What next?

i

It’s coming on a year since I’ve moved out of the matrimonial house, four blocks over, to a 100-year old furnished garden flat in which I’d spend most of the pandemic.

What a year, people. May none of us ever have to live through such a one.

It’s pandemic-related stresses were such that I’m not sure I really processed—addressed—reflected on the big questions, the end of my 20-year-long marriage. Which I refuse to see as a failure, by the way, even though pretty much everyone around me is trapped in that story. I—we—made things work for 20 years. We worked through some tough shit. And in the end, we decided we didn’t want to keep on working through the same shit for another 20 years. Kudos to those of you who will keep on having the same conflict, the same conversations for the rest of your lives. I thought I could do that too.

In the end, no.

I am still not sure—I will never be sure—if, for the kids, it was the best decision. We were always functional—amazing—co-parents. And I am still not sure—I will never be sure—that the kids get that they were never the problem, or the source of any of our conflicts. And I am not sure—will never be sure—that they understand that I moved out and I left the marriage but I didn’t leave them. It doesn’t matter how many days and how many suppers and how many outings there are—I know it’s not the same as having me there 24/7. I see Ender every day, Flora most days, and the 19-year-old—and living on his own now!—Cinder a couple of times a week… for me, it’s not enough, it’s never enough.

It will never be enough. I will never be sure—with all of that, I don’t regret having acted.

So, there’s that.

ii

Action is better than inaction. That’s my personal take on Krishna’s advice to Arjuna as paraphrased by Stephen Cope in The Great Work of Your Life: “Do any actions you must do, since action is better than inaction; even the existence of your body depends on necessary actions.” (He also says that inaction itself is a type of action, but let’s leave that aside for now.)

The pandemic did keep most of us in some state of not chosen inaction, did it not? What actions, over the past year and a half, have you not taken?

I am thinking about this now—future actions, delayed actions.

It was—for me, for you—in so many ways a year of survival.

We survived.

What now, what next?

iii

The post-pandemic new normal—please, not another lockdown, please, no super-spreader events or vaccine-resistant variants, please, do not take the people I love away from me again—starts for me on a hard note. I’m losing one of my loves to distance and what the pandemic has taught me is that we—not just me—stop loving the people we can’t touch.

Yes, we do—you’re attached to your family in Colombia, Iran, Egypt, Poland much less than if you were there with them, your daily WhatsApp, Telegram exchanges notwithstanding. It’s not the same. It’s not even methadone… it’s pictures of gourmet meals when you’re starving.

Think about how most people’s understanding, compassion for strangers and neighbours alike eroded as the pandemic progressed. Proximity matters. Close physical contact matters—when you move away, I lose you, no matter how many promises to text, call, visit we make.

I will miss you. So fucking much.

What next?

iv

My future-planning ability has been severely impacted by the pandemic. I mean—even grocery shopping for the week versus the day is hard. When you ask, “What are your plans for the summer?” you trigger a mild panic attack. Plans? What are those?

I’m still largely in “I’m just doing my best to survive—I’m just getting from day to day” mode.

But the crisis is over.

We must live as if the crisis is over, anyway—I at least must live as if the crisis is over. You do you.

So, what next?

v

Seriously, what next?

xoxo

Jane

Bad dreams, good friends, and French onion soup

i

Her: I had  very bad dream. You were hiding things from me. You said you did it not to hurt my feelings and I was so sad and crying—I’m still crying. You betrayed me. You broke my heart.

Jane: Oh, those dreams are the worst. But, um… do you forgive me?

Her: You broke my heart.

Jane: But do you forgive me?

It takes some wheedling, but the upshot of it is that she’ll forgive me, eventually, but I should probably take her out for a drink on sunny patio first. And as I feel guilty for having betrayed her in her dream, and as she feels still betrayed, I marvel at the human mind and its capacity to create stories and a “Why” out of flotsam and jetsam.

Let me be clear: I know I did not “betray” (what a heavy word) my friend, and she knows I did not betray her. But the feelings, damn, so real.

And the thing is, a kernel of truth: I never tell her, anyone, everything. Not so much to protect them, but to…

You: Protect yourself?

…because it’s none of their business. My aches, my pains, my dark? My own.

Go wallow in your own angst; mine is not for exhibition.

ii

Jane: Are you dying or something?

Him: WTF?

Jane: You are being so nice and accommodating.

Him: I’m being nice to you and you think I’m dying? I’m always nice to you. I love you.

