Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
Next, the key insight from Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life:
If you don’t find your work in the world and throw yourself wholeheartedly into it, you will inevitably make your self your work. … You will take your self as your primary project. You will… dedicate your life to the perfection of your self. To the perfection of your health, intelligence, beauty, home or even spiritual prowess. And the problem is simply this: This self-dedication is too small a work. It inevitably becomes a prison.
(Yes, I did just use a quote from the author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self to tell you to do less yoga; you’re welcome.)
There is a dark side to throwing yourself wholeheartedly into your work though, isn’t there? Stepping away from it feels like death. Not a little death, but a fairly complete self-death.
Back to kindness: I have found that, when you are suffering the most, it is almost impossible to be kind. There is only pain and survival. But then, a respite, a breath, and suddenly—you are able to be kind again. To hold open the door. To forgive. To understand—or, if you don’t understand, to accept.
When you are able to be kind, you’re starting to do ok.
When you’re not able to be kind… if you notice? That’s the time to worry.
I’m half-kind, half-exasperated, which means, I think, I’m half-ok and therefore on the mend because you, lover, you are not ok. I’m able to be half-kind with you, though, as you are able to be half, quarter-kind with me. Perhaps right now that is all that we can ask of each other, even though each one of us wants more… but neither is capable of giving it.
Tomorrow, a new chapter, a new job. Before that—Easter egg hunt for Ender, maybe Flora. Easter Sushi. In-between, an impromptu visit to a friend, a brief dream of listening to, maybe dancing, salsa on Peace Bridge—aborted by rain—chores, Death in Paradise in the background, reflecting on the meaning, purpose of life, and it all boils down to this:
The most basic, base purpose of life is to survive. That’s it, the beginning, the end.
And the ultimate, most evolved purpose of life? The great work of all of our lives, regardless of what our meta-calling?
To be kind.
Not self-work, self-improvement, self-perfection.
Just… being kind. To your annoying friend. To that bitchy stranger. To the woman in front of you in the line of the grocery store, regardless of whether she’s wearing her mask properly or not.
To your lover.
That’s it, that’s all… it’s that simple… and nothing is harder.
it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes
I’m starting a new job next week. My heart is aflutter and my stomach in butterflies. I’m half-excited and half-terrified—no, I’m 90 per cent excited, 10 per cent terrified, and 10 per cent heartbroken—also, 100 per cent bad at math. But the excitement is paramount, and the other feelings remind me that life is complicated and one needs to feel all the feelings to be truly alive.
So, the job—it’s one designed for me, literally, they rewrote the job description after they saw my CV—and the result of that lucky turn of life’s roulette wheel in which, to para-quote Louis Pasteur, chance favours the prepared mind (or, as Seneca less elegantly put it, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”–ok, it might have been elegant in ancient Latin, but in English, I dunno, meh).
(The secondary theme of this story, btw, as per Lennon and McCartney, that we all get by with a little help from our friends.)
So, there I am, suddenly under-employed and in considerable financial strain because COVID, divorce, effective doubling of life’s expenses, also, feeling a little purposeless and unfocused, frustrated with the indifferent performance of my novels, drowning in pandemic (and divorce) accelerated existential angst (also wondering how many mid-life crises can one woman have in a single decade, I mean, isn’t there an upper limit? isn’t there supposed to be just one? surely three was enough, and there really is no need for a fourth and fifth to be happening simultaneously—look! shiny thing! Corvette! And look at you, you sexy thing, come over here and sit in my lap—I digress, point: existential angst), that 50th birthday is now three years and three months away, if I’m going to make a change, leap, move, now’s the time, now’s my prime sell date—where am I going to jump?
Don’t know, don’t know. I pull out my CV, try to craft a cover letter—I’ve had an amazing career, let’s face it, but it’s damn unconventional. I’ve done nothing by the book, and where am I now? Towards what was I building? I don’t want to be an editor or manager, the “natural” next steps… I want to write, and also teach—how is it that I love that piece of my work so much, I never thought I would—but, like, also get paid on a regular basis, and, also, I don’t know, be part of something bigger, I’m so tired of it being just me in my studio with my laptop and the voices in my head, I’m so tired of being my only colleague and employee, and also, I don’t know, I have all these skills, but let’s face it, I’m very, very bad at math—the most basic income/expenses kind of math and, despite writing about them and worshipping them most of my life, not an entrepreneur at heart at all, could someone just, like, take care of that part of things for me for a while, and just leverage, use me for the things I’m really, really good at?
(Words. Story. I know you can’t tell from this post, but words are my superpower and I’m a hell of a storyteller.)
And there they are…
Them: Yo. Over here. You’re what we didn’t know we were looking for.
The company. The job ad. The opportunity. The month-long interview process, during which they revisioned and rewrote the position to better suit what I brought to the table.
I’m so excited, people, most of the time I’m forgetting to be terrified, and that, of course, is very good.
How I find out about the job: I post on Facebook that I need work. I am, of course, by this point, monitoring Indeed and Canada Job Bank and, yes, there are quite a few jobs for communications professionals and underemployed journalists and I guess that’s what I am, but most of them… a) I could do in my sleep, bored already, b) they’re a step backwards, like, maybe 10 years, more like 15, actually, junior and mid-career positions and, dammit, I’m old and at my peak. Past my peak? Ugh. What an awful place to be, damn COVID and the economy, and I’m broke and stressed—I grit my teeth, send off resumes, think that perhaps I’d prefer working as a cemetery labourer, look at that, the city is looking for one and the pay is actually almost as good as being a mid-level corporate communications flack, and I’d get to work outside, digging graves and pruning bushes, ooh, operating a fork lift to move tomb slabs and gravestones, maybe? Why not? Maybe this is the next life stage: cemetery worker, communing with ghosts on the night shift and spooking canoodling couples behind gravestones at dawn and dusk, hey, how would that work as a cozy mystery–a cemetery worker-cum-detective…
Gravestones on my mind (how heavy are tomb slabs, anyway, and how hard is a forklift to operate?), I post on Facebook that I’m looking for a job. Money, really, a job being the most obvious legal way of obtaining a steady flow of it. “I write,” I say, “but, really, I’m willing to do anything unreasonable.” But dammit, I think, the problem is—I’m a career writer. Like, literally, I have virtually no other skills—ok, yeah, I also teach, and fine, public relations, strategy, blah blah blah, but my particular superpower is story, except at the moment, no one seems to want it and I’m just going to curl into a fetal position and cry, and then apply to be a cemetery labourer, except they’re not going to hire me, because I don’t have a fork lift licence, but maybe, I could go get a fork lift, licence, and…
A woman who’s the current president of a business communicators organization and whom, a couple of years ago, I taught how to plot and write a bad romance novel (set the bar low for your first manuscript, people, that’s how the professionals do it—repeat after me, an amateur thinks it has to be perfect, a professional knows it needs to be done), tells me to connect with her on Linked In. “I get all these communications job alerts all the time,” she says. “I’ll forward the interesting ones to you.”
I send her a request to connect. She sends me two job links immediately. Flags one. “You’d be perfect for this one,” she says. She’s right. They put “storyteller” right in the job description. And the job description—who wrote this baby? I want to work for her. I’m mostly qualified for the job, maybe a corporate gap here and there, and certainly not their typical candidate, but I can totally do this job and then some, and the company hits all my sweet spots too, and also, did I mention, that job description? It’s incredible. It was written by someone who is clearly looking for me.
I shoot my CV and highly customized cover letter off within 24 hours.
Other friends shoot me job links too, and I’m full of gratitude. Send off a resume here or there. But—it’s that job I want. Everything else, it will give me money. This one? I WANT IT. I REALLY, REALLY WANT IT.
The human resources manager calls me within a week. Yes! The following week, I’m talking with a VP, then onward and upward—or maybe, sideways. I’m not quite sure about the hierarchical structure of the company… it’s bigger than any place I’ve ever worked for before, and the hiring process reflects this. There are personality profile tests, and a writing assignment, and a lot of butterflies in my stomach—an intensive background and criminal check and employment verification process (I have no secret Criminal Code offences that I did not know about, phew, but I literally hold my breath for two days until the results come in—I mean, weird stuff happens, suppose someone with my exact name and birth date—it could happen—has defrauded credit card companies, ran a crack house, or laundered money for the local mafia—did I mention, I have a really good imagination, OMG, I’m going to fail the criminal check because of identity theft, my conspiracy theory friends were right, I never should have joined Facebook—what? I’m all good. Oh thank god).
Finally, an offer that kind of makes me pass out with its awesomeness—you’ve got to understand, I’ve freelanced for 20 years, I’ve never had BENEFITS—and after I recover consciousness, I breathe easy for the first time in months.
Except, I’m also terrified.
But, mostly, excited.
I prepare my cover letter and CV alone—but I have an “eye-for-detail, Grammar-Nazi” friend proof it. (That, kittens, is also how the professionals do it—always, a second (fiftieth) set of eyes on the copy—and no, nobody proofs these posts, every single typo is mine, shut up, the blog is a labour of love, why do you always criticize me?) In my interviews I’m alone too—except, well, I’m not. The first interview catches me off-guard. I’m unprepared for the types of questions HR throws at me and it’s been a while (don’t ask how long) (ok, like 20 years) since I’ve been the person answering the questions in an interview.
(When I interviewed for the journalism teaching job at the Poly, we were all just journos shooting the shit together, speaking the same language, more of a conversation about the state of our beloved and traumatized industry than an interview as such. I didn’t stress about it as an interview at all. I sweated buckets over this one.)
I spend a solid week preparing for the second one, with the help of a friend more experienced in the art. The night before the interview, as the final pre-interview test, he throws question after question at me and critiques my delivery of my story for two, three hours—until I’m in tears and I hate him and at one point, I yell at him that he’s really terrible at giving constructive feedback and “That wasn’t good enough” isn’t actually feedback a person can work with—what, precisely, was wrong with it? How would it be better?
My friend calls me in the morning to make sure I don’t oversleep for the 8 am (gasp) interview. No worries there—I’ve been awake for hours.
Practicing. Rehearsing. Kinda panicking, but in the “panic now so you don’t panic when it counts” way.
And so in the real interview—alone but not—I’m confidence personified; sparkly and on fire—I know my story inside out and I’ve got specific examples galore for everything and anything I might be asked about.
I’m not asked about most of it—I tell the stories anyway.
I also do this, on Facebook:
“I need magic tomorrow at 8 am MST. Send ravens, four-leaf clovers, horseshoes, prayers, vibes, fist bumps—you know. All your magic.”
