The Last Sweet Bite

Working, parenting, and teaching are three different jobs that cannot be done at the same time, says Dr. Emily W. King, a family psychologist.  When I saw these words, I thought about how perfectly they summed up my life at the moment and the lives of so many parents.  Caregivers are being asked to perform the impossible.  Or – if not impossible, then – the highly undesirable.

We all have our particular brand of misery to dwell on – if we must.  Friends of ours were in the middle of an around-the-world trip when Coronavirus swept in and terminated their plans.  They planned to travel for an entire year, while he took a sabbatical and she worked from the road.  Their trip was five years in the making, and in the end it was cut abruptly short by several months because of Covid.  Is this the end of the world?  No, but it really sucks.  If their trip was a fine meal, then they missed out on those last few savory bites.  There are many aspects of life that really suck right now (i.e. as alluded to above, trying to perform three jobs at once), but we also know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  We must strive for that light.

Our travel friends, the Irwins, a Canadian family of four comprised of mom, dad and two awesome daughters, adopted a family motto during their travels for when times got tough.  And times inevitably did get tough:  from questionable food, to disappointing – even dangerous – highly-anticipated experiences, to a police raid of their accommodation (I need to ask you guys more about that one…)  The family kept it together by repeating these simple words: we can do hard things.  That’s it.  I believe I know where these words come from.  When we caught up with the Irwins in Thailand this past November, I asked Amy, the mom, if she was a reader (as I’m wont to do) and if so, was there a memoir she recommended?  She suggested I read Glennon Doyle’s highly acclaimed debut memoir Love Warrior.  Glennon Doyle embodies and speaks to the words, we can do hard things, in Love Warrior, as well as in her most recent book Untamed.  We can do hard things.  I love this simple statement so much, which for me encompasses hope, confidence and resolve, that I want to write it on my wall; on the blank white space I stare into when I’m running on the treadmill.  There are things happening beyond our control and life is hard right now.  Really hard.  But we can do hard things.  Thanks to the Irwins for reminding me of that.

I’m reading another memoir right now as part of my Masters work called Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid, a true story of racism, indifference and the pursuit of justice for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.  The book reads like an investigative report, and I’m enjoying it so far.  While books serve an instructional purpose for me, I also mine them for material, reading along waiting to spot diamonds in the rough with their sparkling light.  I call these gems inspiration.  Well, I was inspired, fully inspired, by a run of the mill description of a town and a place with one significant detail: totem poles.  Erected in 1850, these totem poles were the oldest remaining in the world.  Found in the town of Gitanyou (previously called Kitwankool) in British Columbia, said totem poles were made famous when painted by Emily Carr in her painting Kitseukla.  One of the totem poles depicted is known as ‘Hole-in-the-Ice’ and it was this piece of history, mentioned in the book, that intrigued me the most.  The Totem pole literally has a giant hole in it.  Why the hole?  I felt I was that totem pole, my exterior carved by my life story with a hole in the middle.  There is so much passing through me right now, and I have no way to take it all in, to digest.  We are all walking totem poles, losing those we know and love through holes in the ice.  There is no salvaging the damage done by the frigid icy waters below, we just know that it needs to get a bit colder before the hole will close and the ice will heal.  We must brave the cold and we must survive it.

I have been unable to determine why there is a hole carved in the ‘hole-in-the-ice’ totem pole. What I do know, is that totem poles are monuments created to represent and commemorate ancestry, histories, people, or events.  According to a site devoted to Indigenous art in UBC’s Natives Studies program, “Most totem poles display beings, or crest animals, marking a family’s lineage and validating the powerful rights and privileges that the family held.  Totem poles would not necessarily tell a story so much as it would serve to document stories and histories familiar to community members or particular family or clan members.”  Perhaps someone knows the secret to why there is a hole in the ice, but the information is not readily available.  The question of ‘why’ remains one of the great mysteries of life.

We can do hard things.

