“Mittens?”

We come out of the warm YMCA building, the chlorine scent of the swimming pool still clinging to us. Ender, with the determination only a four-year-old possesses, drags his sled down the stairs. Clunk, clunk, clunk. Slam! It lands on the bottom. He looks over his shoulder. Scowls at me. He’s tired. Hungry. Probably, despite the snowpants, sleeping-bag-jacket, and over-the-face toque, cold, because it’s the coldest, snowiest December YYC has seen in 112 years.

He plops down on the sled in a Buddha pose.

“Mittens?”

I ask, kneeling down beside him.

“No! My hands are NOT cold!”

He’s tired. Hungry. Contrary. It’s at least -15 Celsius.

I shrug. Get up. Start pulling the sled.

It’s a beautiful, clear night. The air feels clean—sparkling—even as it hurts my lungs, bites at my exposed cheeks. I pull the sled on the cleared-of-snow-but-there’s-so-much-of-it-everywhere-I-kind-of-want-a-snowmobile paths. Look at the twinkling lights. The sleeping-bag-parka-engulfed people. Turn my head.

“Mittens?”

“No.”

I shrug. Start walking again, my hands warm in my mittens. I think of what 2013 was, and what 2014 might be. I think of milestones, real and artificial. I think of hope-despair-desire-acceptance-creation-destruction-reconstruction. A plot line emerges from all those thoughts, a fascinating one, and I hear a conversation in my head that sets it up, and I fall in love with it, but it doesn’t really fit into what I want to do, ultimately, with that piece of work, and then my thoughts leap to the unBloggers Manifesto I want to write for Nothing By The Book for January, a polemic that in its current form is not doing quite what I need it to do, and I know it’s because I’m pulling too much into it, going off on too many tangents, and for a piece of writing to work, it needs to be focused, and a polemic piece of writing needs to be brutally so, digressions and tangents only work if you pull them back, at just the right time, to the central idea, the theme… or the chorus…

I turn around.

“Mittens?”

“No. Not cold.”

Mittens Pin

I cross the bridge. The lights are beautiful and almost make me forgive Christmas its existence. And I think about… beauty, definitions of, abstraction of, and that thought takes me to my daughter-who’s-about-to-turn-nine, so beautiful in mind-soul-body that it makes me ache, so full of potential and wonder that it’s that thought, and not the cold air, that stops the breath in my throat for a second… and I think about all the ways that I think fail her as a mother, all the ways that I am not what she needs, and tears swirl in my eyes—but maybe I am what she needs? And, really, what a silly question, because I am what she has and she is what I must learn—and, tears still dancing in the corners of my eyes, I turn my head…

“Mittens?”

He shakes his head. I never imagined motherhood to be this—so full of such intense joy and such paralyzing pain. So full of summits and valleys. So glorious, so rewarding—so fucking heart-wrenching. And that thought takes me to twelve different places at once, and I’m not sure how much self-awareness I want to chase in this moment, so I choose to chase the idea that self-awareness, for all the pain it brings, is also a source of power and that takes me to such very, very interesting places…

“Mittens?”

His hands are folded in his lap, and he’s bent over them. Head bopping. Falling asleep. He bops up. Scowls at me.

“Mittens?” I repeat.

“No.”

I walk faster. Over another bridge. Through the steam rising from the cracks in the ice of the river. I look at the water, ice, snow, steam and feel a shot of resentment and fear. I try to see beauty… and not next year’s flood waters. And I grit my teeth and don’t chase that thought. Find another. Oh, this one I like… I smile—my nose runs, because it’s so cold—my mouth opens and I almost stop moving because all I want is that thought and, irreverently and irrelevantly, I also glory in the fact that it came to me in this moment when I am alone… except I am not, because I am MOTHER and I am never alone, even when I am.

I look over my shoulder…

“Mittens?”

“Not! Cold!”

I can’t really run in my boots and on the snow, but I walk as quickly as I can. Home, home. I cannot wait to be home, and not just because it’s cold, and I love that thought, that feeling. I want to get home.

“Mom? My hands are cold.”

I’m about… what? 200 meters away. Maybe less. I kneel down beside the four-year-old. His hands are pulled into the sleeves of his sleeping-bag coat. I blow on his fingers and slip on his mittens. Kiss the tip of his nose.

Do not lecture, and so, enjoy the brief victory of mind over impulse. Pull the sled the last 200 meters home.

I wish I could tell you that the next time we go out in the cold, he says “Yes” the first time I try to put on his mittens. But he won’t.

I wish I could tell you I will never again doubt that I am what my daughter needs or let my thoughts go to all those other unproductive, painful places.

I wish I could tell you that, somewhere between the YMCA and home, I found the answer to EVERYTHING. Because how awesome would that be?

But, I just want to tell you this: You can fight over the mittens. Cajole, badger, plead. Force.

Or you can wait for those little hands to get cold.

And when they do—put on the mittens. Silently. Without the “I told you so’s.” Or too many expectations for the next time.

Fuck, yeah, it’s a metaphor.

Jane

P.S. Happy New Year, beloveds. I am torn what to ask of 2014. In the closing weeks and months of 2013, I rather wanted a less eventful year. But now that it’s here… eventlessness is so boring. And unfulfilling. So, 2014—be eventful. Be FULL. I’ve got plans for you. And you’d better be prepared to rise to the occasion.

P.P.S. “Jane, why are you anthropomorphizing a calendar construct?”
“Because… Metaphors. So useful.”

Coming sometime this month: the unBlogger’s Manifesto. Minus all of its digressions. Or maybe not. Focus is key. But it is digressions that make life and thought interesting…

P.P.P.S. “I love this! I want more!”
“I am so pleased. Connect with Nothing By The Book on Twitter @nothingbythebook, Facebook, and Google+. Or, for a not-in-front-of-the-entire-Internet-please exchange, email  nothingbythebook@gmail.com.”

After the flood: Running on empty and why “So are things back to normal?” is not the right question

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He asks the question with a smile, as a casual opener before we move on to “real” issues, and is shocked and appalled when I burst into tears because, well—I don’t cry.

“Are things back to normal?” he says and immediately wishes he hadn’t said it, and doesn’t know where to go from there. And I’m shocked too—I don’t know where the hell those tears have come from, because I’m fine, we’re fine, everything’s just fine.

Except, of course, it’s not.

We had this flood in YYC and Southern Alberta back in June, you may remember (my flagship post about it was unLessons from the flood: We are amazing, and if you want facts, visit the evolving Wikipedia entry  or the Calgary’s Herald’s The Great Flood of 2013 page), that devastated my neighbourhood and so much of our city. An army of citizen volunteers turned out in the tens of thousands to respond to the crisis. It was amazing. It was euphoric. It had us walking on air and out of crisis mode in a couple of intense weeks.

People were asking a week, two weeks after the flood—as soon as the rivers receded, as soon as most of the debris that was our basements, our houses, our possessions, our lives, was taken off the streets and into the dumps—“Are things back to normal?”

And in late July, August, euphoric, proud, we could smile and say, “We’re out of crisis mode.” And maybe talk a little about insurance, and the Disaster Recovery Program, and plans for reconstruction. And laud our mayor’s leadership and bitch out the provincial government and, you know, do all those “normal” things.

I’m not sure when “normal” got harder to fake. Maybe in September, when we’d reconnect with people we hadn’t seen for a few months, and they’d say, “So—did you have a good summer?”

Funny—we are so socially programmed to be inoffensively happy and placating, the autoresponse to that question, which the mouth starts to form before the brain has a moment to reflect, is, “Yes. And you? That flood thing? A minor inconvenience. Moving on. Going to Disneyland!”

I did not have a great summer. We did not have a great summer. And things are not back to normal. What does that mean, anyway?

I look at him as if he can give me the answer, but of course he can’t. And he’s never seen me like this before, or under stress before, but he’s spend the summer ripping out friends’ basements, and they’re none of them quite “normal” right now either. But they’re not talking about it. “We’re fine, everything’s fine.” So what’s going on? What’s up with us, what’s tearing us up, as we move into month five after the flood?

I struggle to put it into words.

The obvious answer is that reconstruction is not going well. The rip-outs, it turns out, were the easy part. Putting things back… Well. We’re all at different stages. Sunnyhill’s probably further behind than many others because of our need to rehabilitate all 41 damaged units simultaneously. But I don’t know anyone who was affected who’s totally “done.” Most of us—all of Sunnyhill—have been back home for a long time. But we’re living in reduced, scarred spaces. An eternal mess. That’s hard. I know every time I walk in and out of my front door, every time I see the ripped door casings, the dismantled walls, the hole where my hall closet used to be, my jaw tightens.

So. That kind of sucks. But—really—I’ve been through renovations before. Who hasn’t? We are, I tell him, the mildly inconvenienced. We know this. Bitching and complaining about naked joists, drywall dust and “what the hell did the contractors do now?” seems like such a First World Whine. And that’s the other thing.

We feel bad—guilty—over feeling bad. Because. India. Colorado. Fuck, High River.

That sure doesn’t help.

He refills my glass. He tells me about his friend, whose house is fine but whose rental property was devastated, and how guilty she feels that her own personal loss wasn’t greater. That she was, ultimately, only financially inconvenienced, while her tenants lost—everything.

Stupid, I say.

Human, he counters.

I start crying again. He gives me his napkin to wipe away tears, snot. I hide my face.

We’re exhausted, I say when I can talk again. I’m the mother of three young children who all went through severe insomniac stages—and I’ve never been this physically exhausted. And it’s not from physical labour, the way it was during the crisis. We were entitled to be exhausted then, right? But now—others are doing the work (or getting paid to do work the results of which we’re not seeing, I snarl, and I laugh, and he does too, because that’s “normal” for me, much more normal than these uncontrolled tears). We’re just doing the everyday stuff—well, a little more, and so much of the everyday stuff is more difficult, but… Not entitled to complain. Not engaged in heavy physical labour. And, frankly, letting a lot of the everyday stuff go. Never did one thing to the flooded garden this year. Cleaning windows? Ha. I barely clean the kitchen. And my kids have never eaten so much take-out, ever. So what are we exhausted from?

Living? he says, gently.

I shake my head.

Frankly—I look at him through the wine glass, and it’s the refraction of light through liquid that blurs his features, not the water still swimming in my eyes—frankly, we’re exhausted from being so fucking positive and amazing. We know we pulled off a miracle. We were awesome. We were strong.

And now we’re really tired, and we’re done—except, of course, we’re not done.

Because things are not back to normal.

But tears aren’t swimming in my eyes anymore and I heave a sigh of relief.

Jesus, that felt good, I tell him. And then—I’m so sorry. We were supposed to talk about…

He interrupts me, waves my apology away. And he tells me—how he’s been struggling. Trying to figure out how to be a good friend to his floodster (we don’t do the victim thing in YYC, and survivor’s a rather dramatic term, don’t you think?) friends post-crisis, and feeling at a loss. And how he needed to hear this as much as I needed to tell it. And how he will never ask anyone in any of the affected Calgary neighbourhoods “Are things back to normal?” ever again.

We laugh. Order dessert. More wine.

In this moment, although things are not back to normal, I’m fine. We’re fine.

Or, at least—you know. Functional.

