On My Life With a Dog

Clea meeting Bowie for the first time

My puppy turned a year old yesterday. Please indulge me while I take this one post to talk about my dog and how he has changed my life. Not dramatically. Not ideologically. I have not found religion or quit my job to dedicate my life to PETA (though I am fully in favour of the ethical treatment of animals).  But the subtle undercurrents of my life have shifted, become less…torrential.

I have never owned a dog or a cat. The closest I’ve come to owning pets is a budgie that used to sit on my head when I was little and a cantankerous turtle that was my daughter’s 8th birthday present. Growing up, my mom, my sister and I were allergic to most animals (only my vet sister didn’t have allergies and she loved animals. The moment she turned 18 she got a dog.) Oh, and I suspect being a single working mother with three daughters had something to do with my mother refusing to take on a pet.

I get it. Though Clea always wanted a dog, living in an apartment in Montreal with everyone gone all day seemed like not the ideal conditions for owning a pet. Also, I was a working mom with two daughters and other ambitions. I was good at the care and feeding of children but I did not do plants or animals.

Sometime about a year ago, my daughter Clea asked me for the millionth time in her life if we could get a dog. Before my thinking brain could kick in, I responded ok, let’s start looking. After the shock of that yes wore off, we scoured the animal rescue sites, went to adoption weekends at pet shops, searched the online classified sites to find our first ever dog.

No luck. It turns out the market for rescue dogs in Victoria is pretty competitive and we had absolutely no experience with animals. During this time, I went on my annual writer’s retreat with a couple of my friends. I told them we were looking for a dog and my friend Erin said that she too was looking—they had recently lost both their dogs to illnesses due to old age and wanted a puppy. She knew of a family that recently had a litter and were looking for people to adopt them.

First day at his new home

Long story short (because it is an epic story of yes! You can have the puppy to NO- sorry it is taken—to a surprise yes! Your puppy is available again!) in mid-November we took home an 8-week, white puppy with brown spots that we named Major Tom Bowie, Bowie for short. (My friend Erin also got a puppy from that litter and now Bowie can have playdates with his sister).

Here is what I learned.

I am a neurotic mother

I honestly didn’t know that about myself until I was faced with this tiny creature that I had no idea what to do with. The first night I hardly slept I was so worried—listening for any sound of distress. I worried about him eating, not eating, getting dehydrated, not peeing, peeing too much. Did he poo yet today?

And I was brought right back to when my kids were small and the constant, low level worry that something might be wrong and that it is probably my fault because I didn’t take good enough care to prevent it.

Sigh. I have calmed down quite a bit, thank god. But I still worry. What if I’m doing this all wrong? What if I’m a bad pet owner? Do I brush him enough? Work on his training enough? (the answer is no). What if I am going to puppy mommy hell because I neglected to do this one crucial thing that nobody ever told me about and I had no idea I was supposed to do yet is still my fault for not just knowing that I should do it like a real pet owner?

Ok. Stepping away for a moment to take some deep breaths.

So yeah. The first lesson I learned is that caring for someone or something sends me into a spiral of self-doubt, hypervigilance and imposter syndrome.

I can’t help it. That’s how I love.

I am working on chilling out on this one before I end up devouring myself like the snake eating its tail.

Play is Back in my Life

From the moment that he got used to our house, little Bowie started playing. And very soon after he started grabbing the chew toys with his teeth and trying to rip them apart as if they were prey, he demanded we play with him. He likes to bring us one of his toys—his floppy duck or his squeaky unicorn— and put his paws up on us until he gets our attention and we try to grab the toy.

Then the tug of war begins. For a little dog, he is surprisingly strong. Once we finally manage to get the toy, we throw it and he goes leaping like a furry rocket to retrieve it. And then we keep doing this for a long time until he walks away to take a nap.

I can’t express how therapeutic this has been, to have this little furry epitome of love demand that you stop what you are doing and be fully present with him in that moment. Especially during the pandemic and working from home, where I am looking at a screen for most of the day. To have these short bursts of unthinking, simply, present moments of play has helped my stress level immeasurably.

Which brings me to my next point.

The Joy Quotient Has Increased Exponentially

Having a bad day? Was there no coffee cream left when you woke up? Did you have a fight with your boyfriend? Rough day at work where people yelled at you a lot in there Covid-19 induced anxiety? Did you just get t-boned by a German asshole in a SUV who said it was your fault and totalled your mom’s car? (that was yesterday- everyone is all right.)

There is only one thing to do: Cuddle Bowie. Just sit with him on the big extravagant cushion I purchased for him after his neutering. Rub his belly and scratch his chin when he lifts his face up to you and watch him smile in total bliss. Let him curl up between your legs and shower your feet and legs (literally) with Bowie kisses. I guarantee you the world will stop sucking so bad.

Since we got Bowie in November, the joy quotient has risen exponentially in my house. I know I have harped on it a lot, but just in case you’ve never read this blog before, it’s been a rough few years. Though the girls and I were coming out of it on our own, learning to put ourselves back in the world and daring to open up to new things, having Bowie has made us remember on a visceral level, one that I equate with babyhood, what it is to feel pure, unadulterated, simple joy and love.

So even if he sometimes gets into my bathroom and uses the floor as his own commode, or gets a hold of Daniel’s pen and chews it until all the ink drips out on the couch (which both happened the day before his birthday) and even though the corners of my mantlepiece and a few select kitchen chairs looked like they have been gnawed on by beavers, he brings me so much joy I don’t care.

 I love taking him for a walk after work and watching his jaunty little derriere scamper on ahead of me. I love when he is in play mode and pretends like he is hunting. I love the weird little thing he does when he doesn’t want to walk—it is hard to describe but it is sort of like a sideways-downward dog-butt in the air-civil disobedience tactic.

Okay. One more thing I learned.

I was Right to Not Get a Dog Before Now.