I just finished listening to Charlie Engle’s Running Man.  I love listening to books written by triathletes with inspiring tales while I’m working out, and Charlie’s story did not disappoint.  A former drug addict, he found his way into running as a means and lifeblood to his recovery.  His life was going relatively well – at least from an outsider’s perspective – when he was pegged for a crime he was innocent of committing (he took the fall for a ‘liar loan’ on a house he owned).  Not long after having completed the longest run across a dessert, and adventure racing through the Amazon, he found himself behind bars.  To no avail, even when uncovering new evidence to suggest he was unjustly treated and tried, Charlie was forced to serve his full sentence of twenty-one months in prison.  Upon his release, he relished being a free man, and began inspiring others with his story.  In a talk he delivered to college students the epiphany came to him that, “Adaptation is the key to happiness.  Anything can be overcome with the right attitude.”  Right now all of us are being forced to adapt, and if we can, if we will try to, then I agree with Charlie Engle, we have a chance at being happy.  This hole we are feeling right now will not do us in.  As far as adopting the right attitude, we can do hard things seems just about right.

I want to end this post with a gift to you, a poem that fits the spirit of this post.  This poem is from a delicious little cookbook, Eat This Poem, by Nicole Gulotta, whose recipes are inspired by its poems.  I hope you will savour every last sweet bite.

Perhaps the World Ends Here, by Joy Harjo

The world begins at a kitchen table.  No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table.  So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it.  Babies teethe at the corners.  They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human.  We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children.  They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table.  It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror.  A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow.  We pray for suffering and remorse.  We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

Blog Post: I Surrender

I surrender.  I surrender to circumstances currently beyond my control.  I surrender to the fluidity of time, to daybreak and nightfall.  I surrender my resistance to embrace technology.  I will meet my child’s teacher on Google classroom.  We will have a face-to-face meeting this way; she will reassure my child.  There is currently no other way, no other options, and so I surrender to that which is beyond my control.

I surrender to my fingers, typing these words, and my thoughts free-flowing and to the idea that – ‘idle’ and ‘dangerous’ were the next words that came to mind to continue on with that phrase.  Letting the mind go idle is dangerous.

I surrender to puppy nips, licks and kisses.  To training him every moment of every day he’s awake, and training hard, because my god, this puppy is worth it.  I choose life, hope, renewal, positivity, forward movement every time.  I surrender to the puppy whose responsibility will weigh me down because to do so is to move forward; because puppies inspire hope and bring me joy that bolster the spirit.

I surrender to being needed, and yet there is so much need around me I cannot, will not, fulfill.  I surrender to being incomplete.  I surrender to the idea, for the time being, there are those who have in this pandemic and those who have not.  Those who’ve lost their jobs or their business, or their livelihood or their faith.  And those who have gained time with their family, to slow down, to breathe.  To take stock.  Those who are doing just fine, better than fine.  There are those who live in fear and those who seek growth.  I surrender to them all.  I surrender to being human.

I surrender to the notion the kids will not be going back to school.  There is no way, and no easy way to say it or accept it.  Elyse’s grade two year is complete; grade three testing will not happen for Ariel and Penelope’s final preschool year has come to a close.  Penelope looks bigger these days; I hope she’s getting enough exercise.  I forget she’ll soon be four and needs to grow.  I surrender to remembering.  Her preschool director dropped by yesterday from a distance; she visited every single student from the school to let them know they are loved and missed.  I wanted to reach out, to cry, to hug her, but I kept my distance; I also wanted to tell her she is released, I’ve got her.

