So, yeah, I met Julia Cameron (in the flesh!): The power of story, dialectics and the creation of god

I’ve left paradise and I’m in a crowded parking lot. It’s tucked between the Ukrainian Catholic Church that, I guess, presumes to be a conduit to paradise for its worshippers, and the cultural centre it runs as both a community service and a modest revenue stream.

Even churches need to keep the lights on, somehow.

The Church is St. Basil’s, an unusual and beautiful name that always makes me think of both Sherlock Holmes and John Cleese (and OMG, people, John Cleese playing Sherlock Holmes, why has that not been a thing?).

(Excuse me—I’m googling “Has John Cleese ever played Sherlock Holmes?”)

(OMG, people, John Cleese played Arthur Sherlock Holmes, the grandson of the great detective, in a 1977 British film called The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It, and you can watch it for free on Open Culture.)

(Back to regularly scheduled programming…)

I’m here because in 2015, then-Conservative MLA for Edmonton-Decore, Janice Sarich, lost her job.

Follow me for a while; I’ll explain.

I’m actually here for Julia Cameron’s first Canadian appearance in more than 20 years. Julia Cameron is the author of The Artist’s Way—and more than 40 other books, several musicals, plays, screenplays, etc. She’s also the director of an art film, the creation of which is a study in synchronicity, serendipity, and also, perseverance past the point of reason.

Julia has been my writing teacher and creativity coach for five years. Today is the first day we are to meet. And when I say meet, I mean, I will be in a church hall with 300 other people while she talks. It’s not going to be a particularly intimate experience. But still. We will be in the same room, I will have seen her, truly, “live,” and this brings me much anticipatory happiness.

Back in 2014, when I was drowning (metaphorically, although the flood was real enough), The Artist’s Way threw me a lifeline and turned Cameron into my first real teacher, and the one I keep on going back to, again and again and again.

And again.

I don’t like her.

Let’s make this clear right away, so that you are not expecting a hagiography. We are not friends, Julia and I. I do not have a rose-coloured schoolgirl’s crush on her. I am neither the Peter nor Paul to her Jesus, nor the Mardana to her Guru Nanak.*

* You can google Mardana and Guru Nanak. Or, you can read The Singing Guru, a marvellous novel by Kamla K. Kaur (also author of Ganesha Goes to Lunch and Rumi’s Tales from the Silk Road), about the life of the founder of the Sikh religion—that’d be Guru Nanak—and his faithful companion, Mardana.

If we were closer in geography and fame, we would not be friends, meeting for a coffee and a chat. I don’t accept Julia’s tools and wisdom uncritically, as gospel. Frankly, I argue with her, fight her every step of the way. I call her names—throw her struggle with alcoholism and co-dependent romantic relationships in her face (repeatedly and unkindly). Tell her that if she spent less time gazing out her window and writing Morning Pages and more time perfecting the craft and refining technique, maybe she’d be famous for her poetry or her musicals. Or her novels would be, like, good, and they’d sell.

I am mean to her, so mean to her.

I hate her.

She is my most beloved teacher.

My refusal to be an uncritical acolyte notwithstanding, I’m here to pay homage. I’m quite aware of this, long before I get into my hic-cuping (Please don’t die!) 2007 Nissan Versa (grey) (I’m telling you this because Julia likes specificity, just as much as Writing Down the Bones author Natalie Goldberg does) at 5:30 a.m. that morning to drive the 300 km that will take me to St. Basil’s Cultural Centre in Edmonton.

I know I am here to give gratitude and pay homage long before Julia Cameron enters the hall and I leap to my feet, giving her a standing ovation before she utters a word, because, fuck, Julia, there you are, after all these years, in the flesh, you’re real, would I be where I am, who I am, right now if you hadn’t been thrust upon me back in 2014?

Julia Cameron is 71 now, and an old 71, a frail 71. My mother is 68 and a) she looks much younger and prettier and b) she could easily take Julia in a fight. Janice Sarich—the organizer—warns us before the Godmother of Art, the Midwife of Creation enters the hall that Ms Cameron has health issues, and because of them, there are some rules we need to follow. We are not to badger her, approach her, crowd her—there’s a red velvet rope strung as a barrier to separate us from the lectern and we are not to cross it. There will be no book signings or requests for selfies. We are here to get what she is willing to give us—and to demand no more.

I know from her books that Cameron is a highly introverted, very sensitive and anxious—neurotic really—and has suffered at least two nervous breakdowns.

Those are all the things about her that annoy me when I read her (Could you be a little less neurotic, Julia?), those are all the things that make her such a sensational teacher.

If I am a doubting Thomas and a pre-conversion St. Augustine—maybe even a Rene Descartes, who, had he lived half a century earlier may well have been burnt at the stake—the woman who brought Cameron to Edmonton—to me—is a less critical disciple. Former MLA Sarich is in the honeymoon phase of the student-teacher relationship, you know, when Socrates can do no wrong in the eyes of Plato, when Jung nods his head enthusiastically at every word Freud utters… even though, if he lets himself think, he’ll see that actually, um, ah, I dunno, maybe the old man got it just a little wrong?

I’ve never had that phase with Cameron. I’ve never had that with anyone. Hero-worship, goddess worship—I envy it when I see it.

Sarich lost her job at the Alberta Provincial Legislature when my socialist, progressive, feminist, “Damn straight I will dance at the Pride Parade!” premier unseated the oligarchy that had been lording it over the province for 44 years. So as soon as Sarich introduces herself and her story, I know some pretty core philosophical differences separate us. In 2015, I celebrated with abandon—if not precisely her loss, then my premier’s win. When the Conservatives returned to power in 2019 under a reprehensible platform that offended virtually all of my values as well as my reason, I mourned.

But when I talk to Sarich, all I feel is gratitude and admiration. Because she turned her tragedy and trauma—and job loss is traumatic, no matter how common in the modern economy—into this opportunity, not just for herself, but for me and for 300 other people. To meet Julia, to work with Julia.

For an emotionally exhausting eight hours.

At 4:30 p.m. that day, I revise my estimation of Julia as old and frail. Fuck, the woman might be 71 and battered by life, but she’s also tough and committed. She might have health problems. She may pause at the lectern for a long, long while here and there, to catch her breath or to recall her train of thought. But she gives us her all for the entire day, shepherding her energy carefully, resting in-between when we break off into our mini-clusters—but, at the end of the day, still giving it all, as fully engaged, as fully present as she was at its beginning.

I bow my head and come the closest to hero-worship, goddess worship I will ever feel.

There are several points during the day when I wish I hadn’t come. The first happens early in the day, during one of our first break-off clusters. The workshop for 300 of Julia’s biggest fans is surprising intimate, because Julia (clearly, she’s done this before) speaks for a little bit, gives us a written exercise, then has us break off into clusters of three, four or two. Each time, we are to connect with new people; each time, we are to share ourselves with strangers.

I fucking hate this. There is immense creative power in being vulnerable, open, exposed. I know—I’ve just come off a 10-day stint in Paradise in which I gave myself like that, completely. And I am still so very vulnerable and leaking tears and love. But these people, here? I don’t know these people at all.

And this is a fact, not an opinion: being vulnerable and open with people you don’t know and trust is stupid.

This is also a fact, not an opinion: The Artist’s Way exercises Julia is leading us through are useless unless one is stupid and open. I mean, vulnerable. Ugh.

I hate her. I wish I hadn’t come. Fine, Julia. I’m here. For you. My stupid list… numbered one to five. Things people in my family thought about Art. Imaginary lives. Things I’d do if I knew I didn’t have to do them perfectly. U-turns…

My first two clusters are marvelous. The women—the audience is 90 percent female, and also, 95, 99 per cent white, and this is sadly relevant—are all also open and vulnerable and loving. And so they set me up for what happens next.

Fine. No blame. I set myself up. I relax into the vulnerability. I start to feel safe.

Bam!

Julia says, she’s going to dictate some questions for us, and we are to answer them in our best Obi Wan Kenobi impersonation. I’m not a Star Wars fan, and while I know the difference between Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda (Yoda’s the green one, right?), I’m not sure which one of them it is who says, “There is no try. There is only do.” But I think that’s what she’s asking for. Right? Anyway. Jedi master advice to the Padawan. This much I know. Jedi, wise.

She dictates.

What do I need to do?

I write:

Write and build.

She says:

What do I need to try?

I write:

Rejuvenate, recharge, restart.

(I actually think, “I need to let go,” BUT I AM NOT LETTING GO OF ANYTHING, analyze that!)

Number three, says Julia:

What do I need to accept?

Motherhood is forever.

Corners of my eyes tingle, sting.

Number four:

What do I need to grieve?

I don’t want to do this fucking exercise.

But I write:

Loss of freedom. And time.

Tears stream down my face, hot and sticky.

Last one.

What do I need to celebrate?

This one’s hard. But I find the words.

Love. And my talent. I’m fucking amazing and I’m still here.

My face is wet, soaked when we break off into the clusters. Fuck you, Julia, I wasn’t quite ready for that. Fuck honesty. Sometimes, a little bit of distance and delusion is good. And now, in this state, I need to be with people? Why would you do this to me?

We’re a  group of four, a young stay-at-home mom, a woman who could either be my age or be a decade my senior, hard to tell, and a post-menopausal matriarch. And, me.

I want to stay to stay open, so I tell them the exercise really triggered me and I was crying and I pretty much can’t stop. They make supportive noises. We share our lists, without details, context, backstory. Then, the matriarch starts asking questions. Who, what, why. She likes to be in charge. The young stay-at-home mom says something about motherhood, challenges, sacrifices. “You will never regret this time,” the matriarch says authoritatively. “There is so much time to do everything you want after…” And she launches into the story her of her perfectly sequenced life.

I can’t bear it. Because sometimes there’s no time, there’s no more time. Sometimes, just as you think there’s more freedom, more time, everything comes crumbling down, and then what? Is it still worth it?

Right now, to be perfectly, brutally honest, I don’t know. I don’t know if it was worth it. Maybe I should have been more selfish, more focused on what I needed back then. I’ve lost so much time, I’m losing so much time now, I’m wasting the time I do have…

What happens when you find out there will not be more time, more freedom? And you will never get back what you lost, and you have to figure out how to work with what you have?

And what is it with this crap of telling women—sacrifice everything you are, everything you want now, because sometime in the future, when nobody needs you anymore, you can do the things that you…

Fuck that shit.

My tears come again. Hot.

What do I need to accept?

Motherhood is forever.

What do I need to grieve?

Loss of freedom. And time.

I don’t want to out Flora, her story, her struggle to strangers.

But they are looking at me, confused, but, I think, also, compassionate.

“I have a sick child,” I say by way of an inadequate explanation. “I don’t have more time, now, that she’s older. My challenge is to figure out how to work with the time I have.”

I don’t add that I’m having a really hard time making use of what time I do have. That I spent most of it exhausted, non-functional.

The matriarch looks at me. I don’t really expect words of wisdom. Just, what? Acknowledgment? That it’s hard.

“I know this couple,” she says. “Married thirty-two years. Never a cross word between.”

There’s no more to her story, although her mouth keeps on moving and she’s making words. I excuse myself and go cry in the washroom for a while.

I’m not angry. Just unsupported. And reminded that it is stupid to be vulnerable in front of strangers.

I recover sufficiently to be present and to listen to Julia. But I know that even though I carry out the exercises, between myself and the page, fairly honestly, I will not be naked to strangers again today.

This is not unfortunate. It’s smart, safe, necessary. Just as necessary as, when walking home late at night, choosing the well-lit paths or opting to call an Uber instead of taking a shortcut through the dark alley or ambush-point filled urban park.

The next point of pain comes during the Q&A on Morning Pages. The Morning Pages, if you’re not an Artist’s Way acolyte, are the primary tool Julia gives us for creative recovery—and perseverance. Three pages, written in longhand, first thing in the morning. Other than those guidelines, anything goes.

In my Morning Pages, I often tell Julia she’s an idiot and this is a stupid exercise, and surely there’s a more productive, creative, enjoyable way with which to start my mornings?

But it’s been more than five years now and I’ve missed perhaps five days. The Morning Pages have given me three novels. Renegotiated most of my existing relationships, opened me to new ones. They are saving me, keeping me anchored to life and why I want to live it during this latest, shittiest chapter of my life.

They work.

They work, very very well, for writers.

Julia prescribes them for everyone.

The question, asked by a woman I don’t really see, but the top of whose head suggests she might have African roots, is this:

“The Morning Page tool is so powerful. But it’s all about writing. Is there way for people or cultures without writing traditions, to use it?

Julia answers it like a 71-year-old white woman.

The first part of her answer is ok. She says that she’s a writer and she comes at this process from that lens and she doesn’t have any experience elsewhere.

Would that she just stopped there, it would be ok.

But she doesn’t. Her next sentiment, communicated as much by tone as actual words, comes across as, “I’m not interested in making my tools work for non-writing cultures.”

Bang. Ouch. Wah.

I can’t tell if the woman asking the question is African or indigenous—she’s far, the room is crowded, I’m blind (I meet her later, she’s a Canadian with Jamaican parentage), but OMFG, Julia, how could you?

Well.

She’s no goddess, she’s no hero, she’s blinded by her class and her privilege, and she’s a product of her time.

She’s also a product of her culture, which has over-privileged writing as a cultural and communication form almost since it invented it.

And it’s so weird, really if you think about it at all.

This urge to write shit down. Not even important shit. Just… anything that happens to you. Or crosses your mind. Imagined shit. Stories about robots and unicorns and alternate universes. Murders that didn’t happen. Love affairs that go right or wrong—but that don’t actually exist.

How weird is that?

Nothing natural, inevitable about any of it, right?

What would all we writers be doing if we were born into a pre-literate age?

We would be… story tellers. Song makers. Poem reciters.

Writing is a tool, a technology, a cultural invention we use to express, communicate both the very mundane (“Sold three sheep for two wheat barrels”; “Pick up toilet paper and eggs on your way home, will you love?”) and the absolutely divine…

“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”

― Rumi (Coleman Barks translation)

The Morning Pages are magical for writers. My non-writing son finds a similar peace and cleansing when he runs. His father finds it in meditation (which Cameron near-dismisses during the workshop, wilfully misunderstanding what it is that happens in meditation—“You meditate until you push the problem away,” she says—as most failed meditators and non-meditators do).

My great-grandmother found it in prayer or the rosary.

I find it in the Morning Pages.

But that doesn’t mean everyone will, everyone should.

Julia. You too old to be open-minded?

Sigh.

My last moment of pain comes when Julia wants to talk about God. She’s a highly spiritual person and this, and her highly personal relationship with an anthropomorphic God the Creator, God the Artist permeates all her work. It is another point of contention between us. I’ve had to “get over” Julia’s god thing to work through her books. Don’t laugh. It’s possible. You can read both the New Testament and the Q’ran for life lessons and reject the existence of both Jesus’s God the Father and Muhammad’s Allah. Ditto the Vedas and the Upanishads. You can learn from the Bhagavad Ghita without praying to Krishna, you know?

Siddhartha Gautama, the “first” Buddha, figured it out—he also realized the average person needs God and I don’t expect he’s surprised either by his own deification or the veneration of Boddhisatvas and statues that make some schools of Buddhism look as theatrical as Roman Catholicism. But I digress, yet again. Point: Julia loves God and trusts that he’s running the show.

I think it’s… well, now, occasionally, I think it’s nice. Why not? Whatever gets you through the days and keeps you sober. But I can’t join her there. Not even because, Syrian civil war, genocide in Rwanda, the Jewish Holocaust, and also, the disease my daughter is battling. Just because… it seems so infantile.

Fake.

In the workshop, we first deconstruct, as a group, the idea of god we grew up with. I’m silent. I’ve put the pedophiliac “You are born in sin and you will die in sin” anthropomorphic, misogynist God the Father of my childhood religion away a long time ago. So I think, anyway. Many of the people in the group though had a similar experience. They share it. I don’t understand why anyone would worship, deify, believe in such an entity past the age of reason. Well. I do. Children are impressionable, life is uncertain.

Worship is seductive.

 

Next, Julia wants us to construct a joyous God the Creator, God the Artist. “What sort of God do you, as an artist, want?” she asks. “Let’s make him!” The room enters into the exercise enthusiastically. I’m silent again. I think making art to celebrate a thing that doesn’t exist is, while not as evil as making war in the name of a thing that doesn’t exist (“She was a virgin mother!” “No, she wasn’t!” “He was the son of God!” “No, he was just a prophet of God!”) is just as pointless.

But because I’m not busy building false deity, I am looking inward, and when I look inward, the “Why? to what purpose?” question inevitably looms large.

And because “it’s god’s plan” is not an answer available to me, I must find the answer myself, in myself.

This is hard to do when one is empty…

Julia ends the section, and the workshop, by asking us to first, write a letter from ourselves to this god we create, and then a response from him. (Yes, it’s a him. Of course, no gender neutral pronouns for Julia. We don’t get into it. But I feel we would fight about that too. Anyway, I don’t think she’s thought about it very deeply. Her god has a definite, also material penis. Or so I think as I seethe at her. I told you. I don’t like her. This is not a hagiography.)

At the beginning of the workshop, she introduces us to two characters who will accompany us on the journey, the Tyrant and the Rebel.

The Tyrant is also, I think, the Inner Critic. My Aunt Augusta. “Your list of five imaginary lives is so stupid.” “See, you couldn’t come up with 25 things that you love. I knew you wouldn’t be able to do it, because you suck. You’re stupid.”

The Rebel says, “The teacher is so stupid. Why is she making us do this shit?”

My Rebel is rising, but as I have done since I’ve first started working with Julia five years ago, I acknowledge that she, the Rebel, is absolutely right—but we’re going to do this stupid exercise anyway.

I write:

Dear Creativity God,

You don’t exist because, well, you don’t. I don’t believe in you, or ghosts. But Julia Cameron exists—she is very real, right here, and I believe in her. And in myself. And I believe—most of the time—that my urge to create, to write, to put all these stories down on paper is a worthwhile one. It’s important to bear witness. To document.

Look at that. This is how Jesus and the Buddha became gods.

Julia calls time. Now, it’s time for the Creativity God to write back.

Jesus.

For three minutes, I need to write in the voice of something I don’t believe in, that doesn’t exist. Fun.

Fine.

When I commit to doing something, I do it.

I write.

Yes, M., you’re absolutely right. It’s important to bear witness, to document, to interpret, even. How did you put it in that love letter to your crew? To make sense of the world and share it with other people. Not everyone can see either the whole, or the unique angle with which you can illuminate the most ordinary experience. And so, yes. Believe in your urge and in yourself and in its value. Believing in me is not necessary. Unlike Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, I exist whether you believe in me or not.

Well, fuck what the hell is this?

I hate Julia Cameron.

I love Julia Cameron.

Both statements are true. That’s dialectics, that’s where all the best ideas happen.

(Note to self: re-read American Gods soon. I love Neil Gaiman. But it’s his wife Amanda Palmer who is, occasionally, my teacher.)

We give Julia Cameron a standing ovation to close the day and then, I end up at dinner with three other fascinating attendees, including the woman who asked the question about non-literate people and cultures. (She’s brilliant, Julia, working on a doctorate on how we can use art to heal trauma—you really should have paid more attention to what was behind her question).

We de-brief, dissect. I am very pleased to find myself talking with critical thinkers, not mindless acolytes.

I love Julia, I hate Julia—I think the reason my work with The Artist’s Way has been so fruitful for me is because I fight with Julia, argue with her almost every step of the way. Resist and then surrender, for a little while. Fight some more, grow some more.

She is my most beloved Teacher.

Thank you, Janice Sarich, for giving me this time with her.

xoxo

“Jane”

PS In case you forgot where we started: John Cleese + Sherlock Holmes = The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It (1977). Give it at least 13 minutes before giving up. The 1970s were a different time: people still expected/accepted awkward foreplay in their books and films.

Heaven Hangover, or, thoroughly non-journalistic reflections on the Investigative Journalism Intensive, Banff Centre 2019

for Small medium larch

A Golden Larch

I am trying to not think of an audience.  I am trying to not think of a reader—the reader. I am trying to not think that you will read this. I am trying to think—note that the “not” disappears, more accurately, relocates—that you will not read this.

