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.

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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.

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

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

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

Stroller Alley at Calgary Public

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

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

Questionarium, Calgary Public Library

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

Curated children's book display, Calgary Public Library

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

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

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

Book cover: I killed Adolf Hitler

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

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

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

Book Cover: Queen Victoria by Lucy Worlsey

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

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

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

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

It has artists in residence and writers in residence.

And new art in its public space.

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

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

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

Create Space, Calgary Public Library

You know. The conversations that will change the world.

Create Space, Agree or Disagree

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

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

I am not getting any books… Damn. Wait…

Well… but these are very light.

I get books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moeller’s Drinking Birds bop to welcome them.

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

I smile at strangers and they smile back.

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

I am so happy, I almost cry.

xoxo

“Jane”

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

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

 

Confessions of an unreformable plant killer

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

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

No pictures, if you follow my drift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sean: I feel guilty about buying dead flowers.

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

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

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

Old, lush, overgrown European cemeteries…

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

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

Enjoy reading them. Return to neglecting the plants…

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

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

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

Him: We will practice more.

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

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

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

He sighs.

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

I comply.

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

Who am I kidding. Of course I’m not.

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

xoxo

“Jane”

All photos courtesy of Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People think in pictures

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

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

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

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

The kids are all right

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Internet is not a medium

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

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

Photo by Hannes Wolf, Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

Libraries will save us all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story is forever

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

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

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

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

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

Register here:

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

Featured Reading:

Into the Abyss by Carol Shaben

The End of Absence by Michael Harris

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Suggested Follow-up Reading:

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

Story by Robert McKee

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

And also, while we’re lauding librarians:

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktoo by Joshua Hammer

All books available at the Calgary Public Library.

xoxo

“Jane”

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

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

I mean, actually, fuck you, patriarchy.

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

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

Flora: Now you know how I feel.

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

Flora: The point is the middle sucks.

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

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

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

Him: Again with the male bashing.

Jane: No. Never.

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

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

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

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

Flora: But aren’t I exceptional too?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane: How old do you think I look?

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

From the mouths of babes.

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

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

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

I don’t hide my age.

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

Him: Middle –aged?

Jane: Fuck off.

Her: In your prime?

Jane: Precisely.

In my prime, professionally, creatively, sexually.

Fuck you, patriarchy.

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

Jane: You don’t have to read it.

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

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

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

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

Happy birthday to me.

Still my anthem:

xoxo

“Jane”

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

English translation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aunt Augusta: What is wrong with you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awesome.

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

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

God, I love her.

Happy Mother’s Day.

“Jane”

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

Kick like a girl

i.

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

Jane: She nailed it.

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

She nailed it.

She did it.

She got here, and she nailed it.

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

ii.

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

Flora: How am I going to get to Wales?

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

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

She believes me.

The doctors—and her father—don’t.

But she believes me.

And so, I must believe myself.

Signing in

iii.

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

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

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

But even at seven, Flora is unstoppable.

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

Pre-test pep talk from Master Experience Senior

iv.

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

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

Flora: I have to go to Wales in April.

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

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

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

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

Flora: Maybe I was just afraid.

Maybe.

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

Bow-in

v.

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

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

Probably not.

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

Flora: I hate the other kids’ parents.

Jane: In general, or in class?

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

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

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

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

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

vi.

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

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

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

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

vii.

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor: You know what I think about Wales.

Flora: You know what I think about Wales.

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

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

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

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

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

Jane: Yes.

Ready

viii.

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

Everything else goes perfectly.

Flora: Too perfectly. Aren’t you afraid?

Jane: Hush. No jinxes.

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

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

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

Flora: We made it.

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

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

ix.

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

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

I did.

OMFG, I did.

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

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

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

Find Flora puking into the wastebasket in our room.

Jane: Nerves?

She wishes.

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

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

Flora: Can I have some chocolate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

x.

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

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

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

As it turns out, she doesn’t need it.

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

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

Flora: He told me to kick faster.

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

x.

She nailed it.

No puking, from flu nor nerves.

No faltering.

No errors.

A flawless performance.

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

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

xi.

Rewind three months.

Flora: Will you teach me how to spar?

I’m… taken aback.

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

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

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

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

Jane: Ok.

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

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

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

In her test, Flora applies every single one.

Flora: I fell on my ass twice.

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

Calgary Crew and their medals (April 27)

xii.

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

Saturday, a tournament.

Flora’s first.

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

Flora: I made it to Wales.

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

Flora: They didn’t tell me I passed.

Jane: You know you passed.

She smiles.

She knows it too.

My girl.

xoxo

“Jane”

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

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

Flora: Fuck, yeah.

Fuck, yeah.

Coming home with a black belt.

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

Anger as Fuel: Latin History For Morons, Microaggression Defined, Calgary Artist Eman Elkadri’s Social Justice Art #raceissues

Flora and I are watching John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons. It’s funny and heartbreaking—the same style of comedy-but-not that Hannah Gadsby presents in Nanette. The premise of the piece is god-awful (in the heartwrenching sense): Leguizamo’s son is experiencing racially motivated bullying in school. And so here’s the thing: this is John Leguizamo’s son. If an American Latino boy can be privileged, surely, that’s this kid. His dad’s not just wealthy—he’s a fucking Hollywood star. He’s famous. A celebrity. Untouchable. Should that not afford some sort of protection against… no. Apparently. not.

Flora’s disgusted. Later, appalled. Finally, she says, “Is that the history the world? White people fucking up and oppressing and killing everyone else?”

“Well, first they did that to each other,” I say. “I mean, when they were landlocked in Europe. Oh. And then there was Attila the Hun. And Genghis Khan.” I come from the part of Europe most exposed to their attention; if you look carefully, you’ll see the results of wartime rape and pillage in my cheekbones. “And the Moors and the Ottomans did some white people oppressing for a while. Sorta.”

“But they didn’t stay. Or exterminate,” Flora points out.

“They didn’t stay. Or exterminate,” I agree. I don’t want to argue the point—at this juncture in time, human history is white people fucking things up for all other people. Even in places where brown people, black people, and rainbow people are scarring each other—they’re doing it against the backdrop of white European colonization and imperialism, white American economic warfare.

And I don’t want to do anything to undermine… her sense of responsibility. I am so glad that her go-to position isn’t, “But I didn’t give anyone smallpox!” “I’m not the one who didn’t colonize North America!” “I didn’t participate in the slave trade!”

That’s not the point…

Flora sighs.

“I’m glad we watched it,” she says. “But it was hard.”

I agree. And love her so much. And suddenly, have hope, because she is not atypical—well, perhaps in some ways—but in this way, she is not. She is typical of her generation.

They’re going to change shit. I know it.

In December, I re-connect with a woman—let’s call her Anne—about my age, a little younger, born in Calgary, but with more melanin in her skin than I have, who has recently become aware of the price that shade of skin, coupled with her uterus, have extracted from her over the course of her education and career. I met her for the first time three, more, years ago, before she’s aware. She wasn’t benefiting from the horrors from colonization—indeed, she was being actively penalized by their enduring heritage—but she didn’t question them. She accepted them as “just the way things are.” She was earning $30K a year less than her less experienced, male, white colleagues? Ouch, wow… but… that’s the way things are. Right?

That’s the way things are.

But that’s not the way thing should be. And she’s done. She’s not putting up with that shit.

“I got really angry,” she tells me.

“Anger is fuel,” I tell her.

By the way—it was a white male colleague, who was out-earning her, who pointed the phenomenon to her and who first put to it the words, “This is not right.” So if you’re wondering what your role in addressing injustices, racial, gender, other, is when you benefit from them, it is, very simply, this. To say, “This is not right.” Not, “That’s just the way it is.”

And then, do something about it—support the people who are doing something about it.

At the very least, get the fuck out of the way of the people doing something about it.

Anne and I meet again the first week of January, at the opening of the Race Issues, a fantastic comic art exhibit by Calgary artist Eman Elkadri. Supported by The Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation and ActionDignity’s Youth PLACE project, the exhibit presents the microaggressions faced by Canadian racialized youth in… well, meme form. It is outrageously effective, as art and as social change.

Microaggression is a term Flora is familiar. But one she has to explain to her father.

You: And me.

Jane: Microaggression is the casual degradation of any marginalized group.

I think of it as death by a thousand—ten thousand cuts. This isn’t that one big awful moment when the bus driver tells Rosa Parks to vacate her seat because a white person needs it or Gandhi gets thrown off the train in South Africa because he’s riding in a first-class carriage. This is… all the thoughtless, off-the-cuff everyday things. So small in the moment that the perpetrator—who is wearing a shirt with Gandhi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world” and absolutely loved the Dr. Who episode about Rosa Parks—isn’t aware she’s done something harmful.

And the recipient of the microaggression… often struggles with the validity of their pain. Anger. After all… it was just a question.

They were just making conversation, right?

They didn’t really mean it to be… offensive…

That off the cuff-remark about Asian women drivers… It was just a joke, right?

For fuck’s sake, not this again…

Really?

He didn’t just say that, did he? Yes, he did. Yes he did…

Ok, that was not a micro-aggression. That was pretty macro.

Most microaggresions are more subtle. Like this:

But they cut hard, and close. Like this one:

Flora: Hey, is that why you gave ma an impossible to spell and pronounce Polish name?

Jane: What? To dent your white privilege a little, and teach you compassion?

Flora: No, I meant more as revenge. Making me suffer because you suffered.

Jane: God, no, what sort of monster do you think I am?

She’s 14, so I am the worst monster that ever was—although, as she is now under Leguizamo’s influence, I think she’d cede I am not as bad as Columbus and Cortés.

At Race Issues, I talk a little bit with the artist. I thank Eman Elkadri for the work she’s doing, and I hope I don’t come across as condescending, a privileged old white woman patronizing a younger one. I hope not. I don’t know. My taste of Canada’s and the world’s racism has always been mitigated by the lack of pigmentation in my skin—and augmented by the privilege of education and relative economic stability. My taste of sexism was always mitigated by my confidence and the gifts my father gave me.

I miss my chance to take Flora to see Eman Elkadri’s art, but I show her the images online.  She’s silent for a while, then asks me about the artist’s age. I don’t know, exactly. Young, because the Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation is an organization for the young: “We are millennials and Gen Z activists who are working to improve race relations in Canada.” (I suspect that’s why they’re going to be successful.)  Similarly, The Youth PLACE project focuses on the young, by engaging “racialized youth to inform, create, incubate and implement approaches to address the systemic racism and day to day barriers that they face.”

“Mid-twenties?” I hazard. I tell her about CCMF.

“Why is it the young people who have to change the world?” Flora demands.

“Because the old who were trying to change the world get too beaten up and exhausted to keep on fighting—and the ones who were comfortable with the way things were just get more comfortable and resistant to change as they get older.”

I’m so fucking wise.

Flora: You’re so fucking wise.

Yesterday, she thought I was too stupid to live, so I preen.

Eman Elkadri and my friend Anne talk for a while. I melt into the background, lose myself in the crowd—oh-my-fucking-god, there are so many people—the little gallery is packed—and they are so young—they are so going to change the world—art is powerful—I get dizzy, step outside, and watch the people and the art through the dusty window.

In an interview with The MetroStar, Eman Elkadri talks about her own awakening, which took place in a university class. “We would go around and talk about our experiences with racial issues, and it made me realize, wow, when I was younger, racism did happen, but I put it on the back burner and tried to change myself.”

That was Anne’s experience too. Anne was born here—as, I think, was Eman, though I am not sure, and I don’t ask. But this story is so common to me now: born here. Canadian by birth, by right. But not by sight. “Where are you really from.”

I am not born here. But I don’t get the “Where are you originally from?” question until people hear my name.* Anne, Eman—they get it on first sight.

Not cool. Not right.

Let’s change that. Now.

“Jane”

*PS I have a long rant inside me about what you can say instead of “Where are you from,” and perhaps one day, I’ll share that with you. But if you think you ask that question in pure innocence and curiosity, consider this: When people meet me as Jane, they never ask me where I’m from. Nor do they hear an accent. But when they meet me as Marzena… I have an accent. And they cannot talk to me about anything else, until they ascertain where I’m from. Fascinating, no?