What seems like a few months ago, but was likely longer, was a meeting with Elyse’s teachers.  I announced my plans for Elyse to learn to read on her own this year.  That was our goal.  This was supposed to be a joint venture between school and parent.  Her teacher reassures me she plans to send Elyse a weekly short book to read online; still, I have ordered Elyse her own set of books from Scholastic, a particular set of books she is familiar with because the school was sending them home before.  Before.  The realization dawned on me.  We will have to teach her to read now; it’s on us.  Maybe it always was.  I ordered those books, because while online reading and learning is okay, there’s something about having a book in your hand.  Elyse would be missing out without that book in her hand.  We can’t sell our kids short on their education and yet parents are struggling, selling themselves short.  I surrender to the responsibility of educating my children, but that’s been a bargain deal established long ago.  Since before birth; since the time of the womb.  It’s just that now I surrender to doing it full time, for a short while.  I hope it’s just a short while.  We are all struggling in our own ways.

Maybe I’m not alone.

I surrender to kindness.  To video chats with educational assistants, and a package of learning materials arriving sanitized on our doorstep.  To watching my daughter’s face light up at the gift.  To a human being thinking of the needs of another human being.  And I’m smiling through happy tears.

I surrender to the idea there are people dying.  Not to sound crass, but there are always people dying.  It’s when death feels so present, so at the surface that we flinch.  When death arrives at our neighbour’s doorstep for no apparent reason other than a shift in the wind, then we find just cause to rally and rise up against death.  To give ourselves the false reassurance that when there comes a knock at our door we’ll be able to turn death away.  I surrender to death, but I will not, I will NOT surrender to fear.  Death is ever-present, whether we choose to see that or not.

I surrender to loss.  What appears palpable and tangible and a sure thing may not be so, and so I surrender to that loss also, the loss of surety, of having groceries that I need and want when I want them.  Of sipping lattes at my favourite café.  Of time to myself.  Of lines in stores where we don’t have to stand six feet apart.  Of a world where a deadly virus does not exist.

But most of all I surrender to love; I yield to its awesome power.  To the sound of the happy birthday song leaving my children’s lips, that sweet sound, as the keys to the piano dip and sway.  I surrender to a puppy whose trust I must earn with each move I make.  To a husband whose hair has grown floppy as a mop; I will cut it for him.  I can do that.  I want to.  There are things within our control that we still can do.

I surrender to many things, but I will not relinquish happiness and joy.  Those I will – we must – find ways to uphold.  I call my way Louie.  He’s currently curled up napping on my lap; the world’s problems be damned.

Blog Post: The Girl Who Climbs Trees

I’m free – I’m FREE!  Fourteen days of quarantine complete!  Then it hit me.  It hit me hard.  I’m not free.  None of us are.

All of my favourite restaurants and cafes are closed.  The library and other favourite public places I frequented before, like our local recreation centre obviously have their doors shuttered.  Conservation areas are long gone.  I won’t be going on an all-day hike.  This isn’t news.  Even the basketball courts behind our house and the park – literally, the green blades of grass – are off limits. You can be fined $750 for not taking heed.

So I’m free to go…nowhere.

I found this slightly depressing the other day.  That, and that all is not well in paradise.  The children are fine, but they need caring for – constantly!  Can you imagine?  Excuse me while I exhale loudly, but it’s tough when you’ve built a life around working to suddenly have to halt that existence and become a teacher and full-time parent.  I left classroom teaching because I wanted to write.  Dan never became a teacher or professor, unlike his wife, mother, father and two sisters, because that wasn’t his jam.  I’m sure he misses life on the road (though he tells me otherwise), but what he surely does miss is a full workday without interruption.  The time and space to work.  He was awake in a panic the other night, stewing.  He couldn’t get back to sleep for a while.  Those who know my husband, and know him well, know that he can sleep ANYWHERE.  While sitting up facing you mid-conversation.  During an intake meeting with his child’s therapist.  While working, during a colleague’s presentation or mid-conference speaker.  Dan is the king of cat naps.  Him staying awake in the middle of the night was like a wakeup call for me as to the seriousness, and potentially long time, we are all going to be snuggled in bed tight, lying awake together.  Dan enjoys spending time with his kids, like I enjoy it, but there’s the stress and nagging feeling that he’s supposed to be working.