Though Clea was the one begging for the dog all these years, she is the one that is hardly ever at home right now. She loves Bowie, but rarely takes him for walks, or feeds him or is even home to cuddle him. This is not an accusation or a judgement. She is nineteen after all and on her own journey.

But my suspicion that I would be the one taking care of the dog was right. Bowie is my dog. Sylvie is around more and helps more, but I am the one that wakes him up in the morning, feeds him, takes him for walks and puts him to bed most nights. I could not have had this added pressure on me when the kids were little and I was juggling work and kids and the lopsided mental load traditional to the wife and mother.

I Was Also Right to Get a Dog Now.

But now, when the kids are adults and gone more often than not, Bowie is a real comfort. When the girls are gone as they will be sooner than I want to think about, I will have my Bowie to comfort me, to keep me company. The nest is emptying slowly. It is a trickle now, but soon it will be a torrent. There are more nights in the week where I am alone for dinner than there are with my girls.

That’s okay. I have been starved for solitude for the last twenty years and welcome it. At least part of me does. The other part of me feels lost in it, not knowing what to do with so much time. I have been a mother for so long it is hard to turn it off.

Luckily I have Bowie who needs a walk, or a play or a cuddle. As the girls need me less and less, it is nice to have someone who still needs me at least a little bit.

On Writer’s week: Lessons Learned

I have been in several writer groups in my life. All of the members of these groups (with the exception of my current one—but give it time—these ladies can write!) have been published, some several times and by major publishing houses. Some were published authors before they joined the writers’ group, while some had their first novel picked up after they joined the group.

The only one out of all of writer group members that has never been published is me.

My Think Tank

When I think about this grim statistic, the lyrics to R.E.M.’s Losing my Religion pop into my head:

“That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough.”

I stand before thee in the spotlight of shame, naked with nothing to show for myself. Pelt me with rotten vegetables and insults, with your empty bottles and vitriol. I deserve no less.

Ok. That was a rather overly dramatic image. But you get my drift. This failure to produce anything palpable, something I can take off the bookshelf and show to people, makes me feel like I have been exposed for the fraud I am.

What is wrong with me? Why can’t I do this?

I will spare you the spiral of self-hatred that accompanies thinking about the fact that I am the only one who has not successfully launched a writing career in all of my writer’s group friends. Suffice it to say it is an emotional swamp I have to cross everyday just to get to a place where I can start typing.

Writer’s week offered some more insights into why I have not been able to dedicate my time to writing more as well as what would happen if I did. Here are a few things I learned about myself.

The day goes by very fast when I’m working on my own writing.

Frequently, my day job can seem like a marathon at the 30 km mark: interminable. Don’t get me wrong. I like my work. I am lucky to have it. It is interesting and meaningful and I get to delve deeply into subjects. The problem is, it is always someone else’s project.

It turns out that I can very easily work on my own writing every day. I did not know this before this week. The secret fear that if given the gift of time I would not know what to do with it has stalked me forever. That I would sit there all day with nothing to say and nothing to show for it, thus proving that I am indeed the most useless person on the planet. I am happy the opposite is true, that days spent writing go by fast. Of course, this is a bittersweet revelation given that I spend over 8 hours a day, 5 days a week doing other work. But hey. You can’t have it all, right?

Writing time should not be gifted but taken.

Peacefully if possible, but in a violent coup if need be. While writing the above section I realized one of the big misguided beliefs that has held me back: I have been waiting for someone/something/some situation to present to me my own time on a platter, preferably surrounded by soft cheese and grapes and accompanied by a glass of prosecco.

You cannot gift to someone what already belongs to them. I own my own time. Every hour, second, minute I choose what I do with it. The problem is that since having children I have fallen for the mother trap, where I felt that all my time needed to be devoted to my kids and my family. And when you have freely given up your time to others, have staked no claim on it, have let them believe it is theirs to do with what they will, it is really hard to take it back, to assert your sovereignty and kick out the colonists, so to speak.

It is also hard to decolonise yourself, to unlearn the habits and underlying beliefs that shaped that worldview. Even though I have more time than I’ve had since 1999, the last thing I think to do with it is to write. I am used to being the second-class citizen in my own time country and those habits, those belief will only fade with some loving practice.

I am very bad at boundaries.

Just as I have to figure out how to govern my new sovereign state of time, I need to figure out how to defend its borders. This writing week showed me how hard it is for me to not get distracted by people and household tasks. I don’t know how to ignore people (or a dirty bathroom) and my guilt threshold—defined by me as the ability to live with a sense of guilt when you say no to someone—is very, very low. I can’t stand disappointing people.

And yet, if I am going to carve out more than a measly half hour a day to write, I am going to have to get better at this, because something or someone is going to have to go. As a side note for something I will explore in a future post, I am still shocked by how very extreme my gender responses are, how I have unconsciously bitten hook, line and sinker into the norms around femininity. But that’s a bigger conversation for another day…

Owning my creative self means my relationships work better.

When I am writing—just as when I get enough sleep, go running, eat well—I am more grounded, more likely to stay in my emotional lane. Though my writing might be as meaningful as the dribbles of cream I inadvertently spilled on the counter, just the fact that I am doing it makes me a better person. I can be more present with other people because I have been more present with myself.

And I guess that is about the best argument I have to put my foot down and say, “no, I can’t [watch a show/go for coffee/make dinner/insert distraction]. I’m busy right now.” And then shut the hard-won door of my new office and get me the hell to work.

Anatomy of self-sabotage: How to be artist-adjacent but never the artist

Age 46: Day 123 Morning writing selfie

When I was in high school, I stopped writing. I had the mistaken notion I had to be canon-worthy right from the get go, an Amadeus-like figure whose brain bloomed a garden of perfect sentences ready to be plucked and neatly arranged like a bouquet. So when I did go to write something down and the result was less than perfect, I froze. I could not be bad at the one thing I loved so much.