He loves me, but he’s not always nice to me, and he’s rarely accommodating. But, ok, thinking that he’s dying because he wants the camping trip to be exactly the way I want it to be, even if it means hauling a pack of firewood into the backcountry might be an over-reaction.

Him: You ever think that maybe you should think less?

All the time. But it’s hard. The neurons fire, pathways form and I start to look for a cohesive narrative.

Him: Could you find one that does not involve me dying?

Maybe.

Jane: Are you moving away?

iii

I take a half day on Friday to pick up a friend from the airport and drive her 90 min out of town. I have no idea what the current state of restrictions in Alberta is right now and I don’t care. But I remember the “illegal” rides I gave to friends in 2020—several of them for COVID-19 tests—and I find myself thinking, again, how the public health policy initiatives during the pandemic constantly favoured capitalism over the human need for social connection, and how it was clear that most of the policy makers just did not have friend or family obligations and most will die alone in long-term care homes with no visitors, not because karma, but because that’s the life they’re building.

(I’m talking to you, Jason Kenney.)

You: Where the hell is that vituperation coming from? Or going?

Jane: Wait for it.

I bump into a friend walking on the river path, one I haven’t seen for months…

Them: I’m double-vaxxed! Can we hug?

I fold them into my arms. A two, three, five minute hug. We’re not that close—have we hugged like that before?

We don’t want to let go.

Jane: OMG, I’ve missed this so much.

Them: I know. I hear you’re licking everyone now?

Jane: Damn right I am. (Lick)

Them: More gross and less exciting than I expected. Still. Thank you.

We hug again.

iv

After I pick up my friend the airport, we go for sheesha, to a place we love, with service staff we adore. We talk about this and that, and then I drive her the 90 minutes home. It’s hot hot hot and my car has no A/C. The windows are open. We can’t talk.

It doesn’t matter.

When I get back, I meet the vivid dreamer for a drink. Which she doesn’t let me pay for, because she’s still not ready to forgive me.

Another friend joins us. We talk about this, that and the other. My phone rings.

Him: I’m at MEC. So what exactly do you want to eat on the camping trip?

I am 100 per cent sure now that he’s dying.

Jane: I will eat whatever you bring.

Him: French onion soup with croutons and cheese?*

Bastard.

He’s probably not dying.

He’s moving away.

v

Jane: But seriously. Have you forgiven me yet?

Her: No. I probably will. Eventually. But you really, really upset me.

Dream crimes. They’re the worst and apparently, utterly unforgivable.

Jane: But you still love me and we can still hang out while you’re mad at me?

Her: Of course.

Phew.

“Jane”

PS *This only makes sense if you know I’m allergic to onions, and eat a mostly gluten-free, diary-free diet.

You: This makes no sense.

Jane: Again, why do you always criticize me? Screw off.

The secret correlation between prime number birthdays and sore calves…

Before

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.

After

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

[deleted]

[deleted]

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?

[deleted]

[deleted]

[deleted]

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.

After-after

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.

You know how much I wanted a party.

Visceral, body memories are the best. That’s why flowers and chocolate are such enduring gifts: you inhale the scent of the one, devour the other. Remember the giver in your body.

After-after-after

I guess there’s a charm to prime numbers. Maybe I’ll learn to love this one.

In gratitude,

“Jane”

Instead of nihilism, hit a piñata

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.

xoxo

“Jane”

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.

Or a piñata.

Mother’s Day, non-resident…

i

It’s Mother’s Day and usually, on this rather ambivalent holiday, I engage in a rant about how our society is hypocritical, gives the cult of motherhood a great deal of lip service, heaps all sorts of expectations and judgements—oh-god, the judgements—on mothers, but gives them virtually no actual help and support. I planned to skip it this year because if COVID-19, working at home and supporting children’s learning at home hasn’t shown you how true this is—what can can I say?

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.

Really.

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.

ii

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.

iii

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.

Finally.

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’m doing my best.

xoxo

“Jane”

Lesson 2: Just bring me soup without asking me if I need it

i

I love you. And when you suffer, I suffer.

Flora: Yeah, right.

Jane: Truth.

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.

ii

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.

iii

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.

iv

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.

v

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 love you. When you suffer, I suffer.

That’s all.

xoxo

“Jane”

Lesson 1: Do less yoga

i

Today, we start with a poem:

KINDNESS
by Naomi Shihab Nye

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.

This via Brainpickings.org, where you can also experience it as a short animated film.

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.

ii

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.

iii

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.

That’s it.

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.

