For 2018, I had set myself the goal of returning to regular–religiously weekly, actually–blogging. The only “rule” was that I had to post once a week. Otherwise, I was free to navel-gaze, freefall, freestyle, and freeform and be relatively incoherent.
The really terrifying thing about this collection? It reads so honest, doesn’t it? It fails to document–notice?–what was really going on in my family, my life, with my daughter.
It is a hard year to revisit. Nonetheless, I expect, some time in the future, I will be glad to have documented it.
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.
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.
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.
“No. Not cold.”
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…
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…
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
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 email@example.com. Much love. J.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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:
and you should come play with me.
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.
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.”
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?”
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:
… 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.
We walked down.
Thigh-high water in our street, spilling over sidewalks, lawns, and the adjacent Curling Club parking lot.
No way of getting “home.”
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…
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, 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:
We put up “Need Sewer, Need Power, Need Cute Firefighter” signs in our windows:
(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:
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:
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…
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.
(or, how to make sure you keep on doing that thing that landed you with children in the first place!)
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?
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.
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.
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: 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.
(And we draw the curtain so we can have some privacy.)
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.
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.
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!
Everything else is icing.
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…
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.
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…
*(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.)
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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:
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?
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 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?”
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.”
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.
I turn many numbers this weekend—47, how did that happen?—and as always when I have an odd-numbered birthday, I miss the symmetry of the even years. I don’t like the odd years—I really don’t like the prime years. And 47? Just look at it. Say it—47. It’s predecessor and successor, 46 and 48, have weight and balance. What can you do with 47? You can’t even divide it, except by one and itself.
You: Feeling old and fixating on the aesthetics of your digits rather than the fact that all life is a relentless march towards death, and also, anytime now, menopause?
Jane: Shut up. I’m going to be young forever.
Well. No, That’s never been my ambition. I’ve never been in love with youth and I’ve never feared either wrinkles or death—although, while we’re being honest, Hollywood and Vogue have done enough of a number on me that I fear extra pounds and tricep flab—why do you think I’ve turned not eating bread and pasta into a religion? Vanity, pure and simple.
Anyway—47. A second pandemic birthday. My first one post-divorce. Everything’s closed and there’s snow in the forecast—why do I live here? A few days before the birthday, “Why do I live here?” peaks. I want to pack, run away—Vancouver, Montreal, Cuba.
Then a friend shows up on my doorstep at 6:30 a.m. with a gluten-free chocolate cupcake and you tell me you’ll buy me a piñata and she says yes, she’s making the Egyptian baklava-style dessert for my birthday cake, of course, and my mom texts, “Black Forest cake for Sunterra, as always?” and Ender clamors for a birthday sushi dinner while Flora slyly steers him towards Chinese… and I remember why I live here.
I still don’t love this number, weird and indivisible prime. But I only have to wear it for a year. One of the really lovely things about life is that everything changes, and nothing is forever. Even inscriptions carved in stone fade, with time.
Nineteen years ago—19 is also a prime number, how about that—on my 28th birthday, I hoped my first-born would arrive as a birthday present. He came three days later—although “came” is probably the wrong term, cause he sure did not want to leave the uterus, that one, thank the virgin goddesses of childbirth for Oxytocin, also, epidurals.
Since then, the May long weekend has felt like one prolonged family birthday—lovely and exhausting. My not-so-little eldest turns 19 today, but he’s with his dad today. My time was yesterday. It was all right—for me, it felt all right? For him? Does he appreciate, or take in stride, the maternal birthday, followed by the paternal birthday? Two birthdays, woo-hoo, I win? Or does it suck, and does he wish for last year?
I don’t wish for last year, and I’m pretty sure Sean doesn’t either.
But I will never know, really, what the kids wish.
Just do my best to ensure that what they get is good enough…
In the middle
People. I’m trying to describe what was a really amazing day—day-after—day-after—a magical weekend, each piece of it perfect, even the two that went sideways, because of what followed, and I can’t—chronology limits and words fall flat.
So I won’t tell you what I did. I’ll tell you how I felt, how’s that?
For fuck’s sake. Apparently, sometimes, not even I can make this piece of writing flow… 😉
Let’s try it like this:
I felt so incredibly loved, it was all utter bliss.
It’s in the calves, actually. That’s where the memory lives. They are tight and sore, and oh, I should slip into a hot bath and get them to relax, but I don’t want to yet. I like the pain. It reminds me that, on my second pandemic birthday with everything closed and nothing allowed, we danced all night anyway, just us, and it was still a party.
We’re walking along the river on a breathtakingly beautiful May evening and you tell me that life generally sucks and not much worth experiencing happens after you’re 28—and how do people manage to live through their 50s, 60s, beyond, you don’t know. (And look what we’ve done over the past year to prolong the lives of those in their 80s, WTF is that all about.)
I crinkle my nose and raise my eyebrows and know, now, not to take it personally—you’ve got a thing about 28, and reminding you that you were a few weeks past 28 and I almost 41 when we met, and you already felt that you were past your peak while I was feeling I was yet to hit my prime is not what this story is about.
This story is, I think, about perception. Life past your youth, you say, requires committed self-delusion and would it not be more courageous if people accepted how futile things were and, when they realized that this was it, nothing but a tread mill, a hamster’s exercise wheel—this last, my metaphor not yours—they’d just end things. Properly, with professional assistance—institutionalized euthanasia on request.
I stiffen. My arm is looped through your freshly vaccinated one and my fingers rest lightly on your forearm. I can feel your heart beat through my fingertips, so you feel my stiffening.
“I’m not suicidal,” you say, quickly, forcefully, clarifying because you know you must clarify this to me, you know where any suspicion of this will take me.
“But you’re in a really shitty place.”
“No. I just know life is shit. Has always been shit. But I’m fine. There is a difference.”
You’re not fine, but I won’t argue. I don’t know if it’s pandemic frustration or professional malaise talking—you’re experiencing both in spades—or the anxiety about the health of your faraway loved ones that’s been consuming you for weeks. I suppose all of the above and I suppose it doesn’t matter. Root causes matter much less than pop psychologists and life coaches would have us believe.
I stroke your forearm and think—today, I believe, I know life is beautiful. Because caterpillars turn into butterflies and there are bees building a ground nest outside my front door and we just saw a beaver swimming in the river, right downtown, glass skyscrapers in the background, also, isn’t that crescent of a moon something else? But two, three months ago, I could barely get out of bed and I thought the weight I was carrying would crush me, and I definitely did not think live was beautiful then—I wasn’t particularly sure it was worth living, it just had to be endured, because Cinder, Flora, Ender.
So I won’t insult you with platitudes and clichés—I just stroke your arm.
You switch topics, a little, and talk about the delusions of religion. I don’t disagree, and neither of us mocks. We both know that, for the most part, those with faith are happier than we are. Our loved ones cease to exist when they stop breathing—your uncle, my uncle, both gone forever now.
Theirs go to paradise.
“Except Uncle Mo. He’s definitely in hell.”
And you laugh. I laugh with you. The stiffening in my spine relaxes, a little.
I’m not worried that you will kill yourself. You are, I think, on a very basic level, both too arrogant and too loving to do that, too aware of your importance to your family, your friends—to me. You know your death would destroy us. If things ever get truly dark for you, you will push through them, as I do, not for yourself, but for the people you love, the people who love you.
And I know, too well, from too much painful and so futile actions with my loved ones in the past, that nothing I say or do to you while you’re in this “life is shit” place will change anything, for you. It will just drain me, maybe make me hate you.
Instead, I start planning my birthday party. Three years shy of 50 this year, second pandemic birthday—fuck it all hard, I want to party all weekend. I want cake and balloons and flowers and dancing.
Maybe a piñata.
“Oh my god, you are a 47 year old child.”
Sometimes. But both Jesus and the Buddha thought that imitating a child’s mind brought adults closer to truth, happiness, salvation.
(You said the same thing to me shortly after we met, do you remember? “You are a 40 year old child.” I shrugged, and I kept on tantruming, crying until you fed me ice cream.)
“Can we do all those things?” I ask, five years old, greedy for more cake than is good for me.
“We can do anything you want. It’s your birthday.”
Life is beautiful. Sometimes. And sometimes—often—it is so hard, a slog, it takes superhuman effort to get out of bed. Do the things.
But we do them. Because sometimes, there’s cake and a piñata and always, there are people we love who love us.
PS You see the implication, though, right? Check in on the lonely people in your life. The loathsome ones especially. I know it’s hard as fuck, cause you’ve barely got the bandwidth to take care of yourself and the ones you love right now—check in on Aunt Augusta too. She needs you.
If you can’t bring yourself to text or call… send cake.
Also, it’s now nine months that I’ve been living four blocks away from my children and carrying significantly less than 50 per cent of the daily tasks of parenthood, so I feel my moral high horse for this topic this year is a little impaired. Still. I’m dealing with a whole new slew of judgements and issues right now, and mostly, what I’m thinking is that mothers just can’t win.
No matter what you do, the world will crease its judgemental eyebrows and say that you should do it differently—better—with more grace—with a smile—in nicer clothes—in cheaper clothes—more selflessly… or with more attention to self-care… OMFG kill me know—you can’t win. You’re either negligent or you’re too helicopter, you’ve given yourself up and burned it all on the altar of family—no, actually, you’re too focused on your career, if you were a really good mother, you wouldn’t be so ambitious—you’re too selfish—you’re a martyr—you do too much—you don’t do enough…
You really can’t win.
Flora: Why I don’t want children.
Jane: As I’ve said before, I won’t dissuade you. But also, that’s why I had spares.
Here’s the thing though: it’s not children who make motherhood hard. No. Really. Children, in all their snotty, exhausting glory are amazing. I would not trade that experience, that love for anything. Every sleepless night, every tantrum, every hard hard moment, worth it.
Flora: Even that one?
Jane: Even that one.
Worth it, worth it. What makes motherhood hard is not children—it’s Aunt Augusta and Mrs Johnson and Good Housekeeping magazine, and also Vogue and your CEO, co-workers, neighbours, strangers on the street—society and its expectations.
Screw you all. I’m doing my best.
It’s a drizzly, grizzly rainy day and Cinder is working from 2 pm and my mom is sleeping until 2 pm after spending a night intubating 30 and 40 year-olds in the ER, and also, third or fourth lockdown, everything is closed anyway, so the plan is shawarma take-out for lunch at my place, just me and the kids. Then, drop Cinder off to work and take Flora and Ender to drop off flowers at my mom’s. Then, I don’t know, probably a movie, maybe a nap, it’s a drizzly, grizzly, gloomy day, rain turning to snow and slush on the sidewalks. I’m trying to have no expectations on this first post-divorce, second pandemic Mother’s Day.
We will spend some time together, some time apart.
I will do my best; it probably won’t be enough.
It’s actually pretty good.
The kids are a bit grumpy-dumpy in the car while we go get the food—everybody skipped breakfast to be hungry for lunch and that is just a bad idea—but once we get the food, everything smells so good, is so good. We eat, and the brothers poke at each other only a little bit, and the sister’s tongue, while always as sharp as a guillotine, only comes out intermittently. Cinder gives me a pot of yellow mums and Ender a hand-written card that’s been crammed into his hoodie pocket for days.
Sean hands me a pint of Chocolate Salted Caramel ice cream and says “Happy Mother’s Day” when I come to pick up the kids, and I appreciate the gesture.