Unfortunately for me, I also happened to watch the 1982 film The World According to Garp with Robin Williams around the time I was finishing grade twelve (I know it is also a book by John Irving, but I never read it). Garp’s wife says this line that punched me in the gut, and gave me the out I needed from having to try at writing:

“I am a reader not a writer.” The character goes on to become a literature professor, one that loves books, critiques them, is still in the world of art but not an artist.

That is me, I thought. I am a reader not a writer. I had it wrong all these years! I may not be able to write, but I can still love reading, still be peripheral to the world of creativity.

And so I went on to pursue a degree in English literature. I thought it would be perfect for me, combine my analytic little soul with my love of story. A degree that meant I could read the world’s greatest novels, essays and poetry for credit? What’s not to love?

Well, I didn’t love it. I found it blasphemous to pick apart the books that moved me so much. I was irritated by the pretentious debates that erupted in class, the kind only possible between youth who think that just because these revelations are new to them, they must have invented them (I count myself very much as one of those pretentious youth).

I still loved reading the books, letting them wash over me as an event, something that palpably changed me. To this day, I am still in awe at the artistry it takes to weave a scene—complete with smells, touches, nuances of feeling—just from words. My degree did not rob me of this love, only failed to give me the career I thought was right for me.

It was not until J and I took a trip to Europe in 1996 where I figured out how to begin to write again. We would stop once in a while for him to sketch something and while he did that, I would take my notebook out and write a poem. This was only possible if I looked at my writing as sketches, exercises, something that was and would never be fully realized, constantly waiting for the next iteration for improvement.

This way of looking at the practise of art helped me a lot—it allowed me to start writing again without it needing to be perfect. After a few years of writing I began to submit work to journals. I was beginning to get published even. It could have been a start.

I did not build on this momentum. It did not even occur to me to do so, though in hindsight there was nothing stopping me. We had our small apartment, our unobtrusive jobs that paid our small bills. I could have continued writing and submitting, built a body of work.

Instead, we decided to have kids.

Everyone around me was having them, you see.

One day I will write about this artist collective we had in the 1990s called The Chapman group. How it was both a blessing and a curse. But not today.

And I also wanted them. Could feel the need in me grow stronger everyday. We made the decision to have kids, because why not? We were married. We were young. All our friends were having kids. Might as well start now before we got too old.

I think I had the mistaken notion that I could be a parent to a newborn and be a writer in equal parts.

 Oh, I managed to keep writing, but my writing ended up happening in the quiet cracks of the day. Those cracks got progressively smaller and smaller as the kids grew up and I went back to school to get my Master’s to be a librarian and worked full time. Incidentally, librarianship was a better fit for me. Instead of analysing books, I got to recommend, suggest, help people find the ones they wanted to read. Still, a career that was artist-adjacent not artist.

Just when the girls were getting older and the cracks were about to experience a tectonic shift, open up and become clefts, J abruptly left and my world fell apart. Time closed in on itself, sucked up by grief and sorrow and trauma. And then moving, finding a new career and a home for me and my girls closed the cracks pretty solidly for a time.

Four years later, I find the cracks are no longer cracks but valleys. They have gradual sloping hills on each side that I may leisurely meander down. I can bring a blanket and snacks. Lay down and watch the sky in my valley of time now, as opposed to having to bungy jump into the narrow slot reserved for creativity. Partly this is the fruit of the labour I have done to rebuild my life, but mostly it is the lessons learned from the pandemic—that the hustle I thought was necessary to keep it going was not as necessary as I thought.

I am still getting used to all this time. The girls are gone more and more. The house is clean enough and does not require immediate attention.  On a Saturday afternoon such as this one when there is no one but the dog to keep me company I find myself at a loss of what to do. I tend to spin my wheels for a couple of hours before finally settling in at the computer.

I meant this post to be about the lessons I learned from writing week. I am not sure why it suddenly became a personal history lesson. I think maybe I am just beginning to understand the big and small ways I have sabotaged myself throughout my life. Maybe it is an attempt to dig until I hit the soft spot in the defensive carapace I have spent thirty years building.

Here is what I know: I might fail. I might be a shit writer who wasted many hours writing stories and blog posts that nobody reads. By allowing myself to aspire to be a writer, to put my time and money into it, I might by vying for the award of most useless human on the planet. That all may be true.

But so is this: The alternative is me turning into a sad, twisted thing plagued by bitterness and resentment, unleashing her toxic halitosis of fear and regret on the world.

Viewed from this perspective, I am really performing a public service…

Staycation Writer’s Retreat

Wondering why the hell I got myself into this mess in the first place…

A few weeks ago, I had a drink with a friend. She is my age, 46, two young kids and is in the middle of studying for her LSATs. She’s decided she’s going to law school, come hell or high water and fulfill a lifelong dream of hers. What triggered this sudden fire under her ass was listening to a woman in her 70s speak about how, at our age, she knew didn’t want to get old without knowing she didn’t at least try to pursue her dream—didn’t at least take the plunge. She didn’t want to reach the age of 70 and regret the way she lived her life.

This conversation nagged at me. What is it I would regret not doing when I turn 70? What is my dream? What am I passionate about? What would I be doing if I didn’t have to worry about money, household stuff, bills, etc.? What would I be doing if I could do anything in the world?

Yeah. I bet you got there faster than I did.

It took me a full week of mulling over this question, of really searching to see what I would regret doing by the time I’m 70 to come up with an answer. At the time, I was (sort of still am) really looking into treating my freelance writing as a business, trying to see if I could grow it enough to become full-time. I was looking at it as something I can do that could potentially make me more money than working for the Government and actually make ends meet for once in my life.

But then…. July 27 came along. July 27 is J’s new wedding anniversary. He has been married to someone else for two years. I know I should not have this date so clear in my mind. I know it is none of my business. But I do; I can’t help it.