This is, of course, ass-backwards. We almost always write for an audience, a reader—even in the privacy of journals that we claim we write for ourselves but of course keep to appraise posterity of our brilliance, significance, intellectual insight, and emotional depth (What? No? Your journals are truly, completely private? Do you burn them, destroy them, after you write in them? No? Then, beloved hypocrite, you are just as vain and ego-fuelled and delusional as I am). Good work, effective work posits a reader. It is created with an audience, a reader in mind. Otherwise, it’s either therapy or narcissistic indulgence, not art.

Certainly not journalism.

But that’s another story.

This story is about heartbreak. And to write a true story about heartbreak, you need to write without thinking of the reader.

I want to tell you a story about my 12 days in Heaven, and I want it to be a truly true story. You know most of my stories aren’t really true—each is a performance, an exercise, a game. But today, I want to give you a true story. To give it, I need to not think of the audience (especially not you), a reader, the reader (the specific reader).

I am thinking, writing in circles.

It’s because I am sober for the first time in 10 days; hungover from Heaven.

View from the Banff Centre Library

Heaven is partly a place, mostly people. I’ve just come back from 10 days—12, if you count the shoulder travel days, and I do—at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, where I was privileged to be part of the Centre’s third annual Investigative Journalism Intensive.

Background for the uninitiated: The Banff Centre is, I believe, North America’s largest non-parchment granting arts institution. Its official messaging describes it as “a learning organization built upon an extraordinary legacy of excellence in artistic and creative development… the global organization leading in arts, culture, and creativity across dozens of disciplines… [which] aims to inspire everyone who attends our campus—artists, leaders, and thinkers—to unleash their creative potential.”

Words, words, words—what it is, it’s heaven on earth for artists, creators. And because it’s located in Alberta and at the mercy of the economic and political machinations of a boom-bust economy and governments that do not believe in nourishing art, culture, and artists, it’s an arts organization that’s an entrepreneurial leader. It provides a womb for artists from across Canada and the world, and it funds this womb in large part through hard-nosed business operations. Yeah, it’s an arts institution that has revenue streams independent of the government and student fees. And we’re not just talking generous donations from philanthropists (while we’re talking philanthropy, though, to the many individual and corporate donors who made the Investigative Journalism Intensive possible, thank you!).

Banff Centre Campus, God’s light

But that also is another story. This is not a hard-nosed business story, although I just completed a hard-nosed investigative journalism intensive. This is a story about Heaven.

And also, not thinking about the reader.

So. I’m in Heaven. This is, I think, not a metaphor. The Banff Centre is in the heart of the obscenely beautiful Banff National Park, nestled into the side of the sacred Sleeping Buffalo Mountain (Tunnel Mountain to the colonizers), with views of Sulphur Mountain, Cascade Mountain and others enclosing it in a fairytale-like setting. God’s country for atheists, hedonists, naturalists, artists.

Elk on campus

Elk and deer wander the 42-acre campus; the occasional bear visits too. Birds sing. Little mammals scurry. Trees rustle, the wind whispers.

Artists dream.

More importantly, they work.

I arrive exhausted and beyond depleted. Soon, I will meet my cohort and later, we will share with each other our hopes, expectations, and fears—so many fears. People are intimidated, uncertain, worried—we are, technically, the most promising-passionate-something-or-other journalists around (ha! who the hell told them that? how did we ever fool them into letting us into this programme?) and we are all suffering from Impostor Syndrome. Everyone’s worried that at check-in—or check-out—or any point in-between, someone will lean over our shoulder and say, “Um, sorry, we made a mistake, you don’t belong here.”

Elk harem on campus

What I’m most worried about, though, is not Impostor Syndrome. Over the years, I’ve come to accept Impostor Syndrome as, if not a friend, exactly, then as a constant presence, whose poisonous whispers I acknowledge, hear, but don’t listen to. “You don’t belong here,” the demon—I call her Aunt Augusta—whispers. “You’re so out-classed.” “You’re so right,” I answer back. “And yet, here I am. I’m so lucky. Now screw off and let me take advantage of this opportunity I don’t deserve.”

What I’m most worried about is that I am arriving so exhausted, so depleted, I will piss the opportunity away. I check in at 3:45 p.m.—and I’m on the gorgeous king-sized bed, linens white and fresh, and falling asleep by 4 p.m. I’m going to sleep the entire time that I’m here and what Alberta tax payers, conference attendees, and generous Banff Centre donors will have paid for by providing me with this opportunity is… dreams. Nothing but dreams.

And not metaphoric dreams, either, but literal dreams, in the pre-2013 definition of the word.

I sleep for 30 minutes, and then I do what I always do when I don’t have the energy to move or live. I go for a walk.

To a cemetery.

The Old Banff Cemetery is also nestled into the side of Sleeping Buffalo Mountain, just below the Banff Centre. I visit it often when I’m in Banff. Death affirms life. Later, as my stint in Heaven is ending, I will talk about beautiful melancholy with a positive-but-melancholy musician, and I will tell a fellow journalist that I hope he finds beauty in his sadness.

This is what I find in the cemetery.

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But this is also not part of this story in which I’m trying to not thinking about the reader. (But do you see how, because I’m trying to not think about the reader, you are only able to follow because you love me and you think I love you, and you hope that, perhaps, I’m writing for you, trying to not think of you? Good. That’s the point, at last part of it.)

That night, I sleep for 12 interrupted hours, waking to the sounds of rutting elk, and also, to the sound of deep silence. Once, my screaming, a nightmare.

The next day, I meet my people.

On top of Sleeping Buffalo (Tunnel) Mountain

I don’t know it yet, of course. When I meet them—when we meet, we are strangers. We spend that day, I think, sussing each other out. Posing, positioning? Impostor syndrome is strong. Intimidation rising.

Me, I don’t make deep connections easily and rarely do I feel that I belong, anywhere, with anyone.

(But when I teach, and I ask students the question, “What do all people want?” the answer I give them is this: “To be loved, to be understood—to belong.)

That first night, I run away from the possibility of connection. I leave as soon as it’s offered, actually. Exhausted, depleted, I sleep another 12 hours…

Later, on the last night in Heaven, I tell the santur player who turns sadness into beauty (you haven’t met him yet, nor have I, wait, it’s coming) that for people like me, intimacy is a conscious choice. Love, connection, trust—none of it just happens. It is safer to be distant—it is more comfortable to be on the periphery. It is easier to be a journalist than an artist: it is easier to walk through a room glibly, smiling and laughing, but not investing. Observing but not risking.

With love, with connection, with trust comes the possibility of loss and pain.

Tears, heartbreak.

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In North American culture, we mostly talk about erotic, romantic love. And we misunderstand it, pervert it—that’s also another story.

Non-romantic love can also cause heartbreak, tear you apart. That’s part of this story.

I will tell you, the reader of whom I am trying so hard not to think, this: the day I arrive, I am so afraid I am too exhausted, too depleted to risk, learn, love. On the day I meet my people—except that I don’t know that they are my people yet—I realize that, the bone-deep exhaustion notwithstanding, I can, I must make a choice. And on the next day, on top of Sleeping Buffalo Mountain, the cold wind whipping my face at the same time as the sun warms it, I make the choice to love them. Fully, unabashedly, no constraints, no barriers, nothing held back.

In the wind

Here’s the magical thing, here is what happens in Heaven: every other person in the cohort makes the same decision.

Not at the same moment, not that day, not on that mountaintop. A few of us are a slower burn than even me—it takes them longer. (And yet others have fewer intimacy issues—they decide to roll the dice, take the risk, and love us all on day one.)

Photographing the photographers; context deleted

I explain all this to the melancholy musician on the last night. And I cry.

He plays beautiful music to soothe my heart, and I cry some more.

I’ve jumped ahead and you can’t follow.

Rewind.

So. I am in Heaven—aka the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity—on a 10-day Investigative Journalism Intensive. My debriefing, description, depiction of it violates every “this is journalism” rule, I know. I am not a journalist right now. I am a broken, open heart.

And it’s a journalist’s fault.

Robert Cribb, the star investigative journalist from The Toronto Star (see what I did there), who is our main guide on this journey, sets the sappy tone in the first hour of the intensive.

(Patti Sonntag, former managing editor in The New York Times’ news service division and now director of the Institute for Investigative Journalism at the University of Concordia is the other; we also get some time with the brilliant Aron Pilhofer, the James B. Steele Chair in Journalism Innovation at Temple University—holy cow, loves, mind utterly blown, I drink each word from him as if it is vintage wine or the blood of Christ itself).

But it’s Cribb who is the main midwife of what happens in Heaven. And this is weird casting. Really weird. If you’ve read Cribb in the Star—if you’ve read Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter’s Research Guide, the textbook for people like us that he co-authored with Dean Jobb, David McKie, and Fred Vallance-Jones and which forms the text for our intensive—you form a certain image. Expectation. At least, I did, and it was the kinda image often depicted in movies. You know. The seasoned, cynical, hard-boiled journalist (or, actually, homicide detective) with a bottle of whisky in the bottom drawer of his desk.

And when you see Cribb in the flesh, he rather fits that image. Maybe better dressed than the typical Silver Screen depiction. But tough, tough. And hard as nails.

Heart of gold inside? I dunno, maybe, not really, more like a heart of steel, or an uber-fast analyzing computer.

Hard-core, not soft-boiled. Clearly.

Not.

“This is love, here is love,” the hard-core Cribb tells us on day one, in hour one. I don’t believe him.

I’m wrong.

This is love.

I have no idea if he knows how he’s doing what he’s doing. How much of it is on purpose, by design. How much of it is intuition. But we fall in love, with each other, with each other’s work, passion, experience, vulnerability, frustration, fear, hope, ambition, humility… fear. Did I mention fear?

We are journalists working in the era of free content, death of newspapers, evisceration of news desks. And the rise of alternative facts and fake news.

We are all probably (not just a little) mad.

I am mad, I am in Heaven, and while here, I am working on three things:

  • The narrative journalism-this-is-not-really-an-investigation-but-it-has-elements-of-one-I-hope story I want to create around this thing that’s happening in Alberta that I’m not going to tell you anything more about, because it’s my story and while not really a secret, still, containment is the first rule of magic
    (Ok, I’m not really working on that story. Unless thinking is working. I’m thinking. A lot. Document state of mind, where is it written down, where can I find what I need to answer my questions? I make lists. Identify agencies, names. Think, think, think. A lot.)

meme by David

  • The novel that I was supposed to have finished in February, but, you know, sick child, life
    (I plot it out completely, and hit about 6-7,000 new words on it before the intensive ends; also, flesh out some other parts on its sister pieces—I am happy, productive, accomplished.)

  • A painfully introspective “what do I want to do with the rest of my life, or at least the next five years” journaling exercise
    (I do not arrive at an answer—except that I do not wish to work for an established Canadian media company in any way, shape or form, I want to be part of a revolution, except that I don’t think I’ve got quite enough fire to lead the revolution—what I want is someone else to start the revolution and tell me how to help execute it, what do you mean, I have to figure it out all myself?—and that, my love, is a taste of what my journal pages look like, minus the expletives, doodles, and digressions.)

This is not a newspaper; this is not journalism

I am not working on the story I pitched to get into the programme. Because I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to write it right now. And that’s—well, that’s also another story. Also, I’m not sure who will pay me for it (which is in some ways the most important story). But it’s ok. I don’t have to write that story, right now. Maybe someone else can do it better. And if they can’t, life is long—maybe I will get to it one day.

Maybe not.

In Heaven, for me, my story is not what matters. My people matter.

I have a people. Do you understand how intoxicating this is for me?

We are an interesting mix of people, from across Canada and around the world. The prairie provinces are well-represented, and the East Coast (hello, New Brunswick!) over-represented. Toronto and Vancouver are notable by their absence—why is that? But we’ve got Montreal (although he’s really Boston). And London, Kingston, and Hamilton. There are journalists from New York and New Orleans, a Pole working in Cambodia and an Australian based in Liberia—and the Brit was most recently working in New York. A First Nations journalist from Northwestern Ontario—what a beat she has, what a heart pounds within her—how does it not break, daily?

Perhaps it does.

Boat in the woods

Exhausted, depleted when I come, I request complete radio silence on behalf of real life while I’m in Heaven. “Unless one of the children is in the hospital and needs a blood transfusion from me, don’t text me,” I tell the family. I issue the same directive to my friends and loves. “Don’t text me, I won’t text you”—I want to be here, away, completely.

I break it twice. Once, when the high school calls me—they never call me, what’s wrong, panic—texts—it’s fine, everything is fine.

The second time, it’s after Heaven becomes interdisciplinary—we the journalists go to hear the musicians in residence perform a concert, and I don’t know exactly what happens—it’s like the secret sauce. Journalists (writers in general, except perhaps the poets) don’t usually think of ourselves as artists. A number of us in the intensive are recipients of artists’ grants, and Impostor Syndrome prompts us to laugh at the label. Artists, us? What are we doing here, really, in this arts sanctuary?

Do we belong?

The answer, I think, is this: Yes, we belong. We’re all here, musicians, photographers, painters, poets, novelists, journalists, because we make things in order to make sense of the world. Right? Isn’t that what we do, at the core? And hearing the musicians make sense of the world in a language in which we journalists, writers are rarely fluent—I certainly am not—shakes us.

Shakes me, anyway, to the core.

Dancing in the Streets, photo by Kathleen

Cello, bass, violins, viola, guitar—flute, gods, the flute, what is that? how does she do that?—voices as instrument, body as instrument, drum and paper, a hundred-stringed Persian santur, piano and bass—is that a Zappa song? And that string quartet, do they share a hive mind and what have they done to my insides, they are no longer my own—they’re cosmic dust, and I don’t exist.

(And yet, it turns out later in the night, non-existent, I can still dance…)

The night of the concert, I don’t really sleep; in the morning, unsettled, vibrating, I break radio silence with an email. I write about the santur player (I’ve met him now, and so have you—but this is all the introduction you get), and the flutist, and the folk singer, and the string quartet from Vienna, and the bass player who loves Frank Zappa, and the dancer who speaks with her body, oh-my-god, but mostly, I write this:

My work is not really moving forward in a significant way—well, I did plot out the next [Series Title Deleted] novel, and I’ve got some words down on that, I should not downplay that—but most importantly, my brain feels like it’s waking up, I am drinking art and I am surrounded by people loving and making art and music and poetry and making words sing, and I am so alive even when I am almost too exhausted to move.

Last night, after an intense day of work work work, and then the concert, and then the party, we danced in one of the hotel rooms until we literally collapsed on the floor—I have not felt such freedom and abandon in an eternity.

And I am grateful, and that’s a good feeling—I have had a very hard time feeling grateful.

Here’s a picture of my crew.

Did I mention that I am so happy? My heart threatens to break out of my ribcage.

View from my room

We work, we learn, we work, we hike, we work, we dance—we talk, argue, share, fall silent. Repeat.

I feel the hangover coming before it hits. It all ends, we are to leave Thursday morning. Tuesday, we fill out programme evaluations, have our closing reception… which morphs into a closing party and karaoke (and there is also a mechanical bull, don’t ask, it’s Alberta)… and then a long walk from Banff townsite to the Banff Centre, the longest way possible, not on the direct path, but all the way around the mountain. With lots of stops.

“No. We’re not turning there—if we turn there, we’re going to be back at the Centre, and then this night is over, no.”

Not my words, but my sentiment.

We lay down for a while at the Surprise Corner look-out point and look at the stars.

It’s two, three in the morning? Too late. Too much. Too little. It’s almost all over.

Melancholy.

“I don’t want this to be over.”

I have the conversation that begins with this sentence a dozen times, with a dozen different people, none of whom I would have met in the ordinary course of my creative or professional career; these 10 days are extraordinary.

We are hungry for each other, we fit each other, we stimulate, challenge, push each other. This is Heaven.

Bridge over troubled (they only look calm) waters

The santur player—you’ve met him now, remember?—is Persian, and in our encounters we talk poetry, of course. The Persian sufi poets excel at metaphor, at using the language of sexual desire to represent divine love, at using the prosaic and the ordinary to represent that which cannot rightly be put into words.

I wish I had the talent of Hafez of Shiraz to put my longing into words. I do my inadequate best—my people understand, because we all feel it. Many of us freelance, which means we are almost always alone, working with cyber-editors and ever-new sources. Colleagues, friends, collaborators, soulmates? What is that?

Even the people in the newsrooms—they often feel alone, isolated. Also, under stress, fire, threat.

Embattled.

Being an artist has never been easy; there has never been a worse time, in the “free” world anyway, to be a journalist at a traditional media outlet.

And yet, here we are.

“Are we stupid?” I ask this question as the level in the whisky bottle—not the first one—drops. “I mean, I know we’re brilliant, we’re all high on how brilliant we all are. But are we really stupid? Aren’t the smart ones in public relations, communications, marketing, in-house at the corporations, out-earning us, out-spinning us, killing us?”

All the industry stereotypes

Maybe.

“So why do we keep on doing this?”

The question answers itself when I talk with the melancholy-but-happy (that’s a thing) santur player, who makes the hundred-string Persian instrument weep to bring peace to tormented hearts. He can’t remember not playing the santur. He can’t remember not making music. He can’t remember at what age he made his first attempts at composition—his father first recorded him “improvising” when he was ten years old.

Music is in his bones, in his DNA.

It is who he is, as much as it is what he does.

I ask him questions, so many questions, intrusive questions, ignorant questions—I am not fluent in the language of music.

But there’s a question I don’t ask, don’t have to ask.

I’ve heard its variant often.

“What would you be doing if you weren’t writing?”

(What would you be doing if you weren’t making music? If you weren’t making art?)

And I don’t understand the question.

I stare.

I smile awkwardly.

I shuffle away.

Bow Falls

We here, this intrepid group now enjoying 10 days in Heaven, we are the people who have to tell the stories. We need to document them, chase them, share them.

Beavers build dams.

We see the “Who, what, when, where” and then ask, “Why? How?”

And keep on asking…

Then write down the answers, send them into the world, so that you know too.

This used to be a valued, precious skill and gift. Lately, not so much.

Except here.

Heaven.

See what happened? A bunch of journalists and the Banff Centre made me believe in God. Or maybe it was the Persian santur. Goddamn Sufis. Where’s my whisky and my heart of steel?

It’s time to say goodbye.

I don’t want to. I break radio silence, again.

Today my heart hurts because I will be leaving them. I am stupidly hiding from them because I don’t want to say goodbye.

As I write the email, I realize I am being stupid.

I close my eyes. And enter into the pain.

I am going to stop being stupid & go love them a little more, a little longer.

Photo by Alex

We spend that last evening outside. Around an open fire.

When I leave them, I am an open wound.

The santur player has a song called “One Last Time”:

I don’t even try not to cry when he plays it.

“This is how I feel about my crew,” I tell him. “Precisely, exactly, completely, this.”

We will never see each other again—not like this, not all of us—and the reality of this hurts, hurts, hurts. We now know each other—and we know we are not alone, and we know we are loved and valued. That is something, that is everything.

We connect—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. LinkedIn. Slack.

Sorry. That is meaningless. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t compare to this face-to-face time, any more than an email “interview” compares to a face-to-face one—any more than watching porn compares to having sex with someone you are mad about.

(You know I was going to go there.)

So. Goodbye.

Photo by kind stranger from Willow’s camera under Willow’s direction

Heartbreak.

When your heart breaks, you have, I think, two choices.

(You almost always have at least two choices, right?)

You can sow it up and harden.

Or you can leave it open. And make art.

I’m making art—I’m writing—and I am trying to not think of an audience.  I am trying to not think of a reader—the reader. I am trying to not think that you will read this, even though, of course, I am writing it for you, only for you.

Document state of mind forever.

xoxo

“Jane”

Photo by Kathleen

PS All you need to know about The Banff Centre: https://www.banffcentre.ca/

PS2 All you need to know about the Institute for Investigative Journalism at Concordia https://www.concordia.ca/artsci/journalism/research/investigative-journalism.html

PS3 (The Most Important One) The Banff Centre Musicians in Residence perform most Friday evenings this fall, in Rolston Hall. If you’re within driving distance (Calgary, I’m talking to you), you should go hear them. Because. Amazing. (Also, free.)

