Good, Bad, Who’s to Say?

There are two sides to every coin.  Heads or tails?  Well, depending on the side you are rooting for, which way you’re betting, one side is perceived as ‘good’, the other side as ‘bad’.  This narrative of good and bad plays into so many aspects of our lives, but lately I’ve been thinking about it in the context of how we view others.

I came across an engaging well-thought out TED talk by Heather Lanier (thanks Sue Robins for introducing me to her work) about the problematic nature of framing stories as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  Lanier explains through the use of an ancient parable that “’Good’ or ‘bad’ are incomplete stories that we tell ourselves.”

The ancient parable of the farmer goes like this:

There once was a man who lived on a farm with his son and his horse.

One day, the barn door was left open and the horse ran away. When the nearby villagers heard about it, they ran to the farm to tell the farmer how sorry they felt for him.

“How will you work your farm without your horse?” they asked.

The farmer simply shrugged and said “good, bad, who’s to say?”

A few days later, the farmer’s horse returned, and following it were two more horses. The villagers were so excited for the farmer’s luck, they ran to his farm and told him so.

The farmer simply shrugged and said “good, bad, who’s to say?”

The new horses were not broken in, so the farmer’s son worked hard to break them in so they could be used on the farm. While doing so, one of the new horses threw him off and his leg was broken.

The villagers again ran to the farm and expressed their deep sadness about the son’s broken leg. “Now your son can’t help you on the farm,” they said with their heads hung low.

The farmer simply shrugged and said “good, bad, who’s to say?”

As the son was healing from his broken leg, a war broke out in the countryside. All the young men were sent to fight. Many died or were seriously injured. However, since the farmer’s son had a broken leg, he was not able to go. The villagers again came to the farm, to say to the farmer how very lucky he was that his son didn’t have to go fight in the war.

Once again, the farmer shrugged his shoulders and stated, “good, bad, who’s to say?”

This parable teaches us to simply be a witness to life’s events.  The idea being that peace is found by observing the events of life and removing all judgement; by sitting back and witnessing without trying to attach labels, and avoiding life’s dramas.

The principle tenant of Buddhism is that craving leads to suffering.  Either craving for something good to last or craving for something bad to end.  One who does not crave, does not suffer – or so the idea goes.  In meditation, the goal is not to judge the thoughts that come into your head, but to let them flow through your mind and watch them from a distance. Thoughts are not labelled as good or bad, nor are they held on to.  They are let go.

Wow.  This all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  Letting go of notions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’; meditating and watching all kinds of thoughts float by without attaching meaning or significance.  As a writer, I often try to do the opposite: I latch on to words, haul them in, examine them to death, then stuff them into a basket full of other used thoughts and ideas.  But perhaps I need to loosen up, disassociate from my body a little bit more.  My body is so needy, temperamental; it’s cloistering to the mind.

I received a rejection note this morning for an essay I wrote.  Good or bad, who’s to say?  Maybe the piece will go on to be accepted in a more reputable journal or will lead me to a connection and long-lasting friendship with an editor – who knows?  Maybe it’s eventually printed at a time when the person who needs to read it, reads it.  I can’t help but yearn toward the positive.  However, maybe the essay never gets published.  I have to be satisfied with the idea that the essay just is.  Pain and pleasure, bad and good.

The other day, out on a drive, I turned right at the last minute onto a path I hadn’t planned to go down.  I discovered a beautiful trail; the kids loved it.  Later that day, I swatted at a bug on my knee, assuming it was a horsefly, and got badly stung by a wasp.  So the story goes.  Good or bad, who’s to say?  The key is to remain open; to abstain from judgement.  This is not the same as being passive.  Even meditation – sitting being, seemingly doing nothing – is an intense exercise of the mind.

When I leave for my run this morning, I will either feel good or bad and I’m going to try to not attach meaning to those feelings.  Today’s run doesn’t necessarily signify that I’m a good runner or a bad runner, that I’m in good shape or bad shape, it is just how I’m feeling today, at this particular moment.

I see the value in letting go, but a part of me needs to rebel against this notion of watching our feelings pass by without judgement.  I’m quite attached to my feelings.  I’m all for letting the feelings that are hurtful and painful pass through me, but I’m not so willing to let go of joy and happiness.  I want to fully inhabit my body in these moments.  But we don’t get to choose.  One minute, joy, a new path; the next minute, pain, a wasp sting.  Life is just like that.

When it comes to people though, I see how this principle need apply.  In my own life, the good/bad story has played out like this: the initial Down syndrome diagnosis – pain, bad; getting to know people with Down syndrome – joy, good.  Over and over, in different contexts, the story repeats itself.  My greatest realization of all, through years of reflection and learning to withhold judgement, is that: Down syndrome just is.  And so the story goes.

 

Hold on Tight to this Earth

The hiss of the tea kettle steaming its siren call rattles me awake.  There’s a small lever on its spout to flick back the lid and once, only once, instead of touching that nubby rubber extremity, I put my finger on the steaming metal.  Only once.  Accidents happen.

Is it a curse/burden or the wild imagination of women, of mothers, to constantly worry/fear/have daymares about the horrible way their loved ones may die or be injured?  Do men have these same fears?

Safety is the illusion, the comfortable narrative we tell ourselves as we hum our way through our days – a hum that can easily turn into a scream.

My brother and his family visit on the weekend.  We go on a day trip to Algonquin park.  Our cottage is situated about forty-five minutes from the east gate.  On our way, as we careen down another steep incline, the speedometer reaching over 100 km/h, I see the sign warning for deer, then I see the sign warning for moose and I can’t help myself, “please slow down.”  I can see the moose appearing from nowhere, hear the crash; I think I’m going to be sick.

On our hike, we spot a stack of boulders with snakes happily coiled up in the sun.  My toddler leans her face in close.  What if a snake were to simply recoil and SNAP.  She isn’t afraid.  She pokes him with a stick, and he slides away.

On the last evening of their stay, my brother and my husband set off to fish in a leaky tin boat at sunset.  Our lake is quite small, but it has pockets of depth, some say up to ninety feet.  Mostly the whole lake is visible, except for a few hidden bends.  As the sun dips further, I walk away from them, turn my back on the water, and walk up the steep incline of our gravel driveway with my dog.  I think, I hope they brought the lifejackets.  We are new to cottage life.  It’s easy to forget your own safety underneath the camouflage of bliss.

I walk back down the driveway with the dog and scan the horizon.  No sign of them.

They had a few beers, I remind myself.  What if they tipped?  The water is calm and secretive.  The lone eerie call of a loon rings out.

Back in my kitchen, as the tea kettle wails, I return a large knife by sliding it into its holster.  What if I missed?  And instead sliced into my hand.  Instead, I am careful, deliberate.  The throaty call of a crow caws out somewhere overhead.

They are around the bend, my brother and my husband, and as the sky fades to black, the stars twinkling overhead, they come back safely to us with fish stories to tell.  The baby fish that ate their worm and caught the monster pike, will someday turn into the monster fish that caught the whale, but there’s no danger in that.