• 

The writer engages in overt emotional manipulation, both to achieve a level of release and to communicate that which is hard to articulate. My family and friends won’t finish reading this post—they’ll be texting me in a panic before they get to the end of the first paragraph. Chill. Although things are definitely not back to normal—and for the love of any and all of the gods I don’t believe in, do not ask your flooded (or otherwise whacked by life’s events) friends and neighbours if things are back to normal, ok? Just don’t—life is unfolding as it must. And in my own beloved little corner of the flood plain, we are all doing what must be done. And—because we’re a community—we’re helping each other through it. (And possibly drinking too much wine, but. So be it.)

But if you’re on the hills and edges of the flood plains—if you’re on the edges of any life affected by a traumatic event—and you’re struggling to figure out how to help your friends who are clearly post-crisis but equally clearly not-ok, do this:

  • Listen. Don’t tell us how strong, wonderful, amazing, or lucky we are. Just listen. Let us feel bad, sad, frustrated, furious. Tired. We know we’re amazing. We kind of need permission to be… whiney.
  • Connect us to help. If you’re a local reader and you need to help a local floodster, a good starting point is the resource list provided by Alberta Health Services here. But babe, remember how I was telling you during the crisis to see the need and fill it, how saying “How can I help?” isn’t enough when people are in shock? Sending your friend the link or telephone number may not be enough. Walk the line between empathy and obnoxiousness as best as you can, but a “May I call and make an appointment for you?” is likely more helpful than “Here’s a link I thought you’d find helpful” email. For your hard-core entrepreneur friends who don’t want to do stress-relief acupuncture and roll their eyes at sacrocranial therapy etc. etc., the Canadian Federation of Independent Business has some hard-core resources—that include getting connected with counsellors if that’s what you need.
  • Recognize that we’re not as… full, or resilient as we used to be. And so—take less. In a way, take more—we’re not as patient or tolerant as we used to be either. Nor necessarily as rational. Deal with it. And, if you can, look for ways to fill us up. (Preferably not just with wine. Although that sometimes does do wonders.)
  • Invite yourself over. Our scarred houses are difficult to love right now. Sometimes, company is difficult to seek out. But isolation really sucks. Come on over.
  • Invite us over, or out. Our scarred houses are a little oppressive right now, but suck us in with all their demands. Get us out.

For my neighbours, who are awesome, and doing all the things. But who are also exhausted and running on empty, and need to have those feelings acknowledged and respected. (Especially my beloved L. So much love and appreciation for all that you’re doing.)

For my friends, who helped so much, and who are always trying to help. In the most creative, occasionally disturbing, ways. (Yeah, I’m talking about you. I’m not saying it didn’t work… but that was really weird. Still. Thank you.)

And, for myself. Cause I really needed to cry.

Cheers.

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“Jane”

Sat., Nov. 2nd P.S. You’re breaking my heart but also feeding my soul with what you’re sending to my in-box. Yes, you are free to share this piece wherever you think it needs to be heard. The private place to cry is nothingbythebook@gmail.com. Much love. J.

The AP Hair Style: I don’t brush my children’s hair. It’s a massive philosophical thing. Really

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When my kids were teeny-weeny—but already hairy—my friends and I used to joke that you could always identify the attachment-parented kids at playgrounds and playgrounds by the “AP Hair Style.” That is—unbrushed. Unkempt. Wild.

Now, ya’ might think that’s a granola-hippy-natural kind of thing.

It’s not.

And you might think—goddamn lazy attachment parents, not with it enough to perform the simple task of running a comb through their kids hair in the morning.

Screw you.

Or you might think—if you’re a self-identified AP mama, perhaps—that it’s because… well, it’s not important. And there are more important things. Sleep. Play. Breastfeeding. Perusing the fair-trade-all-wooden-no-plastic toy catalogue. (I’m not making fun of you. OK, I am, a little. But–I’ve had that catalogue too. Chill.)

Nope. It’s actually really important. The not brushing even more so than the brushing.

Ready?

I didn’t brush—don’t brush—my children’s hair when they did not want me to brush their hair—because it’s their hair.

Hold on.

I’m going to shout it.

IT’S THEIR HAIR.

Part of their bodies.

I do not assault it, when they are unwilling, with a hair brush, any more than I would assault, do violence, on any other part of their bodies.

THEIR BODIES.

Their own.

Under their own dominion—not mine.

Their wild, messy hair? Part of the lesson that they’re learning that no one—not me, not nice Mr. Jones down the street, not that creepy dude in the park, and not their first, over-eager boyfriend—has a right to do anything to their bodies that they don’t want them to do.

This is a lesson our children need to learn, repeatedly, while they are close enough to us that they will learn it, hear it.

But we don’t teach it with words. We don’t teach it with scary lectures or with fear.

We teach with how we treat their bodies. From their nose to their toes, and all the parts in-between.

And their hair.

Think about that next time you wield a hair brush.

xoxo

“Jane”

COMMENTS FOR THIS POST ARE NOW TURNED OFF, so we can all have a peaceful weekend. And for those of you continuing the debate on other fora:  a not-so-gentle reminder that name calling is not debating. Criticize the idea. I want you to. No name calling or being nasty to other commentators though, ok? Not cool.

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Other People’s Awesome

For all the parents on the verge of *that* conversation with your daughters (and sons), here is a brilliant Dear Daughter, I hope you have awesome sex piece from the Good Men Project.

For the bloggers in the crowd having social media anxiety and overdose: Joel Comm’s I am leaving social media.

For the bloggers in the crowd who want an easier way to share my stuff and to have me share your stuff, come join me on Triberr, at Ain’t Nothing But a Blog Thing Tribe or, if you’re a homeschooling blogger, at Undogmatic Unschoolers.

My neglected (by me) blogging sisters have been turning out all sorts of awesome these last few weeks. Jean at MamaSchmama wrote a beautiful I can make it home  piece into which she sneaked some lovely introductions to some of her favourite (and mine—she is clearly a woman of immaculate taste) bloggers. Kristi at Finding Ninee wrote what I think is a love letter to her son titled Forgotten Loves  that will a) make you cry and b) make you hug that squirmy love in your live extra-extra-hard—and Rachel at Tao of Poop was clearly on the same page with I Used to Love.

And while I’m tugging at your heart-strings, let me turn you over for a few minutes to Jen at My Skewed View, who delivers a birth story so poignant I’m tearing up as I remember it, and I read it more than a week ago: Eight Years Ago Today.

Jessica at School of Smock wrote a great piece about why pregnancy books now piss her off  and Stephanie at Mommy Is for Real reminded us all why we never eat out anymore. With our children anyway.

And Sarah at Sadder But Wiser Girl was also full of advice last week. She tells you to always check your underwear (and then some… you might need to change your underwear after reading Sarah. Just a word of warning). Jenn at Something Clever 2.0 also made me pee this week. So maybe read this post before changing your underwear…

Deb at Urban Moo Cow made me really, really, REALLY happy I don’t have a toddler anymore. Can I admit that? I can. I’m good with that. I don’t want any more babies, either. EVER.

But I’m super-super-super happy that Stephanie at Where Crazy Meets Exhaustion is glowing. Really. (Note to my most beloved: Vasectomy. Now. No more babies. Ever. But that’s a topic for another post, perhaps…)

Last thing: new friends. I’m getting to know these people this week:

Dysfunction Junction

and you should come play with me.

-30-

P.S. Where the hell is your like button? I turned it off. Cause if you really liked it, I want you to tell me. And I don’t really need to ego stroke from the other. xoxo J.

unLessons from the Flood: We are amazing

I didn’t really panic until I hit the first police barricade and was told I couldn’t get into my neighbourhood. The police officer and I eyed each other through my window.

“We can’t let any more cars into Sunnyside,” he said.

“I need to go get my husband,” I said.

“And our dog!” Flora piped up.

“We can’t let any more cars into Sunnyside,” he repeated. Then looked at me again. Cut his eyes to the right.

He might as well have said, “But you know the area well, of course.”

I nodded.

Sharp turn right. How many other ways into Sunnyside? The main roads would be blocked off… but, yeah. Residential streets. Roundabouts. Alleys.

Text from Sean:

“Worst case scenario, park on McHugh’s Bluff. I’ll bike up the hill.”

It’s good to have a Plan C.

But Plan B worked: about 12 minutes later, after several not-entirely legal turns—one of them right in front of another police cruiser—I was in my driveway. The sky was blue, although the clouds south of the city were terrifying, and coming closer.

And I was home… and my neighbours were throwing things into their cars… and, yet, none of us really felt a particular sense of urgency, even though we got, at 5:45 p.m., the call to get out of our neighbourhood by 7 p.m.

See, our city’s two rivers, the Elbow and the Bow, get angry every once in a while. We get massive snow melt most years; every few years, they rip our riverbanks. And there was crazy flooding already south and west of the city—but… we were so sanguine. I mean, this is Calgary. One of Canada’s largest cities. Natural disasters don’t happen here.

Still. We’re responsible citizens.

“Are we going to flood?” Flora asked, in tears.

“No,” I said, firmly. “This is a precautionary evacuation. We’re just leaving so that the emergency crews don’t have to worry about us. Chill. Grab some books, your iPad—sleep-over at Grandma’s. No big deal.”

But. Those clouds. Disconcerting.

An hour later, with some clothes, computers, and Sean’s film equipment (our livelihood) in the truck, we were in evacuation traffic. But of course, right? What in a big city emergency doesn’t involve a traffic jam? Especially when you’re evacuating 100,000 people in a city of a million?

Texts from family and friends: “Are you guys high enough? Are you safe? Are you dry?”

Our response: “Evacuating. But safe. No worries.”

That was Thursday, June 20, 2013.

It was, honestly, kind of fun.

Ender’s commentary: “Does the river have a leak? Shouldn’t someone plug it?”

We laughed.

The rain that came down on us as we were navigating evacuation traffic and already flooded bridge and road closures to get to the safety of my parents’ house—providentially on very, very high ground—was a little scary.

But. You know. It was rain.

“Kind of an adventure, hey?” Cinder said. “Holy crap, look at that thunder!”

Kind of fun.

***

It stopped being fun in the morning when we saw what the rivers had done.

Our neighbourhood looked like this:

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… and, by comparison, we got off easy.

If you want your heart torn to pieces, google “High River flood images” and see what the rivers have done to our neighbours in High River.

Not that Calgary was unscathed. The damage was… astounding. Our downtown core—the financial core, the business centre of one of Canada’s largest, richest cities—under water. Paralyzed. Some 100,000 of our people—out of their homes.

The rivers—gone mad. Still flowing, ripping.

It was, we found out, not just the worst flood ever in Canadian history, but the worst natural disaster in Canadian history.

“Well,” I told Sean—who’s from Manitoba, a Canadian province famed for its rampaging waters and regular floods, “when Calgary and Alberta do something, we do it all the way. Even natural disasters. Eat your heart out, Winnipeg! Our flood’s more epic than yours!”

And we laughed hysterically. Because, you know. If you don’t laugh…

We spent the first day after the flood doing what our amazing mayor, Naheed Nenshi, told us to do. Staying home. Staying off the roads. Letting the emergency crews do what they had to do.

It was the hardest thing ever.

You know how you watch the reactions of survivors of natural and other disasters on the news, and there’s all these people clamouring to go home, even though it’s dangerous and stupid?

I will never mock them again.

We wanted to go home.

We wanted to see home.

On Saturday—day two after the flood—we broke. We started calling and Facebooking and connecting with the people in Sunnyhill—our immediate community—and we met in a safe area… to plan? Compare notes? Cry? I’m not sure why we met. I think we needed to see that we were all ok.

