The Original Four

Whoever said families are supposed to be useful was wrong. Families stick together. Sure. Blood is thicker than water. Whatever. But families as a useful entity, as helpful to the individual? I don’t buy it. I would argue they can do as much damage as good. Let me explain. The individual usually ends up with their first family because they were born that way. Luck of the draw. Nothing more than an exaggerated case of finders keepers, losers weepers. I found you first. I get to keep you. The members of the family may have no more in common than the roof they share, and the gene pool in the backyard.

I visited home to spend time with my original family unit, with the parents who found me first, and lo and behold! My brother happened to be down with three of his four kids. It is extremely rare and unusual for my brother and me to find ourselves at my parents’ house, without our spouses, at the exact same time. Yet that’s precisely what happened. The stars aligned perfectly for a meeting of the minds of the “original members only”.

With six cousins finally fast asleep upstairs, I walked into the family room of my childhood home, the roof that has remained standing over my head for thirty-odd years, and I assessed the situation. Not much has changed. The Leaf game is still on the TV and there sat my mom, my dad, and my brother. “It’s the original four!” I let out. Not particularly funny, but the comment prompted the tiniest crack of a smile on my brother’s face.

If there’s one particular area in which I do find my family useful, it’s in making me laugh.

I asked my brother about his summer plans, and he explained they’re planning a family trip to Atlantic Canada. This got the original four fired up. Advice! Clearly this admission of plans was a cry for our helpful tips and advice.

“Dan and I took the kids on a summer trip there two years ago!” I exclaimed.

“Mom and I were there,” dad said with the zeal of getting a good conversation going.
The conversation shifted to the drive down. “What was the name of that one town we stayed in, MJ?”
“St. John,” my mom said without missing a beat.
“Right, well, you don’t want to stay in Dartmouth,” my dad warned.
My brother and I gave each other the knowing look of siblings, cheeks puffed out, holding our breath for what came next,
“Dartmouth is like Waterdown, it’s the armpit of the big city, really.”
And that did it. I met my brother’s eyes again, and we exploded with laughter.
What!?

That’s the thing about family. You’re okay as long as you can laugh together.

“Waterdown is the armpit of Burlington,” dad continued on, undeterred. More cackles of laughter.
Did I mention my brother lives in Waterdown?

“What was the name of that town again, MJ?” My brother and I can’t breathe. My mom rolls her eyes.

Let’s take a moment to pause and ponder here. How is my dad insulting the town where my brother (and many other good Canadians) live supposed to be helping my brother plan his trip? And why are my brother and I finding our dad’s innocent comments so incredibly funny?
“There are so many great beaches,” I offer, catching my breath, trying to brighten the subject and illuminate the Atlantic experience.
“Oh, except that one beach…” I remember aloud. “There was like a million jelly fish! So many the kids couldn’t even swim, and we were so unbearably hot!”

Dad: “Check out the Confederation Bridge. It’s incredibly long…actually, I remember looking down when we drove across it and it kinda makes you feel sick.”

Me: “Oh! You should stay in a cottage through Airbnb. Did I tell you about the cottage we stayed in? It was great, but we backed right into the woods a few kilometers off the road and the bugs were terrible. Actually, Ariel freaked out because there were giant mosquitoes.” My mom nods her head, confirming the giant mosquitoes claim. “Ariel was screaming hysterically in the back of the car because a few mosquitoes got in, and we couldn’t calm her down. The situation was ridiculous to the point of hilarity.” My brother looks at me. He looks at my mom and dad.
“Sound great, you guys. I don’t even think I want to go anymore.”
Hey, don’t mention it. What else is family good for? We certainly aren’t meant to be useful, that much is obvious.

My dad launches into a new set of instructions, complete with directions on where not to go, and I grab a pillow and bury my face in it, doubled over. If nothing else, under all the roofs I could have landed, the finders who could have found me, I drew the short stick, and I guess that makes me pretty lucky.

Be Kind, or else

I’m going to write a blog about kindness on a day when I’m not feeling particularly kind. I’m not feeling particularly unkind, just kind of blah. You know when you have to face down something difficult? It can be like standing at the top of a roaring waterfall with no way to fight back against the current. The jump is inevitable, you have to do it. It’s a long ways down, a far distance to go before the splash and the security of knowing you will resurface. I woke up with the water rushing all around me, sloshing in my head and ears, dragging me to the crest of the descent. I went over belly-up, kicking and screaming – or at least that’s how it felt getting going this morning. The cascade wasn’t pretty. Anyone who has kids and sees March break coming knows what I’m talking about.