When the kids were growing up we would talk about how it would be when they finished high school, how our lives could be a little less centered around the necessity of raising kids. I could quit my full-time job for something more flexible, maybe even to accompany him on his tours. He would pick up some of the slack of the finances. We could simplify our lives, pare it down to how it had been before children when both of us were pursuing our art. This was the vision that got me through those years of working full-time and child-rearing—that maybe one day it would be my turn. His wedding anniversary is a constant reminder he is living that life with someone else and my dreams have once again been buried in the detritus of quotidian necessities.

It made me mad. Why does he get to be an artist and I don’t? Why is he able to forget about everyone else and just do what he pleases? Why did I spend years trying to shape our lives around his needs as an artist while I swept mine under the table, dismissed them as the least important thing in our family, the one thing that could always be sacrificed?

Though I have plenty of reason to be mad at J, this one, alas, is on me. I am so mad at myself for not believing in me, for not thinking my own creative needs were important and deserved as much space in our home as his did.

And then I finally got there. What would I regret not doing by the time I am 70? Write, goddamnit.

I know, I know. I’ve talked about it many times on this blog. Hell, this blog is all about me writing. But I have become very, very good at unseeing it. I’ve wanted to be a writer since the first time I picked up a book and got lost in a story. Writing is the way I understand the world, it is what I can contribute, for whatever that is worth.

There is a part of me that still rebels at this. Why can’t my dream be something that will have more direct impact on people’s lives? Why can’t it be something that will at least make me some money?

Nope. It has to be writing. Useless, financially suicidal, often navel-gazing, sometimes transcendent, writing. Admitting this is to admit that my life is always going to be a struggle to make ends meet, to have the constant cognitive dissonance between what you imagine in your head and what actually lands on paper. It means finding the time to write queries and pitches and bracing oneself for the barrage of rejection letters or worse, the echoing void of no response at all.

Most of all, it is resigning oneself to a perpetual state of emotional rawness and vulnerability, of letting one’s guts hang out in the hopes of illuminating a small, universal truth.

Sigh.

Why couldn’t I want to be a lawyer?

As a first step in truly accepting this dream of mine, I took last week off from work to write—my own little stay at home writer’s residency. It is the first time in, well, ever, that I dedicated so much time to my own writing. I wanted to finish a draft of a novel that’s been an ongoing project for at least 7 or 8 years.

I averaged between 3 to 6 hours of writing every day. I am sure my novel is farther along, though it is hard to tell at this stage, as I am mired in the details, trying to make sure it all sticks together. Some days I thought it was pretty good. Other days I wanted to burn it and go hide under a rock. Today I have no idea if it is good or bad, or if I am completely insane or criminally self-indulgent even to entertain the idea.

Though I didn’t accomplish my goal of finishing that first draft to send out to readers, I did something more important: I managed to crack the hard, shell of fear in which I encased this particular dream and let in a bit of light. Hopefully, I can stay focused and crack it some more.

Next post: Lessons I learned from writer’s week.

On my Ongoing Journey to Dismantle my Own Racism

I just finished reading a book called White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism when all hell broke loose last week. I was reading this as part of an Indigenous Reads book club at work, where each month I get together with some of my colleagues and try to deconstruct our own privilege and move forward on our own journeys of reconciliation by reading the stories and listening to the voices of Indigenous writers that have gone so long unheard. It is uncomfortable but necessary inner work.

I have been trying to write about this journey for a while now mostly in the context of forgiveness and reconciliation, but I am having a hard time putting it into words. Mostly I struggle with the fear that I am going to say something wrong and offend someone. That I am going to inadvertently expose some hidden biases I didn’t even know I had and be called out on them.

In these tumultuous times, I do not want to showcase my own privilege but actively work to dismantle it. I don’t want to be adding my own voice to maintain the status quo; I want to offer it up in service as an ally.

I know my voice is not the important one right now. But I also can’t just say nothing. Because that’s the exact problem—liberal thinking, polite white people like me are too afraid to talk about their privilege and thus end up perpetuating it.

I don’t want to perpetuate my own privilege. I am not okay with a world where I can walk safely down the streets without harassment but another person can’t. Where I am taking seriously simply because of the colour of my skin and another person is not simply because the colour of theirs. I don’t want this privilege. The first step in dismantling it is to acknowledge that it exists and permeates my whole life.

As cities in America burn and justifiably angry people take to the streets and risk their lives (both due to police violence and an actual fucking pandemic which makes gathering even that much more dangerous), I want to do the one thing that is the most important thing to do which is acknowledge my own privilege and actively seek to deconstruct it. Here is what I have learned so far on this ongoing, lifelong journey to actively, consciously educate myself so I am not causing more harm than good in this world.

  1. I am a racist. I really don’t want to be one, I hate that I am, but I am. We all are, because we have grown up in a racist society. The more we admit this to ourselves, the more we can unearth our hidden biases and dismantle them.
  2. We live in a white supremacist state. I am a white person in a world ruled by white people. I have power and privilege just by being white that people of colour simply do not have. Though I may not have personally enslaved people or stolen people’s lands, I am the direct beneficiary of a system set up by those who did. This is unacceptable to me.
  3. It is up to me to dismantle this privilege. I can do this by actively seeking to deprogram myself by exposing myself to other voices, to alternative views than the one I grew up with where Indigenous peoples and people of colour were only a footnote in our white colonist history.

I have so much more to learn about my own biases, about how I can dismantle my own privilege. If I have said something that was offensive or wrong, I would be grateful for feedback. When I get it, I promise to not burst into tears (at least not in front of the person giving the critique), get defensive, or make it in anyway about me. I will thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping me uncover my own biases and work to incorporate that new found knowledge into everything I do.

In the face of all that is going on in the world, I just wanted to do my very small part by acknowledging my own racism and own inadvertent complicity in a system that has for centuries only benefitted white people. And for whatever it is worth, loudly and for the record profess my wish to be an ally in building a more equitable world.