And then… we broke orders. We didn’t mean to, you know. We were just going to stop on top of the McHugh Bluff to look.

But.

Home.

We walked down.

Thigh-high water in our street, spilling over sidewalks, lawns, and the adjacent Curling Club parking lot.

Water everywhere.

No way of getting “home.”

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We looked.

The kids played on the playground—high and dry.

I let tears flow for the first time.

I don’t think the pictures really do it justice.

There was so much, so much water.

So much destruction.

It was overwhelming.

Our children—how resilient are children?—thought it was kind of cool. “Can we swim in it?” Cinder asked at one point. “Jesus Christ, no, it’s probably full of sewer water,” I choked out. They ran. Climbed trees…

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Cinder took this photo of our Common area from the Tall Pine.

… and skipped rocks in the flood waters. Ender earned himself a cameo in one of the flood videos:

 (That’s one of our neighbours kayaking through our Common. An experienced paddler, she was rescuing some of our people’s documents. You see, we didn’t really take that evac order that seriously. Some of us didn’t even take underwear, much less passports… The video is by Calgarian Bradley Stuckel and co.–did they not do a beautiful job? My filmmaker husband is uber-impressed.)

On Sunday (the flood waters came over Thursday/Friday night), Sean and I sold our children to friends, and, along with most of the flooded out Sunnysiders, waded into our neighbourhoods ahead of the all-clear from the city to see what the hell was going on with our houses.

It was, I’d like to say upfront, after seeing what we waded through, an incredibly stupid and dangerous thing to do.

But you see… it was home. We had to go see.

We reacted, all of us, in different ways to what we saw.

Sean went shopping for clean up and demolition supplies, and then to a community planning meeting.

I, unable to deal with the massive destruction on the ground floor, went up to our kitchen, and cleaned out the fridge—power, of course, was off, and had been since Thursday, and everything was rancid. And then cleaned, scrubbed the fridge. Because that, I could do.

And then…

And then, friends, my city’s people pulled off a miracle.

I think, in the future, the enormity of what the flood did to Calgary will be underplayed because of the rapidity with which the city stabilized and returned to some semblance of “normal” within a week.

We evacuated Thursday, June 20, 2013.

A week later, parts of our downtown were open for business.

The majority of the flooded houses in my neighbourhood had been ripped and disinfected: saved. All of the 41 (I said 38 in my earlier posts on calgarybusinesswriter.com: forgive me, numbers not a strong suit, ever) flooded units in my little sub-community of Sunnyhill were gutted, cleaned, bleached, demolded: saved. (Here’s my initial call for help to our friends, neighbours, and citizens; here’s the thank you and another thank you because one is just not enough—and here’s my take on why and how they performed this miracle.)

We lost, as a city, as a province, a mind-blowing amount of infrastructure. Roads. Bridges. Our beloved Zoo! Individual houses, and so many possessions (me: never buying anything. Ever again). But our response to this crisis, as a community, as individuals, has been amazing.

What grabs the headlines during so many other crises, and disasters? Looting. Riots. In Calgary, we had too many volunteers. And the Calgary Police Service wrote the citizens a thank you letter

Our people opened their houses to evacuated relatives, friends and strangers. Started a laundry brigade for the evacuees. Fed displaced residents and the army of volunteers. Turned out in hordes to rip out basements, clean up debris, help any way they could.

Laughed in the middle of the chaos:

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We put up “Need Sewer, Need Power, Need Cute Firefighter” signs in our windows:

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(This isn’t my photo; it’s a FB/Twitter viral sensation–if you took it, tell me and I will happily credit you.)

Why our mayor is awesome and you should have nenvy too: “To all the people with the ‘Need Cute Firefighter’ signs in their windows’: We’re working on it,” he tweeted in response. And man, he delivered:

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Ender wanted to pose with the cute firefighters. It was totally Ender. Not his mother. Really. Um. Moving on…

We have a crazy amount of work ahead of us, as individuals, as neighbourhoods, as communities—as a city and as a province.

Are we back to normal? Not quite. But we’re “back.” And we’re working on defining our new normal.

But after what YYC did in these last two weeks—we’re gonna get her done. No question about it. Because—we are Calgary. We acted as a community, to save our communities.

We are amazing.

You want to see more pictures of how amazing we are? Of course. Here are a few more:

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“Please don’t give my daughter an eating disorder. But you will. You will…”

2011. Flora is six and lives in a bit of a bubble. There’s no TV—and thus commercials—in the house. No glossy magazines. The meme videos she watches on Youtube are big brother-tested and, while generally in poor taste, rarely an assault on the self-worth and identity of a young woman. She chooses her clothes among her favourite friends’ hand-me downs, and loves them because of who they came from. “Designer jeans,” to her, are an ethically troubling line of scientific research.*

She eats real food—and lots of delicious, sweet things. She never has to clear her plate. She can eat dessert first. Or never. For breakfast or in the middle of the day. She eats when she’s hungry, and does not eat when she’s not.

She loves herself.

And then, that stupid bastard, he tries to wreck it. When she’s six.

He’s not a bad man, you know. Just a guy. With a TV and without a daughter. I think he was just trying to be nice, make conversation.

This is what he said:

You’re eating a second ice cream? You are going to get so fat.

To my six-year-old daughter.

He moved on. Forgot. The effect on her? That evening, as she comes out of the bath, my six-year-old daughter looks at herself in the mirror—for the first time in her life, critically. She thrusts out her belly. And asks me:

Mom? Am I fat?

And I, who have spent much of my adult life struggling against the eating disorder and body image damage inflicted on my teenage self, I freak. But manage to hold it in, for her. And hear the story, what’s prompting this. And engage in a little bit of deprogramming. And tell her, that the next time I see him, I will explain to him why what he said was inappropriate and wrong and ensure he will never say that to another little girl again.

I figure by the time I see him, I will be… less angry. Because, you know, I know he’s not a bad man. Just a guy. With a TV. And no daughter.

But I’m still furious, seething. And so, what comes out of my mouth, instead of the rehearsed, rational statement I practiced, is this:

I understand you tried to give my daughter an eating disorder.

And he’s shocked—hurt. Doesn’t understand. Then, as I explain—a little appalled. Both at me, and I hope, at his lack of reflection? But perhaps not. I do think, however, he won’t call a little girl fat again. Or suggest she might be getting fat because she’s eating an ice cream cone.

But he hasn’t changed, he doesn’t understand. No, I don’t think I was that effective.

He’ll never do it again, because he’s afraid the little girl’s psychotic mother, who clearly has issues, is going to go medieval on his ass. As I did.

And you know what? That’s good enough. Not perfect. But good enough. That’s what I think in 2011…

Green tea (matcha) ice-cream with red bean.

2013, now. Flora’s eight and a half. A specimen of physical perfection: healthy, strong, athletic, beautiful. She kicks ass in Tang Soo Do. Does one-handed cartwheels for fun. Can outrun just about every boy on the Common, except for her big brother.

Eats when she’s hungry. Doesn’t eat when she’s not. Snacks on chickpeas. Loves ice cream. There’s no TV or glossy magazines in the house. She’s still lives in a bubble, at least some of the time.

But when she gets out of the bath tub, when she’s in the swimming pool change room—not always, but every once in a while, I see her looking at herself in the mirror—critically.

It rips at my insides.

I thought I could save her. But how can I? She has nine-year-old friends who talk about diets—who are on diets. Too many women in her life, around her torturing themselves, hating themselves. Unhappy with themselves. Passing the message on.

It’s everywhere. She’s learned “fat” is a horrible insult when thrust at a woman. She’s learned the look, shape of her body is what matters the most to too many people.

She’s not even nine yet. She still doesn’t know about designer jeans. But she knows this.

I thought I could save her.

But you won’t let me.

Inspired by Urban Moo Cow‘s guest post on Finding Ninee in the This is Our Land Series: The Greatest Gift

* My kids are brilliant. Deal with it.

The Authoritative New Parents’ Guide to Sex After Children, Redux

(or, how to make sure you keep on doing that thing that landed you with children in the first place!)

Two Hearts

Ambitious title, but I bet I’ll deliver. Tell me afterwards. Two caveats. First, if you’re currently childless, don’t read this. It will either depress or embarrass you. Especially if you’re a guy. It’s the weirdest thing, really: when it comes to talking about sex and bodies, there is no creature more uptight than the childless male. Anyway, if you’re one of those, go read How I got deprogrammed and learned to love video games or Math + Gun = or … (I’m not being sexist, am I? You can read this if you really want to. But I know you’ll be mortified… Here’s a test: let me tell you about the time my bestest male friend first saw me breastfeeding. Where are you going? Come back!)

Second, if you’ve got young children and you’re having all the sex you want—really? Honestly?—you probably don’t need to read this. But you should anyway, because maybe at the end of it, you might be having more sex. And what could be better than that?

And thirdly—I said two caveats, right? Oops—in case you haven’t noticed, this post is going to be about sex. That’s how you get children. If reading about sex makes you squeamish, stop here and go read… how about It’s not about balance: creating your family’s harmony or 10 habits for a happy home from the house of permissiveness and chaos. Or that fabulous, famous They tell you, “It gets easier.” They lie post.

Also, mom, dad, mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother—um. Yeah. You’re excused. Go read how Cinder and Flora became Greco-Roman Pagans. And never, ever mention this post to me. OK.

The rest of you, come with me.

English: 3 of hearts.

OK. Here are the three assumption I’m making:

1. You have kids. Babies, toddlers, preschoolers, sentient school age kids. The babies need to be breastfed and rocked to sleep at all hours of day and night, the toddlers and preschoolers exhaust you, and them older kids stay up later and later and open doors and need help with homework and need you to feed them and take them places and…

2. You don’t have enough sex. Define enough as you will. You’d like to have more.

3. You’ve got a partner to have this sex with (if you don’t, I canna’ help you with that, but I hear there’s these dating sites…). The partner would also like to have more sex. The will is there. What’s lacking is time and opportunity AND STRATEGY. (If the will’s not there… well, I can help you with that a bit. There will be an addendum about that at the end.)

With me so far? Want to. Don’t have (enough) (at all these days). Don’t worry. There’s hope. Really. You’ve just got to rethink a few things.

Two Hearts Beat As One

First, there are three principles you have to internalize.

1. Sex is more important than sleep.

2. Sex is more important than cleaning.

3. Sex is more important than work.

Somewhere between child one and two—or maybe it was two and three?—my partner and I made the following pact: either one of us was free to wake up the other at any other time for some quick love making (stress on quick: I’ll come back to this point shortly)… unless the sleeper had a 6 a.m. appointment with the client from hell or some other such situation. We made this pact after the following conversation:

Jane: Dear God, do you realize this is the first time we’ve had sex in… oh my god, has it been three weeks? Four?

Sean: Well, by the time I come to bed, you’re always asleep. And I know you’re going to be up half the night with the baby, and then up super early with the toddler, and…

(This is why I love him so, by the way. What a guy.)

Jane: You can wake me up.

Sean: Really?

Jane: Yes.

Sean: You can wake me up anytime, too. I mean, if you’re ever awake after me. Well, unless I have a 6 a.m. shoot. Don’t wake me up then.

Jane: Deal.

Sean: Deal.