To yourself.

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

Naomi Shihab Nye

xoxo

“Jane”

Pandemic Diary: COVID Christmas Canticle

December 25, 2020

Two years ago was the worst Christmas ever, a year ago was the most awkward and delusional Christmas ever, and so, this COVID Christmas morning, which finds me alone in bed, a steaming cup of coffee (with cinnamon ) beside me, and cranberry cake too, and, of course, Morning Pages—well, it’s weird and different.

But it’s not bad. Not at all. Things have been so much worse.

I hate it that that’s my yardstick. But it is a pretty effective one, you know? There have been a number of occasions over this past year when I’ve looked at someone totally losing their shit over a quarantine-lockdown first world whine, and all I’ve been able to think is, “Wow, so you’ve never suffered before, not even a little bit… how incredibly lucky you have been… and how ill-equipped to deal with this stumble you are, you child of good fortune…”

To be clear—if I could wave a magic wand and take away Flora’s suffering over the past two, three years—and my own by extension—I’d do it in half a heartbeat. However. As it is the part of the package of my life as I’ve lived it so far? Zoom Christmas Eve was lame but hardly the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, you know?

In my family and culture, we celebrate on Christmas Eve, an orgy of food and presents. This year, we celebrated in three households—the kids and me in my little hobbit house in Sunnyside, my brother and his family in Auburn Bay, my parents on the hill in Signal Hill. One city, three neighbourhoods—I pretended we were in different countries. It was okay. My Mom still cooked all the foods that I still don’t know how to make (I should get on that, perhaps). My over-enthusiastic parents played Santa Claus and braved the winter roads to deliver the grandchildren’s presents after supper. My children gorged themselves on pierogis—the dogs on the Christmas cookies they liberated from the dessert table while the rest of us were opening presents (don’t ask about the results of that). Afterwards, we played Anomia and watched a couple of episodes of Community on my laptop. Laughed.

I walked the kids to their coop house just before 10 pm—the night was warm and beautiful, and it felt like a very, very good Christmas Eve.

I will miss—I do miss—being there for their Christmas morning. Earlier in the week, a friend suggested that there was no reason why I shouldn’t be there. Wouldn’t it be better for the kids if we just did Christmas the way we had before? We’re getting along well, polite and kind, why not spend Christmas together?

I didn’t bother to explain. I’ve learned a lot from watching friends divorce badly for the past 15 years. It behooves me not to repeat their mistakes—I am committed to making only new ones.

So. Christmas morning alone in bed with my morning pages, coffee, cake—maybe a movie—Bridgerton premiers today, no? Christmas night with you—sushi, Bailey’s, Christmas leftovers. The middle of the day? I might write. Walk the dog.

Or stay in bed and binge watch Bridgerton.

A day off.

Not such a bad thing, you know.

Thigs have been worse.

This is actually pretty good.

December 26, 2020

Christmas Eve is good. Christmas Day is good. Boxing Day is passing in peace. It all feels like the calm before the storm though—storm hits in the evening. Nearly breaks me. Ender doesn’t want to come over to my house for supper; his reasons don’t matter—his rejection breaks me into little pieces, makes me barely capable of breathing and paying attention to his siblings. He is my smallest one, my least forged one, the one who needs—needed—me the most, the one who I fear will be the most damaged by our separation.

I scream in pain for hours, cry myself to sleep.

December 27, 2020

I am loved and I sometimes make bad decisions—but that’s okay, that’s part of life. I am loved even when I make bad decisions. It’s kind of strange mantra for the day, but it works. I do things that make me feel good enough to get through the early morning, and then Ender and I end up going on a mega walk with the dogs and with Grandma. I manage to not cancel a socially distanced walk with a friend, even though I really, really just want to crawl into bed and cry some more—and it helps, a lot. (It helps even more that my friend, seeing the state I’m in, says, Fuck Covid, and hugs me, holds me.) I cancel—or rather, skip out early—on a Zoom meeting when one of my people asks me to come run some errands with him. The request, I know, is not company for him, but company for me, because he knows I ache.

We run here and there, accomplishing not very much, end up eating South Indian dosas and Albanian sausages in an idling car for supper.

I am loved.

Ender and I skype: “I love you.” “Me loves you too.”

It’s hard, it’s hard, everything is so hard right now.

I am loved.

I am alive. In 2020, that’s the bar.