My social network obliges.
What? I believe in magic. I’m alone in the ring, on the Zoom call—but not really. My crew’s got my back.
When the offer finally comes, my crew is as much on pins and needles as I am.
Him: Especially me.
Jane: Because you love me and are excited for me and…
Him: Because I just can’t take any more “Why do you think it’s taking so long? Do you think I fucked up the interview? Should I not have told the Brian Mulroney story?” middle of the night texts from you.
Jane: First, they were middle of the day texts…
Second—they didn’t really take that long (and I skipped the inappropriate part of the Brian Mulroney story—but ask me sometime over a glass of wine, it’s hilarious)—less than a month from application to offer, so, really, for a big corporation? That’s moving at the speed of light.
It’s just that… when you really want something?
You: And you really want this?
Jane: I. Really. Want. This.
That’s a change in my story. I sent out those first resumes in January and February 2021 with a profound sense of… let’s be honest, failure. It felt like failure—I had made a pretty comfortable living writing since I’ve been 17, with only a brief two-year detour into a “real” job, the best part of which was that I met half of my future editors while working it. In 2015, I had given myself five years for the novels and the fiction and that part of my life to become a dominant revenue stream and, well. Seven novels—four of them published—three novellas, and dozens of short stories and anthology contributions later, I have to confess that my ambition outstripped my capability—or the realities of the market—and the financial pressure on my creative work to perform, perform, perform and pay the rent was… well, exhausting.
But… a) I did it (did I mention… four published novels, seven written? Take that and stuff it up your teapot spout, Aunt Augusta) and b) along the way, I discovered… that I have a very deep, innate understanding of the storytelling process, more importantly, that I can show and share this process with others. I’m an effective teacher and I get high on teaching. And—as has been the case since I’ve been 17, maybe even seven—I can turn anything—anything—into a compelling story.
Including the frequently random, occasionally traumatic events of my life.
So, in this story, at a time when I need a career refocus, a new challenge and financial stability—a big company comes to me and says, “Hey! We want you to show our people how to craft effective, compelling stories.”
Sign me up, yes, please, here I come.
Him: So, like, you know you’re going to have to work Monday to Friday, eight to five or whatever their hours are? Week after week? Month after month?
Him: Are you going to be able to cope?
Because, truth be told—freelancing and self-employment, for all the theoretical freedom to wake up at the crack of 9:15 am, is a 24/7 hustle. And so is motherhood.
Monday to Friday, lunch and coffee breaks, paid vacation, health-spending account, pension plan, interest-free loan to buy a personal computer, and money magically appearing in my bank account every two weeks?
I think I can handle it.
Forgive the long, self-indulgent dive into my navel—I realize there’s not much take-away here for you for your own current drama. I’m writing this post to control MY narrative—to shape my story. I’m so excited to be starting this new chapter and, as with everything I do—I’ll be doing it full out.
And documenting the process, of course.
So. This is the last entry in the Pandemic Diary project. I realize the pandemic is not over but I’m done with making is the star of my story. Starting next week—a new chapter, maybe even a whole new book—definitely, a new project on the blog. I’m not yet sure what I’ll call it. An Artist in Corporate Canada? Adventures in Storytelling? Madwoman in the Corner Cubicle?
Maybe I’ll just let it flow naturally, each post a stand-alone.
So what are you filling your time with before you start work? Want to go for a walk?
Oh yeah—I’m starting a new gig on April 5th, more on that in another post. This one is about “filling up time.” And, walks.
Let’s tackle walks first. I used to love walks. Walking the dogs, walking the kids, myself, you—I could spend hours being a flanneur, rambling city streets, alone or with a companion, perfectly happy.
One year into the pandemic (unhappy anniversary to us all, again), I am so thoroughly sick of walks as a social activity, I can’t even. If I’ve gone for a walk with you in the last few weeks, it means I really, really love you. And I probably won’t do it again, I just can’t, OMG, no, no more walks, let’s just sit somewhere and talk, please, my neck is already getting a crick in it from its two-hour tilt sideways in your direction, also, I’m getting anticipatory shin splints.
One of my loves wants to go hiking, again, and I’m pretty sure this falls in the category of walks and, honestly, we never went hiking together before the pandemic—actually, it’s quite lovely, fine, let’s do it, just don’t call it a walk through the woods. It’s a hike. Let’s not talk and march really fast, up hills and through the snow. Hike. Not walk. What you call things is important.
Him: You’re insane.
Jane: Pretty sure that, after a year of walks being the one legally sanctioned social activity, none of us are sane.
I have nothing much on my plate for this Friday. No deadlines, no dreaded Zoom meetings. Some chapters to revise on the memoir I’m ghostwriting, but my plan is to get to them on the weekend—Friday is kind of my unscheduled day off. I’ve got an in-person lunch—the first since, god, I can’t remember when—with a treasured colleague at noon. A “share a bar of chocolate” and “pick up some plant babies” drive-by outdoor visit at a friend’s house. In-between those two events, I’ve got to drive Cinder to work, and in the morning, before the lunch—well, the usual: morning walk with Bumblebee as soon as I wake up, then morning pages, a writing sprint, some chores, meal prep, then, to the kids’ house to drop off Bumblebee, see Ender, walk the dogs again. I don’t have anything planned for the evening, not until it’s time to pick up Cinder from work. It’s not my night with the kids, and Ender’s going for a sleep-over with his (vaccinated!) grandma anyway, taking Bumblebee with him. I’m feeling kinda low energy and I think I might spend the night on the couch with Netflix and a book… if I feel a burst of energy, I’ll go grocery shopping, maybe go buy some pots for my new plant babies. The Sean texts—he’s working an evening event out of the house, and Flora’s feeling off, home alone. I text her, and we go to Value Village together, then out for Peruvian food. After supper, on my couch with the fireplace blazing, and Maggie the elderly Boston Terrier who didn’t get to go along for the sleepover at Grandma’s, I let Flora convince me to watch the first episode of Hannibal with her.
Flora: Am I still the child most likely to befriend a serial killer?
Jane: Or, be one.
Flora: You’re a terrible mother.
Jane: Or a very honest, insightful one?
I’m sorta kidding—and getting off topic—but also, I’m pretty sure that if Flora decided her grand master plan required the removal or you—or me for that matter—from the Earthly plane, she’d do it without hesitation. She’d feel mildly bad about it, maybe… but she’d do it.
Flora: And they wonder why I need therapy.
Jane: It’s ok. I’d probably help you hide the bodies. Well, unless it was one of your brothers. Please don’t kill them. Also, if you kill me, I can’t help you hide the bodies, so you’d better keep me around.
Mid-Hannibal, I get a panicked text from a client. You wouldn’t think there’d be such a thing as a Friday night writing emergency, but they happen more frequently than, say, Monday night writing emergencies. We pause Hannibal and Flora reads fan fiction while I deal with the emergency—then, yelp!, I’m late to get Cinder from work. Car. Drive. Son. He’s happy—he got another bonus at work. Schoolwork? Ugh, yes, he’ll get to it on the weekend.
We swing by my place to pick up Flora and the farting Boston Terrier (how can something that small and cute be that gassy—note to self, do more research on dog breeds next time you get a dog). I take the teenagers home, leave the family car in their driveway.
Walk to my home briskly, to finish dealing with my client’s emergency.
A friend texts as I’m finishing. He’s driving by on his way to work, night shift. Time for a quick hi? I just want to crawl into bed, to be honest, but pandemic, I haven’t seen him in forever—the last time he planned to drop by, I had to cancel because COVID scare at Flora’s school again, isolation, precautions. I say yes, and we have a brief but delightful visit. When he leaves, I check in with the client—is she going to be able to sleep tonight? Are we good? Have I pulled the chestnuts out of the fire? (She likes old British metaphors; I like thinking about chestnut trees.)
I crawl into bed, with Death in Paradise on BritBox for company. I’m wiped, but happy. It was a very good day.
I realize that I didn’t respond to my friend’s text, you know, the one about how I’m filling up my time.
The answer, I suppose, is “with life.”
I’ll try to remember to text him tomorrow. And to convince him to do something other than a walk. Art galleries are open, outdoor social gatherings permitted. Takeout on the riverbank, coffee on my patio on a sunny afternoon? If you still don’t feel comfortable socializing inside, there are alternatives to the walk now that Spring is arriving, even in this corner of Viking Hell. Let’s do one of those. And let’s… live life, not “fill up time.”
Of course, if you do need to fill up time—by all means, go for a long walk.
I have been trying to draft a post for hours—well, 45 minutes—and each of my false starts so far either goes into too much too deep oversharing mode or into an ultra-negative I hate humanity mode. And I don’t, not really. I can’t say y’all my favourite Earth species, but then, who can compete with the Amber Phantom butterfly, platypuses or capybaras?
Not this bipedal ape with its propensity for cruelty and violence.
So I’m thinking that perhaps this is the sort of day on which the truth can’t even be told at a slant. Such days happen: it is for them that abstract art and metaphor gone wild poetry exists. What did Kurt Cobain mean when he sang, “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido”?
He was oversharing, but he wanted to be oblique about it.
I don’t want to be oblique; neither do I want to overshare. Where is that sweet spot of clarity?
Somewhere between transparency and metaphor.
You: OMFG, you’re reading the post-modernists again. Lacan? Derrida?
Jane: [shudder] Goddess forbid. Never again Lacan.
I’m actually just thinking about baby platypuses, but trust me, that story as an entry-point to this navel-gazing post won’t work.
Speaking of navel-gazing—a friend wants to meet for breakfast, I explain, again, why I can’t—seriously, do you not listen to me? we’ve had this conversation two, three times—breakfast? Fuck, no, I get up early, write, then children and dogs and even now that I don’t live with them, the priorities and the obligations are the same. I get up early when it’s cold and dark, write so that the artist is placated, then, children and dogs, and it’s not that I’m a slave to schedule or routine, it’s just that… what? Radical prioritization, and obligations, and pleasure after all of that, and why are childless people so selfish.
My friend does not like being called selfish.
Jane: All childless people are selfish, including/especially monks & nuns pursuing enlightenment. You’ll see one day.
Him: They dedicate themselves to their god. One could argue that is a selfless act.
Jane: Bullshit. Epitome of selfishness.
If there is such a thing as an all-powerful god, do you really think it gets anything out of a human animal doing nothing except gazing worshipfully into its eyes; worse yet, its own navel? I think not. I think this fetishization of religious devotion and the search for enlightenment is a pathology. If we all sat under the Bodhi tree or on a pillar in a desert seeking perfect communion with God, our crops would wither and our children would die.
