Game face on

i

Uniform. Ready? Ready. Game face on. Go.

I love clothes. Not for me the grey sweat suit. Or the understated beige sweater twin set (I have no idea what a twin set is, tbh, I keep on reading about it in books, but the characters who wear them invariably sound beige and unexceptional, and often wear a string of pearls with their twin set, and oh-my-god, it sounds boring as fuck, I’d rather be naked).  Clothes are my second skin, both an expression of my inner being and part of my crafting my outer mood and persona.

I am probably most myself when I present workshops on creative writing. Or when I go dance. I communicate, with my clothes, my brand and my expertise. My enthusiasm, energy, thirst and passion for life.

When I teach journalism and corporate communications, I tone myself down, a little. (They can’t handle all of me, never could.) Black and grey dresses, nun-like in their lack of exposed cleavage. Just the shoes, piercings, and hair, bit of jewelry, give me away.

If you see me wearing yoga pants and a T-shirt, and I’m not going to a yoga class or the gym, or not helping a friend paint or move house—I’m not chilling or comfortable in my skin. I’m a wreck. The news is as bad as when you come to my house and see a shining kitchen floor.

Like a cat, dog or primate, the glossiness of my fur informs you about my health.

Yesterday, I wore pajamas under my snowsuit as I drove Cinder here and there. This was not an act of freeing “I don’t give a fuck.” It was the result of, between the things that had to be done, not having the energy to step into the shower and out of pajamas into yoga pants.

None of it felt good.

The glossiness of my fur tells you if I’m happy, excited, confident, passionate… healthy.

But. This is true too: “fake it til you make it,” that’s a thing. Putting that work uniform, dance uniform, writer uniform—it helps craft the mood, the persona even if you (I) really don’t want to do the thing you need to do. Actors embody that capacity the most, I think. As do athletes. The corporate suit fills a similar role for lawyers, bankers, accountants, CEOs; the old school white lab coat did it for dentists, doctors.

Don’t wanna, don’t wanna, don’t wanna, can’t do it—fine, here I go. Uniform on. Game face on. Ok. Let’s rumble.

When you (I) absolutely cannot force yourself to put that uniform on? That’s when things are really bad.

ii

At the Teaching Excellence Foundations course on the organizations at which I teach offers its instructors, we spend a great deal of time talking about the teaching persona. I think it’s adorable how the newbies think all you need to succeed is authenticity.

Almost as naive as thinking all you need is love.

Most of the time these days, my authentic self is limp dishrag that doesn’t want to get out of bed.

Fucking move get out of bed. Shower. Uniform. Game face on. Go. Do the things.

iii

When things were at their absolute worst with Flora last spring—just before I took her out of the hospital and to Wales, against medical advice, to honour a promise—I went to get a long overdue haircut. My hairstylist is an artist and a genius (Rose Mossa, 403.283.8281). She performed another of her miracles. She made me look amazing.

One of the first people to see me after the haircut said, “Great hair! You look so good! I was a little worried when I heard what was going on, but things can’t be so bad, hey?”

We’re not friends anymore. She doesn’t know why. And I know it’s unfair. After all, I got the haircut to look good, to help myself feel good. And it worked. My fur looked glossy and slick. Surely, she made a fair assumption.

Except… do you understand…

No. I suppose you don’t. And I don’t have the spare bandwidth to talk about it.

Haircut. Uniform. Game face on.

iv

Text to my aman cara: “When on day 8 of an at-home suicide watch, you go to see the family therapist, and she says ‘what about your self-care?’ and you bludgeon her to death with her clipboard, that’s justifiable homicide, right?”

Her response: “Holy fucking shit!!”

She’s my temperature check. Ok. It’s not just me. That was a ridiculous thing for the fucking therapist to say.

I didn’t kill one of the medical professionals who are trying to help us and Flora, by the way. I just, again, really wanted to. And this happens so often that I’m starting to think—perhaps it’s not incompetence but design. Perhaps she is on purpose making herself the target, the centre of my rage.

I showered on Tuesday. I will probably shower today, maybe. When I am not trying to keep Flora alive, I am at work. When I am not at work, I am holding Ender—who is not ok. Making supper. When there is no critical task that needs to be done, no child that needs me—God I hope Cinder is ok because there’s nothing of me left for him—I sit very still. Body limp, mind empty. Move not, think not. Rest in-between the contractions.

Don’t ask me to do more.

The time will come—and I can tell you this, I know things are stabilizing—I guess there’s an advantage of this being a cycle—because I can see that the time will come when I can think about… art and music and fun and play and shiny things. But right now? Asking a person who is in survival mode what they’re doing for self-care is asking them to do more… when they barely have the capacity to do what needs to be done.

Don’t invent more tasks for me, ok?

v

Game face on. Uniform.

I schedule all of us—except for Ender, who loves his mop of unruly hair—for haircuts on Monday. Cinder’s been asking for a haircut for weeks. I can barely see through my bangs. We were supposed to take Flora in for a trim in September but what with one doctor’s appointment and another and another…

Appointment for haircut.

Such a normal, ordinary thing to do.

The effort involved in making that telephone call, to make those appointments? I can’t even… What it will cost me to get Flora, Cinder, myself there, and Ender safely stowed? Don’t even.

When you see me after the haircut? Absolutely, say, “Oh-my-god, amazing hair, your hairdresser is a genius!” (Rose Mossa, ladies, gentlemen, and non-binary noble folk, 403.283.8281) But stop there. Don’t tell me things must be getting better. Save pronouncements on my feelings and my situation for—like, me. Flora. Let me tell you how I feel, what I feel—if I feel up to going there. Otherwise, after we finishing adoring my hair (and it will be amazing), let’s talk about the poets of Shiraz, American war crimes, and how we can save independent journalism.

Uniform chosen. Game face on.

Go.

“Jane”

 

Happy birthday (the war’s not over)

January 6

i

She’s 15 and we’re still at home.

ii

This past November, I was anticipating that December would be hard. Anniversaries always are. In December—which wasn’t great, but which wasn’t so bad, it could have been so much worse, things had been so much worse—I started to look forward to a New Year. A new leaf, a blank slate. I like those milestones: January 1, Mondays, the first page of a new notebook.

I made plans.

I fantasized, very conservatively. But still. I did.

I envisioned a future.

And now, again, life occurs in 15 minute increments.

And existing in most present moments is unbearable.

iii

She laughs with joy as she comes downstairs and sees her birthday door. This is a happy moment.

iv

At the weekly meeting of the Parents of Children Who Haven’t Died Yet But Who Very Well Might—But Don’t Worry Be Happy Because Suffering Is All In Your Head—we often talk about the challenge of appreciating the happy moments, the lulls between shitstorms. On this particular day, those of us in the room are all mothers who came to motherhood biologically. (The group is usually all mothers; a father comes every once in a while. But rarely. Let’s save that reality for another story.) And so, we all relate when I talk about contractions. About how you get through 12, 24 hours of labour by riding through to the head of the contraction, breathing, screaming to endure—and then, in that brief, holy space between pain and pain, resting as fully as you can. Not thinking about the next contraction. Not thinking when will this end. Not thinking, not thinking, not thinking, not wondering when, if, they baby will crown, will it live, will it thrive, will it be an artist, engineer or hobo. Not thinking, not dreaming. Just…. resting.

Body limp, mind empty.

(If you’re in labour for more than 24 hours, woman, get an epidural for fuck’s sake. But I digress.)

(I digress because she’s 15 and we’re at home, and this is a happy moment.)

Body limp, mind empty. Rest. And here comes the contraction again, ride that motherfucker to the top.

When I use that metaphor at the meeting of the Parents of Children Who Haven’t Died Yet But Who Very Well Might (—Bet Your Bottom Dollar the Sun Will Come out Tomorrow or the Day After or the Next Week, Month, Year, Probably, Eventually, Keep on Hoping, Why Are You Despairing? Bet Your Bottom Dollar!), everyone nods and sighs and says, so true, we all learn to rest and live in those spaces between contractions-crises.

Today, as I write the idea out—body limp, mind empty—fuck people, what’s wrong with you?

Body limp, mind empty.

That’s how you get through 12, 24 hours of labour.

But that is no way to live.

vi

Flora wanted to spend her seventh birthday at West Edmonton Mall Waterpark. I found a great package deal on the Fantasyland Hotel and waterpark, but it meant going to Edmonton four or five days after her actual birthday. The seven-year-old decided to delay her entire birthday so that she could celebrate it the way she planned, at the Waterpark. She did not open her presents. She did let us sing happy birthday to her and blow out the candles on her birthday cake—but did not let us cut it. We transported everything to Edmonton; celebrated a few days later.

She was seven years old. IT still blows my mind. Can you imagine, getting your birthday presents, and keeping them, wrapped, untouched, in your room for four days? At seven years old? I’m not sure I could do it at 45…

vii

How do you live in perpetual crisis?