“You don’t have any snapping turtles up here by any chance, do you?”  My sister-in-law tells me a story about the snapping turtle that bit her toe as she dangled on a pool noodle in a lake.  Her turquoise nail polish was to blame, she thinks.  She shows me the scar and I try not to think about it as I swim alone, far from shore, cutting across the lake.  I also try not to think about what if, at this moment, my heart stopped beating.  We do happen to have a lovely snapping turtle, the caretakers of the lake, who likes to visit the fish underneath our dock.

The kids fish and catch fish.  The fish go into a bucket.  The kids and other adults go up for lunch; I am the last one to pull myself from the lake.

“What about these fish?” I call up.

“Leave them, the boys want to eat them.”

I hesitate.  The fish don’t look like they’re doing so well.  One is floating up sideways near the top.  I push aside my instincts.

Over lunch, we ascertain nobody knows how to clean or prepare the fish.  And it seems especially clear that no one is volunteering to kill them or deal with the mess.  Another time.  My brother is the first to head back down to the bucket and the news is grim.

“I think they’re all dead.”  He dumps the bucket of water into the lake in a panic and then realizes he’s just dumped a bucket of dead fish beside the dock.

“No, look!” they’re still breathing, they are just in shock.  Fish swim so that water will pass over their gills.  The bucket provided not enough space, not enough air.  No room to breathe and live.

I am outraged on behalf of the fish.  I can tolerate fishing, but I cannot tolerate cruelty.  That our carelessness has caused the fish distress near death is unacceptable.  Take only what you need.  Still.  One by one they eventually swim away, they live.  Lesson learned.  It’s clear to me who poses the greatest threat and it’s not the snapping turtle.

“How do you keep them safe?” Elyse’s speech therapist is asking me a pointed question, the pointed question, about life at the cottage on the water’s edge.

“Strict rules,” I say.  There’s no going outside without letting an adult know.  No going on the dock period without an adult.  Still.

There’s a sort of marsh on one side of the dock and a beach for swimming on the other side.  The edge of the water is shallow, its deepening slow, only up to four feet by the very end of the dock.  We allow the kids to play at the beach by the marsh.  Still.

One day Dan and I are finishing our dinner.  We sit in the screened in porch with a view of the water and the girls are playing outside.  For one moment, they forget themselves and step onto the edge of the dock.  One peers over the edge into the water, probably looking for minnows, another leans (pushes?) into them and SPLASH!  On one side, our dock is lined with rocks, likely the remnants of an old dock.  Her head avoids the rock by inches.  Dan and I hear the splash, jump to our feet, in time to hear one complaining about being soaking wet, but not hurt.  Not this time.

Louie, our rambunctious pup, weaves through children at warp speed, occasionally deciding to take one out.  We know he does this.  We prepare for this exact scenario.  Keep him on a leash we can grab onto at any time.  Our children, who cling to his neck and pull at his skin and love him dearly, have learned to brace themselves when he gets into this wild state.  Still.

My youngest nephew is but a wisp of a child.  Small for his age of three, which is in itself small; I worried about him the most with Louie.  Sure enough, with our vigilance, which is not vigilance enough, Louie at some point over the weekend, knocked him down two stairs, bulldozed him over in our driveway as we were all saying goodbye, and narrowly missed knocking him off the dock, more than once.  Louie charged full speed right at him on the dock, having escaped an adult grasp, in a frenzy of excitement, and my nephew’s little life flashed before my eyes.  The lake in relief, Louie swerved to the left at the last minute and I scooped my nephew up safely into my arms.

Later, the two of us, just the two of us, took Louie for a walk up the incline.  My nephew didn’t say a word, but held my hand tight, trusting me, as I warded off the dog who wanted sticks thrown for him.  A dog that comes in hot.  I felt like with my hand, I was tethering my nephew’s small soul to the earth.  I daren’t let go.

 

A Rustling

I’m lying in bed.  My mind is swimming with thoughts about circumstance and what I’ve been writing, keeping me awake.  Never a good thing when you’re planning to get up at 5:00 a.m. the next morning.  And how did that go, the getting up at 5:00 a.m.?  This morning – it didn’t.  I sat down at my computer close to seven.

Time to take stock.

I smell like campfire.  My hair, pulled back in a messy ponytail, is falling loose and I have an itchy bug bite on the skin over my left ribcage.  I can’t re-read that sentence without wanting to scratch the bite.  I touched it again, just now.  My face, which has grown darker in colour these past few weeks, feels a bit oily (I haven’t washed it) and I’m groggy with sleep.  It’s colder outside, yesterday and today, a surprising yet also obvious factor of living further North; the cold seeps up through the floorboards as we sleep.  We are not insulated here, though we’re nice and cozy in our beds under down comforters.

There’s a giant pot of water standing on the stove that Dan boiled before bed, which I used to rinse off the Ontario strawberries and blueberries for my cereal this morning.  Our water comes from the lake and it’s unsafe to drink.  We’re having our mail forwarded here, to our cottage address this summer, and when the mailman came out to assess whether we could have a rural mailbox or not, he reported back that it would not be safe to do so along the stretch of road above us.  And so we will fetch our mail from a communal location, much farther away, the same as we did at home, only different.  Only the UPS guy is crazy enough/forced to drive his big truck down our laneway.  Our internet hub arrived this way, in the middle of the day, seemingly out of nowhere.  A young uniform-clad man in sunglasses delivered our package with a knowing smile, bent down to pet our puppy, then made four attempts to peel back up the steep incline of our laneway.  He made it out on the fourth attempt and for that I was glad.

The previous paragraph is not entirely true.  The septic system guy also made his way down our laneway, but having experience with such properties as ours, he parked at the top and walked down to assess the situation.  The mark of a pro.  Then, in a human feat – and with a driving ability I never hope to master – he reversed his large truck down our laneway (backwards!) and made it out no problem.  For those who plan to visit, don’t worry, managing the driveway isn’t as hard as I’m making it sound.  You will arrive safe and sound.  You just won’t want to leave.

Wildlife surrounds us.  Wolves come here in the winter, bears abound (though we’re unlikely to see any), moose – so we’re told – and deer, definitely deer.  I’ve seen several deer already.  And a miraculous thing:  when we arrived to look at our cottage late spring, I noticed the ring of trees around the lake all sat neatly trimmed at their bottoms.  Somewhere along the line, I made an assumption that treelines around lakes looked the way they do because of rising and falling water levels, the way rock is eroded by water over time.

“No, no.  It’s mother nature’s hedge clippers,” our real estate agent informed me.  The deer trim the trees by eating them.  That’s as high as they can reach, craning their necks, while standing on the ice.

The people who owned the cottage before us put out birdseed on the balcony to feed the blue jays, and so we do so now as well.  They left nuts they used to hand feed a chipmunk, and while we’ve been dallying, getting our bearings around here, the chipmunk runs around twittering and swearing at us; I imagine something along the lines of “Give me some F*%$ing nuts!”  Ariel is keenly working on repairing that relationship and building the trust that has been broken back up.

I will probably do laundry today.  We have an old washer here, a top loader – a luxury for a cottage – that can process small loads.  There has never been anything light about our laundry loads before, and so we adapt, we do less laundry more frequently.  We re-wear the same clothes like they’re going out of style.  And we check the weather.  Thunderstorms coming.  Better get the laundry washed and hung up now.  It’s a windy day, loads of time for our clothes to dry.