My mom wakes up in time that I can do a drive-by flower drop off with all three kids, and we make her day. The kids fight over shotgun, but it’s funny. We drop off Cinder at work and then—everybody needs a nap. I drop Ender and Flora off at the coop with instructions to text me when they wake up and are ready to come over for supper.
I myself crawl into bed, grizzly-drizzly day, heart full of big feelings, head requiring strict instructions so it doesn’t spin negative stories of Mother’s Days past.
Flora texts me after 5 pm, awake and groggy, not really hungry. I go pick her and Ender up, and we argue about what movie to watch. Make popcorn in a wok. Stretch out on my very uncomfortable couch, make it less uncomfortable with pillows, watch Detective Pikachoo and eat lunch left-overs for supper, all is bliss.
Then it’s time to go get Cinder from work—I leave Ender with Minecraft, run Flora home, then to pick up my eldest essential worker, bring him his lunch-for-dinner left-overs. And then, the first sleep-over at Mom’s new house for Ender.
Nine months after I moved out.
No expectations. But for God’s sake don’t let him cry and don’t let me cry—it’s ok if he’d rather be at the other house, that is his house and he loves it because I had spent a lifetime making it a child’s paradise.
But. We snuggle and read a graphic novel by one of his You-Tubers, turn off the light—he’s restless. Can’t sleep. We whisper for a while, then turn the light back on. Read another book. He falls asleep, wrapped in a pile of blankets, his hand in my hair.
I am so happy, I cry… but then I sleep, and all is bliss.
I’ve had my first dose of the microchip, kittens—the cheap, doesn’t die in normal refrigerator temperatures one—and suddenly, everything is clear… and I’m yanking your chain, but also not, because I do have to tell you that holding out for the vaccine of your choice is such a privileged person, First World Problem, I can’t even.
Still—I’d no more prevent you from waiting for Johnson & Johnson than I want you to prevent me from making #genxzeneca trend on Twitter.
Which brings me to what’s so very clear—and yes, clearly, it’s the microchip—the problem with the world order as know it.
Ready? It’s, very simply, this:
Intellectual policy makers, democractic governments and many regular people expect human beings to be rational and to act in rational ways, even in irrational situations.
We’re not. We don’t.
That’s the problem.
You know who knows people aren’t rational?
Religious and cult leaders, marketers and spin doctors, populists and fascists.
Which makes me think… they’re probably gonna win.
We’ve got to start a cult, kittens.
Speaking of cults—I’m thinking of workplaces, organizational cultures and indoctrination, and how some places are so good at getting their people to drink the Kool-aid and others just can’t seem to even fake it. At the heart of it, it’s all about… the heart and not the brain. Organizations that recognize that people are irrational and emotional and so make their decisions with their hearts do a better job of making their people buy into their story than organizations that treat people like a number, a variable, a cost. Which is what they are, absolutely, in rational terms: labour is an expense item.
In emotional terms, though?
“Our people are at the heart of everything we do.” Take that, Karl Marx.
Speaking of labour and Das Kapital, I’m writing this on a Friday, as the official work week ends and the labours of love begin. I have so much to do but the microchip is slowing me down a bit, chills, sweats, arm still sore. Mostly, I want to spend the weekend in bed not labouring. I don’t have a hard deadline for the labour love, so it’s easy to put it off.
But if I only rest, I’ll be unhappy. I know this. Some labour is necessary for pleasure and rest to feel… pleasant.
Speaking of pleasure—it will be a gorgeous afternoon and evening, night, and I will feel the sun on my face and all will be right with the world for those delicious moments. Who needs a cult—I’ll make my own Kool-aid. Second dose in 16 weeks, which means only four more months of this half-life. I can do that—you can do that.
PS Posting on a rainy Monday after writing on such a beautiful Friday and thinking how happy I am that on the sunny Friday, I seized the sun by the lapels and drank from it and bathed in it. Today, clouds, drizzle. Gas fire on even though it’s winter, hot mug of tea on the couch instead of wine and sheesha on the patio—but then, perhaps that is more appropriate to a Monday night. Fingers flying on keys, books around me—this is a good night too. But it’s good because on Friday, I felt the sun on my face and laughter of friends beside me.
If I’m making no sense—don’t mind me. It’s just the microchip.
She can’t believe that right now, because she’s a teenage girl. Also, because I’m relatively emotionally disciplined and I don’t make a showcase of either my primary or secondary suffering, she tends to—as do others—think I have no feelings. I tell you, people, teenagers—the most terrifying funhouse mirror of your soul.
Flora: Well, I’m so sorry my illness is causing you so much…
Jane: Um, I wasn’t even talking about you. Why are we in this spiral again?
Because children, rightly, think they are the centre of their parents’ universe and teenagers, wrongly, think they are the centre of the universe.
Enough of that though. Back to this:
I love you. And because I love you, when you suffer, I suffer.
Especially when there is nothing I can do to alleviate your suffering. And there isn’t. All I can do is be here.
Helplessness is awful.
Intentional presence—without interference, without unwanted acts of helpfulness, without making my suffering an additional burden on you… not awful.
But really, really hard.
I love you. Because I love you, when you suffer, I suffer.
I am here for you.
When Flora was so sick, I had to draw borders around the secondary suffering experienced by others—as well as myself.
“Yes. I know you love her. I know you love me. I know you’re suffering. I am not interested in hearing about your suffering or dealing with your feelings. I need to save my child’s life, now fuck the fuck off and let me do what I need to do.”
You: Can I bring you soup?
Jane: Yes. But better yet, don’t ask me what you can do for me. See a need and fill it without adding to my plate.
You: You know I’m here for you. Anything you need.
Jane: Can we talk about this later? I have shit to do.
We have this myth in Western culture—not just Western culture, actually—that suffering ennobles. I don’t know about that. Maybe, afterwards. If you survive. While you’re suffering, you’re mostly an asshole.
It’s okay. You kind of have to be to survive.
You’re suffering and I’m helpless. There’s nothing I can do. You are a lot like me and I don’t want you to feel that, on top of everything else, you have to manage my feelings. I text you kisses and links to songs. Tell you I’m thinking of you, ask for nothing.
It’s not enough, but maybe it’s too much.
I love you and when you suffer, I suffer. That’s just the way it is.
The last year has made us intolerant of the suffering of others.
We’ve all been acting like assholes—not because we’re evil or selfish or anything like that. But because we’re all suffering. And it’s hard to feel compassion for others in the middle of our own pain. It’s especially hard to feel it for strangers.
I start here. With you. Start here. With me.
I love you. I love you and when you suffer, I suffer. I’m going to bring you something delicious to eat tomorrow, and see if I can take you for a walk, even though we’re both sick of walking and it won’t help anything.
I am waking up early these days. The new gig is like a new baby—threatening to take up all of my time with its demands. So I wake up before it does, and, wrapped in the pre-dawn darkness and my bath robe, do my morning pages, drink my coffee—very, very slowly—and give my time to my labours of love.
It’s still more of an intellectual, learning exercise—background knowledge, research, thoughts in my head rather than words on paper (or, to be more precise, the screen?). But thinking is physically exhausting—we don’t often appreciate that adequately.
By the time I log off for the day, I’m mentally and physically exhausted. Happy—but exhausted. Intellectually blunted—thinking is hard, decisions, even small ones, impossible.
On the days that I don’t have Ender or the kids coming over for supper, I have a bath as soon as I log off, then eat—force myself to take a walk, thank goodness for the dog—and crawl into bed with BritBox (currently binging Jonathan Creek and really loving how in British TV people are… people-like, both in appearance and character. Not caricatures, not photoshopped, botoxed stereotypes. The villains aren’t all evil and the victims and heroes aren’t flawless. Youth is as complex and painful as adulthood—children aren’t cherubs and the elderly aren’t necessarily wise. And old, wrinkly people fall in love, and nobody thinks it’s weird).
Up early, I crash early. And so, finally, here is a silver lining to the third wave of the pandemic—no FOMO, right? Nothing’s happening, nothing to do. You and I can go for a walk or sit on a patio sipping bear, but, you know, I have a patio of my own and I’m so sick of walking as a social activity—I might as well just go to bed.
I sleep deeply, nine to ten hours a night. I still don’t know if this is a sleep deficit from more than a decade ago when I had three kids under seven—or from 2019, when I just did not sleep—that my body is trying to make-up, or a response to the stress of the pandemic.
You complain of insomnia—I, as soon as I lie down in bed, fall into unconsciousness. It’s blissful. When dreams come, they’re weird as all fuck—so weird and surreal, they neither disturb me nor tempt me to hunt for hidden meaning, omens.
There are no nightmares.
I sleep deeply.
I am not sure how to explain to friends what it is I’m doing for work at the moment. “I write” covers a multitude of sins, so I stick to that. Mostly, right now, I’m learning, and I’m reminded of the seductive power of a mid-life, late-life Master’s or PhD.
Learning a new discipline, a new language—and each discipline, industry, organization has its own language—is intoxicating.
This happens, in one of my classes at the Polytechnique last year:
Student: I can’t wait until I get my diploma and I can stop learning.
Jane: Oh, honey. You’ve just explained why I can’t seem to teach you anything. Can we do anything about that mindset, or should I just give you an F now and explain why you can’t ever ask me for a letter of recommendation?
At the moment, I’m working on teaching myself everything, about a new industry, new organization. New culture, new people.
It’s taking all of my juice.
I sleep deeply.
As Ender comes to the end of what is either grade six or grade five—surely not yet grade seven—I can never remember rightly, and, really, what does it matter—we’re entering year three of what has essentially been the Minecraft and Youtube curriculum. Between Flora’s illness, COVID, the divorce—now my new job—what else could it have been?
I’m researching resources, books, games—Youtube channels—wanting to give him some more scope to explore this summer, and in the fall.
Jane: I just… I just want you to be learning more.
Ender: I’m learning all the time. And having fun.
Even seasoned unschoolers need this reminder once in a while.
On the fifth day of my new gig, a meeting-ful Friday, which I begin with a two-hour call/texting session with IT support—Cthulhu bless all IT support people, btw, because sorting out “the thingie isn’t doing the thin that I think it should be doing, please make it go!” from a person like me must be a competent IT person’s hell—and end with a 45-minute training session on a magic project management software (hello, Asana, I think I love you), my new employer sends me flowers.
It’s a gorgeous pink-purple-white-red bouquet of fresias, carnations, gerbera daisies, mums, and one green branch with delicate yellow flowers, and rather robust, thick leaves. It’s crowned with a lovely card that reads “Welcome to the team. We’re thrilled to have you on-board and are looking forward to working with you.”
The bouquet arrives in the five minutes I have between a Teams meeting on a process/communications update on a project I’ll be kinda-sorta-maybe part of (or else it abuts a project I might kinda-sorta-maybe be part of; I don’t know, I’m confused, it’s my first week) and my 1:1 debrief with one of my squad leads, and it kind of makes me cry. Later, I do a ROI calculation of the gesture: say a $25, call it $30—although there’s probably a corporate discount, why, by the way, is it that it’s cash-flush corporations that get discounts and we daily joes have to pay full price—plus delivery, plus the time required to order it—call it a total $25-50 investment by the company in me on that chaotic first week. Result? I end my first week thinking, “They love me, they want me, they care about me.