PS2 View the full slide show of Race issues HERE, find out more about the Canadian Culture Mosaic Foundation HERE, learn about John Leguizamo’s Required Reading for America (shorthand; Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and Charles Mann’s 1491) HERE, and watch the trailer for Latin History for Morons below:

About Race Issues: This project was created in partnership with Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation; Artist’s Statement

The images and stories presented within these comics symbolize a disconnect between the perception of an equitable Canadian society and the very real experiences of Indigenous peoples of this land and racialized Canadians. Although diverse cultures do coexist and thrive within Canada, many individuals cannot help but feel that their identity is constantly compared and contrasted to whiteness. It is up to all of us to be more conscious of the ways we treat each other, and to avoid the use of microaggressions by being more aware of how biases, stereotypes, and misconceptions frame the way we interact with others. Differences are what make our country such a vibrant and unique place to live, and we all have to learn to embrace people that look, speak, and act differently than we do. When we choose to acknowledge that our personal experiences are not universally shared by everyone, we will no longer react in ways that “other” people for not being just like us. We exist within a time and generation where there is no one way to look or speak Canadian, and it is important that we continue to challenge the assumption that there is.

Source: http://www.canadianculturalmosaicfoundation.com/race-issues.html

 

 

Easier than you think, harder than I expected: a week in eleven stanzas (Week 2: Goodness and Selfishness)

one

It’s Thursday, and Sean has an important interview on Friday at 3 pm. He’s nervous. I’m nervous. We’re all nervous. It’s a REALLY BIG DEAL and we’re all attached to the outcome.

Jane: Flora and I will do some magic at three. Draw a pentagram on the floor, sacrifice a small..

Flora: Child?

She looks at Ender poignantly as she says this, and the Unicorn’s eyes are so expressive, Ender starts to cry.

Sean: I will be very very upset if you sacrifice any small child, but especially if it’s MY small child.

Flora: But….

Sean: And it sets a dangerous precedent. Once he’s gone… who’s next in line to be sacrificed/ Hmmmm?

Flora: Cinder. The spells always call for the eldest child or the youngest child. For once, being in the middle has a bonus!

By now Ender is howling—fake crying but still—Cinder is threatening to burn Flora’s books—“WE NEVER EVER BURN BOOKS IN THIS HOUSE!!”—that’s my contribution—and Sean’s wondering if perhaps we should stop getting Flora witchcraft books out of the library.

I’m watching. Taking notes, obviously.

two

Hell froze over on Wednesday but after doing all the work and ruining supper (it wasn’t entirely my fault), I trudged through the cold and snow to have tea with a fellow artist.

I learned something important but it’s all confused inside me right now. It’s there… germinating. I suppose it’s a seed.

So thank you for that.

three

On Tuesday, we introduced Ender to Bill Waterson’s Calvin & Hobbes. Cinder had committed all ten years of the strip to memory by the time he was eight and Flora still sleeps with the complete editions we got her for Christmas—the year she was eight—under her pillow.

Flora: Under my bed.

Jane: Shall I look under your pillow to prove my point?

Flora: No!

Sean and I think Bill Waterson is a genius, and in our more dogmatic moments, believe Calvin & Hobbes should be mandatory reading for all parents—part of pre-natal classes, or maybe delayed till your kinder are three or four, but absolutely mandatory by the time they’re five. You see, Waterson captures so perfectly the inner life and logic a child, the interplay of reality and imagination. The fire and the helplessness, the freedom and the frustration…

I generally think I’m a pretty good parent for two reasons—the the first is that I remember. I remember not just being six and sixteen… but what it felt like to be six and sixteen.

I think one of the tragedies of modern prescriptive-scientific-lived-on-social-media-so-many-books-and-blogs-and-artciles-telling-you-what-you-SHOULD-do parenting is… that most people just don’t remember. They don’t remember what if felt like to be small.

They remember… facts, events, accurately or not. Things done to them, said to them. But they forget… how those things made them feel.

(The second reason, by the way, is that I’m selfish, in a self-aware way. More on that later.)

four

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,  I am super-productive, tying up all the loose ends, running, sprinting—pause, breathe—and then a prolonged interlude to ground myself, see that I’m almost done and revel in what I’m about to finish…

But even in the middle of it all, I take time—make time?—for pleasure and love, sheesha and hot tea, a lover’s embrace. Time slows down, suddenly, everything is possible, everything is clear—everything will get done.

I make time for reading too, not work-related reading (novels are now work-related reading and I do need to figure out how to reset that), but soul-nurturing reading.

You: I thought you were this hard-core atheist.

Jane: Hush. I have a tender little atheistic soul. Don’t crush it.

I read this:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, and irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

CS Lewis, The Four Loves

It’s quoted in this book:

Ordinary Goodness by Edward Viljoen… I’m not quite finished the book yet, and I’m not sure I’m going to get to the end. It’s making me feel kind of bad about myself.

Jane: See, I just don’t think I’ve got a drive to be good. Or kind.

Sean: What do you mean?

Jane: I just don’t think I’m that good. The way he defines the word. And I don’t really want to be. All the “practice this” sections? About how to be this person who celebrates and lives and practices ordinary goodness and everyday kindness? I read them and I say, “Fuck, who has time for that? I’d rather be writing.”

Sean: You’re an artist.

Not, I suppose, an altruist. Or much of a humanist, really.

See? Selfishly self-aware.

It has some bonuses, I won’t lie. But also pitfalls.

five

On Monday, I do something not good. Unkind. Selfish. Not even to fulfill a burning desire—more a whim, temper of the moment—I do something that makes me so conscious of my selfishness and unkindness that I weep.

I’m not going to tell you what I did. One, it’s private, two, I’m ashamed, three, it doesn’t matter.

I do something not-good that, yes, potentially harms other people.

But here’s the thing:

Even before it harms them—it harms me.

I feel awful.

six

As Monday became Tuesday, Cinder forgot to put away the dishes before he went to bed.

“It was 2:30 in the morning!” he says later. “I remembered, but I was already in bed!”

He puts them way noonish—at least, they’re put away when I get back home Tuesday afternoon.

While Cinder still sleeps, and the clean but un-put-away dishes litter the kitchen counter, Sean and I resist the urge to a) do his job b) be angry at him.

“Remind Cinder to put them away when he gets up,” I tell Sean as I head out the door.

“I’ll remind him eventually,” Sean says. “I’m not going to… ‘Good morning, you didn’t put away the dishes last night’—starting the day with being nagged about something you didn’t do last night and probably feel bad about forgetting to do… that’s not a very loving way to wake up.”

I kiss him and for a few minutes rest in the love of his arms.

He remembers what it felt like to be sixteen, six too.

seven

I remember trying to explain attachment parenting to some “this sounds fucking weird people” a decade, more ago, and saying something along the lines of, “Attachment parenting gave us this amazing, loving little son.”

I’d never say that now.

I’d say, “Attachment parenting made ME a better, more compassionate, more complete person.”

Caveat 1: I never treated it as a religion or dogma.

Caveat 2: I chose selfishly self-aware over martyr, for better or worse, every single time.

eight

Friday, we smoke seesha, Saturday, we play Bears versus Babies, and on Sunday, I have a fight with Cinder.

Well. Not a fight, exactly.

He gets angry. His anger infects me. I tell him that. He calls me a hippy, and I slam the stainless steel serrated knife I’m holding against the kitchen table, as he slammed his “switchblade-style” bottle opener against the table a few seconds earlier. I start to cry and he storms off to his room. I weep outside his door, barred. So angry, so helpless, why will he not tell me what’s wrong?

I drag myself away from his bedroom door to the kitchen. Go back to reading Sylvia Boorstein’s It’s Easier Than You Think.

Read this:

Even If It’s Senseless, Mushrooms Matter

My friend Alta’s life was a lesson to me, and her death was a lesson to me, too. She enjoyed good health for seventy-nine years, then quite suddenly she became desperately ill, and it was clear she would die very soon. She accepted this awareness with her normal consummate grace. That was half the lesson she taught me.

The other half was about what makes sense. On the last day Alta could talk to me, two days before she died, we talked about meaning.

“I’m thinking about the meaning of it all,” she said, “and it doesn’t seem very important. What do you think?”

“Maybe it’s ‘much ado about nothing,’” I said.

“Seems like that,” she replied, adding, “You did a good eulogy for your father.”

“I’ll do yours too.”

“I wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble…”

“Give me a break, Alta! What do you want me to say?”

“It doesn’t matter. Say anything you want.”

“How about if i give your recipe for the great marinated mushrooms you make?”

“That’s a good idea. They were very good. People liked them a lot.”

“Do you remember the recipe? You could give it to me now.”

“Not exactly. Look it up. It’s in my recipe box. Remember to say they shouldn’t be made more than four hours before you eat them. The mushrooms wilt.”

Mushrooms are as meaningful as anything else.

Sylvia Boorstein, It’s Easier Than You Think, pg 121

Cinder comes back downstairs to his computer. I get up, slowly. There is no anger in me. There is no anger emanating from the other room. But there is shame in me at my anger.

I go up to him and hold him, hug him.

He hugs me back.

We don’t talk, but that’s ok.

We talk later.

nine

Friday, I am trying to take some time for myself, but, children—the sheesha at the end of the day is a treat. Saturday, I run from event to event, overscheduled and frazzled, a little, but also happy.

I matter. I find out I matter, I hear I matter, I feel I matter.

And then, suddenly—I don’t.

Hello, weekend existential crisis.

ten

It’s Sunday so I no longer really remember what happened Monday (proofing) or Tuesday (proofing, an interlude for love) and all I remember from Wednesday is that it was too cold to live and yet we walked in the Ice Age anyway. Sean’s interview on Friday went well even though Flora did not sacrifice her little brother to the human resources gods.

On Sunday, I make the bathroom and a quarter of the kitchen shine. It deepens my existential crisis: I wish scrubbing kitchen counters mattered, was in the least bit fulfilling, changed the world—or at least filled my soul.

It doesn’t.

Does this? This scribbling, throwing of words into the cyber-ether?

Probably not.

Flora: Chocolate?

Jane: Thanks. I love you.

Flora: I love you too.

Sylvia Boorstein:

… when I love, I’m happy.

eleven

I guess the third Monday of 2018 will start with existential angst. But maybe not. God is not merciful—I’m not sure the universe exists—but my abstract concept of life has a wicked sense of humour.

Ender: I’m hungry!

Jane: Chocolate?

He says no. I give him a cold porkchop instead. He eats it while watching his older brother and sister play Minecraft.

Flora: I still say we should have sacrificed him.

Ender: Mom!

Jane: Flora!

Somewhere, an imagined God laughs.

And I smile.

Self-indulgently yours,

“Jane”

PS Last word this week to Sylvia Boorstein:

“We are VERBS not NOUNS
EXPERIENCES unfolding
STORIES TELLING THEMSELVES
as sequels to other STORIES
previously told.”

2018

The year started with a Monday; so does every week (Week 1: Transitions and Intentions)

Dear Fatherland: the pallbearers were probably not skinheads, but I don’t know, and reflections on grief, roots, and love

For my dad

Nov 29, 2017
Kafefajka, Nowy Swiat
Warszawa

I.

Dear Fatherland,

You’re beautiful even on a grey and drizzly November morning.

But your government is fascist.

Your religion is medieval.

Your customer service sucks.

And your people are rude and pushy.

II.

We bury my grandfather on Tuesday, on a grey but dry November afternoon. I stand in the cold chapel looking at his embalmed corpse, waiting for feelings.

There don’t seem to be any—just a clinical curiosity.

An awareness that the suit his body is wearing is the suit he wore to my wedding, 17 years ago.

Then, an awareness of the awareness (how’s that for meta thoughts?) that I was thinking of the corpse very comfortably as a corpse—my grandfather’s body, but certainly not my grandfather. Not at all.

Which, of course, is at it should be.

A corpse is not a person.

III.

I don’t like coming back “home.”

I never feel more alien—or more Canadian—than when I visit the place where I was born.

IV.

My grandfather’s sister, 14 years his junior, is already in the chapel when I enter. Not alone—her husband and daughter are with her.

I’m not alone either. I’m accompanying my grandfather’s youngest daughter, caretaker—chief mourner—who’s my father’s youngest sister. Therefore, my aunt, but closer in age to me than to my father, so really, my sister.

My grandfather’s sister is crying.

His daughter (my aunt-but-more-sister)–eyes dry this time—they have been wet a lot—suggests they pray together.

For his soul?

They start a pattern of Our Fathers and Hail Marys, the three women of the family—my grandfather’s sister, his daughter, his niece. The only man in the chapel—my great uncle, I suppose—mouths the words, but makes no sound.

When my mother walks into the chapel a few minutes later, she joins the chorus of the praying women.

It is very strange for me to hear my mother pray.

V.

When I come “home” to visit—and I come, it seems, only for weddings and funerals (and not all of them), and once, a baptism—it generally takes me two or three days to start hating Poland.

This time, my dislike for the people I come from hits me in Amsterdam as I board the plan for Warsaw, as they seem to go out of their way to push and jostle me as they rush for the plane.

They’re so loud.

Their voices grate on my ears, and their bodies invade my personal space.

And their casual racism and sexism, with the thinnest veneer of European worldliness, disgusts me.