I’ve interviewed people who’ve lived in war zones, refugee camps. I’ve talked with rape survivors and victims of ongoing domestic violence. Most of my extended family has vivid memories of living under martial law, in a police state, in fear of that knock on the door—in the middle of the night—that ends everything.

People live in this, through this. They love through this, they fall in love in this. How?

Humans are amazing survival machines. We habituate to just about anything.

We survive.

viii

On Saturday night, my aman cara comes to hold me, love me, bring supper, because, as I sit on the couch holding Flora, I can’t even summon the energy to call Skip the Dishes. She comes back on Sunday—I’m on a board conference call , then Ender demands a 6 p.m. bedtime (he is so not ok) and so my aman cara comforts Sean and then helps him make 15 rainbows for Flora’s birthday day.

(It’s a tradition in our family—we did it first for Sean, when he was going through a crisis—decorated a door for his 38th birthday with 38 hearts, on each of which we wrote a thing we loved about him. When Ender’s birthday came two weeks later, Flora did his door—it was his fourth birthday, and she cut out four big hearts for him. Her birthday came next—Sean papered the door with hears for her. Now we had a tradition—and a Cinder who was turning 13, and did not want any rainbow hearts on his door, what the fuck? Flora and Sean made 13 bombs. And so it has gone. For her 15th birthday—15 rainbows. Each one drenched in tears and love.)

When Flora was in the hospital, my aman cara, my mother, and a handful of friends fed us, took care of Ender, did everything they could to help us get through. People are good, and people are amazing in a crisis.

So long as it is short.

You know this.

Your toleration for a friend’s heartbreak, divorce trauma, grief for the death of a parent? It has an expiration date.

It’s like that for personal crises; it’s like that for meta-global, political crises too. A tsunami or an earthquake devastates a region? We rally, give, donate, support… go home. A civil war rages for two years, two decades? God, is that still going on? I’ve stopped paying attention.

And in the meantime, two years later, that region far away hit by that earthquake, to which you’re not paying attention anymore? There are still people there who are homeless, who have no reliable water supply, who are still in crisis.

The people in the crisis, they can’t stop paying attention.

But even they become habituated to it. Accept it as their new normal.

How fucked up is that?

viii

She insists on going to school and I spend six hours wondering if my child will come home.

There are precautions in place. I know she arrives at the school. I know she doesn’t miss classes. She checks in with me at lunch. In-between messages, I exist in soul-draining uncertainty.

ix

Crisis. The new normal.

One of my fighting points (I have many) with the family therapist at Flora’s out-patient clinic is that she wants me to simultaneously have hope and to stop resisting what is. Dialectical thinking at its best, but seriously? How am I supposed to accept… No, no, no.

No.

And yet. I know the bitch is right.

Sorry. Not a bitch—healer with a heart of gold. I just need to be angry at someone, anyone. And there she is, with her platitudes and really terrible metaphors and well-intentioned helplessness.

Crisis. Knives, razors, Tylenol and Nyquil, household cleaners under lock and key. I cut pickles for sandwiches with a butter knife as sharp as a spoon.

Cry at the ludicrousness of it all.

x

She comes home from school. I breathe.

xi

Birthday supper at a Korean restaurant in the evening. My parents are there. She seems happy, almost chatty, and I wonder if my parents buy it, or if they see what Sean and I see—the mask pulled on, the effort required. Earlier in the day, I was a guest panelist at a webinar. And I did the same: Five minutes til show time. Breathe. Game face on. Perform. Laugh. Don’t let anyone see you cry or bleed. Done. Collapse.

She’ll collapse when we get home, as will we all.

But right now, as she eats bulgogi and thanks Grandma for her presents and lets Cinder tease her that she’s, how old? 13?—game face on.

Which is a reminder, I suppose, that awful though this is, it’s not as bad as the first five, six months of 2019, when none of us could put the game face on for anything.

But then, there’s also this consequence—game face on. Go see friends. Go do normal things.

A text: “Saw Flora today! She looks great! So happy that she’s doing better!”

Except when she comes home—she collapses.

xii

She’s 15. She’s home. She’s still at home.

“Jane”

Post-script I was going to embed a video of John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (The War Is Over)” below. You know which one I mean. The one that comes with all the warnings. And that will rend your heart. Because as I do my best to keep one child alive, and the spectre of war and hate pushes on me from the outside, I know only one truth: every soldier, every civilian, every victim of war is somebody’s child.

Why does this reality not infuse every decision we make, politically, personally? Somebody’s child.

Our provincial government is cutting 500 nursing jobs. Let me tell you, having spent 12 months in the belly of the system now–there are many thing wrong with it. But it is not overstaffed.

Every fired nurse? A nurse that’s not able to help someone’s child when they need help.

She’s home. The war’s not over. But she’s 15. And she’s still at home.

Suffering, loving, living… home

i

Pen, notebook, coffee, my comfy chair. This should be a happy moment except that upstairs, a child wants to die.

Yesterday, she sees tear-streaks on my face. “Have you been crying? Why are you upset?” My lips make words. “It’s hard to watch you suffer.” She puts a hand on my arm. “I don’t want to invalidate your feelings,” she says, parroting Dialectical Behaviour Therapy scripts, “but it’s hard to suffer.” Her tone is condescending.

I kiss the top of her head. I can’t say, “I know.” She hates that, always says, “Do you?” or “How can you?” or screams, “You don’t know.”

i don’t know.

Yesterday, we kept her alive.

Today’s task is the same.

I am confused, caught off-guard by this. It’s not new—the depression, the darkness, the suicidal ideation have been part of what she’s struggled with as she’s battled what I still think of as “the real illness.” The symptoms of that have receded, are finally responding to treatment. I had thought the accompanying darkness was situational. Caused by the illness, and why not? Who could endure what Flora has been going through for the last two years and not wish for release, however final?

I misunderstood, again, everything.

Tomorrow, Flora turns 15.

Tomorrow, Flora will turn 15.

Tomorrow, Flora will turn 15.

Please, child, daughter, love, please turn 15 tomorrow. Sixteen the year after. Kiss a girl, a boy. Fall in love. Go to Wales again—test for your second degree black belt. Find, follow your passions. Genetically modify pigs so that they have wings. Do all the things. Live. Please.

Motherhood—parenthood—is this relentless process of finding out you don’t control your children. You can’t protect your children. You can do all things… and you still cannot save them from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

You cannot save them from themselves.

Flora. Turn 15. Live.

You can only love them.

ii

On Friday morning, Sean takes Flora to an emergency appointment with one of her doctors, who is concerned enough that she essentially says, take her to the hospital. If you can’t get her in the car, call an ambulance.

Sean spends the day with her at the hospital. Triage. Resident. Psychiatric nurse. Psychiatrist.

I’m in an all-day instructors’ course. I learn shit until 10:30 a.m., at which point I get the call from Sean that they’re on their way to the hospital. I have no idea what happens after that. I’m nominally in the classroom. I even talk to my chair about my winter schedule. Get my ID card. There’s a tour. Ironically, we visit Student Development & Counselling Services. Talk a lot about mental health. I can’t breathe. I will not leave her in the hospital again, I will not, but oh-my-god, suppose I don’t and she dies?

I text something along those lines to Sean. His answers are clipped. Triage. Resident. Psychiatrict nurse. Psychiatrist. Waiting.

Finally—coming home.

iii

I don’t want to talk shit about our medical system because I am so grateful for universal free healthcare, and I know the system is full of well-intentioned healers who want to help people. Nobody goes into nursing, medicine, psychology, psychiatry because they want to be a bureaucrat, gatekeeper or hateful asshole.

The system just turns them into that…

I don’t want to talk shit about the youth mental health ward where Flora spent most of last spring either.

But I will.

Yes, she got help. Assessment, diagnosis, the beginning of treatment.

She was also traumatized and emotionally abused.

We might as well have put her in jail.

vi

Home.

Flora’s not happy at home. When she talks to the psychologist, doctors, psychiatrists, she tells them she hates her life at home. Doesn’t get along with her brothers. I don’t know what she says about her parents—she saves that for when I leave the room. The little I do hear is hard enough to take. I don’t know what I could have done to have given this child a more stress-free, trauma-free, happy childhood.

I don’t know what I could, should do differently now.

Not cry in front of her now, maybe, but fuck me, I have no reserves left and the tears just come when they want to. I need to save my energy for the battles, conversations, emotional labours that matter.

v

Home.

Friday night, I sleep in Flora’s top bunk so that she’s not alone in the night. Saturday night, Sean does Friday evening, he watches movies with her while I feed us, put Ender to bed Check on Cinder. The boys are not doing well. Ender is clingy, behaviourally regressive. Cinder, fully my son, is disassociating, directing impossible to articulate fear and anger at schoolwork—“stupid and not worth doing”—and inanimate objects, there are new holes in walls.

