It’s coming on a year since I’ve moved out of the matrimonial house, four blocks over, to a 100-year old furnished garden flat in which I’d spend most of the pandemic.
What a year, people. May none of us ever have to live through such a one.
It’s pandemic-related stresses were such that I’m not sure I really processed—addressed—reflected on the big questions, the end of my 20-year-long marriage. Which I refuse to see as a failure, by the way, even though pretty much everyone around me is trapped in that story. I—we—made things work for 20 years. We worked through some tough shit. And in the end, we decided we didn’t want to keep on working through the same shit for another 20 years. Kudos to those of you who will keep on having the same conflict, the same conversations for the rest of your lives. I thought I could do that too.
In the end, no.
I am still not sure—I will never be sure—if, for the kids, it was the best decision. We were always functional—amazing—co-parents. And I am still not sure—I will never be sure—that the kids get that they were never the problem, or the source of any of our conflicts. And I am not sure—will never be sure—that they understand that I moved out and I left the marriage but I didn’t leave them. It doesn’t matter how many days and how many suppers and how many outings there are—I know it’s not the same as having me there 24/7. I see Ender every day, Flora most days, and the 19-year-old—and living on his own now!—Cinder a couple of times a week… for me, it’s not enough, it’s never enough.
It will never be enough. I will never be sure—with all of that, I don’t regret having acted.
So, there’s that.
Action is better than inaction. That’s my personal take on Krishna’s advice to Arjuna as paraphrased by Stephen Cope in The Great Work of Your Life: “Do any actions you must do, since action is better than inaction; even the existence of your body depends on necessary actions.” (He also says that inaction itself is a type of action, but let’s leave that aside for now.)
The pandemic did keep most of us in some state of not chosen inaction, did it not? What actions, over the past year and a half, have you not taken?
I am thinking about this now—future actions, delayed actions.
It was—for me, for you—in so many ways a year of survival.
What now, what next?
The post-pandemic new normal—please, not another lockdown, please, no super-spreader events or vaccine-resistant variants, please, do not take the people I love away from me again—starts for me on a hard note. I’m losing one of my loves to distance and what the pandemic has taught me is that we—not just me—stop loving the people we can’t touch.
Yes, we do—you’re attached to your family in Colombia, Iran, Egypt, Poland much less than if you were there with them, your daily WhatsApp, Telegram exchanges notwithstanding. It’s not the same. It’s not even methadone… it’s pictures of gourmet meals when you’re starving.
Think about how most people’s understanding, compassion for strangers and neighbours alike eroded as the pandemic progressed. Proximity matters. Close physical contact matters—when you move away, I lose you, no matter how many promises to text, call, visit we make.
I will miss you. So fucking much.
My future-planning ability has been severely impacted by the pandemic. I mean—even grocery shopping for the week versus the day is hard. When you ask, “What are your plans for the summer?” you trigger a mild panic attack. Plans? What are those?
I’m still largely in “I’m just doing my best to survive—I’m just getting from day to day” mode.
But the crisis is over.
We must live as if the crisis is over, anyway—I at least must live as if the crisis is over. You do you.
Her: I had very bad dream. You were hiding things from me. You said you did it not to hurt my feelings and I was so sad and crying—I’m still crying. You betrayed me. You broke my heart.
Jane: Oh, those dreams are the worst. But, um… do you forgive me?
Her: You broke my heart.
Jane: But do you forgive me?
It takes some wheedling, but the upshot of it is that she’ll forgive me, eventually, but I should probably take her out for a drink on sunny patio first. And as I feel guilty for having betrayed her in her dream, and as she feels still betrayed, I marvel at the human mind and its capacity to create stories and a “Why” out of flotsam and jetsam.
Let me be clear: I know I did not “betray” (what a heavy word) my friend, and she knows I did not betray her. But the feelings, damn, so real.
And the thing is, a kernel of truth: I never tell her, anyone, everything. Not so much to protect them, but to…
You: Protect yourself?
…because it’s none of their business. My aches, my pains, my dark? My own.
Go wallow in your own angst; mine is not for exhibition.
Jane: Are you dying or something?
Jane: You are being so nice and accommodating.
Him: I’m being nice to you and you think I’m dying? I’m always nice to you. I love you.
He loves me, but he’s not always nice to me, and he’s rarely accommodating. But, ok, thinking that he’s dying because he wants the camping trip to be exactly the way I want it to be, even if it means hauling a pack of firewood into the backcountry might be an over-reaction.