I get it, because I feel it, too.

If you think I should be the one to teacher our kids all day so Dan can work unencumbered as usual, and poo poo to building my career as a writer, then you’re not only sexist, but I don’t like you very much (and there aren’t many people I don’t like).  I’m sick of being told what I should or shouldn’t do by not only men, but other women too.  The sad truth is, for many women during this pandemic, this is their reality.  Like so many issues coming to light in society right now, the inequalities between men and women are certainly one of them.  Who do you think is more expected to be taking care of the children now that we are all home?  Many women are not only expected to work full time from home, but to also simultaneously take care of their families and be their child’s teacher.  I’m having a hard-enough time trying to cook and organize lunches and dinners every day, and mostly Dan is making the dinners, let alone trying to do it while teaching my kids and holding on to a semblance of my past life.  One thing at a time.  I’ve done this circus shit before, and I thought I was done with it on the 24/7 schedule.  Juggling balls all day long is exhausting.  We’re all new mothers again with newborns that need constant care.  And my kids aren’t even being that demanding, they’re just – there.

I have two solutions to all of this.  This is what works for me – this is how I’m dealing with things.  To each their own.  The first is to climb trees. WHAT? am I talking about?  I saw a perfect tree the other day and it called out to me, try and climb me.  The tree beckoned.  I looked around – no one – and decided to give it a whirl.  But here’s the thing about right now: I feel drained of strength.  Every task, big or small, requires momentous effort.  The slow leak of stress is muscle-deflating.  Nevertheless, I did a half jump, and pushing off the trunk with one hand I was able to grab a branch with the other – but that was it.  I couldn’t make it any further.  My legs remained weighted to the ground.  Huh, tree climbing was harder than I remembered.  I think I was hoping to get my feet up off the ground – is it just me or does it seem like there are germs everywhere that could hurt us?  I wanted to get my feet up off the ground and sit perched up there in that tree where I could look out, scan the horizon, get the lay of the land.  We are so clustered in our homes at the moment, and I get the whole staying safe at home – I advocate for it – versus stuck at home.  But there’s no way around sometimes feeling stuck at home.  I wanted to climb way up high, up and away from this mess toward the bright blue sky above me.  But I didn’t make it.  I’m still stuck feet on the ground.

The second solution I have is to give in, to succumb.  And to do so, for me, involves getting a puppy.  A PUPPY?  WHAT??!! How is that less responsibility, you ask?  Why is that the right answer?  Well, here are my reasons.  Our kids have been bugging us for a pet.  I miss my dog.  I have wanted a puppy since Oreo died and we are now all home.  It seems like a perfect time to puppy train.  We won’t be flying anywhere for a while!  Taking a dog out on walks gets us out.  Eventually, god knows when, everyone will go back to school and I’ll be left to my own devices and then I’ll be terribly, terribly lonely.  I like the idea of a pet we can all bond with as a family.  Of bringing more love into our family and our lives.

With more love, of course, comes more responsibility. And who wants more responsibility during a pandemic?  Not my husband.  Me, I’m just looking for an escape.  Take me to the land of puppies, please!  Yes, that is where I’d like to go.

Getting a puppy will be a beautiful distraction.  A messy, big-responsibility, huge and beautiful distraction.  I’m worse than the pigeon who wants a puppy (book by children’s author Mo Willems – look it up if you haven’t read), WAY worse.  I’d gladly accept a walrus at this point.

Anything to shake me out of the reverie of this nightmare.

To you and your family, be well.

Puppy pictures to follow, fingers crossed (my husband is shaking his head).

Update: We got our boy!  Meet Louie, an 8.5 week old vizsla puppy.  I have three happy girls, and Dan is thrilled.

 

Blog Post: We Will Get Through This

Ten days.  My family has been in quarantine for ten days.  That’s less time than many who began physical distancing at the start of the March break, and longer than the last stragglers making their way back into the country.  While my family is not struggling in the ways some are struggling, we each have our own internal battles, in the backs of our minds, taking hold.