 

Why all the Bloody Selfies? An Explanation

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Age 46: Day 34 Selfie of me writing about taking selfies

 

Some of you may have noticed that I have been bombarding my social media with daily pictures of myself, after many years of rarely posting anything, let alone my own face. Why? Why am I doing this deeply uncomfortable thing?

Here is my best attempt at an explanation. On a whim—seriously, the thought popped into my head and the next moment day 1 was posted on Instagram—I decided that I needed to get more comfortable with the camera and the way I would do it was by posting one photo a day for my 46th year.

It has been 33 days and I have regretted my decision for about 30 of them.

I’ve hated getting my photo taken my whole life. I am very, very bad at it. I am awkward.  I make faces that apparently do not resemble my normal face. For that reason, there are times in my life where I have very little photos of me. A glaring example is my own wedding, where there was one—count them— one of me in my wedding dress (not that it matters anymore, but still).

It comes down to my complicated relationship with visibility. I have mostly felt like I am invisible my whole life, that people do not see me. Invisibility has been a great excuse to not join clubs, sports teams, conversations—if nobody is going to see me, why join? It also gave me a license to think that my actions did not matter, that because I was invisible and unimportant, I could not hurt anybody.

But cameras and getting my picture taken exposes the lie. I can’t get away from the fact that not only is someone seeing me, they are focussed on me. That makes me deeply, deeply uncomfortable. It means I am not as invisible as I thought, that perhaps I do matter.

The complicated part is this: though I feel invisible, there is a part of my that wishes to feel visible, for people to see me. And as uncomfortable as I am with getting my photo taken, I am even less comfortable with this need. You see, invisibility (or at least pretending I am invisible and do not matter) has been my greatest protection mechanism. It is what has allowed me to try new things and go forward. Conceived by my young brain in order to allow me to go out in the world with less fear of fucking up, the idea that people did not see me meant freedom to make mistakes, to try new things, to be me without anybody caring.

Fully owning my own visibility means giving up this rusty old protection mechanism and embracing that I do indeed exist, my actions have consequences and, yes, for better or worse, that is indeed my face. Taking selfies means not only am I owning my own visibility, I am thrusting it willy nilly on the world. See? I am taking a photo of my face and making you look at it! I exist, bitches!

And man, I can’t tell you the existential dread that comes from seeing my face. Is that really me? Do I really look like that? What does that face even mean? I wonder if this dread is the reason why artists make self-portraits? This questioning of one’s own face?

So. My challenge to myself: 365 days of one selfie a day. Hopefully by the end of it I will be able to smile in a way that doesn’t make me look perpetually mildly concerned or constipated. Wish me luck.

Honouring: An Exploration in Five Parts

I

During my morning commute in Montreal, a homeless man regularly stood sentry at the bottom of the escalators in the metro station. Technically I guess he was begging, but he had such a genteel air about him, it felt more like he was graciously inviting us to donate. Whether I had change or not, every morning we would make eye contact and he would nod to me in the manner of a gentleman tipping his hat to a lady of his acquaintance and murmur a greeting that was not words exactly, more like the musical humming of a bird.

Then one day he was not there. Weeks went by before I saw him again. When he did finally re-appear, his face was distorted with bruises and swellings. He leaned precariously on a crutch while he stretched out one of his hands, like a branch whose weight was too heavy for its trunk. Alcohol and fecal fumes emanating from him were heartbreaking. Still he stood and managed a twisted smile and nod for every commuter.

He did not hum though.

When it was my turn to pass him, he met my eyes. He was a little unsteady, his eyes glazed from pain and alcohol, yet still he managed his Dalai lama smile and graceful bow. I paused against the surge of distracted, time-challenged bodies to bow back, regretting I had no change in my pocket.

The next morning, I made my commute with pockets jangling. But he was not at the bottom of the escalator, nor the next day or the next. I never saw him again.

II

When my nephew died, my daughters were inconsolable. I did not try to console them.

III

Going for a run during the pandemic is like being in a video game. Or a metaphor for moral living—how do I navigate all these people while trying my best to not be an asshole?  How do I serve my needs while remaining ever vigilant of others? Because let’s face it, I am a viral sprinkler when I run, my drops spraying out of me, heedless of others.

I run on the streets when I can. Cede the right of way always. Plan my means of egress from the sidewalk for blocks ahead. Even if there is little to no chance I have the virus, I do not want to be a Typhoid Mary. I do not want to be that asshole.

Some people nod to me and thank me for moving. Some take it as their due. Some do not make it easy to not be an asshole, and stake out their route in the middle of the sidewalk as if the sidewalk was their property and the rest of us were squatting.

The other day, an older couple saw me coming and shifted to the side to wait on the grass. As I passed, they made eye contact, smiled. The lady said, “It is much easier for us to move than you. Running is easier on the pavement.” I smiled back and said thank you.

It is nice to know others are trying not to be assholes too.

IV

Sometimes I honour myself with a glass of wine. Sometimes I dishonour myself with four.

V

The hardest decision I’ve ever had to make was moving to Victoria. Not because it meant leaving my job, my home, my friends and community, though those things were very hard too. It was hard because I had to make the decision against my former identity as a “we”, the “we” that had just been shattered into a million irreconcilable shards. The “we” identity had been in place for twenty years. Decisions were to be made in consideration of everyone who made up that we—my husband, my daughters and last and definitely least, me.

The “we” had changed when my husband amputated himself from us. He was making decisions about his life that did not take into us consideration. I had to do the same if I was to not disappear from myself. I had to make decisions that were right for me and my girls. It was like trying to learn how to walk all over again.

It took me months. I agonized over it. Wrote in my journal, meditated, went for long walks. Talked at length about moving with my daughters. Let my ex know several times I was thinking about it (he ignored me). Moving did not just mean the need to make a decision that deliberately excluded him. It meant giving up on the idea that our family would ever heal itself, in whatever form. That he was really gone.