“You’ll get used to it,” my mother says.

I don’t want to.

VI.

Four young men with shaved heads—one has a neo-Mohawk—who probably aren’t skinheads, but well, look more like skinheads than pall bearers despite the white cotton gloves on their hands—carry the coffin with my grandfather’s body from the chapel to a Mercedes hatchback, which rolls slowly towards the front doors of the church, a few dozen meters away.

We follow, first the car, then the pall bearers—always, the coffin—into the church.

My aunts—my grandfather’s sister, my grandfather’s daughter—walk arm-in-arm with their husbands and children; I walk with my mother, conscious that I am my father’s stand-in. Conscious too of my red coat, its brightness imperfectly hidden by my black scarf.

Everyone else is wearing black.

VII.

The funeral home taking care of my grandfather’s body, by the way, is called Anubis.

VIII.

I recently attended a German Catholic mass for a friend’s father. This one is almost identical, except for the language in which it’s delivered. Well, and the priest is younger and seems to have committed at least some of the words of the liturgy to his memory. But not all. He does a lot of reading.

I am struggling to stay respectful. But I feel more like a spectator at a dated theatre play than a celebrant of a holy rite.

I start counting the number of times the word “sin” occurs; lose count and interest at 21.

It had been my intention to observe the outer forms. The sign of the cross; the responses to the prayers. It’s been almost 30 years, but I probably remember—I remembered enough of the patterns at the German Catholic mass to stand up, sit down and kneel down at the appropriate places.

But I can’t.

The words aren’t just empty, they are distasteful.

I stand in silence.

My inner (bad) Buddhist counsels understanding and suggests I take the opportunity to do a metta meditation.

The outer atheist says, “Fuck that shit. Don’t still your mind: scratch at all the scabs and take notes.”

The writer agrees. So I look around with the cold, unforgiving eyes of the documentarian. Collect source materials.

Listen to the whispers of the mourners, hissed under the cover of music and prayers… but almost always audible.

Analyze the appearances and manifestations of grief.

Halfway around the world—fine, less than a quarter, 7,778 kilometres away—my father, the eldest son, is spending a sleepless night alone.

I try to shift into watching with his eyes, not mine. But it’s hard; self obtrudes.

IX.

The night after the funeral, I spend my sleepless hours—still jet-lagged, tired but unable to give in to sleep—texting with Internet strangers as unrooted in time zones as I am. One’s a Moroccan born in France (but not French), now based in Dubai, who was just in Warsaw on business. The other’s a UK-educated Tamil now working in Geneva.

All three of us have a poor sense of which time zone and country we’re in currently; I feel a stronger kinship with them than with my Polish family.

After a short discussion of my peculiar childhood in Libya and his European-North African shuffling, we end up talking about sheesha, and the Moroccan tells me where I can find a sheesha lounge in Warsaw.

I’m thrilled.

X.

The best part of my grandfather’s funeral mass for me is the entrance of my younger cousins with their very young children: a girl four years of age and a seven month old baby in a sling.

The girl is all smiles. She loves the flowers—the coffin and path leading up to it are adorned with bouquets and wreaths—and she beams at her grandparents with perfect happiness.

She and her brother affirm the beauty of life for me much more eloquently than the priest’s canonized readings and out-of-the-can sermon on eternal life.

I do think, though, that life would sometimes be easier if one were not an atheist and a pathological scab-scratcher and curtain ripper and could just accept something, anything on face value. You know?

XI.

The church, by the way, is beautiful. About 200 years old, but built in the Gothic style, designed to make man (not in the gender neutral sense; woman was simultaneously irrelevant and unreal—this, after all, is the religion that venerates a mother in the form of a virgin)—feel small and God grand.

God, I have the irreverent thought, must have a very fragile ego to require all these giant buildings to feel good about himself…

XII.

We follow the coffin—carried by the probably-not-skinheads-(but after that Nov 11 March of Shame, I don’t know, I think they might be–I look at every Pole I pass with suspicion and fear)-pallbearers out of the church and to the Mercedes again, and then we follow the slowly rolling car to the cemetery.

The priest, clad in an odd ceremonial black cap that looks like a cupcake with a pompom, leads the way.

In the recently restored family grave rests the body of my grandmother—my father’s mother—and her parents.

She died at age 53, when I was seven or eight, and living in Libya. I didn’t attend her funeral, nor did my father.

My mother was there, though.

My great-grandmother on my father’s side died in 2003, age 93.

I remember her.

I loved her.

XIII.

I’m not sure that I loved my grandfather, and frankly, until his death, I have no real evidence that my father loved him. The night after the funeral, when I talk with my father, he is crying. Grieving, mourning. He sends me a copy of the letter he wrote to my grandfather the week before my grandfather died—at his sister’s request.

The letter is full of good memories and warm feelings.

It ends with, “I love you very much, Dad.”

It’s the first time I hear those stories.

I know my grandfather’s youngest daughter, who took care of him through to his death, loved him (loves him still if one loves the dead themselves and not their memory? I am not sure who the object of love is once life is gone…).

This, I always knew and had evidence of. I saw them together, loving and supporting each other. And she has talked to me of him, with love.

I probably know him best through her stories.

XIV.

At the sheesha place the day after the funeral, I’m served by a Polish woman and then by two Turkish men, who both speak fluent Polish—they understand my Polish better than they do my English, which makes me laugh.

I’m one of three customers when I come in. One is a silent Pole–and despite his shorn hair, I’m pretty sure he’s not a skinhead; the other, an Arab who makes several business phone calls in beautiful German.

Citizens of the world.

XV.

The last time I saw my grandfather was at my brother’s wedding. In Poland, in 2009, because my brother’s wife is a Polish woman—whom he met in Korea.

At the wedding, a 70-something widow who spent the weekend making an ardent play for my then-80-year-old grandfather asked us when we last saw each other.

We looked at each other, my grandfather and I, and we both did the math with some effort.

“Ten… no, nine years ago,” I said.

“In 2000, at her wedding,” he said.

The hunting widow gasped, and put her hands on the hand my grandfather had on top of mine–squeezed it. He smiled.

(My twice-married grandfather—he remarried very quickly after my grandmother’s death–and I never really knew my step-grandmother, although she too was at my wedding—was a player until he died, and the joke among my cousins and my brother’s single friends that weekend was that Grandfather was the only one who scored. Possibly more than once.)

“It must be so hard,” my grandfather’s would-be lover said. “To have your granddaughter so far away. To see her so rarely. You must miss her.”

“Well, you know,” my grandfather said. “It’s been like that for a long time. You get used to it.”

I nodded.

My mother, who overhead the conversation, was appalled.

“How can anyone not miss their grandchildren?” she demanded of me, holding my children on her lap in a covetous embrace

She didn’t understand, at all.

But I did.

Geography matters.

Time spent matters.

If my grandfather didn’t miss me–well, I didn’t miss him either.

My children will also miss only one set of grandparents.

XVI.

At the cemetery, an octogenarian woman—who probably also wished to share my grandfather’s bed at some point (like, when I mention that player thing… it’s not even a slight exaggeration…)—reads a letter, a eulogy of sorts—of behalf of my grandfather’s (legion of girl)friends, from the Warsaw branch of the University of the Third Age.

It’s a beautiful letter that describes, lauds, and mourns a  man I did not know, at all.

But apparently, I’m not the only to have that reaction.

“Wow, those people did not know Grandfather at all,” my cousin—the daughter of my grandfather’s youngest daughter, and the mother of the children who save the funeral mass for me—says. She’s known my–our–grandfather intimately all of her life. She loves him, knows him.

That’s not him, she says.

Fog and mirrors, I think. That was him, I suppose, to them…

The University of the Third Age woman also reads a poem written by my grandfather’s last paramour, the woman with whom he sorta-kinda-but-not-really-almost lived since the death of his second wife up to the final two years of his life.

The final two years of his life, he spent living with his youngest daughter, fighting to maintain the semblance of independence at a huge price, paid almost in full by his daughter.

It was, I think, too high a price to pay.

But you see… she loved him so much.

(I love my father very much… but I would not do that for him. We talk about it at length, my parents and I. “A nursing home, please, as soon as I can’t care for myself, and you don’t even have to come visit if I lose my mind,” my mother says. “Just, um, make sure it’s a nice nursing home.” My father shudders. “Kill me first,” he says.)

My grandfather’s last paramour—should I call her his lover? partner?—does not comprehend this price, and resents that my grandfather–unable to walk or sit up without help, among other things–spent the last few weeks of his life in a full-care nursing home.

Her poem is as full of the anger and resentment as it is of love.

It contains the phrase “contemptuous people,” which is a blatant slap in the face of my aunt—the woman who changed my grandfather’s diapers, took him to endless doctors’ appointments, bathed and fed him, almost to the end of his life.

I find it interesting that my aunt and my father give the status-less paramour the compassion and understanding that she can’t give them.

Isn’t wisdom, perspective something that comes with age?

Apparently not; the paramour avoids my aunt in the church and at the cemetery, and refuses to come to the post-funeral dinner with us.

Family is complicated.

Is love?

XVII.

My mother and my grandfather—her father-in-law—also had a fraught, complicated relationship.

I understand the specifics of it imperfectly, and yet the thrust of it very well, because I don’t love my father-in-law either.

We resent the slights and harm done to people we love more than we resent slights against ourselves.

My father-in-law has never harmed me. (I didn’t love him, so how could he, really, even if he tried?)

But what he did to the man I love, I find difficult to forgive.

Love is also very simple.

XVIII.

My aunt asks me and my father to prepare the eulogy for the funeral. It’s really something that she’s the best suited person to do, but she frames it as my father’s job as the eldest son—she also defers to my skills as the family writer.

I don’t even have to tell my father “But I didn’t know him!” He sits down to work on the eulogy and spends a week writing, revising, crafting—creating a goodbye that compromises between justice, truth, and love… liberally tempered with compassion.

It’s beautiful, and I find out that my storytelling talent has come to me in equal parts from both parents.

(Never ask anyone in my family for a clear, concise accounting of the facts. We can’t do it. Ask us for a good story, on the other hand…)

The priest refuses to read the eulogy in the church. Or at the graveside.

“It’s inappropriate,” he tells my aunt.

“Fuck that shit,” the daughter in me doesn’t even give my bad Buddhist a chance to breathe.

As the mini-drama unfolds beside the grave, I wonder how big a scene I’m going to have to make to carry out my father’s wishes.

My lack of ability to compromise, and disdain for conventional social mores—I smooth my red coat with pride now—that comes from my mother’s side of the family.

 

XIX.

My father comes from a devout family. The oldest child and only son, he was nonetheless in his early childhood intended for the priesthood—or at least holiness. He does occasionally tell me that story.

I’m not sure if his eventual atheism—he calls himself an agnostic, but I think it runs deeper than that—is innate or rebellion.

My grandfather, his tomcatting notwithstanding (as is the case, frankly, with most of the Poles I know) would describe himself, throughout his life, as a devout and practicing Catholic.

Both his daughters remain religious and devout.

The elder one and her family are not at the funeral.

Family, as I’ve said, is complicated.

The younger daughter is effectively running the funeral, and I decide it’s, ultimately, her place to figure out how balancing the priest’s dogma and my father’s wishes should play out.

But I realize my hands are balled into fists and my heart rate is elevated.

XX.

My father’s youngest sister is 12 years younger than he and only ten years older than I am. She is my aunt, but more my sister and friend than aunt. Her children—my cousins—are now in their early thirties and late twenties—in other words, at an age where we are all effectively peers.

Her daughter is the mother of the two children who return meaning to the funeral mass for me, and her son has an actor’s beautiful voice.

As the priest leaves the gravesite, not in a huff, exactly, but… ungraciously, I would say—my cousin liberates the microphone from his assistant.

(His assistant, by the way, is a 60+ year old altar boy. Deacon, perhaps. He’s wearing jeans and this pisses me off—“Show some respect for my grandfather, you peon!” My reaction amuses me.)

My cousin reads my father’s eulogy in his beautiful actor’s voice and I relax.

He also pulls out a portable speaker that he had hidden somewhere in his winter coat and plays the song with which my father wanted to end the funeral mass, with which he wanted to say goodbye to his father.

XXI.

In the sheesha bar, the Polish waitress speaks with the two owners in Turkish. Then switches to English to serve another customer.

Citizens of the world, all of us.

She’s a lovely person, I’m sure. But she seems put out every time I ask her for something. She does it… but just with a tinge of resentment.

I don’t say, “It’s your fucking job. Boil the water for my tea, goddammit.”

But I think it.

I think about the priest, too. What is his fucking job, exactly?

Did he do the right thing by his job, by his God, in refusing to accede to my father’s request?

I doubt it.