(And we draw the curtain so we can have some privacy.)

two hearts

So. Make this pact with your partner. Sex is more important than sleep. (Or watching that 10 p.m. show on HBO. Turn on your PVR, and romp. If you’re not drowsy after, then watch your show.) Agree to wake each other up when you’re horny. Agree to say yes—at least 4 out of 5 times. (I’m assuming you’re going to show appropriate discretion in when you’re doing the waking up. If partner’s got strep throat, you know, let the guy sleep. If the baby’s been going through a particularly tough phase—let the mama sleep. Find a different time for sex. We’ll get to that in a minute.)

Next: what do you do when that most miraculous thing of all happens and all your children are either simultaneously asleep, totally mesmerized by a movie or activity that doesn’t require your presence, or (gasp!) out of the house?

If you’re a mama, I bet in 9 out of 10 cases you clean. We can’t help it: the little monsters are messy, and if we clean when they’re out of the house, then at least we have the satisfaction of a clean house for a few minutes… an hour.

I’m not going to tell you to stop cleaning. But have sex first. The children are asleep—quiet—gone. Put down the vacuum cleaner, turn your back on the kitchen floor, and go fuck.

You can scrub the bath tub afterwards.

This is really easy for me, because I hate cleaning. However, if you derive some pleasure from the cleaning process, this may be harder for you. Do this: tell the messier partner to grab the initiative. When the children are asleep—quiet—gone, it’s his or her job to drag you to the bedroom, bathroom or living room rug. All you have to do is say yes.

Say yes.

Happy Valentine's day!

Sex is more important than work. In our case, we both work from home, so this is how it goes—one or the other or both of us is always on deadline. There’s always one more thing to write, edit, produce, revise, research.

There will always be one more thing to write, edit, produce, revise, research.

Have sex first.

Then go back to the computer. Have a project you took home, memos to revise, report cards to mark? Fine. They’ll still be there in fifteen minutes. Five, if you’re both properly motivated. Two, if it’s been as long as I think it’s been… Have sex first. Then work.

Now before you quote Dan Ackroyd at me,* it really is that easy. If you believe that…

1. Sex is more important than sleep

2. Sex is more important than cleaning

3. Sex is more important than work

…you will have more of it. Maybe not as much as you’d like to… but more.

To have even more, embrace the next three principles:

4. Foreplay is icing.

5. Beds are optional.

6. Matinees rule.

Valentine

Remember those hours and hours and hours of sensuous, languorous foreplay that went on and on and on and on…

Yeah, I don’t really remember either. It’s been 10 years… eleven. Well, there was that one night we sold the kids to the grandparents for the entire night exclusively for those purposes… but that might have been four years ago. Anyway. You now have kids.

That means foreplay is being alone in a room together.

Agree with your partner that foreplay is icing. Frankly, when you’ve got toddlers, it wastes precious time. You can after-play if the kids don’t barrel into the room. When you’re in one of those “OMG we never have time for sex” phases, this is your modus operandi:

A. Hey, we’re alone!

B. Clothes (but only the essential ones) off!

C. Coitus.

Everything else is icing.

Bed

Note how nowhere in the above did it say we’re alone in bed. Beds? Who needs beds to have sex? We’re alone in the bathroom. We’re alone in the kitchen. We’re alone on the landing. In the living room while the kids are in the bedroom… If you’ve got a family bed, the kids are always in the bed. Have sex somewhere else. Anywhere else. Just draw the curtains first.

Finally—especially when you’ve got teeny ones around—break the sex/night association. No law. Not mandatory. Repeat after me: you can have sex in the morning. In the afternoon. When the baby’s napping. If one or both of you has a regular Monday-to-Friday job, you’ve got less flexibility—but you’ve still got weekends. The hour before supper. You got the baby and toddler down for a nap on Saturday afternoon? Cancel the visit to Joe and Marla, and screw.

Be late for dinner at Mom and Dad’s. Don’t clean, don’t nap, don’t work until after.

“But Jane… you know… the truth is… I don’t really want to. I feel blah. Unattractive. Unsexy. Touched out.”

I know. I think every mother—and many a hyper-involved father, frankly—has been there post-partum. Babies and toddlers take a toll on you. (This part’s mostly for the mamas, boys, but read along to get educated.) Your hormones might be out of whack, and you might simply be exhausted. I’m going to send you to kellymom.com or Dr. Jack Newman’s breastfeedinginc.ca to look for some evidence-based research on how pregnancy and lactation might affect your libido, because I’m no doctor. From personal experience I can absolutely tell you this: I love my partner dearly and I love making love with him—and with each child I’ve gone through stretches where it’s just not been a priority and desire’s been hard to scrape up.

Here’s what’s helped me:

1. Exercise and sunshine. Bonus: if you do the Pavlovian “I have an orgasm after exercise” association, the motivation to exercise spikes.

2. Going to Mom’s Nights Out. Really. How does hanging out with a bunch of women help your sex life? Simple. You dress up and spend an evening with adults talking adult stuff and enjoying a meal without anyone throwing up on you. You go home—and if your partner played things right, the children are asleep. S/he’s not. Woo-hoo.

3. Put it on the schedule. OK. Least romantic thing ever, right? It sounds awful. Sex Saturday. You know what’s worse and less romantic? Not having sex at all.

4. Make it a habit. Here’s the weird thing about thinking you don’t want sex when you’re not having sex–as soon as you start having sex, your priorities shift. You think, “Sweet Jesus, this is great! Why don’t we do this more often?” Hold on to that thought… and do it more often. In the afternoon. Instead of cleaning. Before working on that work project. Quickly if you’ve only got five minutes. Hey, if it turns out you’ve got more time, you can always do it again…

Heart

Photo (Heart) by mozzercork

All right then. That’s it. To recap:

1. Sex is more important than sleep

2. Sex is more important than cleaning

3. Sex is more important than work

4. Foreplay is icing

5. Beds are optional

6. Matinees rule

Get off the computer, and go wake up your partner. And if you’ve got other tips for reigniting your sex life post-children, share them.

xoxoxo,

Jane

PS Veteran mamas, can you tell I just weaned the third? I bet you can…

PPS Play carefully, eh? Seems every time we have a frank sex post-children discussion on one of my groups or lists, someone gets pregnant. Once it was me…

English: Pregnant Elf

*(That’s Jane, you ignorant slut, the best SNL quote of all time, read about it here if you don’t know what I’m talking about, and no, it doesn’t show you how old I am, I saw it in re-runs.)

PPPS For a different point of view, visit my brilliant friend Dani at Cloudy, With A Chance of Wine and read Having kids kills your sex life, but then, pop over to when she changes her mind and tells you the 5 ways sex gets easier once you have kids. And then pop over to read Julie De Neen spew coffee all over her friend in Lying to your kids about sex toys.

PPPPS “Woman, I need an antidote to all the sex talk, cause I ain’t getting any.” I’m so sorry, babe. (But you know there are toys, right?) Go visit Wonderland by Tatu and read Hi, my name is T. & I am a screamer. Get your mind out of the gutter! Not everything’s about sex–she’s talking about something else. And, do pop on by The Sadder and Wiser Girl as she celebrates the one year anniversary of her blog–good on you, Sarah, and write on!

PPPPPS One more. The funniest thing from my over-crowded in-box this week so far comes from The Book of Alice: Wrongly Accused. It’s about boogers. And children. So you know it’s worth clicking on.

Jane out.

They tell you “It gets easier.” They lie

So there she is, stumbling down the block—walking circles around the playground—sleepwalking through the mall. The mewling baby inside a sling—a car seat—stroller. Glassy eyes, cause she hasn’t slept more than 45 minutes—no wait, two days ago, she got three hours in a row, score!—in four months. Wearing ratty pants—because they fit. And her husband’s sweater—because all her tops have been puked on and laundry, she was going to do laundry yesterday, but then the baby had a fever and…

So there she is. The new mom, the first-time mom, and she’s so exhausted and she so clearly needs—what? A hug, help, empathy, reassurance. And you—you’re a good person, and so you want to give it to her. So there you go. Run up to her. Smile. And you want to say, you’re going to say:

“It gets easier.”

Don’t. Just fucking don’t. Because, fast-forward two years, three, and there she is. Running down the block. Maybe another baby in sling. Toddler in stroller or running away. And maybe she’s getting more sleep—but maybe not. Maybe the toddler has night terrors, and wakes up screaming for hours on end in the night. Or maybe, even if Morpheus has been kind to her and the children sleep—she doesn’t sleep nearly was much as she should, because when they sleep, that’s the only time she can be free. To… think. To read. To be… alone.

The toddler makes a break for it and tries to run into the street, and she nabs him, just in time, and pulls him back, and starts explaining how streets are dangerous and he must hold Mommy’s hand, but he really, really, really wants to be on the other side, and he’s two, so self-will is emerging with a vengeance and soon he’s screaming and tantruming, and you, you can see she’s on the edge, about to lose it, because maybe this is the seventh time today—this hour—she’s had to deal with this, and you want to help. You want to give her a hug, help, empathy, reassurance. And you want, you’re going to run over to her and you’re going to say:

“It gets easier.”

Don’t. Don’t. Because a year later, there she is, with her three-and-a-half year-old. Before they left the house this morning, he put her iPhone in the toilet, cut his dad’s headphone cord into shreds, and threw $30 worth of grass-fed beef off the balcony in the compost pile. And now, his pants around his ankles, he’s chasing a flock of pigeons, penis in hand, yelling, “I’m going to pee on you, pigeons!” at the top of his lungs. And she’s trying to decide—should she catch him? Or should she take advantage of the fact that he’s distracted for five minutes, so she can change the new baby’s diaper? Because she hasn’t had a chance to even check it for the last five hours… And I swear on any of the gods that you may or may not believe in, if, at that moment, you come up to her, and you say—because you’re an empathetic, loving person who wants to help—if you come to her at that moment and say,

“It gets easier.”

she’s going to rip that diaper off the baby and throw it in your face. Followed by the tepid remains of her coffee (you’re lucky that she hasn’t had a hot, scalding hot, deliciously hot cup of coffee in three and a half years). And then she’s going to sob. And she’s going to say…

“When? When the fuck does it get easier? Because I’ve been waiting for it to get easier for two three five six years.”

I’m sitting in the middle of my living room—11 years into motherhood—and I’m in a brief picture-perfect postcard (Instagram for those of you born post-1995) moment. I’m stretched out on the couch, coffee cup beside me, laptop on my lap—and, for a few minutes at least, I’m chilling. Three feet away from me, my 11 year-old is building worlds in Minecraft, and Skyping with a friend. My eight-year-old is running with a pack of her friends just outside—I hear their voices, hers most distinct among them to my ears, through the balcony. Tucked under my arm is the three-and-a-half year old, taking a break from wrecking havoc and destruction on the world to play a game on the iPad.

I’m messaging with a friend a few years behind me on the parenting path. And she asks me, and I can hear the tears in her words even though she’s typing them (people who think texting lacks nuance do not text enough; she is weeping through the keyboard),

“When does it get easier? People keep on saying, ‘It gets easier.’ When? When?”

So, I wonder, is she ready to hear this? Is she ready to hear: It doesn’t get easier. All the people who say this? They’re all liars, every last one.

But I won’t say that. First, because I do not wish to make her despair. Second, because it’s not true. It does get easier. It really does. But when people say it, what you, first-time mother, hear it is not ‘It gets easier,” but this:

“Things will get back to the way they were before, soon.”