December 28, 2020

Morning pages, Laundry Monday, walk the dog, drive Cinder to work—attempts to work sabotaged, interrupted, by self, by life. A text—“We’re just walking past your house. Walk?” And I’m outside in a flash, boots and snowsuit on, exhausted but elated. When was the last time I’ve done something spontaneous? When was the last time that was allowed?

We walk. Talk. Walk.

I am loved. I love. I am alive. I survived this fucking nightmare of a year—and so did you. We did it. Lots of others didn’t, but let’s not think too much about them right now. You and I, we’re here, we did it.

Three more days to go.

December 31, January 1, just days in the calendar… but… aren’t you going to be glad when 2020 is over?

December 29, 2020

I am happy.

In 2020 (in 2019…), these are rare moments, and when they happen, I fuck Buddhism and practice attachment with all of my might. Don’t leave. Stay here with me, for this entire day, DO NOT LEAVE.

We walk in winter wonderland, and I understand why some people call it church—I’d still rather be in my sheesha lounge, to be honest, but I’ll take this, I’ll take this—and for a few precious hours, everything is okay with the world.

I am happy, I am loved, I love, I am alive, I am a tiny speck of light and life in a vast universe, insignificant yet infinitely important. Fine. Church.

Perfection.

Return of pain—memory of the moment of pure happiness—hold on to that.

Breathe.

I was happy—I will find that feeling again.

xoxo

“Jane”

Pandemic Diary: Three Generations

I am in a liminal space again: back from a whirlwind road trip to Vancouver with my 69-year-old mother and 15-year-old daughter. “Three generations!” my mom thus hashtags most of the photos from the adventures. “We have three generations in the store today—a momentous occasion!” an employee of Venus and Mars Fashions tells her co-worker.

Three generations.

We are here because—well, each of us has a different reason. My mom loves road trips and got a little jealous of my earlier road trip to Vancouver Island with Ender and a friend—even though she was zooming around British Columbia at the same time with my dad. Flora loves the ocean and wanted tide pools, also, to check out the UBC campus—we’re all big on future planning right now (and, parenthetically, fuck you Eckart Tolle and screw off, Buddha, future planning saves lives). Me, I wanted to spend time with Flora, give time to my mom, and also, to avoid the first post-divorce Thanksgiving weirdness. Who goes where and with whom, when—ugh, let’s just not. So, yes, I ran away. Don’t judge me—things are weird. I’m not speaking to my Dad (long story, 100 per cent his fault, but fuck, I love him, will he get his head out of his ass and apologize so I can have a father for a few more years before he dies?); Sean and I are very polite and knd to each other but not really real; the kids are sometimes fine, sometimes pure rage; I haven’t seen my brother since he helped me move out; I have no idea what my ex-in-laws know or don’t know—everything fucking weird, and I have no bandwidth left to navigate.

So.

Run away.

Three generations.

The trip is good. We drive like the wind—24 hours in the car for 48 hours in Vancouver, 16 of those asleep in bed. The math doesn’t make sense, says Flora, who hates cars and road trips. But the pay-off is so worth it. Ocean. It’s cold and rainy and did I say cold, but it doesn’t matter. Ocean. A primal homecoming. Also, Vancouver’s lush greenery. Spectacular sushi. My favourite alternative fashion stores that I can now share with my pastel goth-punk alternative daughter.

“Don’t you dare tell me what these are for,” she hisses at me at one point during our private tour of Deadly Couture. I agree wordlessly. I forgot that my favourite clothing stores stock a fair bit of fetish wear, also, bondage aids and sex toys.

But I try on a latex dress both because I like it and to stretch my mom’s comfort zone, a little. She’s a champ, and appalled, just a little. She’s bankrolling the trip; Flora heads back with a whole new wardrobe and I score a new bra and steampunk Mary Janes.

Three generations.

I’m not sure, exactly, what meta-purpose the trip serves for my mom, beyond the obvious one of loving us, spending time with us. For me, I think it reminds me that family is more than the nuclear family I just blew up. I need the reminder that this too is family: Maiden, Matron, Crone. The kids and I, we’re still family, even across two houses. And my brother and I—I should text him. And my dad—I’ll forgive him, probably, eventually, hopefully while he’s still alive, but my anger, rarely ignited, is truly a terrible and powerful thing, and it still burns.

Three generations. There is no fourth generation alive any more. I grew up with great-grandmothers on both sides, and Flora had a great-grandmother alive for a while on her patriline. But they are gone, all of my grandparents, all of Flora’s great-grandparents. The fourth generation will come from my daughter…

Flora: It won’t.