Him: You ever think that maybe you should think less?
All the time. But it’s hard. The neurons fire, pathways form and I start to look for a cohesive narrative.
Him: Could you find one that does not involve me dying?
Jane: Are you moving away?
I take a half day on Friday to pick up a friend from the airport and drive her 90 min out of town. I have no idea what the current state of restrictions in Alberta is right now and I don’t care. But I remember the “illegal” rides I gave to friends in 2020—several of them for COVID-19 tests—and I find myself thinking, again, how the public health policy initiatives during the pandemic constantly favoured capitalism over the human need for social connection, and how it was clear that most of the policy makers just did not have friend or family obligations and most will die alone in long-term care homes with no visitors, not because karma, but because that’s the life they’re building.
(I’m talking to you, Jason Kenney.)
You: Where the hell is that vituperation coming from? Or going?
Jane: Wait for it.
I bump into a friend walking on the river path, one I haven’t seen for months…
Them: I’m double-vaxxed! Can we hug?
I fold them into my arms. A two, three, five minute hug. We’re not that close—have we hugged like that before?
We don’t want to let go.
Jane: OMG, I’ve missed this so much.
Them: I know. I hear you’re licking everyone now?
Jane: Damn right I am. (Lick)
Them: More gross and less exciting than I expected. Still. Thank you.
We hug again.
After I pick up my friend the airport, we go for sheesha, to a place we love, with service staff we adore. We talk about this and that, and then I drive her the 90 minutes home. It’s hot hot hot and my car has no A/C. The windows are open. We can’t talk.
It doesn’t matter.
When I get back, I meet the vivid dreamer for a drink. Which she doesn’t let me pay for, because she’s still not ready to forgive me.
Another friend joins us. We talk about this, that and the other. My phone rings.
Him: I’m at MEC. So what exactly do you want to eat on the camping trip?
I am 100 per cent sure now that he’s dying.
Jane: I will eat whatever you bring.
Him: French onion soup with croutons and cheese?*
He’s probably not dying.
He’s moving away.
Jane: But seriously. Have you forgiven me yet?
Her: No. I probably will. Eventually. But you really, really upset me.
Dream crimes. They’re the worst and apparently, utterly unforgivable.
Jane: But you still love me and we can still hang out while you’re mad at me?
Her: Of course.
PS *This only makes sense if you know I’m allergic to onions, and eat a mostly gluten-free, diary-free diet.
You: This makes no sense.
Jane: Again, why do you always criticize me? Screw off.
I turn many numbers this weekend—47, how did that happen?—and as always when I have an odd-numbered birthday, I miss the symmetry of the even years. I don’t like the odd years—I really don’t like the prime years. And 47? Just look at it. Say it—47. It’s predecessor and successor, 46 and 48, have weight and balance. What can you do with 47? You can’t even divide it, except by one and itself.
You: Feeling old and fixating on the aesthetics of your digits rather than the fact that all life is a relentless march towards death, and also, anytime now, menopause?
Jane: Shut up. I’m going to be young forever.
Well. No, That’s never been my ambition. I’ve never been in love with youth and I’ve never feared either wrinkles or death—although, while we’re being honest, Hollywood and Vogue have done enough of a number on me that I fear extra pounds and tricep flab—why do you think I’ve turned not eating bread and pasta into a religion? Vanity, pure and simple.
Anyway—47. A second pandemic birthday. My first one post-divorce. Everything’s closed and there’s snow in the forecast—why do I live here? A few days before the birthday, “Why do I live here?” peaks. I want to pack, run away—Vancouver, Montreal, Cuba.
Then a friend shows up on my doorstep at 6:30 a.m. with a gluten-free chocolate cupcake and you tell me you’ll buy me a piñata and she says yes, she’s making the Egyptian baklava-style dessert for my birthday cake, of course, and my mom texts, “Black Forest cake for Sunterra, as always?” and Ender clamors for a birthday sushi dinner while Flora slyly steers him towards Chinese… and I remember why I live here.
I still don’t love this number, weird and indivisible prime. But I only have to wear it for a year. One of the really lovely things about life is that everything changes, and nothing is forever. Even inscriptions carved in stone fade, with time.
Nineteen years ago—19 is also a prime number, how about that—on my 28th birthday, I hoped my first-born would arrive as a birthday present. He came three days later—although “came” is probably the wrong term, cause he sure did not want to leave the uterus, that one, thank the virgin goddesses of childbirth for Oxytocin, also, epidurals.