But he did the typically Polish customer service thing—leaving the customer served… but unsatisfied.

XXII.

From the cemetery, we trail, in couples and clumps, to a nearby “locale” that celebrants of funerals, weddings, baptisms and possibly other events, hire for post-mass dinners and revelries.

“You have to eat a warm dinner after a funeral,” my aunt-sister-friend tells me earlier when she’s explaining the day’s agenda to me.

(Poles are very serious about their warm dinners—our lunches.)

The dinner is for about 30 people, family and close friends.

I’m introduced to an assortment of family I know not at all or not very well, including my father’s outrageously beautiful goddaughter, who is also his niece—and the mother of three fully adult children.

Her mother is my grandfather’s youngest sister, and the last remaining of his siblings. She was the first in the chapel to stand vigil with his body. She shed tears there; she sheds tears still.

Introduces herself to me twice. The first time, she doesn’t know who I am—the second time, she does.

We eat.

Conversation, memories, stories.

The children play hide and seek, ask for seconds and thirds of dessert—are responsible for most of the laughter in the room.

XXIII.

The near-five decade Communist occupation of Poland leaves all sorts of lingering legacies, and I suppose Poland’s current fascist religious turn is one of them.

Shitty customer service is another.

The locale’s serving wenches are efficient and… see, impolite is the wrong word. Impolite, rude—implies malice, intent. There is no malice in the way they grab plates before people finish eating or remove still-full dishes. They just want to get their job done as quickly and with as little inconvenience to themselves as possible… and they don’t give a fuck about the customer.

The natives are inured. The Canadian at the table is a little appalled.

XXIV.

After the funeral, back at my aunt-sister-friend’s house, we talk about all sorts of things. The funeral, yes. My grandfather.

Family.

Love.

The proper way to make and serve schabowe.

We take turns talking to my dad when he calls. I can still hear the tears in his voice.

I send him the photographs I surreptitiously took at the funeral, with some caustic/loving commentary.

I don’t know if I understand my grandfather—or his relationship with my father—any more than I did before.

But maybe, I understand myself more. Just a little.

I tell my dad, “I’m glad I came.”

“I’m happy you like Poland,” he says.

Um. That’s not what I said.

XXV.

Dear Fatherland,

I think I don’t love you and I probably never will.

It’s not your fault.

I mean, this current fascist incarnation is certainly not helping.

But it wouldn’t be much different under a more progressive, enlightened regime. I would be less ashamed. But I still wouldn’t love you. I don’t really love my adopted Motherland either, although it fits me better. I feel less alien there than I do here.

“We are now citizens of the world, right?” the Internet stranger keeping me company in the middle of the night after my grandfather’s funeral texts again. “We are not just the future. We are the present.”

In the heart of the place where I was born, I find solace in a Turkish owned sheesha lounge, a Tower of Babel cacophony of languages around me.

You are where I was born and where my parents were born. Where my grandparents—all of them now—are buried.

But I am not yours and you are not mine.

I wonder if my children’s relationship with their motherland will be different. Tighter.

I guess… I hope not. People like me—we don’t start wars.

But that’s their future to navigate and write.

I’m writing my present now.

Goodbye, Grandfather.

I’m really glad I came,

xoxo

Marzena

PS This is the song with which my dad said goodbye to his father:

Rhythm, interrupted

I.

My day is interrupted by a puking child, and…

No. Not like that. Interrupted?

The definition of interrupt:

  • Stop the continuous progress of (an activity or process)
  • Stop (someone speaking) by saying or doing something.
  • Break the continuity of (a line or surface)
  • Obstruct (something, especially a view).

(So says the Oxford English Dictionary, which also adds, btw, this:

“Late Middle English: from Latin interrupt- ‘broken, interrupted’, from the verb interrumpere, from inter- ‘between’ + rumpere ‘to break’.”

– I learned something new, and now so did you.)

But for something to be interrupted… there has to be an expectation that it won’t be. An assumption that the activity will be continuous—that you will get to finish your sentence—that the line will go on forever, or at least for a while.

So. My day is NOT interrupted by a puking child. Let’s try this again.

II.

My sleep is interrupted… No, here I go again…

Take three:

I’m in that marvellous liminal morning place of sleep-not-sleep, and I am thinking I will wake—soon, but not just yet—when I hear footsteps on the ceiling (on the ceiling, yes), and then footsteps tramping down the stairs—doors opening—laundry bags being stepped on—and… there he is. In the crook of my arm, not quite as long as I am yet but definitely not small, and yet in that moment of crawling into bed beside me, so tiny.

He doesn’t whisper, “Upstairs?” as is his way when he wakes up before me or Sean. He just curls into me. And wiggles. “Maggie?” he says, searching for the dog in the dark.

I shush him.

“Your Dadda has to get up so early today, he needs to sleep until it’s time. Be still.” He stills, a little.

But Sean gives up on the remnants of sleep and gets up before his alarm clock.

Ender falls asleep, in my arms, for a while.

I don’t.

I mind-wander. Sad thoughts, happy thoughts. Heart-piercing, heart-breaking thoughts.

But happy thoughts too.

I like thinking.

At some point, my eyes are wet and I can’t exactly say I like that, but… it’s part of the experience.

Ender stirs beside me, awake in a flash. Starts to torment the dog.

“Upstairs?” I whisper to him.

He’s out of bed almost before I finish the sentence. Me, I stretch. Rub my eyes, forehead, neck. Sneek a peak at my phone.

6:17.

Early.

Ugh.

By the time I follow Ender upstairs, he’s already ensconced in one of the armchairs in the kitchen and wrapped in a blanket. Sean’s made coffee and I play the game I’m playing these days every morning, with every cup. Yes? No? A choice? A compulsion?

I pour a cup. Drink half of it while it’s hot… pour the cold remains down the sink later. A choice. Not a compulsion.

Sean’s got a 9 am presentation that he’s still refining, so I get Ender his cereal before going back downstairs with the coffee. Sit down in the space-that-is-me and write the morning pages.

Don’t whine in them very much, although at one point my eyes do get wet again.

Then—work. The tasks I MUST do first thing in the morning. And—go. Tedious. Unfulfilling. Necessary. Not ideal—I will not schedule a project like this again. My mornings need to belong to creative work, not this. These thoughts dance in the back of my head—but the front of it is all focused, disciplined, working.

About to be interrupted—but no.

It’s not an interruption if you know it’s coming.

“I need to cuddle.”

Ender in my armpit, under my blankets. I wonder if the reason I work on a couch, on the floor, on a chaisez-lounge is this? So I can accommodate one child, two, three while I write?

It’s hard to type AND cuddle an eight-year-old at a desk, in an office chair.

It’s not, by the way, an idyllic moment.

He keeps on grabbing my right arm. And I keep on snapping. We have a deal, Ender and I—the mornings are MINE and he can come into my space and BE with me. But I am working. I am not HIS at that time. He can be present—but all he gets is my presence. No interactions. Except ones that sound like this:

“I need my arm to do my work, stop pulling on it.”

“Ender, baby, you know this is my work time.”

“For fuck’s sake, stop yanking on my arm!”

He wiggles down and curls around my feet.

I do my work.

Get to the goal I set out as my “finish” for the morning stretch.

He says it this time before I do:

“Upstairs?”

Upstairs.

Upstairs, I make him his second breakfast and myself my first. And I break a rule—a new friend sends me a text that brings a smile to my face and so I text back (more on my texting rule later, maybe)—and I am flirting and moving around in the kitchen and trying to plan the day—I’ll read a bit with Ender, make sure Flora eats protein for breakfast when she wakes up—but then, I’ll probably be able to get the second block of my work done, and then, in the afternoon, will I have time to…

And that’s when Ender comes into the kitchen, and pukes all over the kitchen floor.

III.

My week, by the way, has looked sort of like this:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

But of course, this is only the public part of the story.

IV.

I’m trying to read, for the second time, Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. I’m reading it because I got it as a birthday present for Sean, because he heard Rubin on a podcast talking about how different personality types are motivated and thought she was insightful and because he is very interested what makes people happy.

I’ve tried reading it before, when it was first released and there were 64 people ahead of me on the holds list for it at the public library. When my turn to read it arrived… Rubin lost me in February.

This time, I’ve persevered til June. I’m looking for the nuggets. But it’s hard.

Rubin’s relentless search for happiness (while claiming she is very happy to begin with) exhausts me. Really, that is what’s happening: as I read about her resolutions, projects, and initiative—I feel utterly drained.

It’s fascinating.

Her frantic energy vibes off the page and into my rather sensitive and strained… shall we be New Agey and call it aura? … I don’ t know. Something. Her frantic energy infects me. And not in a good way. Reading about her quest for happiness is decreasing mine.

It’s kind of interesting.

Also, insightful, although perhaps not in the way Rubin intended.

I’m not sure if I will persevere with the book through to December. It does have some good stuff, and quotes and insights from others, and I was going to pull one out for you, but I can’t find it, and really, fuck it, because the point is–Rubin’s desire to be even more happy (while denying that she’s unhappy) is making me tired.

And even those of her insights that resonate with me… I think we apply these insights in very different ways.

Anyway.

Happiness.

Sean is also reading—er, listening to—Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. The subtext of which—or maybe its main point, actually—is that chasing happiness does not make people happy.

We talk about that for a bit on Thursday night. About the difference between “happy” and “meaningful.”

I am, right now, definitely not happy. Oh, I have moments of joy and pleasure. And even the occasional second of bliss.

But happy?

No.

And I don’t even want to be happy.

But let’s not talk about that today.

V.

I send Ender to the bathroom to wash his face and hands and I clean the kitchen floor. Settle him in bed with a puke bowl and his iPad.

“And Mommy?” he asks.

So my office for the rest of the morning is his sickbed, and I do most of my work with my left hand, as he convulsively holds onto my right.

When he falls asleep, I go downstairs and feed Flora protein, although it’s more lunch than breakfast now.

I should sit down and work. I start to draft this post instead—it seems important.

VI.

I don’t want to be happy or chase happiness, but I don’t want to be dysfunctionally unhappy either. I try to create my life, consciously and conscientiously. I want it to be meaningful, purposeful. Good, which to my mind is not the same as happy. Fulfilling. You know?

Right now, I have a project on the go that’s, ironically, meaningful and purposeful, and overall critical to the creation of my meaningful and purposeful life, but which has me doing things that are making me dysfunctionally unhappy.

So I’m looking at those things and trying to figure out… do I need to do them? If I do—if they are indeed unavoidable—can I do them differently?

It’s an interesting exercise. I’m trying different things. They all have few things in common: or maybe, just one thing.

They are a quest for… stillness. Silence.

My texting rule—I break it for you, I broke it this morning—is part of it.

My project requires me to be online, plugged in, sharing, responding, six out of seven days at least—and that seventh day, even then there are things…

It has, so far, been a 40-day long experiment in what happens to a creative person when they are never truly alone for 40 days.

It’s fascinating… and it ain’t pretty.

VII.

After his nap, Ender wants to play with his friends and go sledding, and I, the worst mother in the world, don’t let him. But I bundle him into a snowsuit—myself too—and we go for a slow loop around the Common. He barely makes it, all the while insisting he wants to go sledding and to play with his friends.

Back home, I make him tea with honey, but he’s asleep again when I bring it back.

The day continues like this—Ender waking up, falling asleep, whining, the elder two gaming, reading, fighting, me remembering at some point that I should feed them—finding out they’d already fed themselves (“But can you ask Dziadzia to bring buns and milk when he comes?”).

My dad arrives in the evening—with milk and buns, and also chicken wings—to take Flora to her martial arts class. I leave Cinder in charge of the not-puking-but-clearly-not-well Ender—then my mom comes to pick me up, and we go to the premiere of Sean’s film project (which, btw, you can now view at Art Enabled Life).

When we come back, Ender is asleep.

Turns out, Cinder took him sledding.

“Seriously?” That’s me.

“What?” That’s Cinder. “I made him wear a helmet.”

Ender sleeps like the dead; wakes up perfectly healthy.

VIII.

I want to finish writing this post in the evening, in my space. I think that will be the perfect closure to this day and this story: me, in my space, mostly uninterrupted. It was going to go like this, I had it all written in my head, scripted perfectly, and it was going to go like this:

“I have this… affirmation, I guess? words, ugh… that I’m working with right now. Well, there are two—the one I need to work on more I’m not ready to share with you. This one, though, you can hear:

“My days flow with a rhythm that nourishes and inspires myself and others.”

I’m chasing… not happiness. But flow.

Rhythm.

And I think… my rhythm will never be really smooth. Or uninterrupted. Sometimes, I will get planned or unexpected hours that flow gently, naturally into one another. But most of the time—I don’t expect, I can’t expect it.