And yes, there are bugs you must prepare for.  The blackflies are particularly pesky as the sun is setting.  Those little vampire bugs are relentless.  Our children’s’ necks and behind their ears are mottled with scars, entry wounds that itch, but they don’t seem to mind too much.  Bug spray helps, so does a windy day like today.  Overcast days with clouds make the bugs all too happy and so we lean toward the sun.

On the day of their arrival, I took the kids to the dock with the sun shining down.  They dipped their toes into the mushy sand of the beach.  Penelope was the first to dive forward and swim with Ariel close behind her off the dock into dark waters.  Elyse came in once with me, dangling her legs off the water mat we bought for them, but proclaimed the water to be too cold.  They’d just spent a few days enjoying the luxury of my parent’s pool and I sensed Elyse’s reticence involved more than just the temperature.

Cottage life involves a rugged wildness, an embracing of nature in all its glory and horrors.  On the day Dan and I arrived here, I had been walking through the muck of our beach, picking up sticks and leaves, clearing the sandy path and then swam out into the deep.  I felt a tingling between my big toe and as I treaded water on my back, I held out my foot to take a look.  There was a slimy black thing.  At first, I thought it was a leaf, but then, as it shimmied to the bottom of my foot, I could see it was no such thing and I proceeded to remove it, which I did with some difficulty.  If you ever happen to get a leech on your foot, for future reference, look for the small end of its body – that’s where its mouth and main sucker is located – then gently use your finger to lift the sucker to the side, thereby ensuring its tiny jaws do not remain lodged into your flesh.  I had no such issues but was certainly put off by the incident.  I asked our new neighbours on both sides, “Hey, have you noticed leeches around here?”  Both sets were surprised.

“I’ve been coming here my whole life,” said a woman with grown children, “and I’ve maybe ever had two.”

“Nope! None over here.  I guess it’s just at your leech beach!” another man teased me.

Well, I’m glad I got my leech experience out of the way, and even if there’s more, now I know what to do.

But what can I see right now, as I write this.  I see my children catching fish with their father, one right after the other, off the end of our dock.  Just beyond, the two loons, the true owners of this lake, are gliding, diving down for their breakfast.  I see an entire glass window filled with waves; their lapping seems almost to reach my feet from where I’m perched above.  The waves stretch far across to the shore on the other side where they are greeted by trees lining the shoreline and thick up over the hilly terrain that reminds me of a roller coaster ride.  Even on an overcast day, brightness lights up the periphery of my workspace.  On days when the skies and the water are clear, it’s hard to tell the lake from the sky, the reflection a heavenly mirage.  Frogs croak, the loons croon – their eerie calls echoing into the night – blue herons fly overhead while the crows caw out in their raspy voices.  The air around here is thick with dew and I often think this is what fresh smells like.

Someone’s fish just got away.

The pines and the birch branches on our piece of land are blowing, swaying in the wind, the leaves high above rustling, irrespective of whether I’m here or not.  But bearing witness to this all, it’s quite something.

 

 

Forget Normal: a case for the MFA

Normal life.  What does that even mean anymore?  Did such a thing ever exist or perhaps the term has become as outdated as ‘normal families’ and ‘normal children’ has for me.

Normal life would suggest a pattern of specific behaviours.  I do ‘x’ and then I do ‘y’ and then I do ‘z’.  Lately my life has looked more like: SJgahhjkgSA$#@IFS(F?US?J0u8472.

Not much of a pattern, more of a free-for-all, more like one of my computer passwords.

Going from being a ‘normal family’ to redefining what that means and looks like, to accepting ‘normal family’ encompasses a whole variety of situations – or rather that a ‘normal prototypical family’ doesn’t really exist – helped me make one of the biggest mental shifts of my life.  If I didn’t have to be normal and my family didn’t have to be normal then that opened the door for a whole host of other exciting avenues.

I’m not knocking normal, rather I’m opening the door to the great unknown and saying, “why not go in here?”  I’ve become rather fond of wild places, of the great unknown, of showing up at houses with appealing entrances.

And so I dived headfirst into my Masters program.  You know when you have a great idea and you get really excited about it, and maybe even mull over the possibility for years and wait for the timing to be just right and then that thing you wanted, you are ACCEPTED, you GET IN and IT’S HAPPENING.  Then you defer for a year, because life isn’t quite right, and then it’s here, that thing you really wanted and YOU’RE DOING IT.  I’m struck by that moment when it arrives, the momentous occasion of going from dream to reality.  But I’ll skip to the point.  The doing is tedious.  The doing is hard.  The doing is work.  No matter how much I like the dreaming, the doing is the fun part.  And so my former ‘normal life’ as a mom who wants to write is no longer.  I wrote before now because I wanted to, and for many years with urgency, but now I HAVE to write.  Not that this is the judge and ruler of my behaviour, but we are literally spending thousands of dollars for me to do so.  Money talks!  Money talks!  Now I am part of a writing community.  Now I’m in writing groups with editors and published authors who are looking to me to hear what I have to say.  Soon I will be face-to-face with agents and publishers.  There’s no time for remembering what normal used to look like, this is my new normal.  The glittery, dazzling literary world.  I feel like I have been knocking on the door for years, and somebody finally let me in and is showing me the way.

A writing program, such as the MFA, is a writer’s dream not just because of its focus on the craft, but because of the writers themselves!  The people!  I am so fascinated by my fellow classmates.  The cliché, in this case, is so true: every one of them has a story to tell.  And that’s why they’re here, beside me, engaging in the normal task of writing in the extraordinary setting of the MFA.

Things will never be the same.  This notion, this idea, comes up over and over in my memoir, a repeating theme, but over time, through my transformational journey of understanding what it is to become the parent to a child with Down syndrome, with much self-reflection, the tone of that messaging changes.  Things will never be the same and I wouldn’t want them to be.

Change, for me, has become a mark of growth.  How much more could my life possibly change over the next two years of this Master’s program?  Who knows? Chances are, at some point, I will settle into some kind of neat and tidy routine.  For a while.  Then the world will tilt, and I’ll have to stumble back onto my feet again.  But our world is constantly spinning, we only think we’re standing still.  Our sure-footedness is the illusion.

Our ‘new normal’ after the pandemic may not look like our ‘old normal’, but can we use this as an opportunity to change something maybe we didn’t like about our ‘old normal’?  Can we find the silver linings?  Can we step one foot in front of the other and knock down that door we’ve been eyeing.  You should know that Elyse, my seven-year-old daughter, never hesitates when it comes to knocking on strangers’ doors.  Ringing their doorbells, too.  She wishes every day were Halloween and so she makes it so, by declaration and by ignoring our cries of protestation.  Unfortunately, it isn’t always enough to declare our wishes, we need to take action, step through the threshold, fully commit to our objectives, and often we need others on board.  And timing.  Halloween only works one day of the year.