And that, my lovely friend, will never happen. Things will never be the way they were before. Never. Things have changed forever. Things will never get back to “normal”—as you defined normal when you were single—when you were childless. Never.

And so I tell her this, and again I hear tears in-between the words she types to me.

And now I have to deconstruct the lie to her. I have to explain. That they don’t mean to lie. It really does get easier—sort of. The stuff that’s killing you now—be it the lack of sleep, the aching nipples, the endless diapers-laundry-is-she-sick-is-he-teething or be it the toddler tantrums, potty training regressions, “She won’t leave the house!” “Getting him in and out of the car seat is hell”–all of that, it will get easier—and, in fact, end. They all wean. Toilet train. Stop drawing on walls (unless they in this house). But see, then, other stuff happens that’s really hard too. Ferocious Five. Sensitive Seven. Bullies on the playground—social issues with friends and ‘frenemies.’ Broken hearts. Explosive anger at things and issues much, much bigger than all those daily rubs that cause toddlers angst.

“It gets easier”: yeah, I suppose it does, because you figure it out, and adapt, and get coping strategies. But every time you “master” a phase—they change. Grow. Face new challenges. And you’ve got to change, grow and adapt with them. If only you could do so ahead of them…

But you can’t. And so, you see, “it gets easier” … it’s a lie.

And it’s the most destructive lie, the most life-damaging myth you can buy into. See, because if you keep on waiting for things to get easier—if you put living, changing, adapting, figuring out how to dance this dance, walk this path as it is now, with all of its bumps and rubs—if you put all that on hold until it gets easier…

Well. You’ll be fucked. Totally. And completely.

So. My dearest. It doesn’t get easier. It changes. You get better. You grow. Learn. And that little squealer—that awesome toddler—that slightly evil three-year-old—he grows. Learns. Changes. It gets better. When you learn and change and grow and all that—it all gets better.

But. Easier? No.

So. There she is. Frazzled. Exhausted. So fucking tired. And she sees you coming, and you have empathy poring out of your pores. And you want to help her. Offer her empathy. Support.

What are you going to tell her?

Hey, all, wow, thanks for all the sharing and massive Internet love. Bad day for my RSS feed link to break — this is it: RSS Feed https://nothingbythebook.com/feed/ — and even though there are a bazillion comments, I am reading and responding to every single one. Thank you so much, beautiful people. You can also email me privately at nothingbythebook@gmail.com. Or find me on Twitter @nothingbtbook. You know the drill.  xoxo “Jane”

Two great things from my weekend in-box, from the #FTSF blog hop, that fit in beautifully with the theme of today’s post:

Kristi Campbell’s post on FindingNinee.com:  I blog because of you, I blog because of us, and

Katia’s post on I Am The Milk: Closest to Me

Flora Space Art

“I Give The World To You,” by Flora (May 2013)

unLessons from the Posse

Biking in Waterton Lakes National Park

Photo from the newspaper "Nogales Herald&...

As we come around the corner, the crowds scatter, jump, recoil. First one–two–three–flying like the wind, silver scooters carrying them along like lightening, legs pumping–and then four–five–bent lower over the handle bars, legs pumping even faster to keep up with the vanguard–and you think they’re all through, but no, here comes six, working harder than everyone else because he has to keep up. And me, at the end, with number seven in the bike. Calling out, “High traffic area! Everyone keep to the right!” But they don’t hear me, of course; of course, they don’t, because there is only speed, wind, the path, and the posse.

I love the posse. Three are mine, four are borrowed for the day. Four people have the temerity to ask, as we zoom by, “Oh-my-god-are-they-all-yours?” and sometimes, I would punish them with The Look, but today I am happy, so I just smile. One-half of one couple is so appalled by the procession that is us that the beautiful young woman turns to her husband-boyfriend and says, loudly, fully intending me to hear, “And this, honey, is why we always use condoms.” I’d give her The Look, but then I catch the husband-boyfriend’s look, and it is one of such joy-envy-lust that instead of giving her The Look, I give him The Grin, and we have a very quick, secret psychic conversation:

Him: Seven, eh? Six boys? Man. My own fucking hockey team.

Me: Imagine the soccer games you would have.

Him: Basketball. Camping!

Me: You’d just sit in the chair, and they’d set up the tent.

Him: The littlest one would bring me beer.

Me: You’d build them the best treehouse ever, right?

Him: Oh, fuck, yeah. Would I ever. So… um… you wanna have more kids?

Me: No, I’m done. Sorry.

Him: Okay then. Well, have a good day

Me: Good luck with her, eh?

Him: Yeah… not sure this is going to work out.

We move on. Along the river. Over this bridge. That one. I don’t even attempt to tell them to stick with me–they are a posse, The Posse, and The Posse don’t wait for no Mom. But I am wise in the ways of The Posse, so I don’t ask. I command. “Meet me at the Dragonfly!” I yell to their backs. “Go ahead–and wait for me at the crossing! We all cross together!” It doesn’t matter how fast I go–they go faster. It’s all about being alone, really. I can read the fantasy, in the three eldest anyway. As far as they are concerned, they are alone.

We stop. Regroup. Do a headcount.

Me: Fuck. Five. Who’s missing?

They: The twins.

Me: Your mom’s going to kill me. Where are they?

They: Who knows?

Me: Dudes! No man left behind! Find them!

Phew. Just fixing their helmets by some bushes. Onward. But now I have given them a new war cry. They push off:

No man left behind!

Flora scoots beside me. “Did they leave me behind because I’m not a man?” she whines. “They didn’t leave you behind,” I point out. “You came to visit with me.”

Up ahead on the path: wipeout!

Me: Blood?

Him: I’m okay.

You don’t show weakness in The Posse.

The Posse fractures. Its members fight. When we stop at a playground and they play a mad game of tag with rules so complicated it makes my head spin, my eldest gets his nose out of joint. The twins think they’re picked on. Flora feels left out. Mostly, I stay out of it. Sometimes, I nudge towards a solution. But mostly–I let them be The Posse. I’m there to make sure there is no real injustice … but they know most of the rules of engagement. They are learning how to work things out. This is not Lord of the Flies.

My final test as Mom-wise-in-the-ways-of-The-Posse comes when we hit an ice rink. The ice is melting, sloppy. But still slippery. I see the desire in their eyes. The two eldest look and do a risk analysis. Then decide to try to break their bones on the nearby playground instead. The littles dump the scooters and go to slip and slide on their feet. But he-who-will-test-me comes up to me and says,

“Can we scooter on that?”

It’s a test. Any mother in her right mind would say no, and he knows this. And I know that he knows this. We look at each other, take each other’s measure. And I say,

“I can’t fit seven kids in my car if we have to go to the Children’s Hospital… Look, keep your helmet on, and no whining or crying at all unless there’s massive amounts of blood, and you’ve lost more than two teeth.”

He looks at me. Mildly appalled. His mom would have said no, outright, his eyes tell me, and I’m clearly irresponsible. Criminally so. But I’ve just given him permission. Really. If he doesn’t go on the ice, I’ll know it’s because he’s afraid. Of blood. Losing teeth. He’ll lose face.

He puts the scooter on the ice. Scoots.

“It’s not slippery enough to be fun,” he tells me. Drops it. And goes off to join The Posse.

We pass another couple on the last block home. This time, I have a quick, secret psychic conversation with the girl:

Her: Is it hard?

Me: Fuck, yeah. But so worth it.

When The Possee’s split up, and four-sevenths goes home with Fishtank Mom, they are all exhausted. And not-a-little tired of each other. But next time–next time, they’ll gel together again. Feel the wind, the speed. Be the pack. Fight, fracture, learn. Is it hard? Fuck, yeah. But so worth it.

Photo from the newspaper “Nogales Herald” dated July 20, 1922 showing an American posse after capturing the Mexican bandits Manuel Martinez and Placidio Silvas (middle of back row) who killed or wounded five people at or around Ruby, Arizona in 1921 and 1922. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And a thank you to the fabulous Tatu from Wonderland By Tatu for including Nothing By The Book in the shininess of the Sunshine Award. As you may have noticed, I truly suck at passing these on adequately. Not out of any better-than-thouness, truly, just out of… what shall we call it… laziness.Pure laziness. But thank you muchly, Tatu, you made me all smiley and sunny on a hard day. Here’s the link to the last one of these that I’ve paid back “properly,” which includes some irrelevant facts about myself and some of my favourite bloggers.

The not-so-mysterious incident of the carrots in the milk carton

English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...

I.

I sleepwalk into the kitchen in search of the first cup of coffee. Boil water. Fight with the grinder. Dump old coffee grounds all over the floor. Clean them up. Make the coffee. Inhale the smell of… sheer bliss, really. If you’re a coffee lover, you know what I mean–there is nothing like it, it is the smell of perfection, the birth and end of the universe in one olfactory sensation, the promise of everything. Ah. Pour the first cup. No cream in the fridge–reach for the milk carton.

Pour.

Discover there are two giant carrots in the milk carton.

Look at them uncomprehendingly, because, you know, I have just smelled and not yet drunk the coffee.

Pour the milk into the coffee carefully. Replace the milk carton in the fridge.

Go sit on the couch beside the 3.5 year old. Drink my coffee.

II.

Sean stumbles into the kitchen in search of his cup of coffee. Lucky man, the lag between his wake up time and mine insufficient today for the first pot to be empty. Pours himself a cup of coffee. Savours the smell. And, responsible father that he is, asks the 2/3 of the awake progeny if they want to eat something. (Their mother does not speak, or serve, until she has finished her second cup of coffee. She is still on the couch drinking the first…) The progeny want cereal.

He grabs bowls. Cereal. Milk. Pours.

“Why the fuck are there two carrots in the milk carton?”

Neither the milk nor the carrots answer. I look at the 3.5 year old. He grins a wicked grin.

“I put them there, Dadda!” he calls out happily.

“Why… why did you put carrots in the milk?” Sean says. His voice full of angst and despair–and see, this is why I do not talk until after the second cup. Why suffer? And make others suffer? Let the caffeine do its work first…

“Flora was peeing,” Ender replies promptly.

I am almost done my first cup of coffee, so I understand perfectly. What he wanted to do was to flush the carrots down the toilet. However, the toilet was occupied. What else could he do with them? Aha! Milk carton!

Sean is still just smelling the coffee. And trying to understand all this. And perhaps on the verge of tears.

And here is proof that I am an excellent, excellent wife and helpmeet: although the effort involved in this is Herculean, I lift myself off the couch, stagger into the kitchen, grab his coffee cup, and put it into his hands. He tries to speak–I shut his mouth with a kiss.

I’d say drink–but I do not speak until I’ve downed the second cup of coffee.

He takes a sip. Then another. The world is slowly becoming a better place, and the case of the carrots in the milk losing its power to ruin his day.

I pour my second cup of coffee. Pour the rest of the milk into it. Shake the carrots out into the sink. Rinse them.

“They don’t look like they’ve been in there very long,” Sean says. He picks up the empty milk carton and peers into it. To determine–by what evidence?–the length of the carrot milk immersion?

Cinder, our 10 year old, stumbles down the stairs. Stops, and stares at the tableau, dominated by his father, evidently distraught, peering into the milk carton. And says…

“Did Ender pee in the milk again?”

I draw the curtain on the resulting scene. Suffice it to say, Sean was never happier that he was lactose intolerant… and Flora may never eat cereal again.