Saturday morning, we sell Ender to a friend and neighbour, and go look at puppies. I need another living, needy, vulnerable thing in the house like I need… I can’t even find the appropriate metaphor. But when we ask Flora what she needs, what might help, a dog into whose fur she could bury her face is all that she can express.

Our dog is a very selfish emotional support animal. Also, she thinks she’s Ender’s. Also, I will grasp at any straw.

We don’t come home with a puppy. Flora has moments of happiness during the search, I think, but also much longer moments of despair. When we get home, Sean takes Cinder to a movie. I sit on the couch with Flora. Hold her for hours.

vi

In the hospital, staff are not allowed to touch the kids—unless they’re restraining them, that’s ok.* The kids aren’t allowed to touch each other either. The kids also have to spend chunks of each day in “quiet time” in their rooms, doors closed. That’s supposed to be part of their therapy. It’s also the go-to punishment. Isolation. Staff can’t handle you? You’re not behaving?

You’re locked, alone, in your room.

The first week Flora’s at the hospital last spring, the kids start a riot to protest what they see as an unjust punishment of one of them. They’re all forced to spend the rest of the day in their rooms.

In isolation.

I am not a nurse, doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist.

But I am a child, mother, wife, friend, lover, boss, teacher, neighbour, colleague. Human.

And I can tell you without any equivocation that the key to good mental health is love and connection.

Not isolation.

vii

Home.

The psychiatrist from the hospital ER calls Friday night, Saturday night. Promises to call again Sunday. Talks to Flora. Sean.

He calls on his free time, after his shift is over.

The people who work in the system? Most of them, healers with hearts of gold.

He’s talked with Flora’s outpatient medical team. Is worried that he made the wrong call not insisting on admission.

I know he didn’t.

I don’t know if we can keep her safe.

I don’t know what else we need to hide, put away. I don’t know the right things to say.

I don’t know if we can keep her safe.

But we can keep her loved.

“Jane”

Post-script: Sean talks to Flora for hours. Short conversations, interspersed with hugs, silence, life. Trying to make all of us accept that the hospital is not the worst option. It’s the second worst option, and the worst option is unthinkable, unacceptable. If you can’t keep yourself safe, if we can’t keep you safe—will you tell us? Will you choose to go?

She promises.

But she’s only a child. What a burden to bear.

Flora, child, love, most beloved.

You will turn 15 tomorrow.

Turn 15 tomorrow.

* * *

We are still home.

She danced, who is she?

Morning phone call, panic, shitty morning. I don’t give you details, because her story is private, even though it is also part of my story. Shitty morning, shitty afternoon. She seems fine then, functional and stable. Me, I play chauffeur, deliver Flora and Ender to their happy places, then cancel lunch with friend-could-be-lover, will not find out now. Try to move out of the past moment that was genuinely shitty—that morning—into the actual present moment—this afternoon—that’s really not so bad, except, emotional hangover, exhaustion, spiralling “I can’t go on like this” thoughts.

What happens? Hard to say. Sleep. Fake meditation. (It’s like meditation, but I listen to an audiobook of a story that I know really well while doing it. Shut up, purist. Anything that works to get me out of despair, I do.) Food. A Philippa Gregory novel. Handholding via text from a friend. I can’t say I let go of the pain, more like I let it burn out. I need to let it burn out so that when it comes again tomorrow, it will be fresh. This makes no sense, except that it does: when the next shit episode in this ongoing shit crisis happens, I need to react to it, and to it alone. Not to the last 12 months of it.

This is not just hard, it’s impossible. Still. One tries. Burn away, pain.

Shitty morning, hangover afternoon. Evening. I’m supposed to dance. How do we do this, I ask Sean. I mean, really? How do we dance, laugh, live a normal life when our child suffers like this?

He had no real answers. He doesn’t want to dance either. He forgets to laugh even more than I do, I think, for all that his detachment from the horrors of each shit moment seems better… in the moment.

But. We decide to dance

Child safe, stowed, watched, loved.

This is a happy moment. Dance.

It works.

Oh-my-fucking-god, it is ever so hard. Because the memory of the past shitty moment—a year’s worth of them—presses. Hard. The anticipation of the next shitty moment taunts. They are inevitable. They will come.

In this space between them, I dance.

* * *

In my Instagram and Facebook feeds, you will see me dancing. You will not see the shitty moments. The camera curates them out. Bear that in mind when you see me in life—bear that in mind when the peak moment compilation of your friends’ carefully curated online personae make you sigh over the relentless ordinariness of your life.

I am not convinced that we are not our thoughts. I’m pretty sure we are little else. But this I do know for sure: we are not our Facebook posts and Instagram stories. And life is not a Twitter feed.

* * *

This is a happy moment. Dance.

That was a shitty moment, series of moments, shitty minutes becomes shitty hours, days, weeks, months. Don’t deny it. Let the pain burn.

Dance.

“Jane”

Post-script: Two days later, we are back in the hospital with Flora; I can’t breathe and I don’t know who the woman who danced on New Year’s Eve was.

Some words of wisdom from the House of Snot & Vomit

I got a house of puking, snotty, feverish children over the holidays—Flora went down just before Christmas an barely made it through the Christmas Eve festivities, Cinder felt a tickle in his throat on Christmas Day and was down for the count on Boxing Day, and Ender woke up on the 27th puking. Today, Flora’s recovered but weak, and the boys are still fading in and out of consciousness between bouts of hydration and med top-ups.

And I love it.

Because, this sickness? I know what to do, how to help. Liquids and Tylenol to knock down the fever, Gravol and ginger for the tummies. Rest, baby. Have some tea. Let’s cuddle and watch a movie. I know, that cough is killer. Gargle with salt water, eat some honey.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I do like to set intentions. My intentions for 2020,  as I’ve already shared, are to love more, play more, and also, rest more.

I am not so good at resting. And the secretly fabulous thing that happens when the kids—especially the little guy—are sick like this? I get to rest. I mean, there is all the laundry and tea making. But what they need the most—especially Ender—is for me to sit beside them on the couch and to love them. And so, I rest.

Wait.

Did I just say I want my kids to be sick more in 2020? No, no, no, no. Enough illness. Really.

Just…

More love.

More play.

More rest.

xoxo

“Jane”

 

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

i.

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

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

I hate Christmas.

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

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

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

His name was Kieran Adam.

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

But it did not make any future December any easier.

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

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

I hate it when I’m unintentionally psychic.

ii.

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

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

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

Anyway. Good things that happened in 2019:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most critically:

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

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

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

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

More cryptically:

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

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

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

Because our one bad thing was so fucking bad.

iii.

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

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

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

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

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

iv.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suffering fucking sucks.

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

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

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

“Love less” is really not an option.

v.

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

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

Loving is not always easy.

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

Not in 2019.

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

vi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grit teeth. Gird loins. Love more.

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

Thinking isn’t always necessary or desired.

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

Text a lover.

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

Love more.

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

Love more.

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

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

xoxo

“Jane”

I believe I can fly

 

It’s a sunny but cold Tuesday in December, and I pack Ender, also a lunch that consists mostly of oranges, into the car. Maggie the runty Boston Terrier I don’t really love—but oh, Ender loves her and she loves him too, they are littermates—jumps into the car with us. Fine. It’s not so cold that she will turn into a dog icicle when I leave her in the car while we explore the Reynolds-Alberta Museum. And she loves car rides. Also, she loves Ender, and he already has his arms wrapped around her. She’s coming.

I trudge back into the house for some pillows and blankets, make them a nest. Have everything? Child, dog, lunch. Water bottle. Ender’s wearing his rainbow crocs—I toss a pair of winter boots into the trunk in case we get stranded on a rural Alberta road and have to walk somewhere. The car’s 12 years old and plucky, but still. December on the prairies. Snowstorms come, ice sneaks up on you, cars flip.

Final check… child, dog, lunch, water bottle, winter boots.

Coffee.

We go.

The Reynolds-Alberta Museum is 246 km, or two hours and twenty minutes, away from Calgary, in the metropolis of Wetaskiwin. It’s dedicated to the spirit of the machine, and it’s full of tractors and vintage farm equipment, old cars, and also, planes. And that’s really all I’m going to tell you about it, because this is not a museum review.

I like the cars. They remind me of Cuba.

Ender likes the planes best.

On the way there, Ender snoozes most of the way, Maggie in his arms. I listen to Martha Beck’s The Joy Diet, and bemoan that I am now the kind of person who listens to books like The Joy Diet. Remember when I used to be the kind of person who just enjoyed living her life? Where is she?

She’s at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum, taking a selfie in a tractor with her 10-year-old son. Hello, me.

He’s very, very happy.

Did I mention he likes the planes best?

When I brought Cinder here—I think I brought Cinder here? Surely, I brought Cinder and Flora here when they were younger—he was fascinated by the insides of  all the machines and spent hours playing with the hands-on gears, pulleys, inclined planes, and levers.