Living life is like turning the pages of a book; once you’ve experienced the story, you can’t unread it, it’s there inside of you.  There is no going back.  Nothing will ever be the same.  You can flag a passage, return to highlight your favourite lines, but ultimately the story doesn’t change.  You have to pick up a new book for the story to continue.

I’m somewhere past my title page, floating in a sea of ideas that I will shape, with time, into a sculpture of ice.  This endeavour of becoming makes me wildly happy.

I will leave you with a vision of my ‘normal life’ stranded on an iceberg, floating gloriously far away from me out to sea.  I’m in a speedboat with the people who matter and my new writer friends, heading in the other direction, and I don’t look back.

What Would Happen?

What would happen if you followed your dreams?

 What would happen if you followed not just your dreams, but that little voice in your head, the one you want to ignore because it completely throws the balance of your life into chaos; that voice with the cord that attaches itself all the way down to your heart.  And when that heartstring is pulled, there is no ignoring its song because it’s playing your tune, the tune of who you truly are.

What would happen if your baby was born with Down syndrome and that caused you to question many long-held beliefs that had you standing on shaky ground.  Would you then look around at the people standing next to you anew, with a startling clarity?  Would you live your life differently, follow a different path?  Maybe.

What would happen next?  Well, your baby would be born and you would be a mother or father, of course.  Personally, I have never really embraced the term ‘special needs mom’, but if that floats your boat, you do you.

You would research the proper use of language to be able to use it correctly with your own child.  Was it ‘Down syndrome’ or ‘Down’s syndrome’?  A person with Down syndrome (lower case ‘s’) is the correctly spelling and usage in North America, while in the UK, Down’s syndrome spelled with an apostrophe is the norm.  You would read and you would learn and, something new – or perhaps, not new, just reimagined – you would write.  You would write a blog and one day – today! – you would have been writing that blog for almost nine years, because you started when your first born came along as a way to keep in touch with family far away.

Then what if that blog became something more to you?  What if that blog became a story you needed to tell the world?  What if you wrote a newspaper article, just one.  Just one measly article – what could it hurt?  And what if the rush from that one published measly article and your hope to help create a more just society for your daughter would then inspire you to write more, to keep going, to dig deeper, to settle right into advocacy work.  And what if then, you joined a board of a local Down syndrome association and you met families, many wonderful families, who have children with Down syndrome, families you may never have been fortunate enough to have met otherwise, but they didn’t really have a regular place to meet – so what if you set that up?  What if you coordinated a meeting place and what if you showed up there, who else might you meet?  And what other stories would be told?  Many.  And what if those stories filled your head and some danced for joy and others sank with sorrow into a sea of tears that needed to overflow onto the page?  What if you could write about…all of this.

What would happen if you looked for a memoir on the bookstore shelf written by a mother who had a child with Down syndrome…but there were none, well, when you dug deeper, there were a few, but none quite as young or Canadian or as uniquely…you.  None with your story to tell.  Well then.

What if, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, you began to write your story down.  What if your story were to unfold before your very eyes as you devoured books on disability and memoir.  What if you read one hundred books a year, for three years in a row, mostly memoir – would you know how to write your own then?

What if you could receive an education by doing, by living, and by reading voraciously?  What would happen if you threw in every ounce of emotion you ever felt (leaving room for the emotions of the reader: pro tip), and let it simmer for a while, for a few years and then when you were in the exact right place in your life, which is to say, pregnant and planning to move, which is to say – right in the middle of it – you were to write that book, the story of receiving a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome with your daughter?

And during the process of writing a memoir, what if you were to learn something?  About storytelling, and time management, and publication, and copy editing, and narrative arc and plot and weaving in themes and cutting out crap.  What if you were to learn something that could be useful to others beyond the obvious of getting that book about Down syndrome out into the word?  What if you could find your voice.

What if, in the process of writing your memoir, you dreamed up a whole new career for yourself.  What would happen if writing became more than therapy, if it became your lifeblood?

Just what might happen if you decided to take writing seriously?  You couldn’t do that, could you.  That might be too selfish, play too directly into your deepest desires – or could you?  Well, if you keep writing, if you work hard at it, you might just face a whole lot of rejection, and then you might get published in a magazine or two, and you might see more of your name online and in print, and one day, (hopefully soon), you will see your book published, the one that took you three years to write.  And by that point you may very well think of yourself as a writer.

You might decide that while writing is writing and writing is everything, that money and making a living is important too.  You might become an editor on the side and of course, given your background and inclinations, you might consider furthering your qualifications and continuing your education to better be able to teach writing.  You might then consider getting your Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction, because you’ve always wanted to do your Masters, you love education, and while you’re waiting to do that, because your children are still growing up, why not travel the world with them?  You never know what could happen, so better plan that trip fast.  What if your travel agent should tragically pass away, would that thrust you into action?  It did for me.

And what would happen, if you decided that you love to write so much you’d like to attend a writer’s retreat?  Let me rephrase that with the truth.  You want to go to a writer’s retreat so that you can learn how to run your own.  Then what would happen if you just went ahead and ran your own writer’s retreat anyway?  Would anybody come?  Would anybody care?  In other words, if you build it, would they come?  And would you come into contact with more wonderful writers?  Would you have a chance to share new viewpoints and explore the world through the eyes of these dazzling women?  You would.

Then what would happen if you wanted to keep your retreat going.  If running a writer’s retreat became an important way to connect with others and use your skills as a teacher and a learner and a writer.  What would happen if you one day envisioned hosting retreats of your own, in your very own special place?

Then one day, what would happen if the world as you knew it fell apart.  If all sense of normalcy was erased.  Would you crumple to the floor and refuse to get up?  That would be understandable, if that’s where you needed to lie.  And some days you do.  You lay there motionless, watching the world pass you by.

But what if you held onto hope, and let the heartstring pull and listened hard to your own inner music?  Might you remember your retreat, and the second book you are going to write and the MFA program you got accepted into and the people who are counting on you?  Even if no one is counting on you, what would happen if you rooted for yourself?  Became your own biggest fan?  You’re #1 – go me!  What would happen if the cheers in your head became louder than all the noise of the outside world?  Not in denial, but in defiance and with reverence to all that you are and can be.

What if you thought about buying your family a pool with the money from all the cancelled plans of the summer, but then instead you thought, no, I want to buy a cottage. What if that would cost you everything you had, but would bring you closer to the people you loved?  To the nature and the water you worshipped?  To following your dreams and dancing to the tune of your heartstring.

Would you listen?

I think I just did.

 

Loss: Tending to the Rose Garden

Loss.  The idea came to me in hazy form one afternoon, but I had no time to jot down notes, to ease into the topic and now it’s five a.m. and while my body needs time to boot up, so too is my brain sluggish at this time of day.  I’m becoming accustomed to early mornings; I’ve been rising early all week and attempting to make the change both mentally and physically.  It’s the time I have, so I will use it well.  And that is the idea of this blog: that what has been lost, will be found, though often regained in some other form.  We are here to talk about roses.

For every loss I’ve experienced in my life there has been something I have gained from the experience.  I can’t say this is true for everyone, but for me, this has been the case.  The key to accepting my losses and moving forward to find the good has been perspective – finding the roses.  There is no doubt gaining perspective has cost me dearly.