I am an extrovert who NEEDS time to herself.  In the presence of others, I’m like a windup toy, bouncing off external energy, then slowly I begin to leak power until I come to a standstill.  The only way to wind me back up again is to give me peace and quiet.  Alone time.  Being around my family twenty-four seven is draining for an extroverted-introvert like me.  I’m constantly being wound up.  Too much touching, too many hands.

Being around my husband all-day long can be trying.  We often categorize children as taking most of our time and energy, and true-that, but adults demand more attention than you think.  The drain is more mental.  More than once, I’ve had to remind myself to be nice.  Like a caged animal I want to lash out, “Give me space, get away from me!”  And, I love you.  We face contradictory truths.  In our past life, pre-Covid, I would notice how quiet my evenings were when Dan travelled for work and wasn’t around.  I would miss our dinner banter then, and of course miss him when it was time to turn the lights out, but I got used to fending for myself and my kids.  Together time 24/7 takes a whole new level of getting used to.  Luckily, we have some practice under our belt.

This period of intense together time we are experiencing now is not unlike our experience traveling the world together; then, as now, we were confined to each other, but now we’re doing so at home instead of out in the world.  It’s a good thing we like each other.  Love is one thing, but those who don’t like their partners are likely facing additional hardships right now.

For the record, this trip atmosphere stinks compared to the last one.

Don’t get me wrong, I have moments, as many do, of feeling like this whole mess is great fun; I pretend like we are actually travelling the world again – my husband is around all day, we work through our days as a team and get to talk and play with our kids.  We take turns working from home.  Many families are for the first time enjoying endless hours of together time – and what could be bad about that?  If only these hours weren’t underlined by a global pandemic and mild panic that lies there, just below the surface.

Some days, I have fleeting thoughts of revolt and flight.  Case in point, what I really want to do when our quarantine time is up is go on a massive eight to ten-hour hike in the forest.  By myself.

We all must find ways to recharge our batteries.  Friends of ours who rarely fight had a ridiculous blow out the other day because one person just could not sit still.  As he is not in quarantine, he finally found a food bank where he could volunteer for a day just to get out of the house.

While my personal boundaries feel breached, stretched and distorted, I know others are dealing with concerns of a higher order:  with sickness, isolation, financial hardship, the loss of livelihood, anxiety and even death.  So my writer’s retreat had to be rescheduled.  So my Masters residency was moved from a week in Halifax to online (sigh, I’m still grieving that one), there are WAY WORSE THINGS.  I am not the person to trivialize another’s plight, be it a hangnail or a barely hanging on, but I’m comfortable speaking for myself in saying, “yes, Adelle, there are some things in your life that suck right now.  Sometimes it feels like each of the four other members of your family are breathing down your neck (because sometimes they literally are) and that they are climbing onto your shoulders and sitting on your head (that too), squishing your very soul (a bit of an exaggeration), but as long as you are healthy and together, you will get through this.”  Truly, I could not imagine spending quarantine with a better crew.

There’s a beautiful poem by Jack Gilbert called A Brief For The Defense about continuing to find delight in our world anyway, even, especially, in the face of hardship.  His words are apt in these times:

Sorrow everywhere.  Slaughter everywhere.  If babies/ are not starving someplace, they are starving somewhere else.  With flies in their nostrils, he begins.  Later comes my favourite lines:

We must risk delight.  We can do without pleasure,/  but not delight.  Not enjoyment.  We must have/ the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.