Since then, the May long weekend has felt like one prolonged family birthday—lovely and exhausting. My not-so-little eldest turns 19 today, but he’s with his dad today. My time was yesterday. It was all right—for me, it felt all right? For him? Does he appreciate, or take in stride, the maternal birthday, followed by the paternal birthday? Two birthdays, woo-hoo, I win? Or does it suck, and does he wish for last year?
I don’t wish for last year, and I’m pretty sure Sean doesn’t either.
But I will never know, really, what the kids wish.
Just do my best to ensure that what they get is good enough…
In the middle
People. I’m trying to describe what was a really amazing day—day-after—day-after—a magical weekend, each piece of it perfect, even the two that went sideways, because of what followed, and I can’t—chronology limits and words fall flat.
So I won’t tell you what I did. I’ll tell you how I felt, how’s that?
For fuck’s sake. Apparently, sometimes, not even I can make this piece of writing flow… 😉
Let’s try it like this:
I felt so incredibly loved, it was all utter bliss.
It’s in the calves, actually. That’s where the memory lives. They are tight and sore, and oh, I should slip into a hot bath and get them to relax, but I don’t want to yet. I like the pain. It reminds me that, on my second pandemic birthday with everything closed and nothing allowed, we danced all night anyway, just us, and it was still a party.
We’re walking along the river on a breathtakingly beautiful May evening and you tell me that life generally sucks and not much worth experiencing happens after you’re 28—and how do people manage to live through their 50s, 60s, beyond, you don’t know. (And look what we’ve done over the past year to prolong the lives of those in their 80s, WTF is that all about.)
I crinkle my nose and raise my eyebrows and know, now, not to take it personally—you’ve got a thing about 28, and reminding you that you were a few weeks past 28 and I almost 41 when we met, and you already felt that you were past your peak while I was feeling I was yet to hit my prime is not what this story is about.
This story is, I think, about perception. Life past your youth, you say, requires committed self-delusion and would it not be more courageous if people accepted how futile things were and, when they realized that this was it, nothing but a tread mill, a hamster’s exercise wheel—this last, my metaphor not yours—they’d just end things. Properly, with professional assistance—institutionalized euthanasia on request.
I stiffen. My arm is looped through your freshly vaccinated one and my fingers rest lightly on your forearm. I can feel your heart beat through my fingertips, so you feel my stiffening.
“I’m not suicidal,” you say, quickly, forcefully, clarifying because you know you must clarify this to me, you know where any suspicion of this will take me.
“But you’re in a really shitty place.”
“No. I just know life is shit. Has always been shit. But I’m fine. There is a difference.”
You’re not fine, but I won’t argue. I don’t know if it’s pandemic frustration or professional malaise talking—you’re experiencing both in spades—or the anxiety about the health of your faraway loved ones that’s been consuming you for weeks. I suppose all of the above and I suppose it doesn’t matter. Root causes matter much less than pop psychologists and life coaches would have us believe.
I stroke your forearm and think—today, I believe, I know life is beautiful. Because caterpillars turn into butterflies and there are bees building a ground nest outside my front door and we just saw a beaver swimming in the river, right downtown, glass skyscrapers in the background, also, isn’t that crescent of a moon something else? But two, three months ago, I could barely get out of bed and I thought the weight I was carrying would crush me, and I definitely did not think live was beautiful then—I wasn’t particularly sure it was worth living, it just had to be endured, because Cinder, Flora, Ender.
So I won’t insult you with platitudes and clichés—I just stroke your arm.
You switch topics, a little, and talk about the delusions of religion. I don’t disagree, and neither of us mocks. We both know that, for the most part, those with faith are happier than we are. Our loved ones cease to exist when they stop breathing—your uncle, my uncle, both gone forever now.
Theirs go to paradise.
“Except Uncle Mo. He’s definitely in hell.”
And you laugh. I laugh with you. The stiffening in my spine relaxes, a little.
I’m not worried that you will kill yourself. You are, I think, on a very basic level, both too arrogant and too loving to do that, too aware of your importance to your family, your friends—to me. You know your death would destroy us. If things ever get truly dark for you, you will push through them, as I do, not for yourself, but for the people you love, the people who love you.
And I know, too well, from too much painful and so futile actions with my loved ones in the past, that nothing I say or do to you while you’re in this “life is shit” place will change anything, for you. It will just drain me, maybe make me hate you.