There are the losses I’ve experienced lately:

The loss of time; I’ve learned to appreciate the time I do have and be more flexible.

The loss of routine; we have had to reconstruct our new normal and in the process are able to appreciate the relative ease of life before when casually picking up a few items from the grocery store was no big deal.

The loss of peace; we are working on nurturing each member of our family and ourselves.  On addressing each of our needs.

The loss of space; this one is a hard one for me.  I’m still working this one out.

In the past, I’ve dealt with the loss of a loved one.  While loss isn’t easy, and even when we do gain something from that loss, that does not mean to say the pain is diminished.  Since losing my maternal grandmother, I have found new ways to connect with her after she is gone.  Through cross-stitching – an art she taught me – and thinking of her, to sensing her spirit in the rabbit outside my window.  Though she is gone, and while her loss is real and felt, our relationship has not been broken, it has been transformed.

Loss is relative.  While it is true, we will all lose our lives eventually, we have today to gain in the meantime.  Focus on what you can do today.

I once thought I had lost the child I was expecting.  I experienced a loss of normalcy and I was devastated.  Down syndrome was not what I had planned.  But over time I was able to see I had more to gain than I had ever lost.  The power of that perceived loss transformed me in ways unimaginable, has pushed me to travel and see the world, to be more accepting of those around me and to become an advocate for those of differing abilities; to be a writer and become the person I was meant to be.  I can’t say I saw all that coming when I was pregnant though.  I can’t say I saw any of it coming.  I can’t promise you that your losses will bring you great things.  But hold it in your heart that it is possible that what you perceive as a loss today, may one day be your greatest blessing.

I’m thinking about loss after finishing listening to Still: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Motherhood by Emma Hansen.  In Still, Emma Hansen relives for us the painful experience of losing her son Reid who is stillborn at 40 weeks.  A body, a life, so fully formed, to never experience the light of day or the feel of the breeze on his skin.  There is no reconciling this loss, but Emma does survive it.  She goes on to have another baby, after much difficulty, and then at two days old this second baby turns blue and is rushed to hospital.  If you want to know what happens keep reading, if not, and you think you’d like to read the book, skip to the * below.  Because of losing Reid the way she did (he was born with a true knot in his umbilical cord) Emma and her husband had felt helpless and they were determined to be prepared for this next baby.  They had taken an infant CPR course and once home from the hospital after giving birth, Emma had been watching her baby like a hawk.  She acknowledges that the experience of losing her first child enabled her to act quickly and save the life of her second.  The beauty of Everett’s big brother Reid looking out for him from above and beyond is not lost on me here.

*Oh, hello.  We’re back together.  Loss seems irreparable, and likely the pain will dwell with you for a long time, perhaps forever.  There is no promise that the pain will recede, just that there will be more to come; there will be an after.  There is no replacing the pain, just as there is no replacing the loss of a loved one, but over time, and perhaps with a shift of perspective, there will be beauty once more; there will be new hope and transformation.

Ariel and I finished reading The Secret Garden together last night.  As two forgotten children learn to care for a forbidden garden, they form a connection, with one another and nature, that nurtures their souls.  The act of being in nature heals their broken spirits and slowly their surly dispositions turn golden as the sun they play under, and as fair as the flowers they tend to.

There is a line that stuck with me, that reminded me of loss and perspective.

“Two things cannot be in one place. “Where you tend a rose, my lad, A thistle cannot grow.””

Where you tend a rose, a thistle cannot grow.  We must, deliberately then, sprout and give rise to those thoughts which bloom into delicate ornaments.  Those are the flowers we must tend to.  Pull out the weeds, and in times of difficulty, look for the rose buds to appear.  Someone or something may come along and cut the head off those roses – that’s life – and eventually, we know the last petal will fall and we will lay to rest alongside our roses, but while we are here, why not put everything we have into minding and making our gardens bloom?

As I stare out my window right now, I see buds on the trees.  Because I got up so early, I saw the sun rise into the cloudless blue sky I’m now witnessing, and into the promise of a new day.  And I smile, having tended to my roses, and feel grateful.

Keeping the Peace

My husband and I have agreed on a common goal for our family during this time of pandemic, which is to keep everyone happy, healthy and above all else:  keep the peace.  Keeping the peace is not as easy as it sounds.  KEEP THE PEACE.  I want to shout it out loud, but that feels counterproductive.  The challenge is to keep the peace when there is just so much each member of our family could be arguing about.  It’s your turn to take the dog out.  Don’t let the dog out!  Don’t run away from him.  Stop biting me!  It’s my turn to work!  Whose socks are these?  Who didn’t flush the toilet and WHY IS THERE A FULL ROLL OF PAPER TOWEL IN THE TOILET?  Who’s fault is that?  Why does it matter?  Who’s in charge here?  Why are the kids on their ipads?  Why aren’t the kids on their ipads?  Get them outside – bring them in!  What’s for lunch?  What’s for dinner?  I don’t want this!  I don’t want that!  It’s my turn.  It’s NOT my turn.  I wanted THAT.  Here, take it – no!  Who’s doing the dishes? Who’s watching the kids?  Who’s watching the dog?  What’s he eating now?  Have they eaten?  Who’s looking after the house?  Where did this literal pile of dirt come from?  Who’s making plans?  What are the plans?  I don’t like those plans.  Who’s sleeping? Who’s awake? No one?  BE QUIET.

The noise, these days.  There is an abundance of noise in our house and in my head.  The temptation is to S-CREAM…then everything goes quiet, momentarily, but that only leaves you feeling worse.

In the past week, I’ve begun my Master’s work.  I am now officially a full-time student of creative nonfiction for the next two years, during which time I will produce my second book-length work of nonfiction, a collection of essays with a disability theme.  I’m bursting with excitement over my course work and about my project.  The challenge is finding the hours in the day to focus and let out that creative energy and get to work.  I’ve got my eye on the wee hours of the morning.  A writer’s life is truly one of solitude, and while as a mother and primary caregiver I’ve always had to balance my need for alone time to create with caring for a family – now, even more so.

I’ve been drawing strength from a remembered line of Brene Brown’s:  we’re doing the best we can.  Brene Brown eventually comes to this conclusion after being hired for a speaking engagement out of town, and then asked to share a room with what ends up being the world’s worst roommate.  Her roommate smokes INSIDE the non-smoking hotel room in the face of Brene’s protest and manages to burn a hole in the curtains; then she pulls out her snacks and after getting chip crumbs all over the couch, she wipes her greasy, chocolate-coated, hands down the armrests to tidy herself up, to name a few of her unseemly transgressions.  Yet even she is doing the best that she can, Brene Brown comes to realize.  We must allow each other grace.  Not be a pushover, but allow grace.  Brene Brown comes to understand that the way to allow others grace is to set boundaries for herself.  She no longer accepts speaking engagements where she has to share a room; that is her boundary to set.