Think about it.
I’m thinking about it because I am surrounded by (lovely) people (whom I love) who are really into self-work—and for whom the pandemic has become a reason to really, really work on themselves and I’m increasingly convinced that way… lies madness, narcissism (the really bad kind) and, also, the end of civilization.
I’m not engaging in hyperbole. Writing in 1930, Bertrand Russell called “the disease of self-absorption” the greatest obstacle to happiness.
“One of the great drawbacks to self-centered passions is that they afford so little variety in life. The man who loves only himself cannot, it is true, be accused of promiscuity in his affections, but he is bound in the end to suffer intolerable boredom from the invariable sameness of the object of his devotion.”
Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
He also argued that the cure for depression and ennui is not, as the current gurus would have it, a steady gaze inward, but orienting oneself outwards, both towards the needs of others and towards one’s passions and work.
In a similar vein (although he spends a great deal of time gazing inward), Stephen Cope, in The Great Work of Your Life, writes that if we don’t find the “great” work of our lives—and this, really, is a purpose bigger than self—we make ourselves the work of our lives… and this isn’t, you know. Healthy.
I guess I’m taking this a step further and suggesting that spending too much time gazin inward and working just on yourself is selfishness run rampant.
But hey, if it’s making you feel good…
The thing is, it probably is not making you feel good. Is it? For so many people, the thing they call self-work is just another addiction—the currently socially acceptable crack, laudanum, alcohol—Netflix binge.
You: Really? You’re going there?
Jane: I’m going there.
Her: Don’t listen to her. She’s just feeling guilty because she still can’t meditate.
There is truth in that. Can’t pray, can’t mediate, feel like shit when I spend too much time gazing inward at my flaws and imperfections.
Know what makes me feel better? Making supper for my kids, picking up pistachios for you from Costco, helping a student “see the light” of story structure, writing a story that illuminates an experience other than my own.
In other words… taking my head out of my ass—I mean, er, navel—and looking outside.
What I most appreciate about Bumblebee—that’s the bear that thinks it’s a dog that we adopted back in February 2020 as Flora’s emotional support animal—is how she seems to be this negative energy neutralizer. I feel angry, frustrated—she stares at me with those liquid brown eyes, presents a fluffy head or rump for petting, I start to pet her wool because how can I not, and, true thing, you can’t feel angry while you’re petting a fluffy dog.
I am not generally an angry person. It is not my default state and it takes a lot to get me angry. And that’s good, because when I do get angry, there are no filters. Heads roll. Relationships end. I’m, to be honest, afraid of my anger. I back away from its precipice often. And when I’ve made myself with with it, just sit with it without smashing things—or people—my main takeaway is, fuq, I don’t want to feel like this, ever, go away, be gone.
My friend the Buddhist nun probably has some things to say about this; maybe you do too. Hush. I don’t think it’s a bad practice to step away (run away?) from things that make you feel angry. Really, you only have two choices: flight or fight. Leave… or work (fight) to change the circumstances that make you angry. Because just sitting in anger, staying in anger, living in anger—unbearable. It will consume you, destroy you.
I think a lot of us are living in anger right now. Righteous anger—or do I mean self-righteous anger? Frustrated anger. Helpless anger (that’s the worst). Unfocused anger. And we can’t leave because the thing that’s triggering our anger is, well, everything—it’s all around us.
(Spoiler alert—there are no words of wisdom at the end of this post—no three steps of moving past your pandemic anger. No call to action that solves everything, or even empowers you. Sorry.)
I’ve been dealing with my anger by choosing actions and focus whenever possible—when not, choosing sleep. Also, petting the dog. And also—just trying to let it burn out without trying to assign it a cause—not naming the “because.” You know? We do this all the time. The feeling comes—I feel angry (or sad). Why? Because—we make a list. Of such very, very good reasons for the feeling. We feed it. It grows stronger.
Instead—I feel angry. Period. Burn, evil feeling. Ok. You’re gone. I can do shit again now.
I’m pretty sure this is a conflict-avoidant, dysfunctional way of dealing with anger. But when you don’t have the energy to deal with its root causes—why waste energy you don’t have even looking for them?
I’m not angry right now. I’m… flaccid, deflated, limp. I’d say spent, but that suggests a state post-effort, post-climax, and I don’t think that’s happened. I’m just… you know. Limp like dirty dish rag, flat like a punctured bicycle tire. I’ll be better soon—the sunis out and I have plans and things to do. But right now, I’m limp.
As with anger, sitting with my limpness is not a state I enjoy. But at least, it doesn’t hurt, me or others.
This post needs a third verse—threes make for a more powerful, emotive narrative technique than twos, that’s just the way it is. But I don’t want to circle back to anger, and I’ve already told you (spoiler alert redux) that I don’t come bearing solutions. Except, I suppose, the one about petting a fluffy dog—although I suppose a non-bitchy chihuaha or a cuddly cat will do in a pinch too.
Hey. So I do come bearing solutions. Pet a dog. Maybe a soft blanket if you’ve got allergies.
Breathe. You’ll be able to act, change things, eventually.
It’s International Women’s Day—before you ask, International Men’s Day runs March 9 until March 7 each year, enjoy. Sometime today, my dad will call me with wishes, maybe deliver flowers. Women’s Day was a big deal in Communist Poland while he was being indoctrinated into the ways of the world, a sop to reward the female half of the workforce for putting in a full shift at the factory and a full shift at home. It was still celebrated like that in Cuba, which has survived its decades of the American trade embargo and Castro Communism chiefly because women—more specifically, mothers—will do whatever’s necessary to make sure their children are ok. (Fine, the steady influx of US dollars from Floridian Cubans has helped too, but let’s stay on topic—women.)
I don’t talk about feminism much with people because, well, it’s a concept as poorly understood as the theory of evolution (don’t get this anthropologist started) and as triggering a construct as the patriarchy, capitalism, and God. But on International Women’s Day, it’s hard to avoid making the observation that on much of this Earth, in most situations, it’s still sucks more to be a girl and a woman than a boy and a man and so, like… we still need feminism.
Even in the Northern First World, where the situation has improved the most, we’re still fighting for basic equal rights, be they political, reproductive, economic or social. This is depressing, until you consider how far we’ve come and how quickly. Some of our grandmothers couldn’t vote. My mother wasn’t allowed to wear trousers in school. The birth control pill wasn’t approved in the UK until 1963; in Canada, doctors could prescribe it for “therapeutic” reasons from 1960 on, but it wasn’t freely available until 1969. Equal pay for equal work—well, we’re still working on that. And sexual and domestic violence—by men against women—fuck. Seriously, people. How is this a thing?
(The answer, btw—to “How is this a thing?”—is, very simply, patriarchy.)
“Not all men,” someone says.
And, “My Uncle was an abused husband.”
And, “You think it’s easy to raise boys these days?”
Like the All Lives Arguments, these reactions miss the point—which is, simply, that we are far from being an egalitarian society. An egalitarian society is one in which the genders are equally valued. Not the same—equal. And there is no need for an International Women’s Day, any more than in a patriarchy there is a need for an International Men’s Day…
Why is this concept so hard to understand?
Wait. I know—patriarchy.
Two true stories:
I’m texting with a dude, and I make a suggestion of when and where we should meet. He’s thrilled. “It’s so refreshing to meet a woman who takes initiative,” he writes. I raise my digital eyebrows. It’s intended as a compliment—it sounds patronizing. I dig into it a little, elicit a bit of a rant about the passivity of women in the dating context, how hard it is to be a man and do all of the work. It disturbs me.
“Don’t blame my more passive sisters,” I write. “The patriarchy burns women who know who they are and what they want.”
Cut to the second story: I’m doing an interview, for a gig I really want, that I’m mostly qualified for, maybe it’s a bit of a stretch and a jump, but that’s my whole career, so I’m stretching and jumping here because I really, really want this gig. I’m giving the VP a quick synopsis of my career, which consists of a lot of stories such as, “So this opportunity comes up and I think, well, I haven’t done that before and I don’t have the qualifications they ask for, but I could totally do this job, and…”
“You break the mold,” she says. She’s pleased, because so does she. “Most women, they only apply for jobs if they meet all of the requirements. Most men, well…” She doesn’t finish the sentence; she doesn’t have to. We’ve both read the studies.
And it’s not wiring. It’s patriarchy. Conditioning.
Comments on my Canadian school report cards, from age 10 to age 16, when I finally escaped high school, early, with an obscenely high average, and all the scholarships out there: “She’s too confident in her abilities.”
My first performance review at a Corporate Canada job: “A little more humility and diffidence would make her more effective at working with our partners.” (Followed, incidentally, by a critique of my choice of clothes.)
Back to the first story. Remember? Dude telling me how much he likes my initiative, confidence, that I know what I want and I express it? We make plans for an afternoon ice cream date. I propose noon; he says, that might be a bit tight, can he check in with me in the morning when he knows how his morning is going?
At 1:16—pm, not am—I take the initiative again. “Good afternoon… how’s it looking?”
An hour later, I get an essay of apologies and excuses, including—this is a direct quote—“I also didn’t want to stand you up or worse shown up inauthentically.”
Implied somewhere in there is a request to reschedule, I think, maybe—it’s hard to parse essays full of shit. In any event, it doesn’t matter. I exit stage right, politely but forcefully. The only consistent predictor of future behaviour, in my rather rich life experience, is past behaviour, and I’m too busy—too old—too, er, dare we say, confident—to dally with unreliable people, disorganized people, or people who do not honour their commitments.
I express this sentiment succinctly—but, I think, politely. Decline to reschedule; say goodbye.
Dude no longer appreciates my initiative or ability to express and assert what I want.
I am now a bitch and that four-letter word, because I don’t politely, meekly, eagerly accept his excuses.
Thank you, patriarchy.
(I am reminded, again—Flora loves this—that straight and bisexual women are proof that sexual orientation is NOT a choice. No woman, enby or queerdo has ever called me a bitch because I’ve chosen not to sleep with them or decided not to see them again. Cis straight men on the other hand…)
I have a daughter, and on this International Women’s Day, I remind myself that I’m raising a bitch and a cXnt, not a nice girl, and I’m doing this on purpose.
I’d rather she was loud, abrasive, pushy, aggressive—did I mention loud?—than “nice,” a people-pleaser so terrified of giving offence she was forever violating her own boundaries, herself.
