All the good things in the year from hell, or, conscious loving

i.

You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town…

Christmas songs—you can’t really call them carols these days, can you?—are on the radio, Christmas tree and holiday displays glut stores—and the most beautiful time of the year is just around the corner.

I hate Christmas.

I used to love it, of course, as most children from fairly functional homes in which Christmas is a time of feasting and gifting and treats do. And then I didn’t, and for more than a decade I thought it was because of the crass commercialism and overall grossness of the holiday—its utter separation from anything religiously meaningful or spiritually uplifting—you know, the usual.

And then, a few years ago, I realized that my intense hatred of Christmas coincided rather perfectly with the loss of my baby. I started bleeding on Christmas Eve. By December 29, he was dead, and I was alive, but didn’t really want to be. But nobody really let me cry or pout, because I had a toddler to take care and a husband, also work, and we might not be British, but “stiff upper lip” and “don’t let them see you sweat” are genetic mottos in my family of origin.

Recognizing the source of the pain and negative feelings did not transform me as it did the Grinch. But at least now, I know that I spend December marking that awful anniversary, and I expect to be sad, and I sit with my sadness.

His name was Kieran Adam.

Flora was born a year and a week after his death. That was, I guess, the first Christmas I hated. She was a high-risk pregnancy to boot. The first ultrasounds told us to prepare for a Down Syndrome baby with a heart defect. The birth of my daughter in her utter physical perfection on January 6 was a gift and a miracle.

But it did not make any future December any easier.

Flora’s health issues, manifesting in secret only to herself through 2017, and in bits and pieces to us through 2018, exploded on us on over the Christmas holiday break in 2018.

I have a novel, as yet unpublished, written in 2016, in which one of the refrains is, “Bad things happen on Sundays in December.”

I hate it when I’m unintentionally psychic.

ii.

He’s making a list,
Checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town

I’m making a list of good things that happened in 2019. Because, although the overall theme for the year is, “What the fuck, God? This is why I don’t believe in you, you fucking asshole!” … there were good moments.

Just as I expect there were good moments in 2013. But I didn’t make a list, so all I remember is the flood.

Anyway. Good things that happened in 2019:

  • Sean took Flora to Harry Potter World in Orlando, in January, even though, as we neared to the trip, she was getting sicker and sicker, and we had no idea how she—or he—would cope. (It was a really rough, rough trip… but it had good moments. And she got to see Harry Potter World while still young enough to love it. Later that year, she’d turn into a cynical teenager.)

  • Cinder spent the Winter semester taking Physics and Biology at school in the mornings, and welding, pipefitting, and metal working at the local Polytechnique in the afternoon, a balance that worked extremely well for him—and let us get away with not parenting him when the shit hit the fan with Flora’s health.

  • I started teaching at the Polytechnique, and found I really enjoyed it. And, I taught a bunch of other writing courses, and participated in some very fun literary community things.

  • Flora got her fucking black belt! And, she and I got to see Wales and Cardiff Castle. And the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London. Also Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey—but not Big Ben, because he was wrapped up—the Natural History Museum, the Tate, and, best of all, we spent time with one of my dearest and oldest friends and his fam.

  • And then, my London friend came through Calgary briefly, and we had sushi, and all was right with the universe for a few hours.
  • I got to spend six days in New Orleans! If I hadn’t had the conference paid for and booked well before Flora’s health started to unravel, I wouldn’t have gone. As is, I’m not sure I really enjoyed it—I was frayed and exhausted and, childless in New Orleans, I slept 12-14 hours a night, and had a hard time being with people. Still. I met a musician who showed me the French Quarter, and an artist/university arts professor who drove me all over and gave me a beautiful history lesson, and dozens of local artists doing cool things, and a whole bunch of authors I adore. I sat next to Charlaine Harris, got trapped in an elevator with Sylvia Day, stalked Sonali Dev… so good. And, New Orleans, New Orleans, New Orleans. Even through my fog, it was magical. I will definitely go back.

  • On the plane to New Orleans, I wrote a short story (the first thing I had been able to write since Flora got ill), and on the plane from New Orleans, I created a supercool project for one of my pen names, and that felt really good.
  • One of the people who was instrumental to Flora’s medical team while she was in the hospital transferred to the outpatient clinic that would be taking over Flora’s treatment, and fast-tracked our transfer, intake, and all of those things, and provided critical continuity of service and support.
  • Ender learned to read! Negligent unschooling for the win, cause god knows I wasn’t teaching him anything in the first seven… eight… nine? months of 2019.

  • Despite all the shit—Flora nailed her math and English courses! And, passed Phys Ed. Unschooling for the win again, and that’s a story for another time to be told in some detail.
  • We got a chunky tax return! Finally, an upside to being poor! It took us until July… August? to file our taxes. (Fuck off, Aunt Augusta. Flora ended up in the hospital in March; not even Revenue Canada expected us to be on time. And, I’ve got to say—I love Revenue Canada. The two times in my life that life sideswiped me so hard that I couldn’t be functional—it’s not that they don’t want their pound of flesh and the accompanying paperwork. Of course they do. But so long as you keep them in the loop with what’s happening, they don’t nag you. Much.)