…or her brothers. Or, not at all. If I were Flora and her gen… I would not want to procreate either.

Still. Three generations. It’s a powerful image. So I end my first post-divorce Thanksgiving full of gratitude and almost with a sense of peace. I am with my daughter and my mother. My sons are with their father. We are not together, but everyone is loved.

Everyone is loved.

Three generations.

xoxo

“Jane”

Melting, working, waiting: an August vignette without a moral

We are melting.

The thermometer has hit 33 degrees centigrade today—for my American friends, that’s 91.4 Farenheit, or, as we say in Viking Hell, fucking hot. The air is hot and still, although a windstorm swept through the city and the prairie last night. But it did not bring a storm or rain, nor did it break the heat wave.

I rather love it, to be frank. I wrap a wet scarf around myself when I do have to walk, I stay in the shade and in my cool hobbit-cave of a house. I sit under a tree by the river and watch it swim by lazily. I take Ender rafting—and yes, son, we will go again on Thursday—and we bike, early in the morning before it gets too hot, to get ice cream. Ice cream—yes, this is the weather for eating ice cream—no, actually, it’s almost too hot, eat it quickly, lick as fast as you can before it melts, savour it after…

I am working.

Deadline, and another one—and also this, that, and the other—and now I’m done, out of steam, it’s too hot, thirsty, sick of drinking water, cold tea? I stretch out in a makeshift chaisse lounge with a book, Stella Duffy’s continuation of Ngaio Marsh’s Money in the Morgue. It was not, from what I can gather, a great commercial success. But those of us who can’t get enough Ngaio buy it, read it—just as we devour third-rate Jane Austen retellings, Sherlock Holmes pastiches.

We all want more of what we love.

I am waiting.

I have done all the things, done my best, rolled the dice, stacked the deck, ran out of metaphors—hit send. Visualized, manifested—worked my ass off. Nothing left to do—nothing left to chance. But now, waiting. Waiting. I try to distract myself with ice cream and pleasure; fail.

I work.

I am working.

I am waiting.

We are melting.

“Jane”

Some words of wisdom from the House of Snot & Vomit

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

And I love it.

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

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

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

Wait.

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

Just…

More love.

More play.

More rest.

xoxo

“Jane”

 

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

i.

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

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

I hate Christmas.

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

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

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

His name was Kieran Adam.

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

But it did not make any future December any easier.

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

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

I hate it when I’m unintentionally psychic.

ii.

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

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

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

Anyway. Good things that happened in 2019:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most critically:

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

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

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

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

More cryptically:

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

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

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

Because our one bad thing was so fucking bad.

iii.

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

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

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

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

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

iv.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suffering fucking sucks.

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

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

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

“Love less” is really not an option.

v.

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

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

Loving is not always easy.

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

Not in 2019.

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

vi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grit teeth. Gird loins. Love more.

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

Thinking isn’t always necessary or desired.

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

Text a lover.

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

Love more.

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

Love more.

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

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

xoxo

“Jane”

I believe I can fly

 

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

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

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

Coffee.

We go.

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

I like the cars. They remind me of Cuba.

Ender likes the planes best.

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

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

He’s very, very happy.

Did I mention he likes the planes best?

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

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

Look! The workshop! A welder!

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

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

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

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

Ah, progress.

Fun Fact:

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

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

Two hours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had a good day.

So did I.

This is a very prolonged happy moment.

xoxo

“Jane”

“I’m crushing your head!”

So, this happens.

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

Also, really nice guy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I try to hold the centre.

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

Breathe. Life is complicated and many-faceted.

But also short.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m a little worried Id might win.

Send chocolate.

Chocolate and Raspberries photo by Lisa Fotios via Pexels

xoxo

“Jane”

Work, heroin, and a heroine named Clementine

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

You: Heroin?

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

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

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

You: Pulsating on the membrane?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You: Sure you’re not high?

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

(Metaphor, seriously, a metaphor.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ha.

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

Ever yours,

“Jane”

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

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

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

Fucking genes.

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

So. Therapist.

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

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

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

Um. Sorry.

Internal dialogue.

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

So. New therapist.

I try to set her up for success.

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

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

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

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

Yes, and no.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“I write. I exist.”

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

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

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

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

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

I try again.

So does she.

It’s interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is a problem.” Quoth the therapist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever.

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

For fuck’s sake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So. That’s something.

“Jane”

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

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

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

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

Even churches need to keep the lights on, somehow.