I find myself, constantly, on the verge of telling her to tone herself down—and I do not do this to my two boys.
Social programming runs deep.
Flora: Finally! You admit it!
Jane: The fact that you see it and are able to call me on it and I am able to hear you means I’m largely doing my job here.
I’d like to end this International Women’s Day rant with a shout out to my parents, who also raised a bitch and a cXnt and, for the most part, did not clip my wings. I was not an easy girl to raise, and they were growing me in a very hostile world. They taught me to take up space and to fight and to not play by unfair rules—then were a little shocked by how much to heart I took those lessons. But they had my back, they helped me fly.
And to my daughter—Keep on taking up space, keep being loud. And fighting. Shouting. Rewrite the unfair rules—call them out, break them. Continue to dismantle this unfair system until we need an International Women’s Day as little as we need an International Men’s Day, and we’re all just equal humans.
(Equal. Not the same. Seriously. I need to explain this again?)
I’m pretty sure you and your generation, you’re gonna do it.
As March 2020 morphs into March 2021—how has this damn month lasted a year?—I’m trying to gather myself into a mental health check in. People, we did it—we got through this year. Perhaps not well—but we did it. We’re here. When you’ve danced with darkness and despair, being here is victory. Don’t forget that.
All my most beloveds are still here and, if you know me in real life, you know that it’s been a fight to keep one of them tethered to the world for a while. But less so in the year that was March 2020 than in 2019, 2018, and for that, I am beyond grateful. And I’m thinking about bars.
Not pubs and restaurants—although they are open now in Viking Hell, have been for most of February. Also, cafes and my beloved sheesha lounges. And you know what? I’ve been a few times—mostly in the first week that they opened—and now, well. It’s not like before the pandemic, I went to the pub several days a week. Or even, like clockwork, once a week. And it’s like that again. I’m not at the Kensington Pub or the Ship and Anchor every week, and I haven’t even been to Betty Lou’s yet—although I do kind of feel like I live at Vendome—but I just really, really like knowing that they are there, open, available to me to go to when, if I want to go…
But I digress—bars. The bars I’m talking about are the bars we set ourselves and how the secret to contentment (I’m starting to think there is no such thing as happiness) is to recognize when you’ve got to drop the damn bar because clearing a low bar is more important than slamming into one that’s just too high.
This is a very counter-intuitive conclusion for me, because I’m all about the high bar, the higher, the better, the more unreasonable, the more adrenaline, the more difficult, the more satisfaction when you actually do it.
But in the year that was March 2020? The only bar to clear was “get through it.”
I have a text on my phone that I’m delaying answering right now.
“How are you? I feel that you are not asked this question in earnest most times. Correct me if I am wrong.”
I’m not fine—none of us is, unless we’re Fucked Up, Insecure, Neurotic and Egotistical, thank you, Ruth Zardo—but none of us is, so it’s a frustrating question to answer. “I’m fine” is a conversation closer, also, a lie. I don’t much feel like disclosing the messy truth, which includes moments of pure happiness interspersed with significantly more moments of panic, fear, frustration, and stress (none, incidentally, related to the infectiousness or fatality rates of COVID-19 but many the result of what the pandemic has done to our lives), against a background of overall exhaustion.
But I have plenty of people in my life who ask, how I am, in earnest. Who are willing to hear the complex answer. I’m just, for the most part, not willing to give it to them. Why inflict more confusion and negativity on a friend who’s already struggling to keep it together? I don’t want to talk about it—that’s not my way.
I write it down instead.
On Wednesday, I cook. The desire to create and make is intense, and coupled with a need to be real, practical and grounded. So I start chicken stock in the slow cooker in the morning, and I marinate bulgogi for the kids’ Sunday supper in the afternoon before freezing, and I research chicken wing dry rubs for their Thursday “looks like junk food but Mom made it so it’s kind of good for you” supper. Then I sweat and roast eggplant for one of those easy-but-finicky recipes about which I’ve learned, through trial and error, that ALL of the damn finicky steps matter, and the order in which you add the ingredients to the pan matters.
My apartment smells like heaven. I am… content. Almost happy.
But not fine.
Which is fine.
Shots of happiness will come a few days later, in the form of a voice mail from an elated client, a whipped mascarpone cheese dessert, a happy teenager. Not all of February sucked (although it was so very hard) and so far, in March, we’re all holding the line and then some, and soon, days will be longer than nights, and maybe we can even elevate the bar a little.
It’s Sunday, and I’m making plans. To do things. Like, actual things that don’t involve Zoom or live streams.
A Vivaldi concert that we booked back in the fall of 2020 has been scheduled and rescheduled and it looks like it’s actually going to happen at the end of the month. The Van Gogh Immersive Exhibition in Edmonton is a-go, and I’m betting against a third wave, getting tickets. I feel revitalized, alive.
Her: I’m going to continue isolating for a while more. You just can’t be too careful.
Jane: Fair enough. I pressure you not, I stop you not, I interfere with you not. Do you think that you could, in return, just take a deep breath and recognize that as much as you need to do everything possible to feel safe… I need IRL stimulation to feel alive?
In a moment of pure happiness, I burst into tears and cry. My love holds me. So many feelings. What a year.
Jane: I’m not sad, I just really, really need to cry right now.
You: I got ya.
Jane: You think it’s gonna be a good spring? A good summer?
You: Who da fuq knows. But we’re gonna get through it.
Set the bar low.
Yo. I’m talking to you. Er. myself. SET THE BAR LOW. I see the sun energizing you, and I see you fantasizing and dreaming and planning—not just concerts and outings, but the real, big ass stuff—and maybe don’t, not just yet. SET THE BAR LOW. Get through it. Survive. You hear me?
I do and I don’t—I’m trying, ok, yeah, set the bar low, but I think, maybe, it’s almost time to take a running jump at something harder, don’t you think?
How many curveballs can life throw at us in one year-long month?
One of my people—it’s good to have your people, isn’t it?—texts me much too early on a Monday morning with a marketing idea for my novels. I feel the love and enthusiasm in the suggestion and am only mildly irritated at how the concept shows a lack of understanding of both my industry and my target audience. I don’t say this to him, but my response to his (so very) enthusiastic barrage of texts betrays my lack of buy-in.
“You keep on telling me you’ve got to find new, not typical of the industry ways to do this stuff,” he points out. “So think about it. Is there a way to use this medium, this tool that nobody else in your field is using to work for you?”
He has a point—in fact, he’s quoting me to myself, don’t you hate it when people do that? I poke into my resistance a little more and arrive at this: he’s asking me to do more work, take more risks, stretch myself more, again—and OMG, it’s taking so much effort just to get out of bed and do the minimum these days, I really can’t…
I know there are people out there right now who can, who do, who are—and all the power to them. They’re gonna win and come out of this rich. Me, I hope, on the other side of this global disaster, I come out with my relationships to my children and my handful of key people more or less intact. And a manageable load of debt.
Some stories to tell.
Another day, another COVID-19 alert from Flora’s school. If you’ve got kids, this has also been your life in 2020/21:
Dear Parent or Guardian,
We have been notified by Alberta Heath Services (AHS) that a case of COVID-19 has been diagnosed in an individual from [our school].
Our school remains open to in-person learning for all students…
Yawn, I’m innured: that week, there are so many messages—five, six?—that I don’t even bother to open any of them until the quarantine notice from AHS—“As a close contact, your child is required to immediately quarantine for 14 days…”—appears in my in-box. And, fuq me, here we go, for the third time since October, Flora’s sidelined from school for two weeks. It wouldn’t matter so much, I guess, except a) mental health and b) Math 20 is a monster and the online support for quarantined kids is not great. I don’t, I can’t blame the teachers—they’re still expected to teach live classes for the non-quarantined kids, and the schools got no financial support from the provincial government for this year of stops and starts, interruptions, and unprecedented stresses.
Sorry. I’m as tired of complaining about this as you are of hearing me complain. Whatever. Another prophylactic quarantine—we’re all healthy. We test Flora right away—also, Cinder, because, well, long story—in a municipal warehouse converted into a massive drive-through testing facility. There’s an apocalyptic feel to the setting—all the staff in full safety gear, masks, goggles, and hazmat suits, burly, also masked, security guards directing traffic, but also ensuring nobody gets out of line, or out of their car?
We get the test results—negative!—in less than 24 hours. But Flora still has to stay in quarantine. The rest of us are a little confused—we’re free to roam, but she’s not?—but that’s par for the course.
I’ve been confused and mystified for a year now.
My upstairs neighbours are also quarantined. They’re feeling fine and symptom-free: just trapped. We’re a good building, so grocery deliveries and what not are arranged, and, also, nobody freaks out. This will make a good story when things get back to normal.
I often think, somewhat self-righteously, that in my building—just as in the Coop before it—we live the way people are supposed to live.
As a community.
The pandemic is shrinking our communities and making it harder and harder to maintain them. That, I think, is its true evil, its worst cost.
I’m supposed to be a guest on a podcast about creativity—“What makes people creative?” is its theme, the central question the host likes to explore. The host is one of those amazing people who are starting new things, creating with abandon during this time.
I feel like an impostor and I’m not sure why he wants me on the show.
Him: In the past twelve months, you’ve released three novellas, been in two best-selling anthologies, written two new novels, are in the middle of a third—there was that poetry project over Advent—and, always, your blogs. Never mind the ghosting. Woman. If you have impostor syndrome, what about the rest of us?
True fact: until he enumerates what I’ve done… I feel I’ve done nothing. And I think it’s because the work isn’t flowing. I’m pulling quarter-full buckets out of the well with my teeth, often crying while I’m doing it, and that’s on the good days. There is no flow, there is no joy—there are gritted teeth and a determination to do the work—except on the days when there is no determination to do the work and I just want to sleep.
This used to be fun.
I used to be fun.
The coffee I’m drinking this morning has a beautiful name: Nicaraguan Black Honey. I’m not sure I like it—it’s not bad but it’s different. Its flavours are subtle, nuanced—its taste changes in my mouth as I sip and swallow, reflect. I don’t have the vocabulary to describe what’s happening in my mouth.
Instead, I think… am I drinking too much coffee?
Am I drinking too much, period?
(The more I drink, the more candle holders I have and the more hedonistic my baths become—the thought makes me laugh.)
