Pandemic Diary: Don’t you hate it when the Buddhists are right?

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Valentine’s Day has come and gone, another weird COVID holiday. Did you have a good time? I did, but it seemed to me, from the outside looking in, that it was a subdued affair, all around. Restaurants are open again in Viking Hell, but most folks I know chose to order in anyway. I’ve never really “celebrated” Valentine’s Day as a romantic couple—Sean and I had had a massive fight of mismatched expectations after our first Valentine’s Day as a couple and I dealt with it by abolishing Valentine’s Day forever more, and, since kids—and that’s been the last eighteen years of my life, I usually threw an unValentine’s Day party for people who didn’t have dates or couldn’t get babysitters. They were a lot of fun, those parties.

This year, I had 2/3 or my kids for an unValentine’s Day dinner–the eldest wanted to spend it online with this friends–which we ended by sharing a chocolate bomb from 8 Cakes, one of the participants in the YYC Hot Chocolate Fest 2021 (mini-review: great idea, mixed reviews on the execution—too sweet, too sweet, and all the colours merged into a quite ugly pale beige—still, it brought us joy, and showcased creativity, so, one thumb up, one thumb down, one neutral). Afterwards, a sheesha date—rose mint at Cafe Medina, I am so grateful my cafes are open again and I need them to survive, I need them to be here tomorrow and next fall and winter and next year. The day before, on Valentine’s Day Eve—this could be a thing—one of my loves and I gave ourselves diabetes by partaking in the YYC Hot Chocolate Fest and finding out how many cups of hot chocolate a person can drink in one five hour period.

(The answer is two, not five, OMG, my poor pancreas, and two is actually too much—one hot chocolate once a week or once a month or twice a year is about what one needs, really.)

So, COVID notwithstanding, month twelve (how has it been twelve months already) of the pandemic notwithstanding, ban on indoor social gatherings notwithstanding—please vaccinate the elderly and the vulnerable already, please, please, please—and my overall cynicism towards Valentine’s Day notwithstanding, I had a really terrific day and weekend. And as the weekend morphs into the week, I am thinking that, dammit, the Buddhists are right: happiness is a state of mind that comes from within.

Well, of course, there was all that chocolate. Surely that helped too…

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The day after Valentine’s Day—it’s a Monday—why is it so hard to keep track of the days of the week, was that not just yesterday?—a friend stops by unexpectedly. He’s in the neighbourhood. “I thought I’d just stop by and give you a hug; it’s been a long time.” I am covered with red ink and cornstarch—it’s Ender’s homeschooling at Mom’s day and I’ve long abandoned copy work and math for kitchen science. We’ve been playing with Elephant’s toothpaste (google it) and oobleck (ditto).

I get cornstarch on my friend’s black winter coat while I rest against his shoulder, in his arms.

The hug is illegal, although I’m not sure of the monetary fine attached to it. If he comes inside, it’s a $1000 punishment.

Him: How are you? You look good.

Jane: Up and down to be honest. January was hell. February is better.

Him: That’s all of us now. But you look good. You look happy.

Covered in cornstarch and ink, wearing a stained lab coat over pajama pants, with untended, undyed hair—and ink on my fingers and face—I know I don’t look good. I look good—I look… happy.

I check in with myself as I say goodbye to my friend and go back to Ender.

Am I happy?

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Feelings are weird, aren’t they? The result of chemical cocktails that, yes, are formed to a certain extent by our bodily reactions to external stimuli, actions, and behaviours… but, mostly, just made in the chemical factory that is you and me.

Am I happy?

I am stressed and stretched to the breaking point financially. I am worried about my children, on that day, especially, my eldest, who should be planning his future right now and he fucking can’t, who can? I am pondering if, perhaps, I need to rethink my career path and, instead of writing, dig graves or drive a bus, or, fuck, anything that brings in a steady, predictable stream of income instead of the random feast/famine of royalties and contracts. I miss you and her and him and them and parties and potlucks and art galleries. I am not certain about anything, I can’t plan more than a week ahead, and I’m afraid to read the news because I need another external negative stimulus like I need another non-paying “but it’s such good exposure, for such a good cause” contract.