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

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

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

(Back to regularly scheduled programming…)

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

Follow me for a while; I’ll explain.

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

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

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

And again.

I don’t like her.

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

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

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

I am mean to her, so mean to her.

I hate her.

She is my most beloved teacher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For an emotionally exhausting eight hours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bam!

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

She dictates.

What do I need to do?

I write:

Write and build.

She says:

What do I need to try?

I write:

Rejuvenate, recharge, restart.

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

Number three, says Julia:

What do I need to accept?

Motherhood is forever.

Corners of my eyes tingle, sting.

Number four:

What do I need to grieve?

I don’t want to do this fucking exercise.

But I write:

Loss of freedom. And time.

Tears stream down my face, hot and sticky.

Last one.

What do I need to celebrate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck that shit.

My tears come again. Hot.

What do I need to accept?

Motherhood is forever.

What do I need to grieve?

Loss of freedom. And time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They work.

They work, very very well, for writers.

Julia prescribes them for everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bang. Ouch. Wah.

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

Well.

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

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

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

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

How weird is that?

Nothing natural, inevitable about any of it, right?

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

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

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

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

― Rumi (Coleman Barks translation)

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

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

I find it in the Morning Pages.

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

Julia. You too old to be open-minded?

Sigh.

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

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

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

Fake.

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

Worship is seductive.

 

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

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

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

This is hard to do when one is empty…

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

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

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

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

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

I write:

Dear Creativity God,

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

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

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

Jesus.

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

Fine.

When I commit to doing something, I do it.

I write.

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

Well, fuck what the hell is this?

I hate Julia Cameron.

I love Julia Cameron.

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

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

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

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

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

She is my most beloved Teacher.

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

xoxo

“Jane”

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

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

for Small medium larch

A Golden Larch

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

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

Certainly not journalism.

But that’s another story.

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

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

I am thinking, writing in circles.

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

View from the Banff Centre Library

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

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

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

Banff Centre Campus, God’s light

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

And also, not thinking about the reader.

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

Elk on campus

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

Artists dream.

More importantly, they work.

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

Elk harem on campus

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

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

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

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

To a cemetery.

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

This is what I find in the cemetery.

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

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

The next day, I meet my people.

On top of Sleeping Buffalo (Tunnel) Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tears, heartbreak.

No comment

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

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

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

In the wind

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

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

Photographing the photographers; context deleted

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

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

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

Rewind.

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

And it’s a journalist’s fault.

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

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

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

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

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

Hard-core, not soft-boiled. Clearly.

Not.

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

I’m wrong.

This is love.

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

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

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

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

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

meme by David

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

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

This is not a newspaper; this is not journalism

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

Maybe not.

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

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

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

Perhaps it does.

Boat in the woods

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

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

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

Do we belong?

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

Shakes me, anyway, to the core.

Dancing in the Streets, photo by Kathleen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a picture of my crew.

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

View from my room

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

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

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

Not my words, but my sentiment.

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

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

Melancholy.

“I don’t want this to be over.”

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

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

Bridge over troubled (they only look calm) waters

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

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

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

Embattled.

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

And yet, here we are.

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

All the industry stereotypes

Maybe.

“So why do we keep on doing this?”

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

Music is in his bones, in his DNA.

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

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

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

I’ve heard its variant often.

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

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

And I don’t understand the question.

I stare.

I smile awkwardly.

I shuffle away.

Bow Falls

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

Beavers build dams.

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

And keep on asking…

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

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

Except here.

Heaven.

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

It’s time to say goodbye.

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

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

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

I close my eyes. And enter into the pain.

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

Photo by Alex

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

When I leave them, I am an open wound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(You know I was going to go there.)

So. Goodbye.

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

Heartbreak.

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

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

You can sow it up and harden.

Or you can leave it open. And make art.

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

Document state of mind forever.

xoxo

“Jane”

Photo by Kathleen

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

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

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

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

Michael on deadline (he made it)

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

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

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

You: I don’t understand any of this.

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

“You are amazing”—you are partly right

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

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

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

Apparently, I just hide it better.

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

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

Him: Meditation or marijuana?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Him: Ungrateful much?

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

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

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

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

Cinder: You’re so weird.

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

You: You’re amazing.

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

You: You’re so weird.

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

xoxo

Jane

Her story, my story, our story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathe.

Flora: Tell me a story.

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

Flora: You’re so lame.

Jane: I’m what you’ve got.

Flora: Tell me a real story.

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

Her story, my story, our story.

xoxo

“Jane”