I pour myself another cup of coffee. Creativity sings in the cup. Creating, after all, is not mythical or mystical, despite the attempts of the pretentious to make it so. Creativity is, simply, making. Making a cup of coffee—boiling water, grinding the beans, bringing them together, pouring the result into a vessel of china, clay or glass (which is in itself a creation, a gift from its maker to you, the drinker). Up the supply chain—planting, harvesting, roasting the beans. Making soup out of whatever’s in the fridge. Making a meal out of saltine crackers, black market caviar and tins of sardines that fell off a truck somewhere on the way to the empty-shelved grocery store. Building a chair—a house. Turning a small pre-fab apartment into a cozy, unique home. Taking an empty bottle of Glenlivet and repurposing it as a candle holder. Knitting a scarf. Giving an old car new life. Rewiring a lamp…
Creativity is small and humble and quotidian—woven into every breath of life. That’s where it’s seeded, born, nurtured.
This morning, my well feels very empty but I have a deadline. I have to write, produce, create a lot. So I start small. Morning pages. Then, coffee. Next, a slowly, carefully prepared breakfast. A short, not-for-money, not-for-sale sketch of what creating during the pandemic feels like. And… ok. The well still feels empty, but I have enough in me to lower the bucket. I’ll pull something up. That’s the way it works.
Him: Can we talk about my marketing idea now?
Jane: Your make work project for me? No. Circle back to me in 2022.
For now: baby steps. A cup of coffee. A simple soup.
A carefully crafted gift of words or food for the people I love.
That’s how creativity works when you don’t think it’s happening.
Valentine’s Day has come and gone, another weird COVID holiday. Did you have a good time? I did, but it seemed to me, from the outside looking in, that it was a subdued affair, all around. Restaurants are open again in Viking Hell, but most folks I know chose to order in anyway. I’ve never really “celebrated” Valentine’s Day as a romantic couple—Sean and I had had a massive fight of mismatched expectations after our first Valentine’s Day as a couple and I dealt with it by abolishing Valentine’s Day forever more, and, since kids—and that’s been the last eighteen years of my life, I usually threw an unValentine’s Day party for people who didn’t have dates or couldn’t get babysitters. They were a lot of fun, those parties.
This year, I had 2/3 or my kids for an unValentine’s Day dinner–the eldest wanted to spend it online with this friends–which we ended by sharing a chocolate bomb from 8 Cakes, one of the participants in the YYC Hot Chocolate Fest 2021 (mini-review: great idea, mixed reviews on the execution—too sweet, too sweet, and all the colours merged into a quite ugly pale beige—still, it brought us joy, and showcased creativity, so, one thumb up, one thumb down, one neutral). Afterwards, a sheesha date—rose mint at Cafe Medina, I am so grateful my cafes are open again and I need them to survive, I need them to be here tomorrow and next fall and winter and next year. The day before, on Valentine’s Day Eve—this could be a thing—one of my loves and I gave ourselves diabetes by partaking in the YYC Hot Chocolate Fest and finding out how many cups of hot chocolate a person can drink in one five hour period.
(The answer is two, not five, OMG, my poor pancreas, and two is actually too much—one hot chocolate once a week or once a month or twice a year is about what one needs, really.)
So, COVID notwithstanding, month twelve (how has it been twelve months already) of the pandemic notwithstanding, ban on indoor social gatherings notwithstanding—please vaccinate the elderly and the vulnerable already, please, please, please—and my overall cynicism towards Valentine’s Day notwithstanding, I had a really terrific day and weekend. And as the weekend morphs into the week, I am thinking that, dammit, the Buddhists are right: happiness is a state of mind that comes from within.
Well, of course, there was all that chocolate. Surely that helped too…
The day after Valentine’s Day—it’s a Monday—why is it so hard to keep track of the days of the week, was that not just yesterday?—a friend stops by unexpectedly. He’s in the neighbourhood. “I thought I’d just stop by and give you a hug; it’s been a long time.” I am covered with red ink and cornstarch—it’s Ender’s homeschooling at Mom’s day and I’ve long abandoned copy work and math for kitchen science. We’ve been playing with Elephant’s toothpaste (google it) and oobleck (ditto).
I get cornstarch on my friend’s black winter coat while I rest against his shoulder, in his arms.
The hug is illegal, although I’m not sure of the monetary fine attached to it. If he comes inside, it’s a $1000 punishment.
Him: How are you? You look good.
Jane: Up and down to be honest. January was hell. February is better.
Him: That’s all of us now. But you look good. You look happy.
Covered in cornstarch and ink, wearing a stained lab coat over pajama pants, with untended, undyed hair—and ink on my fingers and face—I know I don’t look good. I look good—I look… happy.
I check in with myself as I say goodbye to my friend and go back to Ender.
Am I happy?
Feelings are weird, aren’t they? The result of chemical cocktails that, yes, are formed to a certain extent by our bodily reactions to external stimuli, actions, and behaviours… but, mostly, just made in the chemical factory that is you and me.
Am I happy?
I am stressed and stretched to the breaking point financially. I am worried about my children, on that day, especially, my eldest, who should be planning his future right now and he fucking can’t, who can? I am pondering if, perhaps, I need to rethink my career path and, instead of writing, dig graves or drive a bus, or, fuck, anything that brings in a steady, predictable stream of income instead of the random feast/famine of royalties and contracts. I miss you and her and him and them and parties and potlucks and art galleries. I am not certain about anything, I can’t plan more than a week ahead, and I’m afraid to read the news because I need another external negative stimulus like I need another non-paying “but it’s such good exposure, for such a good cause” contract.
And yet… with all of that…
All sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel the roughness of a carpet under smooth soles, a delight to feel heat strike the skin, a delight to stand upright, knowing the bones are moving easily under the flesh.
…I feel sunlight on my skin and bones and muscles under my skin and layer of pandemic fat… and I’m happy.
Hydrogen peroxide, dish soap and dry yeast just gave me and Ender a morning of pure happiness. The dog at our feet, spreading her fur everywhere—I really need to groom her—is pure love. My friend’s drive-by hug runneth a full cup over. My mom made me cabbage rolls the other day, OMG, they tasted like heaven in my mouth. Flora is researching the Polska Walcząca/Armia Krajowa emblem, a piece of her family heritage that’s been an unnoticed part of the furniture in the home all her life, but has now acquired interest and meaning. I love her passion—I love this apartment, today, especially, the temperamental fireplace—and I love the blue sky and sunshine we’re getting during this polar vortex—it’s beautiful and I love beautiful things.
The dark chocolate a friend drops off for me the Friday before Valentine’s Day—a Valentine’s present and a “you’re important to me always” gift in one—singing happy birthday to my upstairs neighbour in the hallway, a text, a phone call from a friend who’s far away, finding the missing sock from my favourite pair, driving Cinder to work and listening to him process… all of these things make me… happy.
Listening to M.C. Beaton’s cheesy murder mysteries on my earbuds—a gift from someone who loves me who couldn’t believe I was still using my frayed “well only one earbud works, and the mic is fried, but it’s good enough” pair—and watching The Inspector Lynley mysteries on Britbox—another gift from someone else who loves me? Ditto.
I am happy, I am loved.
I rest in this feeling.
I need to return a Service Canada call, to talk to someone about my EI/CERB application. I don’t want to—I hope filling out the form is the last minute voodoo I have to do before a new contract or sale materializes—god, for a $25,000 advance—it feels like it would solve all my problems and I won’t complain that it’s too small, promise, and I’ll work my ass off to earn it out and earn the publisher more money, promise, promise, promise—if only prayers really did work this way….
I look at the number I have to dial. I don’t want to. But I’ll do it. And then I’ll write and then I’ll look for jobs and something will materialize. It always does.
Him: You did look good. Happy.
Jane: I’m fine.
I’m not, really. It’s month twelve of the pandemic, and none of us are fine, all of us are broken and beaten up, and it is so cold outside—although warmer than yesterday, than last week—but we’re alive and I feel the sun on my skin. Do you?
I’m writing with one hand and petting Bumblebee with the other, scratching her under her chinny-chin-chin. Her eyes are narrowing in pleasure—now they’re closed. I stop petting and she paws at me—I resume scratching, this time, behind her ears. I’m good at this. I have three children—I’ve been writing with one hand while the other was holding, caressing a child most of my life.
It’s -28… -32 degrees Celsius—feels like -100—and I started my morning with a walk around the block with the beast. Now, there’s an impatient companion beside me as I write and her presence is both comforting and disruptive. It feels good, warm, relaxing—and then, she’s barking, interrupting what was about to become flow.
I soothe her, return to the page.
So far, February does not suck. It’s cold as fuck, but the sun has been out on most days and my Mom the ER nurse has been vaccinated, and you’re feeling more positive about life and so, I think, am I. The kids, I can’t say they’re thriving, but they’re doing ok. Cinder is working and Flora is battling math homework and Ender is playing video games with his friends. Happy, thriving? I don’t know, I don’t think so. But ok, coping. Can’t really ask for more, not in 2020.v.2
I’ve finally started writing 2021 more consistently as the current year’s date. Funny how hard it has been to let go of 2020—funny how, this year, January 1 did seem like the most arbitrary of milestones. What changed? Nothing, nada, nic. January 2021 seems to have belonged, in its entirety, for me and for you, to 2020.
February is beginning to feel like a new year, a new page, a new beginning.
On the first Friday in February, I give one of my loves an amazing birthday. We are both a little shocked by how amazing the night and our party of two turns out. He did not want to celebrate at all—“Everything is closed, nothing to do, can’t invite anyone, it will suck”—and the only counter I had to offer was, “But… balloons?”
But between the balloons, ice cream, psilocybin and Leonard Cohen, it was an unforgettable, amazing birthday.
Fuck you, COVID-19.
(Thank you, psilocybin. And ice cream.)
Humans are like cockroaches. We adapt. We can survive in any climate, on virtually any diet. We can find joy and happiness in month 12 of the pandemic.
(It has been twelve fucking months people, if you’re wondering why you’re going off your nut—it’s because it’s been twelve months.)
But please take your “If it weren’t for COVID, we never would have learned that…” meme and shove it where the sun don’t shine.
Just because we CAN make the best of a shitty situation doesn’t make that situation desirable.
Doris Lessing wrote, ““All sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel heat strike the skin, a delight to stand upright, knowing the bones moving easily under the flesh.” So it may be -100 degrees in Viking Hell, but today, again, it’s sunny and I feel the sun, and also biting frost, on my face as I walk the dog towards the kids’ house. I’m going to drive Ender the six blocks to my place, because I can spare him the frigid seven minute walk, and I’ve never understood how freezing your ass off and risking frostbite when you don’t have to builds character. We’re going to crank up the fireplace and drink hot chocolate and for lunch, I think, I’ll make spaghetti carbonara—make the house smell like bacon. It will drive the dogs crazy… but in a good way. I’ll drive Ender back to the coop, then take Cinder to work, pick him up . In-between, write, checkto see if Flora’s started reading Che Gueverra’s biography, eat some chocolate—crank up the fireplace.