When I want to throttle the being who put a full roll of paper towel in the toilet or the being who walked through the house with their muddy boots on after the floor’s just been mopped, or the being who sucked up all of my time to work, or who sunk their teeth into my calf or whatever it may be; I’m trying to remember my own deep breaths, while balancing the deep sighs of those around me.  Each living creature in my home has needs, every day – surprise! – not surprised – and the responsibility of these needs boils down to two people, which actually then boils down to me as manager/CEO of household affairs.  The temptation is to drop the weight so I no longer have to bear it; allow our lives to crumple at my feet.  Fend for yourselves, I’M WRITING!  I would snarl, but that isn’t really who I am or aspire to be, so instead, I pick my moments when and where I can.  I will turn to dawn for solitude.  On the day Dan and Louie have a day-long errand to run, I just let the kids be without the snarl, and they’re okay, and they learn absolutely nothing from me, other than that I have needs too, and I am completely, 100% okay with that.  Nobody died.  And nobody yelled.  We each revelled in the here and now and the ‘just be’.  We were quite content to leave each other alone for a day.

I found myself raising my voice a few too many times this past week, and not just at my own family.  We are owed an exorbitant amount of money for a cottage rental cancelled this summer and by the time I’d reach my fourth phone call with the company, after waiting an unreasonable four weeks for a clear-cut reimbursement owed to us, I lost my composure.  My argument essentially boiled down to, “Not my problem.  You do what you have to do to GET ME MY MONEY.”  This woman had no power to do any such thing, and I knew this.  We both knew it.  Even as I raised my voice to express my frustrations, I knew this.  The woman on the other end stammered her apologies and then finally transferred me to someone higher up who was able to tell me exactly what is going on with our money.  I took a deep breath and would later recoil at my own ugliness.  To be rude or emotional over the phone with a complete stranger was totally unlike me, completely out of character.  Though I can be pushy, this was beyond pushy.  This was an emotional outburst.  Well it worked.  I’m getting my money back – but in exchange for what?  I lost my inner peace.

There have been signs around me to slow down, take stock, find my way back to our mantra for peace.

In searching for publishers, I came across a promising one named Guernica.  Intrigued by the name, I looked it up, and there was the painting, Picasso’s Guernica, named after the town in Northern Spain that was destroyed by German bombers in 1937 during the war.  The painting has become a monument, a constant reminder of the tragedies of war, an anti-war symbol, and an embodiment of peace that has been dubbed ‘a plea for peace’.  I also came across the book title Are We Done Fighting?  Building Understanding in a World of Hate and Division by Matthew Legge, and I thought I could truly relate.

The feeling of peace being disrupted comes from the greater scenario at play in the background, but it also comes from my lack of solitude and the feeling that something is missing.  Sometimes an odd sensation will come over me, that feeling of looking for something misplaced, like I’ve lost something important to me.  The feeling comes over me most strongly when I’m online or scrolling through social media, trying to find what it is that I’ve lost; the irony is that it’s time and solitude, at a time when the others are sleeping and I am alone; I’m wasting what precious time I do have.

Where is it?  Where is it?” my scrolling finger and senseless wandering seem to demand.  But I never find what I’m looking for.

I allow for one last sign to catch my attention beyond battles with the world and Picasso’s Guernica, my plea for peace.  The sign appears in my day planner, of all places.  I flop open its pages and there, staring back at me, is a simple inscription for the month of May.  Five little words: Bloom where you are planted.

And here I am.  Both feet planted firmly on the ground amid five other beings.  There is plenty of love on which to grow here, it just needs to be cultivated and harvested.  That takes grit and hard work.  Our garden needs plenty of attention, and I’m not the sun, I’m just one measly watering can trying to cover as much ground as possible, watering our patch of earth to the best of my abilities, doing the best I can.  Others are stepping in here and there, doing what they can, but I miss my full gardening crew and I bet you do too.  Many hands make light work.  We’re in a bit of a draught, but we’ll get by.  I still hear the robins chirping; I know the gardener that holds me, and he’s okay.  He’s better than okay.  Our flowers will bloom, we will tend to one another.  And the sun will shine high above us.

Real Life

Real life.  Real life right now looks like a tumbled stack of Jenga blocks.  We’re all standing around with the last piece in our hands – stunned – wondering what in the hell happened.  We had our next move planned out, then crash.  The world caved in.  Luckily, we’re crafty, we know how to build that tower back up again one block at a time.  We wish we didn’t have to start again, find a new way of doing things, but that’s the only way to play the game.  Crash.  Build the blocks back up.  Crash.  Build the blocks back up again, one at a time.  One foot in front of the other.  There are new paths to trodden.

Real life looks like a rust-coloured puppy sleeping beside me in his crate as I type at my bedroom desk.  It’s a manual on my left called Writer’s Market 2017, because at that time I had already begun thinking about publishing my book.  The thought process continues, and I’m doing something about it, I am.  On my right, real life is a scrawled in notebook, with a miscellaneous total, $444.89, barely legible on an otherwise blank page.  The amount we are owed from the AirBnb in Guadeloupe, the Caribbean island we never visited because of rising concerns over something called Coronavirus…I think (hope) that money is coming back to us, but we have to wait for it.  We have to wait.  Like everything else right now.  Unless.

When I woke up this morning, I looked in the mirror.  This IS real life, I thought.  This moment.  There is no before to preoccupy us, only what comes next and only what is now.  I often think in terms of “real-life” being when my kids go back to school and when my husband drives to work, but if traveling the world and traveling in general have taught me anything it is that this is real life happening, right at this moment.  Wherever you are.  So make the best of it.  Curl into your place on this earth like a warm bed with flannel sheets and a down comforter.  Nestle in with a favourite book and turn each page anticipating the next conflict, the next turn of events, because that’s what life is – a grand adventure.  Choose your story wisely, boldly.  Revel in the details.

Real-life is my husband’s melodic voice, his version of Twinkle-twinkle Little Star, accompanied by Elyse on the piano, floating up the staircase to the beat of my heart.  Real life is a polar pocket of arctic air descending on us in May – MAY!  Real life is sometimes crushing: no money, no time, no space, no success, many failures.  Real life isn’t always great and often feels worse.

But in front of the mirror, the realization was that we can’t wait for life to start again.  Life is happening all around us, every minute, right this second.  Working nine to five isn’t real life; it might be what you do with your days, but real life is living and breathing with the people you love.  Real life is setting up a game of Jenga and delighting in all three of my girls gathering around to play.  It’s sitting next to Elyse on her bed and listening to her read the book J’aime for the tenth time.  It’s fluttering and sputtering my words out onto the page with today’s thoughts, not tomorrow’s, and not dwelling on yesterday’s past either.  If you are waiting to become, then you will be caught in a cycle of perpetually becoming.  Why not just be?  Be the person you are right now, today, no regrets and no excuses.

If your real life is hard right now, I’m sorry.  You certainly don’t deserve these unforeseeable circumstances, nobody does.  I believe things will improve and get better.  I wish you less hardship and send goodwill your way.  Keep dreaming and reaching.  If you believe things will get better, often they will.

I’m reminded of the Special Olympics motto, ‘Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt’.  Is there a loftier goal than to bravely put ourselves out there?  Life is a tough game.  There are winners and there are undoubtedly losers.  We inhabit different roles as the blocks get stacked against us or line up in our favour.

