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.


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’m trying to learn how to travel light.

It’s an ongoing quest, this push toward bare essentials. I fantasize about perfectly organized, lightweight suitcases; about wearing everything I bring and longing for nothing. The reality is a little messier: just one more black T-shirt, one more pair of shoes, the perpetual agony about whether to pack workout gear, the tension between bringing the clothes I know and love and wear every day and bringing the more experimental, “special,” clothes (hello, funky silver pants, blue dress!) that I feel I should wear but never quite do.

I pack for weeks in my head before any significant trip. It’s a coping mechanism to deal with travel stress; I know this. If I focus on acquiring travel-sized toothpaste; that go-with-everything lightweight black wrap; a party clutch that will hold my phone, a couple of chargers, business cards and room key; then I don’t have to think about the leaving, the people, the money spent, the social interactions, whether I’ll make an ass of myself at a conference session or on the dance floor. If I can just get that magical packing part down, then everything else will fall into place and the pre-trip deadlines will meet themselves and I’ll even sleep the night before I leave.

Oh, I’m adorable.

I’m getting better — I managed to get everything for my recent weeklong trip to California and the BlogHer14 conference into a single carry-on (plus a fairly hefty “purse”). And this is because, instead of packing for weeks in my head, I finally caved to my demons and made a proper list: toiletries, jewelry, tech, documents, a list of outfits for each occasion, lingerie and sleepwear, reading materials, shoes. Always the shoes. I used fancy headings and columns and checklist bullets, and my stress levels decreased almost immediately. That’s one of the best things I ever learned from life-hacking guru David Allen, author of Getting Things Done (read it; it’s life-changing): things are on our minds because (a) we don’t know what we want, (b) we don’t know what to do next, or (c) because we know these things but we haven’t created some kind of trustworthy system — i.e., a list — for remembering them:

“Until those thoughts have been clarified and those decisions made, and the resulting data has been stored in a system that you absolutely know you will think about as often as you need to, your brain can’t give up the job. You can fool everyone else, but you can’t fool your own mind. … Even if you’ve already decided on the next step you’ll take to resolve the problem, your mind can’t let go until and unless you write yourself a reminder in a place that knows you will, without fail, look. It will keep pressuring you about that untaken next step, usually when you can do anything about it, which will just add to your stress.”

Amen. So, the list. The day before the trip, I gathered every item on it, threw it on my bed (my voice dictation software keeps typing in “threw it on my dad,” which I find inexplicably funny, but no mind), rolled up everything into tubes and stuck it in my carry-on. And then I threw in a few more things, until the suitcase was full.

The upshot? Middling. The photo at the top shows everything I took with me to California. The pile on the right is all the stuff I actually wore. The pile on the left contains things like the silver pants and the blue dress and the extra black T-shirt — mostly, stuff that wasn’t on the list.

I get that life is too short to strive for packing perfection. I get that packing is not a zero-sum game. (And, yes, it is understood that if one can blog about one’s special silver pants from the safety of one’s own home then packing is a first-world problem.) I get that sometimes you need to bring a bathing suit or a warm jacket that you will never wear but that you might need. I get that maybe the hotel will have a gym and you’ll be really happy you brought your sneakers, but that mostly you won’t. I get that sometimes you don’t know exactly what a trip, a city, an occasion, will call for and that it is always good to have a party dress and shoes you can hike in — and that life is too short to dance in shoes that hurt. I get that I might want to wear the same thing three days in a row, or I might wear the same thing at this conference that I wore at the last conference and that I’ll just have to hope that it’s true that nobody really cares, or even notices. I get that you may leave your favourite jacket on a train, and that you can always, in a pinch, buy more underwear.

What I’m learning, though, is that at least half the weight of my baggage is emotional, and that maybe I can learn how to leave that stuff behind.

As an editor, sometimes I get so caught up in the cutting, in honing down stories and paragraphs to their barest essentials, as though efficiency is writing’s only or best virtue. But of course it’s the flourishes — those extra, well-placed quirks or digressions — that, ultimately, add personality, make the piece. And the same, perhaps, is true for baggage: you know, less is more, except when it’s not.

Also, I bought the shoes, because the Internet told me to, And because they may just be the sexiest things I own.

Also, I bought the shoes, because the Internet told me to, And because they may just be the sexiest things I own.