And yet… with all of that…

All sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel the roughness of a carpet under smooth soles, a delight to feel heat strike the skin, a delight to stand upright, knowing the bones are moving easily under the flesh.

Doris Lessing

…I feel sunlight on my skin and bones and muscles under my skin and layer of pandemic fat… and I’m happy.

Hydrogen peroxide, dish soap and dry yeast just gave me and Ender a morning of pure happiness. The dog at our feet, spreading her fur everywhere—I really need to groom her—is pure love. My friend’s drive-by hug runneth a full cup over. My mom made me cabbage rolls the other day, OMG, they tasted like heaven in my mouth. Flora is researching the Polska Walcząca/Armia Krajowa emblem, a piece of her family heritage that’s been an unnoticed part of the furniture in the home all her life, but has now acquired interest and meaning. I love her passion—I love this apartment, today, especially, the temperamental fireplace—and I love the blue sky and sunshine we’re getting during this polar vortex—it’s beautiful and I love beautiful things.

The dark chocolate a friend drops off for me the Friday before Valentine’s Day—a Valentine’s present and a “you’re important to me always” gift in one—singing happy birthday to my upstairs neighbour in the hallway, a text, a phone call from a friend who’s far away, finding the missing sock from my favourite pair, driving Cinder to work and listening to him process… all of these things make me… happy.

Listening to M.C. Beaton’s cheesy murder mysteries on my earbuds—a gift from someone who loves me who couldn’t believe I was still using my frayed “well only one earbud works, and the mic is fried, but it’s good enough” pair—and watching The Inspector Lynley mysteries on Britbox—another gift from someone else who loves me? Ditto.

I am happy, I am loved.

I rest in this feeling.

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I need to return a Service Canada call, to talk to someone about my EI/CERB application. I don’t want to—I hope filling out the form is the last minute voodoo I have to do before a new contract or sale materializes—god, for a $25,000 advance—it feels like it would solve all my problems and I won’t complain that it’s too small, promise, and I’ll work my ass off to earn it out and earn the publisher more money, promise, promise, promise—if only prayers really did work this way….

I look at the number I have to dial. I don’t want to. But I’ll do it. And then I’ll write and then I’ll look for jobs and something will materialize. It always does.

Him: You did look good. Happy.

Jane: I’m fine.

I’m not, really. It’s month twelve of the pandemic, and none of us are fine, all of us are broken and beaten up, and it is so cold outside—although warmer than yesterday, than last week—but we’re alive and I feel the sun on my skin. Do you?

Bask in a cold ray of sunshine for a while.

Then eat some chocolate.

Rest in the feeling.

xoxo

“Jane”

“I just want my kids to be happy!” Really? I don’t. Here’s why…

Flora is bent over her loom, all concentration. Fingers sore, forehead creased. Snap! Something goes wrong—it’s all undone, all that work for nothing! She sobs in frustration. Starts again. Forehead creased. So focused. Happy? No, not so much.

Cinder is building worlds in Minecraft. He’s changing—hacking—a map or mod. Nothing’s going right. And finally, when it does—the Internet crashes. Then his computer freezes. “Fuck!” he screams. Restarts the router, the computer. Runs around the block a few times. Returns to his project. “This sucks! I’m so angry and frustrated!” he tells me as he sits back down at the desk. Swears some more as he waits for his applications to boot up.

Ender is trying to make a perfect “O.” No, he’s building a car ramp. Wait, he’s fiddling with his brother’s Lego. Now he’s reorganizing the kitchen pantry. “Mom? Is there anything I can cut?” I give him the tray of mushrooms, an aging cucumber, a cutting board, a knife. He massacres the vegetables. Focused. Determined. Happy? I don’t know… certainly not when he nicks his finger, bleeds, and needs a bandaid…

I’m bent over my laptop, salty water leaking out the corners of my eyes. I’ve just finished and sent out another assiduously, arduously tailored pitch and in the time I’ve been working on it, four new rejections pop into my in-box. Four. One of them back so quickly I know the recipient didn’t even bother reading the covering email, never mind the requested 50-page pitch package. I am deflated, battered, rejected, exhausted, angry, discouraged, oh, and in tears. Happy? Ha! I want to curl up into the fetal position on the filthy floor of the public washroom of the cafe in which I’m working* and wail at the universe.