“When this is all over…” I hear people say, and I get that, I really do, but we still have right now to hold on to, to live in – this moment, the present, a gift.  Even if it’s hard, don’t forget to live right now.

And right now looks like closed curtains, sheltering my eyes from the sun, a drained glass mug of tea, an empty can of pink grapefruit sparkling water, a cell phone in a glittery red case on its charging base; a pink pen poised and ready, pointed in my direction.

 

The Opposite of Loneliness

While tying my shoelaces up for a run, a thought popped into my head, I am not lonely.  I came to a shocking realization: I don’t experience loneliness anymore.  My family is around me 24/7, I don’t have time to feel lonely, even if I was.  It’s not that I’m particularly lonesome in my regular everyday life; my days are full and I keep good company, it was just an interesting observation that at a time when socializing is at a minimum, while there are those I miss, I am not forlorn.  My crew is solid.

To follow up on last week’s post, sorry to disappoint those readers who were actively looking for me to fall in poop (you know who you are and you know what karma is), I thought I would fall up (follow-up) with how the poop joke has played out this week.  Keep things light-hearted.

Elyse was on a virtual chat with her speech-pathologist reading sentences posted on the screen for both parties to see, when I arrived home.  While I was out running an errand, Dan reported Elyse was participating well in her session.  The minute I popped my head into the kitchen to check on things the read-aloud sentence that should have been, “Elyse went for a walk,” became, “Elyse fell in poop.”  The speech pathologist pressed their lips together and I did the same, but then as I’m much less professional, I burst out laughing.  Elyse smiled her cunning, knowing little smile and laughed at her clever joke.  She knows how to work a room, my girl.

That evening we were outside in the backyard playing as a family when Elyse tired of the game and went inside.  The first time she locked the rest of us out, I coaxed her to unlock the sliding door with a promise of fruit snacks.  Don’t judge me, it worked!  The second time, I was smart enough to grab my house keys for the front door.  After a stern talking to, I headed back outside.  We were quickly locked out again, and as we have rigged a makeshift shield to block the bottom of our fencing to protect our pup, the backyard gate can’t open so I had to hop our fence to make it to the front door.  I ended up hopping our fence three times.  Once Elyse helped herself to leftover Easter chocolate.  She held up the bag for me to see behind the locked door.  Another time, Penelope got trapped inside with Elyse.  Neither of them can open the sliding glass door, but Elyse can unlock it.  But that doesn’t help when she locks the screen door as well, because then I can’t access the glass sliding door even after she unlocks it. Oh lalalalala! (this is an expression Elyse’s EA uses in response to her comedics).  The third time Ariel had to use the bathroom, and so I made one last scramble over the fence and gave Elyse an even sterner talking to.

“This is not okay, Elyse.  Locking us out is dangerous.  You need to say sorry!  What do you say to mom?”

Looking somber and down at her toes, properly ashamed, finally having learned her lesson she said,

“Sorry, poopy.”

And I couldn’t not laugh.

And we laughed and we laughed and we hugged and I dragged her outside barefoot into the backyard and made her repeat to her dad what she had just said to me, because it was so well timed and unplanned, and it was just so damn smart.  Elyse has a wicked sense of humour and through her antics and one-liners her intelligence shines through.

Then she pulled another one over on us.  She tried the poop joke again, while chatting on the phone with her Educational Assistant, but nobody was biting.  (Oh lalalalala!)  Apres lunch, she shifted tactics.  We took an hour-long family forest walk, and upon returning Elyse took herself upstairs to her bedroom, tucked herself in, and promptly fell fast asleep.  She slept for three hours.  Being a seven-year old jokester is exhausting work.

I haven’t slid and fell in poop – yet – we’ve established.  In the past, I’ve certainly stepped in doggie doodoo, been rained on by a bird, and experienced the projectile range of a baby’s excretions while diaper changing, but I have yet to fall in poop.  Sorry to disappoint.  I did once, however, offer to close the open shed in our backyard on our way out the door to a family dinner.  The conversation from the front of our van went like this:

Me: “Shed’s open.”

Dan: “Oh.  I’m not closing it, called it.”

Me: “I got it!”  Flying out the car door.

In a mock sprint along the side of our house, I flew from the front driveway, onto the grass toward our back shed.  I was just picking up speed when I hit the grass.  One step, two steps…on the third step, my right foot gave way to the soft mud, which I slid through with all the grace of a baseball player sliding into Homeplate.  How had I not seen this coming?  The mud rode all the way up my leg, imprinted on my backside and onto my back.  I managed to avoid my hair.  Dan half hid his laughter while asking if I was okay.  I couldn’t breathe, I. Could. Not. Breathe.  Oh, lalalalala.  Laughter is the best medicine.

While I generally abstain from watching tv, in favour of reading books in the evening, lately I’ve made an exception to carve out some adult time.  And what have us adults been watching?  Comedians.  All I want to do right now is laugh.

I want to laugh and I want to be inspired.  Not in the cheesy, “you can do this!” kind of way, but in the life offering lessons and grace that awaken my writer senses.  On today’s forest walk, it was Penelope, my youngest, making me think.  She pointed to a puddle, “Are those piddows from the rain?”  But ‘piddows’ sounded more like ‘pillows’ than ‘puddles’ and so I thought about rain pillows, originally rain piddows – whatever you prefer – a wet and restful place to lay one’s head tucked into the earth.

The mispronunciation and misunderstanding of language provided by children is a source of never-ending entertainment.  My niece, around age six, once congratulated me on getting something right. She told me I “mailed it”.  My nephew, at two, called quesadillas “tasty ideas”.  These utterances came out over ten years ago, but we’re still talking about them, asking for ‘tasty ideas’ when what we really want is ‘quesadillas’ and congratulating each other with ‘mailed it’ instead of ‘nailed it’ and there has got to be a reason for that.  These memories make us smile and a smile’s just a guffaw away from something more…something uproarious and not at all unpleasant.  Something essential.

Elyse understands the value of comedy; she knows what is essential.  And she’s not afraid to let a punch line drop.  She says the thing you’re not supposed to say, but that everyone is thinking.  Her EA told me there was a student wearing overalls and some other fancy get up to school one day.  Though she’s supposed to be speaking in French at school, Elyse cut to the chase in her native tongue,

“Why are you dressed like a farmer?”

Everyone had been thinking it, her EA told me.  I think a farmer’s dress is practical and pretty snazzy, myself.

Elyse will be the one to stick her tongue out at strangers (much to our dismay), especially if it gets a laugh from the crew.  This morning it was replacing the lyrics to “move it, move it”, with “poopy, poopy” as she booty shakes her behind.  Ariel often raises her eyebrows and looks to Dan and I in response to Elyse’s pranks.  But it’s hard to make out our expressions – the harsh, chastising features that should be there, doling out parenting advice – with our faces turned away from view, shoulders hunched and bobbing, eyes squinting with tears, mouths stifling until we burst.  Let it all out.

This is the opposite of loneliness.