Someone will puke. The furnace will break down. You will need me. My eyes will be wet.

I can’t control for any of that, and trying to paves the way to dysfunctional unhappiness.

But there are other… interruptions—and ways of being and thinking and acting that nurture interruptions—which all pave the way to dysfunctional unhappiness—that I can control.

So that’s my next project. Adjacent to the ongoing one, and my other creative and professional work.

I’ll tell you about it, bit by bit.

Now I have to go meditate. Then let my mind wander. Have some fabulous sex.

Sleep.”

But, um… instead, after the film, I come home to was-asleep-but-is-now-awake Ender and sit with him for near an hour until he falls back asleep, and then, I want to sleep, not write, myself. So, I do. And the next day, I’m up at 6:17 am doing all the things, and getting picked up before 8 am by a friend and going to an all-day workshop and…

I finish the post there, in-between presentations, pitches, meet-ups.

Rhythm?

Flow?

Sort of.

Rhythm, interrupted?

Sure. Hey, there’s my title.

xoxo

“Jane”

PS A shameless plug for Sean’s amazing work again—Check out the ART ENABLED LIFE project, either via its website, or if you’re a Facebook user, on its Facebook Page. The eleven films featuring eleven artists in dialogue with middle school students about how art builds resiliency (and other beautiful insights) are also live on Youtube now, and they will change your life.

Breaking habits, keeping friends, looking for methadone

I.

I am drinking self-made almond milk, spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom, and heated into a marvellous froth. It is creamy, tingly, delicious… and all I can think about is how much better it would be with… coffee.

I’ve been trying to not drink coffee for somewhere between four and six months now.

I have never missed a lover, my children, or any experience, ever, as I now miss my black drug.

II.

Cinder: Anyone want lettuce? Only slightly used?

Jane: No, nobody wants your used lettuce.

Cinder: I didn’t bite it. I just took it off my burger.

Heaven forbid the teenager eat something green. Please don’t judge me if he gets scurvy. I keep the house stocked in limes.

And also vegetables.

But I don’t think most of them ever make it down to his stomach.

Still. He’s like six feet eighteen inches (I exaggerate only slightly) and he’s only fifteen. I guess he’s not that malnourished.

This has nothing to do with my coffee saga. He just happened to wander into the kitchen while I was writing this.

III.

So, this isn’t going to be a painful, TMI, self-confessional post about addictions. But I do want to tell you, I started drinking alcohol—mostly wine—dysfunctionally four years and four-five weeks ago, more or less to the day; I quit drinking dysfunctionally three years less four-five weeks ago today.

It was a rather interesting experience, my year of using alcohol as numbing-coping-we-will-get-through-this tool. Like so many of life’s most intense experiences,  its pathos, its impact… and its hidden (or not so hidden) lessons and consequences are visible only in retrospect. At the time, all I was doing was opening a bottle of wine every night. To have with dinner.

There was nothing weird about it. Everyone else around me was doing it too… (See: Running On Empty + A Lost Year)

But, I put the brakes on that quite quickly and, really, all things considered, easily, once I noticed what the hell I was doing. I like to think I’m either too self-aware or too contrary to really cultivate addictions and excessively self-destructive behaviours.

Or so I tell myself as I engage in my newest vice, lighting each cigar, reaching for each sheesha toke with a sick combination of clinical self-awareness and abandoned hedonism. I know the danger of letting the smoke swirl in my mouth, nose, lungs. But there is something about that experience… What am I chasing in that moment? What is it that I am craving? I dive into the crevices of the vice and craving—and, sometimes, surrender to it willingly… other times, fight it, win, feel self-righteous and powerful… sometimes, lose… feel shame, learn compassion.

IV.

Flora: Worst! Parents! Ever!

So what happened was, she dropped a pizza slice on her foot and got burned by the pizza sauce.

And we laughed.

Flora: Aren’t you going to help me?

Sean: Are you asking me to lick the pizza sauce off your foot and the floor? Cause that’s gross.

Jane: No. But I’m going to blog about it.

Flora: Worst. Parents. Ever.

She’s so lucky. Do you think she’ll ever realize how lucky she is, she was?

Maybe when she’s 40. Right now, she’s 12. And we suck.

Flora: Why don’t you blog about how you can’t stop whining about how much you miss coffee instead?

Worst. Child. Ever.

I’m kidding. ;P I know how lucky I am.

Jane: Threat fail. Already doing it.

V.

I am not, by the way, whining incessantly about how much I miss coffee. What I am doing is… I am exploring, and curbing, my coffee drinking habit.

I’m exploring (and curbing) it because the unadulterated joy it used to bring to me—I don’t think I can ever fully express to you just how much I loved every aspect of my morning (afternoon) (it’s not really evening yet) coffee, from the sound of the beans dropping into the grinder to its whirr (it was musical), the slowly released and changing smells, the visual pleasure of watching steam rise from the kettle, the sound the water made when I poured it over the ground beans in the Bodum (yessssss), the first sip—the last sip—every sip in-between, OMFG, I miss that experience so much, I WANT MY COFFEE NOW… but that unadulterated joy?

It’s gone.

It was gradual. A slight discomfort in the belly, a strange feeling in my throat. Bitterness on my tongue… the slow (I fought against it so hard) realization that something—metabolism, taste buds, lining of the gut, sensory perception, whatever—had changed, I wasn’t enjoying that first sip, the last sip, the in-between sips very much at all, and I was suffering after, and my coffee habit was just… a habit.

The joy of which was… problematic.

The indulgence of which was… possibly, probably a caffeine addiction.

VI.

Jane: Ender, put your dirty dishes into the sink. Into the sink. Into the… thank you.

So much of parenting, have you noticed, is helping children cultivate positive habits… and discourage negative ones. And so much parenting, good and bad, is… a habit.

You create a habit of… morning fights to rush out the door, for example. Bedtime struggles. Fights over tooth brushing.

Or, you create the habit of… slow mornings. Chill bedtimes. Etctera.

Flora: The habit of ignoring your children while you write.

Jane: I work very hard to cultivate that habit. Now stop looking over my shoulder and go make some art or something.

Flora: Can I watch a show?

Jane: It’s up to you which habit you choose to feed.

Flora: World’s. Most. Annoying. Mother.

Whatever. ;P

VII.

The spiced almond milk tastes good. It warms my throat and slides easily into my gut. It makes me feel good.

I am enjoying it.

I don’t… love it.

I fucking love my coffee.

VIII.

I’m sitting across a cafe table from you, as you drink your coffee, and OMFG, can you feel, smell my hunger? I am drinking you drinking. I want you to slow down and savour—really savour—every sip so that I can prolong the experience.

“How’s your tea?” you ask.

I grimace.

Tea-like.

Not coffee like.

Inferior.

Crappy methadone, and I miss my heroin.

IX.

Here is a fascinating video from Kurzesagt about what really causes addiction.

There are socially sanctioned addictions too. And so many of our habits, good and bad, are formed in community. My year of dysfunctional drinking was fully supported and fostered by my community (we were all suffering, coping, dysfunctionally drinking together). Coffee is what you and I used to meet for, remember?

I hate meeting you for tea.

Sometimes, breaking a habit means breaking a relationship. Losing a community.

Ugh, why did that get so heavy?

I don’t want to lose you along with coffee (the wine). I promise. But I need you to help me… break this habit. And become part of my new one.

X.

The almond milk is almost gone and its dregs, because it is homemade (so domestic goddess, so not me) and imperfectly strained (that’s more me), are pretty chewy. I drink them anyway. I like my coffee chewy.

In that last sip, my methadone is just a little more heroin like.

I swallow it, chew it with joy.

xoxo

“Jane”

PS I. Miss. Coffee.

PPS I make it. Or pour myself, a little, from a pot someone’s made. I remember… I remember how good it felt. How much I wanted it. I taste it. It fails me. And yet… I still miss it. Crave it. Intensely. The chemical caffeine addiction is long gone, I think. It must be. The rut of the habit, the memory of the ritual—my longing for that once-effective hit? God. It is yet to fade.

PPPS I had a cup this morning. With coconut milk, ginger, and cinnamon. I almost enjoyed it… with some additional, complicated feelings mixed in.

 

FIND “JANE”:

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Dharma, slowing down time, & beauty in the ordinary

I.

Ender and two of his friends have just finished beating the shit out of each other on our trampoline. Well. Play-wrestling. Apparently. But there was screaming and taunting and swearing, and I think possibly a bloody nose. I tossed a roll of toilet paper off the balcony—my nod to helicopter parenting.

Now, they’re sitting on the trampoline, pretending to meditate.

It’s fucking adorable.

Cross-legged. Hands on their knees in gyan mudra. Eyes closed. Except when they peek them open to see if the others are meditating as well.

II.

Today marks six solid months of meditation practice for me, the first time in my life that I have ever—well, so many, firsts, actually. Not just the first time I’ve meditated for a sustained period of time—the first time I’ve meditated, ever. Sure, there were the five minutes of “meditation” at the end of my martial arts classes way back in the day—but let’s be honest, all we did was close our eyes and pant and try to slow our breath down and stop our hearts from exploding out of our chests. Plus, we only did it because the instructor told us to do it.

Compulsory practices don’t count.

I think it’s also the first time I’ve ever consciously and conscientiously engaged in anything like spiritual practice. I don’t count the prayers and masses of my compulsory Catholic childhood: a child does not choose, consciously and conscientiously, her religious beliefs and practices. And, indeed, as soon as I could choose—I chose to not just step away, but to run away screaming.

I flirted with Neo-Paganism and Wicca for a while after that. It was my methadone before the heroin of full-on atheism.

And now I’m meditating.

It’s really weird.

And I keep on being told I’m doing it wrong.

But I’m doing it.

At least once a day, most days twice.

III.

I’m doing it, because, dharma.

Dharma is an annoying Sanskirt word that means, almost, whatever it is that you want it to mean at the moment you’re deploying it. For me, right now, it means, purpose. With a capital P, I suppose. Maybe in all caps to boot. PURPOSE. As in, “What the hell is my purpose in life?”

IV.

When Cinder was five or six, one of his aunties asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He gave her this withering look and said… “Me.”

Fuck.

Me too.

When I grow up, I want to be me.

So… I’m all grown up now, right? And I’m me. Is that it? Am I the me I’m supposed to be? What does “supposed to” mean, anyway? Who decides? Just me? Who am I?

OMFG, my head hurts…

And is the very fact that I’m engaging in all this obnoxious navel gazing just proof that my life is too easy and I have too much time on my hands?

V.

Wait. No. That is not possible. I feel a scarcity, a paucity of time. So much to do so much to do so much to do. Not enough… too much? What a thought. Is it possible?

I watch Ender and his gang fake meditate on the trampoline and I close my eyes to join them—invite enlightenment.

Her: You know that’s not how enlightenment works, right?

Jane: Nobody knows how enlightenment works. My ignorance is really not significantly greater than anyone else’s.

It doesn’t come—enlightenment—but I do decide that I’m definitely not bored. I’m meditating in part in pursuit of boredom—I mean, stillness. That’s the word. Stillness. I want stillness. Silence. To slow the world—time—down a little. So that I can pay attention to it more fully. Because it is precious and beautiful just because it is, and I want to… I want to live it, breathe it, experience it… document it.

That, I think, is my dharma.

I experience things, the world, life… and I write it all down so other people can share that experience too.

There. That. My dharma, my purpose, the driving force in my life since I was four years old.

The problem—you knew a problem was coming, right?—the problem is that it just doesn’t seem… big enough.

You know? Shouldn’t my Purpose be something bigger than writing very ordinary stories about very ordinary things?

VI.

Flora has spent much of the last three, four days working on this poster. It’s beautiful and amazing, but she said I couldn’t show it to you.

So just imagine something beautiful… right here:

 

[this space intentionally left blank]

 

I don’t ask her… why. To what purpose. She doesn’t ask herself, either. There is no need. It is blindingly obvious, to her.

I don’t think she cares if it’s not blindingly obvious to the rest of the world.

VII.

I would like to make it clear to you—if it’s not blindingly obvious, because, as I am a self-conscious grown-up and not a yet-unspoilt child, I care, a little—that I am not a Buddhist, nor attempting to be one.

I’m chasing dharma, but fuck, I love desire. Desire is the fuel of… well, everything.

One of the books that I’ve been using to obsess about dharma is called The Four Desires, by Rod Stryker. Its entire first section is called Life is Desire. I love it. Stryker frames desire and dharma in terms that resonate with my practical poet’s soul:

Your soul has four distinct desires… The first of these four desires is dharma, the desire to become who you were meant to be. It is the longing to thrive, and, in the process, to fulfill your unique purpose; it is the drive to fulfill your destiny.