Instead, I start planning my birthday party. Three years shy of 50 this year, second pandemic birthday—fuck it all hard, I want to party all weekend. I want cake and balloons and flowers and dancing.
Maybe a piñata.
“Oh my god, you are a 47 year old child.”
Sometimes. But both Jesus and the Buddha thought that imitating a child’s mind brought adults closer to truth, happiness, salvation.
(You said the same thing to me shortly after we met, do you remember? “You are a 40 year old child.” I shrugged, and I kept on tantruming, crying until you fed me ice cream.)
“Can we do all those things?” I ask, five years old, greedy for more cake than is good for me.
“We can do anything you want. It’s your birthday.”
Life is beautiful. Sometimes. And sometimes—often—it is so hard, a slog, it takes superhuman effort to get out of bed. Do the things.
But we do them. Because sometimes, there’s cake and a piñata and always, there are people we love who love us.
PS You see the implication, though, right? Check in on the lonely people in your life. The loathsome ones especially. I know it’s hard as fuck, cause you’ve barely got the bandwidth to take care of yourself and the ones you love right now—check in on Aunt Augusta too. She needs you.
If you can’t bring yourself to text or call… send cake.
Also, it’s now nine months that I’ve been living four blocks away from my children and carrying significantly less than 50 per cent of the daily tasks of parenthood, so I feel my moral high horse for this topic this year is a little impaired. Still. I’m dealing with a whole new slew of judgements and issues right now, and mostly, what I’m thinking is that mothers just can’t win.
No matter what you do, the world will crease its judgemental eyebrows and say that you should do it differently—better—with more grace—with a smile—in nicer clothes—in cheaper clothes—more selflessly… or with more attention to self-care… OMFG kill me know—you can’t win. You’re either negligent or you’re too helicopter, you’ve given yourself up and burned it all on the altar of family—no, actually, you’re too focused on your career, if you were a really good mother, you wouldn’t be so ambitious—you’re too selfish—you’re a martyr—you do too much—you don’t do enough…
You really can’t win.
Flora: Why I don’t want children.
Jane: As I’ve said before, I won’t dissuade you. But also, that’s why I had spares.
Here’s the thing though: it’s not children who make motherhood hard. No. Really. Children, in all their snotty, exhausting glory are amazing. I would not trade that experience, that love for anything. Every sleepless night, every tantrum, every hard hard moment, worth it.
Flora: Even that one?
Jane: Even that one.
Worth it, worth it. What makes motherhood hard is not children—it’s Aunt Augusta and Mrs Johnson and Good Housekeeping magazine, and also Vogue and your CEO, co-workers, neighbours, strangers on the street—society and its expectations.
Screw you all. I’m doing my best.
It’s a drizzly, grizzly rainy day and Cinder is working from 2 pm and my mom is sleeping until 2 pm after spending a night intubating 30 and 40 year-olds in the ER, and also, third or fourth lockdown, everything is closed anyway, so the plan is shawarma take-out for lunch at my place, just me and the kids. Then, drop Cinder off to work and take Flora and Ender to drop off flowers at my mom’s. Then, I don’t know, probably a movie, maybe a nap, it’s a drizzly, grizzly, gloomy day, rain turning to snow and slush on the sidewalks. I’m trying to have no expectations on this first post-divorce, second pandemic Mother’s Day.
We will spend some time together, some time apart.
I will do my best; it probably won’t be enough.
It’s actually pretty good.
The kids are a bit grumpy-dumpy in the car while we go get the food—everybody skipped breakfast to be hungry for lunch and that is just a bad idea—but once we get the food, everything smells so good, is so good. We eat, and the brothers poke at each other only a little bit, and the sister’s tongue, while always as sharp as a guillotine, only comes out intermittently. Cinder gives me a pot of yellow mums and Ender a hand-written card that’s been crammed into his hoodie pocket for days.
Sean hands me a pint of Chocolate Salted Caramel ice cream and says “Happy Mother’s Day” when I come to pick up the kids, and I appreciate the gesture.
My mom wakes up in time that I can do a drive-by flower drop off with all three kids, and we make her day. The kids fight over shotgun, but it’s funny. We drop off Cinder at work and then—everybody needs a nap. I drop Ender and Flora off at the coop with instructions to text me when they wake up and are ready to come over for supper.