It was not until I went to visit my sister who set me up with her craniosacral person that I gained some clarity. During that session, she asked me to imagine myself as a child. I described me at my father’s funeral, the only me I really remember, the lost and lonely child trapped inside herself. Always in a corner, always with an expression of a trapped mouse. Constantly surrounded by people but always alone.

What did that child need? Craniosacral lady asked. “What did I need?”

The answer came immediately. I needed time and space and help. The only way I could get those things was in Victoria, where I could lean, for a little while, on the support of my family. Where my daughters would be surrounded by other adults who loved them dearly and who had the capacity to show up for them.

I hated making this decision. It meant letting go of the notion that we could still be a family even though we were not together anymore. Deep down, it also meant letting go of the toxic hope that he would come back to me, that we could heal together and embark on a different kind of marriage. It meant I was making it harder for him to heal the wounds his leaving had caused, because now their emotional distance would be matched by a geographical one.

I knew this. I did not like it. I am still uncomfortable with it. And yet I would do it again, because it was the right thing for me and my girls. For the first time ever, I let my own needs matter as much as those of others, let them have a louder voice.

I listened.

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On the 38th Anniversary of my Father’s Death

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My Dad and me

Today is the anniversary of my dad’s death.  He died at the age of 38 which means he has been dead as long as he was alive. A whole lifetime has gone by and yet somehow it seems like yesterday.

That’s grief for you though—it refuses to obey the dictates of time. Here’s a piece I wrote recently on my 8-year old response to his death.

 

 

 

Criminal

We commit crimes when we are children. We don’t mean to but we do. Our childhood certainties become suddenly uncertain and we panic. React. Do something we don’t understand and therefore cannot undo.

We then bury these crimes inside of us and forget about them until time, with its constant cascade of loss, erodes the dusty soil of our hearts and exposes the edges of our shame.

Time to face the facts: I am a criminal. Here is my crime.

Suspect: 8-Year Old Girl

With the exception of my mother, who teaches kindergarten in the large, bright classroom near the foyer, my teacher, Madame Lise, is the youngest, most beautiful, and also the kindest of all the teachers at the school. We are in a Grade One/Two split class. When Madame Lise needs to test us, she takes us out of our regular classroom away from the Grade Ones, and into another, smaller one around the corner. Today is a dictée day. We are in the small classroom writing down random words Madame Lise pronounces slowly and clearly. Bibliothèque. Armoire. Pommier. I know all the words. I am pleased with myself.

She finishes quizzing us. We are to follow her back into the regular classroom, where the babies are waiting. I am in Grade Two.

We turn the corner and immediately know something’s wrong. The teachers are outside their classes, leaning against the walls like broken ladders. Their heads are buried in their hands. They are crying.

This shocks me. Adults are not supposed to cry.

Mme Lise shuffles us into the class and rushes to investigate.  A few minutes later she reappears at the door and beckons me. I feel special to have been singled out and follow her. I am curious. That is all. It does not occur to me to be nervous. I am a good girl. Top of my class. I never hit when I’m angry or steal someone’s cookie. I am even nice to Maurice, who picks his nose and eats his boogers.

Nothing bad can happen to me because I follow the rules.

I get up from my desk and act like it’s no big deal. My friend Jody is watching me. I feel important.

In the hall, we first pass Mme Simpson, my First Grade teacher from last year. She had no patience for my shyness and would not let me go to the bathroom without asking in French. I could not ask. Every day that year I ran home after school, my bladder heaving like a dam after the storm. Often the dam overflowed and I arrived at my doorstep, cheeks and underpants wet.

She peeks her bulldog face through her thick, slug-like fingers and spots me. Her face contorts and a sob belches from her. I look away, embarrassed.

Why is such a mean woman crying? Mean people can’t cry. Adults don’t cry!

Except in this bad dream they do. All the teachers. I concentrate on the scene at the end of the hallway. There’s a man in his fancy dress uniform talking to my mother. They are backlit by the glass doors, the late morning April sun spotlighting them.

My mother’s hands also cover her face. Her body shakes. The man in the uniform is straight and stiff as a ruler. His arm rests on my mother’s hunched shoulders. I can see the doors between their bodies.

The hallway stretches out like a bad Alice dream. The clack clack clack of my teacher’s heels echo off the linoleum floor.

Panic flutters in my chest, the way it does when things do not make sense.

My teacher leads me towards my mother. Her grip on my hand is a little too tight. She keeps making these little sounds like she’s trying not to cry. She is scaring me. They are all scaring me. I wish they would stop it.

Mme Lise brings me directly to my mom, lays a hand on her shoulder to let her know I’m there, then abruptly turns away and moves down the hall to huddle with the other crying teachers.

I face my mother and the uniform man. They’re outside my mother’s classroom. She is popular, my mother. In March she shows her students how to make tire by pouring hot syrup on the snow. I wish I could have been in her class.

Maman?

My mother lowers her hands. Her face is not her face. It is the face of a pain I do not recognize, something deeper and untouchable than the hurt of all the scratched knee caps, bee stings, best friend fights, sisters breaking your favourite Sean Cassidy record, mean boys hitting you, combined.

This pain is a chasm and my mother has been swallowed. She is not my mother but something else now.

Her words are pebbles down a well; they land like a faint echo. Ton pèreavionaccidentmort.

I see it now. How the me that was before jolted out of my body, a faint ghost hovering like an echo behind me. The inner wooshing sound as I pulled her back into me and locked her up, that stupid girl who felt safe and confident that she belonged.

I hated that girl instantly for being so naïve, so sure of herself. I hated her for not knowing the world could turn on you at any moment. That your parents could one day cease to be your parents and what you thought was real and solid was actually just a big, nasty pretend game.

I panicked.

She had to go.

So I shoved her away, locked her up in a remote region of my heart and left her there to rot.