Ender pokes at all of them with mild interest, and returns to his aesthetic enjoyment of the vintage cars. He likes the colours, the lights, the moving parts, the things that go—but he’s not particularly interested in their insides. Me neither. Let’s just look at shiny things.

Look! The workshop! A welder!

We watch the sparks for a while, but neither of us, to be honest, is interested by the science behind the process.

We spend a lot of time in the airplane hangar. As I’ve said twice before—he really likes the planes.

And they are rather magic, if you think about it. First production-style automobile—1885 or so. First manned flight, 1903. The Ford Model T didn’t roll off the assembly line until 1913.

And before the end of World War I, humans were killing each other from airplanes.

Ah, progress.

Fun Fact:

The first country to use [airplanes] for military purposes was Italy, whose aircraft made reconnaissance, bombing and artillery correction flights in Libya during the Italian-Turkish war (September 1911 – October 1912). The first mission (a reconnaissance) occurred on 23 October 1911. The first bombing mission was flown on 1 November 1911. (Source: Ferdinando Pedriali. “Aerei italiani in Libia (1911–1912)”(Italian planes in Libya (1911–1912)). Storia Militare (Military History), N° 170/novembre 2007, p.31–40, via Wikipedia)

I do not give Ender a history lesson. But I tell him a little bit about the speed of these inventions. He doesn’t really care. He’s starting to get concerned about Maggie. Wants to know how long she’s been in the car.

Two hours.

Too long, he decides. Also, he’s done with the museum. We trudge outside, across the prairie field dotted with melting snow, so very well suited to being a rural airport. Car. Dog.

She bounds out of the car like a crazy person—er, animal?—and runs around the empty parking lot. Pees on a clump of snow.

Ender tries to give her some water to drink, but she’s too excited. Runs a few more loops. Then leaps back into the car.

“Is she cold?” Ender asks. I shrug. It’s not pleasant, despite the still-shining sun. The winter winds on the prairies are brutal. But, although she is definitely a creature of comforts—she’s convinced the electric blanket on our couch exists for her pleasure—she is, above all, a pack animal. She’s not taking any chances on being left behind.

We drive back as the sun sets. Maggie snoozes in Ender’s lap. He gazes out the window for a while. Then pulls out his iPad and watches a show. Falls asleep with headphones on, the dog in his lap.

I listen to The Joy Diet. Don’t really hear much of anything. Through the rearview mirror, I see Ender’s happy face.

He had a good day.

So did I.

This is a very prolonged happy moment.

xoxo

“Jane”

“I’m crushing your head!”

So, this happens.

Yeah, that’s me, right there beside Kevin McDonald. Comic genius Kevin McDonald. Of The Kids in the Hall fame, and a toilet-paper roll of post-Kids credit. Comic genius. Formative influence of my misspent childhood.

Also, really nice guy.

One of the things that Kevin does now is travel the country and the continent teaching sketch comedy. I don’t write or perform sketch comedy. I don’t even write comedy. (Really. When I’m funny, it’s almost always not on purpose. Which is both sad and funny, which sort of makes it totally funny, because comedy works best in juxtaposition with tragedy. See? I learned shit this weekend.) But I’m a Kids in the Hall fan, and a Kevin McDonald fan, and I guess I feel I’m running out of time to meet my heroes? And I want to do it even if they disappoint, because they’re old and wrinkly and have feet of clay and bruised egos?

(I’m talking about Julia Cameron. In case that was too subtle for you.)

(I do feel I’m running out of time. This is a new feeling for me. I always used to think life is long. As 2019 comes to an end… it’s not. It’s not.)

Kevin does not disappoint. He spends the Saturday and Sunday of last weekend teaching me and fourteen other writers at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre Society all about sketch comedy. I drag him out of the room once to pace the hallway with him and drill him about pacing. Because sketch comedy is 90% about pacing, mastering pacing… He doesn’t say that, by the way—he says everything is about story—but the pacing part is what really jumps out for me. He shows me how to split a scene into beats. And here’s the beautiful thing about a brilliant teacher: I kinda knew about beats. I kinda knew a scene, to work, had to have a beginning, middle, and an end—a purpose, a climax, a satisfying conclusion. I mean, I did know that. I teach that.

The way he explained the beats of a scene—worth the price of an MFA.

Except, I bet you they don’t teach you that in academic creative writing programs, because, sketch comedy…

So. Weekend learning and laughing with Kevin McDonald. Heaven.

Also, a concert by One Voice Chorus, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall, to which I drag Flora. So that she knows about Marsha P. Johnson climbing up a lamp post and dropping a purse full of bricks on a police car and drag queens knocking over a paddy wagon and the triangle street and why Pride is political.

In-between, some not-so good things happen.

I try to hold the centre.

I’m not sure I succeed, to be honest. One moment, I am able to text back to a friend, “Pretty much best weekend ever.” The second moment…

Breathe. Life is complicated and many-faceted.

But also short.

Breathe. Don’t look too closely, because, really, being in the moment is a load of crap at times like this. Endure.

Find peace and escape between the pages of a Neil Gaiman book.

(This one: The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction by Neil Gaiman)

Not quite back in the centre. But, focusing on the laughter and the learning. Feeding my hunger.

Thinking about my heroin, and my work, and making Ender and Flora lazy sushi for supper, and Cinder, porkchops. He’s having a hard semester: I see that he is at a loss, not in his centre. This is process, it’s the age, it’s part of what must be right now. But… Trying not to worry too much about him, six months from turning eighteen. Legally adult, and then what? What changes? Anything, everything, nothing?

It was, I tell myself firmly, an amazing weekend. I had a great time. There were some rough moments. But there were more good ones.

I gotta tell you, I’m rather tired of giving myself—not to mention others—pep talks and affirmations and validation.

Id wants to climb up a lamp post and drop purses of bricks on everything. And then, crush all your heads.

Super-Ego reminds me Freud’s theories have been almost completely discredited by modern psychology which is, like, real science—experiment-based blah blah blah.

Ego suggests I should watch some Kids in the Hall sketches on YouTube and stop overthinking shit. Because this precise moment, right now? It could be a happy moment. Or at least the memory of a happy moment.

I’m a little worried Id might win.

Send chocolate.

Chocolate and Raspberries photo by Lisa Fotios via Pexels

xoxo

“Jane”

Work, heroin, and a heroine named Clementine

I’m busy with my work and with my heroin, and on the periphery of my consciousness…

You: Heroin?

Relax, I’m not a junkie, it’s a metaphor.

And not even for sheesha, weed or cigars. But can you please stop fixating on that? Sometimes a metaphor is just a metaphor. Also, I don’t want to explain, and also, I don’t have to. Where was I?

I’m busy with my work and with my heroin, and on the periphery of my consciousness, something ends and something begins, other things stir, marinate. I feel them pulsating on the membrane of…

You: Pulsating on the membrane?

Jesus, if you’re just going to interrupt me and ask me to explain every single turn of phrase—come on. Pulsating is a good word. And I’m pretty sure you can pulsate on a membrane. But fine. It’s too fine a phrase, too self-conscious and it would probably come out in the edit anyway. Let’s try that again.

I’m busy with my work and with my heroin, and on the periphery of my consciousness, something ends and something begins, other things stir, and marinate. I know I can’t force them—in fact, I need to very carefully not pay too much attention to them. Sort of like parenting the eldest teenager—I need to be aware, and present, but in absolutely no way hovering. There-but-not-there. I can do that, because, busy with my work and my heroin.

I am putting off calling the therapist and making my next appointment. One, because I’m writing and that feels way better than talking to her about yucky things. Two, because if I’m not writing, and if I’m not with the kids, I want to be with my heroin, and ok, fine, I realize, short-term solution and I should call the fucking therapist, fine, hold on, I’m making the appointment… Next Saturday, 4 p.m., now leave me alone.

Where was I? I’m busy with my work and with my heroin, and on the periphery of my consciousness, something ends and something begins, other things stir, and marinate, and I can’t remember for the life of me where I was going with this. I don’t even remember what ended and what begun. Was it a real thing? Was it a metaphor?

I’m not high. Or low. I’m playing. This, by the way, is the reason why this blog has no advertising on it. Because how on earth would I slide in a plug for Nando Chicken into a post such as this if I had to?

I’m busy with my work and with my heroin, and on the periphery of my consciousness, something ends and something begins, other things stir, and marinate, and the scent of Peri-Peri sauce—Nando’s? Damn right, Nando’s!—wafts into my nostrils.

I have no idea why I’m thinking about Nando’s. There’s one near the Lebanese/Syrian sheesha lounge that I love, but the only time I’ve ever eaten at a Nando’s was in Horsham, UK, because a friend had gift cards he needed to use up. Of course, the other night I did eat delivered Swiss Chalet chicken—for much the same reason, except this time, coupon, not gift cards. And we did talk about ordering from Popeye’s or Nando’s instead but the coupon carried the day.