I myself crawl into bed, grizzly-drizzly day, heart full of big feelings, head requiring strict instructions so it doesn’t spin negative stories of Mother’s Days past.
Flora texts me after 5 pm, awake and groggy, not really hungry. I go pick her and Ender up, and we argue about what movie to watch. Make popcorn in a wok. Stretch out on my very uncomfortable couch, make it less uncomfortable with pillows, watch Detective Pikachoo and eat lunch left-overs for supper, all is bliss.
Then it’s time to go get Cinder from work—I leave Ender with Minecraft, run Flora home, then to pick up my eldest essential worker, bring him his lunch-for-dinner left-overs. And then, the first sleep-over at Mom’s new house for Ender.
Nine months after I moved out.
No expectations. But for God’s sake don’t let him cry and don’t let me cry—it’s ok if he’d rather be at the other house, that is his house and he loves it because I had spent a lifetime making it a child’s paradise.
But. We snuggle and read a graphic novel by one of his You-Tubers, turn off the light—he’s restless. Can’t sleep. We whisper for a while, then turn the light back on. Read another book. He falls asleep, wrapped in a pile of blankets, his hand in my hair.
I am so happy, I cry… but then I sleep, and all is bliss.
I’ve had my first dose of the microchip, kittens—the cheap, doesn’t die in normal refrigerator temperatures one—and suddenly, everything is clear… and I’m yanking your chain, but also not, because I do have to tell you that holding out for the vaccine of your choice is such a privileged person, First World Problem, I can’t even.
Still—I’d no more prevent you from waiting for Johnson & Johnson than I want you to prevent me from making #genxzeneca trend on Twitter.
Which brings me to what’s so very clear—and yes, clearly, it’s the microchip—the problem with the world order as know it.
Ready? It’s, very simply, this:
Intellectual policy makers, democractic governments and many regular people expect human beings to be rational and to act in rational ways, even in irrational situations.
We’re not. We don’t.
That’s the problem.
You know who knows people aren’t rational?
Religious and cult leaders, marketers and spin doctors, populists and fascists.
Which makes me think… they’re probably gonna win.
We’ve got to start a cult, kittens.
Speaking of cults—I’m thinking of workplaces, organizational cultures and indoctrination, and how some places are so good at getting their people to drink the Kool-aid and others just can’t seem to even fake it. At the heart of it, it’s all about… the heart and not the brain. Organizations that recognize that people are irrational and emotional and so make their decisions with their hearts do a better job of making their people buy into their story than organizations that treat people like a number, a variable, a cost. Which is what they are, absolutely, in rational terms: labour is an expense item.
In emotional terms, though?
“Our people are at the heart of everything we do.” Take that, Karl Marx.
Speaking of labour and Das Kapital, I’m writing this on a Friday, as the official work week ends and the labours of love begin. I have so much to do but the microchip is slowing me down a bit, chills, sweats, arm still sore. Mostly, I want to spend the weekend in bed not labouring. I don’t have a hard deadline for the labour love, so it’s easy to put it off.
But if I only rest, I’ll be unhappy. I know this. Some labour is necessary for pleasure and rest to feel… pleasant.
Speaking of pleasure—it will be a gorgeous afternoon and evening, night, and I will feel the sun on my face and all will be right with the world for those delicious moments. Who needs a cult—I’ll make my own Kool-aid. Second dose in 16 weeks, which means only four more months of this half-life. I can do that—you can do that.
PS Posting on a rainy Monday after writing on such a beautiful Friday and thinking how happy I am that on the sunny Friday, I seized the sun by the lapels and drank from it and bathed in it. Today, clouds, drizzle. Gas fire on even though it’s winter, hot mug of tea on the couch instead of wine and sheesha on the patio—but then, perhaps that is more appropriate to a Monday night. Fingers flying on keys, books around me—this is a good night too. But it’s good because on Friday, I felt the sun on my face and laughter of friends beside me.
If I’m making no sense—don’t mind me. It’s just the microchip.
She can’t believe that right now, because she’s a teenage girl. Also, because I’m relatively emotionally disciplined and I don’t make a showcase of either my primary or secondary suffering, she tends to—as do others—think I have no feelings. I tell you, people, teenagers—the most terrifying funhouse mirror of your soul.
Flora: Well, I’m so sorry my illness is causing you so much…
Jane: Um, I wasn’t even talking about you. Why are we in this spiral again?