The house will still smell like bacon when you come over for supper tonight, and it will be a good day.
The dog, now stretched out on the cold hardwood floor, and not demanding pets, agrees.
Morning. Coffee. Notebook. My morning pages usually start with a list like this—things, concrete objects—sometimes sounds and smells. Kettle boiling, whistling. Cinnamon on my fingertips. Traffic outside the window, or is that birdsong? And more words follow, eventually. Sometimes, I write about what I really think and feel. But often, I just skate on the surface and only document what I can touch. Pen. Paper. Notebook. Here I am, writing another word, making another sentence.
I am re-reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and am struck, again, by how both for Natalie and for Julia Cameron (author of The Artist’s Way and the reason I write morning pages), writing is not just a vocation, it’s a religion. Well, neither Natalie nor Julia would use that word. They’d say spiritual practice—they do say spiritual practice.
I am wary of the word ‘spiritual.’ Too many encounters with kooky ‘spiritual’ people have drained the word of positivity and power, just as too many encounters with the intolerant and the outright evil have stripped ‘religion’ of all that’s good for me.
But writing is definitely more than my job. It is my vocation, and it is my practice.
(No adjective necessary.)
I have a new WIP on the wall, and I explain to Flora the planning and tracking process. She reacts with teenage contempt.
Flora: Why are you telling me this? I’m not going to be a writer. You’ve made sure of that.
I’m a little stung. Why is that? I reflect. Do I whine, complain too much about the work? I do not mean it—I love it. I love the work. Do I act as if I do not love it?
Flora: Sure. You love it. But it’s SO MUCH work. For so little money, and like, no recognition—so much risk for so little reward.
And I’m stung again, that this most precious child of mine measures the worthiness of what I do by its financial success. If my books sold millions and made millions, maybe she’d want to be writer.
If her author-journalist mother was a famous, a household name, a TikTok meme, maybe she’d want to be a writer.
But all I do is write my insignificant, unfamous stories for audiences of 500, 1000—10,000 when I’m really, really lucky.
Her judgement stings, and looking at the story on my wall, I ask myself, not for the first time, why I bother to do this.
There are so many easier ways to make a living, pay the rent and the visa bill.
One word. Another one. Find yourself on the page—ground myself on the page. Document yesterday—find in it the kernel of a mystery i want to explore. Turn it into story. Find flow and peace—as well as frustration (oh, but it has a purpose) and pain (but it’s to a purpose and so bearable, necessary)—inside the work.
My morning pages often end with the beginning of a draft of what will be a public post—or the articulation of an idea I’ll explore later in a story, a poem. A novel.
Flora: It’s just journalling. Waste of time.
She has a lot of contempt for journalling, thank you, mental health professionals. It was as useful a suggestion for her at the height of her illness as bubble baths as self-care were for me.
Jane: No. It’s like doing your Tang Soo Do forms over and over and over again. It’s practice.
So I cracked the other day and I reached out to my friend of last resort. Do you have one, two? IT’s not quite what you think it is. For me, this is the rather surprising, unexpected person to whom I didn’t feel particularly close or connected to… but who life has shown me I can count on when the shit hits the fan. We need these people. We don’t necessarily love them, nor they us. We don’t see each other that often—if we see each other too often, we start to bore each other. But then…
Jane: Things are bad. I need help.
Him: I’m here for you.
And actually—that was enough. Often, that’s enough. A deep breath. A realization there’s still a safety net, someone to lean on if I must. And, a gathering—January is almost over. This cold snap is gonna be pretty short. I’m writing. I’m loved. You’ve got my back—I’m not gonna lean on you because you’re exhausted and brittle too, but I know you’re there. Surely, not much longer now…
Him: Friend of last resort? Really?
Jane: And what would you call me?
So now I think I might be able to call you—well. Take a breath but don’t hold it. Wait until March. The gathering is a process. January’s not quite over yet, and then, we still have to get through February. Brrr. March. We’ll talk in March. Perhaps in March, you’ll feel comfortable enough to leave your house and you know… hug me. Vaccine or no vaccine.
But if not—if you eed to wait until September, until 2022… I’ll be here for you.
At least… I’m pretty sure?
I’m a little worried about this, to be honest, but my worry is also proof that I’m shaking off the January blues. I’m thinking about the future, and that’s a big deal. Will I love you in March? In 2022?
It’s been a long, long time…
Him: A long time goes by between each of our encounters.
Jane: Yeah, but I don’t really love you.
Him: Remind me—why is it that I’m here for you when you need me, again, always?
Jane: I don’t know. You just are.
The pandemic has shrunk our social circles. Interrupted our connections. Will they resume when things get back to normal?
Some will. Some won’t.
I do think some people’s ability to connect socially, intimately with others will have been damaged, severely, and will take a long time to come back.
And some of us will be very, very empty… and not able to do the work we usually do in blowing on, reigniting the embers of friendship.
Him: It’s really not that hard. Look at me. Look at us.
Him: I’m here for you. I was here in January 2019. I was here in August. I’ll be here for you in March. Or September. Or 2022.
Jane: Maybe I do love you. A little.
I do love you, a lot, but it’s been hard to feel and to give that love recently. Do you feel that lack? Experience the same impairment? I think so, I think you must.
But I also think… it is almost over.
I feel a gathering.
Jane: I’m here for you.
You: I know. You were there for me even when you thought you weren’t.
Jane: How’s that a thing?
I don’t know. But it is. January is almost over. February is a short month. Some stupid trees are in bud already.
Him: Um… and is anybody here for me?
Jane: I’m here. Always.
PS Do you selfie when you’re moody? I pretty much never selfie when I’m fully happy and satisfied. I think it’s a way of making sure I still exist…
I’ve been sleeping a lot the past few months. In bed between nine and 10, out until seven or eight, and crawling out of bed with reluctance—then, on many afternoons, laying back down for a 20 minute nap—how has 90 minutes gone by, impossible! My energy during my waking hours has been decent. Not up to my standard—and honestly, I no longer know what that is. What is it on which I’m basing my expectations? Pre-pandemic? Pre-Flora’s illness? Pre-flood? Pre-children?
I don’t remember. I vaguely suspect that it’s always been a struggle—that I’ve always thought I should be doing more than I am, that I am never satisfied with what I manage to achieve.
I am trying, for the seventeenth or seventieth time in my life, to simply surrender to what is.
And what is right now—I need a lot of sleep.
Maybe it’s catch up—2019 and the first months of 2020 was a time of no sleep, interrupted sleep, bad sleep, waking nightmares.
Maybe body wisdom is a thing, storing sleep against the next bout of depletion.
Maybe it’s body wisdom reacting to nothing more than pure in the moment situation stress, depletion. I mean, people! Doing nothing and staying home? It’s exhausting. Taking the dog for a walk—did I walk too close to you when I passed you on the path?—is exhausting. Why did that woman give me a dirty look? Oh my god, I need to cough and sneeze—it’s allergies—am I going to freak people out? Should I go off path and cough in the bushes? Will someone push me into the river while I’m doing that, or scream a bunch of names at me as they walk by, because, the pandemic is turning people into assholes?
I’m going to have a nap when I get home.
Being with my children is exhausting—exhilarating, because this time is suddenly so precious, but also, different, weird—exhausting. On the nights that they are over, I go to bed, drained, as soon as I take them home—which is no longer my home. On my days with Ender, when I take him back and get to my solo home, I lay down to recharge, to release all the feelings—not all of them good, all of them exhausting.
Being with people is exhausting. There aren’t that many people I’m allowed to be with right now, and most of them are drained, strained, and exhausted, and we irritate rather than feed each other—we feed each other’s dark. I see you, and I need a nap. Or ten hours of sleep.
Well. And so be it. So it is. I think. At least I’m able to sleep, and my sleep is deep and restful. And when I do get out of bed, even on the days I don’t really want to do so, I do most of the things I have to do. That’s got to be enough. Right?
I think one of the reasons I feel guilty about how much I’m sleeping is because most of my friends seem to be suffering from life-inflicted insomnia—and the ones with little kids, of course, hardly ever get enough sleep. Me, I am. And it’s wonderful and delirious, really. I mean, I wish everyday life didn’t drain me as much as it’s draining me right now—but damn. The fact that I can sleep ten hours a night?
Why am I feeling guilty about that, at all? It’s not as if my abundance of sleep is taking away from your abundance of sleep in any way, is it?
And it’s not like crawling into bed at 9 pm is keeping me from doing anything. Well. I guess I could be writing into the night… but. These days, I need to sleep instead.
It’s 8 am. I was in bed 9:30’ish last night, asleep shortly after 10. Up at 7. I’ve walked the dog, written my morning pages, done a writing spring, and now, this blog post. Drank half a bodum of delicious coffee.
Another writing sprint now, maybe even a third before breakfast and a hike to the Coop to see Ender, check on Flora, walk the dogs. Drive to pick up Cinder from work—that will take me to 2:15 pm, and after that, I’ll probably need a nap. In the afternoon, what? Another writing sprint after the nap. Maybe editing. Make supper for the kids—brace myself for their complex moods and emotions. Try to hold space for all of them, value all of them. Walk them home (not my home) afterwards, heart aching. Walk the dog. Crawl into bed at 9 pm, exhausted.
I think, when the sun comes back, I might want to meet you for an evening walk or drink. Chat, hang out. Right now… I need to sleep.
PS And with all of that—OMG, I miss you and I miss dancing and parties and concerts and all of the things we used to do together. And also, I don’t want to talk to you, at all. All of this can be true all at the same time. It all gets sorted out while I sleep.
It’s ok to be sick of your limited social circle right now. The two, four or fourteen people who have been your household—COVID cohort—shrunken support network for the past ten months? They’re lovely people. And you love them. Well, you loved them. But now, you’re sick to death (almost) of them)—you don’t want to hear any more of their stories—you’ve heard them all, actually—everything they do irritates you, every flaw, once endearing, now magnified a thousand times…
It’s all right. They are annoying as fuck. They suck. Ok, yes, they’re great people. You’re just sick of them. And that’s ok, it’s normal—it’s ok.