Right? Purpose, with a capital P, and in all caps to boot. But, there’s more:

The second is artha, the desire for the means (such as money, security, health) to help you fulfill your dharma. The third desire is kama, the longing for pleasure in any and all forms. The fourth is moksha the desire for spiritual realization and ultimate freedom; it is the intrinsic desire to be free from the burdens of the world, even as you participate fully in it.

Rod Stryker, The Four Desires

Moksha and I have just the most passing, casual of relationships—I think it’s possible it will come on me in old age (religion often does). Right now, I’m all about dharma. Artha and kama matter only as they support it. It is fascinating, really. The intensity of the desire to live, to fulfill my… dharma.

VIII.

I feel goofy writing, owning that. Especially when I look at my children. Who seem to simply… embody and live their dharma. Not, you know… existentially angst over it. At all.

IX.

The boy meditation session on the trampoline below me has again deteriorated into a wrestling match. And this time, not bloody, but out of joint noses. Ender leaves his friends to come sit with me. He wants to do a puzzle. He asks for help he doesn’t really need: what he needs is my attention.

I put away my laptop and my existential angst, and give my undivided attention to the boy and the puzzle.

Time slows down.

I’m… to be honest, I’m a little bored.

I explore the feeling.

X.

Just in case you were waiting for some kind of mind-blowing, insightful wrap-up here… that’s not how enlightenment works.

But this is how serendipity works. I remember, that while I was listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons, during her conversation with Martha Beck, Beck said something along the lines of, “Living with my son is like living with a Zen master.” (One of Beck’s children, Adam, has Down Syndrome; Beck wrote about the life-changing experience of his diagnosis, birth and their ensuing life in Expecting Adam). I type “Martha Beck” and “living with a Zen master” into Google, looking for, what? I’m not sure—something to round out the story of Ender’s trampoline meditations and Flora’s art practice, maybe?

Instead, I get this:

Our culture has created two almost irreconcilable descriptions of a “good woman.” The first is the individual achiever; the second, the self-sacrificing domestic goddess. I found that women fell into one of four categories: those who’d chosen career (and were very conflicted); those who put family first (and were very conflicted); those who’d combined work and family (and were very, very conflicted); and mystics.

Mystics? Where the hell did that category come from? It was so unexpected that I did years of interviews without even noticing that the calmest, happiest women had all experienced a kind of satori: Faced with two mutually contradictory options, they had discovered and come to trust an intensely personal inner voice. Each had found some method of detaching utterly from social context, connecting deeply with inner peace, and carrying that peace with them back into their hectic lives.

Martha Beck, “Yes? No? Maybe? How to Make Decisions,” September 29, 2013

OK.

That helps.

That actually… really helps.

Me, anyway.

Does it help you?

xoxo

“Jane”

Time, Magic Lessons, Hitchhiking & Silence: an only slightly annoying meditation

For… um, I’m sorry, I never asked your name. Travel safe.

I.

Today is the first day of the rest of my life. How about yours?

How do you feel about me throwing that cliche at you? Are you embracing it joyously—are you filled with the desire to use PicMonkey or equivalent to turn it into an Insta-Graphic and send it into social media memeland?

Or do you want to throw a handful of mud at my smug face and tell me to go fuck myself and my empty platitudes?

II.

My kitchen sink is, miraculously, empty this morning. Flora put all the dishes away before she went to bed, and, as Cinder is 600 kilometres away, he did not spend the night eating and filling it up again. I stand in front of the empty sink in the morning and fill up with gratitude… and then immense sadness.

As I make the coffee I’m no longer really drinking, I cry and miss my son.

III.

(My face, by the way, is not smug.)

IV.

I drive 500 miles and 500 more to Kelowna most years since my Marie and her brood moved out there. I didn’t go last year, and we suffered. I mean, Marie and mine’s connection. There is only so much you can do by text, Facebook, the occasional phone call. Real relationships require real life, real time, person-to-person investment. Snotting on each other’s flesh and blood shoulders, not just cyber ones.

So this year, I drive Cinder and his friend to Kelowna, to visit their forever friends, and mine, over four days I wrench from a too-heavy schedule. I leave Calgary a few hours after attending a “can’t-miss-it-you-are-so-important-to-me” event; I come back a few hours before an important (yes, it really is) community planning meeting.

In-between, Marie and I squeeze in urgent together time. Precious but also exhausting: we do not have time on this visit for leisurely conversations that meander and unfold. We have very little time for each other, really: we are mostly ferrying six manic boys (and their bikes) around.

It’s all right, we tell each other.

It’s their time more than it is ours.

Our time will come… when?

V.

I am having an uncomfortable relationship with time right now. It feels like my most precious and most finite resource. I feel I don’t have enough of it—I hate feeling that way. After all, time is… time is time. We actually have all the time in the world, right? Sixty minutes in an hour, twenty-four hours in a day, seven days in a week, 365 days in a year…

Where the fuck have the last 365 days gone? Actually, the first half of them, I can account for rationally. The last half? These last six months?

I feel I have blinked and they have disappeared.

VI.

My time in Kelowna is both too short and too long. Too short, because, Marie, soul sister conversations, beauty, beaches—and the world’s best Value Village—I swear, people, the Kelowna Value Village is a fucking treasure trove. (Would that I had more time to explore it this time: I do find a pair of gorgeous yet practical and virtually unworn shoes.)

Too long, because… so much to do so much to do so much to do.

I hate it. I hate that feeling. That feeling of time slipping through my fingers, of the pace of my days moving too fast, of never feeling on top of things, of never feeling done… or allowed to rest.

I hate it.

I watch the boys plan their days and all the things they want to do on this trip with a total disregard for the reality, the tyranny of time.

I love it.

I envy them.

I watch them with love—and envy—and maybe, I think, maybe I learn something.

VII.

I leave Cinder behind in Kelowna and I leave Marie’s house early in the morning on a Sunday for the near-eight hour drive back home.

I am…

(Don’t throw the mud pie at my face.)

I am aware that today is the first day of the rest of my life. As they all are.

And that I can think I don’t have time, I don’t have time, I don’t have time… or I can have all the time in the world.

I plug my phone into the AUX port and start playing Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast.

She’s going to be my companion and the background to my silent meditations on this precious solo trip home.

Eight hours. Alone.

If you’re a parent, if you live amidst a web of obligations—no matter how willingly entered into—you know how precious each of those eight hours is.

VIII.

I pull over to pick up the hitchhiker just outside Revelstoke. It’s 10 a.m., and I feel the bone-tiredness and fuzzy-headedness that comes not so much from not enough sleep but not enough good sleep.

He’s in his 50s—maybe 40s. He has the weathered-withered look of a person who works outside, who works with his body. Also, the withered-weathered look of a person who’s suffered.

All his worldly possessions in a backpack about the same size as the backpack I took with me to Kelowna.

It’s sweltering hot already, and there is no shade where he is standing. I see car after car whiz by and I actually whiz by too… I want to be alone. With Liz Gilbert (who’s already annoying me, but I am learning things in-between), and with my thoughts and meditations. With myself.

I look in the rear view mirror, and I see his shoulders slump, and I think—fuck it. I can make one human being’s life easier today.

And I don’t actually have to make mine harder.

He runs to the truck. And looks startled when he opens the door. It’s interesting: I hear the thought as sharply as if he had spoken it, “Lady, you should not be picking up hitchhikers.”

“Where are you going?” I ask.

“Calgary,” he says.

I nod.

“I have a request,” I tell him. “I’m happy to give you a ride all the way to Calgary. But I don’t want to talk. About anything. Not where you’re from or where you’re going or the weather. Nothing. I’m going to be listening to these podcasts the whole ride and thinking and occasionally murmuring to myself. From you, I would like silence.”

“Works for me,” he says.

And we go.

IX.

Ferrying six teenage boys around Kelowna, from beach to park to waterfall to beach, one becomes hyper-aware how precious silence is. Ditto–living with three children, in a community full of children, in which gangs of seven-year-old boys alternate places with gangs of preteen-oh-no-they’re-teenagers-now! girls in my living room.

Their noise—especially when happy—is precious too.

But silence—fuck, silence is a gift from god.

The hitchhiker does not say a word for five hours.

Our ride is a prayer.

X.

Elizabeth Gilbert and her guests share a lot of insightful things in Magic Lessons. Although—did I tell you, I find Liz annoying? It’s because she’s… so fucking perky.

I guess that’s why I didn’t like Eat Pray Love, either.

I’m not perky.

But every once in a while, despite being annoyed by Gilbert’s perkiness, I do… perk up.

It’s a nice feeling.

interruptions

(this, by the way, is the point in the composition at which I was thrown off by life. Ender was hungry. Flora needed a hug. A bookstore owner pinged me in a panic, and I had to run to the print shop and then the post office. In-between there was also lunch, four attempts to set up interviews, and a phone call from the dentist. But, there was also a nap and meditation (interrupted by the phone call from the dentist). Still. With all of that, I am having a hard time picking up the thread. Platitudes. Time. Silence. Perky.

Busy.

Time

Today is the first day… Yes. Right there.)

XI.

Today is the first day of the rest of my life.

On Sunday, I shared five silent hours of my life with a stranger.

Grateful.

I came home to joy and hugs… and then was promptly abandoned by the children who “We missed you so much, Mommy!” but who wanted, in the moment, to be with their friends more.

I took the opportunity to fold into Sean’s arms, and he took the opportunity to take me down to the bedroom and take off my clothes.

Ender knocked on the bedroom door about three seconds post climax.

“What do you need, dude?”

“I need to hug Mommy!”

Grateful.

Also… you know. Other things.

I am not sure my mountain meditation to the soundtrack of Elizabeth Gilbert and the silence of my traveling companion solved anything for me. Or gave me clarity. Penetrating insight.

But I wasn’t really looking for that, anyway.

I was looking for… time.

And time… I got.

All the time in the world.

xoxo

“Jane”

interlude: a perfectly ordinary monday

Prologue

It was a Monday, and I want to tell you about that Monday on this Monday, because there was absolutely nothing special about it.

And it was marvelous.

I.

I woke up squeezed, the cement between Ender’s sticky stinky back—Christ, that child needs a bath and a reminder to change his shirt—and his father’s cool front, his hot breath on my neck. Stretched, opened eyes, closed them. It was a Monday, I knew, and I could wake up now, go make coffee, start writing… or wait, wait, stay tucked in-between the sheets and my loves, and Sean’s alarm would go off, and he’d get up, sigh, stretch—then meander up the stairs, make the coffee before heading up to the shower.

What do you think I did?

interlude-within-interlude

I love waking up to made coffee. I love making coffee too—my relationship with the black drug is both dysfunctional and erotic—but I love having it made for me more.

II.

The coffee was just ready to be pressed when I walked into the kitchen. I kissed Sean’s neck, then cheek. Poured that first cup, body taut with anticipation. Oh, yes. The smell.

Then—cinnamon. Cardamom. Liquid whipped cream—never, ever, love, offer me skim milk or diary substitute for my coffee. No, nor half-and-half—if we are to sin, let us sin fully, never in tepid, dietary half-measures.

Then I wrote.

Three pages of shit. Really. There were, in those three pages, two, three good sentences and one decent phrase—and three or four paragraphs that, down the line, may become a good chapter. But, generally… shit.

Three pages of it.

It happens like that sometimes.

III.

Sean needed me to drive him to work, but that’s not why he brought me a second cup of coffee—cinnamon, cardamom, whipped cream added, but of course—and when I drank it—pen scratching paper, one dull sentence after another—I felt so loved I think I managed to write a phrase that didn’t suck.

We left the house at 8:40, leaving the younger two eating cereal and chips and salsa in the living room while watching age inappropriate Netflix programming.

We drove in silence. I don’t like to talk in the morning—there are too many thoughts to speak. I was back at 9:04. Flora and Ender were still eating and consuming How I Met Your Mother. “Today’s our binge day, right?” Ender checked in. I nodded. Poured a third cup of coffee. Cardamom. Cinnamon.

Fuck, out of whipped cream.

life hack

Time is perhaps my most precious commodity—and it is not that I do not have enough time—I have as much of it as you, as everyone: twenty-four precious hours in every precious day, seven days in every week, and 30 to 31 days a month, except in February…

And I work very diligently at not being overscheduled or rushed, at not overscheduling or rushing my family.

I work, quite creatively, I think, at finding ways to make my time work for me, for them.

“Binge days” are one of my tools. On Mondays and Thursdays, I outsource parenting to the iPads and laptops. The kids can watch, play anything all day (the rest of the week, we are screen-free until after supper). I don’t make breakfast, lunch, snacks—I am effectively unavailable to the children until 4, 4:30 when I will make them supper… although it will probably be hot dogs or ramen noodles. Those are the days that I sink into my work… or leave the house, meet friends, occasionally roam the streets aimlessly for hours—that too is part of the process.