And so I continue to train for my triathlon that might get cancelled anyway.  I have elastic resistance bands attached to my banister so that I can simulate swim training.  We adapt.  I will continue to mail out my book manuscript even though there are no publishers in the office to receive it.  I will take joy in the signs of spring outside my window and I will share that joy with my three children who bring me hope every single day.  We will celebrate – risk delighting – in the twittering robins, the first mosses, patches of grass, under grey skies and heavy rain.  I will not let one day go by where I bemoan my life, this great gift I have been given.  I will allow myself frustrations, true pain as it arises, but I will not deny myself delight.  We cannot allow ourselves paralysis indefinitely.  Or you can, if that’s what you need – you can – but why would you want to?  The world goes on.  Those who can go on, must.  We will get through this.

You have to Go Slow to Go Fast

As the Chinese proverb goes: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Having just finished listening to ultrarunner Scott Jurek’s second book, North, where he ran the entirety of the Appalachian trail for forty-six days straight, a total of over 2,000 miles – upwards of fifty-mile running days – these words ring true.  But it isn’t just Scott’s incredible trek that has got me thinking about how to achieve an end goal, it’s the life that’s playing its music, ringing out all around me.

I’m standing at our kitchen sink washing dishes.  In the next room over, Ariel is sitting at her piano bench practising a new song alongside her piano teacher.  When her teacher asks her to slow down, Ariel, unmoved, continues to play to her own beat.  This has been a repeating theme in the past weeks of her lessons.

“Slow down, Ariel.  You need to slow down.”  Her piano teacher is patient and kind, but firm when she needs to be.

“Why am I here, Ariel?”  The keys plunk to a stop.  Point taken.  Ariel attempts to slow down her pace as I commence chopping veggies for dinner.  I know all too well that slowing down isn’t easy.  We all want to get there.

“Do you know what the great masters do when they’re learning a new piece of music?” her piano teacher continues, “They practice it at an unbelievably slow tempo, like thirty beats per minute or something like that.”  To gain an appreciation for the intricacies and precision of the piece, great musicians take their time when learning, even though they can go faster, especially because they can go faster.  Those masters are on to something.  The musical term attributed to this tempo speed is ‘grave’, meaning slow and solemn.  There is a sense of reverence, of devotion, in the art of going slow; arguably, this is, or should be, the pattern of our daily lives.  We only have a finite number of days until the end, then as quickly as we arrived, it’s over.  Going slow is a metaphor for life.  We must each decide the music we want to make.

As the master pianist slows his tempo, the same is true in running, and arguably in any sport.  One of the hardest lessons I am still learning as a runner is you have to run slow to run fast.  And you have to run slow to enable your body to run far.  In ultrarunner Rich Roll’s book Finding Ultra, once he feels he has built up his level of fitness after a few years of mega races he begins working with a coach.  His base fitness level tests reveal a different story.

“Rich,” his coach chastises, “you’re going to have to slow down, way down.”  The numbers don’t lie, and Rich’s heartrate was skyrocketing.  By slowing his running pace to almost a walking speed, he was able to train and lower his heartrate that would later help him achieve incredible feats.

When Dan and I trained for our marathon, we didn’t train to a time.  What that means is, we didn’t try to run at a certain pace, we just ran.  This drove Dan CRAZY, but I was adamant that we run only listening to our body’s cues.  When we trained together on those long Sunday runs, we purposely kept the pace slow – slow enough to be able to talk to one another comfortably into the second hour of running.  It’s worth noting neither of us got any injuries.  Marathon training was a huge lesson in you have to go slow to go fast.  Slow was the four months of training.  Fast was race day.

Writing a book.  Completing my memoir was a painstakingly slow process.  Just when I’d think I was getting close to finishing the job, there was another person to contact or days and months worth of editing and revising to wrap my head around.  To give you a sense, at one point where I thought I was nearing completion, another whole year went by before the manuscript was actually completed.