See, now if Nando’s was paying for this post, they’d be pissed because I mentioned Swiss Chalet.

You: Sure you’re not high?

Jane: Maybe a little. I’ve been enjoying my heroin, a lot.

(Metaphor, seriously, a metaphor.)

(Let’s pretend I said sugar. You can relate to that better, yeah?)

(But really, it’s heroin, pure, unadulterated, perfect heroin. Methadone is for people who want to quit.)

You: Jane? I think you need to go back to not writing.

Jane: Baby? Fuck off. I’m demonstrating why freefall writing is a useful form of exercise, but is not the way to write a novel.

I’m busy with my work and with my heroin, and on the periphery of my consciousness, something ends, something else begins, and a heroine name Clementine starts to take form.

She hates her name. In high school, they called her Clammy Clemmy. Kids are little assholes. So now, she goes by Tina. But then…

Ha.

She needs to marinate some more. Because I have a shitload of revisions to do. And I need to get through them this week so that I have time for my heroin on the weekend…

Ever yours,

“Jane”

Jane does Disney like this: no mouse, no rides, a hell of a lot of angst

November 1, Friday

I’m going to Disneyland!

Well, actually, I’m not. My son and his cousin are being taken to Disneyland by their grandma. I’m coming along for the ride and for support. I’m not going to the parks.

I’m going to write and revise and relax. And maybe play.

I am two scenes short of finishing something I didn’t even know I was writing. Perhaps I will finish it on the plane.

I don’t. The day is too fractured.

November 2, Saturday

The boys and Grandma do Disneyland. I go to the Walmart Super Centre to get them food and other supplies, and then I do downtown Anaheim, nominally looking for a writing spot. But about 15 minutes into the adventure, I decide, no, not today. Today, I fill the well and look at pretty things. Hello, honey. What? Really? Absolutely, take me there, show me.

Tomorrow, I write.

November 3, Sunday, 3 p.m.

I write. Intermittently. I need to do a Walmart run, and on the way, I meet a Syrian immigrant who runs a cigar shop, and I share a cigarillo with him in the smoking room he created in his parking lot. Listen to his story.

Back at the hotel, I write the penultimate scene in the [You Don’t Get To Know The Series Title] trilogy by the pool. It’s not very good. It was supposed to be the last scene, and I know it doesn’t do the job. Something else is needed. I feel it shaping in the back of my mind and close my eyes for a moment. Listen to Ender and his cousin splash and shout.

Ok. Yes. That makes more sense; of course, it can’t end like this. But this ultimate scene, the final, trilogy-closing scene? I can’t write it yet. Next, step, go back to the beginning. Revise Episode 1. Episode 2. Episode 3. Then revise some more.

I fucking love revising.

Neil Gaiman has a line in one of his speeches where he says something like, “The second draft is where you make it look like you knew what you were doing in draft one.” Wise man.

Ender’s cousin, dripping wet, peers over my shoulder at my Scrivener document. He’s a good reader, but my font is too small and there are too many words on the page for him to really follow. Thank god. His aunt has a filthy mind, and I’d rather he learnt all those words and concepts in the school yard. I mean, from my brother.

“Are you making another book?” he asks. I nod. He thinks it’s pretty cool for two seconds, then goes back to the pool.

I close the Scrivener document—then open it, export the file to Word. Repeat the process for Episode 1 and 2. Email all three to all of my email addresses. My back-up. I am, after all, working by the pool…

November 4, Monday, 9:24 p.m.

Alice, my San Francisco-dwelling friend, is flying in to see me while I’m in Anaheim, and she’s en route from LAX to my hotel. We haven’t seen each other in more than a year—near a year and a half. We’re going to paint this boring-ass town—and Anaheim, bar Disneyland, is boring as fuck—all the colours of the rainbow. I keep on asking the Uber drivers and baristas I encounter what the locals here do for fun, and apparently, it’s nothing. They go to the Packing District—which is very cool, but it’s one building, people.

“Well, and we go to LA,” one says.

But I don’t want to spend 40-75 minutes in shitty Southern California traffic. So. Anaheim. Coffee shops and hookah bars—of course, I find them all—and maybe a trip to the beach. It doesn’t really matter. We have a hundred conversations to share that cannot be had over text.

My two days with Alice are cutting into my writing and revising time on this trilogy that, three weeks ago, I didn’t even know I was writing. But that’s ok. Because last week, I was averaging 5,000 words a day so that I’d be done the first draft of the final episode/novella by the time Alice arrived. Not working now was part of the plan.

Um. Yeah. So, you know how three weeks ago, I wasn’t writing?

Apparently, I was. I just didn’t notice.

I remember starting the novella that is now Episode 1 of [You Don’t Get To Know The Series Title]. Flora’s health issues, which had started to manifest in the fall of 2018, and started to unravel and spiral out of control that December, meant that by January, I had pressed PAUSE on my big projects. In February, as an attempt at self-care (I wish I could explain this to the family therapist, but I’ve given up on making her understand anything), I decided to try to write a short story. I wrote it in 15-minute increments through February. Perhaps the first week of March. Then. hospital, hell.

Let’s not talk about April.

Then, Wales. We can talk about Wales. (You can read about Wales in Kick Like a Girl).

I didn’t write in May, but knew, by June, I had to do something. I couldn’t go back to the story I was writing in February. Also, it was bad. I didn’t bother to re-read it, but I remembered very clearly, it was bad, and it didn’t go anywhere, and I hated it. How could I not hate it? I wrote it in hell.

I started a new, different short story. Just to have something to write. I gave it the same setting at the last one. Might as well salvage something from that disaster, I thought.

Fifteen minute increments. Very little engagement or passion. I felt that second story was very, very bad too.

And what was the point of all that writing, anyhow? I put it aside.

Spent the next few weeks trying to get back into the projects I set aside in December 2018. Still felt too stupid to face them.

(I don’t care what the therapist says: this isn’t negative self-talk. It’s a statement of fact. Trauma takes its toll on mental acuity, and pretending that it doesn’t is… stupid.)

Then, the Banff Investigative Journalism Intensive. You know what happened there. (If you don’t, you can read about it in Heaven Hangover.)

Then, post-heaven crash. Therapist. My identification of the problem: I’m not writing, and this is making me so unhappy, I want to die.

No hyperbole, by the way.

Solution: write, girl. Write shit. Write badly. Write unpublishable, unsellable crap. Write something. Get to the end of something. Start something—more importantly, finish something.

Well—there’s that story. Maybe it’s not quite as bad as I thought as it was. It’s not great. But. It has potential. Grit teeth.

Write.

Two days to finish [You Don’t Get To Know The Series Title] Story 2.

Instant realization that if Story 1 is only as bad as Story 2, I can probably save it, and then I have two-thirds of a trilogy.

A week to resuscitate and save Story 1.

Decision to write Story 3 at a pace of 5,000 words a day over a week. To show myself I can.

Write shit, write badly, write to finish, write to show yourself you can still do it.

Bam. Fucking done.

(The therapist is still nattering on about balance, and, I don’t know, people. I’m thinking, I fixed my own problem by ignoring all her advice, gritting my teeth, and making myself write to a self-imposed deadline. But I’ll give her credit for creating the space for me in which I could articulate this need to myself.)

(Ok, I haven’t actually seen the therapist recently. She’s still nattering in my head. At least I’m not paying her for that monologue).

Alice texts. “In the lobby.”

“Coming.”

November 5, Tuesday

Yesterday, Alice and I spend some time in a fantasy treehouse (long story) and end up reading Tarot cards at a hookah place—you know it, that’s where I end up when I need a home base. Also, she made me cry. Self-awareness fucking sucks people; I don’t know why all these New Age prophets have so many disciples.

Today is beach day. Coffee and breakfast at Seal Beach, a long walk along Sunset Beach, lunch, ice cream, and then a cigar break at Huntington Beach. We’re talking—and Alice makes me cry again, and it feels awful, but, you know, that’s me now, really. Then she makes herself cry. We agree it’s all part of the processing process—I don’t call it healing, because a) ugh and b) definitely not healing.

Also, I still think self-awareness sucks.

And so, I escape. As we meander along the so-beautiful-it-looks-unreal Southern California landscape (to be clear, the beaches and ocean are beautiful, the cities, ugh, and I can’t help but imagine how amazing it all must have been before people), I’m pondering [You Don’t Get To Know The Series Title]. It’s not great. The bones are decent. The execution pedestrian. The characters—well. I can fix some of that. Each story was supposed to be a light-hearted sexy rom-com, but apparently, when you’re traumatized and worried that your child is going to die, dark themes infect your work. The pieces are not funny, although there are funny moments.

They are not under contract, so I have a great deal of freedom with them. I don’t have to make them anything. I created them to keep myself sane, and moving. Mission accomplished.

Now, I can take these shitty first drafts and use them as a writing apprenticeship. What can I do to make them better? How can I refine them? Where can I cut, where should I add? Who, perhaps, should I kill?