So let me get to the point. Because we’re here for only a short while, and we’re going to talk about kindness today, dammit. Spoiler alert: I will touch on the ending of R.J. Palcio’s book Wonder (if you haven’t read it, and don’t want me to ruin the ending, this is your cue to leave…wait, come back! It’s not in a blogger’s best interest to tell their readers to leave. Just skip over the next two paragraphs, and quit whining about it already. Forget that. Be kind. No name-calling.)

The book Wonder, which I would argue is written for children and parents alike, is the story of Auggie Pullman, an intelligent boy with severe facial deformities and medical concerns who is about to attend middle school for the first time. The issues of acceptance and kindness are central to the book. At the end-of-year graduation ceremony, the school principal reminds his students in a speech, “Courage, Kindness, Friendship, Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.”

He goes on to remark:
“Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right using of strength…He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts…He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.” The principal is of course referring to the boy who showed true strength and courage throughout the entire school year, just by showing up, in the face of ignorance.

He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own. Wow, that’s powerful. And to me, that evokes kindness, compassion, empathy.
This way of being reminds me of a great philosopher, visionary, and disability-rights activist, Jean Vanier, who writes, “theirs is not a life centered on the mind. So it is that the people with intellectual disabilities led me from a serious world into a world of celebration, presence, and laughter: the world of the heart.” He describes the relationship between the one who is healed and the one who is healing as constantly changing places. Everyone has something to offer, and we all have times of need. In his book Becoming Human, Vanier writes about our fears of those who are different from us, “…because we are not clear about what it means to be human…we have disregarded the heart.”

Kindness, or at least the form of kindness where we must appear vulnerable in front of the cool kids to do the right thing, isn’t a weakness then, it’s a strength. A strength of the heart. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable by showcasing and accepting our strengths, as well as our weaknesses, is what makes us human.

I love the tie in with disability, because having a disability or being viewed as disabled is so commonly perceived as a weakness in our society. But we must also accept and acknowledge that it is a strength. Differences can be perceived as weaknesses or they can be perceived as strengths. No matter how you spin it, it’s important to point out that what we perceive, or society perceives, as our greatest weakness can in fact be our greatest strength.

I’m getting derailed here. I’m supposed to be talking about kindness, and I’m talking a whole lot about strength. I guess that’s because what I’m getting at is that kindness, and our great capacity for compassion and to feel empathy for another, is a huge strength, maybe the greatest one we have.

Kindness is contagious, and it helps us to build connections. I experienced this when I responded in kind to the caring words that came my way when I started my new blog. I felt compelled to reach out to another writer and compliment their writing. The compliment was genuine, but the feelings of kindness that had first been directed toward me helped draw it out.

Kindness is hard-wired in our DNA and essential to our humanity (even if it’s hard to admit it when you’re having a grumpy day), but you still have to choose to be kind. “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” Another quotation in Wonder, this one from Dr. Wayne Dyer.

And if you’re going to choose kind, that kindness has to start with being kind to oneself. For me, that kindness looks like not berating myself for reading a book when I should be writing, or taking too long to start writing, or producing writing that isn’t good enough (the theme of this morning is writing challenges). In truth, I panicked slightly once I realized the kids were all out of the house, and so I better get to work NOW, TIME is running out! But where to focus, I have no idea WHAT I’M DOING (though I have lots of things to do), until I took a deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. I walked the dog. I made myself two fried eggs and a piece of cinnamon honey toast so that my belly felt warm and full. I drank my tea. Then I patted myself gently on the back, and said, “it’s okay, take your time. You’ll come around.” I read a book, Heroes in My Head by Judy Rebick, for half an hour. Finally, without judgement, I sat down and I wrote a blog. The blog in front of you. Part of me is still kicking and screaming into the mist, stuck in that downwards flow, but mostly I’m one with my surroundings now. One with the beauty of nature around me. With kindness: that’s where it all starts.

In the Face of Failure

I have a lot of good things going for me right now: a new website and blog I’m proud of, speaking engagements, a finished manuscript ready for publication, national conference presenter, a roof over my head, and a husband, family and friends who love me.