On the first day of my new gig, nothing works the way it’s supposed to, I’m confused and disconnected and alone in my living room-cum-office—how is this really a first day of a new job? Then, a dedicated hour debrief with my VP and I perk up. I still can’t get into the system proper, but I “eat” the Internet and bring myself up to speed on the industry while sitting on the patio with my laptop.
Meanwhile, my phone starts to ping:
Him: Good luck on your first day!
Her: First day! How are things going?
You: Break a leg!
Them: I hope you have a wonderful first day!
I am loved. I am not alone.
Neither, lover, are you.
On the fourth day of the new gig—it’s a Thursday, cause, like, yeah, I started on Monday—Cinder needs to make it to work alone mid-day, but the weather is crappy, so Sean takes a break from his job to drive him. Me, I’ve got most of my tech and connections working, meetings, training, gathering background on the projects I’ll be working on. Flora and Ender are coming over for supper after 5 p.m., as soon as I unplug. I’m feeding them Babi Easter soup, sourdough baguette from Sidewalk Citizen, and very expensive fruit from Safeway—what the hell has happened to produce prices this week?
Ender spends the evening sitting on my head.
“Do I get to come back next week?” he says, plaintively. Since January, he’s been spending Monday and Wednesday days with me, fake-homeschooling (don’t ask), as those are Sean’s heaviest days. This week, he spent Monday with my Mom (note for the panicked and sanctimonious: she’s vaccinated, also, seriously, how are my child care arrangement any of your business?), and Wednesday, he stayed at the Coop with Sean.
“Yes. Of course.”
I am, secretly, thrilled. I never really know if he likes being at my little apartment, in which he has one bin of Legos, some Kapla blocks, a tiny box of art supplies, and no room of his own. He leaves behind—well, a kids’ paradise that I had spent 18 years building for him and his siblings.
So, I’m very happy that he misses me, my place, our time.
The next scheduled Mommy-Ender day—the sixth day of my new gig and the second Monday of my new job—I start with a Teams meeting at 8 a.m. and have no breather until noon.. No possibility of picking up Ender and the dogs in-between.
We decide that I’ll come pick him up at noon, take him to lunch, then, I’m not sure, maybe put on a documentary for him while I wrap my head around the afternoon’s work… maybe just let him loose on Minecraft.
All you “Why aren’t we closing the schools?” people? It’s because closing schools needs to go hand in hand with accepting that either parents aren’t working or kids aren’t learning. There is no such as multitasking and you can’t homeschool your kids WHILE working. You can’t even supervise your kids WHILE working. You can’t make them lunch WHILE attending and paying attention to a Zoom call. Closing schools turns one of the parents—remember most households in North American are effectively single-parent households most of the time anyway—into a full-time child-minder/teacher’s aide.
Take it from someone who’s been homeschooling for more than 18 years—it is, of course, possible to homeschool AND THEN work AND THEN make lunch AND THEN homeschool AND THEN work some more. I’ve done it, for more than 18 years. But it is not possible to do both things in the same dedicated one-hour or fifteen minute block of time.
On the weekend between my first and second week at the new gig, I mostly sleep and watch Death in Paradise on BritBox, intermittently vacuum. That had been the plan going into the month, and I feel very satisfied in carrying it out. Sunday night, I cook for the week, and prepare a delish supper for the kids. We eat and watch Community.
Flora asks me if I’m ready for Monday.
I am. I am.
On the seventh day of the new gig, the school board announces that next week, all junior and senior high school students are moving, again, to online learning at home.
Jane: It will be easier than all the back and forth.
Flora: They could just give us summer vacation. Now.
They could. They won’t. We’ve just gotta roll with it.
Ender spends Monday and Wednesday “homeschooling” with me while I work. The Minecraft curriculum continues, although we do squeeze in a little bit of reading. And Lego. Monday is hard because, meetings from 8 am until noon with barely enough time off to pee. Wednesday is easier.
But we roll with it. We make it work. That’s what we do.
On the ninth day of the new gig—that’s the Thursday of the second week—I start to feel like I’m finding my feet. I start to recognize the vocabulary and the patterns. I get assigned to projects. I even knock off a couple of small tasks, and I do them well. I feel appreciated, and I preen. I haven’t had external validation of note for a while—it’s nice.
It’s a gorgeous sunny day, and I work with the patio doors open and, when I don’t need a reliable wifi connection, I take the laptop out into the sun. How is it that the sun makes everything better? I feel happy and alive, and I’m pondering if I’ll have time to cook between end-of-work/arrival-of-kids for supper… or, pizza? Ender wanted “real” pizza, and I can totally afford regular take-out now… can Thursday nights be our regular take-out night?
I text the kids to see if they want pizza for supper; they are enthusiastic.
The tenth day of the new gig, I start the day with a 6:15 a.m. walk to the Coop, Bumblebee in hand, to drop off the dog and drive Cinder to work for a 7 a.m. shift. Then, back to my place for 7:20, a quick shower and coffee, and I’m bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for an 8 a.m. meeting.
By noon, though, I need a nap, and after I run over to the Coop to see Ender and give the dogs a quick walk, I lie down on my floor for a twenty minute yoga nidra session.
I pro-actively set my phone alarm to go off after 30 minutes… just in case the yoga nidra session is too effective.
Yoga nidra, if the term is new to you, is sleep yoga. It’s wonderful. Basically, you lie down in corpse pose, cover yourself with a blanket, and listen to a soothing voice give you instructions on how to enter a deep state of relaxation/meditation.
You can use it as a way to ease into sleep—or, mid-day, instead of a nap. However, if you are very, very tired—it can become a nap.
But on this Friday, I do it properly, and I’m rejuvenated for the afternoon. Except I really have nothing much to do.
I open up the company Intranet and get on with my task of learning all the things.
On the second weekend of the new gig, I make time for a social life, adventures with Flora, helping Cinder with his homework, but also, reflection. How did things go? How do I feel? What do I need?
Inner Voice: More socks. Also, a foot stool.
Jane: Could we go a little deeper here?
Inner Voice: We need more socks. And a foot stool. Also, chocolate. Why was there no chocolate in the house this week?
I feel… good. Really, that’s it. Everything is unrolling as it should, as it must, and I’m rolling with it.
I need… chocolate. And maybe more socks, because, yeah, why not.
Those flowers I got on the fifth day of the new gig, by the way? Still gorgeous.
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
Next, the key insight from Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life:
If you don’t find your work in the world and throw yourself wholeheartedly into it, you will inevitably make your self your work. … You will take your self as your primary project. You will… dedicate your life to the perfection of your self. To the perfection of your health, intelligence, beauty, home or even spiritual prowess. And the problem is simply this: This self-dedication is too small a work. It inevitably becomes a prison.
(Yes, I did just use a quote from the author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self to tell you to do less yoga; you’re welcome.)
There is a dark side to throwing yourself wholeheartedly into your work though, isn’t there? Stepping away from it feels like death. Not a little death, but a fairly complete self-death.
Back to kindness: I have found that, when you are suffering the most, it is almost impossible to be kind. There is only pain and survival. But then, a respite, a breath, and suddenly—you are able to be kind again. To hold open the door. To forgive. To understand—or, if you don’t understand, to accept.
When you are able to be kind, you’re starting to do ok.
When you’re not able to be kind… if you notice? That’s the time to worry.
I’m half-kind, half-exasperated, which means, I think, I’m half-ok and therefore on the mend because you, lover, you are not ok. I’m able to be half-kind with you, though, as you are able to be half, quarter-kind with me. Perhaps right now that is all that we can ask of each other, even though each one of us wants more… but neither is capable of giving it.
Tomorrow, a new chapter, a new job. Before that—Easter egg hunt for Ender, maybe Flora. Easter Sushi. In-between, an impromptu visit to a friend, a brief dream of listening to, maybe dancing, salsa on Peace Bridge—aborted by rain—chores, Death in Paradise in the background, reflecting on the meaning, purpose of life, and it all boils down to this:
The most basic, base purpose of life is to survive. That’s it, the beginning, the end.
And the ultimate, most evolved purpose of life? The great work of all of our lives, regardless of what our meta-calling?
To be kind.
Not self-work, self-improvement, self-perfection.
Just… being kind. To your annoying friend. To that bitchy stranger. To the woman in front of you in the line of the grocery store, regardless of whether she’s wearing her mask properly or not.
To your lover.
That’s it, that’s all… it’s that simple… and nothing is harder.
it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes
I’m starting a new job next week. My heart is aflutter and my stomach in butterflies. I’m half-excited and half-terrified—no, I’m 90 per cent excited, 10 per cent terrified, and 10 per cent heartbroken—also, 100 per cent bad at math. But the excitement is paramount, and the other feelings remind me that life is complicated and one needs to feel all the feelings to be truly alive.
So, the job—it’s one designed for me, literally, they rewrote the job description after they saw my CV—and the result of that lucky turn of life’s roulette wheel in which, to para-quote Louis Pasteur, chance favours the prepared mind (or, as Seneca less elegantly put it, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”–ok, it might have been elegant in ancient Latin, but in English, I dunno, meh).
(The secondary theme of this story, btw, as per Lennon and McCartney, that we all get by with a little help from our friends.)
So, there I am, suddenly under-employed and in considerable financial strain because COVID, divorce, effective doubling of life’s expenses, also, feeling a little purposeless and unfocused, frustrated with the indifferent performance of my novels, drowning in pandemic (and divorce) accelerated existential angst (also wondering how many mid-life crises can one woman have in a single decade, I mean, isn’t there an upper limit? isn’t there supposed to be just one? surely three was enough, and there really is no need for a fourth and fifth to be happening simultaneously—look! shiny thing! Corvette! And look at you, you sexy thing, come over here and sit in my lap—I digress, point: existential angst), that 50th birthday is now three years and three months away, if I’m going to make a change, leap, move, now’s the time, now’s my prime sell date—where am I going to jump?
Don’t know, don’t know. I pull out my CV, try to craft a cover letter—I’ve had an amazing career, let’s face it, but it’s damn unconventional. I’ve done nothing by the book, and where am I now? Towards what was I building? I don’t want to be an editor or manager, the “natural” next steps… I want to write, and also teach—how is it that I love that piece of my work so much, I never thought I would—but, like, also get paid on a regular basis, and, also, I don’t know, be part of something bigger, I’m so tired of it being just me in my studio with my laptop and the voices in my head, I’m so tired of being my only colleague and employee, and also, I don’t know, I have all these skills, but let’s face it, I’m very, very bad at math—the most basic income/expenses kind of math and, despite writing about them and worshipping them most of my life, not an entrepreneur at heart at all, could someone just, like, take care of that part of things for me for a while, and just leverage, use me for the things I’m really, really good at?
(Words. Story. I know you can’t tell from this post, but words are my superpower and I’m a hell of a storyteller.)
And there they are…
Them: Yo. Over here. You’re what we didn’t know we were looking for.
The company. The job ad. The opportunity. The month-long interview process, during which they revisioned and rewrote the position to better suit what I brought to the table.
I’m so excited, people, most of the time I’m forgetting to be terrified, and that, of course, is very good.