They will be another leg of my apprenticeship. They will keep me moving.

The think-ahead, make-use-of-everything part of me thinks that I might be able to salvage enough out of them to throw them onto Kindle Unlimited, perhaps under an existing pen name, perhaps under a new one.

Most of me, though, is focused on just working through them. The bones are good. The flesh—some needs cutting, some needs toning. That’s the next step.

Alice: You gonna work tonight?

Jane: God, no. After the boys are asleep—cocktails in a boxcar! I saw this place on Saturday that you will love…

Wednesday, November 6

Yesterday, the Disneylanders—Ender, his cousin, my mom—left the hotel room at 7:30 a.m., hit Disneyland at 8 a.m., dragged themselves back to the hotel at 3p.m., immediately jumped into the pool, spend three hours there, and were asleep in their beds by 7:30 p.m. Slept for near 12 hours. Disneyland has been described to me as the vacation that fights back: “Having fun has never been such hard work!” They’re exhausted. But exhilarated.

It’s an infectious feeling.

Sort of…

I wake up thinking about Sylvia Plath.

In our conversation on Monday, Alice is pointing out my “things”—buckets, obligations, commitments. Pushing me to identify my “non-negotiables,” my “this is sacred, I will not give it up.” That’s when she makes me cry.

“I don’t have that much more to give up,” I tell her. “What? The seven minutes a day I reluctantly spend on Facebook?”

She uses herself as an example. “Where am I on your list?” she says. “Surely, you could have spent these two days in Anaheim writing in the hotel room, and not with me. For example. I know I’m not one of your sacred priorities.”

I kinda want to tell her to fuck off.

I am not that kind of artist, I tell her. I am not a monk or hermit; I am not a fanatic. My writing is embedded in my life, not separate from it.

On Tuesday, ankle-deep in salt water, she suggests that perhaps, then, what I need is to wait. Wait two years, four years—wait. Be Ender’s mother and teacher, Flora’s caretaker, focus on those things. And then write, later.

We’re almost not friends after that, to be honest. She’s just explained the patriarchy, in one misguided, well-intentioned sentence.

“I’ve been waiting to have more time for 17 years,” I tell her. “I had more time, comparatively, for two. Then it disappeared. There may never be more. What the fuck is wrong with you people that you can’t understand that?”

She apologizes. I’m not sure she understands. We move on to talk about her shit, which is easier for me, harder for her.

In the back of my mind, though, I’m now running on two tracks:

1-How do I fix [You Don’t Get To Know The Series Title]?

2-Is there anything left that I am willing to give up?

And on Wednesday morning, thanks to Sylvia Plath, I’m able to give myself—and Alice—the answer:

Writing is the first love of my life. I have to live well and rich and far to write… I could never be a narrow introvert writer, the way many are, for my writing depends so much on my life.

Sylvia Plath, Letters Home

I spend the rest of Wednesday NOT writing. Instead, Alice and I cafe-hop and thrift-shop in Fullerton until it’s time for her flight to San Francisco; alone, I find a bar with a smoking patio, and I smoke my last holiday cigarillo and drink a double Jameson’s before meeting up with the Disneyland crew at the hotel.

Thursday, November 7 – Going Home

We pack, we eat, we catch a 90-minute Uber ride to the airport; we are going home.

The kids—and grandma—are happy but exhausted. I’m… it’s hard to tell. Relaxed, yes. My residency at the Banff Centre was marvellous and exhilarating but it was not relaxing. Spending three hours in a coffee shop treehouse with a good friend, beach hopping, thrift-store hunting for two and a half days… that’s a holiday, vacation. Earlier in the week, someone asks me if I’m on vacation, and I say, “No.” But, ok. The first three days, not so much. Those last three days, yes. Vacation.

The problem with vacations, of course, is that they don’t solve any problems. They take you away from them. Maybe, by giving you distance and separation, vacations give you a new perspective on the shit you need to go back to. Maybe, in the break, vacations give you renewed energy with which to tackle the problems.

I’m still not quite sure I’ve identified mine.

Writing is the first love of my life. I have to live well and rich and far to write… I could never be a narrow introvert writer, the way many are, for my writing depends so much on my life.

Sylvia Plath, Letters Home

Sylvia Plath was a precocious teenager when she wrote that—freshly in college, pre-love affairs, pre-Ted Hughes, pre-children, pre-publication. And, of course, her story ends very, very badly, head in the oven, two orphaned children. Let me be very clear—she is not a life role model for me.

But here, we agree. When Alice responds to my challenges-as-I-see-them-right-now, she keeps on saying equivalents of “That’s a lot of shit to manage” and “What can you give up?”

And, having slept on the question for several days, my answer is—wrong question. A very Christian question—I have to tell Alice this, because she’s struggling with some bad-ass (not in a good way) fundamentalist Christian programming. Her God says, “An eye for an eye,” and “Take what you want, but you’re gonna pay for it, and it’s gonna hurt.”

I don’t believe in her god, any god. And today, my answer to, “What can you give up?” is NOTHING.

I am going to do it all.

Now.

I’m not going to wait another year or four or ten. I’m not going to sequence. And I’m not going to sacrifice and barter.

I need to be a good, functioning, willing, fulfilled mother to Ender and Flora—and Cinder, god, at the moment, my most neglected child—I remind myself that at his age, all I wanted was to be neglected by my parents. He probably welcomes the space. To be a good mother as I define it, I need to write, work, create, live, love, and play. When I give up those things, I am a shitty, shitty resentful, angry mother. And nobody wants that—not me, not the kids.

To work and to write, I need to live wide. I need to love, to laugh, to dance and to suffer. I need to feel the sunlight on my skin, and the blood in veins.

I would not write as I do if I did not live as I do, if I did not love these children as I do. And I would not love these children–or you–as I do if I did not write…

Like Sylvia, I don’t want a narrow life.

When her life narrowed, she died.

I need to live.

And I don’t want balance. Fuck balance.

I want passion. I want tension. Stimulation.

But also, quiet, and a predictable routine in which to do my work.

As I said, I want it all.

And I’m not going to compromise.

It might be because I’m writing this in an American airport, but I’m pretty sure—if I compromise? The terrorists win.

The therapist is not going to like this.

I’m not sure Alice will, either. Alice, babe? “What do you need to give up?” is the wrong question—unless you answer it with, “My preconceptions of fucked up, unfair rules and patriarchy-reinforcing limitations.”

It’s time to board; I leave you with words of wisdom from Her Majesty:

xoxo

“Jane”

But you don’t understand–I really am feeling stupid, or Arguing with the therapist and non-problem solving strategies

I have a new therapist. I make an appointment to see her after a particularly exhausting appointment at Flora’s clinic, a yet another excruciating debrief with yet another new member of Flora’s medical team. She—the new addition to the team—is actually quite wonderful. She clicks with my girl very quickly. Seems to recognize and value her intelligence and her quirks. And gets the severity of this particular manifestation of a non-textbook illness: she doesn’t offer us short-term promises or solutions. Things go really well, except for some of the completely inconsistent with reality (but perhaps consistent with being a teenager) things Flora says about her home life. Her throwaway comments (home life is stressful, she doesn’t really like her parents, and she never does anything fun with her family) plunge me into such despair I drive home in a rainstorm of tears in my eyes and barely get supper on the table. Then go to bed at 6:30 p.m., so that can be well-rested and at least semi-functional before facing the illness-related bedtime chores.

I decide to call the therapist after I try to debrief with Sean and, instead of getting support and acknowledgement and the strong, clear message that I’m a good mom, I’m doing my best, and all my sacrifices are worth it, I plunge him into my despair, and then perhaps lower. Fucking empaths, fucking mirror neurons.

Fucking genes.

I don’t blame him. He’s as empty as I am—how can he hold me up? I can’t hold him up either.

So. Therapist.

The clinic has a family therapist who is supposed to support us through this. She has, I am sure, a good heart, and apparently an education; there are framed degrees on her office walls. But no insight, at least not into me. And no tools that help—me. Frankly, when I do go to see her, I feel that I am helping her feel that she’s doing her job. So, I feel that I’m supporting her, not so much the other way around.

I don’t have super high hopes for the new therapist, but I know I desperately need to talk to someone, and it can’t be you, because, frankly, you’re as useless as the family therapist, and I fucking can’t handle your despair and fears. And tears. You don’t know how to help me, and I don’t have the energy to find feel-good jobs for you to do or to find feel-good words with which to thank you for your concern or to reassure you that yes, I’ll be ok, because, well, I don’t know. Maybe I won’t be, and now I have to worry that my not being ok is making you not be ok, and OMFG, this is why I don’t talk to people.

And now I’ve hurt your feelings just by writing this, and there you go, crying in the corner—for fuck’s sake, do you think something, anything could be about me for a change?

Um. Sorry.