Maybe I need to remind myself of these great things in the face of failure, in the full throes and embodiment of it.
At exactly 7:28 p.m., on the last day of February, I looked on from my folding chair in the spectator aisle as my daughter and her friend high-fived their Taekwondo teacher, Master K. From the corner of my vision, I saw my phone light up in my purse. I reached for it casually, picking it up and scanning the notification. As the girls got their boots on, and kids shuffled past me in a flurry of frenetic activity, I hung on to hope, and immediately opened the email that had arrived. The email I’ve been waiting months to receive.

UBC sent me the following message:

“Dear Respected Applicant,
We regret to inform you…” my heart stopped there. I slouched down in my chair, and re-read the message. I didn’t get in to the Master’s program I so desired.
“…almost 300 applications. The caliber of the work was high, the rankings were very competitive, faculty had to make some difficult decisions.”
Wrap it in a bow, make it look pretty, then sugar coat it any way you want. I didn’t get in. My heart was set on it, and it didn’t happen.

What about the people who wrote letters for me? MG Vassanji, a highly respected, award-winning author; my sister-in-law, a creative writing professor in charge of Master’s admissions in her own right; my good friend, a college prof and successful copywriter – have I let them all down?
And why? Why didn’t I get in? Is it because the competition was stiff? Because I used a relative as a reference? Because I haven’t yet published in a serious journal or won any awards? Because I submitted my first earnest attempts at fiction alongside my polished non-fiction excerpts, or they didn’t like my thesis project, or I didn’t explain myself well? Because my writing’s not good enough? Because I’m not good enough? I don’t believe in that last one. And you shouldn’t ever either.

There are a host of other reasons why I may not have gotten in. Maybe I put my name in the wrong box, or out of order.
To this day, I have my suspicions I didn’t get early acceptance into the teacher’s college consecutive education program after high school on the basis that I mixed up my first and last names in the boxes. What is your surname versus your given name? Oops. I couldn’t follow the instructions, and so they never even looked at the rest of my application. Or so I’ve imagined. But you know what? We’ll never know. And I’ll never know why I didn’t get into UBC’s program this time, either. And you know what else? It doesn’t matter.

At the risk of sounding grandiose and self-important, I trust there will be other great things coming my way, that the universe has a plan for me, and a way of working itself out.
If I had gotten into that consecutive education program out of high school, I would have never gone to Western, and never met my future husband, the love of my life, and experienced all that followed.

You know what else? After my failure to get early acceptance into teacher’s college, I dedicated the rest of my university years to making sure I would get in the next time. I worked even harder to that end. And guess what? That hard work paid off. I applied to six teacher’s colleges, including driving all the way from London to Ottawa with a friend to take a French competency test as part of one application. Then, during that highly competitive double cohort year, I got in. I got accepted into every single one.
When the timing is right, and if it’s what I’m truly meant to be doing with my life, I’m confident I will get into a Master’s of Fine Arts program, too. The same can be said for publishing my first book, winning a contest or receiving some form of recognition as a writer.

As we drove home, I asked the two seven-year-olds in the car what you should do if you fail. They both pipped up, “Try again! You have to keep going! Never give up! That’s called perseverance.” I told them they were wise beyond their years. They didn’t understand what that meant, but that’s beside the point.
The point is, I don’t pretend to understand the mysteries of the universe, but I have faith and I will persist. Hell, you can bet I’m going to work even harder now, and whether I eventually get in or not, it will have been worth it.

Perhaps it’s foolish to announce my failure to be accepted into a prestigious writing program at the moment I’ve officially declared myself as a writer to the world. Or maybe, just maybe, it makes me human.

How to Find the Perfect Book

What I’ve learned from reading a hundred books, two years in a row.

 

There is so much more to reading than the mere act: choosing a good book is an art form in itself. Yet, books are for people of all ages, stages, abilities and interests, and I guarantee you there is a book – or ten – written specifically for you. You have what it takes to find it without being a bibliophile or getting a degree in book-ology. There’s many a story that will reach right into the core of your being, take hold, look you dead in the eye, and say, “There. This. I hear you. This is why you are here.”

I long for those books, the ones that get me, that seem to be speaking directly to my inner voice, conversing in tongues or love languages or whatever other voodoo that seems to take place. Finding the right book, simply put, feels magical.

But how does one go about hunting down the perfect book, that elusive species that isn’t necessarily Heather’s pick and on the bookstore’s shelf front and centre (though that’s not a terrible place to peruse)?

And for those who don’t have time to read a hundred books a year, how do you maximize the time you do have by narrowing down the books you need to get through to find The One?