III.

I drank the coffee black while revising and rehearsing “If Nikita Krushchev had to wash a bra in Cuba.” The children were quiet so I thought I’d record it—but Sean had taken the laptop with Adobe Audition to work, so no, that wouldn’t work… what next? Another postcard, “Homesick,” yes, this one needed more work, a lot more work, and there was a piece missing—did I not write down a conversation I had with Lazaro—he asked me, “Do you miss home,” and I said… where is it?

Found it. Yes.

I don’t usually clean on binge days but on this Monday, the house looked the way Eastern Europe did when the Mongols rode through it on a thirteenth century Sunday, so on the way upstairs to pee, I swept the living room and asked the kids to pick up those things from the dust pile they did not want to end up in the garbage. After peeing, I cleaned the bathroom—because I was there, and because the Mongols had been there too.

explanation

Marie’s elder two boys were visiting Cinder the week prior (and the week that would follow). There was much joy. And really, comparatively controlled destruction. But having four boys (I absolve the man from blame) pee in one bathroom for however many days straight… no way was I going to have a shower or bath until I cleaned it thoroughly.

And also, lit some incense…

IV.

I read “Homesick” again, revised it a little, saw that you texted, decided to ignore you while I thought about what was wrong with “Homesick,” got hungry.

Made fava beans for myself and helped Ender make a cheese tortilla with salsa—washed dishes while the beans cooked—thought about a woman named Molly Jones and someone  currently represented in the manuscript as [S.C./X]—asked the kids if they needed anything—chopped parsley and cilantro, got it all over the floor but did not clean it up.

Ate while reading Gut: The Inside Story Of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders, and I think you might enjoy reading it too.

Texted you, then got a great idea for how to illustrate “Homesick,” and that entailed taking a photograph of… did I know where it was, I did, found it, did it.

Ate one more spoonful of my fava bean mush.

Remembered that while I was writing my shitty morning pages I was thinking that I was running out of clothes and that if I wanted to have socks to wear for tomorrow, I ought to put in a load of laundry, so I went upstairs to start the water running for my bath, and then ran downstairs to put in a load of my clothes.

Made it upstairs before the tub overflowed, and that made me so happy.

Bath, in the dark, incense. No candles today.

True story: no one interrupted me while I bathed. Not a single one of the children needed to pee, vomit or brush their teeth.

It was glorious.

I had an idea.

I didn’t write it down. But it stayed.

insight

I’ve been reading a little, again, about writers and writing—journaling and writing practice in particular, because, I don’t know, I’m stuck, bored? Something’s coming—I feel restless and unsettled, and I have these two, three projects in hand right now, but I think something else is coming, and I’m not sure I have the tools… where was I?

I’ve been reading a little, again, about writers and writing—which is procrastination disguised as professional development—and among the things the gurus are in agreement about is that you must write things down, have notebooks, pencils (phones with notepad apps) about you at all times to jot down ideas, inspiration. I don’t know, I guess it doesn’t hurt…

But the good ideas, they stay. In fact, they refuse to leave, the invasive, demanding, clamorous bastards.

Clamorous is a nice word. Try to use it today in a casual conversation; better yet, at a board room table.

V.

Took the neglected dog for a walk. Flora came with. The weather was blustery; we were happy.

I had a lot of thoughts.

The dog found some disgusting garbage to eat—a piece of meat tied around a string, what the fuck—and I had to ram my hand down her throat to pull it out, yuck, yuck, gross—so grateful Flora was with me so that she could open doors for me as I ran into the house to wash my disgusting hand.

“Don’t say you hate the dog,” Flora forestalled me.

“OK,” I agreed. But I thought it.

unsolicited advice

Dogs and children do not go together. This is a horrible myth perpetuated by Hollywood? 1950s children’s books? Something. I don’t know. Please, for the love of the dog you are going to neglect, listen to me: if you are pregnant, if you are planning to have children soon—if you have small children: DO NOT GET A DOG.

It’s fine. I know you’re not going to listen. When you do get your dog, and neglect it, and don’t particularly love it, come back and let me say, “I told you so.”

Marie, by the way, I totally blame you. You should have stopped me.

VI.

Sat down and wrote for 75 minutes straight. Fucking gold. Every word worth keeping.

Well. Ok, 25 per cent of them would be cut later. In the moment, though—I was 100 per cent satisfied.

As a result, I decided to make the children mashed potatoes and breaded chicken cutlets for dinner, instead of the Mr. Noodles Ramen they were probably expecting.

Thought about you, a little. Of course I did. Listened to Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking while peeling the potatoes and seasoning the chicken.

Finally cleaned the muffin in which I had made Eggs A La Janine last weekend, and ugh, it was disgusting.

a recipe: eggs a la Janine

If you ever want to feed six to twelve people piping hot bacon and eggs that are all ready at the same time, you will need a dozen (or two eggs), as many slices of bacon as you have eggs, and a muffin tin (or two).

Cut a bit off each bacon slice—just enough to fit in the bottom of each muffin hole. Put that bit in the bottom, then take the rest of the slice and put it inside the hole: yes, you’ve just made a muffin cup out of bacon. Repeat with all your bacon slices… and now break an egg into each cup.

Bake for 12-20 minutes (depending on how set you like your eggs) at 350 degrees. Yum.

VII.

When Sean came home, we ate very quickly, did a half-ass job of cleaning the kitchen, and ran to listen to some people talk about art.

When we came home, we talked about art some more. Read books to the still-awake kids—dammit, sometimes, when we go out at night, they put themselves to bed, but no, that Monday they waited for us.

Scratch that dammit. It was lovely.

Then, sex.

Sleep.

*

Epilogue

Later that week—it was on a Saturday—I would meet a woman named Karen Pheasant who came into my life solely to tell me that she lived a creative non-fiction life.

Me too, sister. Me too.

The artists talking about art didn’t talk about this, but another artist—also a zoologist—calls art making the extra-ordinary out of the ordinary.*

I like that definition. Mostly.

Except… if you really pay attention to things… is anything ever ordinary?

So then… is everything art?

So then, I thought about you and all the things I hadn’t told you since the last time I saw you.

Here you go. They are all contained in the story of this one monday.

Isn’t that extra-ordinary?

“Jane”

Cigar Smoke Selfie Modified

A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #12

A conversation:

Ender: Oooh, one more chocolate croissant, yum!

Jane: Oh, yeah, one more. Do you want to share it with Flora and Cinder?

Ender: No. I want to share it by myself.

Ta-dum.

September 12, 2012

A reading assignment that will change your life:

How To Do Nothing With Nobody All By Yourself by Robert Paul Smith

and if you cannot get a hold of that, read In Defense of Boredom: 200 Years of Ideas on the Virtues of Not-Doing from Some of Humanity’s Greatest Minds on (where else) BrainPickings.

 

A writing exercise to do instead of checking Facebook:

Pen. Notebook. Or, laptop. First four words: “I was bored, so…”

 

An explanation:

This is the final week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL! Actually, I’m back—home sweet home—but 12 seemed like a more… symmetrical? number than 11, and I thought I’d want a week to settle. The conversation + reading assignment + writing exercise + re-run wraps up today. Next week—something utterly new.

Until then…

Enjoy.

 

A re-run:

Everyone Isn’t An Artist

first published March 25, 2012

There is a lovely quote attributed to Pablo Picasso along the lines that, “ “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” In Quest Theatre’s production of For Art’s Sake, the lovely children’s play that played last weekend at Y-Stage in Calgary, the playwright and authors draw attention a couple of times to another Picasso soundbyte on art: that the great master spend most of his adult life trying to paint (think?) like a child. The message of the play, delivered repeatedly by one of the characters and proudly parroted back at the actors at the end of the play by my own Flora? “Everyone is an artist.”

Except they’re not.

A caveat before I go any further: I enjoyed the play—the actors were terrific, the setting and its use of multi-media inspired, and the little people loved it. I love Quest Theatre. I support Y-Stage unreservedly and will be back for their offering next month (here’s a link to details about the show at FamilyFunCalgary).

But I disagree with its fundamental tenant. Everyone is not an artist… and I’m not sure why these days, artists are so darn determined to convince the rest of us that a) they’re not that special and b) if only we opened our minds / cleaned our chakras / freed our inner elves, we could do what they do.

I am a writer. I don’t think everyone is a writer. Nor that everyone should exert themselves to be a writer, to express themselves, fulfill themselves—earn a livelihood for themselves—in this particular way. If everyone is an artist, is everyone an engineer? A plumber? A mathematician?

My artist child is shining under the influence of the play. She’s an artist. And she loves the message that everyone is an artist. It’s reassuring to her fledgling confidence.

Her older brother? He laughed in all the funny spots. Clearly enjoyed himself. As we leave the theatre, however, he’s unforgiving. “It was kind of crappy,” he says. “Art this art that. I don’t like art. I don’t like drawing or painting very much. Or even looking at pictures. That’s just not my thing.”

He’s not an artist. Nor a thwarted artist—not an artist denied. Surrounded by paints, crayons, markers, pencils, chalks, in a house in which walls were prepped for painting and drawing on, he abandoned all that as soon as he grew into consciousness of choice. That is not how he expresses himself, fulfills himself, processes information, relaxes.

But it is what his sister turns to do all that. She draws when she’s overflowing with happiness. And when she’s sad. When she’s at a loss. It’s what she does when she listens to books on tape. Her handwriting practice sheets are works of art—an interplay of colour, patterns, creation. Will this love stay her lifelong passion, lead her to her livelihood, or remain a steadfast companion/form of release and expression throughout her life?

Maybe. And will she try to convince her brother that he’s an artist too? That everyone is an artist?

Frankly, I hope not. It’s a gift, a talent, a passion that not everyone shares or aspires to. And claiming that they do denigrates its meaning. Its value.

Everyone’s not an artist.

What do you think?

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A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #10

A conversation:

Jane: I don’t understand. I don’t understand how two people who love each other as much as I know you two do can fight so much!

Flora: Oh, Mom. Don’t worry. We’re just like Sadie and Carter. (Sadie and Carter Kane, from The Kane Chronicles.)

Cinder: Yeah, we fight all the time…

Flora: … but we cooperate when it matters.

Cinder: Yeah, we’d totally work together to save the world. Right, Flora?

Flora: Right… Ouch! Why’d you punch me?

Cinder: The world is not in peril right now.

June 15, 2012

A reading assignment that will change your life:

On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 7.08.45 PM

Preview the book’s insights on BrainPickings: How kindness became our guilty pleasure.

 

A writing exercise (that is also a secret discipline tool) to do instead of breaking up the latest fight between your kids:

Script the next fight between your kids. Then have them act it out. Present the play to your partner when s/he gets home.

Variant: the next time your kids are fighting, whip out your notebook or laptop and start transcribing

 

An explanation:

This is the tenth week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to nothingbythebook@gmail.com).

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.

Enjoy.

 

A re-run:

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

First published July 30, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom?”

“Sleep, Flora.”

“Does Monday come after Sunday?”

“Yes. Sleep, Flora.”

“Is tomorrow Sunday?”

“Yes. Sleep, baby.”

“And then Monday?”

“Mmmm.”

“Good. I have plans on Monday.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Koala sleeping on a tree top

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

A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #9

A conversation:

Cinder: I like being nine. Halfway to 18.

Jane: Excited about being able to vote?

Cinder: What? No–excited about being able to own a gun!

(I might have gone horribly wrong somewhere here…)

May 24, 2011

A reading assignment that will change your life:

Louise De Salvo’s The Art of Slow Writing.

It’s a slow read… not exciting… but. Useful.

 

A writing exercise to do instead of doing the laundry:

What are you wearing? What do you wish you were wearing? What does that sanctimonious woman standing behind you on the subway platform think about each outfit? Is she just thinking this… or is she one of those people who’s gonna tell you what she thinks, good or bad?

Use lots of mind-dialogue.

 

An explanation:

This is the ninth week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to nothingbythebook@gmail.com).

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.

Enjoy.

 

A re-run:

 Mittens

first published January 1, 2014

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

He plops down on the sled in a Buddha pose.

“Mittens?”

I ask, kneeling down beside him.

“No! My hands are NOT cold!”

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

I shrug. Get up. Start pulling the sled.

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

“Mittens?”

“No.”

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

I turn around.

“Mittens?”

“No. Not cold.”

Mittens Pin

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

“Mittens?”

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

“Mittens?”

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

“Mittens?” I repeat.

“No.”

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

I look over my shoulder…

“Mittens?”

“Not! Cold!”

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

“Mom? My hands are cold.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck, yeah, it’s a metaphor.