PS4 I know that part of the intoxicating intensity of our love affair comes from its brevity and its enforced, prescribed ending. Were we all to, suddenly, form a single, cohesive full-time newsroom, were we to work together five, six—in this world, seven—days a week for 52 weeks—hell, even a few months—there would be less infatuation and more frustration, the professional equivalent of seeing a lover’s dirty socks on the living room floor, repeatedly, for goddsake, what’s wrong with her, does she not know what the laundry basket is for? I know all this. Vacation romance, fairy tale love affair. I don’t care. It’s not any less real, any less precious because it’s ephemeral and must end. All things end. We are lucky, so lucky, that we drowned in it as fully as we did, among the mountains, the elk, the true evergreens and the mysterious golden larches.

Michael on deadline (he made it)

PS5 Ok, I realize, you–the reader I’m trying not to think of–you’re going to go here:

You: OMG, woman, did you actually do any journalism?

Jame: OMG, we did EVERYTHING. We drilled into the elements of investigative reporting and what separates original investigative work from derivative reporting—and also, how it’s possible to write an original, revealing investigative piece purely from data already out in the public records that nobody had bothered to connect together before. DOCUMENT STATE OF MIND. We pitched out story ideas and refined them—and refined them some more—being part of this process was probably the most useful part of the entire intensive, except that all of it was useful. We talked about focus and moral and purpose. “What’s the point of this story? What’s the moral of this story? Why are you writing this story?” (We’re writing to change the world. Short answer.) We talked about testing ideas and getting started, organizing documents, identifying (and chasing down) sources. DOCUMENT STATE OF MIND. Collaborative (like hundreds of journalists working together) investigations. Sharing data, interviews, and insights. Preparing for cooperative publications and broadcast. Public records and freedom of information requests. DOCUMENT STATE OF MIND. Pay-walls, love as business model, memberships and subscribers, the future of our industry. Doing the work, loving the work–paying attention to the reader. Piggy-backing on past FOIP requests. How data tells a story. Turning data into narrative. DOCUMENT STATE OF MIND. Sequencing interviews, preparing for adversarial interviews, dealing with spin and reluctance. Turning “off the record” sources into “on the record” ones. Libel-proofing stories. Role-playing adversarial interviews. Surviving being scooped. DOCUMENT STATE OF MIND. Solutions journalism (sort of). Data. More data. DOCUMENT STATE OF MIND.

You: I don’t understand any of this.

Jane: You had to be there. Here, have some more whisky, and then I’ll play you some modern Persian music, and we can both cry.

Manufactured Memories, for Suzie

I don’t want a pen pal, she doesn’t want a relationship, and we live 300 km apart, so really, we’re doomed, but we decide to play a game anyway, like Truth or Dare, without the dare part.

I set out the rules:

I ask a question. You answer it. Tell the truth, or lie—it doesn’t matter. How can I tell if you lied?

And then, you ask me. Only rule is, you can’t ask me the same question I ask you.

She agrees. But stipulates we shouldn’t lie. I shrug, although she can’t see it. What is truth, anyway?

She asks me to go first.

I ask, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

And she tells me. It’s not so bad. But it’s honest and raw.

She asks, “Why do you hate Christmas?”

I give her the unvarnished truth; I suspect she wishes she hadn’t asked.

She asks, “Favourite childhood memory.”

I pause.

Think hard.

I’ve had, in many ways, an idyllic childhood. It’s only when I scratch and dig deep that I realize that much of it must have been hard. Displacement, poverty.

But I never felt, experienced the poverty. We were never hungry.

We always felt safe.

We always felt loved.

My parents really did create a cocoon around us. I make a mental note to thank them.

I search for a memory that makes a discrete story. I decide to go with a very early one.

It goes like this…

The taste of cherries

I’m on summer vacation in Poland from Libya, and it’s cherry season. We’ve spent the morning on my paternal grandparents “działka,’ essentially an urban community garden. Except in post war, Communist Poland, the działka provides, god, virtually all of the fresh produce for a city family, especially in the summer. If you didn’t have one, you made friends with someone who did.

I’m pretty little. Maybe six? I must be six, no more than seven, because my grandmother was dead by the time I was eight. And we come home from the działka, and we have so many cherries, and my grandmother and my great-grandmother, they are going to make cherry jam and preserves. But my brother and I, we just want to each the cherries. And they’re so ripe and juicy, every time we grab one, we stain our hands and faces and clothes.

So my grandmother, who is stern and particular, strips us down to nothing, and puts us in the bathtub… with a giant bowl of cherries.

And we eat them and eat them and eat them… our faces, hands, bellies are red from the juices. The tub is stained red. But oh-my-god, the taste of those cherries is still there on my tongue. I have never eaten something so delicious, before or since.

I don’t have a lot of memories of my grandmother—I was so little when we left, and she died soon after. Most of the stories I’ve heard about her—she was not a warm or loving or happy person. I don’t have any memories of her hugging me or kissing me or any gifts from her or anything.

Except this one. But this one is so delicious…

I treasure it.

Gorge myself on cherries every season. Often, they are sweet—they are never as sweet as in that memory.

I have a second favourite childhood memory. This one, I know is largely manufactured.

The donkeys

In Libya, we lived in a city, called El Marj. Most of the Eastern European foreign workers weren’t given free reign of the city—certainly the women and children weren’t. Most of us were housed in workers’ camps. Our camp was called the American camp, because it had originally been built for the Americans, I think. I can’t remember how many houses on it—it seemed huge to me back them. It was, after all, our entire world. There was one main road through it—barbed wire fence on three sides, and a stone wall on the fourth, separating us from one of the El Marj neighbourhoods.

Was there a gate? I don’t remember. Perhaps.

We kids were free to roam the entire grounds of the camp—we were discouraged from hanging out near the entrances or near the crack in the stone wall—that’s another story, we used to meet there for parlays with the Arab kids but neither our parents nor their parents liked for us to do that.

One day, in one of the corners of the camp, we found a mother donkey and her baby.

We=the assortment of camp kids. At any given time, there were six to twelve of us; I don’t remember who the other kids were at the time. Nor at any given time: we were interchangeable to each other, playmates of the moment. Anyone of us could be gone tomorrow. Polish kids, Bulgarian kids, a token Romanian—I remember we didn’t like him, he was the eldest, a bully, mean, until we put him in an old rusted barrel (they were all over the place) and rolled him all over the camp, beating the barrel with sticks.

(Um, Mom and Dad, if you’re reading—you didn’t read that part. IT NEVER HAPPENED.)

We had no idea how the donkeys got into the camp—maybe the mother could have jumped the fence, but her baby? Maybe the gate was open—or maybe there was no gate.

She was in pretty rough shape, lots of scars and wounds. The Libyans were pretty hard on their animals.

We cleaned her up, and took the ticks out of her eyes and where we could find them on her and the baby’s body (there were a lot of ticks, swollen with blood). And we got them food and water.

I can’t remember what we fed them. Most of our mothers grew vegetables and flowers while we had water, so we probably raided the gardens. Sometimes, we didn’t have water and had to drive hundreds of kilometres to get drinking water. Then, the gardens withered.

In my memory, we kept the donkeys hidden from the adults for weeks. But I expect it was only a few days. The big kids, we rode the mom. And we put the two little guys (my brother and the another little boy) on the baby. I remember this, distinctly.

When I say rode, I think I mean we got on the donkey’s backs and sat there and maybe the donkey walked around a little…

Memory is a funny thing. I don’t remember how this story ends and I refuse to ask. One day, the donkeys weren’t there. Did their owners come back? Did they escape? Did someone see them, and “steal” them? Did someone come to the adults, tell me, give us our damn donkeys back? Did our parents let them go, chase them out? I don’t know.

(Dad, if you know—don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.)

In my story, we keep them and take care of them forever, and everyone lives happily ever after.

She likes the story. A lot.

But now she wants her next question.

I ponder for a bit.

Then ask, “What’s the most creative lie you’ve ever told, and why?”

I hope it’s going to be a good story.

xoxo

“Jane”

If you want to save the world, fund libraries, use libraries, love libraries

It’s been a rough week, and I’m seeking solace in solitude… and the library.

My hometown boasts the second most used public library system in North America, and we’ve recently received what is probably the most beautiful public library in the world. Designed by American-Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta and Canadian firm DIALOG after the two firms’ joint bid won a design competition in 2013, the new Calgary Central Public Library was recently named one of Time Magazine’s World’s Greatest Places to Visit in 2019.

Stroller Alley at Calgary Public

The building is so beautiful, the first time I walked through it, I burst into tears. It has quickly become the meeting place in Calgary. When I’m not sure where to meet someone, or what we should do, I almost invariably say, “Let’s meet at the library, and go from there.” And I’m not the only one—the library is teeming with people, always.

Books are dying, literacy is dying, culture is dying? Please. Not in Calgary, not at our library.

Questionarium, Calgary Public Library

When I visit the library on my own, as today, I have a series of rituals and routines I follow. First, I walk as high up the four floors as I can without taking the stairs or elevator, on a walk-through ramp that curls along the side of the library. I walk past the incredible children’s area and the cafe—at our library, you can make all the noise you like, kiddies, and also, you can eat and drink, and be merry. And I look at the curated book displays and games and everything, but I don’t handle any books, I don’t stop. I make my way to the very top, and to the reading room.

Curated children's book display, Calgary Public Library

The reading room is my favourite room in the library and the only “quiet” space: this is the place to come and work, not talk. So I set up my computer, and I write.

When I need a break, I pause, get up from my desk, and walk around the reading room, which showcases the librarians’ choices of books, arranged my topic. There’s usually a Wild West section (we do live in Cowtown after all). And Banned Books. And Graphic Novels. And, and, and…

I let myself pick up a few books and leaf through them, and I might take a photo for future reference. I’m not allowed to read these books. Not yet. I’m still writing.

Book cover: I killed Adolf Hitler

I go back to my work space. Write. Pause. Browse. Write. Pause. Browse.

When I’m done writing (and I always stop just before I’m empty), I pack up, and start the slow walk down.

Now, I’m allowed to pick up books… and perhaps to take a few home.

Book Cover: Queen Victoria by Lucy Worlsey

Today, though, I’m walking and I don’t have a bag, just my small laptop briefcase. Today, I will not take out any books.

Among the many, many things I love about the library—among the many, many reasons why I think libraries will save the world—is… think about it, I can leave this place with a hundred books. For free.

Calgary Public Library cards are free, by the way. There used to be a nominal $10 application fee for adults. The library eliminated this a few years ago, because access, knowledge, freedom.

There are a dozen, perhaps more, meetings and programmes running in the library at any given time. The library offers free programming on—god, everything. Financial planning, coding, lego building, science, fashion—and, of course, literacy.

It has artists in residence and writers in residence.

And new art in its public space.

Today, I get to “meet” photographer Samuel Obadero, and his exhibit, “The Forgotten Ones.”

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I also spend some time in the Create Space area, pondering some tough questions.

The Create Space is part of the library’s commitment to “Supporting brave conversations and generous gatherings that build understanding.”

Create Space, Calgary Public Library

You know. The conversations that will change the world.

Create Space, Agree or Disagree

I get sidetracked by books—thoughtfully curated by the librarians. This one catches my eye:

But it’s a brick. And I’m walking. And I am not getting any books today. I snap a picture to place a hold on it in the future.

I am not getting any books… Damn. Wait…

Well… but these are very light.

I get books.

I pass a group of citizens and tourists getting a tour of the library. It ranges in age from teenagers to octogenarians, and the enthusiasm with which they listen to the (ridiculously enthusiastic) tour guide makes my heart sing.

A family of five, Calgary locals, is visiting the library for the first time today. The father is trying to muster them along, because he wants to get to the reading room. But he’s lost the mother to a bookshelf, and the kids are staring, wide-eyed, at the balloon arch near the cafe.

I think about taking my books to the cafe. But not today. Not today. I still have to visit the drinking birds, massive sculptures by  Los Angeles-based artist and teacher Christian Moeller.

The birds make me happy and give me hope, in much the same way the library makes me happy and gives me hope.

As Sadie Trombetta writes in her March 20, 2017 article in Bustle, 7 Reasons Libraries Are Essential, now More Than Ever:

“…libraries have become centers for the movement that supports women, immigrants, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and those facing religious persecution. They are free public spaces that allow everyone to feel safe and to find opportunity.”

As I leave the library, hordes of people are coming in. Citizens, tourists. Young people, old people. White people, brown people. Queer people, straight people. Rich people, poor people.

Moeller’s Drinking Birds bop to welcome them.

[there really should be a Drinking Birds photo here, shouldn’t there? But I didn’t take one and I don’t steal images. So, imagine it… or Google “Calgary Public Library Drinking Bird Sculpture”]

I smile at strangers and they smile back.

In this moment, in this place and space, there is safety, peace, knowledge, potential… hope.

I am so happy, I almost cry.

xoxo

“Jane”

For some better photos of the library than mine, check out this fan-feature on the library in Avenue Magazine: https://www.avenuecalgary.com/city-life/inside-calgarys-new-central-library/

And, of course, the Time Magazine article: https://time.com/collection/worlds-greatest-places-2019/5654128/central-library-calgary-canada/

 

Two in high school, one at home equals… I don’t know, I’m really bad at math

Last week, I started drafting a post celebrating and documenting Calgary’s Pride 2019 and telling you why it is we march—and why if you don’t get that it’s political, that all the joy and dancing and laughter and singing around Pride is so political, then you shouldn’t come to our glitter party—but I couldn’t make it funny or even particularly convincing. So I shelved it.

The week before that, I wrote three very long essays about why I hate the family therapist that’s part of Flora’s medical team. Short-hand: She doesn’t understand. Me, Flora, our family. I don’t like her. I don’t respect her. I don’t want to listen to her, and I can’t hear her even when she gives me something of value, because I really need to be able to be angry at someone, hate someone, blame someone, and she’s the ideal candidate for the task. But I couldn’t make it empathetic or compassionate. It just sounded mean, and I didn’t want to come across as mean. Just… pissed and misunderstood.

We live here, how lucky is that?

Then, some good things happened, but I didn’t even try to write about those, because I didn’t want to jinx them. I jinxed some of them anyway. Alas.

And since Tuesday I’ve been trying to compose a “Back to School” post. My first-ever, because this is Cinder’s first “Back to School” year—my boy’s in grade 12, y’all. And it’s Flora’s first-ever “to school” year—she did it, we did it, she made it to regular school on day 1 just as she decided way back before BAM! Surprise! Curveball!

Flora’s first day of school; yes, that is her unicorn costume

And, Ender’s first year at home alone. I mean, with me, but you know what I mean. I don’t count, because I’m an adult. His first year at home alone without his siblings. He missed Cinder desperately when Cinder went to school last fall—I found this odd, because it seemed to me Cinder spent most of his time in his room anyway, playing computer games and punching holes in walls—but apparently just having him in the house was… nice.

I’m trying not to overplan and overpanic. He’ll be fine. He’s got buddies in the hood, and a homeschooled buddy just two doors over.

Cinder planning his semester (who is this kid??)

He’ll be fine. Me? Here’s the funny thing that most people don’t get. When Cinder went to school, I did not suddenly magically have more free, non-kid time. Because there were still two kids at home (and one of them was about to need 24/7 care but let’s not go there again, not now, not yet). And now, with both Flora and Cinder in high school—I do not magically have more kid-free time. Because, there is still… Ender. And an Ender who no longer has two older siblings to hang out with during the day, to distract, to bug, to annoy, to fight with.

And then there were three…

We survive our first week solo relatively well. Tuesday and Friday are a half-day, and on Wednesday, we have lots of errands, and Thursday is a beautiful day, so we spend a lot of time outside, and then, the weekend, and a sleepover with his cousins and all his friends on the Common.

And today is Monday, our first week of five full days of no Flora and no Cinder at home.

We’re gonna be ok.

I think.

Ender’s “not back to school” lunch

Our coping strategies are very similar. I decide to reorganize the homeschooling supplies and purge the stuff that we are definitely never ever going to use again. Ender reorganizes his Lego shelf—to make room for the new Lego sets he’s planning to receive for his birthday, my eternal optimist.

We read a book together, then I read alone.

I do laundry, because it’s Monday and it’s raining, and that’s what you do on rainy Mondays when you have a dryer and a large drying rack.

He sorts his Lego, then starts uploading Minecraft mods.

I scour the house for chocolate. For fuck’s sake, surely, there’s an untapped stash of chocolate somewhere?

(There isn’t. I eat a handful of chocolate chips instead.)

There aren’t very many chocolate chips left in the house, because Cinder was doing midnight baking…

He asks for three lunches.

I answer an email, then text, from a new homeschooler who wants some advice on learning plans and unschooling. I’m not sure if what I tell her will be helpful. Because in the end, my “proof of concept” is unique to me and my family.

I think a lot about my work. Write some new words. Delete a few. Write a bit more.

I ask him if he wants to go swimming. Or something?

He shrugs. “Maybe go for ice cream? Later? I’m busy now.”

I go back to my computer. Tickle the keys.

Write.

Invite the nervous new homeschooler over for coffee.

Write while I wait.

Happy rainy Monday.

The path less travelled

xoxo

“Jane”

Me and my “baby,” at the Passport Office

Confessions of an unreformable plant killer

Many, many years ago—two decades ago, in fact—when Sean and I were engaged to be married and madly in love, but living 3739 km apart, I sent him some potted plants for his birthday.

This was a horrible mistake. In my defence: I didn’t do it on purpose. The internet was young and the Yellow Pages—remember those?—were still the way you found florists, and the way you found a florist who delivered flowers in another city was by finding a national chain in the aforementioned Yellow Pages, and the way you chose what you wanted to send is the florist asked you your price point, then described what was available—and you picked one of the bouquets, baskets, arrangements based on her description.

No pictures, if you follow my drift.

So I didn’t know I was sending Sean a bunch of potted plants in a basket. I thought I was sending him Our Love Will Never Die: A Romantic Ever-living Rhapsody Arrangement or some such thing.

When I went out to visit him at Christmas, there were potted plants all over the apartment he shared with his cleaning-challenged roommate. Ok, there were just three or four. And he loved them and he watered them diligently—because they were a gift from me.

He also mistakenly thought that I loved houseplants… which led to the following tragedy. After we married and I moved to Montreal, the plans came with us to a new apartment. And then—it happened. Sean stopped watering the plants. And I didn’t start.

He denies it was some kind of subconscious patriarchal “the houseplants are the responsibility of the wife” kind of thing. I don’t press it. Point. He stopped. I didn’t start.

The ivy withered and died first, this I remember, because it was the most fragile, most romantic plant.

The others followed. The hardiest of them lasted a full 18 months. I don’t remember its name, but it had shiny, angry leaves, and I imagine it lived  as long as it did out of spite. Eighteen months! I still can’t quite believe it. It was not a cactus, this little I do know about plants. It was pretty humid in Montreal, so perhaps the water in the air fed it a little. Or perhaps Sean did water it occasionally—or maybe a visiting friend, struck with pity for the parched plants, poured a bit of wine into its soil. No matter. It lasted longer—but still, in the end, it perished with the rest.

When we moved back to Calgary, with a new baby and, mercifully, no houseplants, we bought a cute little bungalow in an older neighbourhood and poured way too much time and money into its renovations. When everything was painted and unpacked, Sean came home with half a dozen houseplants.

I burst into tears. And we had the conversation we should have had years ago when I first accidentally bought him houseplants.

Now, if you love houseplants, all the more power to you. I don’t want to make you feel in any way weird or guilty about surrounding yourself with things in pots. For me, though, houseplants have always been an unwanted additional responsibility—even before kids. Something that I had to keep alive and that wouldn’t complain if I was doing a sub-par job… except by death.

And let me tell you, killing houseplants by omission and neglect feels awful. I do not rejoice when one of my victims bites the dust. I suffer. Their little dried up corpses sit there in their pots, staring at you with mute reproach…

Over the years, various friends—and my flower-loving mother—have inflicted houseplants on me. First, I tried to keep them alive. Then, I recognized that it was just prolonging the inevitable. Sure, I could give the plant, and myself, false hope by forcing myself to water it and tend to it for the first week or two. But was it not better to be honest with us both as to what was going to happen? And surely, eventually, people would notice that the plant they gave me first turned yellow, then brown, and then just wasn’t around anymore?

A couple of years ago, a newly enamoured friend brought me a little houseplant (I prefer not to learn their names; it makes their deaths slightly less painful) in a cute mug, as a “so happy you’re in my life” gift.

“I noticed you didn’t have any plants in the house,” she said. I thanked her and looked at the little green thing with a sigh. Apologized to it silently for the short straw it drew. Three months, I murmured under my breath. I figure you’ve got three months. If you’re lucky.