Internal dialogue.

But do you see why I need to see a therapist?

So. New therapist.

I try to set her up for success.

I tell her about my struggle with the family therapist. “I need help coping and I’m here because I know I need help coping,” I tell the new one. “But if you tell me to have a bubble bath, get some fresh air, or practice self-care, I’m leaving.”

I don’t add, “After thoroughly trashing your office.” But I think it.

“Well, so long as we know who is boss here,” she says.

She might be able to help me, I think. Is she going to challenge me, push back? Force me to think about shit in a new way?

Yes, and no.

The appointment is interesting. We have very different perceptions of what the problem is. She thinks I’m being too hard on myself. Which is very sweet and all but I suspect it’s another way of telling me to take bubble baths. I think the problem is that I hate and resent my daughter because her illness is wrecking havoc on my work and my life, and I need to stop having those feelings because it’s fucking hard to act out of love when you’re seething with resentment. More importantly, it’s fucking hard to work when you’re seething with resentment, because all those feelings are exhausting and I’m so tired of feeling exhausted, and I just want to be able to sink into my work and enjoy it—I just had a taste of it when I was at the residency in Banff, and I want more, I need more, like a fucking drug, my heroin, my flow, my respite…

She thinks I need to bring more balance to my sense of identity. I think I need to work more. At all. Specifically, to figure out how to maximize the time that I do have. Because right now, I’m pissing it away, unable to focus, recovering from morning routines, anticipating afternoon and evening routines, all of which revolve around Flora’s illness, waiting to be interrupted, and so not really starting, doing anything…

“This concerns me” she says. But she doesn’t seem to hear what really concerns me. And she talks about balance and identity some more until I cut her off.

“I don’t want balance.” I am emphatic, clear, unequivocal. “I have never had balance or wanted balance. I have had passion and drive and flow and those are the things that bring me joy. And it’s not far, this thing I need. I had it in Banff: I wrote, I existed. I need that now, here.”

She latches onto my language. “Did you hear what you said?”

“What?”

“I write. I exist.”

Duh. Well, of course. Beavers built dams, songbirds sings, moose—I have no idea what moose do, stomp through swamps stripping lichens off bark? Whatever. Writers write. I write.

She seems to think this is a problem and starts to give me a lecture about work and identity and the dangers of over-identifying with your job. I tell her that we need to accept that if this is a problem, it’s not something I want fixed. What I need is to feel less resentful, less exhausted so that I can, um, you know. Work, write more.

She says, to lower the bar. Change my expectations.

I start to worry this appointment is a waste of time.

“I don’t think you really understand how I’m wired.”

I try again.

So does she.

It’s interesting.

I recognize that she’s trying to figure out how to give me what I say I need. I decide the process is sort of helpful… I did need to talk to someone, and to tell someone how angry and resentful I was, and why.

But what I really need is to stop feeling angry and resentful—and exhausted—so that I can work. And the thing that will make me stop feeling angry and resentful is being able to work.

“Wait.” The therapist wants to be clear. “So you’re not writing at all?

“I’m… practicing. And I’m writing… well, short things. And crap.” Like this. “I’m too stupid to hold space for any of my big, important projects.”

She latches onto the word “stupid.” Tells me I’ve used it a lot.

I shrug. It’s apt. In Banff, my brain woke up, felt sharp for the first time in months. I could think all the things, see all the connections. The Big Picture. Cause and effect and missing pieces, and how to find them.

My mind was sharp as a razor’s edge. I knew it, myself, again.

Back  in the demands of real life, I feel, again—stupid. Foggy.

“This is a problem.” Quoth the therapist.

“Yeah, well, I’m not here because everything is just awesome, you know.”

We again experience cognitive dissonance on what, precisely, the problem is. She thinks the problem is that I think I’m stupid. I think the problem is that I actually can’t think, perform at anything approximating the level that defines normal for me. My non-functionality isn’t all in my head and it’s not the result of poor self-esteem blah blah blah. Trust me. I be an ego-ful, arrogant bitch. If I’m telling you my brain feels stupid, that I can’t perform, this is a real thing that needs a real solution and not a lecture on negative self-talk.

“The problem is that you’re beating yourself up for it,” the therapist says.

I sigh. I feel, again, we’re talking at cross-roads. I redirect her. This is my brain running on nine months-plus of trauma and emotional exhaustion, and I suppose, physical exhaustion too. This is my brain shoulder-checking and, by the time it’s looking forward, not remembering what it saw over the left shoulder. Also, why is it in the car? Where was it driving, exactly? And why? This is my brain screaming, “Write this idea down NOW because I will not be able to hold it during the chaos that is about to ensue!” and this is me screaming at it “Write it down where, how? When? And to what purpose?”—and everyone just deciding to not do anything instead, because, what’s the point? Let’s just seethe and hate and resent instead. We know how to do that, and we can do that in this foggy state, we can do that in-between interruptions. Sure, it feels awful, but by now, it feels familiar…

We need to break that thing. I need to break that state, that habit, that default mode—I need to smash it. I need tools, I need strategies, I need help. What has she got? What can she give me? Cause I’m fucking empty—I’m too stupid to solve this myself.

She does not appreciate the irony in my choice of words.

Whatever.

She gives me homework. She suggests that I try to stop working in the morning—that is, that I stop trying to work in the morning, thus eliminating the feeling bad when it doesn’t happen thing. And perhaps look for other potentially productive windows later in the day. This is so obvious I feel stupid that I haven’t thought to it myself—and she latches onto my words again.

For fuck’s sake.

“Well, it is obvious,” I counter. “And also, an illustration of how non-functional, by my usual standard, I am, that it didn’t occur to me to just… you know. Stop sticking to a non-functioning routine.”

She jots something else on her notepad. I expect it might be “usual standard.”

I don’t really know that we’ve solved anything, really. I leave the office feeling pretty shitty. Emotionally exhausted—not that I was sparkling fresh when I walked in. But, with a bit of a plan.

The next day, I don’t try to work in the morning. It’s a Sunday, so I feed Ender, putter around the kitchen, and leave the house as soon as Sean is up and about. Flora is still in bed.

Go to the library. Don’t really work here—I transcribe. Something unimportant, short, not very good.

I read. Something completely unrelated to any of my projects. Research turquoise mining in Khosan, I don’t fucking know why.

Spend a big block of time, in the midst of real life, not engaging with Flora’s illness. With my obligations as a mother.

So. That’s something.

“Jane”

PS Can we be clear, darling—I’m not asking you for tools or strategies or help. You are here to bear witness, that’s all. And make mewling supportive sounds. Perhaps bring me chocolate. (I was just reading somewhere that among the many proven health benefits of dark chocolate is protection from the sun. I didn’t read the article very carefully, so I’m not sure if this is achieved via ingestion or via smearing melted dark chocolate on your skin, but I’m not sure I really care. I could totally get into smearing chocolate on my skin.)

PS2 Two weeks, two more therapy appointments. The therapist thinks I’m evading dealing with the problem. I don’t care what she thinks. I’m writing.

Deep Texting Conversation with My Teenager

You don’t hear a lot about Cinder these days, I realize, so I thought I’d catch you up with what’s going on in his world via our text exchanges.

Jane: This is your boarding pass. Have a good trip.

Two weeks later:

Cinder: Landed.

Jane: Here.

Cinder: K.

Biking in Waterton Lakes National Park

2012

Next day:

Cinder: My course schedule is all fucked up.

Jane: You’ll have to see your counsellor, I guess.

Cinder: I guess.

Next day:

Jane: Supper’s ready.

Later that night:

Jane: Where are you?

Cinder: Home soon.

Next day:

Jane: Food. Caesar dressing or oil and vinegar?

Cinder: Caesar.

A few days later:

Cinder: Math 30-1 has a special textbook that’s $20.

Jane: Ok.

A few days later:

Cinder: Can I drop English 30 and take it online?

Jane: K.

Later that day:

Jane: Supper.

Next day:

Jane: Food.

Next day:

Jane: Food.

A few days later:

Jane: This is your Alberta Health Care number.

Cinder: Why are you sending this to me?

Jane: You’ll get a phone call. You’ll need it.

A few days later:

Cinder: Can you get toilet paper on the way home.

Jane: There is a shitload of toilet paper in the furnace room.

Cinder: Not a good place for toilet paper.

Jane: Alternative storage suggestions welcome.

Next day:

Cinder: Where are the bandaids?

Jane: What happened?

Cinder: Nothing. Where are the bandaids?

Jane: Bathroom, top cabinet.

Cinder: No.

Jane: Then we’re out.

Cinder: Can you buy bandaids.

Jane: Do I need to hurry home?

Jane: Are you bleeding to death? Is Flora? Is Ender? Is there a dead body in the house?

Cinder: Buy bandaids.

Cinder: And cookies.

A few days later:

Jane: Are you dead?

Cinder: No.

Jane: Coming home?