I know that Sally and Molly over there have just grown closer and more Hallmark greeting card co-dependent over the pandemic, posting pictures of disgusting harmony, love, and perfectly nested, delighting fully in each other co-existence. They even work from the same home office. AT the same desk. All is love and perfection. Sick of each other? They are even more in love now than they were before COVID hit.
It’s ok. They’re the freaks here—or outright liars. Probably, actually—they’re the liars. You and your not-so-low-key homicidal rage towards people you live with and (used to) love?
That’s what’s perfectly normal.
You’ve spent so much time with each other, with no external distractions, limited coping techniques. You’re grating on each other like never before.
Of course you’re sick of your people. They’re sick of you too. And the only way to take a break from each other is to be completely alone—and that can be difficult to accomplish during lockdown when you’re locked down together—also, how many solo winter walks can one person take?
My January blues manifest in a visceral dislike of all of my friends. I don’t return texts (now you know why, sorry, I’m so sick of you, no, it’s nothing you’ve done, you just exist, go away). I don’t make plans. I fantasize about Cuba. Then, suddenly, I go online in search of strangers—for the love of god, give me a new person, a new conversation, anything other than this, anything other than you.
You: I feel really unloved here.
Jane: Tell me you don’t feel the same way about me?
So. I come bearing absolution. For you. for me. Of course we’re sick of each other. OF course we want to run away.
Of course we feel trapped.
Her: And you could call me! You haven’t seen me in six months and, well, I still won’t see you, because pandemic, but we could talk on the phone and…
Jane: Weirdly enough, I’m sick of you too. So, no.
One of the hardest things about being the project manager of your life—the hardest thing about being the project manager of your life—is that when the project is going off the rails and you’re stressed, exhausted, maybe depressed, definitely a lot mess… the people around you still treat you as the project manager.
The one in charge.
Them: “What’s the solution?” “What should we do?” “Tell me if there’s anything you need!” “How can I support you? Just tell me!”
Project Manager: I need you to stop asking me to find jobs for you—for the love of god, seize some initiative and figure out a way to help and lessen my load on your own, and if you’re not competent enough to do that, just leave me da fuq alone!
Them: She’s having a bad day. It’s probably PMS.
It makes sense, really. If you’re generally a with-it person, in charge of the controllable aspects of your life, with high executive function and all of that, the people in your life get used to you taking initiative. Organizing things, planning things. Seeing shit through. You tell them what to do, where to go, how to contribute, on what timeline, in what order. They do it, shit gets done.
I used to even plan and make all the arrangements for my crashes and breakdowns—okay, Mom can take Ender for a sleepover on Wednesday, maybe I can sell Flora to her friend for the day and even night, Cinder will be okay on his own for a few hours, I’m gonna go scream in the woods for four hours, pick up pizza on the way home, all will be well—I just have to make it through Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday morning—all will be well, I got this.
It’s when you step out of that role—fall out of it with a loud thunk—that things go sideways. You stop the planning and the managing, your people freak out because that’s not the way this has been working—nobody’s in charge, chaos, help—you get pissed because they’re useless drones who can’t figure out how to do anything without explicit instructions—and, odds are pretty good that after a brief freak out, you take a deep breath and find, somewhere in your heels, just enough juice to project manage them through your crisis… or push your crisis off until next Thursday, when you’ve got some time in the project of your life for it. No? Not next Thursday? Sunday the 24th? Perfect. Let’s do it then…
So you do it. But you hate it and resent it. Worst of all, you learn, over and over again, that when you’re broken, an exhausted mess? You’re still the project manager of your life, and you are in a really dysfunctional, unsupportive organization. There is no CEO or team lead or colleague watching out for you. You can’t count on anyone else to pick up the slack.
Extreme self-reliance, the psychologists say, is a form of trauma response. It’s taught by experience, circumstance. Shit goes down—past experience has taught you that you’re on your own. So, you take a deep breath, and you say, “I got this. I’m gonna get me, us out of this. The rest of you, just don’t get in my way, that’s all.”
I recognize that I do this. Unfortunately, most of you are useless in a crisis—you’re not that useful when things are chill to be frank—but it’s fine. I got this. I’ll get me out of this—while I’m at it, I’ll get you out of this. But, to be clear—I’m gonna resent you the whole time. For fuck’s sake, can’t you do anything to help me, ever?
January blues. Shitty anniversaries. Triggers. The good thing about documenting one’s inner and outer life is that one has a record—of the good and the bad. One is braced for a tough December, a really horrible first week of January. One plans for it, and one survives it. (One talks about oneself in the third person as a dissociative coping strategy—try it—apparently it’s not recommended by neither the positivist psychologists nor the vestigial Freudians—how is Freud still taught as anything other than a historical curiosity?—but it’s damn effective in creating some distance between oneself and unpleasant experiences.)
One doesn’t expect the second week of January curveball and one is hammered by it, but one knows what to do, more or less, sort of.
Them: Write piles of self-indulgent, incomprehensible crap in the gender-neutral third person?
Jane: You smoke weed, I write. Writing is free and doesn’t make my clothes smell like skunk.
Her: And your hair. Your hair stinks.
Them: Why is everyone picking on me?
January blues. I go inward. I will love you, I think, again in February. Well. No. That’s too soon. March. Right now though, I’m a bowl of resentment. Ball of resentment? I like the image of a bowl—a bowl, ceramic, colourful—so pretty—of swirling, surging, black-and-purple resentment that I’m holding tight to my chest. If I eat from the bowl—and I want to—I’ll ingest poison.
I’m on my own, I’m alone, no one can help me.
A few weeks—months—not years, but it feels like it, a friend gave me two bags of Superstore no-name brand frozen Chicken Parmigiana that he thought were, well, too disgusting to eat.
Him: For your kids? Kids like shit like this.
I’m not going to read the ingredient list to you. Maybe, there was chicken.
Flora: Wow, this is crazy. The first bite is really good, but then, as soon as you stop chewing, you feel like you’ve eaten plastic…
Ender loved them. Absolutely loved them.
Jane: What do you want for lunch when you come over tomorrow?
Ender: Chicken pizza!
Ender: You know? Those delicious chicken pockets? Like the chicken with cheese and tomato sauce inside it?
I love my Ender, but God I hate Superstore, and also, Sean needs the car tonight, and also, I have so much work to do today and I’ve lost so much time already and OMG, I’m not going to give my son what he wants for lunch tomorrow, I’m a failure as mother, I might as well just crawl into bed and die, there is no hope, no point, I’m on my own but I can’t actually get enough with it to go to the store to buy Ender lunch, I…
It does not actually have to play out like this.
Jane: Is there any chance you’re going to Superstore tonight?
Him: Yes. What do you need?
I’m pretty sure he was not planning to go to Superstore until I text. But that’s what friends do. They show up…
Jane: That inedible Chicken Parmigiana, you know what I mean?
Him: One pack or two?
Breathe. Not alone. Not unsupported. Still the project manager of my life, cause that’s the way the world goes, but not unsupported. I ask for what I need and it comes to me—I accept it with reverence and gratitude.
Ender gets his Chicken Parmigiana. My Mom shows up the next day with won ton soup, bacon and a bag of frozen seafood—I can put off the Superstore or Costco horror trip for a few more days.
A project manager’s fantasy is, I think, a team member who can read your fucking mind, anticipate what you need—see the gap and fill it. You know. A future project manager in the making, really—the person who’s gonna take your job from you and you can’t wait for them to do it, to be honest, because this job kind of sucks, but also, you’re a control freak, and so you’d only work for a project manager who is more competent than you, and what are the odds of that? Such project managers and such employees are rare, unicorns. (In workplaces, they are, by the way, called office wives. Telling, no?)
A satisfactory team member is one who does what you ask them to do and embraces increased responsibility as you hand it to them.
Sigh. So be it. The team is a collaborative, interdependent unit.
But someone has to be in charge.
And, really. I do want to be in charge of my life. Don’t you?
Today, though, I’m taking a mental health day, going for walk, screaming in the woods.
You: Is there anything I can do to support you in this?
Jane: Stop asking me for shit and get out of my way. I mean—um, no. Thanks. I got this.
I’ll give you further instructions on how to contribute tomorrow.
PS Well, this is weirder than I had planned. Did it upset you? Breathe…
We’re just sitting here, not doing very much, me and the dog. She’d really like me to finish up doing not very much and take her for her second walk, but she hasn’t become obnoxious about it yet—just the occasional look and sigh. Being in the house is boring. The outside world calls. There’s snow outside and run through, and smells to discover—new dogs to meet.
“Soon, Bumblebee,” I tell her. “I need just a little bit longer to do nothing, right here.”
I’ve had a really productive week and, thus far, weekend, and so I feel allowed, justified to do nothing right now. Glorying in it, really—thinking that after I walk Bumblebee and commune with nature and give my body fresh air and exercise, I will return to doing nothing, and feeling good about it. It seems like that kind of day. The kids are coming for supper but my mother made a Babi dinner for us yesterday, and I resisted the urge to send it to Sean’s house with the kids, so I don’t even have to cook tonight. Here I am, sitting. Staring into space—it’s almost meditation. Reading The Artist’s Way again, and sipping black coffee, and thinking that maybe I should return your texts, but, you know, that feels like work right now, so, actually no… doing nothing, feeling okay about it.
I’ve done nothing a lot over the past six, nine, twelve months, but most of the time, feeling nothing does not feel good, right? I mean—oh, what do I mean—I mean, like with so many things, it comes down to choice. Right now, in this moment, I am choosing to do nothing, to rest in this space, and it feels great.
Last month, I did nothing, a lot, because I felt incapable of doing anything, and so I wanted to act, but I couldn’t, and I did nothing, and it felt awful…
Today’s nothing feels so good.
I worked. I met deadlines. I finished—even though the circumstances were hard and, to be honest, I did not want to do the work very much, and it was hard to focus and think. But I did it.
And I went grocery shopping and did the kitchen laundry and tidied my apartment—washed the floors, even—and I did not bail on the one social commitment I had made for the week. And yesterday I did all the things I was supposed to do, both for myself and for others.
And I said no to some other ones.
And so today… I get to do nothing.
The dog is getting agitated. The nothing is about to be interrupted by a long walk, during which I will listen to an audiobook, and think about nothing.
And after which I might have a nap.
A friend wanted to watch movies with me today… but that seems like something. I’m not sure I’m up for it.
Ok, people, something is wrong. Very badly wrong. Time is not working the way it should, and if this was an episode of Star Trek—I’m watching Star Trek: The Next Generation in the background of some of my life—Data would have already noted this discrepancy and we’d all be trying to pull Spaceship Earth out of the event horizon-anomaly-vortex-thingy.