How I find out about the job: I post on Facebook that I need work. I am, of course, by this point, monitoring Indeed and Canada Job Bank and, yes, there are quite a few jobs for communications professionals and underemployed journalists and I guess that’s what I am, but most of them… a) I could do in my sleep, bored already, b) they’re a step backwards, like, maybe 10 years, more like 15, actually, junior and mid-career positions and, dammit, I’m old and at my peak. Past my peak? Ugh. What an awful place to be, damn COVID and the economy, and I’m broke and stressed—I grit my teeth, send off resumes, think that perhaps I’d prefer working as a cemetery labourer, look at that, the city is looking for one and the pay is actually almost as good as being a mid-level corporate communications flack, and I’d get to work outside, digging graves and pruning bushes, ooh, operating a fork lift to move tomb slabs and gravestones, maybe? Why not? Maybe this is the next life stage: cemetery worker, communing with ghosts on the night shift and spooking canoodling couples behind gravestones at dawn and dusk, hey, how would that work as a cozy mystery–a cemetery worker-cum-detective…
Gravestones on my mind (how heavy are tomb slabs, anyway, and how hard is a forklift to operate?), I post on Facebook that I’m looking for a job. Money, really, a job being the most obvious legal way of obtaining a steady flow of it. “I write,” I say, “but, really, I’m willing to do anything unreasonable.” But dammit, I think, the problem is—I’m a career writer. Like, literally, I have virtually no other skills—ok, yeah, I also teach, and fine, public relations, strategy, blah blah blah, but my particular superpower is story, except at the moment, no one seems to want it and I’m just going to curl into a fetal position and cry, and then apply to be a cemetery labourer, except they’re not going to hire me, because I don’t have a fork lift licence, but maybe, I could go get a fork lift, licence, and…
A woman who’s the current president of a business communicators organization and whom, a couple of years ago, I taught how to plot and write a bad romance novel (set the bar low for your first manuscript, people, that’s how the professionals do it—repeat after me, an amateur thinks it has to be perfect, a professional knows it needs to be done), tells me to connect with her on Linked In. “I get all these communications job alerts all the time,” she says. “I’ll forward the interesting ones to you.”
I send her a request to connect. She sends me two job links immediately. Flags one. “You’d be perfect for this one,” she says. She’s right. They put “storyteller” right in the job description. And the job description—who wrote this baby? I want to work for her. I’m mostly qualified for the job, maybe a corporate gap here and there, and certainly not their typical candidate, but I can totally do this job and then some, and the company hits all my sweet spots too, and also, did I mention, that job description? It’s incredible. It was written by someone who is clearly looking for me.
I shoot my CV and highly customized cover letter off within 24 hours.
Other friends shoot me job links too, and I’m full of gratitude. Send off a resume here or there. But—it’s that job I want. Everything else, it will give me money. This one? I WANT IT. I REALLY, REALLY WANT IT.
The human resources manager calls me within a week. Yes! The following week, I’m talking with a VP, then onward and upward—or maybe, sideways. I’m not quite sure about the hierarchical structure of the company… it’s bigger than any place I’ve ever worked for before, and the hiring process reflects this. There are personality profile tests, and a writing assignment, and a lot of butterflies in my stomach—an intensive background and criminal check and employment verification process (I have no secret Criminal Code offences that I did not know about, phew, but I literally hold my breath for two days until the results come in—I mean, weird stuff happens, suppose someone with my exact name and birth date—it could happen—has defrauded credit card companies, ran a crack house, or laundered money for the local mafia—did I mention, I have a really good imagination, OMG, I’m going to fail the criminal check because of identity theft, my conspiracy theory friends were right, I never should have joined Facebook—what? I’m all good. Oh thank god).
Finally, an offer that kind of makes me pass out with its awesomeness—you’ve got to understand, I’ve freelanced for 20 years, I’ve never had BENEFITS—and after I recover consciousness, I breathe easy for the first time in months.
Except, I’m also terrified.
But, mostly, excited.
I prepare my cover letter and CV alone—but I have an “eye-for-detail, Grammar-Nazi” friend proof it. (That, kittens, is also how the professionals do it—always, a second (fiftieth) set of eyes on the copy—and no, nobody proofs these posts, every single typo is mine, shut up, the blog is a labour of love, why do you always criticize me?) In my interviews I’m alone too—except, well, I’m not. The first interview catches me off-guard. I’m unprepared for the types of questions HR throws at me and it’s been a while (don’t ask how long) (ok, like 20 years) since I’ve been the person answering the questions in an interview.
(When I interviewed for the journalism teaching job at the Poly, we were all just journos shooting the shit together, speaking the same language, more of a conversation about the state of our beloved and traumatized industry than an interview as such. I didn’t stress about it as an interview at all. I sweated buckets over this one.)
I spend a solid week preparing for the second one, with the help of a friend more experienced in the art. The night before the interview, as the final pre-interview test, he throws question after question at me and critiques my delivery of my story for two, three hours—until I’m in tears and I hate him and at one point, I yell at him that he’s really terrible at giving constructive feedback and “That wasn’t good enough” isn’t actually feedback a person can work with—what, precisely, was wrong with it? How would it be better?
My friend calls me in the morning to make sure I don’t oversleep for the 8 am (gasp) interview. No worries there—I’ve been awake for hours.
Practicing. Rehearsing. Kinda panicking, but in the “panic now so you don’t panic when it counts” way.
And so in the real interview—alone but not—I’m confidence personified; sparkly and on fire—I know my story inside out and I’ve got specific examples galore for everything and anything I might be asked about.
I’m not asked about most of it—I tell the stories anyway.
I also do this, on Facebook:
“I need magic tomorrow at 8 am MST. Send ravens, four-leaf clovers, horseshoes, prayers, vibes, fist bumps—you know. All your magic.”
My social network obliges.
What? I believe in magic. I’m alone in the ring, on the Zoom call—but not really. My crew’s got my back.
When the offer finally comes, my crew is as much on pins and needles as I am.
Him: Especially me.
Jane: Because you love me and are excited for me and…
Him: Because I just can’t take any more “Why do you think it’s taking so long? Do you think I fucked up the interview? Should I not have told the Brian Mulroney story?” middle of the night texts from you.
Jane: First, they were middle of the day texts…
Second—they didn’t really take that long (and I skipped the inappropriate part of the Brian Mulroney story—but ask me sometime over a glass of wine, it’s hilarious)—less than a month from application to offer, so, really, for a big corporation? That’s moving at the speed of light.
It’s just that… when you really want something?
You: And you really want this?
Jane: I. Really. Want. This.
That’s a change in my story. I sent out those first resumes in January and February 2021 with a profound sense of… let’s be honest, failure. It felt like failure—I had made a pretty comfortable living writing since I’ve been 17, with only a brief two-year detour into a “real” job, the best part of which was that I met half of my future editors while working it. In 2015, I had given myself five years for the novels and the fiction and that part of my life to become a dominant revenue stream and, well. Seven novels—four of them published—three novellas, and dozens of short stories and anthology contributions later, I have to confess that my ambition outstripped my capability—or the realities of the market—and the financial pressure on my creative work to perform, perform, perform and pay the rent was… well, exhausting.
But… a) I did it (did I mention… four published novels, seven written? Take that and stuff it up your teapot spout, Aunt Augusta) and b) along the way, I discovered… that I have a very deep, innate understanding of the storytelling process, more importantly, that I can show and share this process with others. I’m an effective teacher and I get high on teaching. And—as has been the case since I’ve been 17, maybe even seven—I can turn anything—anything—into a compelling story.
Including the frequently random, occasionally traumatic events of my life.
So, in this story, at a time when I need a career refocus, a new challenge and financial stability—a big company comes to me and says, “Hey! We want you to show our people how to craft effective, compelling stories.”
Sign me up, yes, please, here I come.
Him: So, like, you know you’re going to have to work Monday to Friday, eight to five or whatever their hours are? Week after week? Month after month?
Him: Are you going to be able to cope?
Because, truth be told—freelancing and self-employment, for all the theoretical freedom to wake up at the crack of 9:15 am, is a 24/7 hustle. And so is motherhood.
Monday to Friday, lunch and coffee breaks, paid vacation, health-spending account, pension plan, interest-free loan to buy a personal computer, and money magically appearing in my bank account every two weeks?
I think I can handle it.
Forgive the long, self-indulgent dive into my navel—I realize there’s not much take-away here for you for your own current drama. I’m writing this post to control MY narrative—to shape my story. I’m so excited to be starting this new chapter and, as with everything I do—I’ll be doing it full out.
And documenting the process, of course.
So. This is the last entry in the Pandemic Diary project. I realize the pandemic is not over but I’m done with making is the star of my story. Starting next week—a new chapter, maybe even a whole new book—definitely, a new project on the blog. I’m not yet sure what I’ll call it. An Artist in Corporate Canada? Adventures in Storytelling? Madwoman in the Corner Cubicle?
Maybe I’ll just let it flow naturally, each post a stand-alone.
So what are you filling your time with before you start work? Want to go for a walk?
Oh yeah—I’m starting a new gig on April 5th, more on that in another post. This one is about “filling up time.” And, walks.
Let’s tackle walks first. I used to love walks. Walking the dogs, walking the kids, myself, you—I could spend hours being a flanneur, rambling city streets, alone or with a companion, perfectly happy.
One year into the pandemic (unhappy anniversary to us all, again), I am so thoroughly sick of walks as a social activity, I can’t even. If I’ve gone for a walk with you in the last few weeks, it means I really, really love you. And I probably won’t do it again, I just can’t, OMG, no, no more walks, let’s just sit somewhere and talk, please, my neck is already getting a crick in it from its two-hour tilt sideways in your direction, also, I’m getting anticipatory shin splints.
One of my loves wants to go hiking, again, and I’m pretty sure this falls in the category of walks and, honestly, we never went hiking together before the pandemic—actually, it’s quite lovely, fine, let’s do it, just don’t call it a walk through the woods. It’s a hike. Let’s not talk and march really fast, up hills and through the snow. Hike. Not walk. What you call things is important.
Him: You’re insane.
Jane: Pretty sure that, after a year of walks being the one legally sanctioned social activity, none of us are sane.
I have nothing much on my plate for this Friday. No deadlines, no dreaded Zoom meetings. Some chapters to revise on the memoir I’m ghostwriting, but my plan is to get to them on the weekend—Friday is kind of my unscheduled day off. I’ve got an in-person lunch—the first since, god, I can’t remember when—with a treasured colleague at noon. A “share a bar of chocolate” and “pick up some plant babies” drive-by outdoor visit at a friend’s house. In-between those two events, I’ve got to drive Cinder to work, and in the morning, before the lunch—well, the usual: morning walk with Bumblebee as soon as I wake up, then morning pages, a writing sprint, some chores, meal prep, then, to the kids’ house to drop off Bumblebee, see Ender, walk the dogs again. I don’t have anything planned for the evening, not until it’s time to pick up Cinder from work. It’s not my night with the kids, and Ender’s going for a sleep-over with his (vaccinated!) grandma anyway, taking Bumblebee with him. I’m feeling kinda low energy and I think I might spend the night on the couch with Netflix and a book… if I feel a burst of energy, I’ll go grocery shopping, maybe go buy some pots for my new plant babies. The Sean texts—he’s working an evening event out of the house, and Flora’s feeling off, home alone. I text her, and we go to Value Village together, then out for Peruvian food. After supper, on my couch with the fireplace blazing, and Maggie the elderly Boston Terrier who didn’t get to go along for the sleepover at Grandma’s, I let Flora convince me to watch the first episode of Hannibal with her.
Flora: Am I still the child most likely to befriend a serial killer?
Jane: Or, be one.
Flora: You’re a terrible mother.
Jane: Or a very honest, insightful one?