I told myself it was self-defence. She was too dangerous. Deliberately ignored the banging on the walls, the pleas to open the door. I tried very hard to forget her, tried to convince myself that the chasm left by her absence had always been there, that I was simply born this way. Some people have dark hair. Some people are psychopaths. Some people are simply missing the piece that makes them worthy of love, that allows them to trust. I could almost believe it was not my fault, not something I did to myself.

Almost.

But I did. And I have spent a lifetime paying for it.

The Sentence

The sentence for forcible confinement of yourself is simple: hard labour.

Work. Work your ass off and then work some more, bitch.

Oh, you can do your time but you’ll never really make up for it. You are a criminelle. A monstre. Your crime is perpetual therefore so is your punishment.

First: Arrêtes de rêver. Don’t fucking dare dream. Who the hell gave you permission to have those anyways? You locked them up, stifled them with your stinking fear and putrid shame. Your dreams are now a heaping pile of fertilizer. Might as well use it to grow other people’s dreams, because you ruined any chance of your own.

Second: Love. There will be people who think they can fix the trou inside you. They will think they can love you. The only way you can keep them around, pretend for a moment that you might deserve love (you don’t) is by working harder than everybody else.

You have to earn the air you breathe, the ground you stand on, every bite of food you stuff into your monster mouth. You must earn love and earn it constantly.

If the people you love with that amputee heart of yours are not happy, it’s your fault. If you don’t work your ass off to meet their every need, they will find out your dirty little secret, your gaping hole instead of a soul. Is that what you want? Is it?

If the person consents to marry you, feel grateful, bitch. They don’t realize yet you’re unlovable. Joke’s on them. Hide your trou through work and then more work. Make sure you do not need anything ever.

Ever. Tu m’écoutes? 

Third: Time. It’s not yours. It’s for other people.

When kids arrive, make sure your spouse does not feel overwhelmed. Small kids are hard. They’ll take a toll on those who are whole. But for you, avec un trou, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need time to yourself. You have no self worthy of time. Do not take time away ever. How many times do I have to tell you this? Stop wanting more than you can have. You made your choice. Live with the consequences.

So you’re unhappy. So you’re angry. Who cares? Bury it. You’re not allowed to feel these things. Who the hell said you could feel anything but grovelling gratitude?

Try harder, damn it. Get up at five am. Go running. Lose the weight. If you’re going to mimic worthy, at least look the part, fat ass.

Always be willing to have sex even though you’re dead tired. Do not think of the alarm clock or how near 5 a.m. is looming. You’re lucky he even wants to have sex with you. Don’t blow it.

Work hard and then harder to prove yourself in your new career. Keep your kids happy and thriving. You’re lucky to have them (you don’t deserve them).

Try to find time to write. Because even though you broke rule number one of your sentence, the dream still gasps out of you like the need to breathe. But this comes last do you hear me? Last. Dishes come before dreams. Everything comes before your dreams. Do I have to make you write lines to get it through your thick head?

Turn yourself inside out to keep everyone happy. Bury your unhappiness. Clench your jaw when the anger surges. Do not feel sad or lonely. What the hell is that? This is what you chose, this is what you wanted.

Don’t make a mistake ever. You can’t afford it. The people will find your trou and they will leave you like you deserve.

You buried me inside you, the part that was allowed to want more. You have done this to yourself.

You are a criminal. This is your sentence.

Time Served: 36 years

It was all for nothing.

All those decades of frenetic activity, of a prison routine devoid of compassion or space. Of clenching my jaw and then swallowing my hurt and disappointment as if it were bitter but necessary medicine to cure me from myself.

He discovered the trou and he left.

His leaving did not happen over night. The erosion began a long time ago. The walls around my trou were showing signs of age and I did not have the energy to repair them. He caught a glimpse and told me it was too much. I was a burden he could not carry anymore. How could he love me when I was so broken?

So he left and the walls crumbled to dust. No more illusions of being the good, supportive wife. No more pretending that I do not have a hole instead of a heart. No more walls, no more flesh, no more hiding. This is me.

I am so tired.

I might just sit a moment. Enjoy the view that opened up when the walls went down. A large plain stretches out to an old cabin on the horizon. It is vaguely familiar. If I’m quiet, I can hear the howling escaping the cracks of its clapboard sides.

She is still alive. Still screaming. My own tornado of rage. She would tear down the world to be heard, this creature I kept locked up in me for so long, this feral, closet girl. She will scream until I come and get her.

Parole

I took a trip inside my heart the other day, to the unknown places I had neglected for so long. There was a ruin of a house, a ramshackle, once beautiful thing in the midst of an overgrown garden.

First, I had to find the key. I got my hands dirty sifting through the mud around the door, through the overgrown weeds.

Luckily it is my own heart; if I take the time to look, the lost objects inside it will take the time to be found.

There it was, canopied under some rogue fireweed, a worm slithering across its rusted metal surface.

I grabbed it and wiped the dirt from its grooves.

A skeleton key.

Of course.

My heart has a sense of humour.

The house and the garden contracted with every beat. As I got closer, it beat louder and faster. My heart was nervous. Fluttering. I took a moment to stand still and let it flutter, coaxing it into calmness the way I do with my daughters when they are sick with flu or heartbreak.

I climbed up the stairs to the porch. The third stair was rotten through and required stepping over. At the door, I hesitated. Took a nervous breath and gathered my small courage.

This is it. I am doing this.

I fit the key into the lock. Even after all these years it turned easily. It’s like it wanted to be unlocked, like it was waiting for me.

I let the door swing open. The morning light shone through the dirty windows. It was only one large room, a rustic cabin that could be beautiful if I had tried.

If I try.

I squinted in the half darkness and searched the corners. There she was, exactly where I left her. The fierce, eight-year old me. Knees squeezed close to her chest, her dark, angry eyes staring at me. Her hair had grown long and her clothes ragged. She looked like she could use a sandwich.