Jane

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

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

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

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

A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #8

A conversation:

Flora to Cinder: Ex-boyfriend means your friend used to be a boy, but now he’s a girl.

December 16, 2010

A reading assignment that will change your life:

Margaret Reynold’s The Sappho Companion.

Also, Margaret Reynold’s The Sappho History and Willis Barnestone’s The Complete Sappho and Erica Jong’s Sappho’s Leap (the first three chapters; you can give up after that without guilt).

A writing exercise to do instead of washing the kitchen floor:

Sappho’s poems came down only in fragments—and they are still beautiful. These are two  of my favourites:

Sappho1

and…

Sappho2

 

So now. Write a handful of sentences. Ordinary sentences about the things you’ve done today, yesterday, this week. Rip each sentence into… words.

And play with them.

Maybe something beautiful will happen…

An explanation:

This is the eighth week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um… or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to nothingbythebook@gmail.com).

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.

Enjoy.

A re-run:

Cinder and Flora become Hellenic Pagans

first published October 25, 2011

It started in the Spring of 2011, and is still here. Ancient Greece. Now Ancient Rome. Cinder and Flora getting as thorough a grounding in Greek mythology and the foundation of Western civilization as the average first-year university Classics student. Here’s how it happened. Read the boring paragraph, please. You need it as a straw man to enjoy the rest of the piece.

D’Aulaires Greek Myths Study Guide (grade 3-6)

This program explores this classic of Greek mythology following the same in-depth approach used in other Memoria Press guides. Designed to be used for one year (although you may choose to go faster by combining days), each of the 30 lessons is broken down into five days. Students read the selected pages from D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths on the first day. On the second day, students familiarize themselves with the “Facts to Know”―key people, places, and objects. The goal is for students to memorize these items and retain them through the end of the year, although there is no final test in this program. The third section holds vocabulary words for students to discuss and define with their teacher and may also be used as spelling words. The fourth day holds comprehensive questions, written to capture the essence of the characters and the main idea of each story, which encourages students to think about the reading and provide meaningful answers. The final section uses the fantastic illustrations found in D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths as a springboard for further discussion questions. Review lessons appear after every fifth lesson; all vocabulary and facts from the preceding lessons are tested and recurring activities encourage children to draw a picture of their favourite god or story and work on a list of things from today which borrow the names or symbols of Greek gods and goddesses. A pronunciation guide in the back breaks down al the tricky Greek names for smoother reading. The teacher’s guide is identical to the student book except the answers are filled in.”

The above summary/review―titillating, was it? Enjoy reading it? Or did you stifle a yawn or two?―comes from the Rainbow Resource Center’s Homeschool Catalogue, and you can buy the D’Aulaires book, student and teacher guide for $40.50.

D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths is a beautiful book. I have it on our bookshelf, in fact―a gift from my good friend Lisa, who passed it on to us after her kids were done grooving with the Greeks and mine were in full Greco mode. I was thrilled: we had just maxed the number of renewals on our library copy. Flora loved sitting down with the book and looking at the pictures, and we spent many evenings with it as our bedtime reading… or morning reading… or mid-day reading.

But we never did get the study guide. Because Cinder and Flora never studied Greek mythology―and I never taught it.

This is what we did instead.

It all started in the Texas Panhandle. That’s where Hank the Cowdog hails from. Hank the Cowdog is a wonderful series of books by John Ericsson about―who else―Hank the cowdog, his sidekick Drover, his enemy Pete the barn cat and an assortment of very fallible human characters. There are 50-plus books in the Hank series, and while extremely amusing and well-written, they do tend to be just a bit… repetitive. Formulaic. After months and months of reading and listening to Hank (the author’s produced a series of audio books as well, which accompanied us on every car ride and serenaded us pretty much anytime we were in the kitchen), I was very actively looking for another obsession with which to replace Hank. Harry Potter did it for a while―we read the first four books and watched (most of) the first four movies, but he didn’t have the repeatability of Hank: the kids didn’t want to read him again and again. Once―twice for book one―was enough. (They are pretty thick books for a six year old to listen to!)

Enter Percy Jackson. He was mentioned by another homeschooling family when we were swapping favourite book stories. I filed the name away to look into―and a few days later, Cinder and his friend K watched Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief on Netflix.

Usually, I’d have us read the book before watching the movie―but here, the Fates intervened. There’s nothing wrong with The Lightening Thief as a movie―it’s a perfectly good kids’ movie. “That guy playing Percy Jackson, he’s the best actor I’ve ever seen,” said a star-struck Flora. “Luke is an awesome villain!” said Cinder. But if we had come to the movie after the books, it would have sucked. As it was, the kids enjoyed it, and were eager to

read the Percy Jackson books.

There are five of them, written by author Rick Riordan, whose first career was an an adult thriller writer, and who―like most great children’s writers seem to―invented Percy Jackson as a character about whom he spun bedtime stories for his sons. As The Lightening Thief opens, Percy is a 12 year old kid with ADHD and dyslexia―a really good kid who somehow or other keeps on getting into trouble in school after school. Weird things happen to him and around him, and not an awful lot in his life makes sense, until one day, his substitute teacher turns into a Fury and tries to kill him, his best friend turns into a satyr and tries to save him, his Latin teacher turns into a Centaur, a Minotaur appears out of nowhere and kidnaps his mother… and Percy finds out he’s the son of Poseidon.

And the adventures begin. Percy finds himself in a world where the Greek gods are real and still peopling the earth with godlings―or half-bloods or demigods in the Riordan vernacular. Percy finds a sanctuary of sorts at Camp Half-Blood―the place where demigods go for combat training―then a quest… and in the end, of course, saves the world, and Olympus. And, in the last book, when he’s 16, gets the girl.

Cinder and Flora were swept away by the story. We read the hefty Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief in three nights, and then read it again while we waited for the library to deliver the second book in the series, Sea of Monsters. They couldn’t get enough of Sea of Monsters―I took out the audio book of it as well, and when I wasn’t reading it to them, they were listening to the audio book in the kitchen, in the car―not wanting to get out of the car because they wanted to keep on listening. Battle of the Labyrinth, The Titan’s Curse and finally, The Last Olympian followed. They fell in love with the heroes of the books―Percy, the son of Poseidon, Annabeth, the daughter of Athena, Niko, son of Hades. They met Zeus, Poseidon and Hades―the “Big Three”―as well as Hephasteus, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis, Hera and, of course, Dionysus―the god of wine who for his transgressions (he ticked off Zeus by going after the wrong nymph) was the cranky and totally inappropriate headmaster of Camp Half-blood. (“Maybe if you go on this quest, you’ll die and I’ll never have to deal with you again,” he tells Percy Jackson once.) They got to know all about the “real”

Perseus, Percy Jackson’s namesake, and Theseus, and Herakles, and Dadealus, and so many more.

When we’d go to the library for the new Percy book, we’d also come back with handfuls of other books on Greek myths. D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths was a quick first favourite, as was Atticus the Storytellers 100 Greek Myths. So was Michael Townsend’s amazing Greek myths of wonder and blunders : welcome to the wonderful world of Greek mythology, a pun-filled, blood-filled comic book introduction to the world of “Greek gods, dumb sheep and people who hated pants.” George O’Connor’s amazing graphic novel series retelling first the story of Zeus, then Athena―we’re still on hold for Hera!―offered different, modern reinterpretations of the myths. The kids learned about source material and the fluidity of oral tradition. We read Homer for Children, and they got to know the heroes of Troy and the Odyssey. Flora adored the story of Persephone, so I found her all the versions of the story, including one in which Demeter is an over-bearing mother who won’t let her daughter marry and move on with life! Cinder really liked Odysseus and the dangerous sea voyages: we watched Kirk Douglas’ Ulysseus, and talked about what happened to the Greek gods―and the world―when the power of Rome rose. We watched the History Channel/A&E documentary Clash of the Gods―and we watched a few episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess. I found them audio books of the various myths, including a BBC radio production of The Odyssey.

And we went back to the Percy Jackson books and read and re-read them, and re-listened to them.

Over… how long? Complete immersion lasted about two months―May and June of 2011 had them scorning anything and everything that didn’t have the taste of ancient Greece. It continued into the summer, capping with me organizing a Percy Jackson book club meeting, in which Cinder and Flora hosted a get-together for three other families also currently obsessed with Percy Jackson. They prepared a list of questions they wanted the kids to talk about (“If you were a demigod, who would you want your godly parent to be? What sort of weapon would you want? What monster would you most want to slay―and which one are you most afraid of?”). The kids all brought weapons to the meeting―and after the discussion, went out on our Common to sword fight. (“You know it’s a good book club if there’s a sword fight afterwards.”)

And then the obsession started to wane―just in time, because we were number 89 on the wait list at the library for Rick Riordan’s next book, Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero, and we had read pretty much every good book on Greek myths and Ancient Greece in the library by then―several times over. “I need something to get the Greek gods out of my mind,” Flora told me. But Percy Jackson set the bar high. For several weeks, everything I offered them was a dud. Chronicles of Narnia? Boring. Treasure Island? Nah. The Mysterious Benedict Society? All the other kids in our Percy Jackson book club had read it and loved? Boooooring. This really cool book about samurai? Warrior cats? Killer owls?

They were mythed-out… and it took me a while to figure out, also fictioned out. We went back to Horrible Science as bedtime reading. I got The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child out of the library as an audio book for in-car listening. Ancient Greece retreated into the background.

Until… last week, we finally got The Lost Hero. And devoured the 550 page book in about a week. The library doesn’t have a copy of the next one, Son of Neptune, in yet… but Costco did. We’re reading it now. We can’t stop. Something weird’s happening: Gaea’s waking up and preparing to make war on her Olympian children again. And her Olympian children are shifting between their Greek and Roman aspects. Zeus is Zeus one minute and then he’s Jupiter. Hera’s becoming Juno… and they’re not precisely the same in those two aspects. Because Greece and Rome, well, each as a culture valued and focused on different things…

By the most fortuitous of coincidences―or was it the Fates intervening again?―The Story of the World volume we just finished covers the rise and fall of Greece and Rome. I need to check in with the library to see what they have in stock―on DVD, I think―covering the transition period. And next time we’re at the grandparents’ house, I should pull out our photo albums from Italy―standing in front of the Coliseum.

So… have Cinder and Flora explored Greek myths in depth? Hell―sorry, Hades―yeah. But they didn’t read a myth a week. They didn’t memorize “Facts to Know” with the goal of demonstrating that memorization at a test. They didn’t review vocabulary words nor endure spelling tests of the Greek gods’ names. Comprehensive questions “written to capture the essence of the characters and the main idea of each story, which encourages students to think about the reading and provide meaningful answers”? Well―they talked at length about all the stories. They asked us questions, and of each other. We asked them. They offered interpretations and impressions to interested adults, and inflicted them on completely uninterested playmates. At one point Flora wanted to learn to speak Ancient Greek―so I got out a couple of books, and they looked at the Greek alphabet, and listened to the names of the letters―and memorized what Omega and Theta look like. Poseidon’s trident led to the triangle to geometry to Archimedes (“Hey, I know him―that’s from Mythbusters! The Archimedes’ Death Ray? Remember?”) to the Greek roots of English mathematical, and other, words. There was a brief segue into the planets even before Riordan started phasing the Greek gods into their Roman aspects (“I know why Pluto’s named Pluto! Because it’s dark and rocky and barren and kind of depressing, just like Hades!”).

Could I have asked for a more thorough exploration of Greek myths, as a teacher or as a learning facilitator? No way. Could I have designed this program? Nope, no way again. I’m willing to bet cold hard cash that if we had come to the Greek myths through the D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths study guide, brought to the children by me because I thought we should study Greek myths now, our experience would have been, well, vastly different. They probably would have enjoyed the stories: it’s hard not to. But would we have managed to work our way through the entire 30-week study guide before they thought the project mostly drudgery? Would they have been inspired to delve as deeply into them as they did because they loved the Percy Jackson books and wanted to experience them as fully as possible?

Maybe. The Greek myths are powerful; they resonate. But having watched Cinder and Flora immerse themselves fully in the world of the Greeks―and now discover Ancient Roman with the same joy―I’m again ridiculously grateful that we’re able to let them do this. Take six months to read and re-read Percy Jackson. Take three years to obsess about dinosaurs. Play with baking soda and vinegar every day for 40 weeks, and then spend three weeks obsessing about nothing but the periodic table. Take a break from everything that looks like “work” because there’s important internal digestion happening and just colour and listen to books on tape and play video games for a while.

Gotta go. Cinder just came downstairs holding Son of Neptune. Percy, Frank and Hazel are on this quest to Alaska, because the giant Alcyoneus has imprisoned Thanatos, the god of death… Read the book. Come to our book club meeting. There’ll be a sword fight after.