“I told her that if you didn’t have plants in the house, it’s because you don’t like then,” her partner put in. Perceptive human. My friend looked crestfallen.

“I love plants,” I said. Not lied, exactly. I love plants… in their natural habitat, so to speak.

I didn’t add, “I just can’t keep them alive.”

There is no miraculous twist to this story, by the way. The poor plant withered and died as do all living things when deprived of love and water. But I still have the mug. So there’s that.

Sean and my mom frequently buy me Tiger or Calla lilies in pots, or early tulips, daffodils and hyacinths, the occasional pot of mums. No African violets though, not after the African violet disaster of 2004; don’t ask.

This seems to be our compromise. I’d be quite happy to receive only already dead cut flowers.

Sean: I feel guilty about buying dead flowers.

Jane: Baby, I’m gonna kill the potted plants anyway.

Sometimes, though, I transplant them into the garden, and they eke out a slightly longer existence there. And one Tiger Lily actually came back the following year. That was pretty exciting.

I do love green things, you know. Gardens, parks, forests, mountains, prairies.

Old, lush, overgrown European cemeteries…

I just think… they belong outside. Where I don’t have to water them.

Oh, my garden? A self-sustaining assemblage of the hardest plants know to sapiens that have learned to fend for themselves. Every once in a while, I think I might learn to care for them, and learn to love gardening. I take a few books on gardening out of the library.

Enjoy reading them. Return to neglecting the plants…

The motherfucking sadist who helped me walk again wants me to do push-ups.

Him: We haven’t done these in a while.

Jane: That’s because I hate them and I’m not good at them.

Him: We will practice more.

Jane: You know what? I think there are some things—I’m 45 years old. I’m never going to floss better. I’m never going to enjoy doing push-ups—or invest any time practicing doing them better. And I’m never going to take care of houseplants.

Him: I’m hearing you think we should floss more during our workouts? And you want me to get you a plant or something?

I don’t want to be a bad feminist, and I’ve absolutely seen women master push-ups and do dozens and dozens of the things without breaking a sweat. I’ve never seen a woman with my body shape master push-ups. Boobs are heavy. I tell the motherfucking sadist this. Then also pontificate about the length of my legs and the plumpness of my ass, and how all of this adds up to non-push-up executing body.

He sighs.

Him: From the knees. Ten. A ten year-old could do that. Don’t whine. And when you go home, floss.

I comply.

But if the bastard gets me a houseplant for our next anniversary, I’m leaving him.

Who am I kidding. Of course I’m not.

But. I will kill the plant. This time, with pleasure.

xoxo

“Jane”

All photos courtesy of Pexels.com

Finding Water, grateful for Julia Cameron, kinda whiny anyway

I’m re-reading Julia Cameron’s Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance, one of her “sequels,” if I can be permitted to call them that, to her revolutionary creative recovery program, The Artist’s Way. I have a cynical suspicion that both Finding Water (2006) and its predecessor Walking in the World (2003)—as well as Cameron’s myriad The Artist’s Way spin-offs, including The Prosperous Heart (2012), The Artist’s Way for Parents (2014), It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again (2016)—were written more at the behest of her publisher than her muse. “Julia!” I imagine the publisher saying. “We need The Artist’s Way 2!” “But I said all I have to say on this in the last book!” Julia protests. “Julia! The people want—need—more! Also, money!” And she sighs, and she looks at her 12-week structure, and she thinks, sure, I can come up with another variant of this, and she writes. And writes some more…

What you need to know: Neither Finding Water nor Walking in the World are nearly as good or life-changing as The Artist’s Way. Because she did give it all away in that first one: the “sequels” are just refinements. Not as good, not as profound. And yet, I re-read both every couple of years as part of my The Artist’s Way refresher. And when I do, I always find something “new,” something I need to hear, learn, affirm at that particular joint in my artistic journey, personal life.

And on this week’s trip with Julia Cameron—the woman who, six, seven years ago now, gave me permission to think of myself as an artist, and what a frightening thought that was—I find Julia’s mid-life insecurities reassuring. I love reading about her sudden foray into music and piano lessons at age 45. Her attempt to stage musicals in New York City in her fifties. I’m not clear if they’re successful or not. I rather think they’re not, or she’d give me the happy ending now, wouldn’t she? Or is she holding it back so that I value the process regardless of what happened to the final product?

When I teach writing (or marketing, for that matter), I draw on a lot of Julia’s ideas, and I’ve read and re-read her so many times now that you’d think nothing would be new… But today, this, if not new, is necessary, and it lifts my heart. Julia says:

One of the greatest disservices we can do to ourselves as artists is to make our work too special and too different from everybody else’s work. To the degree to which we can normalize our day, we have a chance to be both productive and happy. Let us say, as is often the case, we are resistant to getting down to work. We have a choice. We can buy into our resistance—Writer’s block! Painter’s block!—or we can simply say, “I don’t feel like working today, and I’ll bet an awful lot of other people are in the same boat.”

I don’t feel like working today.

I don’t feel like dealing with my shitty first drafts or my marketing analysis or my synopsis or anything, and OMFG, the taxes, I don’t want to do that either. My process for today, I decide, is going to be reading Julia. Because, today, I need to read about how on some days (months) she doesn’t feel like working (more than 20 books later), I love reading about her shitty first drafts, and agent’s rejections of her novels. This is Julia-fucking-Cameron, after all, author of The Artist’s Way, the former Mrs. Martin Scorsese, if anyone should have people beating a path to her door for a book, any book, surely it should be her—how many copies of The Artist’s Way has she sold? (Four million, at 2016, and she still can’t place every novel.)

I find this reassuring. Not because Julia’s suffered and struggled—if I could take that away from her, from anyone, I would. It’s just… reaffirming. Nobody’s entitled to success, fame, an easy ride, an easy second or seventeenth contract. We do the work… because we must do the work.

I’m corrupting young minds part-time these days, teaching journalism courses at a post-secondary institution to “aspiring” writers, artists, photographers, journalists. I’m giving them all I’ve got a la Annie Dillard, although sometimes, I worry I’m teaching skills as obsolete and unvalued as typewriter repair. I hope the core of what I’m giving them is still valid. They want to know how I built a freelance career, and most of what I did, had to do, could do, doesn’t precisely apply to them. But this does—I sent out 97 pitches before I sold my first story.

…spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Their reaction to this story—most are horrified—tells me what their odds of succeeding are in whatever career or artistic path they choose.

Perseverance. How hard are you willing to work for this thing you love?

My industry has always been an industry of attrition. We the survivors, the “success” stories? In some ways, we’re the idiots who persevere well past the point of reason.

One of my favourite things about re-reading The Artist’s Way and Finding Water etc. are the encounters with the quotes Julia (I feel we’re on a first-name basis now, it’s been so many years) sprinkles in the margins. It’s here that I first “heard” George Nathan say that “Art is the sex of the imagination,” and Irving Layton assert that “If poetry is like an orgasm, an academic can be likened to someone who studies the passion stains on the bedsheets.”

Yesterday, I read this:

It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else.

John Cage

Where I am right now is not awesome. Irritating doesn’t begin to describe it. The family therapist, who is part of Flora’s ever-growing medical team, and whose job, I think, is to medicate me without drugs—although, really, I keep on waiting for her to give me a marijuana prescription, it’s the most useful thing she could do, except, of course, she doesn’t need to, I can just go to the Co-op and get it—well, except that weed isn’t really my thing, but, OMFG, every time I think about the family therapist, I want to get stoned, where was I? The family therapist tells me not to think of this time as the new normal. She says this is still the crisis, a stage, things will get better. Also, things have been much—much—worse. She counsels… hope, and focusing on the future.

I wish I could fire her. I’m not sure if she’s incompetent or if I’m just being obtuse. But I can’t live on hope. I can’t endure today simply by thinking that tomorrow—next month—next year—2024—will be easier, better, more functional.

Thich Nhat Hahn—my favourite monk—and the Jewish Buddhists I read (seriously, so many of the modern American Buddhist teachers come from the Jewish tradition—why is that? I should find out) want me to be able to enjoy the sun on my skin, the beauty of a flower—Flora’s excited smile as she puts together her Pastel Goth wardrobe for high school. And I do. This, right now, is a happy moment. Unfortunately, odds are pretty good it will be followed by an hour in hell, and that hell is not all in my head, fuck you, Bodhisattva Junior.

Breathe.

When the hours in hell outnumber the happy moments by a substantial factor, I dream of running away, and I apply for a job in Dubai, an arts residency in the mountains.

You: Yeah, what happened with that?

Jane: Didn’t get the job in Dubai. Got the arts residency.

I am very excited about the residency. But I’m also aware that the 12 days in the fall that I will spend away from the demands of my life, while giving me time for focused work and, also, uninterrupted sleep, will not change anything, in the present, in the long term. In fact, they can damage the work I need to do in the present. “I can suffer now, I can sacrifice now, because I get those 12 days soon!”

This is the way most people think about their shitty jobs and vacations.

This is not the way I want to live my life.

Neither does Julia. In the week of Finding Water I’m reading now, her doctor notes that she’s tired and recommends renting a cabin in the country for the summer, so she can get away from it all and write.

I didn’t want to rent a cabin in the country; I wanted to write right where I was, smack in the middle of New York City. I wanted to write about the excitement of the flower district, the garment district, the antique district. I wanted to write about exactly where I was planted, in the rich soil of a bustling metropolis. I wanted to write, period.

I had a lust to simply lay some track, to put some words to my experience, to try to achieve an optimistic balance by putting things onto the page.

I must be serene in the place where I am planted.

Me too, Julia, me too. (No hashtag.)

So, I’m trying to figure it out. To make the present inhabitable, fulfilling. So many things completely beyond my control and unpredictable. What can I change, affect? What anchors, routines, predictability can I create? Where can I thrive?

I’ve kept writing in the mornings, my Morning Pages as Julia taught me in The Artist’s Way all those years ago. (Six years now? Seven?) Trying to jump from the pages to creative, constructive work when the mornings are calm. But life does not always allow this, and I cannot pressure myself. “I must set my own gentle pace,” Cameron writes in Finding Water. Something else, someone else is setting my pace. I must accept it and work with it. Not hope that tomorrow, maybe, next month, maybe, for fuck’s sake, next year, surely, will be better.

What can I do today?

Sometimes, only the basics. Morning pages, Flora’s current morning routine, Ender’s breakfast, potato chips and pickles for lunch. A meditation session that turns into a nap, because, interrupted sleep. Apologies to the dog for not taking her out for a walk—ok, fine, five minutes, to the end of the alley and back, hey, we did it!

Sometimes, a 12-hour marathon. I try to take Saturdays away, mini-arts residencies, maxi-Artist’s Dates. Sometimes, work, work, work, work, and I am so happy—fucking family therapist and her bubble baths as self-care suggestions—just because she hates her job, can she not imagine that what I want, more than anything, is more time for mine?

Sometimes, silence.

Today, a few hours with Julia.

Julia says,

When joy is elusive, we must actively seek it out. We must put ourselves with people and things that bring us delight. Sometimes, when we are at our most depressed, it can be difficult to even recall the joys in life. It is for this reason , that one more time we must take pen in hand. Turning to the page, number from one to fifty. Now list fifty things which you love.

Do it.

xoxo

“Jane”

PS If you’re in yeg or yyc or thereabouts, Julia Cameron is coming to Edmonton on October 5! Of course I’m going.

TICKETS HERE

PS2 Here’s a recent New Yorker article on Julia Cameron’s utility to 20-somethings in an age of self-promotion:
https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-artists-way-in-an-age-of-self-promotion

PS3 And here’s a recent New York Times article on Cameron, kinda an overview/homage:
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/02/style/julia-cameron-the-artists-way.html

If any of my students are reading this, and you’ve clicked on the above article and read it, please note: if you ever write a sentence like this:

“On a recent snowy afternoon, Ms. Cameron, who has enormous blue eyes and a nimbus of blonde hair, admitted to the jitters before this interview.”

I will fail your ass. Today’s lesson. WTF, NYT?

The kids are all right, but you’re old and out of touch: a love letter to libraries inspired by Susan Orlean et al.

In brief: The Internet is a technology, not a medium; People think in pictures; The kids are all right (but you’re old and out of touch); Story is eternal; Libraries will save us all

I’m here, I made it, I’ve got my seat, my macarons and my tea, and there, they are, today’s stars: in the middle, Susan Orleanthe Susan Orlean—to her right, Michael Harris, to her left, Carol Shaben. It’s July 10, an overcast Wednesday night in Canmore’s Communitea, and I’m vibrating with excitement, poised for stimulation.

On offer is Literary Journalism at Communitea: Editors in Conversation. The programme is part of the Banff Centre’s showcase of its Literary Journalism program, and begins with readings by each of the journalists—and non-fiction authors, who are also serving as faculty in the program. It ends with a Q&A that infuriates and inspires me. But more on that anon. First, the readings.

The first reading comes from Carol Shaben. It’s a piece from her 2012 book Into the Abyss: How a Deadly Plane Crash Changed the Lives of a Pilot, a Politician, a Criminal and a Cop. I have not read the book, so I cannot comment on how well the chosen reading—a look at how the criminal of the subtitle, Paul Archambault, met his end (probably) as a homeless alcoholic on a cold winter’s night in Grande Prairie—reflects the overall tone of the work. There are no homeless alcoholics from Grande Prairie in the audience, so I cannot ask them if how they and their life are presented bothers them as much as it bothers me, and I am too cowardly to ask Shaben what the fuck she was thinking when she likened the word “hero” to the “N” word—and whether a white person ever has any right, ever, to make that analogy? Still. The prose is beautiful, and I see pictures in my head.

The most powerful reading of the evening follows, in the presentation by Michael Harris of the opening of The End of Absence (2014). In this Governor General Award winning book, Harris tackles, from the point of view of “the last generation to remember the world before the Internet,” the implications of the technology on solitude, daydreaming, and free time. In his chosen reading, he introduces us to Linda, a woman born in a small, tech-free Malay village who, after emigrating to Canada, returns home with a laptop to introduce her mother to the wonders of Google. “This can show you anything, everything in the world,” Linda says (I paraphrase Harris’s paraphrasing). Her mother asks, “Can it show me my mother in the afterlife?”

Harris stops the reading; perfect delivery. Do you need to know anything more about the thesis he takes in The End of Absence? No.

Finally, Susan Orlean—author of The Orchid Thief, made into the Spike Jonze-directed movie Adaptation, now do you know who she is?—reads from her newest work, The Library Book, which nominally chronicles the 1985 Los Angeles Public Library fire, but which is above all a love letter to libraries. She presents two excerpts that bracket the book—one from its beginning in which she’s a child getting a taste of freedom and the joy of discovery roaming the stacks of a library unattended, and one from its end, in which, as an adult, she still adores libraries and sees them not just as repositories of stories and knowledge, but as community and relationship-builders. Her relationship with her mother—who died mid-way through Orlean’s creation of The Library Book—and her mother’s influence on the writer comes through loud and clear even in the brevity of the chosen readings.

I’m there to see, hear Susan Orlean, who was one of only two female journalists featured in Robert S. Boynton’s The New New Journalists, which celebrates the heirs to the “new journalism” of Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and Gay Talese. Her reading is spectacular—my introduction to Michael Harris and his work an unexpected boon. The Q&A that follows—unstructured and unlead, left entirely up to the whim of the audience—thrusts me into existential angst, which I spend the entire car ride back to Calgary, and a partially sleepless night, processing.

In the morning, several things are crystal-clear (aren’t mornings wonderful?). Ready?

People think in pictures

“Reading is a highly unnatural act,” Michael Harris says in response to a question/statement from an educator who’s finding it harder and harder to get her students to read long, meaty things. Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Reading is a highly unnatural act, and lovers and creators of books and other printed word material are most successful—only successful—when their words make their readers see pictures.

Let me say this again, because some printed word lovers are in such snobby denial of this (no matter how much they enjoy obscure French cinema) that you might have missed it the first time: our goal as writers is to make our readers see pictures in their heads. They take our words and turn them into an individually-created, unique-to-them, perfectly-cast visual reel. When our words make readers see pictures, we succeed. When our words stay words, flat and two-dimensional, we fail and reading us is a slog.

This, by the way, is also why video did not kill the radio star. It just gave radio more competition—and, as the explosion of podcasts continues to show, pressure to reinvent itself. Spoken words are the first, the original stories. We learned story, the structure of story, the enjoyment of story—and the purpose of story—in Nana’s lap as pre-literate children. This is also why, printed word lovers, you should always read your work aloud before hitting publish or send—that spoken cadence is one of the things that makes us see pictures in our heads. It’s also the reason we still read Jane Austen but know Ann Radcliffe’s fiction mostly through Jane’s references to her (ditto Sir Walter Scott).

Speaking of spoken word and radio stars—Michael Harris is a fan and creator of podcasts, but questions from the audience and some of the answers to them cast them as a “new kid on the block” (and that’s a direct quote). People! Podcasts are almost as old as blogs, indeed, the internet. People have been trying to find ways to use the internet to distribute audio since our new year zero (that is, the birth of the internet). The word was coined in February 2004 by The Guardian’s Ben Hammersley, and you could upload and download podcasts to Apple’s iTunes since 2005. Compared to the book, the newspaper, radio and even television, the podcast is a younger medium, I’ll grant you. But new kid on the block? Only if you’re living in 1999.

The kids are all right

Which, actually, based on their questions, a large chunk of the Wednesday audience might have been, and while I hate to accuse my idols of being out of date, the presenting journalists could be accused of the same, especially when the Q&A moved—as it inevitably does when old people start talking—to “what’s wrong with kids these days” and a discussion of the differences between the internet and books.

Let me demolish the first point immediately and quickly. There’s nothing wrong with kids these days, except that they are living in a world the complaining old people created, but which no longer operates by the most of the rules these some old people want them to follow. Young people (all people today) are expected to process too much information, much of it irrelevant, are exposed to too much stimulation, much of it damaging, and are subject to too much future uncertainty, none of it of their making—and they are dealing with this shit situation in the best way that they can.

And if they don’t want to read long, dense, BORING articles, short stories, and books—it’s up to their creators to make their work engaging, powerful, immersive and evocative—to make their audience see the story they tell in words… in pictures.

Want to engage them in a topic they’re not interested in, and that you have to deliver because it’s on the curriculum? (They’re right, you know. It’s probably not relevant. What do you, with your 1990s education, know about the world they’re going to face in the 2030s and beyond? Dick all, sweetheart. Dick all. And the curriculum you’re delivering was probably created by someone educated by the 1960s. Or earlier.) Give them podcasts, TedTalks, YouTube videos, and blogs as starting points. They will read the “dense” stuff that requires deep concentration when it is engaging, necessary, and relevant to them. There is no merit in reading a fat boring book just because it is a book any more than there is any merit in enduring a six-hour miniseries on the history of button museums in Europe just because it’s on the History Channel (My three least favourite words: “It’s educational!” Gag).

Susan Orlean speaks quite engagingly against the fetishization of length and the mistaken view that a 20,000-word feature is better than a 7,000-word feature which is better than a 2,000-word feature which is better than a 750-word column simply because one is longer than the other. (From the point of a view of journalists who get paid by the word, of course longer is better. I love and miss 7,000 word features—nobody’s commissioned me for one since 2008.)

Let me speak passionately against the demonization of youth. People, in general, prefer the easier thing. Hutterites use laundry machines, not washing boards (and the Amish have a blog—seriously, check out AmishAmerica.com). And old people have always complained about young people. Step carefully when you do so, my icons and silverbacks of the Establishment: when you start to complain about young people today, it means you no longer understand the present and so the future will leave you far behind.

The Internet is not a medium

As it is leaving behind those people who speak of the internet as a medium. The thrust of that particular aspect of the Q&A riffed off Susan Orlean casting a book as a finished, static product, compared to the flowing, ever-changing—almost uncapturable—nature of the internet. A visually evocative metaphor—I see the river of headlines, fake news debris, cat video rafts, memes on tubes, careening towards me, past me, smashing the dams totalitarian governments try to put up around it, oh, yes! A visually evocative metaphor, but wrong, so wrong when, at the heart of it, the Internet is seen as a medium—and that was how Orlean, and apparently everyone in the audience saw it.