I’m sorta kidding—and getting off topic—but also, I’m pretty sure that if Flora decided her grand master plan required the removal or you—or me for that matter—from the Earthly plane, she’d do it without hesitation. She’d feel mildly bad about it, maybe… but she’d do it.
Flora: And they wonder why I need therapy.
Jane: It’s ok. I’d probably help you hide the bodies. Well, unless it was one of your brothers. Please don’t kill them. Also, if you kill me, I can’t help you hide the bodies, so you’d better keep me around.
Mid-Hannibal, I get a panicked text from a client. You wouldn’t think there’d be such a thing as a Friday night writing emergency, but they happen more frequently than, say, Monday night writing emergencies. We pause Hannibal and Flora reads fan fiction while I deal with the emergency—then, yelp!, I’m late to get Cinder from work. Car. Drive. Son. He’s happy—he got another bonus at work. Schoolwork? Ugh, yes, he’ll get to it on the weekend.
We swing by my place to pick up Flora and the farting Boston Terrier (how can something that small and cute be that gassy—note to self, do more research on dog breeds next time you get a dog). I take the teenagers home, leave the family car in their driveway.
Walk to my home briskly, to finish dealing with my client’s emergency.
A friend texts as I’m finishing. He’s driving by on his way to work, night shift. Time for a quick hi? I just want to crawl into bed, to be honest, but pandemic, I haven’t seen him in forever—the last time he planned to drop by, I had to cancel because COVID scare at Flora’s school again, isolation, precautions. I say yes, and we have a brief but delightful visit. When he leaves, I check in with the client—is she going to be able to sleep tonight? Are we good? Have I pulled the chestnuts out of the fire? (She likes old British metaphors; I like thinking about chestnut trees.)
I crawl into bed, with Death in Paradise on BritBox for company. I’m wiped, but happy. It was a very good day.
I realize that I didn’t respond to my friend’s text, you know, the one about how I’m filling up my time.
The answer, I suppose, is “with life.”
I’ll try to remember to text him tomorrow. And to convince him to do something other than a walk. Art galleries are open, outdoor social gatherings permitted. Takeout on the riverbank, coffee on my patio on a sunny afternoon? If you still don’t feel comfortable socializing inside, there are alternatives to the walk now that Spring is arriving, even in this corner of Viking Hell. Let’s do one of those. And let’s… live life, not “fill up time.”
Of course, if you do need to fill up time—by all means, go for a long walk.
I have been trying to draft a post for hours—well, 45 minutes—and each of my false starts so far either goes into too much too deep oversharing mode or into an ultra-negative I hate humanity mode. And I don’t, not really. I can’t say y’all my favourite Earth species, but then, who can compete with the Amber Phantom butterfly, platypuses or capybaras?
Not this bipedal ape with its propensity for cruelty and violence.
So I’m thinking that perhaps this is the sort of day on which the truth can’t even be told at a slant. Such days happen: it is for them that abstract art and metaphor gone wild poetry exists. What did Kurt Cobain mean when he sang, “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido”?
He was oversharing, but he wanted to be oblique about it.
I don’t want to be oblique; neither do I want to overshare. Where is that sweet spot of clarity?
Somewhere between transparency and metaphor.
You: OMFG, you’re reading the post-modernists again. Lacan? Derrida?
Jane: [shudder] Goddess forbid. Never again Lacan.
I’m actually just thinking about baby platypuses, but trust me, that story as an entry-point to this navel-gazing post won’t work.
Speaking of navel-gazing—a friend wants to meet for breakfast, I explain, again, why I can’t—seriously, do you not listen to me? we’ve had this conversation two, three times—breakfast? Fuck, no, I get up early, write, then children and dogs and even now that I don’t live with them, the priorities and the obligations are the same. I get up early when it’s cold and dark, write so that the artist is placated, then, children and dogs, and it’s not that I’m a slave to schedule or routine, it’s just that… what? Radical prioritization, and obligations, and pleasure after all of that, and why are childless people so selfish.
My friend does not like being called selfish.
Jane: All childless people are selfish, including/especially monks & nuns pursuing enlightenment. You’ll see one day.
Him: They dedicate themselves to their god. One could argue that is a selfless act.
Jane: Bullshit. Epitome of selfishness.
If there is such a thing as an all-powerful god, do you really think it gets anything out of a human animal doing nothing except gazing worshipfully into its eyes; worse yet, its own navel? I think not. I think this fetishization of religious devotion and the search for enlightenment is a pathology. If we all sat under the Bodhi tree or on a pillar in a desert seeking perfect communion with God, our crops would wither and our children would die.
Think about it.
I’m thinking about it because I am surrounded by (lovely) people (whom I love) who are really into self-work—and for whom the pandemic has become a reason to really, really work on themselves and I’m increasingly convinced that way… lies madness, narcissism (the really bad kind) and, also, the end of civilization.
I’m not engaging in hyperbole. Writing in 1930, Bertrand Russell called “the disease of self-absorption” the greatest obstacle to happiness.
“One of the great drawbacks to self-centered passions is that they afford so little variety in life. The man who loves only himself cannot, it is true, be accused of promiscuity in his affections, but he is bound in the end to suffer intolerable boredom from the invariable sameness of the object of his devotion.”
Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
He also argued that the cure for depression and ennui is not, as the current gurus would have it, a steady gaze inward, but orienting oneself outwards, both towards the needs of others and towards one’s passions and work.
In a similar vein (although he spends a great deal of time gazing inward), Stephen Cope, in The Great Work of Your Life, writes that if we don’t find the “great” work of our lives—and this, really, is a purpose bigger than self—we make ourselves the work of our lives… and this isn’t, you know. Healthy.
I guess I’m taking this a step further and suggesting that spending too much time gazin inward and working just on yourself is selfishness run rampant.
But hey, if it’s making you feel good…
The thing is, it probably is not making you feel good. Is it? For so many people, the thing they call self-work is just another addiction—the currently socially acceptable crack, laudanum, alcohol—Netflix binge.
You: Really? You’re going there?
Jane: I’m going there.
Her: Don’t listen to her. She’s just feeling guilty because she still can’t meditate.
There is truth in that. Can’t pray, can’t mediate, feel like shit when I spend too much time gazing inward at my flaws and imperfections.
Know what makes me feel better? Making supper for my kids, picking up pistachios for you from Costco, helping a student “see the light” of story structure, writing a story that illuminates an experience other than my own.
In other words… taking my head out of my ass—I mean, er, navel—and looking outside.
What I most appreciate about Bumblebee—that’s the bear that thinks it’s a dog that we adopted back in February 2020 as Flora’s emotional support animal—is how she seems to be this negative energy neutralizer. I feel angry, frustrated—she stares at me with those liquid brown eyes, presents a fluffy head or rump for petting, I start to pet her wool because how can I not, and, true thing, you can’t feel angry while you’re petting a fluffy dog.
I am not generally an angry person. It is not my default state and it takes a lot to get me angry. And that’s good, because when I do get angry, there are no filters. Heads roll. Relationships end. I’m, to be honest, afraid of my anger. I back away from its precipice often. And when I’ve made myself with with it, just sit with it without smashing things—or people—my main takeaway is, fuq, I don’t want to feel like this, ever, go away, be gone.
My friend the Buddhist nun probably has some things to say about this; maybe you do too. Hush. I don’t think it’s a bad practice to step away (run away?) from things that make you feel angry. Really, you only have two choices: flight or fight. Leave… or work (fight) to change the circumstances that make you angry. Because just sitting in anger, staying in anger, living in anger—unbearable. It will consume you, destroy you.
I think a lot of us are living in anger right now. Righteous anger—or do I mean self-righteous anger? Frustrated anger. Helpless anger (that’s the worst). Unfocused anger. And we can’t leave because the thing that’s triggering our anger is, well, everything—it’s all around us.
(Spoiler alert—there are no words of wisdom at the end of this post—no three steps of moving past your pandemic anger. No call to action that solves everything, or even empowers you. Sorry.)
I’ve been dealing with my anger by choosing actions and focus whenever possible—when not, choosing sleep. Also, petting the dog. And also—just trying to let it burn out without trying to assign it a cause—not naming the “because.” You know? We do this all the time. The feeling comes—I feel angry (or sad). Why? Because—we make a list. Of such very, very good reasons for the feeling. We feed it. It grows stronger.
Instead—I feel angry. Period. Burn, evil feeling. Ok. You’re gone. I can do shit again now.
I’m pretty sure this is a conflict-avoidant, dysfunctional way of dealing with anger. But when you don’t have the energy to deal with its root causes—why waste energy you don’t have even looking for them?
I’m not angry right now. I’m… flaccid, deflated, limp. I’d say spent, but that suggests a state post-effort, post-climax, and I don’t think that’s happened. I’m just… you know. Limp like dirty dish rag, flat like a punctured bicycle tire. I’ll be better soon—the sunis out and I have plans and things to do. But right now, I’m limp.
As with anger, sitting with my limpness is not a state I enjoy. But at least, it doesn’t hurt, me or others.
This post needs a third verse—threes make for a more powerful, emotive narrative technique than twos, that’s just the way it is. But I don’t want to circle back to anger, and I’ve already told you (spoiler alert redux) that I don’t come bearing solutions. Except, I suppose, the one about petting a fluffy dog—although I suppose a non-bitchy chihuaha or a cuddly cat will do in a pinch too.
Hey. So I do come bearing solutions. Pet a dog. Maybe a soft blanket if you’ve got allergies.
Breathe. You’ll be able to act, change things, eventually.
It’s International Women’s Day—before you ask, International Men’s Day runs March 9 until March 7 each year, enjoy. Sometime today, my dad will call me with wishes, maybe deliver flowers. Women’s Day was a big deal in Communist Poland while he was being indoctrinated into the ways of the world, a sop to reward the female half of the workforce for putting in a full shift at the factory and a full shift at home. It was still celebrated like that in Cuba, which has survived its decades of the American trade embargo and Castro Communism chiefly because women—more specifically, mothers—will do whatever’s necessary to make sure their children are ok. (Fine, the steady influx of US dollars from Floridian Cubans has helped too, but let’s stay on topic—women.)
I don’t talk about feminism much with people because, well, it’s a concept as poorly understood as the theory of evolution (don’t get this anthropologist started) and as triggering a construct as the patriarchy, capitalism, and God. But on International Women’s Day, it’s hard to avoid making the observation that on much of this Earth, in most situations, it’s still sucks more to be a girl and a woman than a boy and a man and so, like… we still need feminism.
Even in the Northern First World, where the situation has improved the most, we’re still fighting for basic equal rights, be they political, reproductive, economic or social. This is depressing, until you consider how far we’ve come and how quickly. Some of our grandmothers couldn’t vote. My mother wasn’t allowed to wear trousers in school. The birth control pill wasn’t approved in the UK until 1963; in Canada, doctors could prescribe it for “therapeutic” reasons from 1960 on, but it wasn’t freely available until 1969. Equal pay for equal work—well, we’re still working on that. And sexual and domestic violence—by men against women—fuck. Seriously, people. How is this a thing?
(The answer, btw—to “How is this a thing?”—is, very simply, patriarchy.)
“Not all men,” someone says.
And, “My Uncle was an abused husband.”
And, “You think it’s easy to raise boys these days?”
Like the All Lives Arguments, these reactions miss the point—which is, simply, that we are far from being an egalitarian society. An egalitarian society is one in which the genders are equally valued. Not the same—equal. And there is no need for an International Women’s Day, any more than in a patriarchy there is a need for an International Men’s Day…
Why is this concept so hard to understand?