More like this: The obvious correlation between crying over spilt coffee and potty training

And some blogger love. Last week, Tirzah Duncan, the talented writer-poet-entrepreneur-cynical optimist-coiner-of-phrases-extraordinaire at The Ink Caster, passed The Versatile Blogger award on to me (which of course means someone gave it to her, congratulations, Tirzah). In addition to being a talented writer, Tirzah would be a great person to watch your back come the Zombie Apocalypse. If you don’t believe me, check out this post.

My head wasn’t quite done swelling when TJ, Sara and Jen from Chi-Town Mommy Mayhem — well, possibly just one of them, but I prefer to take the compliment from all three — handed off the Liebster Award to Nothing By The Book. Their blog is “dedicated to the uncensored mommies of Chicago” and their motto is “We don’t sugar coat anything here.” And they have kick ass tweets ( @MayhemMommyTJ).

I’m eight awards or possibly more behind doing the proper reciprocity thing, and with each passing day… Well. If you really want to know seven random things about me, read this my last Blogosphere Group Hug and find out how I once interviewed the prime minister of Canada sans underwear. For blogs that deserve to have the awards passed on to them–check out the blogs I follow, bottom of each page of the blog. Cause, you know, I only follow good ones.

The naked truth about working from home, the real post

Showerhead

I’m in the shower when the phone rings, and I hear it through the water and the door, and I know who it is even before Cinder hollers, “Mom! It’s for you!” Shampoo in my hair and my eyes, I’m leaping out of the shower and out of the bathroom without turning off the water—where the fuck is the towel?–and skidding into the combination Lego room/Sean’s office that holds the only upstairs telephone.

“Hello, “Jane” speaking,” I say crisply, sharply. Out of breath? No way, not me–the phone voice kicks in ASAP. My well-trained eldest son—the ire of the mother for misbehaving on the telephone is legendary—hangs off the receiver. On the other end of the line is a VP of a blue chip Bay Street company (like a Canadian Wall Street, but less sexy and exciting) I’ve been stalking for a few days, and I need to talk to him today. He’s in an airport—“Houston? And how’s the weather?—he’s got five minutes, what do I need? I speak quickly and cut to the chase: this, that, and, above all, a comment on that mess. The door of the room creaks open, and my daughter comes in. She sees the phone at my ear and mouths, “Mom? Why are you naked?” I mouth back, “Towel! Paper! Pen!” I cast a desperate look around the room—full of Lego and an assortment of my husband’s crap, including a printer, why the fuck is there no paper here? Or pencils? How can there be no writing implements in the bloody office?

The VP’s already talking and I see, gloriously, buried under all the Lego, a purple marker. This is how the professionals do it, boys and girls—I grab that marker and… I move to start writing on the wall, but the two-year-old comes in, and I have a brief second thought. I make desperate hand motions at my seven-year-old, and—she’s well-trained in this this too—she immediately says, “Ender? Want to watch a show on the i-Pad?”

But their exit is too slow–they’re still in the room and I start to scribble. With the purple market. Not on the wall. On my leg. I start at the thigh and work my way down, to the ankle and instep, contort myself, and write on the inner leg. Then the other one… The VP’s a gold mine. He gives me exactly what I need, and I’m transcribing every word.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I sing as I hang off. And become aware that

a. I’m naked in my kids play room

b. my legs totally covered with purple marker

c. the purple marker is a horrible, kid-friendly, washable piece of shit

d. the water from my hair is dripping onto my legs and smearing! Smearing my interview transcript!

“My laptop!” I scream, and Cinder bounds up the stairs with the lap top. “Um, and a towel!” I add. I’ve been anticipated: Flora’s in with the towel. I grab the towel, the laptop. Scrunch my hair with the towel before tossing it over my shoulders and torso. And I start to transcribe. From the top of the leg—never before am I so grateful for the remnants of the baby weight that give some heft to the thigh—down, up the inside. Down the other one.

And yeah. I got this, that, and the comment on that mess in particular. Fucking score. My heart beat slows down. I’m going to meet deadline, and the story’s going to kick ass.

What you need to know:

 a. It’s not supposed to be like that.

b. It’s like that much too often.

c. If you can’t handle life throwing that at you with regular irregularity, you shouldn’t even think about working from home with children underfoot.

I’ve worked as a freelance writer since 2000, and I’ve popped out babies in 2002, 2005 and 2009. They’ve all grown up in this: I managed three weeks off after Cinder, four days after Flora (I went into labour actually in the middle of an interview, and had to cancel another ), and with Ender, I blocked off a luxurious two-and-a-half months off… sabotaged about four weeks in by a favourite client.

What I mean when I say I’m a freelance writer: I churn out five-to-ten-thousand+ words a month for a variety on business publications and clients (my real life business portfolio here for the serious-minded in the crowd).

What you really want to know: what this means time-wise and brain-wise and child-wise. The time commitment is erratic: I’d say at least two hours a day spent in just keeping on top of having the work—that is, emailing back and forth with editors and key contacts, keeping on top of what’s happening, clearing up questions and details on what I’ve filed etc.—and anywhere from 12-40 hours a week in research-interview-writing mode. My target weekly work rate is 20-25 hours (12-low-effort-maintance, 8-12 high-effort research-interview-writing hours). Less than that, and I’m setting myself up for a hellish 40+ week down the line. (My target earn rate, by the way, is the equivalent of a full-time job within that 20-25 hours. But that’s a topic for another post…). Once or twice a year, I actively invite a hellish week or two because of a particular project, client, or painful state of the bank account.

I used to get the “How on earth do you do that with a toddler and a baby?” comment all the time; now I get the, “How the heck do you manage that with homeschooling?” And everyone who asks it is looking, if they’re honest with themselves, for a magic bullet. They’re looking for that instruction sheet, that secret, that has them visualizing me sitting at a desk typing away—or on the telephone conducting an interview—while my children quietly and peacefully play at my feet.

No such thing. How do I work from home with children underfoot?

The short, and really honest, answer is—in ideal circumstances, I don’t. My most productive and efficient output happens when another adult is in charge of them. My husband—my mother—a neighbour—a friend—a paid babysitter. That childcare and that focused time don’t happen spontaneously. I plan the hell out of my work weeks and work days. I schedule interviews for the days when the kids are planning to spend a day with Grandma. I swap child-care with my film-maker husband. I pay for it when I must. In a four-hour block of child-free time, I get two-days worth of work done. Perhaps more. On the days my mother takes the kids for a long 8-10+ hour day, I am so uber-productive my brain and fingers (and sometimes throat) hurt at the end of it.

That low-maintenance work—checking email, social media, initial research, screwing around on the Internet and calling it research—these are things I can do with kids underfoot, during the littlest one’s naps, while the older two are really engaged with something. These are things I can do in spurts, things that don’t require me to enter the flow or to fully focus. Telephone interviews? I never plan to do these without another adult in the house or the kids (under sevens anyway) out of the house. Writing? There are things I can write in spits and spurts, off-the-top-of-my head, and in 45 minutes after I put the kids to bed. A 5,000 word feature on the history of the Canada-US Softwood Lumber Trade Dispute? Or an analysis of what’s really at stake when it comes to the proposed oil sands pipelines? I need focused time and space to produce that, and I prefer not to sacrifice sleep for that.

Sleep-deprived writers produce second-rate drivel. (Unless they’re in the flow on the novel. That’s different. Right?)

So. In my ideal world, working from home still requires an investment—financial, or otherwise, in child care. But life is rarely ideal. No matter how well I plan, every story and every project has its share of surprises. A cancelled interview—spontaneously rescheduled just as the toddler needs to go down for a nap or the baby needs to nurse. An editor’s demand for a last-minute rewrite, due yesterday. A client’s panic attack requiring me to pull an all-nighter—or to rely on the house’s assortment of electronic devices to babysit the children while I pound away at the keyboard. A last minute “I shouldn’t take this story, but oh-my-god-I-get-to-fly-to-Montreal-to-interview-the-prime-minister!” assignment. And havoc reigns.

Planning allows me to ride out the havoc. The irregular regularity of the havoc trains the children. They know a deadline must be met. They learn by age four how to behave when Mommy’s on the phone (she doesn’t push it too much: tries to keep those unplanned interviews to under 15 minutes).

(Sorry, until age four—no guarantees. A DVD might buy you 15 minutes. Or it might not. The good news: with my almost-8 year-old and 10 year-old, I can handle whatever havoc hits with them taking it in stride. I now only have to outsource the three-year-old on the days when I have to write, write, write—or spend the day glued to the telephone. And increasingly, I can outsource the three-year-old to his siblings. Not for an entire workday—but for a decent stretch of time. So yes, it gets much, much easier as the kids get older. But when they’re little? It’s tough.)

And that, friends, is the naked truth about working from home with children in your life. Possible, rewarding, the only way I want to work.

But it’s work. It requires planning. It throws you curveballs. It don’t look like that sepia-postcard dream you’ve got rolling in the back of your mind in which you write an award-winning article effortlessly while a perfectly balanced and delicious meal is already simmering on the stove and the toddler is at your feet playing with dinky cars for two hours. It’ll have to racing out of the shower naked with shampoo in your hair at least once in your life, and teaching your children swear words nobody at the playground knows yet.

Think you can do it? Of course you can. Right?

More like this: The naked truth about working from home, the teaser

This post is being recycled as part of A Mother Life Hum Day Hook Up #33: 

A Mother Life

The most recent Nothing By The Book post is How we teach children to lie, without realizing it.

If it’s your first time here, I’d love to connect, in all the usual ways:

Follow me on Twitter: 

Add me to your circles on GOOGLE+: Jane Marshon

Send me a personal email to nothingbythebook@gmail.com

Like Nothing by the Book on Facebook.

(Split personality alert: If you are interested in my business writer alter-ego, you can find her portfolio at Calgary Business Writer and on Twitter .)

Thanks for visiting!

xoxo

“Jane”

Embracing Chaos

A61

or, unParenting unResolutions

“Mama? Big mama? Wake up, big mama. I love you so very very very much.”

This is how Ender sets up the mood for the day—ensuring that no matter what he flushes down the toilet or smashes into pieces with the meat mallet (“How the hell did he find it again? I hid it on top of the fridge!” “Judging by barstool beside the counter, and the stack of boxes on the counter, you don’t want to know.” “Oh, Kee-rist. How has this child not broken any bones yet?”), my first and most brilliant memory of the day is tickling butterfly kisses and expressions of love ultimate from the beloved beast who will spend the day terrorizing the house, the family, and if we let him outside, the neighbourhood.

He is who he is; he is three. He’s careening towards three-and-a-half (see Surviving 3.5 and 5.5: A cheat sheet for an exposition and some almost practical tips and tricks), and three-and-a-half for the boys I birth is the age of chaos. So as I prepare to say goodbye to 2012 and hello to 2013, I know that chaos and the Ender crazy will dominate much of the year.

And I make no resolutions to yell less. Or discipline more. I will lose my temper, and I will yell, and there will be days when, as I survey the destruction wrought by the whirlwind in the kitchen while I absented myself from his side for five minutes, I seriously ponder just how wrong it would be to put him in the dog’s kennel. Just, you know, for a little while. And there will be days—and weeks—when I’ll be counting the hours until bedtime from 11:15 a.m. And days when, as soon as Sean comes home, I will hand over the entire parenting business to him, and lock myself in the bathroom with a bottle—um, glass, I meant to type glass—of wine.