Slow processor that I am, I nonetheless tried to speak up here, on the verge of apoplexy, but they were all too busy discussing the static/non-static nature of the two media—books and the Internet—and everyone was taking for granted that the Internet was a medium.

Photo by Hannes Wolf, Unsplash

It’s not. The internet is no more a medium than the printing press is a medium. They are both revolutionary technologies that made new media possible and knowledge more accessible and more easy to disseminate by new and old media alike.

The internet is amazing, and it continues the democratization of knowledge and the elimination of cultural gatekeeping and exclusivity that widespread literacy and the printing press began. It is a radical technology, an enabler—a creator and a destroyer, and yes, it brings with it a lot of crap, but we had haters, Fox News, The National Enquirer, scammers, badly written books, and poorly researched news stories and outright hoaxes long before we had the internet.

Amazing, radical, powerful—but not a medium. This is not just pedantic semantics. It’s a critical distinction. Seeing the internet as a medium and not a technology is the misconception that is still killing traditional publishing and print news media.

(Think about it—a book is a book whether it’s been meticulously copied by hand on sheep skin parchment, come off a 16th century printing press, or popped out of a Print-on-Demand Espresso machine. It’s still a book when I read it on my ereader or my phone.)

Not a medium, not a medium, not a medium! A technology. A technology that makes possible the dissemination and presentation of, for the most part, the old media: static pictures, moving pictures, sound, words…

Libraries will save us all

Libraries got this. Perhaps not all of them—there are social dinosaurs everywhere—but the good ones for sure got this immediately (I see the Calgary Public Library—the second most used library in North America, by the way–as really leading the way here). Just as they made books on tape and then on CD, and also videos and DVDs, available to their patrons, they looked to the internet as a technology that would enable them to better fulfill their mission of making knowledge (stories) available to as many people as possible, as effectively as possible. They invested in apps and operating systems that made loans of ebooks and digital audiobooks possible almost before there were ebooks (i.e., before traditional publishers stopped living in 1999 and made ebooks available). I know this, because at one point, in 2011 or so, on my very first ereader, I had read just about every single ebook the Calgary Public Library had in its system.

Libraries recognized that people don’t just come to libraries for physical books. They come, as Susan Orlean notes, for stories, For knowledge—and for community and for connection. They come to come together over story, whether as isolated mothers dragging their barely sentient toddlers to story time at 11 am every Monday or as freshly laid-off or retired seniors looking to rebuild a post-working life social network via workshops on podcasts (try it, Mom!) or the mysteries of the internet (it’s not a medium, Dad!).

If you want to save the world, rich people, invest in libraries. Parents and grandparents, if you want to make sure the kids today turn out all right, make sure they know how to use libraries.

Because libraries saw the power and potential of the internet to deliver more stories and more knowledge to more people, they will be here tomorrow. Because book sellers, traditional publishers, and newspaper tycoons didn’t—because they saw themselves as static, established and powerful, and the internet as an upstart “medium—a competitor they could snub and ignore instead of a technology they could and should harness—they are perishing.

And people like me, who used to make a decent living writing for the old media have had to reinvent ourselves ahead of our industry, and leave it behind.

My former editors moan, constantly, about our desertions to the corporate world, to public relations agencies, to new business ventures made possibly by the (not-so-new) internet. But they can’t afford to pay us to stay. And while I love, love story–I’m not independently wealthy and I need to sell my words to those who will pay for them, ya?

(My former editors are, increasingly, jumping ship themselves. They love their magazines and newspapers, as much as they loved their first typewriters. But, like, they gotta eat. And pay for their kids—still 1990s style, if not 1960s style—education.)

Story is forever

What will save us? Frankly, we need to save ourselves. We can—as some folks on Wednesday night did—moan about how hard it is to be a writer, a journalist. (It was never easy. Just stop.) Or we can embrace the potential offered by this (not-so-new) improvement on the printing press and look for the opportunity social democratization of stories offers us. And ride it.

The good news is that whatever else might be dying, whatever might be under threat now, whatever might be changing—stories are safe. Susan Orlean highlights this point beautifully several times.

Stories are safe. And not just because of libraries. Because while not every human being loves to read (and that’s ok)—every member of the species Homo sapiens is wired for story. Hunger for story is constant, and the part of our bio-evolutionary make-up that makes cultural transmission possible. The medium, the method of delivery will change—is changing. The nature of the stories we want and need will change –is changing, must change if we are to survive changes to our culture. But our hunger for story? That will last until the apocalypse, and, if any of us survive, beyond.

The next Banff Centre Literary Journalism talk is on Wednesday, July 17, and features Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is one of the most astounding non-fiction books I have ever read.

I’ll be there, vibrating with excitement, and you should come too.

Register here:

https://www.banffcentre.ca/houseprogram/literaryjournalism-in-conversation-july17

Featured Reading:

Into the Abyss by Carol Shaben

The End of Absence by Michael Harris

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Suggested Follow-up Reading:

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

Story by Robert McKee

(These are targeted at fiction writers, but the principles are all the same.)

And also, while we’re lauding librarians:

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktoo by Joshua Hammer

All books available at the Calgary Public Library.

xoxo

“Jane”

“You are amazing”—you are partly right

The nurses tells me, “You guys are amazing.” It’s 9, 10 am in the morning and we’ve been in the hospital for almost 12 hours—we will be there another 48 before being transferred to another hospital. I have just lived through the hardest night of my life. I do not feel amazing. I feel like something the cat dragged in, chewed up, swallowed, then puked up, and stomped on.

Compliments in crisis are hard to take. You don’t really have the capacity respond to them with a simple, “Thank you.” Also, I think, they invite self-reflection at a time when you can’t really afford it, because it goes from “Fuck, yeah, I’m amazing!” to “No. No, I’m not. How did I let things get this bad, how did I not recognize the symptoms, why did I not act earlier?” in microseconds.

“I sure as fuck don’t feel amazing,” I tell the nurse and she tries to reassure me how amazing indeed I am, by comparing me, favourably, with the scores of un-amazing parents she’s seen. I understand those parents completely. I stand with them, not apart from them. I too am a mess, helpless, indignant, in denial, frustrated, angry, so angry.

Apparently, I just hide it better.

My mom tells me I’m amazing too, all the time, and I finally tell her she needs to fucking stop. I tell you the same thing, and you’re hurt. You’re trying to reflect something good and beautiful at me, you’re trying—you say to me—to acknowledge what I’m doing and going through. My courage, my commitment, bla bla bla, stop talking, for the love of God, stop talking now. I get your intention, but you make me feel like you are acknowledging a lie, encouraging a facade, and preventing me from telling you how hard things are, how unhappy I am.

I am not, by the way, unhappy today. This is a happy moment—me, coffee, notebook, pen. The sun is shining—yesterday was a good day—today, I might start on our 2018 taxes, the process interrupted in March—I’m going to make a list of new publishers to query for that book—this is a happy moment and nothing that happens later will take this moment away from me.

Him: Meditation or marijuana?

Jane: Neither. I’m writing. Do you understand?

I’ve been trying to figure out, for months now, what the right thing to say to someone who’s suffering is. And I think Thich Nhat Hahn nailed it:

 “I know you’re suffering, and I’m here for you.”

Nothing more—we really can’t hear anything else.

I have many good friends and when things were at their worst and Flora was in the hospital, I got a lot of “What can I do to help?” “Anything you need, just ask” texts. So I can tell you all this—the next time a friend of yours is in crisis, do this: bring them soup, make up a care package of chocolate, break into their house and do the dishes and clean the bathroom, hire a maid, drop off non-perishable groceries. If you are making an offer that requires making a decision, make it very, very specific: “I will come by your house on Tuesday at 4 pm to take Ender to the zoo, so you can go to the hospital for the night.” “I am going to Superstore on Sunday, and I’ll pick up groceries for you. Don’t worry about a list—I know what you need.” (Non-perishables, frozen prepared meals, and snacks. People in crisis do not make salads, roasted vegetables, or risotto. Finding a can opener is hard enough.)

Asking, “What can I do to help?” turns me into your project manager. And, in crisis, I cannot do that. Project management requires high executive skills. People in crisis have a hard time showering.

Him: Ungrateful much?

Jane: Ah, good point. Why do you want to help me, exactly? Because you want to alleviate my suffering—or because you want me to feel grateful to you? Or because you want to feel good that you’re the sort of person who helps? Motivation matters, and my crisis is not a feel-good opportunity for you. My deep gratitude practice notwithstanding, if you want to help me because you want me to feel grateful, you can take your help and shove it up your ass without the aid of lube.

By the way, Ender and I celebrated the end of his easy illness by spending $800 at Costco on all the things, so don’t buy me groceries. We never have to go shopping again.

Cinder: You do know how much I eat, right?

Jane: Hush. Let me enjoy, for a few more days, the illusion that I’ve just taken down a mammoth, and the village has more than enough meat to see it through the winter. I mean, summer.

Cinder: You’re so weird.

Speaking of weird—Thich Nhat Hahn (yes, he’s weird—I expect to be that woo-woo and spiritual, you have to be—it just isn’t normal to be that compassionate and loving and insightful), he says, when you tell me, “You’re amazing,” what I should say is, “You’re partly right.” And he’s a wise egg, so I’m going to try that. Shall we practice?

You: You’re amazing.

Jane: You’re partly right. Mostly, I’m a fucking mess but I’m doing my best. Most of the time. Sometimes, I just lie there and wish this was the sort of crisis one could call the fire department for. Do you remember, during the flood, all those firefighters? Yum. That’s what I need now. Not a team of six—I won’t be greedy. Three will do. And they will say, “Are you all right? Do you need anything heavy moved? Do you need a taxpayer-funded, first-respondents-in-uniform, gorgeous-humans-who-work-out-all-the-time-in-uniform hug?”

You: You’re so weird.

Jane: You’re partly right. I’m also very normal. And, amazing.

xoxo

Jane

Her story, my story, our story

Calgary celebrates this year’s flood anniversary with a heavy rain but the river stays in its bed and our alley does not turn into a lake. A friend, away from Ground Zero at work, texts me anxiously. It’s all ok, I tell her—I wonder how many years have to pass before we relax in June—and how many years after that that a flood will come again, catching us off guard?

I am in a very reflective mood—not full-on navel-gazing, because I’m thinking not so much about myself as about story, and not just my story. In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Noah Yuval Harari says, “You are not a story,” and he argues that realizing this fact is one of the ways we will save the world. A funny statement from a historian—one who weaves stories for the present from stories of the past. And, he’s wrong. So wrong. We need stories. Stories is how we make sense of the world. It’s not truth and justice that carry the day. It’s the best story. Whoever has the best story persuades, conquers, wins.

In the many handwritten, unpublished “posts” I have from this year to date, my favourite—and the one that, perhaps, one day I will be able to share with you—is called “The End of Mommy Blogging.” It’s my story of how my children’s sentience and desire for privacy are killing my blog by altering, limiting the stories I can tell. Nowhere is this more blatant than in the largely untold story of the last six months and Flora’s health situation. “Don’t write about it, don’t tell anyone, my life, my story, my disclosure, my refusal to be seen as the disease, to carry a label,” she says, and I nod, I understand, I try to comply—but badly.

I understand her need to control the story, but the story of her illness is also my story, our story, and to not be able to deal with it the way I always deal with shit—to express it as a controlled, structured narrative, to turn suffering and pain and angst into story—into art—that makes some sense of the suffering—not doing that is very hard.

“Write about something else,” Flora commands. But she’s 14 and she doesn’t understand that there is nothing else. Her illness and her suffering touch every other part of my life, external and internal. Nothing exists in separation from it: my relationship to her brothers; my work, such as it is at the moment; my marriage—the best metaphor for which, right now, is me and Sean as two drowning rats, trying to keep their heads above water, each trying to help the other stay afloat, but fuck, it’s hard, would you do all of the work for a while, and also hold me up while you’re doing it? my little rat feet just can’t paddle any more…

My story, his story, her story, our story.

Every once in a  while, I force myself to interact with other people. And I can do it, for a while, so long as they don’t ask me how things are, how I’m doing. I cannot dissemble or evade. I cannot say, “I’m fine.” I’ve tried, and “fine,” in my throat, turns into a wail and comes out as “My daughter is really sick.” But that’s all I can say, because her story, so now, they need to find something else to talk to me about. And they say, “How is everything else?”

And I don’t understand how they don’t understand that there is nothing else.

There is only my child’s suffering. My helplessness. Worse, my ineptitude, resentment, anger.

The anger is getting better. Meditation in not a panacea—I’m pretty sure it does not cure cancer and heart disease, sorry, Buddhist and yoga fanatics—but it does dissolve anger. How can one be angry at gravity, the theory of relativity, electrons, basal ganglia, your right arm? Breathe in and out, wish I could pray, but what sort of asshole god would let this happen to a child, breathe…

“Things could always be worse.” Flora says this every once in a while, and then we all say, “And they have been, let’s not forget, they have been.” And there is so much suffering around us, and so much of it, almost all of it, so much worse. My child will live. And may be—very likely, actually—win a Nobel Prize for research into genetics that will alleviate some of this suffering.

Weirdly enough, telling yourself others have it much worse than you does not alleviate suffering. It just makes you feel guilty for feeling bad.

What I have learned, during the flood, now, is that guilt is a bad motivator.

Flora disagrees. Trots out examples I can’t share with you. But she’s wrong. Guilt makes you ashamed of what you feel, what you want. (“I just want things to be normal, and I’m so tired of all this shit!”) Guilt makes you deny your needs and desires.

Maybe it propels you towards the required action—the action deemed necessary, usually, by others. But it keeps you from peace, acceptance of your shadow, and it keeps you from the action that is truly right for you and the situation.

Meditation, by the way, does not really seem to dissolve guilt. But gratitude does.

So, I practice being grateful for you, even though I can’t really accept your help, because your help comes with obligations I can’t fulfill, do you see that?

Ender’s been sick much of this week, a little lump on the couch in the kitchen, fading in and out of sleep and refusing medicine but demanding cuddles. I give him what I can; Sean stays home from work two days to multi-task, study for his final and cuddle the Ender. We’ve decided, long ago, that children are energy vampires when they are sick. They need you to sit beside them and hold them so they can use your life force to replenish theirs. Hey, it sounds cynical—if you have kids, you know it’s true.

Ender’s illness is simple, easy to care for—my duties, role, responsibility easy to see and fulfill.

“You’re not angry with Ender for being sick!” Flora.

Bam. Guilt. Flare of anger. Fucking ungrateful child, does she not see… Breathe. She probably doesn’t—after all, a loved child should take it for granted that a parent drops everything for her when she has an owie.

I look at all the things I’ve dropped and I wonder how, if I will pick them up again. You are there too, our friendship and our love, the time we used to spend together. And my work. Fuck. Right there, in broken pieces.

In my story, I mourn it more than I mourn you. Can you understand that, and will you forgive it?

We don’t flood yesterday, we probably won’t flood tomorrow. “This is a happy moment.” Gratitude dilutes guilt. Meditation slowly turns anger and resentment into compassion and acceptance.

Breathe.

Flora: Tell me a story.

Jane: Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved stories…

Flora: You’re so lame.

Jane: I’m what you’ve got.

Flora: Tell me a real story.

Jane: One upon a time there was mother who told stories…

Her story, my story, our story.

xoxo

“Jane”

 

 

This is a happy moment

Words are rather hard these days. So, a few pictures:

It’s official.

Seven year journey, and the last six months, so fucking hard.

You want to see that video, right? Watch. You’re going to fixate at how high that leg goes. Don’t. Watch how effortless the drop of the kick is, and how her body relaxes immediately afterwards.

She’s gonna be ok.

Life, these days, consists of a lot of this:

A little bit of this:

And this giant turned 17. Guess what he wants for his birthday?

*

The six mantras of loving speech, by Thich Nhat Hanh:

  1. I am here for you.
  2. I know you are there, and I’m happy.
  3. I know you suffer, and that’s why I’m here for you.
  4. I suffer. Please help.
  5. This is a happy moment.
  6. You are partly right.

(The Art of Communicating)‎

This is a happy moment.

xoxo

“Jane”

Halfway to 90: on flying, smashing the patriarchy, and other dreams

I turn 45 this  month—this week—this day, hey, it’s today!—and I suppose now, when you call me middle-aged, I can’t say fuck off, because what else is this? My native language has a much better term for this time of life—it translates as “in the strength of life,” and it’s a term that’s applied, incidentally, exclusively to men. Regency English has a similar and similarly gendered term—Jane Austen’s men in their 40s and 50s are “in the prime of life and still as handsome as ever.” The women, of course, enter the “danger years” before their mid-twenties. Thank you, patriarchy.

I mean, actually, fuck you, patriarchy.

I don’t mind getting older. I won’t mind being old. Let me tell you, I plan to be the most bad-ass granny that there ever has been.

But I’m experiencing some reluctance–ok, massive refusal–to take on that middle-aged label.

Flora: Now you know how I feel.

Jane: This has nothing to do with being a middle child.

Flora: The point is the middle sucks.

It totally doesn’t. The middle is fucking fantastic, or should be. I’m finally not too young for the titles and keynotes and responsibilities. No one is saying with doubt in their old, gravelly voices, “Well, you seem qualified… but do you think you can really hand it?” and forcing me to find a way of saying, “Grandad, just cause you in the prime of your life are intimidated by the task doesn’t mean I won’t breeze through it, ok?” in a way that is both submissive and just sufficiently confident—not too arrogant, not too threatening, look at me, I’m Goldilock’s “just right” bowl of porridge, really.

Right now—I am Goldilock’s “just right” bowl of porridge. In another decade—15 years max—I’ll be qualified but past it, out of touch—too old, and also, too expensive. So, I’ve got to milk this next decade, this middle for everything I can get out of it. In the middle, my hard-done-by middle child, you have both clout and (comparative) youth. Experience and energy. The ability to connect with the generation that preceded you—because they raised you—and the generations that follow—because you birthed them.

Yes. This is a good place to be, except for, patriarchy.

Him: Again with the male bashing.

Jane: No. Never.

I have sons, a husband, brother, father, colleagues, friends, the occasional lover with a penis. I will not shit on men—neither all men nor most men. When Flora, in her nascent, emergent feminism, says, “Men suck,” I redirect her. Men are human, good and bad, as are women. The patriarchy, though? The patriarchy sucks ass, and I will shit on it without reservations. It hurts everyone, male, female, non-binary, young, old.

Its oppressions, for women, become more evident with age. Think you don’t need feminism, my pretty Millennial, because your law school class was more than 50 per cent women? Come talk to me when you’re trying to make partner, and tell me it’s an even playing field. Get a little older, a little more experienced—work a little harder. No, a lot harder. Have a baby or two. Then come tell me how easy it was to smash that glass ceiling, tell me how it feels to realize, in your prime, your male colleagues are out-earning you while underperforming. Tell me then how you’re navigating the reality of working in a system that still doesn’t understand the consequences of having employees that have and use their uteruses for something other than monthly PMS cramps.

Her: You know, you’ve been immensely successful. Show me one glass ceiling you haven’t smashed.

Jane: I broke all the rules. And I’ve been privileged. And supported by an extended family. And to be arrogantly frank—I’m exceptional. And it’s still been hard. And what I’ve done—it’s still, in 2019, possible only for the exceptional, the privileged, and the supported. I want it all to be better, and easier for my daughter.

Flora: But aren’t I exceptional too?

She is. Fuck, yeah, she is. Flora and I are 30 years apart. That’s a generation gap and a half, and not just because she’s a digital native and I’m a Luddite who not-so-secretly rejoices every time I kill my cellphone with melted chocolate.

(I’ve replaced it. I still think… perhaps I shouldn’t have.)

But she’s going to have to deal with all shit I’ve had to deal with. All of it. My path was easier than my mother’s–hers, easier than her mother’s, thank you, first-wave and second-wave feminism. Flora’s? I don’t think the needle has moved forward at all in the thirty years that separate us on gender equity—in some ways, it’s moved back. Yes, she can be a geneticist, neurosurgeon, or overlord of the universe (her current life plans). And she will be. Will it be as easy for her as it would be if she had a penis? Fuck, no, and don’t you dare whine, you over-privileged white male, that you’re not getting all the seats and all the prizes right now. You’re still getting more, and you’ve been getting more for centuries, in some cultures, millennia—and while you’ve been getting shafted in other ways (cry, brother, cry), it’s really time to own the immense economic and political privilege you’ve enjoyed. Her brothers will have an easier time in almost any career they choose—even in the female-dominated careers like nursing and teaching, they will have it easier because they are “special” (but in a good way).