Cinder: Eventually.

Jane: Can I have an ETA? I’m stuck in the stairwell under Flora’s desk and I need help to move it.

Jane: Cinder? Hello? I’m really stuck!

Later:

Jane: Supper.

Next day:

Jane: Food.

Next day:

Cinder: There’s no food in the house.

Jane: Basement. Ramen, Annie’s. Cans of beans. Knock yourself out. There might still be a frozen pizza in the fridge.

Cinder: K.

 

Next day:

Jane: Mashed potatoes or garlic bread?

Cinder: Both?

A few days later:

Cinder: What’s my CBE password?

Jane: How the fuck should I know?

Cinder: Didn’t you write it down somewhere for when I forgot?

Jane: No. Reset it.

Cinder: What’s my CBE email?

Jane: Seriously?

Next day:

Jane: Supper.

Next day:

Cinder: Where are you?

Jane: Out. Why?

Cinder: There’s no food.

Jane: Pizza.

Cinder: There’s no fruit or salad things in the house.

Jane: Who are you?

Cinder and Flora on the one unsubmerged rock on our Common.

Next day:

Jane: Supper.

Next day:

Cinder: Can I have $20?

Jane: Cash?

Cinder: Yes.

Jane: Today?

Cinder: Yes.

Jane: Only if all the change in the change jar in front of the Buddha adds up to $20.

Cinder: Are we broke?

Jane: Experiencing cash flow difficulties.

A few days later:

Cinder: Can you proof my resume?

Next day:

Jane: Food.

Cinder: Not home.

Jane: Where are you?

Cinder: Out.

Jane: K. I’m gonna eat your steak.

Cinder: Coming home.

God, I love this 6 foot 3 baby of mine

xoxo

“Jane”

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

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

Even churches need to keep the lights on, somehow.

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

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

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

(Back to regularly scheduled programming…)

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

Follow me for a while; I’ll explain.

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

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

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

And again.

I don’t like her.

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

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

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

I am mean to her, so mean to her.

I hate her.

She is my most beloved teacher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For an emotionally exhausting eight hours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bam!

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

She dictates.

What do I need to do?

I write:

Write and build.

She says:

What do I need to try?

I write:

Rejuvenate, recharge, restart.

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

Number three, says Julia:

What do I need to accept?

Motherhood is forever.

Corners of my eyes tingle, sting.

Number four:

What do I need to grieve?

I don’t want to do this fucking exercise.

But I write:

Loss of freedom. And time.

Tears stream down my face, hot and sticky.

Last one.

What do I need to celebrate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck that shit.

My tears come again. Hot.

What do I need to accept?

Motherhood is forever.

What do I need to grieve?

Loss of freedom. And time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They work.

They work, very very well, for writers.

Julia prescribes them for everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bang. Ouch. Wah.

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

Well.

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

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

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

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

How weird is that?

Nothing natural, inevitable about any of it, right?

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

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

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

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

― Rumi (Coleman Barks translation)

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

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

I find it in the Morning Pages.

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

Julia. You too old to be open-minded?

Sigh.

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

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

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

Fake.

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

Worship is seductive.

 

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

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

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

This is hard to do when one is empty…

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

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

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

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

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

I write:

Dear Creativity God,

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

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

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

Jesus.

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

Fine.

When I commit to doing something, I do it.

I write.

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

Well, fuck what the hell is this?

I hate Julia Cameron.

I love Julia Cameron.

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

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

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

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

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

She is my most beloved Teacher.

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

xoxo

“Jane”

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

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

for Small medium larch

A Golden Larch

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

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

Certainly not journalism.

But that’s another story.

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

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

I am thinking, writing in circles.

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

View from the Banff Centre Library

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

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

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

Banff Centre Campus, God’s light

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

And also, not thinking about the reader.

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

Elk on campus

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

Artists dream.

More importantly, they work.

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

Elk harem on campus

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

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

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

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

To a cemetery.

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

This is what I find in the cemetery.

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

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

The next day, I meet my people.

On top of Sleeping Buffalo (Tunnel) Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tears, heartbreak.

No comment

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

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

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

In the wind

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

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

Photographing the photographers; context deleted

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

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

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

Rewind.

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

And it’s a journalist’s fault.

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

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

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

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

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

Hard-core, not soft-boiled. Clearly.

Not.

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

I’m wrong.

This is love.

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

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

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

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

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

meme by David

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

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

This is not a newspaper; this is not journalism

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

Maybe not.

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

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

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

Perhaps it does.

Boat in the woods

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

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

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

Do we belong?

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

Shakes me, anyway, to the core.

Dancing in the Streets, photo by Kathleen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a picture of my crew.

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

View from my room

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

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

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

Not my words, but my sentiment.

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

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

Melancholy.

“I don’t want this to be over.”

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

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

Bridge over troubled (they only look calm) waters

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

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

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

Embattled.

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

And yet, here we are.

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

All the industry stereotypes

Maybe.

“So why do we keep on doing this?”

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

Music is in his bones, in his DNA.

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

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

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

I’ve heard its variant often.

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

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

And I don’t understand the question.

I stare.

I smile awkwardly.

I shuffle away.

Bow Falls

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

Beavers build dams.

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

And keep on asking…

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

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

Except here.

Heaven.

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

It’s time to say goodbye.

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

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

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

I close my eyes. And enter into the pain.

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

Photo by Alex

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

When I leave them, I am an open wound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(You know I was going to go there.)

So. Goodbye.

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

Heartbreak.

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

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

You can sow it up and harden.

Or you can leave it open. And make art.

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

Document state of mind forever.

xoxo

“Jane”

Photo by Kathleen

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

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

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

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

Michael on deadline (he made it)

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

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

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

You: I don’t understand any of this.

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

Manufactured Memories, for Suzie

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

I set out the rules:

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

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

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

She asks me to go first.

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

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

She asks, “Why do you hate Christmas?”

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

She asks, “Favourite childhood memory.”

I pause.

Think hard.

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

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

We always felt safe.

We always felt loved.

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

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

It goes like this…

The taste of cherries

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

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

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

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

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

Except this one. But this one is so delicious…

I treasure it.

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

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

The donkeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She likes the story. A lot.

But now she wants her next question.

I ponder for a bit.

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

I hope it’s going to be a good story.

xoxo

“Jane”

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

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

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

Stroller Alley at Calgary Public

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

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

Questionarium, Calgary Public Library

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

Curated children's book display, Calgary Public Library

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

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

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

Book cover: I killed Adolf Hitler

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

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

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

Book Cover: Queen Victoria by Lucy Worlsey

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

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

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

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

It has artists in residence and writers in residence.

And new art in its public space.

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

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

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

Create Space, Calgary Public Library

You know. The conversations that will change the world.

Create Space, Agree or Disagree

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

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

I am not getting any books… Damn. Wait…

Well… but these are very light.

I get books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moeller’s Drinking Birds bop to welcome them.

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

I smile at strangers and they smile back.

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

I am so happy, I almost cry.

xoxo

“Jane”

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

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

 

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

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

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

We live here, how lucky is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there were three…

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

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

We’re gonna be ok.

I think.

Ender’s “not back to school” lunch

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

We read a book together, then I read alone.

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

He sorts his Lego, then starts uploading Minecraft mods.

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

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

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

He asks for three lunches.

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

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

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

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

I go back to my computer. Tickle the keys.

Write.

Invite the nervous new homeschooler over for coffee.

Write while I wait.

Happy rainy Monday.

The path less travelled

xoxo

“Jane”

Me and my “baby,” at the Passport Office

Confessions of an unreformable plant killer

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

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

No pictures, if you follow my drift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sean: I feel guilty about buying dead flowers.

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

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

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

Old, lush, overgrown European cemeteries…

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

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

Enjoy reading them. Return to neglecting the plants…

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

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

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

Him: We will practice more.

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

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

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

He sighs.

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

I comply.

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

Who am I kidding. Of course I’m not.

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

xoxo

“Jane”

All photos courtesy of Pexels.com

Finding Water, grateful for Julia Cameron, kinda whiny anyway

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t feel like working today.

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

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

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

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

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

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

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

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

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

Yesterday, I read this:

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

John Cage

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

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

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

Breathe.

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

You: Yeah, what happened with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can I do today?

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

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

Sometimes, silence.

Today, a few hours with Julia.

Julia says,

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

Do it.

xoxo

“Jane”

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

TICKETS HERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People think in pictures

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

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

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

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

The kids are all right

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Internet is not a medium

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

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

Photo by Hannes Wolf, Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

Libraries will save us all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story is forever

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

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

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

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

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

Register here:

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

Featured Reading:

Into the Abyss by Carol Shaben

The End of Absence by Michael Harris

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Suggested Follow-up Reading:

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

Story by Robert McKee

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

And also, while we’re lauding librarians:

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktoo by Joshua Hammer

All books available at the Calgary Public Library.

xoxo

“Jane”