It looks like garbage. It’s someone’s life. We really rushed to clear the debris off the streets and driveways in advance of the city crews’ trucks coming. Because it was killing people.

  • I did make it to my fourth When Words Collide festival in Calgary in mid-August, and I took Flora with me, and it was a good weekend.

  • Also… Beakernight! And that’s all we really to say…

  • I didn’t get that job in Dubai that I didn’t really want that would have turned our lives upside down but that seemed like such a good opportunity that if I had gotten it, turning it down would have been really hard.
  • But, I got into the Investigative Journalism Intensive at the Banff Centre for the Arts, and, my 12-day stay there was fully funded, and I had the most amazing time, and I met the most amazing people.

  • While I thought I wasn’t writing, I wrote three novellas. They’re not very good novellas, mind you. But. They’re something and they’re practice. And I’m really enjoying the process of revising them.
  • Sean got As in all his psychology courses. Even statistics!
  • My dad’s pacemaker insertion and follow-ups all went very well.
  • Oh, Pride 2019! It was amazing! And, I danced! So much! Tequila! Also, YYC Queer Writers put out another anthology and raised enough money to send one kid to Camp fYrefly. Go, us!

  • A good friend was made a judge and there was much celebration.
  • We took care of a gorgeous German shepherd puppy for two weeks this summer, and then again in November. We all got a temporary big dog fix—and after she’s gone, our house feels so big and hair-free!—and we’re able to help a friend in this small way, and I am so grateful for that. (Parenthetically, I’ve been a shitty friend this year. Aunt, sister, neighhbour. Unfortunate, but true. Still. A time and a place for everything.)

  • I attended a workshop with Julia Cameron, the woman who gave me the courage to call myself an artist. Also, to return to journaling and the joy of writing privately (writing publicly makes you a better writer; writing privately is necessary for the soul, and also, to strip self-indulgence out of your writing so that you can be less self-indulgent when you write publicly). Also, the tools to write my second novel, more or less. She was old and frail, and very much of her era. I still loved her.

  • I spent a mind-blowing weekend with Kids in the Hall’s Kevin McDonald learning all about sketch comedy. Do you know what the common characteristic of geniuses in their domain who are also good people is? This: “This is everything I know. Take it, and do great things with it.”

  • I took Flora to a concert celebrating 50 years of Stonewall, and she now knows all about Marsha P. Johnson. Oh, and I got to see Thorgy Thor and the Thorchestra performing with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, and that was pretty amazing.

  • I smoked a lot of sheesha, alone, occasionally with a good friend… and was able to call it research…

Most critically:

  • Despite all the suck-ass challenges, Flora made it to regular high school and is killing it.

  • My parents did what they always do, and showed them, rearranged their work scheduled, and helped us out whenever we needed it, with childcare, driving, food, and accepting my anger, silence, and other difficult emotions.

  • Sean and I fucking kill it in a crisis. There are stats on this—shit like we’ve been through this year breaks up marriages. And we still look like drowned rats, and we’re exhausted as fuck. And we seek our comfort elsewhere, not with each other—because we’re rather empty, so how can we? But. Through all of this, neither of us has blamed, resented, guilted or otherwise maligned or cut down the other. We’ve supported each other as best as we could, tag-teamed, given relief when we could, and tried to time our collapses so they did not happen at the same time. So far, so good. Easy? Fuck, no. But we’re still here.

I’m fairly certain that even if things get harder (but how about there’s a stretch of easier, for just a little while?), we will make it through. So. That’s a good thing.

More cryptically:

  • The full moon delivered a letter I didn’t know I had been waiting for. Thank you, Sufi poets.

And that’s the list. And you know what? I bet if I checked it twice, I’d find more stuff to add…

And yet… funny/sad thing: my godmother died in 2019, and Sean lost a favourite uncle. I think, we hardly noticed those losses—any more than we noticed, were capable of really celebrating, the arrival of a new nephew, the development and growth of our kids’ other much loved cousins.

Because our one bad thing was so fucking bad.

iii.

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

When Flora first heard this song when she was four or five, she looked at me with her big googly eyes and said, “Is Santa a Stalker?”

This is the kid who identified Sting’s “Every breath you take” song as problematic when she was seven, and who had problems with “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” long before last year’s … I don’t know what to call it. Awakening, I suppose.

I was just at a concert with one of my loves at which a voice coach, more or less of my vintage, and one of her students—more or less of Flora’s—performed the song, after an introduction in which the voice coach acknowledged that they argued about the “political correctedness” of the lyrics. The teenage boy thought they were appalling and didn’t want to sing the song. The voice coach said, “It’s a great tune.” She prevailed. He sang with the occasional grimace on his face.

I’d like to meet his mother, because kudos to you, woman. Our kids are gonna change the world, right?

iv.