(When you’re the only woman in a boardroom, loves, you’re not special—you’re either invisible or you’re that steel-balled cunt.)

(I’ve always chosen to be the steel-balled cunt. But wouldn’t it have been great… if I could have just done my job.)

And they will certainly have an easier time balancing the demands of career and family.

But I (surprise!) digress. I’m 45 today, halfway to ninety, officially middle-aged and then some—because my plan is to check out at 78, do not make plans for my 80th birthday, kiddies, let’s have a big bash at the 78 mark, cause I’m not sticking around much past then—45 and I suppose no longer a young woman to anyone… except when I’m visiting a nursing home or crashing Senior’s Day at the Grand Opening of a new Safeway on Vancouver Island.

When Flora and I are in Wales, a tour guide in Cardiff Castle takes us for sisters. He’s 80, half-blind and demonstrably deaf. Flora’s appalled. I can’t be flattered. Did I mention, he’s half-blind.

Flora: You’re kind of pretty, but you do not look that young. Like, ever.

Teenagers keep that “in the prime of life” ego in check better than anything. Perversely, I invite more punishment.

Jane: How old do you think I look?

Flora: 43? Maybe 42. In a good light, when you’ve slept well.

From the mouths of babes.

I am 45 today and I’m both vainer and more confident than I’ve ever been in my thirties, twenties, teens.

I don’t deny or hide the laugh lines, crow’s feet, the sharp crease in my forehead, most of the grey hair (most… I like my blonde fringe, and when there is more grey, especially if it goes white, I’ll sprinkle with with all the colours of the rainbow). I don’t wax or bleach my little moustache. I kinda like it (it makes kissing better, I’m pretty sure).

So I don’t deny or hide those signs of age, and I again have the body of an athlete, bar the softness in the post-partum belly and breasts, but I’ve made peace with that half a decade ago.

I don’t hide my age.

But, I am vain, and I do want all those aging part to still be… you know. Sexy. Attractive. Sizzling hot. Because I am…

Him: Middle –aged?

Jane: Fuck off.

Her: In your prime?

Jane: Precisely.

In my prime, professionally, creatively, sexually.

Fuck you, patriarchy.

Flora: Can you please not write about sex? Your children read your blog and it’s embarassing.

Jane: You don’t have to read it.

Forty-five. Middle-aged. Question: did the term “middle-aged” always sound so… frumpy, milquetoast? Or did we make it so, post 1950s and 1960s, when we as a culture started to worship youth?

Her: I think you’re losing your train of thought and the thrust of this essay.

Jane: Perhaps. I hear memory goes as you age.

The past six months have been the hardest six months of my life. I feel, much of the time, like a limp dishrag. Overwhelmed, overextended, exhausted—ill-equipped and inadequate, to boot. And yet, with all of that—this is me, in my prime, at the height of my powers—watch me take this load and learn to fly with it. Because I will. Because what I am capable of at middle age is exponentially greater than anything I dared dream in my untested youth.

Happy birthday to me.

Still my anthem:

xoxo

“Jane”

PS And this is my … epigenetic anthem if you will. Mom, thank you for showing me how to play with matches.

English translation:

You’re underage, your dad’s oppressing you
Taking your nascent power away
Checks your notebook and your pockets, controls
To put out what burns inside

When on Saturday for a party
You whet your appetite
Daddy’s lounging with a beer,
and says,

Hey, baby, don’t go crazy
You’re only sixteen
It’s too early for soirees
The time for night clubs will come
Don’t play with matches
The heat will burn you
Sit at home in the evenings
When a party tempts you
Eh, baby, don’t carouse
One exam after another
That’s life, baby
That’s life

When a wife you’ve been for twenty something years
And your husband collects postcards or stamps
Sometimes you dream of a pub or a bar
With the Argentinian tango after supper
When you want to run out
For a cocktail and a coffee
The husband with achy joints
From behind a newspaper, will say to you
Hey, baby, don’t go crazy
You’re fifty years old
It’s closer not further
What the world had to give you, it already did
Don’t play with matches
The heat will burn you
Sit at home in the evenings
When a party tempts you
Hey, baby, don’t carouse
Cook, clean, do the laundry
That’s life, baby
That’s life

Today you sit quietly in your corner
With a kind little smile on your face
Over cheesecake, homemade jam, your knitting
You no longer dream of anything
Only when it smells like roses
Suddenly you believe that
God himself there above
Quietly whispers to you, hey!
Hey, baby, go crazy
You’re eighty years old
Burn something and pour
The world gave you so little
Play finally with matches
Let the heat burn you
Don’t sit at home in the evenings when a party tempts

Eh, baby, go crazy
Take what you want with greedy handfuls
That’s life, baby
That’s life

We “celebrate” mothers but we neither value nor support them: if you’re not gonna walk the talk, take your hallmark holiday and shove it

Flora made me the most amazing, glorious card for the Mother’s Day, a work of art with every doodle a symbol—and a beautiful letter inside. Cinder, when he wakes up, will give me, I expect, chocolate, and Ender is out biking around with his friends, oblivious—but of course he will give me love, he always does. And Sean, yesterday, feted with a Cuban cigar, and today, will do all the things while I fuck off and spend Mother’s Day smoking sheesha, drinking Guinness, and perhaps writing—or perhaps not—but doing all of these things without my children.

Her: OMG, that sounds glorious, what a good idea.

Flora: You’re a weird mother. But I guess it makes sense.

Aunt Augusta: What is wrong with you?

Nothing. As a mother, I spend about 350 if not more days of the year with my children; as a homeschooling and work from home mother, on most of those days, I’m with them or in their very near vicinity 24/7. The gift I ask for consistently, on Mother’s Day, on any holiday—is time for myself.

This particular Mother’s Day is a hard one for me. In the past six months, I’ve been absolutely the shittiest parent I’ve ever been… but also, more awesome, enduring, patient, determined—give me an overblown purple prose adjective, and it probably fits here—than I ever thought I’d have to be. And my feelings, thoughts about what it means to be a mother have never been more clear—and, simultaneously, more ambivalent.

Deeper than that I won’t go, because the damn children read my blog now, and some things, they don’t get to know, now or ever.

But I’ll tell you this—it’s also never been more clear to me that for all the lip service and pap we give to mothers, for all the pomp of Mother’s Day, for all the cliched-but-true quotes in Hallmark cards, for all the excess of Mother’s Day brunches, flowers, presents, blah, blah, blah—as a society, we don’t value mothers. We don’t support them. We don’t make anything easy for them. We remain, as a society, the children who simply expect mothers to change their poopy diapers, feed them, bathe them, soothe them, educate them, love them unconditionally—do all the things—and don’t really think about the effort and the cost that goes into all of that.

I don’t expect my children—your children—any babes, toddlers or even teenagers—to appreciate or understand the cost. I never thought about any of it when I was a child. It didn’t occur to me that my mom had something other to do than drive me to martial arts practice four times a week, or take me out for coffee and a cinnamon bun after working a 12 hour shift because I felt lonely. A loved child should take all of those things for granted, frankly. They shouldn’t think twice about why mothers do the things they do—it is so obvious, you are the Mom, you love them, you do it.

But once they grow up, and they become politicians, policy makers, employers, CEOs… for fuck’s sake. Time to grow up. Want to show your mother how much you appreciate everything she did for you?

Make it easier for your sister, your wife,  your daughter, your friend—every mother—to care for her children, earn a living, be a person. If you have power to shape legislation and policy, effect that change on a macro level. If all you have is the power to shape your workplace—or your individual interactions—do that.

Do that. Don’t send me GIFs of flowers and don’t post Happy Mother’s Day on my timeline, and then vote for governments, implement policies, and behave in a way that shows me you don’t value me.

Flora: You know, you could have just said Flora made me a beautiful Mother’s Day card and I’m so happy and left it at that.

Jane: You know, I rant like this to make things easier for you.

Flora: I’ve seen how hard it is. I’m pretty sure I’m not gonna give you grandchildren.

We have this conversation frequently these days, she and I. She asks, “Is it worth it?” …and I can say to that, “Fuck, yeah.” She asks, “Is it easy?” and I shake my head. I don’t know how much of the tightrope I walk she sees… at this age, she shouldn’t see most of the effort that goes into my balancing act, or how much it hurts when I fall off.

When she asks me, “Do you think I should have kids?” I generally laugh and say, “Definitely not yet.”

When she asks me, more in earnest, with more urgency, in her twenties, thirties… I don’t even know if then I’ll be able to tell her about the personal, professional, creative cost. I don’t want her to think she was a sacrifice. That she made things more difficult. After all, I would not be the person I am, I would not be capable of the type of work I do, without her and her brothers. They are part of my alchemy.

But in a society that celebrates motherhood without valuing or supporting it—there is a cost. And it is high.

If things don’t change, and Flora chooses not to have children because she does not want to bear it—that will be the logical, rational, intelligent choice. I will support it.

Flora: I’ll probably have cats. And snakes. Many snakes.

Awesome.

Jane: Just FYI, I’m not changing your cats’ litter boxes and I’m not feeding live mice to your snakes when you go on holidays.

Flora: Jesus. You’re already a terrible grandmother. When can I get my tubes tied?

God, I love her.

Happy Mother’s Day.

“Jane”

PS Mom? I get it now. Not all of it. But more and more of it every day.

Kick like a girl

i.

I plug up the charging port of my phone with chocolate—dark, Bernard Callebaut, delish—on the plane on the way to London, so, in the gym of a college in Brigend, Wales, I need to borrow a phone equipped with international roaming to text Calgary. People are good; I’m given not just the phone but an invitation to FaceTime. But I just need the text message, and I just need to send three little words.

Jane: She nailed it.

Sean texts back fireworks. And I know, 6894 kilometers apart, we are both breathing easy for the first time in months.

She nailed it.

She did it.

She got here, and she nailed it.

Traditional Tang Soo Do Federation, Black Belt Test, April 25, 2019, Wales

ii.

Rewind one agonizing month and three days. It is the end of a horrible night—horrible month—horrible quarter—and I am at the Alberta Children’s Hospital with Flora. They’re talking admission. She’s crying.

Flora: How am I going to get to Wales?

The rational answer is, you’re not. You can’t, right now, get out of the hospital bed to go to the washroom.

Jane: I promise. I will get you to Wales.

She believes me.

The doctors—and her father—don’t.

But she believes me.

And so, I must believe myself.

Signing in

iii.

Rewind seven years. Flora’s first Tang Soo Do class. Her motivation for joining is pretty simple: her big brother and his friend disappear off the Common to go to Tang Soo Do two nights a week, and she wants to be one of the gang.

I don’t want her to start the martial art any more than I wanted Cinder to. My spine, pelvis, joints are still paying the price for my brief glory days in the dojang, on the mats, in the ring.

I don’t want her to damage any part of her precious self.

But even at seven, Flora is unstoppable.

Her brother and his friend both quit Tang Soo Do later that year. Flora doesn’t miss a class.

Pre-test pep talk from Master Experience Senior

iv.

If you’re wondering why a Canadian girl practicing a Korean martial art—that’s what Tang Soo Do is—has to go to Wales for her black belt test—you’ve figured out, yeah, that’s why we are in Wales? her black belt test?—the short answer is globalization, Cold War, and warped patriotism. I can give you the long answer sometime in person; it makes no sense either, but it is what it is.

Anyway. She doesn’t have to go to Wales. She could test for her black belt in Calgary, under her local master. And she could do it next month, next year.

Flora: I have to go to Wales in April.

A year ago, when she started the arduous pre-tests required for her black belt, and the possibility of testing in Wales before a panel of strange masters was floated before her, she wasn’t sure she wanted to go. In fact, she was sure she didn’t want to go. It was too scary, it was too big, it was… No. She didn’t want to go.

Flora: Also, it’s so expensive. And we don’t have the money.

Jane: If you want to go, we will find the money.

We talk about it now, why she didn’t want to go. She’s  not sure. She was already battling her illness, although she didn’t quite know it yet. Was that a factor, on some level? Maybe.

Flora: Maybe I was just afraid.

Maybe.

There are many definitions of courage. The best one: doing the thing you need, want to do even though you’re fucking terrified.

Bow-in

v.

I practiced the Korean martial art of Taekwon-do with the same kind of devotion Flora gives to Tang Soo Do, between the ages of 11 and 27. Then, babies, life. Spinal injuries.

I have a peculiar relationship with my martial arts history. On the one hand, it’s the reason I can’t jump or run. Or skate or ski—not that I care about that so much, winter sports, yuck. Or walk very fast or do that position in yoga or that stretch, ever again. But also—those years in the dojang, those hours in the ring… they’ve formed so much of who I am now. For better or for worse… mostly for the better. I like me. So. Could I be who I am without them?

Probably not.

My personal history with the martial arts also means that I keep myself at a bit of a distance from Flora’s path in her martial art. She doesn’t want me to watch her classes, and, even as I drive her to them—first twice a week, then three times, then four—I am grateful for that. I drop her off, and I read, write, shop. Pick her back up. Never give advice. Neither criticism nor encouragement. And absolutely no backseat coaching. But, we do talk about tangentally relevant stuff.

Flora: I hate the other kids’ parents.

Jane: In general, or in class?

Flora: In class. Why would you put a kid in martial arts if they didn’t want to be there?

At nine, she’s resentful of the classmates who act out, who need to be cajoled to attend, work, perform. By 11, she’s typed certain parents as “athletic failures” who are trying to “live out their dreams” through their kids.

Flora: And seriously, ok, if you’re going to make your kids do martial arts—the least you could do is not criticize their forms and kicks from the sidelines. You know?

I know. I hated parents too, when I was a coach and an instructor.

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Calgary Crew pep talk from the Masters Experience, before Traditional Tang Soo Do Federation United Kingdom Open Championships Tournament (April 27, 2019)

vi.

I don’t ask Flora what she gets out of her time on the dojang floor. That’s for her to know—for her to reveal if she wants to.

She never really tells me. Sometimes, it looks like peace. In that last awful quarter, it is the only peace she has.

I don’t quite remember anymore what it is I got out of it, to be honest. Mastery, accomplishment, yes. Release, relief.

A kid, a teenage girl, treated as a peer, mentor by adults—a sense of belonging. Empowerment.

vii.

Doctor: So I’d really like you to rethink Wales.

Flora: I’m going to Wales. Mom promised she’d take me, no matter what.

Doctor: I see. Do you think your mom—do you really think your mom can handle it?

Jane: That doesn’t enter into the equation. I told her, I promised, I would take her to Wales.

We repeat the conversation, three, six times over the three weeks Flora is in the hospital. Including on the last day.

Doctor: You know what I think about Wales.

Flora: You know what I think about Wales.

Sean: Are you really sure you can get her to Wales?

I think, perhaps, this is the legacy of my time in the dojang. I am terrified. I feel I am taking my child out of the hospital and out of the country against medical advice.

I am fully aware of everything that could go wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.

I am not, actually, sure I can get her on the plane. Into her uniform. Onto the dojang floor for the test. I am sure of only one thing.

She wants to go to Wales, she needs to go to Wales, and I promised her she would go.

Jane: Yes.

Ready

viii.

The worst thing that happens on the way to Wales is that I plug up the charging pod of my iPhone with chocolate, and so can’t take photographs or text.

Everything else goes perfectly.

Flora: Too perfectly. Aren’t you afraid?

Jane: Hush. No jinxes.

We allot extra time for everything, and we meet every deadline. She’s a rock star. I keep on waiting for her, exhausted, to come apart.

Flora: After my test. I think I might be a mess after the test.

We get to Wales on a sunny Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. after about 20 hours in transit. At 8 p.m., it’s raining, and Flora’s in her first Welsh Tang Soo Do class with the Welsh Master. At midnight, she’s passed out in my arms, shaking.

Flora: We made it.

We don’t doubt, neither one of us, she’s going to make it to her test on Thursday.

Hill with a view, Wales, somewhere between Porthcawl and Treorchy

ix.

On Wednesday morning, an 8:30 a.m. class, ninety minutes of focused practice for the six Canadian students, four of whom ate testing for their black belts. When we get back to our Welsh lodgings, I feed her, tell her to rest, and take myself for a walk, on which I cry.

I really didn’t know how I was going to get her here.

I did.

OMFG, I did.

I have, over the past four, five months, been a really shitty, powerless, useless parent. Her illness blindsided me. I didn’t understand it, I didn’t know what to do with it—and I resented its encroachment into my creative, professional and personal life as much as I resented the suffering it inflicted on her.

But I got her to fucking Wales, and tomorrow, she’s going to test for her black belt, and while this is not atonement for the horrible things I did, said, and, worst of all, thought over the past four months… this moment is what matters.

I come back to the lodgings with aching eyes but a light heart.

Find Flora puking into the wastebasket in our room.

Jane: Nerves?

She wishes.

The puking continues for 12 hours. Food poisoning, the flu. I don’t know, it doesn’t matter.

I work to keep her hydrated. Feed her Gravol, which she pukes up, and Tylenol cold and flu medication, which I think she keeps down.

Flora: Can I have some chocolate?

She probably shouldn’t, but what the fuck, what could possibly be worse? I feed her chocolate, she pukes it up.

Flora: How can this happen? How am I going to test for my black belt tomorrow?

Jane: It doesn’t matter if it’s food poisoning or the flu. These things usually last no more than 24 hours. You’re going to stop puking by noon tomorrow, and the test isn’t until 6 p.m. Everything will be fine.

I don’t believe a word I say, but I talk as if I do.

Flora: Suppose I’m still puking in the evening?

Jane: We will strategically position a garbage can within lunging reach.

I’m joking. And she laughs. And pukes some more.

x.

She’s puke-free for a solid 16 hours when we arrive at the community college that’s hosting the test. White as a sheet and achy all over, but puke-free. Still, her master speaks to the Welsh master organizing the test, tells him Flora was sick all of yesterday—is worried she might start throwing up again on the floor.

Welsh Master: Wouldn’t be the first time sometime puked at their black belt test.

He fetches a garbage can from beside the entrance to the gym, and positions it within lunging distance of Flora. Tips her a wink.

As it turns out, she doesn’t need it.

Jane: When the Master was talking to you at the first part of the test, what was he saying?

I’m expecting… I don’t know. Words of encouragement. “Do your best.” “I know you’ve been sick, I’ll cut you some slack.”

Flora: He told me to kick faster.

Ah, martial arts instructors. Your sensitivity and empathy made me the ruthless bitch I am today.

x.

She nailed it.

No puking, from flu nor nerves.

No faltering.

No errors.

A flawless performance.

I am not a fawning parent. I am a merciless critic. There was, actually, one kick during which her hip position left something to be desired. But, you should have seen her spar…

Flora’s teammate sparring one tough chick from South Africa (April 27)

xi.

Rewind three months.

Flora: Will you teach me how to spar?

I’m… taken aback.

Over the last year or two, every once in a while, Flora and I goof around in our crowded living room, and I show her how we taught sparring strategy and movement.

Flora: We don’t do any of that in class. We just fight, and not very often. And I’m terrible at it.

She is. Everyone at her school, forgive the bluntness, is. Sparring isn’t just throwing random kicks and punches at each other. It’s strategy, it’s art. Dance and a game.

I used to be really good at it. But it’s been a long time. And I can’t jump or bounce, and there’s one leg I cannot balance on at all, and them fucked up hips…

Jane: Ok.

Two weeks later, I’m coaching Flora’s entire class, including her instructors, on sparring strategy. It’s a little surreal. “Listen to the cripple on the floor.” “Do what I say, not what I can’t do.”

Thing is… I’m still good at explaining this shit to people. Angles, circles, reaction times, telegraphing, fake outs.

We don’t have a lot of time, so I stick to three basic rules and drill them in deep.

In her test, Flora applies every single one.

Flora: I fell on my ass twice.

Jane: Neither of those times did you get hit as you fell. So, you know. I call that a win.

Calgary Crew and their medals (April 27)

xii.

The test is on Thursday. Friday is a day of rest.

Saturday, a tournament.

Flora’s first.

Neither of us gives a flying fuck about the tournament. This trip was never about the tournament. It was about that black belt test rite of passage. If I can’t get her to the tournament—if she can’t get to the tournament—if she gets to the tournament and gets eliminated first round, starts puking or gets sick before she gets on the floor—it doesn’t matter. She’s already won.

