celebrate that eight-ness with a bunch of boys running wildly through the neighbourhood, and I will marvel. I will watch you catch hold of this new age, on the cusp of this new time, and run with it. And I will revel in those moments when you stop, even for a moment, and fall into my lap.

I love you,


PS: Seven-year-old

PPS: Six-year-old

PPPS: Five-year-old


Steal this book

That time I took that solo road trip, a couple of days’ worth of driving, crossing the border to meet up with my friend Mary in a city midway between our two homes for a weekend writing retreat. The plan was to make some headway on our latest projects and also catch up, get the back story.

Mary is wise, in this very inscrutable, take-no-prisoners, no-bullshit, occasionally infuriating, way. She’ll sit and listen to me utterly intently, her eyes narrowed in focus, as I go deep into all the tiny details of whatever situation is currently vexing me. And I’ll sift through each bit of evidence as though the facts will solve things, add up to the right next move. And she’ll nod a lot, and then she’ll say something Yoda-like, like “For me, loving someone means that I don’t want to change them in any way.”

And then I’m floored, stopped dead in my tracks, as I imagine loving the clerk at the convenience store, imagine the possibilities for all the love there could be. It’s a bit frightening.

I was anxious on this particular trip. I’d been anxious for weeks at that point: an intense, constant buzz in my brain that dialed up or down but never quite turned off. Anxiety left my insides knotted and uncomfortable, made food unpalatable or shot it right through me. I was losing weight. The act of being anxious, stupidly, make me feel even more anxious: I hated the feeling, the amount of focus it took, almost as much as I hated the situation that I (mistakenly) thought was making me anxious and the fact that there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it. You know, the only person you’re in charge of is yourself, etc. 

I told all this to Mary in the living room of our AirBnB writing rental, explained the feelings and the people involved, trotted out all the tiny, apparently pertinent, details. And she listened in that way she does, and she related her own stories of being similarly anxious in similar situations, and then she said The Thing, the Jedi truth of that particular moment:

“It sounds as though you’ve given your self-esteem to somebody else, and now you need to get back.”


How does one wrest back one’s self-esteem from its utterly unsuspecting thieves? Especially since they’re not really the ones who actually stole it in the first place? I’ve discovered that, often in these situations, the solution to the riddle lies less in finding a solution then actually noticing the problem. If that makes sense. In other words, the only thing I could reliably do was [buzzword alert] get mindful about it all: Lookit, how you’re doing that thing again? The thing where you let someone else dictate the tenor of your mood for this particular moment? You could redirect that.

So I chewed on that for a while.

And then our weekend ended, and I began my trek home. And I stopped midway for lunch at this charming little restaurant near the border. I had a Reuben sandwich, which isn’t really important except that the weekend had been filled with some very good Reuben sandwiches already and so I continued on with that theme. In the great scheme of charming restaurants, this one had shelves full of books to peruse while you waited for or ate your meal. I figured it was one of those places that worked on the honour system: leave a book, take a book, at your discretion. And so I perused, moving through fiction and how-to and cookbooks until I got to self-help. Where I spied this:

And I laughed. Here it was: my self-esteem, for the (re)taking.

And so, I took it. I hid the book under my newspaper, because really, I’m not sure that reading a book about recovering one’s self-esteem in public is necessarily the best way to recover it. (Although, apparently, blogging about it is. Go figure.) I wasn’t actually intending to read the book, although I’m sure that when it was published in 1992 it contained a lot of wisdom and probably still does. I just wanted to take a picture of the cover and text it to Mary, be amused by it together, and then donate it.

I finished my lunch, paid for my Reuben sandwich, got back in the car and pulled out of the restaurant and then looked a little more closely at its sign. Which included the words, “And Used Bookstore.”

I had just stolen a book.

A book on recovering my self-esteem.

And I was about to take stolen property across the border.

Do I really even have to detail the scenarios I imagined as I sped toward the border? Of being pulled over and searched, fined or arrested, never again allowed back into the United States? Do I have to tell you about the imaginary headlines that screamed through my head: CANADIAN WOMAN ARRESTED FOR SMUGGLING STOLEN BOOK ON SELF-ESTEEM ACROSS BORDER? The imagined video footage of me stopping at a gas station, surreptitiously shoving the evidence into a garbage can?

Reader, I was not caught. I made it home safe and sound, my crime undetected. Until now.

I’m not sure what the moral of the story is, or if it even has one. Next time I’m in that town, I’ll stop by that restaurant and leave a couple bucks in the tip jar. In the meantime, the anxiety ebbed. I figured out some stuff. At the moment, I feel like I’ve got a pretty decent grasp on my own self-esteem and a fairly clear vision of when I err in the direction of handing it over to someone else. It’s an ongoing project. The book has served its purpose and is going in my ever-growing donation pile. Maybe someone else will discover it just when they need to. In the meantime, I continue to clear space, changing (or trying to change) only what I can, only what belongs to me, and in the process making room for that much more love.