Because children, rightly, think they are the centre of their parents’ universe and teenagers, wrongly, think they are the centre of the universe.
Enough of that though. Back to this:
I love you. And because I love you, when you suffer, I suffer.
Especially when there is nothing I can do to alleviate your suffering. And there isn’t. All I can do is be here.
Helplessness is awful.
Intentional presence—without interference, without unwanted acts of helpfulness, without making my suffering an additional burden on you… not awful.
But really, really hard.
I love you. Because I love you, when you suffer, I suffer.
I am here for you.
When Flora was so sick, I had to draw borders around the secondary suffering experienced by others—as well as myself.
“Yes. I know you love her. I know you love me. I know you’re suffering. I am not interested in hearing about your suffering or dealing with your feelings. I need to save my child’s life, now fuck the fuck off and let me do what I need to do.”
You: Can I bring you soup?
Jane: Yes. But better yet, don’t ask me what you can do for me. See a need and fill it without adding to my plate.
You: You know I’m here for you. Anything you need.
Jane: Can we talk about this later? I have shit to do.
We have this myth in Western culture—not just Western culture, actually—that suffering ennobles. I don’t know about that. Maybe, afterwards. If you survive. While you’re suffering, you’re mostly an asshole.
It’s okay. You kind of have to be to survive.
You’re suffering and I’m helpless. There’s nothing I can do. You are a lot like me and I don’t want you to feel that, on top of everything else, you have to manage my feelings. I text you kisses and links to songs. Tell you I’m thinking of you, ask for nothing.
It’s not enough, but maybe it’s too much.
I love you and when you suffer, I suffer. That’s just the way it is.
The last year has made us intolerant of the suffering of others.
We’ve all been acting like assholes—not because we’re evil or selfish or anything like that. But because we’re all suffering. And it’s hard to feel compassion for others in the middle of our own pain. It’s especially hard to feel it for strangers.
I start here. With you. Start here. With me.
I love you. I love you and when you suffer, I suffer. I’m going to bring you something delicious to eat tomorrow, and see if I can take you for a walk, even though we’re both sick of walking and it won’t help anything.
I am waking up early these days. The new gig is like a new baby—threatening to take up all of my time with its demands. So I wake up before it does, and, wrapped in the pre-dawn darkness and my bath robe, do my morning pages, drink my coffee—very, very slowly—and give my time to my labours of love.
It’s still more of an intellectual, learning exercise—background knowledge, research, thoughts in my head rather than words on paper (or, to be more precise, the screen?). But thinking is physically exhausting—we don’t often appreciate that adequately.
By the time I log off for the day, I’m mentally and physically exhausted. Happy—but exhausted. Intellectually blunted—thinking is hard, decisions, even small ones, impossible.
On the days that I don’t have Ender or the kids coming over for supper, I have a bath as soon as I log off, then eat—force myself to take a walk, thank goodness for the dog—and crawl into bed with BritBox (currently binging Jonathan Creek and really loving how in British TV people are… people-like, both in appearance and character. Not caricatures, not photoshopped, botoxed stereotypes. The villains aren’t all evil and the victims and heroes aren’t flawless. Youth is as complex and painful as adulthood—children aren’t cherubs and the elderly aren’t necessarily wise. And old, wrinkly people fall in love, and nobody thinks it’s weird).
Up early, I crash early. And so, finally, here is a silver lining to the third wave of the pandemic—no FOMO, right? Nothing’s happening, nothing to do. You and I can go for a walk or sit on a patio sipping bear, but, you know, I have a patio of my own and I’m so sick of walking as a social activity—I might as well just go to bed.
I sleep deeply, nine to ten hours a night. I still don’t know if this is a sleep deficit from more than a decade ago when I had three kids under seven—or from 2019, when I just did not sleep—that my body is trying to make-up, or a response to the stress of the pandemic.
You complain of insomnia—I, as soon as I lie down in bed, fall into unconsciousness. It’s blissful. When dreams come, they’re weird as all fuck—so weird and surreal, they neither disturb me nor tempt me to hunt for hidden meaning, omens.
There are no nightmares.
I sleep deeply.
I am not sure how to explain to friends what it is I’m doing for work at the moment. “I write” covers a multitude of sins, so I stick to that. Mostly, right now, I’m learning, and I’m reminded of the seductive power of a mid-life, late-life Master’s or PhD.
Learning a new discipline, a new language—and each discipline, industry, organization has its own language—is intoxicating.