But it’s not Star Trek, it’s real life, and we’re stuck.
We’ve all been commenting on this phenomenon throughout the past year. “This year has lasted a week and a decade.” “The last five months have been the longest five years of my life.” “How is it still Tuesday?” “How is it Friday already?”
Time is just not working the way it’s supposed to.
What’s most concerning to me is that, theoretically, I should have more time. Right? I mean—there’s no place to go. Nothing to do. No one to do it with. (Apologies to my COVID cluster, whom I’ve been ignoring for the past two weeks—I’m so sick of you. Aren’t you sick of me? I mean, I don’t even want to text you any more right now. “What are you doing?” “Nothing. You?” Ugh. I’d rather be alone than bored with you, true fact, I know I’m a terrible human being, deal with it, you’re not that awesome either.)
(Um. Sorry about that. Pandemic, lockdown, eternal darkness in Viking Hell, January Blues, you know. I’ll love you again after the Equinox.)
Where was I? No place to go. Nothing to do. No one to do it with. I should be awash in hours and hours of time that I’d be struggling to fill with god, I don’t know, yoga, meditation, writing, exercise, learning Farsi.
(I’m still on Chapter 1 of my Conversational Farsi textbook. I. Can’t. Remember. Anything. But my calligraphy is getting marginally better… I now write like a four year old, rather than a three year old.)
Instead—blink. Snap. The day is gone—I have accomplished a quarter, a tenth of the not very much I was planning to do and, fuck me, tomorrow is half over too—how is that possible?
Some of this is due to the low grade depression most of us are in (some of us are in full blown depression; when a friend of mine called the Canada Suicide Prevention hotline last week1-833-456-4566—they got put on hold), some of it is due to the lack of external time/schedule anchors in our work-at-home, learn-at-home, stay-the-fuck-home-unless-you’re-a-politician-with-a-timeshare-in-Hawaii orders, and some of it might actually be the rsult of the Earth spinning faster now—I saw the headline of a study to that effect th eother day but, you know, I didn’t have the time to read it.
So I went through a thing with you the other night, when you were feeling all the feelings, but then, on top of that, shame for feeling all the feelings, and I think I helped you, a little, but through it all, I also got feelings—followed by shame about having those feelings—and so today, I find myself pondering—where does that shame about having feelings and emotions come from? I don’t think it’s biological, innate, and inevitable, because it makes no sense—it does not help us survive. It’s destructive, actually, and traps us in horrid spirals. The Buddhists and the yogis, and most psychotherapists, teach you to look at your thoughts and feelings (they don’t always separate the two) dispassionately, without judgement—without shame. But we judge. That’s our go-to. We shame.
Let’s take the generic pandemic-related feelings most of us are feeling these days—frustration, depression, anxiety, anger. Really. All the feelings. “I can’t cope.” “This sucks.” “Pain.” “Alienation.” “Loneliness.”
Fury at strangers, because they’re not wearing masks–because they are…
Isn’t there a layer of shame and judgement on top of each of them? “Why is this so hard?” “What’s wrong with me that I can’t cope?” “So many people have it so much worse—why am I so unhappy? What right do I have to feeling this much pain?”
Every right. Cause it’s your feeling. Your pain. Your level of emotional exhaustion and depletion. Your particular hormonal cocktail.
Isn’t it hard enough feeling all the feelings in the first place without feeling ashamed that you’re having them?
No—stop! Now you’re feeling ashamed that you’re ashamed—stop, stop, stop!
(What am I doing? I’m not supposed to tell you to stop how you’re feeling…)
Eat some chocolate.
You: You know chocolate is a junk food and not a medicine, right?
Jane: Lie. It’s medicine, and also, a food of the gods. See Sophie & Michael Coe’s The True History of Chocolate; also, Marcela Presilla’s The New Taste of Chocolate; also—this one is the most depressing, tbh, but sometimes, knowledge hurts—Kay Frydenborg’s Chocolate: Sweet Science and Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat.
I work through my shame in the morning on the page, write my way to being at peace with the ugliest of my feelings. You, I don’t know, I hope you slept deeply and dreamed of beautiful things, and woke up willing to accept all the feelings as part of who you are right now. No shame necessary…
But now, no longer feeling shame, I wonder if instead of dissipating it, we just need to name it and accept it. “I feel—frustrated, angry, suicidal. I feel ashamed of these feelings, because, Christ, things aren’t that bad, really, and yet I feel inadequate, incompetent, a failure. I feel all of these things. And that’s ok. It sucks, but it’s also ok…”
I kinda feel like re-reading Brene Brown on shame (cause she thinks there’s a reason for shame– https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0), and also, maybe, meditating, cause I need to come down a little more, and also, eating chocolate cake, but I have neither flour nor coco powder in the house, should I go shopping? No. I also feel like writing, so I’ll work instead. Julia Cameron says, “The trick is to metabolize pain as energy,” and dammit if she’s not right.
I’m gonna check in on you later, and I’m sure you’ll still be feeling all the feelings. Including shame. But maybe, less powerfully? And that’s okay. That’s you right now. And I love you as you are. In the pain, and in the shame.
[Note for non-Alberta readers: I don’t usually write place-specific posts, but this one is necessary, bear with me. We’ve been in a fairly strict lockdown over Christmas—pretty much everything’s shut down (except malls and churches) and no indoor or outdoor social gatherings between households are allowed. That’s right. Most of us couldn’t see our family and friends over Christmas. Meanwhile, a bunch of our politicians went on vacations. We the voters… are unimpressed.]
I had an incredibly vivid dream last night that I was having an illegal COVID-19 lockdown party. It started just with me and you in my living, and then you asked if he could join us, and he brought a friend, and the friend brought a kid—who brought my kid—and before I had blinked my eyes twice, there were six or seven people in my living room and on the patio. And then, an AHS health officer with a Foothills Hospital ER ID (vivid, did I mention) around his neck, and then two cops writing everyone $1000 tickets for violating the public health order, at which point—in my dream—I list my shit and announced that I would only pay these if the motherfuckers who went on “essential because it’s a family tradition” Christmas trips be fired, maybe drawn and quartered too.
I woke up—alone—and really pissed and there’s just one thing I need to scream. Two, actually. First, if you’re a private person, Joe Blow, and you went to Hawaii, Las Vegas, Saskatchewan or Eastern Canada for Christmas during the Alberta lockdown despite the Canada-wide advisory against non-essential travel… whatever. Your call, your judgement, your risk, your life—I can’t be 100 per cent sure I wouldn’t do the same if I had the money and if I didn’t have children.
But if you’re my elected government representative and your government has just ruined my Christmas tradition, and maybe, in the process, put me out of business—no. No. You don’t get to go to Hawaii for Christmas. Yes, I am holding you to a higher standard than Joe Blow. You work for me, you told me to grit my teeth and suffer, and then you fucking went to the beach with your extended family.
Second, and this had much worse results for public health in Alberta… The key consequence of Hawaii-gate is that I’m much less inclined to follow the lockdown rules. Was that the plan, Jason, Tracy? Mission accomplished. Before, I was resenting them but mostly complying. Now, to be honest, I feel there is no point. Why should I deny myself and suffer while my leaders… well, lead by example?
(Bet they all went Boxing Day deal shopping too.)
Stay home, my ass.
Do whatever you like, and screw the consequences—that’s what Alberta’s political elite (what a joke) have told us to do this with their behaviour holiday season.
Packing for Hawaii right now—in my dreams—licking airport washroom door handles—in my nightmares—wondering if politicians will ever NOT disappoint me.
Remember this come the next election, people.
PS Everyone who does communications / strategic consulting work for the UCP needs to be fired as well. I mean. Seriously. As a communications professional… I just pretty much can’t. I will be teaching the UCP’s handling of COVID-19 as a textbook “Here is how not to do this” for years.
Do you remember—if you’re a writer, artist, I bet you’ve done this in your artistic infancy—getting a new notebook, a new sketchbook, a thing of perfect beauty and also, infinite potential, in its blankness, newness? It is untouched, unblemished. So full of potential.
This is how every January 1 seduces us—this is sort of how I feel, on a small scale, on every Monday. Potential perfection, here I come. This week—this year—everything will be better, different, more… perfect.
Happiness though, and life, lie in the acceptance that… actually… well… at 12:01 on January 1, 2021? Things, people—you, me—are much the same as they were at 11:59 on December 31, 2020.
So. No New Year’s Resolutions here. No hopes, dreams or plans either, really, to be honest. The bar is pretty low: I want to be employed and solvent, healthy and sane. Loved and loving. Alive and glad to be alive. That’s where the bar got set in 2020, which is much better than the bar for 2019 (“Survive, fuck, survive, can we get through this?”—we did, more or less).
In my Morning Pages, January 1 is just another page in a notebook started on December 12. In life, it’s a pretty glorious day—it begins with dancing (turns out you can have an all-night dance party with just the people you’d spend most of your time with at the all-night dance party you’d go to if there weren’t a lockdown) and ends with Ender in my arms, on my lap, on my head in all his giant, almost as heavy as me but still a child glory, as the kids and I watch Community after playing Qwerkle. In-between, all three children at my table, slurping Pho and making terrible jokes, a good book, a lot of “Happy New Year! May 2021 not suck—or at least suck less—god, I’ll see you, hug you, hold you in 2021, right?” texts. Also, a walk with the dogs, and the weather is warm although not sunny. Also, memories and reflection—and they’re not all bad.
Gratitude suffuses me. And they’re right, those trite memes and those wise sages: practicing gratitude changes everything. I am grateful for this moment and this feeling; I am grateful for you. I am grateful for this ridiculous, annoying, giant dog that sheds long hair everywhere; I am grateful for this cozy, cute apartment that’s a five minute sprint away from my kids—I am so grateful for my beautiful, mostly thriving children.
When you—when I, anyway—practice gratitude, there are no mistakes or regrets. Although there is still pain…
So. 2021. Hello. Don’t suck. I’m grateful to be here, and I will ride your bumps and slings and arrows… but. Like. Don’t suck. Suck less. Fulfill some of the potential promised by your blank page… in a, like—I don’t want to say “positive,” lol, because 2020 has made meaning of that word loaded—in a, let’s say, productive, powerful, purposeful way. That leads to good, beautiful, worthwhile things.
In return, I promise to whine less and be thankful more. Deal?
(The year doesn’t answer; being a fictional, artificial construct of our collective imaginations—well, except for the whole scientific Earth travelling around the sun bit.)