I splash water at my face, wail to a friend via text, accept comfort and almost believe it, eat a chocolate croissant. Get back to work. Happy? No. But… moving on. In pursuit.

In pursuit, but not of happiness. I think the “just do what makes you happy,” “I just want my kids to be happy,” “Surely I deserve to be happy!” way of thinking—this cult of happiness North Americans pursue and sell to the rest of the world via their movies, ads and products—contributes to the First World epidemics of depression, entitlement, overconsumption, constant dissatisfaction. If we are taught—inculcated—with the idea that we are supposed to be happy and in pursuit of happiness—if not at always, at least most of the time, we are doomed to be disappointed and dissatisfied—if not always, at least most of the time.

I don’t want my kids to be doomed, disappointed or constantly dissatisfied.

And so, I don’t want them to “just be happy.”

Because happiness is a mood. A transient mood at that. A symptom, a byproduct, a reflection. A feeling.

It is not a goal, an achievement.

Now, beloved, listen to this: I’m not at all depressive or negative. I feel bliss frequently, and when I don’t experience it for a while, I will chase hits of dopamine as often, with as much abandon, maybe more, as you do. I think it’s wonderful to feel happy. And I absolutely want my children to feel happy, often, frequently, sustainably.

But I don’t “just want them to be happy.”

I want them to be… fulfilled. To know how to get full. And how to fill others. I want them to be purposeful, to have purpose, and live lives of meaning. I want them to be resilient. And grateful. To contribute, build, create, change. Help. Love. Be loved.

I want them to pursue difficult things. To glow with success and satisfaction when they succeed—to cry and mourn and to learn and find a way to move forward when they fail. I want them to know how to think… how to persevere… and you know, also, how to give up. Because that’s a skill too, and sometimes, you’ve got to stop beating your head against the wall, step away, and look around for a rope ladder with which to climb over that wall… or maybe a sledgehammer with which to demolish it…

I want them to be… human. Alive. Fully alive, aware. And that means: they will be sad. So sad. Angry. Thwarted. Frustrated. Discouraged. Disappointed. Battered. Rejected. Full of suffering, angst.

And then, later, or even at the same time, they will be in the flow, productive, thrilled, ecstatic, stoked, oh-so-happy.

But in the pursuit of something other, grander, more important, more meaningful, bigger than “just being happy.”

Flora walks out of her martial arts class head held high, but on the brink of tears, and they come when she’s safe in the car. “I think I did well,” she gets out between sobs. “I don’t think I screwed anything up. But, oh, I’m so upset! So anxious and unhappy right now!” When she gets her new belt… she will be ecstatic, walking in air. So-happy.

Cinder calls me to come see what he’s build. It’s taken hours. It’s beautifully complex. He’s spent. But so satisfied. He barely remembers how much swearing he was thrusting at the computer screen earlier in the day.

Ender crawls into my lap in tears. He wants to see his cousin, he wants to go to Legoland, he wants to have Ikea meatballs for lunch, he is so-so-unhappy, life is terrible, awful, he is exhausted. I read him books; he falls asleep. I am exhausted too. Happy? In this moment? No. But… fulfilled. Determined. Purposeful. Conscious. Aware.

I kiss his forehead, cheek as I tuck him in. Feel a shot of bliss and happiness. Enjoy it for a moment… then traipse down to the laptop. Stare at my cracked-spiderweb screen. Take a deep breath. Start writing. Seek flow, creation, accomplishment…

Happy? No.

Better.

xoxo

“Jane”

I just want my kids to be happy-not.jpg

*Cafes, my office away from home. Because a) flood and b) reconstruction and c) the secret to working at home with kids is to run away from them.

Looking for me? I’ve revamped the for-stalkers-and-bloggers-and-no-I’m-a-real-sane-fan! section: Find “Jane”

Next week on Nothing By The Book: The return of Cinder and Ender penis stories, Flora’s interpretative dance of the new math, and Jane’s surrender to existential angst (also possibly in interpretative dance).

This week in my real life: My real self wrote this column The CEO has a uterus: no, wait, the problem is that he doesn’t. It’s sort of going to change the world and you should check it out.