This happens, in one of my classes at the Polytechnique last year:
Student: I can’t wait until I get my diploma and I can stop learning.
Jane: Oh, honey. You’ve just explained why I can’t seem to teach you anything. Can we do anything about that mindset, or should I just give you an F now and explain why you can’t ever ask me for a letter of recommendation?
At the moment, I’m working on teaching myself everything, about a new industry, new organization. New culture, new people.
It’s taking all of my juice.
I sleep deeply.
As Ender comes to the end of what is either grade six or grade five—surely not yet grade seven—I can never remember rightly, and, really, what does it matter—we’re entering year three of what has essentially been the Minecraft and Youtube curriculum. Between Flora’s illness, COVID, the divorce—now my new job—what else could it have been?
I’m researching resources, books, games—Youtube channels—wanting to give him some more scope to explore this summer, and in the fall.
Jane: I just… I just want you to be learning more.
Ender: I’m learning all the time. And having fun.
Even seasoned unschoolers need this reminder once in a while.
On the fifth day of my new gig, a meeting-ful Friday, which I begin with a two-hour call/texting session with IT support—Cthulhu bless all IT support people, btw, because sorting out “the thingie isn’t doing the thin that I think it should be doing, please make it go!” from a person like me must be a competent IT person’s hell—and end with a 45-minute training session on a magic project management software (hello, Asana, I think I love you), my new employer sends me flowers.
It’s a gorgeous pink-purple-white-red bouquet of fresias, carnations, gerbera daisies, mums, and one green branch with delicate yellow flowers, and rather robust, thick leaves. It’s crowned with a lovely card that reads “Welcome to the team. We’re thrilled to have you on-board and are looking forward to working with you.”
The bouquet arrives in the five minutes I have between a Teams meeting on a process/communications update on a project I’ll be kinda-sorta-maybe part of (or else it abuts a project I might kinda-sorta-maybe be part of; I don’t know, I’m confused, it’s my first week) and my 1:1 debrief with one of my squad leads, and it kind of makes me cry. Later, I do a ROI calculation of the gesture: say a $25, call it $30—although there’s probably a corporate discount, why, by the way, is it that it’s cash-flush corporations that get discounts and we daily joes have to pay full price—plus delivery, plus the time required to order it—call it a total $25-50 investment by the company in me on that chaotic first week. Result? I end my first week thinking, “They love me, they want me, they care about me.
On the first day of my new gig, nothing works the way it’s supposed to, I’m confused and disconnected and alone in my living room-cum-office—how is this really a first day of a new job? Then, a dedicated hour debrief with my VP and I perk up. I still can’t get into the system proper, but I “eat” the Internet and bring myself up to speed on the industry while sitting on the patio with my laptop.
Meanwhile, my phone starts to ping:
Him: Good luck on your first day!
Her: First day! How are things going?
You: Break a leg!
Them: I hope you have a wonderful first day!
I am loved. I am not alone.
Neither, lover, are you.
On the fourth day of the new gig—it’s a Thursday, cause, like, yeah, I started on Monday—Cinder needs to make it to work alone mid-day, but the weather is crappy, so Sean takes a break from his job to drive him. Me, I’ve got most of my tech and connections working, meetings, training, gathering background on the projects I’ll be working on. Flora and Ender are coming over for supper after 5 p.m., as soon as I unplug. I’m feeding them Babi Easter soup, sourdough baguette from Sidewalk Citizen, and very expensive fruit from Safeway—what the hell has happened to produce prices this week?
Ender spends the evening sitting on my head.
“Do I get to come back next week?” he says, plaintively. Since January, he’s been spending Monday and Wednesday days with me, fake-homeschooling (don’t ask), as those are Sean’s heaviest days. This week, he spent Monday with my Mom (note for the panicked and sanctimonious: she’s vaccinated, also, seriously, how are my child care arrangement any of your business?), and Wednesday, he stayed at the Coop with Sean.
“Yes. Of course.”
I am, secretly, thrilled. I never really know if he likes being at my little apartment, in which he has one bin of Legos, some Kapla blocks, a tiny box of art supplies, and no room of his own. He leaves behind—well, a kids’ paradise that I had spent 18 years building for him and his siblings.
So, I’m very happy that he misses me, my place, our time.
The next scheduled Mommy-Ender day—the sixth day of my new gig and the second Monday of my new job—I start with a Teams meeting at 8 a.m. and have no breather until noon.. No possibility of picking up Ender and the dogs in-between.