 

Here are my tips for happy reading, and finding the right book:

 

#1 The shiniest, most widely acclaimed, award-winning books aren’t necessarily the show stoppers.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a newly-released, highly-decorated hard-covered title like the next book-lover, but these aren’t necessarily the books that will resonate with you. Many books that earn high praise are marketable, which is not the same as a well-written, deeply moving story. Save your hard-earned cash, and wait until the book comes out in soft cover a year later. If people are still talking about it then, it may be worth the read.

 

#2 Visit your local library. A hidden gem may jump up at you off the shelf.

I’ve discovered many a new best friend, and treasured story walking past book stacks. Trusted librarians curate content for the end of the stacks, and guess what? Those librarians know what they’re talking about! I’ve found diamonds looking back at me from the exposed shelf. On this note…

 

#3 Search for books specifically in a topic that interests you. Browse by section in your library or beloved book store.

When I’m in the mood for a memoir, I visit the autobiographical/biography section in Chapters, and sure enough, there are often several titles that catch my eye. A few of these books, found in this method, have defined me as a writer. The same goes for the library. Who knew (however obvious this seems to me now) there was an entire shelf in my local library dedicated to writers and writing. Of course there is! Some of those books are terrible! But some have served to enlighten, to educate, and have spoken to me so loudly, I can’t believe I may ever have missed their call, which brings me to the next point…books you should ignore.

 

#4 Don’t read a book that doesn’t interest you!

This may seem obvious, but how many people do you know who refuse to abandon a book they aren’t enjoying? If you start reading, and the book isn’t good, please, do yourself a favour and put it back or return it. Start anew.
Your time is precious, and you don’t owe that book – or that author – anything. Someone else will like that book – it’s just not for you. No need to feel bad about it! Nobody’s feelings will be hurt if you stop reading one page in, or even – GASP – half way through. I have done both. I’ve also pushed through to finish when I shouldn’t have, and taken ten times longer to read a book that should have taken a few days. A great strategy to help decide whether or not a book is for you is to read the cover flap, and then let the book flop open to a random page and read it. Alternatively, read the first few pages before you even step away from the shelf, and trust me, you’ll know, you’ll just KNOW.

Books that I’m enjoying – and yes, my happiness is paramount here (even if the book is bringing me to tears) – I usually read quickly, unless it’s a longer book. I’m talking two or three days – maximum two weeks. If a book takes me longer than a week or two to read, there may be a problem. I either need to reprioritize my reading time (unlikely), or (more likely) the book isn’t great. I want a book that draws me in, that makes me want to read through dinner, that calls from the front seat (because I took it with me JUST IN CASE) when I’m driving the kids to school; that I crack open while sitting on the bleachers through my kids’ gymnastics practice. The book I read from the passenger seat on the 45 minute drive to my in-laws, whom I adore, and when my beloved family gets out of the car to go into their house, I physically have to tear myself away to join them. I want a book that demands to be picked up from the moment I first wake up, to the last second before I fall asleep. Believe me, I have read many such books – they do exist! And you deserve to read them too. Hold out for the books that grab you, and if they don’t, and you’re not enjoying yourself – as Queen Elsa says, let it go.

 

#5 Keep that friend who reads in your back pocket.

Unless you personally know or happen to be a book critic, chances are your next best bet for discovering quality reads is second hand from that friend who reads. I’m talking about the friend you know who reads a lot. Maybe they’re a librarian, or teacher, or writer, or English major. These are all safe bets. If they’re your friend in the first place, it’s likely you will have a thing or two in common, and chances are good you may like the same type of books that they like. Maybe not. It’s worth the risk to ask your well-read friend for their favourite titles. Don’t be shy about this. If there’s one thing your loves-to-read, lives and breathes books friend loves, it’s talking about books. Indulge them! You may not regret it, and you may discover the book that imprints for life on your heart.

If all else fails, go for complete randomness. You might end up pleasantly surprised. I’ve walked into used books stores, and come out with an essential read. I came across one of the best books of my life this way, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. Again, independent book stores are owned by people who love books. If you tell the store owner or worker what you like, they will likely be able to hone in on a book suited to your tastes (probably more so than the big-box book stores).

Whatever your level of engagement with books, your commitment to the search, I wish you great literary fortune. When it comes down to it, books represent the greatest wealth there is, our collective thoughts and histories. May you be greedy in your search to find the best of them.