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.

 

 

She’s So Cute

There’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs when I walk around with my kids in public. There’s oohing and ahhing, and often a well-meaning comment. When I’m with Elyse, the comment is often, “Aww, she’s so cute.” I’ve received the same comment walking around with our toddler Penelope, but she’s more likely to receive a comment on her behaviour or her intellect, “She’s so smart!” or, “Look how good she is.” Ariel, our eldest, is less likely to elicit comments now that she’s getting older, other than what a great big sister she is.

While I appreciate the good intentions, it’s come to my attention that cute isn’t always a good thing. Cute can be downright condescending and dismissive. Reductive and infantilizing.

Two years ago, I was to go a talk with a good friend of mine to a group of college students. While we were standing in the hall waiting to give our presentation, a few young women happened to pass us by. In truth, we were lost, looking around, and waiting for my professor friend to come pick us up. It was at that moment a group of young women passed us, and one of them made a comment about my friend.

“Aww,” she said to her friend, “She’s so cute.”

My friend is 35 years old, and she has Down syndrome.

The young woman caught me in a moment of surprise. I said nothing. My friend looked unperturbed. I mentioned the incident to my professor friend who urged me to share the experience with the class, which I did. Did they see how wrong that was, how demeaning, to be labelled as “cute” by a complete stranger?

You could argue with me there are worse names to be called, and I won’t disagree with you, however there are ways to acknowledge someone that don’t rob them of their dignity; of their adult-ness. Do we take the needs and wants of someone who we label “cute” seriously? This is the same false reasoning and notion that kept/keeps women oppressed. Women were thought to be too delicate, too fragile. Best for them to stay home, and mind the children. A friend told me a man at her work apologized for swearing in front of her – same idea. I’m not saying I want people swearing at me, but why have two sets of standards? Would that woman have called another typical woman she didn’t know “cute”. Highly doubtful.

“Cute” is a stereotype. It’s a label that contributes to keeping the voice of those with Down syndrome small.

It’s true that at six years old my daughter is cute. I love to snuggle her. She has adorable glasses that slide down her nose, big eyes, and a bright smile. Her clothes are sometimes a titch big on her, and that’s endearing, and she has delicate features, small fingers, and a tiny pug nose. I get that she’s cute, but please let’s not let that define her; let’s not let that be a factor that holds her back, and tears her down. Let’s look beyond appearances, past cute, to building on potential and feelings of self-worth tied to intrinsic factors. Let’s acknowledge the person with a simple “hello,” instead of talking about them like they’re not even there.

Babies are cute. Let’s leave it at that.

 

Runner’s High

I consider myself a runner. I jog regularly and have participated in several running races, including a marathon. I have an unashamed, unabashed love for the pursuit.

At a dinner party, an athletic friend of mine complained about running, “I just don’t get it,” she said, “how could anyone enjoy themselves while running? I’ve never had a runner’s high.”

Not only did I feel the immediate need, the instinct of any lover, to ardently defend my passion for the sport, but her words also got me thinking about runner’s high – is it a real thing?

To me, there’s no real mystery. Running, generally, makes me feel good – otherwise I wouldn’t do it. There are plenty of other ways to exercise, and I would encourage everyone to find their preferred athletic endeavour rather than stick to running if they don’t find it enjoyable. My friend likes to play hockey, and soccer (which, I reminded her, involves a lot of running!)

While there are plenty of ways to exercise, there’s something about running that has its hold over me. The urge to take off on two feet is a primal urge, an inherent part of my DNA, of our collective DNA. We are, originally, hunters that relied on our legs to feed ourselves, to track down our prey.

I get so much out of running beyond strength and fitness. Runners develop endurance and mental toughness. Running allows me to work toward a goal, keep a pace, run a race – or not. Often, I run only for me. It’s a form of escape from the grind, a soothing of the nerves, the daily meditation my body craves. I’m the covered pot of boiling water, and all my worries, fears, stresses, and responsibilities threaten to boil over. Running is like removing the lid and releasing the steam. I don’t want to boil over. Running cools my temperature.

Let me explain to you how I’ve come to look at running. Running will never be ‘easy’ work. No matter how good I get at it, or how many kilometers I log. Easy is sitting in a chair. Easy is changing the channels on the tv. Running isn’t easy. I won’t ever say it will be. If that’s what you want, you’re going to have to get over it. However, there is hope because running does get easier, with practice. And with practice, as running becomes smoother, silkier, more textured as you pair back the tough exterior, that is where you enter the sweet center of the runner’s high. The epitome of the chase.

I have personally experienced runner’s high many times. I will describe it as this, like an explosion of gladness in your brain, a celebration of your muscles to the tip of every nerve cell. The embodiment of happiness released to infinity.

But, hold on a minute. Most committed runner’s know that runner’s high is a real thing, so what is going on here? Why didn’t my friend experience the same results I did? The key to finding runner’s high is hitting your target zone. If the run is too easy, and your body is never pushed to the point of exertion, there’s no chance of hitting a runner’s high. Conversely, if the run is too challenging, and you’re pushing yourself too hard, you won’t achieve a runner’s high either. You must find a balance: the edge before difficult becomes too hard, where challenging rises above too easy. Push yourself, but not to your max. Find that sweet spot of aerobic fitness, in other words, that can be maintained. Once you hit that zone, the flood of endorphins released in the brain is overwhelming. Euphoric.

A group of German researchers studying runner’s high used brain scans on athlete’s completing a two-hour long run. They found the pre-frontal and limbic regions of the brain spewed out endorphins during that time. The more endorphins released equated to the greater the reported sensation of the runner’s high. These are the same regions of the brain that light up in response to feelings such as love. Is it any wonder then, why I find running addicting, why I’ve developed such an infatuation?

While timing is different for everyone, anyone can achieve the high that comes from pushing yourself. Yes, runner’s high is a real thing, and it’s possible for anyone to get there. If you don’t believe me, why don’t you lace up your shoes, and join me for a jog. There’s a greater chance of experiencing a runner’s high while jogging with a friend.