We decide that I’ll come pick him up at noon, take him to lunch, then, I’m not sure, maybe put on a documentary for him while I wrap my head around the afternoon’s work… maybe just let him loose on Minecraft.
All you “Why aren’t we closing the schools?” people? It’s because closing schools needs to go hand in hand with accepting that either parents aren’t working or kids aren’t learning. There is no such as multitasking and you can’t homeschool your kids WHILE working. You can’t even supervise your kids WHILE working. You can’t make them lunch WHILE attending and paying attention to a Zoom call. Closing schools turns one of the parents—remember most households in North American are effectively single-parent households most of the time anyway—into a full-time child-minder/teacher’s aide.
Take it from someone who’s been homeschooling for more than 18 years—it is, of course, possible to homeschool AND THEN work AND THEN make lunch AND THEN homeschool AND THEN work some more. I’ve done it, for more than 18 years. But it is not possible to do both things in the same dedicated one-hour or fifteen minute block of time.
On the weekend between my first and second week at the new gig, I mostly sleep and watch Death in Paradise on BritBox, intermittently vacuum. That had been the plan going into the month, and I feel very satisfied in carrying it out. Sunday night, I cook for the week, and prepare a delish supper for the kids. We eat and watch Community.
Flora asks me if I’m ready for Monday.
I am. I am.
On the seventh day of the new gig, the school board announces that next week, all junior and senior high school students are moving, again, to online learning at home.
Jane: It will be easier than all the back and forth.
Flora: They could just give us summer vacation. Now.
They could. They won’t. We’ve just gotta roll with it.
Ender spends Monday and Wednesday “homeschooling” with me while I work. The Minecraft curriculum continues, although we do squeeze in a little bit of reading. And Lego. Monday is hard because, meetings from 8 am until noon with barely enough time off to pee. Wednesday is easier.
But we roll with it. We make it work. That’s what we do.
On the ninth day of the new gig—that’s the Thursday of the second week—I start to feel like I’m finding my feet. I start to recognize the vocabulary and the patterns. I get assigned to projects. I even knock off a couple of small tasks, and I do them well. I feel appreciated, and I preen. I haven’t had external validation of note for a while—it’s nice.
It’s a gorgeous sunny day, and I work with the patio doors open and, when I don’t need a reliable wifi connection, I take the laptop out into the sun. How is it that the sun makes everything better? I feel happy and alive, and I’m pondering if I’ll have time to cook between end-of-work/arrival-of-kids for supper… or, pizza? Ender wanted “real” pizza, and I can totally afford regular take-out now… can Thursday nights be our regular take-out night?
I text the kids to see if they want pizza for supper; they are enthusiastic.
The tenth day of the new gig, I start the day with a 6:15 a.m. walk to the Coop, Bumblebee in hand, to drop off the dog and drive Cinder to work for a 7 a.m. shift. Then, back to my place for 7:20, a quick shower and coffee, and I’m bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for an 8 a.m. meeting.
By noon, though, I need a nap, and after I run over to the Coop to see Ender and give the dogs a quick walk, I lie down on my floor for a twenty minute yoga nidra session.
I pro-actively set my phone alarm to go off after 30 minutes… just in case the yoga nidra session is too effective.
Yoga nidra, if the term is new to you, is sleep yoga. It’s wonderful. Basically, you lie down in corpse pose, cover yourself with a blanket, and listen to a soothing voice give you instructions on how to enter a deep state of relaxation/meditation.
You can use it as a way to ease into sleep—or, mid-day, instead of a nap. However, if you are very, very tired—it can become a nap.
But on this Friday, I do it properly, and I’m rejuvenated for the afternoon. Except I really have nothing much to do.
I open up the company Intranet and get on with my task of learning all the things.
On the second weekend of the new gig, I make time for a social life, adventures with Flora, helping Cinder with his homework, but also, reflection. How did things go? How do I feel? What do I need?
Inner Voice: More socks. Also, a foot stool.
Jane: Could we go a little deeper here?
Inner Voice: We need more socks. And a foot stool. Also, chocolate. Why was there no chocolate in the house this week?
I feel… good. Really, that’s it. Everything is unrolling as it should, as it must, and I’m rolling with it.
I need… chocolate. And maybe more socks, because, yeah, why not.
Those flowers I got on the fifth day of the new gig, by the way? Still gorgeous.
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.