Flora: I made it to Wales.

Jane: You made it to Wales. And you’re going home with a black belt.

Flora: They didn’t tell me I passed.

Jane: You know you passed.

She smiles.

She knows it too.

My girl.

xoxo

“Jane”

PS At the tournament, she doesn’t medal. But, she doesn’t choke, faint, falter or puke. She performs a beautiful, perfect traditional form and she survives a sparring match against a much better opponent. She cheers on her dojang mates. Makes new friends.

Finds out she nailed her black belt test, as did all of the Calgarians.

Flora: Fuck, yeah.

Fuck, yeah.

Coming home with a black belt.

Now, swap “girl” for “boy,” and enjoy:

Because laughing is good, even when it’s hysterical

File under “things we never thought we would say to our children”:

Sean: The hand sanitizer is not for throwing at your siblings!

+

Sean: Stop! If you go that way, you’re just going to run into more naked people in wheelchairs.

+

Sean: Do not put mustard packets down your mother’s shirt! Do not put mustard packets down my shirt! Do not…

Cinder: I am pointing a mustard packet AT your shirt, and you must do whatever I tell you to.

 

Privilege, burnt quesadillas, and betrayal

i.

I spend Friday dealing with school board bureaucracy, driving here and there, getting forms signed, proving to yet another bureaucrat that Flora exists, and—my favourite—sitting opposite a woman who does not know how to type with all ten fingers, OMFG, how does she have this job?—as she inputs the information I just wrote out on a paper form into a computer.

I feel a little tetchy—my time is precious and it is being wasted here—deep breath—the things we do for love—I squeeze Flora’s hand. Done and done, the girl will be starting her high school classes a semester early.

A few weeks earlier, Sean and I were engaged in a similar form-gathering, filling-out, and cat-herding process to get Cinder enrolled into a metal-working program at the local polytechnic, giving him a taste of post-secondary life while still in high school.

Both times, as I finally cleared the final hurdle and declared victory, I came face to face, again, with our ridiculous privilege.

Stop cringing, fellow white friend—take race and skin colour out of the equation for a minute, and just think about this. That particular Friday, all the things that I had to do—they all had to happen before 3 pm on a regular workday. I am so lucky I am, for the most  part, mistress of my own work hours. I can run to one appointment at 11:10 and then cross the city to another one at 11:45, and then circle back to wrap up some more form signing at 2:00. I don’t have to take a sick day, vacation day—or lose a day’s pay—although, to be honest, all through that Friday, I am grinding my teeth at the reality that all this shit that I could do online that I’m being forced to do in person means lost time, lost work that I will have to make up on the weekend, and where will that time come from?

Still. I am able to make that time on a weekday.

Most working parents aren’t—or when they do, it comes with a financial penalty.

Most immigrant parents do not start with jobs that give that that kind of flexibility. Most working class, poor parents can’t afford to take a day off to battle bureaucracy. That’s privilege.

So is this: I am an over-educated woman, who can shake my pile of degrees at the average teacher or bureaucrat and cow them into submission. I understand how the system works, and how to work it. I don’t take “This is the policy” for an answer. I don’t take “No” for an answer when it harms my children. My education—which is a gift from my parents, by the way, and is therefore generational privilege—means I question, challenge and navigate the system. I make it work for my children, rules be damned.

But I can make it work, because—privilege.

Not everyone has the same capacity, ability, access.

Flora and Cinder are benefiting from privilege they were born into.

Will they recognize this when they are older?

ii.

Ender wants a cheese tortilla, and I tell myself to fucking focus, so I don’t burn it, because there is no such thing as multitasking.

Here’s the problem: I put the pan on the element, and I need to heat it up a bit, right? So, I do. Watching a pan heat up is fucking boring. I’m writing, I turn back to the computer… Fuck. The pan is smoking, so hot. I turn down the heat, grab the tortilla, Ender’s fake cheese… put it on the open. Turn to the computer.

The smoke alarm goes off…

So I’m not going to do that this time. I watch the pan heat up… turn my attention to the sink. Fuck. Too hot. Take it off the element, let is cool down. But then, stay focused on it as the tortilla browns, and the cheese melts.

It’s perfect.

There is no such thing as multitasking.

I wish I found watching pans heat and tortillas brown fascinating. Or at least fulfilling.

But, I don’t.

iii.

I’ve been busy, and you haven’t been around much, and as always when we don’t spend a lot of time in which other’s sight and arms, I forget how much I love you. It’s not the same for you, I know—you miss me, long for me, and when we are together, you don’t need to spend any time at all remembering who I am, or how you feel about me.

When I don’t see you for a while, I forget all the feelings. I’ve tried to explain this to you, others, before. They don’t quite understand—neither do you.

I understand, now.

iv.

On Saturday, I wake up with no voice—I fall asleep at 7 pm, Ender beside me—wake up at 9 am. The voice is back, but there’s also some snot. I am not happy—I do not have time for illness, a fuzzy mind, on the schedule.

Also, I’ve been taking these stupid cold showers purely in order to avoid the flu, and now I feel betrayed.

Ok, they’re not so much cold showers as… after my delicious, wonderful HOT shower, I turn off the hot tap and stay in the stream as the water runs cold and then leap out of it, and throw some of the cold water onto my face, and my exposure to the cold is for like, maybe 10, 15 seconds. But still.

Don’t make fun of me. As far as cults and weird quirks go, my cult is fairly harmless and my quirks don’t generally damage others.

But this cold—I feel betrayed.

Still.

I have learned this, from children and animals: when they fall sick, they sleep and heal. Nothing else.

So.

I sleep. I heal.

And tomorrow, I probably won’t let the water run cold after my delicious hot shower, because, betrayed.

 You: But you just said you weren’t doing it right.

Jane: You’re not suggesting I stay in the cold stream longer, are you? Because that’s just not happening.

v.

I have a lot of things to do, and I want to do none of them. The chinook winds are blowing like mad outside—most of the snow on our driveway is gone. The glass panes are rattling. It feels like spring even though it is January.

Ender: Cheese tortilla?

Jane: Seriously? Another one?

He’s hungry. Or bored. Or needs love.

I provide.

Then stretch myself on the couch, wrapped in blankets. Sleep. Heal.

xoxo

“Jane”

Anger as Fuel: Latin History For Morons, Microaggression Defined, Calgary Artist Eman Elkadri’s Social Justice Art #raceissues

Flora and I are watching John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons. It’s funny and heartbreaking—the same style of comedy-but-not that Hannah Gadsby presents in Nanette. The premise of the piece is god-awful (in the heartwrenching sense): Leguizamo’s son is experiencing racially motivated bullying in school. And so here’s the thing: this is John Leguizamo’s son. If an American Latino boy can be privileged, surely, that’s this kid. His dad’s not just wealthy—he’s a fucking Hollywood star. He’s famous. A celebrity. Untouchable. Should that not afford some sort of protection against… no. Apparently. not.

Flora’s disgusted. Later, appalled. Finally, she says, “Is that the history the world? White people fucking up and oppressing and killing everyone else?”

“Well, first they did that to each other,” I say. “I mean, when they were landlocked in Europe. Oh. And then there was Attila the Hun. And Genghis Khan.” I come from the part of Europe most exposed to their attention; if you look carefully, you’ll see the results of wartime rape and pillage in my cheekbones. “And the Moors and the Ottomans did some white people oppressing for a while. Sorta.”

“But they didn’t stay. Or exterminate,” Flora points out.

“They didn’t stay. Or exterminate,” I agree. I don’t want to argue the point—at this juncture in time, human history is white people fucking things up for all other people. Even in places where brown people, black people, and rainbow people are scarring each other—they’re doing it against the backdrop of white European colonization and imperialism, white American economic warfare.

And I don’t want to do anything to undermine… her sense of responsibility. I am so glad that her go-to position isn’t, “But I didn’t give anyone smallpox!” “I’m not the one who didn’t colonize North America!” “I didn’t participate in the slave trade!”

That’s not the point…

Flora sighs.

“I’m glad we watched it,” she says. “But it was hard.”

I agree. And love her so much. And suddenly, have hope, because she is not atypical—well, perhaps in some ways—but in this way, she is not. She is typical of her generation.

They’re going to change shit. I know it.

In December, I re-connect with a woman—let’s call her Anne—about my age, a little younger, born in Calgary, but with more melanin in her skin than I have, who has recently become aware of the price that shade of skin, coupled with her uterus, have extracted from her over the course of her education and career. I met her for the first time three, more, years ago, before she’s aware. She wasn’t benefiting from the horrors from colonization—indeed, she was being actively penalized by their enduring heritage—but she didn’t question them. She accepted them as “just the way things are.” She was earning $30K a year less than her less experienced, male, white colleagues? Ouch, wow… but… that’s the way things are. Right?

That’s the way things are.

But that’s not the way thing should be. And she’s done. She’s not putting up with that shit.

“I got really angry,” she tells me.

“Anger is fuel,” I tell her.

By the way—it was a white male colleague, who was out-earning her, who pointed the phenomenon to her and who first put to it the words, “This is not right.” So if you’re wondering what your role in addressing injustices, racial, gender, other, is when you benefit from them, it is, very simply, this. To say, “This is not right.” Not, “That’s just the way it is.”

And then, do something about it—support the people who are doing something about it.

At the very least, get the fuck out of the way of the people doing something about it.

Anne and I meet again the first week of January, at the opening of the Race Issues, a fantastic comic art exhibit by Calgary artist Eman Elkadri. Supported by The Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation and ActionDignity’s Youth PLACE project, the exhibit presents the microaggressions faced by Canadian racialized youth in… well, meme form. It is outrageously effective, as art and as social change.

Microaggression is a term Flora is familiar. But one she has to explain to her father.

You: And me.

Jane: Microaggression is the casual degradation of any marginalized group.

I think of it as death by a thousand—ten thousand cuts. This isn’t that one big awful moment when the bus driver tells Rosa Parks to vacate her seat because a white person needs it or Gandhi gets thrown off the train in South Africa because he’s riding in a first-class carriage. This is… all the thoughtless, off-the-cuff everyday things. So small in the moment that the perpetrator—who is wearing a shirt with Gandhi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world” and absolutely loved the Dr. Who episode about Rosa Parks—isn’t aware she’s done something harmful.

And the recipient of the microaggression… often struggles with the validity of their pain. Anger. After all… it was just a question.

They were just making conversation, right?

They didn’t really mean it to be… offensive…

That off the cuff-remark about Asian women drivers… It was just a joke, right?

For fuck’s sake, not this again…

Really?

He didn’t just say that, did he? Yes, he did. Yes he did…

Ok, that was not a micro-aggression. That was pretty macro.

Most microaggresions are more subtle. Like this:

But they cut hard, and close. Like this one:

Flora: Hey, is that why you gave ma an impossible to spell and pronounce Polish name?

Jane: What? To dent your white privilege a little, and teach you compassion?

Flora: No, I meant more as revenge. Making me suffer because you suffered.

Jane: God, no, what sort of monster do you think I am?

She’s 14, so I am the worst monster that ever was—although, as she is now under Leguizamo’s influence, I think she’d cede I am not as bad as Columbus and Cortés.

At Race Issues, I talk a little bit with the artist. I thank Eman Elkadri for the work she’s doing, and I hope I don’t come across as condescending, a privileged old white woman patronizing a younger one. I hope not. I don’t know. My taste of Canada’s and the world’s racism has always been mitigated by the lack of pigmentation in my skin—and augmented by the privilege of education and relative economic stability. My taste of sexism was always mitigated by my confidence and the gifts my father gave me.

I miss my chance to take Flora to see Eman Elkadri’s art, but I show her the images online.  She’s silent for a while, then asks me about the artist’s age. I don’t know, exactly. Young, because the Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation is an organization for the young: “We are millennials and Gen Z activists who are working to improve race relations in Canada.” (I suspect that’s why they’re going to be successful.)  Similarly, The Youth PLACE project focuses on the young, by engaging “racialized youth to inform, create, incubate and implement approaches to address the systemic racism and day to day barriers that they face.”

“Mid-twenties?” I hazard. I tell her about CCMF.

“Why is it the young people who have to change the world?” Flora demands.

“Because the old who were trying to change the world get too beaten up and exhausted to keep on fighting—and the ones who were comfortable with the way things were just get more comfortable and resistant to change as they get older.”

I’m so fucking wise.

Flora: You’re so fucking wise.

Yesterday, she thought I was too stupid to live, so I preen.

Eman Elkadri and my friend Anne talk for a while. I melt into the background, lose myself in the crowd—oh-my-fucking-god, there are so many people—the little gallery is packed—and they are so young—they are so going to change the world—art is powerful—I get dizzy, step outside, and watch the people and the art through the dusty window.

In an interview with The MetroStar, Eman Elkadri talks about her own awakening, which took place in a university class. “We would go around and talk about our experiences with racial issues, and it made me realize, wow, when I was younger, racism did happen, but I put it on the back burner and tried to change myself.”

That was Anne’s experience too. Anne was born here—as, I think, was Eman, though I am not sure, and I don’t ask. But this story is so common to me now: born here. Canadian by birth, by right. But not by sight. “Where are you really from.”

I am not born here. But I don’t get the “Where are you originally from?” question until people hear my name.* Anne, Eman—they get it on first sight.

Not cool. Not right.

Let’s change that. Now.

“Jane”

*PS I have a long rant inside me about what you can say instead of “Where are you from,” and perhaps one day, I’ll share that with you. But if you think you ask that question in pure innocence and curiosity, consider this: When people meet me as Jane, they never ask me where I’m from. Nor do they hear an accent. But when they meet me as Marzena… I have an accent. And they cannot talk to me about anything else, until they ascertain where I’m from. Fascinating, no?

PS2 View the full slide show of Race issues HERE, find out more about the Canadian Culture Mosaic Foundation HERE, learn about John Leguizamo’s Required Reading for America (shorthand; Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and Charles Mann’s 1491) HERE, and watch the trailer for Latin History for Morons below:

About Race Issues: This project was created in partnership with Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation; Artist’s Statement

The images and stories presented within these comics symbolize a disconnect between the perception of an equitable Canadian society and the very real experiences of Indigenous peoples of this land and racialized Canadians. Although diverse cultures do coexist and thrive within Canada, many individuals cannot help but feel that their identity is constantly compared and contrasted to whiteness. It is up to all of us to be more conscious of the ways we treat each other, and to avoid the use of microaggressions by being more aware of how biases, stereotypes, and misconceptions frame the way we interact with others. Differences are what make our country such a vibrant and unique place to live, and we all have to learn to embrace people that look, speak, and act differently than we do. When we choose to acknowledge that our personal experiences are not universally shared by everyone, we will no longer react in ways that “other” people for not being just like us. We exist within a time and generation where there is no one way to look or speak Canadian, and it is important that we continue to challenge the assumption that there is.

Source: http://www.canadianculturalmosaicfoundation.com/race-issues.html

 

 

The year will end on a Monday (Week 52: Guilt and Gratitude)

i

It’s the last Sunday in December, the last Sunday of 2018—tomorrow is the last day of the year. The year ends on a Monday, as it began. My 52 week experiment is over. The commitment met—on some weeks joyfully, on some weeks reluctantly, each word typed out in a spirit of anger, resistance. Also—practice.

Was it a good exercise? Yes. For me. For you, I don’t know. But then, it was never about you.

You: It never is.

Jane: It sometimes is. Just not this time.

It’s the time of year for reflection, and a time of year that, for the past 13 years, has carried for me the shadow of heartbreaking grief. This year, the shadow has seemed fainter, and that made things easier, until it didn’t—I don’t want to forget. Memories, even the awful ones, are all that we have of the past.

You: Not true. You know that.

I suppose. We are, after all, made of the past. Nothing else.

The faintness of the shadow comes from the demands of the present. Flora’s going through a rough patch, I’m starting a new job and two new projects. I am moving, moving, thinking about the future and so busy in the present, the past lessens its hold.

A little.

I don’t want to be busy. This past year, I was supposed to look for sustainable rhythm (assignment to self) or some other such unicorn. It proved as elusive as unicorns usually are. But I did learn a lot about my process—my blinders—my guilt.

Imagine motherhood, marriage, life without guilt.

Sean’s been off work this week and doing the heavy lifting at home. I’m grateful. And guilty. And, aware that come the New Year, new job and projects notwithstanding, the heavy lifting will be mine again. And I’m afraid. And resentful.

And, guilty for feeling resentful. Which makes me short-tempered and snappy and then, again, guilty for being…

I used to blame those first 14 years of a Catholic upbringing on my finely developed sense of guilt, but it runs even deeper than that. Because you’ve got it too…

Funny thing about guilt: guilt cannot really co-exist with gratitude. It crowds out gratitude, diminishes it. I’m not sure it works the other way around.

Wait.

It does.

Epiphany.

Gratitude.

ii

The holiday week has no Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday… Sunday. The days get jumbled and confused. My weekly rhythm and routine come undone. And the only one of the kids who is really enjoying it is Cinder. The holiday week offers a break from the routine of school for him, as it does a break from the routine of work for Sean.

For Flora, Ender, Ender and me—it just takes away the anchors we use to organize our time. Flora comes undone. Ender is clingy. I’m… angry, not working enough. Guilty.

Jane: We should have gone to Cuba.

The lack of routine in a new place at least comes with novelty. And an active search for a new routine…

iii

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.

Annie Dillard

So I’m writing about this again in one of my projects, and I’m dealing a bit with this with Flora-and always, myself—and Sean would like Cinder to spend less time on video games.

But when I need a rest from the world, I reread Jane Austen—how is that different or better?

I understand Cinder.

Sean understands Flora.

Ender… he’s a mystery.

Sean: He’s love.

He is love.

 

iv

The year ends much as it began. Some changes. Some statis. Some joy. Some pain.

A sudden clarity, followed by fog and clouding.

Hello, 2019.

May you be full of gratitude.

xoxo

“Jane”

2018

The year started with a Monday; so does every week (Week 1: Transitions and Intentions)

Easier than you think, harder than I expected: a week in eleven stanzas (Week 2: Goodness and Selfishness)

A moody story (Week 3: Ebb and Flow)

Do it full out (Week 4: Passions and Outcomes)

The Buddha was a psychopath and other heresies (Week 5: No Cohesion)

A good week (Week 6: Execute, Regroup)

Killing it (Week 7: Exhaustion and Adrenaline)

Tired, petty, tired, unimportant (Week 8: Disappointment and Perseverance)

Professionals do it like this: [insert key scene here] (Week 9: Battle, Fatigue, Reward)

Reading Nabokov, crying, whining, regrouping (Week 10: Tears and Dreams)

Shake the Disease (Week 11: Sickness and Health… well, mostly sickness)

Cremation, not embalming, but I think I might live after all (Week 12: Angst and Gratitude)

Let’s pretend it all does have meaning (Week 13: Convalescence and Rebirth)

The cage is will, the lock is discipline (Week 14: Up and Down)

My negotiated self thinks you don’t exist–wanna make something of it? (Week 15: Priorities and Opportunity)

An introvert’s submission + radical prioritization in action, also pouting (Week 16: Ruthless and Weepy)

It’s about a radical, sustainable rhythm (Week 17: Sprinting and Napping)

It was a pickle juice waterfall but no bread was really harmed in the process (Week 18: Happy and Sad)

You probably shouldn’t call your teacher bad names, but sometimes, your mother must (Week 19: Excitement and Exhaustion)

Tell me I’m beautiful and feed me cherries (Week 20: Excitement and Exhaustion II)

A very short post about miracles, censorship, change: Week 21 (Transitions and Celebrations)

Time flies, and so does butter (Week 22: Remembering and forgetting)

I love you, I want you, I need you, I can’t find you (Week 23: Work and Rest)

You don’t understand—you can’t treat my father’s daughter this way (Week 24: Fathers and Daughters)

The summer was… SULTRY (Week 25: Gratitude and Collapse)

It’s like rest but not really (Week 26: Meandering and Reflection)

It’s the wrong question (Week 27: Success and Failure)

On not meditating but meditating anyway, and a cameo from John Keats (Week 28: Busy and Resting)

Hot, cold, self-indulgent as fuck (Week 29: Fire and Ice)

In which our heroine hides under a table (Week 30: Tears and Chocolate)

Deadlines and little lies make the world go round (Week 31: Honesty and Compassion)

That’s not the way the pope would put it, but… (Week 32: Purpose and Miracles)

And before you know it, it’s over (Week 33: Fast and Slow)

Ragazzo da Napoli zajechał Mirafiori (Week 34: Nostalgia and Belonging)

Depression is a narcissistic disease, fentanyl is dangerous, and knowledge is power, sort of (Week 35: Introspection and Awareness)

I’m not gonna tell you (Week 36: Smoke and Mirrors)

Slightly irritable and yet kinda happy (Week 37: Self-Improvement and Self-Indulgence)

It’s not procrastination, it’s process (Week 38: Back and Forth)

Pavlov’s experiments, 21st-century style (Week 39: Connectivity and Solitude)

The last thing I remember (Week 40: truth and um, not really)

All of life’s a (larval) stage (Week 41: Stagnation and Transformation)

Damn you, Robert Frost (Week 42: Angst and more Angst)

Speaking of conflict avoidance… (Week 43: Fight of Flight)

Halloween, Samhain, All Saints Day, Day of The Dead, Candy (Week 44: Neither Here Nor There)

Again with the silver-tongued Persians, and other stories (Week 45: Silence and language)

War, Famine, Pestilence, Mornings (Week 46: Mornings and the Apocalypse)

Time flies but the Christmas tree is up (Week 47: Status quo and Change)

I didn’t kill anyone–it just smells like it (Week 48: Guilt & Poison)

You have a bad memory, while I want to rest on a flower (Week 49: Mothers and Caterpillars)

Atheism, Spirituality, Boundaries, Slytherins (Week 50: This and That)

When everyone’s a special snowflake… (Week 51: Normal and Narcissistic)

—->>>POSTCARDS FROM CUBA

nothingbythebook @ gmail.com

When everyone’s a special snowflake… (Week 51: Normal and Narcissistic)

i

Morning. The sun is not up yet. Winter. Darkness. Solstice has come and gone but the days will not get noticeably longer until February so it’s still very dark and my morning’s writing births another unpublishable post. Big ideas. Inadequate expression. Inevitable violation of another’s privacy, unforgivable.