That’s part of the ride; part of the package. I’ve written elsewhere on that the ultimate secret behind parenting is; its close twin is this: every age and stage, every journey has tough stretches, challenging stretches. And they’re all necessary, and most of them are unavoidable, and happiness and peace lie in knowing that they just are. And not seeking perfection, from myself as mother, or from the child.

He’s so lucky, my Ender, my third. His eldest brother broke me in, thoroughly, and no sooner did I start to boast that I had “cracked the Cinder code,” Flora arrived, teaching me that I had learned absolutely nothing about the uniqueness that is her (bar that nursing every hour, every 15 minutes, or, what’s that word, constantly, is kind of normal) from my first years with the Cinder. By the time Ender arrived, all I knew, for sure, was this:

I love him, madly, fully, unconditionally, in all his guises.

He will exhaust me, challenge me, frustrate me, make me scream.

And I will love him still, and love him more.

As far as everything else goes? As he grows, I will learn him slowly, piece by piece, unique need by unique need. Sometimes well, sometimes badly. Sometimes I’ll fail him—and sometimes, I will do right by him even though in the moment he thinks I’m failing him completely. And maybe, at the end of it all, when he’s 30, 40, with his own children—in therapy—maybe he’ll despise me, blame me, reject me. I don’t know. All I know for sure, is this:

I love him, madly, fully, unconditionally, in all his guises.

He will exhaust me, challenge me, frustrate me, make me scream.

And I will love him still, and love him more.

More like this: Sunshine of Our Lives, or, How Toddlers Survive.

Blog Hop Report: I spent some of the weekend blog hopping at the TGIF Blog Hop hosted by You Know it Happens At Your House Too. What a fascinating variety of blogs, people and approaches to life, the universe and blogging.

I’d like to introduce you, if you do not know them already, to three mama-bloggers (but so much more) with attitude:

Jenn at Something Clever 2.0  (Twitter: @JennSmthngClvr)

Teri Biebel at Snarkfest (Twitter: @snarkfestblog)

Mollie Mills at A Mother Life (Twitter: @amotherlife)

And something completely different, a woman who took my breath away with her authenticity and boldness of voice from the first line of the first post I read of hers: Jupiter, “Eco-Redneck,Breeder,Stitch-Witch,Knittiot Savant & Whoreticulturist Extraordinaire” at crazy dumbsaint of the mind. I’m not going to attempt to explain her. If whoreticulturist is not a word that turns you off, the word sapiosexual turns you on, have a visit and get to know her. Otherwise, maybe not. Safe she is not.

Happy reading, happy blogging, happy living, and I will see in 2013. My year of chaos. Your year of… what?

xoxo

“Jane”

P.S. And if you’re having a slow New Year’s Eve at home with your kids and computer, check out Dani Ryan’s The Best of 2012 Blog Hop at Cloudy With a Chance of Wine.

How I broke my children

It starts innocently:

Ender: I sorry, Daddy!
Sean: Um… why are you sorry, Ender?
Ender: I am sorry. I peed on your sheet. And now I sorry.
Sean: You peed on my sheet? Like, the sheet on my bed?
Ender: I did. I am sorry. Mama giving you a new sheet right now.
Sean: Oh, good.
Ender: I also peed on your pillow.

And I can’t tell you what Sean said next.

a pillow case (or pillow slip), with the pillo...

But I can tell you what Cinder said a little later when:

Ender: I! PEED!
Cinder: Yeah, so did I, Ender. Y’a know what the difference is? I peed in the toilet.
Ender: I peed on your foot.
Cinder: I know!

And then, their mother had a bit of a struggle with a project and:

Jane: Fuck, fuck, fuck!
Cinder: What’s wrong?
Jane: I’m just having a really hard time focusing on my work.
Cinder: I’m having a really hard time getting this Minecraft mod to work properly. Want to swear together?

And then, there was a horrible, horrible conference call, and the mother lost all moral high ground and self-restraint:

Jane (on telephone to editor): Fucking hell, I don’t fucking believe this==the [bleep bleep bleeps], they’re just [bleep bleep bleep], they’re [bleep bleep] and taking it in the [bleeeeeeep]…
Cinder (on extension): I’d like to apologize for my mother’s language. She’s having a very bad day.

[five minutes later]

Jane (to Sean): And then they [bleeeeeeeeeeep]…
Flora to Cinder: Wow, that was a new one. Are you taking notes?
Cinder: You bet.

It was, may I say in my defence, an exceedingly difficult day.

But I survived.

Although the children are probably permanently scarred.

swearing in cartoon Suomi: Kiroileva sarjakuva...

The 2 a.m. phone call: why sleeping through the night is irrelevant

It’s 2 a.m. The telephone rings. It’s dark and I’m groggy as I race through the house for the telephone. I don’t get there in a time and I’m in a brief moment of panic as I crouch beside it and wait for it to ring again. My Flora’s sleeping out of the house this night and this phone call can only be about her.

The phone rings again; I pick up; the panic subsides. Yes, it’s Flora. Sleep over fail. She woke up in a strange place, a strange bed and is frightened. Wants to come home.

Sean runs over to get her—and we’re both briefly grateful about the place we live, where sleepovers take place a couple of doors down instead of across the city—and a short two minutes later, she’s in my arms, face pressed against my chest. She’s whispering “the whole story”: how it was so fun, and they had a great time, and she had no trouble at all falling asleep, and then she woke up, and it was dark and strange and she didn’t want to stay…

I listen and then shush her, tell her to go back to sleep. She presses tight against me. Now that she feels perfectly safe and secure, she also feels embarrassed that she bailed. I reassure her in a sleepy voice… and shush her again. “Now sleep, Flora, sleep.”

She presses against me. On the other side of me, Ender flips over, rolls. But doesn’t wake. It’s doesn’t happen very often these days that I find myself squished between two little bodies and I take a sleepy minute to savour the moment.

And I think about how much parenting takes place in these dark hours—when, really, we’re at our worst. Exhausted. Unconscious. Still on duty, but too tired to perform.

None of that ends when the baby (toddler, preschooler, kindergartener!) “sleeps through the night.” Our Cinder actually reached that milestone relatively quickly—sometime around two years. And so what? A few weeks of blissfully uninterrupted sleep followed. Then came the night terrors. When the first wave of those subsided, he got out of diapers—and had to get up to pee in the night. Six times a night, it seemed (probably just once or twice). Then Flora arrived and being awake for Cinder became irrelevant because I was waking up for Flora. When she nightweaned, she started waking up at 3 a.m., raring to go for the day. When she’d sleep late (aka, until 5 a.m.), Cinder would have night terrors. Inevitably, on the nights both kids slept soundly, the dog would have diarrhea… Or, naturally, I would have insomnia.

As I’m cataloging the different stages of post-child sleep deprivation, Flora presses her closer against me. “I’m going to roll over; you can hug my back,” I whisper. “Can’t I roll over with you?” she whimpers. “No, stay there—Ender’s on the other side.” I readjust, so does she. “I like your soft side better,” she sighs. Her head is between my shoulder blades. But her breathing is winding down—sleep is almost there.

“Mom?”

“Sleep, Flora.”

“Does Monday come after Sunday?”

“Yes. Sleep, Flora.”

“Is tomorrow Sunday?”

“Yes. Sleep, baby.”

“And then Monday?”

“Mmmm.”

“Good. I have plans on Monday.”

And she’s asleep. Ender does another flip. But doesn’t wake up. I send a prayer to Morpheus—or should I be petitioning Ra?–that neither of them wakes up with the sunrise. It’ll probably be a four pot, not four cup, coffee day, tomorrow, I think as I feel my breathing reach the sleep rhythm. And I’m out.

I don’t  belittle or dismiss sleep deprivation. It’s tough. There’s a reason sleep deprivation is a form of torture. And each family needs to find its own unique solution to ensuring all members—especially the primary caretaker—gets enough sleep. But “sleeping through the night”? That’s irrelevant. Because kids keep on needing their parents at night, long after they wean. Sometimes just for a minute, for a quick squeeze and reassurance. Sometimes for longer. But if not exactly forever—for a long, long time.

Ender wakes up that morning, by the way, at 5:30 a.m. I curse Morpheus and tell off Ra. Then we tiptoe downstairs. I make coffee. Pull the electronic babysitter—aka Backyardiggans on Netflix—onto duty. Cuddle the Ender. Write most of this post.

Flora streaks downstairs at 7 a.m. “Hi, Mom, I’m going to Meghan’s!” she calls. “Hug? Kiss?” I holler. She backtracks. Hug. Kiss. And for Ender. And for Maggie the runt terrier. And she’s off.

I look at Ender. Hug. Kiss. Soon, I’ll roll off the couch and make the second pot of coffee. By the third pot, I’ll be ready to face the day.

Pot number four, I decide to save for the inevitable afternoon crash.

Koala sleeping on a tree top

 (N.B. For those concerned about my caffeine intake, I should clarify they’re pretty small coffee pots. It was a purchasing mistake. We thought the small press would make us drink less coffee. Nope. It just makes coffee drinking a more labour-intensive process. Live and learn. On the plus side, the cafe is always fresh.)

How I got deprogrammed and learned to love video games

Cinder’s just shy of 10, and the big passion of his life is Minecraft. Or Terraria. Or both, but usually just one or the other. He loves them so much, he’s convinced his Mac-using parents to get him a PC laptop so he can play them more effectively. He loves them so much that his show of choice is watching Minecraft or Terraria videos on Youtube. (A digression for a Cinder recommendation: for Terraria, nothing beats Total Biscuit and Jesse Cox; for Minecraft, Antvenom is King, and Cavemanfilms is pretty good too. Now you know where to go.)

My boy loves video games. And this is a wonderful thing.

I never thought I’d find myself saying this. Video games were never a part of my childhood, and my experience of them as an on-looker—sister, girlfriend, wife—was, well, blah. Wasn’t interested. Didn’t understand the appeal. Could tell you one thing for sure: no kid of mine was going to waste his childhood playing video games. Could rattle of spades of research about how detrimental to the proper development of a child excessive (any) video game playing could be.

Well. What changed?

Simply this: My boy loves video games, and I love my boy. He started getting drawn to them about age eight, I suppose, meeting them at this friend’s house or that, telling us about them with excitement, in vivid detail. His game-playing father entered into his interest; his game-ignorant mother started to agonize. What to do? For what reason? With what consequences?

I spare you my internal angst, as first one online game and then another (“It’s educational, Mom!” Supported by Dad’s: “Really, Jane, it’s educational.”) got introduced. Then the X-box (“It’s Kinect, Jane—they’ll be exercising and moving while they play—isn’t that good?”). Then an iPad and all the apps and games that enabled. Here’s what steered me through it, though: I love my boy. He loves these things; he’s drawn to them. What’s he getting out of it? Why? How?

I love my boy, and if I love my boy, I can’t be dismissive and contemptuous of something he loves.

So, I’d sit beside him and watch him play. Listen to him talk about the games afterwards. In-between. Eavesdrop while he talked about with his friends. Watch while they acted out game scenes on the trampoline or on the Common.