How the Light Gets In

There’s a shapelessness to these days that’s fatiguing.  In my dreams, the ones that I remember, I’m always elsewhere, never at home.  I’m out at a bar with my friends from high school, but something isn’t quite right, we aren’t supposed to be there.  I’m visiting a cottage with my husband, children and extended family, but an angry bear interrupts the proceedings.  Ariel races up the steps, away from the bear, I grab Elyse, as Dan goes for Penelope, and as I turn my back to flee there’s the unmistakable scream of my youngest child, but I can’t bear to look.  There’s a recurrent theme of menace and imminent danger ever-present.  Even my dreams are like nightmares.

And so we go through our days.  I texted a friend to say that I have moments of positivity and bursts of productivity and the rest of the time is like trudging through mud.  I feel bogged down, slow-moving.  I’m not alone.  Friends’ Facebook pages are filled with feelings of hopelessness and despair; it’s there, right below the surface of their posts.  The sense of idleness is maddening, and this comes, in part, because every day feels the same.  “Groundhog Day” my husband calls it.

Still, every day’s a new promise.  I retain hope and gain strength with the rise of the sun.  I try to focus on the idea, and write it down, that how I act and react during these uncertain times serves as a model for my children.  I am mindful of the idea, but I am not so virtuous as to keep the premise in the forefront of my mind and act accordingly.  My behaviour is less than ideal.  Sometimes I’m just getting by.  And getting by may mean I succeeded in planning dinner by asking my husband to order food by text while I ignore our children inside the house and go outside to play with our puppy by myself.  The kids can come outside if they want, but they don’t always want to and I’m not inclined to force them.  I’m not inclined to force anything, at the moment.  At times work feels impossible – at others – life sustaining.  There are ups and there are downs.

I am no longer competing in an ironman race this July.  I trained hard for 115 days, and I wanted to look forward to the experience at the end of the tunnel.  I deserved that; I earned it.  But even if the race goes ahead as planned, and I fear it will not, I just don’t think the vibe is going to be the same.  This is not what I wanted for my first Ironman experience, and so I’ve decided to push it to next year.  I keep training…day 116, day 117, we’ll see what happens.  I’m tired of the number of factors out of my control.  When and whether I race or choose not to race was within my control and so I took action before someone else took that decision away from me.  The training camp I signed up for is cancelled.  Our cottage stay refunded.  A summer of sameness lies out flat in front of me in the months ahead.  Unless…

Unless.  Are you familiar with that famous line from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax?  The Onceler tells readers that, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not.”  Drudgery, misery, hopelessness, stagnancy…this is the easy route that takes us to no-man’s land where nothing ever happens.  Nothing good, anyway.  Those who are happy get pegged with making it look easy, but it isn’t.  Happiness takes work.  I’m not saying that everyone gets to choose; depression and mental health issues are real, but a person like me, an average person like me in good health gets to choose.  I can choose happiness, which in difficult times takes work, or I can choose the easy route.  I can choose despair.  A pandemic and the loss of normalcy seems like the perfect excuse for despair.  To do nothing.  To be nothing.  I dip down into despair from time to time.  But I don’t want to stay there.  My happiness is too important; it’s life itself.  Everyone thinks that being miserable is hard, and yes, if you’re depressed or have experienced a significant loss be it physical or financial or emotional, then yes, it is hard, life will be hard for a while, but for the rest of us misery isn’t hard, it’s easy.  You just let it happen.  Happiness is hard.  Happiness in the time of a pandemic does not arrive without grace and effort.  You have to seek out happiness, you need to find it and hold onto it tight.  You have to make it, break it, and create it all over again.  There’s also a bit of luck involved and stumbling blindly in the dark.

I find happiness waiting for me down on the floor.  I stretch out onto my back and a fifteen-pound pup comes bounding onto my chest and licks my face.  Joy bubbles forth.  I find it tucked into the pages of my course book, The Business of Becoming a Writer by Jane Friedman, or in my course work when I use my mind because I’m learning and I’m growing and I’m doing the things I love.  I find happiness in a warm embrace with my husband.  As I curl into his chest, and my fingers graze the skin of his lower back beneath his t-shirt and I feel his warmth.  Our connectedness makes me feel happy and alive.  I scribe conversations between my children, much to my own delight, like this one:

Ariel, the big sister, speaking to Penelope, the little sister who is highly attuned to any form of praise from her big sister: “You’re a genius!” This, in response to Penelope’s chosen painting methods. (Subtext, Penelope has long been referred to as our ‘genius baby’ – hard to explain the whole family backstory inside joke.  You had to be there, I guess.)

So Ariel calls Penelope a genius.

Penelope’s response is genuine: “Am I?  Because I would like to be a genius.”

Ariel: “You aren’t.”

Penelope: “I’m not?”

Ariel: “No, you’re not.”

Penelope: “Well, not anymore.”

I feel like Penelope got the last word on that one.

Then there’s the words, on repeat, that Ariel coached Elyse to say over and over.

“Mommy.  Fell.  In.  Poop.”

Never have four words in the English language elicited more laughter.

I could succumb to sadness and pity and misery.  So far during this pandemic, personally, I’ve had residencies and retreats relinquished.  Speaker engagements eradicated.  Time to write, erased.  My family has had to change our vacation plans, cut trips short after driving across an entire country, and had future travel plans cancelled.  We have dealt with lice and worms.  My children had lice and it took multiple cleanings of our house, trips to the drugstore for lice shampoo, shampooing my own hair with the foul oily mess just to be double sure I didn’t have it, and weeks of effort to rid ourselves of the tiny beasts.  Our puppy had worms.  Ringworms.  The kind that children can get that can lead to permanent damage, ravaging their little bodies.  I saw the worms with my own eyes, wiggling in the mucousy feces freshly excreted from my beloved pet.  What the hell!  I want to rage and succumb to misery.  Instead, I give my dog the dewormer pill we have on hand.  I make a few trips to Shopper’s.  I wash everyone’s hair and brush it with a fine-tooth comb that removes the eggs.  I keep an eye out for bugs from the corner of my eye.  I pick up poop the second after poop arrives so my children will not contract ringworms.  I do NOT fall in it.  I’m a mother-fucking warrior in my own home.  Fighting back not only against bugs and worms, but the dark cloud that hangs over the living room.  I do my best to push back the clouds and let in the light, like dusting away cobwebs from a forgotten corner.  I think this is what every parent is doing right now or trying their best to do.  And some days it just rains and rains.  Other days we practically have to wear shades.  I harness every bit of sunlight I can get, when I can get it.  We are healthy and we are grateful.  We are also a tiny bit lost.

I find happiness in the forest and in celebrating Earth day by reading about it with my kids and talking about conservation and making recycled crafts.  I find it in the painted rocks left along the trail by strangers.  I find happiness in making plans for the future, even as the future remains murky and unknown.  There are certain factors within our control.  While my family has picked up lice and worms, we’ve also gained a new member, our sweet puppy Louie, and who knows what else may come our way?  Haven’t we all gained a new perspective on life?

I find happiness wedged into the deep crevice of possibility; with some exertion, hard work and struggle, I break it free, hold it up against the light, and take a closer look at my prized jewel.  I see myself in the reflection; my well-being and that of my family.  My greatest treasure.  I do not have to look far to find what matters most.

I see myself reflected and I find hope and strength in the lyrics of a Leonard Cohen song:

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.