How do I make the idea… impersonal and thus shareable? I cannot. Abstract ideas are useless.

I like to be useful.

I think every being does.

You: Except for her.

Jane: That’s mean.

You: What’s she good for?

Jane: She’s … she’s so very ornamental.

ii

the world owes you nothing

Do your thing. Follow your path. Do what you love. Keep this in mind: the world owes you nothing. It doesn’t owe you riches or fame or even a semblance of recognition. It doesn’t even owe you a living. Sorry.

The world—society, market, people, however you want to operationalize or anthropomorphize the concept—has a right to demand that your art—product—vision—is of use to it… and to refuse to buy it, laud it, use it, if it’s not.

The world owes you nothing.

The world owes me nothing.

Do your thing anyway. Be useful on the side so you can pay the rent, buy food, and the  occasional shiny thing (or trip to Cuba). But know that the world owes you nothing, not even appreciation. In this recognition lies freedom. In clinging to some sense of entitlement lies unhappiness. Misery. Possibly madness.

“Hand-crafted by non-conformists,” Cinder’s pierogi tray

iii

I’ve figured out how to salvage one paragraph from the morning’s writing. Out of context, it reads as even more narcissistic than in the context. Still. Look what I do with it:

I am not prone to depression or anxiety, social or otherwise. I am not a highly sensitive person—just sensitive enough. Nor am I, despite what Flora sometimes suggests, a highly functional sociopath. I’m pretty sure I do not have borderline personality disorder. I definitely do not have any of the characteristics currently labeled and medicated as ADHD. I might be a little narcissistic, but then, who isn’t? We all think the world revolves mostly around us, and experience it from the limited point of view of ourselves (unless we “transcend,” but I’m pretty sure even that’s a potentially narcissistic illusion). I’m moody as all fuck, really clever with words and less so with numbers, and I’d be more likely to invent a story about why the sun rises and sets every morning and night than study the heavens to get them to reveal their natural mysteries to me. I’m easily overstimulated by crowds and noise, and I’m afraid of heights and small, dark places, but I venture into them anyway. I try to be open-minded, I can be judgemental—and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I used to think I wasn’t very compassionate and empathetic, but then I realized I was, I just don’t like kittens and ugly babies and I’m pretty damn good at not letting the suffering of others paralyze me, because, once paralyzed, what good am I to you?

I think what all of the above makes me is… normal.

No girl ever wants to be called ‘normal,’ does she? She wants to be called ‘special’ and ‘amazing’ and ‘sexy’ and ‘passionate’ and a million other words that mean she’s unique. ‘Normal’ is just another word for ‘boring.’

Alexandra Potter, Me & Mr. Darcy

I am most definitely not boring. No worries there.

iv

The world owes me nothing.

But what do I owe the world?

Babi’s pierogi production (and eating) factory

xoxo

“Jane”

“Blood-splattered apron over velvet suit jacket kitchen selfie”

2018

The year started with a Monday; so does every week (Week 1: Transitions and Intentions)

Easier than you think, harder than I expected: a week in eleven stanzas (Week 2: Goodness and Selfishness)

A moody story (Week 3: Ebb and Flow)

Do it full out (Week 4: Passions and Outcomes)

The Buddha was a psychopath and other heresies (Week 5: No Cohesion)

A good week (Week 6: Execute, Regroup)

Killing it (Week 7: Exhaustion and Adrenaline)

Tired, petty, tired, unimportant (Week 8: Disappointment and Perseverance)

Professionals do it like this: [insert key scene here] (Week 9: Battle, Fatigue, Reward)

Reading Nabokov, crying, whining, regrouping (Week 10: Tears and Dreams)

Shake the Disease (Week 11: Sickness and Health… well, mostly sickness)

Cremation, not embalming, but I think I might live after all (Week 12: Angst and Gratitude)

Let’s pretend it all does have meaning (Week 13: Convalescence and Rebirth)

The cage is will, the lock is discipline (Week 14: Up and Down)

My negotiated self thinks you don’t exist–wanna make something of it? (Week 15: Priorities and Opportunity)

An introvert’s submission + radical prioritization in action, also pouting (Week 16: Ruthless and Weepy)

It’s about a radical, sustainable rhythm (Week 17: Sprinting and Napping)

It was a pickle juice waterfall but no bread was really harmed in the process (Week 18: Happy and Sad)

You probably shouldn’t call your teacher bad names, but sometimes, your mother must (Week 19: Excitement and Exhaustion)

Tell me I’m beautiful and feed me cherries (Week 20: Excitement and Exhaustion II)

A very short post about miracles, censorship, change: Week 21 (Transitions and Celebrations)

Time flies, and so does butter (Week 22: Remembering and forgetting)

I love you, I want you, I need you, I can’t find you (Week 23: Work and Rest)

You don’t understand—you can’t treat my father’s daughter this way (Week 24: Fathers and Daughters)

The summer was… SULTRY (Week 25: Gratitude and Collapse)

It’s like rest but not really (Week 26: Meandering and Reflection)

It’s the wrong question (Week 27: Success and Failure)

On not meditating but meditating anyway, and a cameo from John Keats (Week 28: Busy and Resting)

Hot, cold, self-indulgent as fuck (Week 29: Fire and Ice)

In which our heroine hides under a table (Week 30: Tears and Chocolate)

Deadlines and little lies make the world go round (Week 31: Honesty and Compassion)

That’s not the way the pope would put it, but… (Week 32: Purpose and Miracles)

And before you know it, it’s over (Week 33: Fast and Slow)

Ragazzo da Napoli zajechał Mirafiori (Week 34: Nostalgia and Belonging)

Depression is a narcissistic disease, fentanyl is dangerous, and knowledge is power, sort of (Week 35: Introspection and Awareness)

I’m not gonna tell you (Week 36: Smoke and Mirrors)

Slightly irritable and yet kinda happy (Week 37: Self-Improvement and Self-Indulgence)

It’s not procrastination, it’s process (Week 38: Back and Forth)

Pavlov’s experiments, 21st-century style (Week 39: Connectivity and Solitude)

The last thing I remember (Week 40: truth and um, not really)

All of life’s a (larval) stage (Week 41: Stagnation and Transformation)

Damn you, Robert Frost (Week 42: Angst and more Angst)

Speaking of conflict avoidance… (Week 43: Fight of Flight)

Halloween, Samhain, All Saints Day, Day of The Dead, Candy (Week 44: Neither Here Nor There)

Again with the silver-tongued Persians, and other stories (Week 45: Silence and language)

War, Famine, Pestilence, Mornings (Week 46: Mornings and the Apocalypse)

Time flies but the Christmas tree is up (Week 47: Status quo and Change)

I didn’t kill anyone–it just smells like it (Week 48: Guilt & Poison)

You have a bad memory, while I want to rest on a flower (Week 49: Mothers and Caterpillars)

Atheism, Spirituality, Boundaries, Slytherins (Week 50: This and That)

—->>>POSTCARDS FROM CUBA

nothingbythebook @ gmail.com

Atheism, Spirituality, Boundaries, Slytherins (Week 50: This and That)

i

No preamble at all:

I feel very conflicted about my current spiritual practice, because, you see, I’ve spent three decades of my life as a proud atheist (the first fourteen years as a born Catholic). My atheism has never been a central part of my identity, as it is for, for example, the rather terrifying (and unhappy) Richard Dawkins. But it’s definitely been part of the mix in the Sorting Hat.

(I’ve never taken the Harry Potter sorting hat quizzes, by the way, but my family assures me, with no hesitation, that I’m a Slytherin. That makes all four houses represented in our nuclear family of five: Ender and Sean are Hufflepuffs, Flora says she’s a Hufflepuff but she’s really a Ravenclaw, and Cinder is definitely a Gryffindor.)

I’ve never been a cynical atheist either, usually thinking the world beautiful and fascinating even when it is nasty and cruel. The caterpillar becoming a butterfly: how fucking awesome is that? The theory of evolution to explain it—thank you, Darwin! My atheism has never been devoid of wonder and gratitude. (Only briefly, perhaps in late adolescence, when, in love with a cynical atheist, I tried to be cynical too—but, fortunately, it did not stick. Cynicism, you see, is neither attractive nor creative. You can’t make amazing shit, discover new things when you’re busy scoffing at the world.)

Anyway. So now I sit and breathe—me, the woman who always hated yoga and scoffed at meditation (almost cynically, tis true) and who will still tell you that if yoga really was the path to enlightenment, then India would be the most enlightened, peaceful, perfect society in the world and, well, caste system, sorry, you lose, you don’t get to claim enlightenment, wisdom and compassion if you have the caste system and I’m not even going to touch on the sexism. And I still think the Buddha was a psychopath and a really shitty father, and no, I can’t forgive him for leaving his little boy—what do you think your abandonment did to him, you asshole, and how much meditating did he have to do to let go of the suffering caused by his father just fucking off?

But still. I now sit and breathe. Once, twice a day. Still, alone—and suddenly part of everything that ever was and will be, holy fuck, what a feeling, and then, again, alone.

I don’t find myself in the stillness. Me, I’m always here. What I find is the rest of the world and  my very insignificant, ordinary, yet critical and magical place in it.

So.

I sit.

And breathe.

And once or twice a week, I go and I sit and breathe and chant and wave my arms around and otherwise do ridiculous things with a group of other people who are sitting and breathing and chanting and breaking down their ego. There is nothing sexy or athletic about the yoga I do—and not a single leotard or crop top in sight, by the way, although palazzo and harem pants seem to be all the rage at the moment. And I have to admit that on some level, this is my church. That being amidst other people who experience that same moment of something or other, stillness or belonging or unity or dissolution—their presence amplifies the experience. Alone-not-alone. I like it. I want it. Maybe, I even need it, although that’s still hard to admit.

I sit and breathe. Sometimes, I lie down and breathe. Walk and breathe. Yesterday, I sat on a damp, sunny hill, my back against the trunk of a tree, cold winter sunshine on my face and in my eyes, and I breathed. Then I smoked a cigar. Breathed some more.

You: Jesus, if you try to argue that cigar smoking is part of your spiritual practice.

Jane: No. It’s an indulgence, a vice. And a short-cut.

But it achieves the same thing. Time slows down, I slow down, everything else recedes, there is only the breath and the smoke.

My  morning pages are still part of my spiritual practice (year five now). And I don’t flinch every time I say “spiritual” (although, fuck, isn’t it a pain when the way other people use a word spoils it for you?). So be it. I’m a spiritual ape. I think the natural laws and yet unknown mysteries of the universe are amazing. I don’t mind, some of the time, giving them the word “divine.” After all—cosmic dust, promiscuous electrons—and that liquid caterpillar in its chrysalis—how are they less divine than the flour-free chocolate cake you made me just because you love me?

You: Chocolate cake?

Jane: Chocolate cake is divine. And so is Hafez’s poetry and the seashell ear of a child.

You: I think you’d better wrap up this essay while you still have a point and before it degenerates into utter self-indulgence.

Possibly already too late. But, time is pacing, relentlessly, and I still want to sit and breathe a while before I start doing all the things.

ii

The doorbell rings at 9 am.

Ender: Yes, you can come in. But only stay three or four hours, ok? When you’re here the whole day…

Friend: It gets boring?

Ender: It’s just too much. I need a break and some me time.

Sean overhears them. Is amazed—“Isn’t that amazing that at  nine, he can articulate that?” But then, this is my son. Earlier this week, I am seated in a loveseat at Lounge XVIII with her. The loveseat opposite us, separated from ours by a low table, is empty. The lounge is very crowded; two young men ask, politely, if we mind if they sit there. She agrees. I nod. Why not, the table separates us—and the lounge is very crowded. It is a kind, NICE thing to do.

The two young men are very young. Very drunk. Very friendly.

Too friendly.

Jane: So, you are very welcome to sit there, but we’re on a date here, and I actually don’t want to interact with you, so if you could just talk to each other and not to us?

They are… muzzled, muted. And actually, after a period of awkward prolonged silence, get up and join someone else’s table.

Her: I can’t believe you said that.

Jane: Did you want to spend the whole evening making conversation with two drunks?

Her: No, but…

No buts.

Boundaries.

I spent years teaching Flora about boundaries, how to recognize them, respect them, communicate them—how not to feel bad about having them. It was an upstream battle (forgive the mixed metaphor), because our culture works very hard at breaking down girls’ and women’s boundaries.

Nice girls smile and say yes.

Bitches have boundaries.

Well. So be it.

I am not a nice girl, and I’d rather raise a bitch than a victim.

iii

Mornings. Mornings. Mornings.

My routine in 2019 is about to get two mornings on which I have to be somewhere, perky and ON, by 8 am, which means I’ll have to get up at 6 am, which means…

Ugh.

I’m not sure I can do it. Ok, let me rephrase that. Of course I know I can do it. I will do it. I must do it. Can I do it unfrazzled, unhurried, unresentful? Taking my time for my morning pages and scalding hot coffee, my shower and my meditation, a proper breakfast?

You: Probably not.

See, this is what I’m afraid of. My story for the past 20, 30 years has been that I don’t do mornings. The last time I tried to change this and create an intense early morning work routine, I almost went crazy. (Fall 2017… to be fair, there were other reasons compounding the crazy. But getting up before 6 am did not help.)

It’s not even, I think, that I mind getting up early. Today, I was up at 7 am, and no one made me, there is no place I need to be by 8 or 9 or even 10. But… I’m just not… I’m not fast or focused early in the morning. I move like molasses or a sloth that needs to empty its bladder but, ugh, the bottom of the tree is such a long way away, is there no other way to pee? In the mornings, I move slow and I don’t like to be hurried. Hence, I’m thinking 6 am wake up time to make my 8 am commitment, not 6:30 or 6:45, which, technically, might be enough… but really isn’t. I want time to move at my sloth-molasses pace. But that means, waking up so early.

Will I do it?

We will see.

iv

Sit.

Breathe.

Boundaries.

Mornings.

Flora: I think you called me a bitch.

Jane: I said I was raising you to have boundaries.

Flora: And then…

Jane: How about… I’m trying to inject a bit of Slytherin into your Hufflepuff.

She’s not convinced. But trust me. The Slytherin do have some redeemable qualities, and not just because Alan Rickman played Snape.

Jane: You’ll thank me. I’m pretty sure, eventually, you’ll appreciate this.

Thank me, blame me.

Breathe.

xoxo

“Jane”

Professor Slytherin Glasses ;P

2018

The year started with a Monday; so does every week (Week 1: Transitions and Intentions)

Easier than you think, harder than I expected: a week in eleven stanzas (Week 2: Goodness and Selfishness)

A moody story (Week 3: Ebb and Flow)

Do it full out (Week 4: Passions and Outcomes)

The Buddha was a psychopath and other heresies (Week 5: No Cohesion)

A good week (Week 6: Execute, Regroup)

Killing it (Week 7: Exhaustion and Adrenaline)

Tired, petty, tired, unimportant (Week 8: Disappointment and Perseverance)

Professionals do it like this: [insert key scene here] (Week 9: Battle, Fatigue, Reward)

Reading Nabokov, crying, whining, regrouping (Week 10: Tears and Dreams)

Shake the Disease (Week 11: Sickness and Health… well, mostly sickness)

Cremation, not embalming, but I think I might live after all (Week 12: Angst and Gratitude)

Let’s pretend it all does have meaning (Week 13: Convalescence and Rebirth)

The cage is will, the lock is discipline (Week 14: Up and Down)

My negotiated self thinks you don’t exist–wanna make something of it? (Week 15: Priorities and Opportunity)

An introvert’s submission + radical prioritization in action, also pouting (Week 16: Ruthless and Weepy)

It’s about a radical, sustainable rhythm (Week 17: Sprinting and Napping)

It was a pickle juice waterfall but no bread was really harmed in the process (Week 18: Happy and Sad)

You probably shouldn’t call your teacher bad names, but sometimes, your mother must (Week 19: Excitement and Exhaustion)

Tell me I’m beautiful and feed me cherries (Week 20: Excitement and Exhaustion II)

A very short post about miracles, censorship, change: Week 21 (Transitions and Celebrations)

Time flies, and so does butter (Week 22: Remembering and forgetting)

I love you, I want you, I need you, I can’t find you (Week 23: Work and Rest)

You don’t understand—you can’t treat my father’s daughter this way (Week 24: Fathers and Daughters)

The summer was… SULTRY (Week 25: Gratitude and Collapse)

It’s like rest but not really (Week 26: Meandering and Reflection)

It’s the wrong question (Week 27: Success and Failure)

On not meditating but meditating anyway, and a cameo from John Keats (Week 28: Busy and Resting)

Hot, cold, self-indulgent as fuck (Week 29: Fire and Ice)

In which our heroine hides under a table (Week 30: Tears and Chocolate)

Deadlines and little lies make the world go round (Week 31: Honesty and Compassion)

That’s not the way the pope would put it, but… (Week 32: Purpose and Miracles)

And before you know it, it’s over (Week 33: Fast and Slow)

Ragazzo da Napoli zajechał Mirafiori (Week 34: Nostalgia and Belonging)

Depression is a narcissistic disease, fentanyl is dangerous, and knowledge is power, sort of (Week 35: Introspection and Awareness)

I’m not gonna tell you (Week 36: Smoke and Mirrors)

Slightly irritable and yet kinda happy (Week 37: Self-Improvement and Self-Indulgence)

It’s not procrastination, it’s process (Week 38: Back and Forth)

Pavlov’s experiments, 21st-century style (Week 39: Connectivity and Solitude)

The last thing I remember (Week 40: truth and um, not really)

All of life’s a (larval) stage (Week 41: Stagnation and Transformation)

Damn you, Robert Frost (Week 42: Angst and more Angst)

Speaking of conflict avoidance… (Week 43: Fight of Flight)

Halloween, Samhain, All Saints Day, Day of The Dead, Candy (Week 44: Neither Here Nor There)

Again with the silver-tongued Persians, and other stories (Week 45: Silence and language)

War, Famine, Pestilence, Mornings (Week 46: Mornings and the Apocalypse)

Time flies but the Christmas tree is up (Week 47: Status quo and Change)

I didn’t kill anyone–it just smells like it (Week 48: Guilt & Poison)

You have a bad memory, while I want to rest on a flower (Week 49: Mothers and Caterpillars)

—->>>POSTCARDS FROM CUBA

nothingbythebook @ gmail.com