I might tell you about all the things I’ve seen him learn from gaming another time (for one example, check out this salon.com piece about Minecraft ). Rattle of spades of research about how playing video games actually makes kids smarter (Here’s Gabe Zichermann talking about this on Ted Talks). But it really comes down to this:

I love my boy. My boy loves video games. His reasons for loving them are complex—but no less valid than my love for Jane Austen novels, or John Fluevog shoes. I do not have to love them just because he loves them—I do not have to make myself play them or enjoy them as he does, just because I love him. But because I love him, I can’t say—or think and believe—that what he loves and enjoys is a waste of time. Of no value. Stupid.

Flip it. Think of something you love. Knitting? Film noir? Shiny cars? Collecting porcelain miniatures? Whatever. Doesn’t matter what. I’m thinking of my Jane Austen novels, which I reread probably half-a-dozen times a year. Now think of how you feel when someone who’s supposed to love you and care about you—your partner, your best friend, your mother—thinks that hobby or activity is of no value. And takes every opportunity to tell you so. Do those interactions build your relationship? Inspire you with love and trust for the person showing such open contempt for something that brings you joy?

I love my boy. My boy loves video games. And I love that he loves them. I love that they bring him joy.

As I finish writing this up, Ender’s having the tail-end of his nap in my arms, and Flora’s listening to The Titan’s Curse. Cinder grabs his lap top, and sits down beside me on the couch. He pulls up an Antvenom video on Youtube. “I need to get this mod,” he says. “Cool one?” I ask. “Too cool,” he says. I watch him watching for a while.

I love my boy.

“Love you, Mom,” he says. “What do you want to do when my video’s over?”

Minecraft Castle

Minecraft Castle (Photo credit: Mike_Cooke)

Five is hard: can you attachment parent the older child?

It happens to the most attached parents among us. We’ve breastfed, co-slept, and slung our babes happily. It was easy—or, it became easy, once we got into the groove and shook off Aunt Maud’s disapproving glare. We saw our children grown and flourish, loved, connected, happy. But then, at some point, the demons of self-doubt return. Our child goes through a phase we see as difficult and challenging. Almost inevitably, this happens when we’re not at our best—pregnant, tired, stressed. And we wonder—is it possible to AP the older child?

Five seems to be the milestone when these demons attack most ferociously. Makes sense: it’s such a milestone age in our culture. The preschooler becomes a kindergartener. The stroller’s abandoned; first loose teeth come. The search for self becomes super-pronounced, and our five-year-old is frighteningly selfish. (I write about that aspect of five in Ferocious Five.)

It hit one of my friends very hard when her eldest daughter turned five. She asked our playgroup community for help, and she framed her struggles under this big question: “Is it possible the attachment parent the older child? This five year-old who’s driving me utterly, completely crazy every moment of every single day? Is it time to bring out the conventional discipline–punishment–toolbox?”

This was my response. I had seen Cinder through five pretty successfully. Not yet Flora. Bear that in mind as you read. Check out Ferocious Five for the lessons Flora taught me.

Five is hard. But so is two, three, four, six, sixteen–all in their different ways. Part of the trouble is that our children move onward and forward through the different ages and stages, while we, their imperfect parents, have just figured out how to cope with the preceding one.

Is it possible to attachment parent the older child? Possible, necessary, critical. And here is where the difference between AP “things we do”–co-sleeping, breastfeeding, babywearing–and the AP “things we are” plays large. We don’t carry our five year olds, the majority of us don’t breastfeed them any more, we’re not necessarily co-sleeping with them. The “do” stuff is gone. The “be” stuff is all that remains.

And how do we “be” with the older children? I think this is one of the points at which our paths can diverge quite dramatically. And I don’t know that there is one *right* answer. For what it is worth, based on my sample of one five-year-old shepherded through some challenging stuff to date, these are the principles that helped us:

1. Make their world larger.

At five, Cinder’s world got larger. We’re homeschooling, so the massive change that is five day a week kindergarten wasn’t part of it–but think of what a huge change that is for the average five-year-old, and how hard it must be sort out, everything so new. Still, even minus kindergarten, it was so clear to us that a five-year-old was very different from a four-year-old. And absolutely, we butted heads because while he had moved on, I was still mothering a four-year-old.

A huge breakthrough for me was to make his world larger–ride his bike on (safe!) streets, cross the street on his own, go into stores on his own, play a bigger role in everything. I can’t quite remember all the different changes we did, but they’re pretty much irrelevant–they wouldn’t necessarily work for your child. Talk with her. What would she like to do now that she couldn’t (or wasn’t interested) in doing a year or six months ago?

2. The only person whose behaviour I can control is myself.

The other thing I always come back when we run into “downs”: the only person whose behaviour I can control is myself. And if I am unhappy with how my child is acting, the first step is not to look for a way to change my child, but to look at myself, within myself, and ask myself what can I do to change how I am reacting and communicating with my children? What am I doing–reflexively, thoughtlessly–that I can change. Start with me. When I’m okay, when I’m balanced, when I’m grounded–well, very often, the problem goes away, because it was in me in the first place. My children mirror me.

And, if the problem really is in the other–if it is all my Cinder being crazy or my Flora being whiney–when I’m taking care of myself, reflecting on my behaviour, and acting from a place within me that’s grounded, well, then I can cope and talk and help them sort through whatever craziness they are going through at the time without losing it.

3. Re-connect, re-attach.

I strongly, strongly believe that any punishment–be it a time out, a withdrawal of privileges, or the most innocuous manufactured consequence–does not help these situations but serves to drive a tiny, but ever growing, wedge between the attached parent and child. The absolutely best thing I’ve ever read about discipline was in Gordon Neufeld’s *Hold On To Your Kids*–absolutely aimed at parents of older children, through to teens. We’ve talked about this before, but this is the essence of what I take away from Neufeld’s chapter on “Discipline that Does Not Divide”: “Is [whatever action you were going to take] going to further your connection to your child? Or is it going to estrange you?”

So what do I do when I kind of want to throttle Cinder? I work at re-connecting. I call them re-attachment days. Have a bath together. Wrestle (I’m not advising it for pregnant mamas 🙂 ). Go for coffee (for me) and cookie (for him) at Heartland Cafe, just the two of us. Really focus on him and try to enjoy him. So often, that’s what he’s asking for by being obnoxious–really focused attention from me.

Now if I could only ensure I always give it to him so that we wouldn’t go through the head-butting phase in the first place!

4. Remind myself of what I want to say and how I want to act.

What do I do in the moment? That’s way harder in practice, no question. When I’m really frazzled, I leave notes to myself in conspicuous places with “when Cinder does x–do not say/do this–say/do this instead.” (Fridge and front door best places. Also, bathroom door.) And I tell my children what they are–“Those are reminders to me of how I want to treat you and talk to you, even when what you are doing makes me very, very angry.”

5. Sing.

Sometimes, I sing, “I want to holler really loud, but I’m trying really hard not to, someone help me figure something else to do, I think I’m going to stand on my head to distract myself…” (This works really, really well with two and three year olds too, by the way.)

6. Forgive. Move on.

Sometimes, I don’t catch myself in time and do all the things I don’t want to do: yell, threaten (if there is an “if” and a “then” in a sentence, it’s almost always a threat)… and then I apologize, try to rewind, move forward.

7. Put it all in perspective.

And always, always, I remind myself that 1) the worst behaviours usually occur just before huge developmental/emotional milestones, changes and breakthroughs, 2) my child is acting in the best way he knows at this moment, and if that way is not acceptable to me, I need to help him find another one, and 3) I love the little bugger more than life or the universe, no matter how obnoxious he is. (This is a good exercise too: after a hard, hard day, sit down and make a list of all the things you love about your little one. From the shadow her eyelash make on her cheeks when she sleeps to the way she kisses you goodnight… everything you can think of.)

And, finally, if I want my children to treat me–and others–with respect, I must treat them with respect. No matter how angry or tired I am.

Lots of love and support, 

“Jane”

Jane Austen, Watercolour and pencil portrait b...

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”

“You are amazing”—you are partly right

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

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

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

Apparently, I just hide it better.

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

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

Him: Meditation or marijuana?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Him: Ungrateful much?

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

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

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

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

Cinder: You’re so weird.

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

You: You’re amazing.

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

You: You’re so weird.

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

xoxo

Jane

Her story, my story, our story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathe.

Flora: Tell me a story.

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

Flora: You’re so lame.

Jane: I’m what you’ve got.

Flora: Tell me a real story.

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

Her story, my story, our story.

xoxo

“Jane”

 

 

This is a happy moment

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

It’s official.

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

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

She’s gonna be ok.

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

A little bit of this:

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

*

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

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

(The Art of Communicating)‎

This is a happy moment.

xoxo

“Jane”

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

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

I mean, actually, fuck you, patriarchy.

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

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

Flora: Now you know how I feel.

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

Flora: The point is the middle sucks.

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

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

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

Him: Again with the male bashing.

Jane: No. Never.

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

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

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

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

Flora: But aren’t I exceptional too?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane: How old do you think I look?

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

From the mouths of babes.

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

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

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

I don’t hide my age.

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

Him: Middle –aged?

Jane: Fuck off.

Her: In your prime?

Jane: Precisely.

In my prime, professionally, creatively, sexually.

Fuck you, patriarchy.

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

Jane: You don’t have to read it.

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

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

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

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

Happy birthday to me.

Still my anthem:

xoxo

“Jane”

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

English translation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aunt Augusta: What is wrong with you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awesome.

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

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

God, I love her.

Happy Mother’s Day.

“Jane”

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

Kick like a girl

i.

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

Jane: She nailed it.

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

She nailed it.

She did it.

She got here, and she nailed it.

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

ii.

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

Flora: How am I going to get to Wales?

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

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

She believes me.

The doctors—and her father—don’t.

But she believes me.

And so, I must believe myself.

Signing in

iii.

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

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

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

But even at seven, Flora is unstoppable.

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

Pre-test pep talk from Master Experience Senior

iv.

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

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

Flora: I have to go to Wales in April.

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

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

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

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

Flora: Maybe I was just afraid.

Maybe.

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

Bow-in

v.

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

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

Probably not.

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

Flora: I hate the other kids’ parents.

Jane: In general, or in class?

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

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

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

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

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

vi.

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

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

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

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

vii.

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor: You know what I think about Wales.

Flora: You know what I think about Wales.

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

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

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

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

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

Jane: Yes.

Ready

viii.

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

Everything else goes perfectly.

Flora: Too perfectly. Aren’t you afraid?

Jane: Hush. No jinxes.

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

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

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

Flora: We made it.

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

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

ix.

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

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

I did.

OMFG, I did.

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

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

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

Find Flora puking into the wastebasket in our room.

Jane: Nerves?

She wishes.

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

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

Flora: Can I have some chocolate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

x.

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

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

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

As it turns out, she doesn’t need it.

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

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

Flora: He told me to kick faster.

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

x.

She nailed it.

No puking, from flu nor nerves.

No faltering.

No errors.

A flawless performance.

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

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

xi.

Rewind three months.

Flora: Will you teach me how to spar?

I’m… taken aback.

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

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

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

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

Jane: Ok.

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

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

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

In her test, Flora applies every single one.

Flora: I fell on my ass twice.

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

Calgary Crew and their medals (April 27)

xii.

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

Saturday, a tournament.

Flora’s first.

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

Flora: I made it to Wales.

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

Flora: They didn’t tell me I passed.

Jane: You know you passed.

She smiles.

She knows it too.

My girl.

xoxo

“Jane”

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

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

Flora: Fuck, yeah.

Fuck, yeah.

Coming home with a black belt.

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