Wait. I know—patriarchy.
Two true stories:
I’m texting with a dude, and I make a suggestion of when and where we should meet. He’s thrilled. “It’s so refreshing to meet a woman who takes initiative,” he writes. I raise my digital eyebrows. It’s intended as a compliment—it sounds patronizing. I dig into it a little, elicit a bit of a rant about the passivity of women in the dating context, how hard it is to be a man and do all of the work. It disturbs me.
“Don’t blame my more passive sisters,” I write. “The patriarchy burns women who know who they are and what they want.”
Cut to the second story: I’m doing an interview, for a gig I really want, that I’m mostly qualified for, maybe it’s a bit of a stretch and a jump, but that’s my whole career, so I’m stretching and jumping here because I really, really want this gig. I’m giving the VP a quick synopsis of my career, which consists of a lot of stories such as, “So this opportunity comes up and I think, well, I haven’t done that before and I don’t have the qualifications they ask for, but I could totally do this job, and…”
“You break the mold,” she says. She’s pleased, because so does she. “Most women, they only apply for jobs if they meet all of the requirements. Most men, well…” She doesn’t finish the sentence; she doesn’t have to. We’ve both read the studies.
And it’s not wiring. It’s patriarchy. Conditioning.
Comments on my Canadian school report cards, from age 10 to age 16, when I finally escaped high school, early, with an obscenely high average, and all the scholarships out there: “She’s too confident in her abilities.”
My first performance review at a Corporate Canada job: “A little more humility and diffidence would make her more effective at working with our partners.” (Followed, incidentally, by a critique of my choice of clothes.)
Back to the first story. Remember? Dude telling me how much he likes my initiative, confidence, that I know what I want and I express it? We make plans for an afternoon ice cream date. I propose noon; he says, that might be a bit tight, can he check in with me in the morning when he knows how his morning is going?
At 1:16—pm, not am—I take the initiative again. “Good afternoon… how’s it looking?”
An hour later, I get an essay of apologies and excuses, including—this is a direct quote—“I also didn’t want to stand you up or worse shown up inauthentically.”
Implied somewhere in there is a request to reschedule, I think, maybe—it’s hard to parse essays full of shit. In any event, it doesn’t matter. I exit stage right, politely but forcefully. The only consistent predictor of future behaviour, in my rather rich life experience, is past behaviour, and I’m too busy—too old—too, er, dare we say, confident—to dally with unreliable people, disorganized people, or people who do not honour their commitments.
I express this sentiment succinctly—but, I think, politely. Decline to reschedule; say goodbye.
Dude no longer appreciates my initiative or ability to express and assert what I want.
I am now a bitch and that four-letter word, because I don’t politely, meekly, eagerly accept his excuses.
Thank you, patriarchy.
(I am reminded, again—Flora loves this—that straight and bisexual women are proof that sexual orientation is NOT a choice. No woman, enby or queerdo has ever called me a bitch because I’ve chosen not to sleep with them or decided not to see them again. Cis straight men on the other hand…)
I have a daughter, and on this International Women’s Day, I remind myself that I’m raising a bitch and a cXnt, not a nice girl, and I’m doing this on purpose.
I’d rather she was loud, abrasive, pushy, aggressive—did I mention loud?—than “nice,” a people-pleaser so terrified of giving offence she was forever violating her own boundaries, herself.
I find myself, constantly, on the verge of telling her to tone herself down—and I do not do this to my two boys.
Social programming runs deep.
Flora: Finally! You admit it!
Jane: The fact that you see it and are able to call me on it and I am able to hear you means I’m largely doing my job here.
I’d like to end this International Women’s Day rant with a shout out to my parents, who also raised a bitch and a cXnt and, for the most part, did not clip my wings. I was not an easy girl to raise, and they were growing me in a very hostile world. They taught me to take up space and to fight and to not play by unfair rules—then were a little shocked by how much to heart I took those lessons. But they had my back, they helped me fly.
And to my daughter—Keep on taking up space, keep being loud. And fighting. Shouting. Rewrite the unfair rules—call them out, break them. Continue to dismantle this unfair system until we need an International Women’s Day as little as we need an International Men’s Day, and we’re all just equal humans.
(Equal. Not the same. Seriously. I need to explain this again?)
I’m pretty sure you and your generation, you’re gonna do it.
As March 2020 morphs into March 2021—how has this damn month lasted a year?—I’m trying to gather myself into a mental health check in. People, we did it—we got through this year. Perhaps not well—but we did it. We’re here. When you’ve danced with darkness and despair, being here is victory. Don’t forget that.
All my most beloveds are still here and, if you know me in real life, you know that it’s been a fight to keep one of them tethered to the world for a while. But less so in the year that was March 2020 than in 2019, 2018, and for that, I am beyond grateful. And I’m thinking about bars.
Not pubs and restaurants—although they are open now in Viking Hell, have been for most of February. Also, cafes and my beloved sheesha lounges. And you know what? I’ve been a few times—mostly in the first week that they opened—and now, well. It’s not like before the pandemic, I went to the pub several days a week. Or even, like clockwork, once a week. And it’s like that again. I’m not at the Kensington Pub or the Ship and Anchor every week, and I haven’t even been to Betty Lou’s yet—although I do kind of feel like I live at Vendome—but I just really, really like knowing that they are there, open, available to me to go to when, if I want to go…
But I digress—bars. The bars I’m talking about are the bars we set ourselves and how the secret to contentment (I’m starting to think there is no such thing as happiness) is to recognize when you’ve got to drop the damn bar because clearing a low bar is more important than slamming into one that’s just too high.
This is a very counter-intuitive conclusion for me, because I’m all about the high bar, the higher, the better, the more unreasonable, the more adrenaline, the more difficult, the more satisfaction when you actually do it.
But in the year that was March 2020? The only bar to clear was “get through it.”
I have a text on my phone that I’m delaying answering right now.
“How are you? I feel that you are not asked this question in earnest most times. Correct me if I am wrong.”
I’m not fine—none of us is, unless we’re Fucked Up, Insecure, Neurotic and Egotistical, thank you, Ruth Zardo—but none of us is, so it’s a frustrating question to answer. “I’m fine” is a conversation closer, also, a lie. I don’t much feel like disclosing the messy truth, which includes moments of pure happiness interspersed with significantly more moments of panic, fear, frustration, and stress (none, incidentally, related to the infectiousness or fatality rates of COVID-19 but many the result of what the pandemic has done to our lives), against a background of overall exhaustion.
But I have plenty of people in my life who ask, how I am, in earnest. Who are willing to hear the complex answer. I’m just, for the most part, not willing to give it to them. Why inflict more confusion and negativity on a friend who’s already struggling to keep it together? I don’t want to talk about it—that’s not my way.
I write it down instead.
On Wednesday, I cook. The desire to create and make is intense, and coupled with a need to be real, practical and grounded. So I start chicken stock in the slow cooker in the morning, and I marinate bulgogi for the kids’ Sunday supper in the afternoon before freezing, and I research chicken wing dry rubs for their Thursday “looks like junk food but Mom made it so it’s kind of good for you” supper. Then I sweat and roast eggplant for one of those easy-but-finicky recipes about which I’ve learned, through trial and error, that ALL of the damn finicky steps matter, and the order in which you add the ingredients to the pan matters.
My apartment smells like heaven. I am… content. Almost happy.
But not fine.
Which is fine.
Shots of happiness will come a few days later, in the form of a voice mail from an elated client, a whipped mascarpone cheese dessert, a happy teenager. Not all of February sucked (although it was so very hard) and so far, in March, we’re all holding the line and then some, and soon, days will be longer than nights, and maybe we can even elevate the bar a little.
It’s Sunday, and I’m making plans. To do things. Like, actual things that don’t involve Zoom or live streams.
A Vivaldi concert that we booked back in the fall of 2020 has been scheduled and rescheduled and it looks like it’s actually going to happen at the end of the month. The Van Gogh Immersive Exhibition in Edmonton is a-go, and I’m betting against a third wave, getting tickets. I feel revitalized, alive.
Her: I’m going to continue isolating for a while more. You just can’t be too careful.
Jane: Fair enough. I pressure you not, I stop you not, I interfere with you not. Do you think that you could, in return, just take a deep breath and recognize that as much as you need to do everything possible to feel safe… I need IRL stimulation to feel alive?
In a moment of pure happiness, I burst into tears and cry. My love holds me. So many feelings. What a year.
Jane: I’m not sad, I just really, really need to cry right now.
You: I got ya.
Jane: You think it’s gonna be a good spring? A good summer?
You: Who da fuq knows. But we’re gonna get through it.
Set the bar low.
Yo. I’m talking to you. Er. myself. SET THE BAR LOW. I see the sun energizing you, and I see you fantasizing and dreaming and planning—not just concerts and outings, but the real, big ass stuff—and maybe don’t, not just yet. SET THE BAR LOW. Get through it. Survive. You hear me?
I do and I don’t—I’m trying, ok, yeah, set the bar low, but I think, maybe, it’s almost time to take a running jump at something harder, don’t you think?
How many curveballs can life throw at us in one year-long month?
One of my people—it’s good to have your people, isn’t it?—texts me much too early on a Monday morning with a marketing idea for my novels. I feel the love and enthusiasm in the suggestion and am only mildly irritated at how the concept shows a lack of understanding of both my industry and my target audience. I don’t say this to him, but my response to his (so very) enthusiastic barrage of texts betrays my lack of buy-in.
“You keep on telling me you’ve got to find new, not typical of the industry ways to do this stuff,” he points out. “So think about it. Is there a way to use this medium, this tool that nobody else in your field is using to work for you?”
He has a point—in fact, he’s quoting me to myself, don’t you hate it when people do that? I poke into my resistance a little more and arrive at this: he’s asking me to do more work, take more risks, stretch myself more, again—and OMG, it’s taking so much effort just to get out of bed and do the minimum these days, I really can’t…
I know there are people out there right now who can, who do, who are—and all the power to them. They’re gonna win and come out of this rich. Me, I hope, on the other side of this global disaster, I come out with my relationships to my children and my handful of key people more or less intact. And a manageable load of debt.
Some stories to tell.
Another day, another COVID-19 alert from Flora’s school. If you’ve got kids, this has also been your life in 2020/21:
Dear Parent or Guardian,
We have been notified by Alberta Heath Services (AHS) that a case of COVID-19 has been diagnosed in an individual from [our school].
Our school remains open to in-person learning for all students…
Yawn, I’m innured: that week, there are so many messages—five, six?—that I don’t even bother to open any of them until the quarantine notice from AHS—“As a close contact, your child is required to immediately quarantine for 14 days…”—appears in my in-box. And, fuq me, here we go, for the third time since October, Flora’s sidelined from school for two weeks. It wouldn’t matter so much, I guess, except a) mental health and b) Math 20 is a monster and the online support for quarantined kids is not great. I don’t, I can’t blame the teachers—they’re still expected to teach live classes for the non-quarantined kids, and the schools got no financial support from the provincial government for this year of stops and starts, interruptions, and unprecedented stresses.
Sorry. I’m as tired of complaining about this as you are of hearing me complain. Whatever. Another prophylactic quarantine—we’re all healthy. We test Flora right away—also, Cinder, because, well, long story—in a municipal warehouse converted into a massive drive-through testing facility. There’s an apocalyptic feel to the setting—all the staff in full safety gear, masks, goggles, and hazmat suits, burly, also masked, security guards directing traffic, but also ensuring nobody gets out of line, or out of their car?