With little tin horns and little toy drums
Rooty toot toots and rummy tum tums
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake
Goodness sake

I haven’t been good this year, fuck off, Santa Claus, I don’t want to be.

I’m looking at my list again, checking it thrice. And thinking about how, as you read it—as I read it—sure looks like I had this fantabulous year, right? My Instagram feed is beautiful. Welsh castles and smoking cigars on beaches, rubbing shoulders with celebrities.

Can I please be allowed to say this: it’s been a shitty, shitty, god-awful year. For half of it, I didn’t know if my child would live, how she could live. For the second half of it, I’ve been caught between hope and fear, and moving through life in a state of such emotional exhaustion, to which not even the sleep-deprived nights of early motherhood compare. For all of it, I’ve suffered.

There’s a Buddhist saying, apparently popularized by Haruki Murakami—but I think both Sylvia Boorstein and Thich Nhat Hahn use is—that pain is inevitable but suffering is in your head.

Perhaps. That doesn’t make it any less real. We are our bodies and our minds and, perhaps, some ineffable essence that binds them. We are real.

Suffering fucking sucks.

In the support/training group for parents at Flora’s clinic—I call it, not affectionately, “The Support Group for Parents Whose Children Haven’t Died Yet But Are Suffering So Much They Want To, and Some of Them Will, And How the Fuck Are We Supposed to Not to Suffer with that Hanging Over Us?”—the Pollyanna family therapist tells me that suffering lies in resenting the new normal and sanity lies in celebrating the little victories.

I think there’s a special place reserved in Buddhist hell for family therapists that have read the pop-psychology excerpts of Buddhist sutras, peppered them a little with Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie and the like, and mouth them at parents while, perhaps, pondering with what photograph they might best couple them so they look good as an Instagram meme.

I’m unfair. They’re doing their damn best, I know, and after all, what can you tell a parent to make them feel better about witnessing, constantly, their child’s suffering?

“Love less” is really not an option.

v.

You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming
Santa Claus is coming
Santa Claus is coming to town
(Coming to town)

“Love more,” however, is probably where salvation lies. And where suffering becomes bearable. It doesn’t end, you know. A life devoid of suffering is a life devoid of love. When you love, you suffer. But you also experience the joy that makes you see God, if that’s your shtick—or, in the case of atheists like me, understand the purpose, meaning of a godless life, understand why you are alive.

Loving is not always easy.

Isn’t that a mindfuck? It’s a new thing for me. Loving mine has always been effortless.

Not in 2019.

In 2019, loving has been work. It’s required work, consciousness, effort.

vi.

Santa’s a busy man he has no time to play
He’s got millions of stockings to fill on Christmas day
(Santa Claus is coming to town)
(Coming to town)

I’ve always been quite good at work. At girding my loins and gritting my teeth and doing the shit that needs to be done.

My lesson from 2019 is that the hard work of conscious loving through a crisis and suffering that may never end requires intense play.

For me, much of my most precious play is also my work. In that, I am so lucky.

But it’s also dancing a tequila-infused night away on the rooftop of Broken City (that mountain of a woman, yes, I’m going to put her into a story), reading poetry in bed (but see, that’s also work), smoking sheesha with a fellow writer while not talking about writing at all, drinking coconut-infused stout in a quiet booth in a crowded bar with beautiful people (and thinking, I can use that story about her body builder Tinder date in my novella)… laying in your arms listening to the murmur of city traffic—I can totally pretend it’s a river or an ocean—and not thinking at all for a while.

I think it’s going to be a really tough Christmas. Anniversaries are always tough. I see it already in Flora’s eyes, mood. She’s remembering last year, with her body if not consciously with her mind.

Sean and I remember too. I feel the tenseness, anxiety in my throat, in my spine.

I think about the difference between feeling and doing. And how you can’t always—often—usually—help how you feel. You can affect what you do—not always, I’ll grant you. But often.

Grit teeth. Gird loins. Love more.

Play Christmas music for Ender, because he loves it. Think about Kieran Adam, and cry, a little. Go to the kitchen, and maybe don’t think about the things that happened in it last December, but feel them, you can’t help but feel them. Then, think about the good things. Or, don’t think.

Thinking isn’t always necessary or desired.

Read Hafez. Write a poem. Revise a story. Prepare a slide show for the next workshop.

Text a lover.

Remember you have a son in high school hungry for career guidance, searching for his life’s purpose. Give him love, time, attention.

Love more.

Acknowledge that you suffer to a purpose, and you suffer because you love, and you’d rather love and suffer than not suffer and not love.

Love more.

(Santa Claus is coming to town)
(Coming to town)

“Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Lyrics by Fred J. Coots and Haven Gillespie
…and, to close let’s enjoy this video by Mariah Carey

xoxo

“Jane”

8 thoughts on “All the good things in the year from hell, or, conscious loving

  1. Pingback: Some words of wisdom from the House of Snot & Vomit | Nothing By The Book

  2. Pingback: Happy birthday (the war’s not over) | Nothing By The Book

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