I took a few steps towards her. She shrunk into herself.

I’m sorry, I said.

A heartbeat pause.

She opened her mouth and a scream cycloned out. It ripped the roof off the house and toppled the walls.

She will be screaming for a long time, I think.

That’s ok. It is a start.

I’ll wait with a cup of hot chocolate and a package of cookies. Keep on saying sorry until she stops.

 

 

 

Notes from the Pandemic: There is only the present

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Photo credit: Sylvie Gordaneer

Time has expanded into an eternal present, engulfing the past and the future like a large two-way tsunami. I guess that’s how it always is, really, but mostly, when I’m bustling about going from work to more work to making dinner to worrying about bills/upcoming taxes/my disengaged daughter [insert frantic worry here] it seems like I’m always living in a waiting room of a possible future, a perpetual purgatory.

Paradoxically, I have also been living a lot in the past in these last few years, trying to forensically piece together the ruins of my marriage to determine what the hell went wrong and why I find myself here in this new life.

Essentially, I’ve been living on an existential teeter totter vacillating between past and future, rarely finding the balance to hover in the present.

Except for now, during this pandemic, where it feels like the teeter totter has been frozen in the middle, and it’s stable enough to stand up and walk around.

Here is what I discovered in this new territory of the present.

That given some space, I hardly think of J at all. That the anvil on my chest has gotten lighter without me knowing it, the anger less. I always noticed my pain and hurt got more pronounced the more stressed out I was —about making ends meet, about my daughters—mostly feeling panicked and disoriented because I did not sign up to do this alone, but with him. His absence is most notable when I am overwhelmed and scared.

But with a break from these stresses (I know they are still there, they have just been paused like everything else in the world) comes a break from feeling cratered. It has been nice—surreal— but nice to remember how it feels to be me again without the heaviness, like a pleasant dream where I’m playing myself.

I know these times are very hard for most people. Hell, if I let myself think about it, they are going to be very hard for me to get by without my supplementary incomes. But because there is nothing I can do about it right now, I just can’t get myself to worry about it. Instead, I find myself healing in a deeper sense than I have in the last five years, which has been all trauma and tragedy and work and survival. I feel like a wound that has finally been un-bandaged and finally allowed to breathe.

I haven’t been doing a lot of thinking, just a lot of being. I sleep eight hours a night (I think it has been more than twenty years since I have been able to accomplish that). I am not drinking very much—except for when my daughter makes me a delicious Aperol spritz! I am learning how to take a weekend day to sit and read and do nothing else. This is a big accomplishment, as I have not been able to concentrate on fiction very well in since J left. I am retraining my brain to be able to immerse in story again. It is wonderful.

The life I want to live, the one I make vision boards about, the image I have had in my mind that has kept me going through this half decade, looks a lot like this life (sans, the social distancing and people dying of course).  It is about working from home, about having the time and space to go for walks, read a book, write as much as I want, sit in the sun. It turns out it was a lot more in my reach than I thought it was. As we flatten the curve and begin to contemplate life returning to normal, I find myself wondering how I can sustain it. What can I cut out of my life? What is non-essential? How can I continue living in this strange, double-edged gift of a perpetual present?

Because I for one, don’t want to go back to the way it was.

 

 

 

 

Silver Lining: Productive Isn’t Always What We Think It Is

Transcript

A whole lot of time and space have suddenly been dumped on my lap as if all my backorders for my entire life have been filled all at once and honestly, I don’t quite know what to do with it. No, that’s not quite right. It is not that I don’t know what to do with it. There are a million things I could be doing. I just don’t really feel like doing them.

Now, a few years ago, this would stress me out completely. If I didn’t know how I was going to be occupying every hour of every day, guilt for wasting precious time, for not being my most productive self would settle in and I would panic. If I was not doing something, then I was taking up space I had not earned.

But, oddly, during these times where life has been pared down significantly, I find myself perfectly content to sit here and just be.

Now don’t get me wrong. I still have a full-time job that takes up most of my days. What is different is that I no longer have freelance work, or Airbnb guests or, well, a social life that fills up the rest of the time.  This has freed up a lot of mental space that was hitherto cluttered with an endless to do list.

It took me writing this down to realize what the difference was—I am no longer living by my to do list. Apparently a constant litany of tasks to check off takes up a lot of mental energy. Taking it away is like turning off the radio or the television that’s been blaring in the background all day. At some point in the day I turned it on and was enjoying it, but then I got distracted and left it on. I’m not listening to it anymore, but the noise is still there. It’s only when I turn it off that I realize how much the white noise had been stressing me out.

Maybe productive doesn’t always look the way we think it looks.

At some point in the last five years, I’ve gotten over the intense fear of being alone with myself. I wrote about this a few years back, how my reading habits changed after what I like to call the J bomb. How I couldn’t read fiction anymore. How any book I did read had to be digested slowly for its ideas, written in the margins. Taken one little chunk at a time. This meant I was no longer burying my head in a book on the bus or waiting for a friend at a café (oh those distant days when one frequented pubs and cafes!). I was just sitting there. By myself. With only my thoughts to keep my company.

It turns out that constantly doing is not the only way to be productive.

Sitting alone with myself has brought along some pretty deep changes to the way I function in the world. In many ways, being lighter and more compassionate toward myself and then consequently to others has been the most productive thing I could have done, because I am no longer wasting so much of my mental space and energy on self-loathing on frantically always trying to earn the space I take up in the world.

So my silver lining this week is that I am content to do nothing. To not feel the acute pressure of always having to be productive. All I feel is the need to sit in the sun for a few minutes of the day, close my eyes, feel the warmth on my face and think and do nothing.

During these very stressful and anxious times, I hope you find some space to rediscover your own company, and, in the silence heal the parts of your relationship that may need some extra attention. You don’t have to do anything. All you have to do is find a patch of sunlight, close your eyes and soak up the warmth.