We get the test results—negative!—in less than 24 hours. But Flora still has to stay in quarantine. The rest of us are a little confused—we’re free to roam, but she’s not?—but that’s par for the course.
I’ve been confused and mystified for a year now.
My upstairs neighbours are also quarantined. They’re feeling fine and symptom-free: just trapped. We’re a good building, so grocery deliveries and what not are arranged, and, also, nobody freaks out. This will make a good story when things get back to normal.
I often think, somewhat self-righteously, that in my building—just as in the Coop before it—we live the way people are supposed to live.
As a community.
The pandemic is shrinking our communities and making it harder and harder to maintain them. That, I think, is its true evil, its worst cost.
I’m supposed to be a guest on a podcast about creativity—“What makes people creative?” is its theme, the central question the host likes to explore. The host is one of those amazing people who are starting new things, creating with abandon during this time.
I feel like an impostor and I’m not sure why he wants me on the show.
Him: In the past twelve months, you’ve released three novellas, been in two best-selling anthologies, written two new novels, are in the middle of a third—there was that poetry project over Advent—and, always, your blogs. Never mind the ghosting. Woman. If you have impostor syndrome, what about the rest of us?
True fact: until he enumerates what I’ve done… I feel I’ve done nothing. And I think it’s because the work isn’t flowing. I’m pulling quarter-full buckets out of the well with my teeth, often crying while I’m doing it, and that’s on the good days. There is no flow, there is no joy—there are gritted teeth and a determination to do the work—except on the days when there is no determination to do the work and I just want to sleep.
This used to be fun.
I used to be fun.
The coffee I’m drinking this morning has a beautiful name: Nicaraguan Black Honey. I’m not sure I like it—it’s not bad but it’s different. Its flavours are subtle, nuanced—its taste changes in my mouth as I sip and swallow, reflect. I don’t have the vocabulary to describe what’s happening in my mouth.
Instead, I think… am I drinking too much coffee?
Am I drinking too much, period?
(The more I drink, the more candle holders I have and the more hedonistic my baths become—the thought makes me laugh.)
I pour myself another cup of coffee. Creativity sings in the cup. Creating, after all, is not mythical or mystical, despite the attempts of the pretentious to make it so. Creativity is, simply, making. Making a cup of coffee—boiling water, grinding the beans, bringing them together, pouring the result into a vessel of china, clay or glass (which is in itself a creation, a gift from its maker to you, the drinker). Up the supply chain—planting, harvesting, roasting the beans. Making soup out of whatever’s in the fridge. Making a meal out of saltine crackers, black market caviar and tins of sardines that fell off a truck somewhere on the way to the empty-shelved grocery store. Building a chair—a house. Turning a small pre-fab apartment into a cozy, unique home. Taking an empty bottle of Glenlivet and repurposing it as a candle holder. Knitting a scarf. Giving an old car new life. Rewiring a lamp…
Creativity is small and humble and quotidian—woven into every breath of life. That’s where it’s seeded, born, nurtured.
This morning, my well feels very empty but I have a deadline. I have to write, produce, create a lot. So I start small. Morning pages. Then, coffee. Next, a slowly, carefully prepared breakfast. A short, not-for-money, not-for-sale sketch of what creating during the pandemic feels like. And… ok. The well still feels empty, but I have enough in me to lower the bucket. I’ll pull something up. That’s the way it works.
Him: Can we talk about my marketing idea now?
Jane: Your make work project for me? No. Circle back to me in 2022.
For now: baby steps. A cup of coffee. A simple soup.
A carefully crafted gift of words or food for the people I love.
That’s how creativity works when you don’t think it’s happening.
Valentine’s Day has come and gone, another weird COVID holiday. Did you have a good time? I did, but it seemed to me, from the outside looking in, that it was a subdued affair, all around. Restaurants are open again in Viking Hell, but most folks I know chose to order in anyway. I’ve never really “celebrated” Valentine’s Day as a romantic couple—Sean and I had had a massive fight of mismatched expectations after our first Valentine’s Day as a couple and I dealt with it by abolishing Valentine’s Day forever more, and, since kids—and that’s been the last eighteen years of my life, I usually threw an unValentine’s Day party for people who didn’t have dates or couldn’t get babysitters. They were a lot of fun, those parties.
This year, I had 2/3 or my kids for an unValentine’s Day dinner–the eldest wanted to spend it online with this friends–which we ended by sharing a chocolate bomb from 8 Cakes, one of the participants in the YYC Hot Chocolate Fest 2021 (mini-review: great idea, mixed reviews on the execution—too sweet, too sweet, and all the colours merged into a quite ugly pale beige—still, it brought us joy, and showcased creativity, so, one thumb up, one thumb down, one neutral). Afterwards, a sheesha date—rose mint at Cafe Medina, I am so grateful my cafes are open again and I need them to survive, I need them to be here tomorrow and next fall and winter and next year. The day before, on Valentine’s Day Eve—this could be a thing—one of my loves and I gave ourselves diabetes by partaking in the YYC Hot Chocolate Fest and finding out how many cups of hot chocolate a person can drink in one five hour period.
(The answer is two, not five, OMG, my poor pancreas, and two is actually too much—one hot chocolate once a week or once a month or twice a year is about what one needs, really.)
So, COVID notwithstanding, month twelve (how has it been twelve months already) of the pandemic notwithstanding, ban on indoor social gatherings notwithstanding—please vaccinate the elderly and the vulnerable already, please, please, please—and my overall cynicism towards Valentine’s Day notwithstanding, I had a really terrific day and weekend. And as the weekend morphs into the week, I am thinking that, dammit, the Buddhists are right: happiness is a state of mind that comes from within.
Well, of course, there was all that chocolate. Surely that helped too…
The day after Valentine’s Day—it’s a Monday—why is it so hard to keep track of the days of the week, was that not just yesterday?—a friend stops by unexpectedly. He’s in the neighbourhood. “I thought I’d just stop by and give you a hug; it’s been a long time.” I am covered with red ink and cornstarch—it’s Ender’s homeschooling at Mom’s day and I’ve long abandoned copy work and math for kitchen science. We’ve been playing with Elephant’s toothpaste (google it) and oobleck (ditto).
I get cornstarch on my friend’s black winter coat while I rest against his shoulder, in his arms.
The hug is illegal, although I’m not sure of the monetary fine attached to it. If he comes inside, it’s a $1000 punishment.
Him: How are you? You look good.
Jane: Up and down to be honest. January was hell. February is better.
Him: That’s all of us now. But you look good. You look happy.
Covered in cornstarch and ink, wearing a stained lab coat over pajama pants, with untended, undyed hair—and ink on my fingers and face—I know I don’t look good. I look good—I look… happy.
I check in with myself as I say goodbye to my friend and go back to Ender.
Am I happy?
Feelings are weird, aren’t they? The result of chemical cocktails that, yes, are formed to a certain extent by our bodily reactions to external stimuli, actions, and behaviours… but, mostly, just made in the chemical factory that is you and me.
Am I happy?
I am stressed and stretched to the breaking point financially. I am worried about my children, on that day, especially, my eldest, who should be planning his future right now and he fucking can’t, who can? I am pondering if, perhaps, I need to rethink my career path and, instead of writing, dig graves or drive a bus, or, fuck, anything that brings in a steady, predictable stream of income instead of the random feast/famine of royalties and contracts. I miss you and her and him and them and parties and potlucks and art galleries. I am not certain about anything, I can’t plan more than a week ahead, and I’m afraid to read the news because I need another external negative stimulus like I need another non-paying “but it’s such good exposure, for such a good cause” contract.
And yet… with all of that…
All sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel the roughness of a carpet under smooth soles, a delight to feel heat strike the skin, a delight to stand upright, knowing the bones are moving easily under the flesh.
…I feel sunlight on my skin and bones and muscles under my skin and layer of pandemic fat… and I’m happy.
Hydrogen peroxide, dish soap and dry yeast just gave me and Ender a morning of pure happiness. The dog at our feet, spreading her fur everywhere—I really need to groom her—is pure love. My friend’s drive-by hug runneth a full cup over. My mom made me cabbage rolls the other day, OMG, they tasted like heaven in my mouth. Flora is researching the Polska Walcząca/Armia Krajowa emblem, a piece of her family heritage that’s been an unnoticed part of the furniture in the home all her life, but has now acquired interest and meaning. I love her passion—I love this apartment, today, especially, the temperamental fireplace—and I love the blue sky and sunshine we’re getting during this polar vortex—it’s beautiful and I love beautiful things.
The dark chocolate a friend drops off for me the Friday before Valentine’s Day—a Valentine’s present and a “you’re important to me always” gift in one—singing happy birthday to my upstairs neighbour in the hallway, a text, a phone call from a friend who’s far away, finding the missing sock from my favourite pair, driving Cinder to work and listening to him process… all of these things make me… happy.
Listening to M.C. Beaton’s cheesy murder mysteries on my earbuds—a gift from someone who loves me who couldn’t believe I was still using my frayed “well only one earbud works, and the mic is fried, but it’s good enough” pair—and watching The Inspector Lynley mysteries on Britbox—another gift from someone else who loves me? Ditto.
I am happy, I am loved.
I rest in this feeling.
I need to return a Service Canada call, to talk to someone about my EI/CERB application. I don’t want to—I hope filling out the form is the last minute voodoo I have to do before a new contract or sale materializes—god, for a $25,000 advance—it feels like it would solve all my problems and I won’t complain that it’s too small, promise, and I’ll work my ass off to earn it out and earn the publisher more money, promise, promise, promise—if only prayers really did work this way….
I look at the number I have to dial. I don’t want to. But I’ll do it. And then I’ll write and then I’ll look for jobs and something will materialize. It always does.
Him: You did look good. Happy.
Jane: I’m fine.
I’m not, really. It’s month twelve of the pandemic, and none of us are fine, all of us are broken and beaten up, and it is so cold outside—although warmer than yesterday, than last week—but we’re alive and I feel the sun on my skin. Do you?
I’m writing with one hand and petting Bumblebee with the other, scratching her under her chinny-chin-chin. Her eyes are narrowing in pleasure—now they’re closed. I stop petting and she paws at me—I resume scratching, this time, behind her ears. I’m good at this. I have three children—I’ve been writing with one hand while the other was holding, caressing a child most of my life.
It’s -28… -32 degrees Celsius—feels like -100—and I started my morning with a walk around the block with the beast. Now, there’s an impatient companion beside me as I write and her presence is both comforting and disruptive. It feels good, warm, relaxing—and then, she’s barking, interrupting what was about to become flow.
I soothe her, return to the page.
So far, February does not suck. It’s cold as fuck, but the sun has been out on most days and my Mom the ER nurse has been vaccinated, and you’re feeling more positive about life and so, I think, am I. The kids, I can’t say they’re thriving, but they’re doing ok. Cinder is working and Flora is battling math homework and Ender is playing video games with his friends. Happy, thriving? I don’t know, I don’t think so. But ok, coping. Can’t really ask for more, not in 2020.v.2
I’ve finally started writing 2021 more consistently as the current year’s date. Funny how hard it has been to let go of 2020—funny how, this year, January 1 did seem like the most arbitrary of milestones. What changed? Nothing, nada, nic. January 2021 seems to have belonged, in its entirety, for me and for you, to 2020.
February is beginning to feel like a new year, a new page, a new beginning.
On the first Friday in February, I give one of my loves an amazing birthday. We are both a little shocked by how amazing the night and our party of two turns out. He did not want to celebrate at all—“Everything is closed, nothing to do, can’t invite anyone, it will suck”—and the only counter I had to offer was, “But… balloons?”
But between the balloons, ice cream, psilocybin and Leonard Cohen, it was an unforgettable, amazing birthday.
Fuck you, COVID-19.
(Thank you, psilocybin. And ice cream.)
Humans are like cockroaches. We adapt. We can survive in any climate, on virtually any diet. We can find joy and happiness in month 12 of the pandemic.
(It has been twelve fucking months people, if you’re wondering why you’re going off your nut—it’s because it’s been twelve months.)
But please take your “If it weren’t for COVID, we never would have learned that…” meme and shove it where the sun don’t shine.
Just because we CAN make the best of a shitty situation doesn’t make that situation desirable.
Doris Lessing wrote, ““All sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel heat strike the skin, a delight to stand upright, knowing the bones moving easily under the flesh.” So it may be -100 degrees in Viking Hell, but today, again, it’s sunny and I feel the sun, and also biting frost, on my face as I walk the dog towards the kids’ house. I’m going to drive Ender the six blocks to my place, because I can spare him the frigid seven minute walk, and I’ve never understood how freezing your ass off and risking frostbite when you don’t have to builds character. We’re going to crank up the fireplace and drink hot chocolate and for lunch, I think, I’ll make spaghetti carbonara—make the house smell like bacon. It will drive the dogs crazy… but in a good way. I’ll drive Ender back to the coop, then take Cinder to work, pick him up . In-between, write, checkto see if Flora’s started reading Che Gueverra’s biography, eat some chocolate—crank up the fireplace.
The house will still smell like bacon when you come over for supper tonight, and it will be a good day.
The dog, now stretched out on the cold hardwood floor, and not demanding pets, agrees.
Morning. Coffee. Notebook. My morning pages usually start with a list like this—things, concrete objects—sometimes sounds and smells. Kettle boiling, whistling. Cinnamon on my fingertips. Traffic outside the window, or is that birdsong? And more words follow, eventually. Sometimes, I write about what I really think and feel. But often, I just skate on the surface and only document what I can touch. Pen. Paper. Notebook. Here I am, writing another word, making another sentence.
I am re-reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and am struck, again, by how both for Natalie and for Julia Cameron (author of The Artist’s Way and the reason I write morning pages), writing is not just a vocation, it’s a religion. Well, neither Natalie nor Julia would use that word. They’d say spiritual practice—they do say spiritual practice.
I am wary of the word ‘spiritual.’ Too many encounters with kooky ‘spiritual’ people have drained the word of positivity and power, just as too many encounters with the intolerant and the outright evil have stripped ‘religion’ of all that’s good for me.
But writing is definitely more than my job. It is my vocation, and it is my practice.
(No adjective necessary.)
I have a new WIP on the wall, and I explain to Flora the planning and tracking process. She reacts with teenage contempt.
Flora: Why are you telling me this? I’m not going to be a writer. You’ve made sure of that.
I’m a little stung. Why is that? I reflect. Do I whine, complain too much about the work? I do not mean it—I love it. I love the work. Do I act as if I do not love it?
Flora: Sure. You love it. But it’s SO MUCH work. For so little money, and like, no recognition—so much risk for so little reward.
And I’m stung again, that this most precious child of mine measures the worthiness of what I do by its financial success. If my books sold millions and made millions, maybe she’d want to be writer.
If her author-journalist mother was a famous, a household name, a TikTok meme, maybe she’d want to be a writer.
But all I do is write my insignificant, unfamous stories for audiences of 500, 1000—10,000 when I’m really, really lucky.
Her judgement stings, and looking at the story on my wall, I ask myself, not for the first time, why I bother to do this.
There are so many easier ways to make a living, pay the rent and the visa bill.
One word. Another one. Find yourself on the page—ground myself on the page. Document yesterday—find in it the kernel of a mystery i want to explore. Turn it into story. Find flow and peace—as well as frustration (oh, but it has a purpose) and pain (but it’s to a purpose and so bearable, necessary)—inside the work.
My morning pages often end with the beginning of a draft of what will be a public post—or the articulation of an idea I’ll explore later in a story, a poem. A novel.
Flora: It’s just journalling. Waste of time.
She has a lot of contempt for journalling, thank you, mental health professionals. It was as useful a suggestion for her at the height of her illness as bubble baths as self-care were for me.
Jane: No. It’s like doing your Tang Soo Do forms over and over and over again. It’s practice.
So I cracked the other day and I reached out to my friend of last resort. Do you have one, two? IT’s not quite what you think it is. For me, this is the rather surprising, unexpected person to whom I didn’t feel particularly close or connected to… but who life has shown me I can count on when the shit hits the fan. We need these people. We don’t necessarily love them, nor they us. We don’t see each other that often—if we see each other too often, we start to bore each other. But then…
Jane: Things are bad. I need help.
Him: I’m here for you.
And actually—that was enough. Often, that’s enough. A deep breath. A realization there’s still a safety net, someone to lean on if I must. And, a gathering—January is almost over. This cold snap is gonna be pretty short. I’m writing. I’m loved. You’ve got my back—I’m not gonna lean on you because you’re exhausted and brittle too, but I know you’re there. Surely, not much longer now…
Him: Friend of last resort? Really?
Jane: And what would you call me?
So now I think I might be able to call you—well. Take a breath but don’t hold it. Wait until March. The gathering is a process. January’s not quite over yet, and then, we still have to get through February. Brrr. March. We’ll talk in March. Perhaps in March, you’ll feel comfortable enough to leave your house and you know… hug me. Vaccine or no vaccine.
But if not—if you eed to wait until September, until 2022… I’ll be here for you.
At least… I’m pretty sure?
I’m a little worried about this, to be honest, but my worry is also proof that I’m shaking off the January blues. I’m thinking about the future, and that’s a big deal. Will I love you in March? In 2022?
It’s been a long, long time…
Him: A long time goes by between each of our encounters.
Jane: Yeah, but I don’t really love you.
Him: Remind me—why is it that I’m here for you when you need me, again, always?
Jane: I don’t know. You just are.
The pandemic has shrunk our social circles. Interrupted our connections. Will they resume when things get back to normal?
Some will. Some won’t.
I do think some people’s ability to connect socially, intimately with others will have been damaged, severely, and will take a long time to come back.
And some of us will be very, very empty… and not able to do the work we usually do in blowing on, reigniting the embers of friendship.
Him: It’s really not that hard. Look at me. Look at us.
Him: I’m here for you. I was here in January 2019. I was here in August. I’ll be here for you in March. Or September. Or 2022.
Jane: Maybe I do love you. A little.
I do love you, a lot, but it’s been hard to feel and to give that love recently. Do you feel that lack? Experience the same impairment? I think so, I think you must.
But I also think… it is almost over.
I feel a gathering.
Jane: I’m here for you.
You: I know. You were there for me even when you thought you weren’t.
Jane: How’s that a thing?
I don’t know. But it is. January is almost over. February is a short month. Some stupid trees are in bud already.
Him: Um… and is anybody here for me?
Jane: I’m here. Always.
PS Do you selfie when you’re moody? I pretty much never selfie when I’m fully happy and satisfied. I think it’s a way of making sure I still exist…
I’ve been sleeping a lot the past few months. In bed between nine and 10, out until seven or eight, and crawling out of bed with reluctance—then, on many afternoons, laying back down for a 20 minute nap—how has 90 minutes gone by, impossible! My energy during my waking hours has been decent. Not up to my standard—and honestly, I no longer know what that is. What is it on which I’m basing my expectations? Pre-pandemic? Pre-Flora’s illness? Pre-flood? Pre-children?
I don’t remember. I vaguely suspect that it’s always been a struggle—that I’ve always thought I should be doing more than I am, that I am never satisfied with what I manage to achieve.
I am trying, for the seventeenth or seventieth time in my life, to simply surrender to what is.
And what is right now—I need a lot of sleep.
Maybe it’s catch up—2019 and the first months of 2020 was a time of no sleep, interrupted sleep, bad sleep, waking nightmares.
Maybe body wisdom is a thing, storing sleep against the next bout of depletion.
Maybe it’s body wisdom reacting to nothing more than pure in the moment situation stress, depletion. I mean, people! Doing nothing and staying home? It’s exhausting. Taking the dog for a walk—did I walk too close to you when I passed you on the path?—is exhausting. Why did that woman give me a dirty look? Oh my god, I need to cough and sneeze—it’s allergies—am I going to freak people out? Should I go off path and cough in the bushes? Will someone push me into the river while I’m doing that, or scream a bunch of names at me as they walk by, because, the pandemic is turning people into assholes?
I’m going to have a nap when I get home.
Being with my children is exhausting—exhilarating, because this time is suddenly so precious, but also, different, weird—exhausting. On the nights that they are over, I go to bed, drained, as soon as I take them home—which is no longer my home. On my days with Ender, when I take him back and get to my solo home, I lay down to recharge, to release all the feelings—not all of them good, all of them exhausting.
Being with people is exhausting. There aren’t that many people I’m allowed to be with right now, and most of them are drained, strained, and exhausted, and we irritate rather than feed each other—we feed each other’s dark. I see you, and I need a nap. Or ten hours of sleep.
Well. And so be it. So it is. I think. At least I’m able to sleep, and my sleep is deep and restful. And when I do get out of bed, even on the days I don’t really want to do so, I do most of the things I have to do. That’s got to be enough. Right?
I think one of the reasons I feel guilty about how much I’m sleeping is because most of my friends seem to be suffering from life-inflicted insomnia—and the ones with little kids, of course, hardly ever get enough sleep. Me, I am. And it’s wonderful and delirious, really. I mean, I wish everyday life didn’t drain me as much as it’s draining me right now—but damn. The fact that I can sleep ten hours a night?
Why am I feeling guilty about that, at all? It’s not as if my abundance of sleep is taking away from your abundance of sleep in any way, is it?
And it’s not like crawling into bed at 9 pm is keeping me from doing anything. Well. I guess I could be writing into the night… but. These days, I need to sleep instead.
It’s 8 am. I was in bed 9:30’ish last night, asleep shortly after 10. Up at 7. I’ve walked the dog, written my morning pages, done a writing spring, and now, this blog post. Drank half a bodum of delicious coffee.
Another writing sprint now, maybe even a third before breakfast and a hike to the Coop to see Ender, check on Flora, walk the dogs. Drive to pick up Cinder from work—that will take me to 2:15 pm, and after that, I’ll probably need a nap. In the afternoon, what? Another writing sprint after the nap. Maybe editing. Make supper for the kids—brace myself for their complex moods and emotions. Try to hold space for all of them, value all of them. Walk them home (not my home) afterwards, heart aching. Walk the dog. Crawl into bed at 9 pm, exhausted.
I think, when the sun comes back, I might want to meet you for an evening walk or drink. Chat, hang out. Right now… I need to sleep.
PS And with all of that—OMG, I miss you and I miss dancing and parties and concerts and all of the things we used to do together. And also, I don’t want to talk to you, at all. All of this can be true all at the same time. It all gets sorted out while I sleep.