Writing a book will break you.  There were times when I wanted to give up, several times.  At one point, I took almost two months off from writing my memoir.  And oh, the shame!  Whatever book you decide to write, you had better know in your heart of hearts that it’s the one that needs to be written by you, because when the going inevitably gets tough – and it will – you need something to hang on to.  For me, it was simple.  An image of my daughter would materialize in my head, and I could easily justify pushing on.  I could review that one more section for the fourth or fifth time.  I could question not just every sentence, but every word, every comma, every period.  Like I said, the process was – still is – slow, but I can’t give up now.  With my ultimate goal of traditional publishing, I’m in the midst of the going slow process.  The publishing industry is infamously sluggish, with wait times of up to a year to hear back.  But I’m not going to pin this all on them.  I have been humming to my own tune lately, pushing ahead with other projects instead of focusing on finding a publisher.  Why?  I’ve been distracted by other writing.  How easy it is to get swept up in the goings on of the world, of glittery projects and new ideas.  I am queen of big new ideas.  Just ask my husband how he found himself traveling around-the-world with three kids in tow.  And, because creating is more fun than hunting down a publisher!  There, I said it.

My book is written, the manuscript complete, but this baby needs a home, and then I’ll be able to get it out into the world.

The truth remains, you have to go slow to go fast.  I can’t skip ahead to the part where my finished book lay bound in my hand like a trophy.  Not without putting in the work, the monumental effort.  Not without putting one foot down in front of the other for what feels like a thousand miles.

I’m going to have to slow down, plunk away at those keys, keep the tempo steady, even.  The world isn’t going to care if my book never gets published, not really; so I have to care.  I do care.  I need to slow down enough to make my beautiful music play, and then the world will hear it.  And then the world will hear it.

Fully Submerged: sometimes you just do things

Our habits are strong, so completely ingrained in us, it’s hard to break free.  I rounded my usual corner at the library and came face-to-face with this crimpy-haired bug-eyed woman sitting at my regular table in my spot.  How ridiculous a claim, my spot; like kindergarteners fighting over a chair who need Xs on the carpet to denote their personal space.  I was carrying a heavy load and made like I was going to dump it off there on her table, my table, but I caught myself – I’m sure the bug-eyed woman noticed – and scanned for another place to set up camp.  We are creatures of habit and breaking out of the mould is difficult – the opposite of commonplace – but there lies adventure and its rewards that await.  Fortune favours the bold.

When I think about stepping outside of the everyday, travel comes to mind.  Several weeks ago, I attended a talk at our local library, by homegrown author Kate Harris, who was there to discuss her incredible and applauded book, Lands of Lost Borders.  An inspiring modern-day adventurer, who very much looks like and is a kind Canadian based in B.C., Kate described her experience of cycling across Tibet with a friend disguised as Chinese tourists.  At one point during her talk, she made an offhand remark that struck me immediately and so I did what writers do and I wrote it down.  That night on my laptop, I typed her words into a blank document, which remained untitled as Document24.  Each time I set to work on my computer, I encountered her words staring back at me and I wondered when I might need them.  That moment is now.

“Travel,” she said, “is about changing our internal maps.”  Next to her phrase, I typed: Writing is about changing our internal maps.  When I write, I travel all over the place.

Now here’s the thing.  Reading has certainly taken me all over the place.  To distant times and magical lands, and into grief and through struggles of insurmountable pain.  To the peak of human endurance; to the outstretched wing of a bird and the tip of a friendly octopus’ tentacle.  To Hollywood and surgery, fat shaming and into the shapelessness of water that shifts forms and remembers where we’ve been, strips us bare.  I have physically, with my body, travelled long distances as well.  Around-the-freakin’-world.  Twice.  I did so for the first time when I flew to India in 2014, then again recently with my family.  And I didn’t just fly the distance; we touched down and experienced the world.  We lived it.  But have I yet travelled great distances in my own writing?  I fear not.

During a one-hour stationary bike ride this morning, I finished listening to the audiobook Eat & Run, by Scott Jurek.  This isn’t just a book every athlete – ultrarunner or not – should take in, but one every human should devour.  “Sometimes, you just do things,” became Scott’s mantra for living life, a viewpoint that evolved from his father, who had said the words to him harshly, repeatedly, as a child when Scott questioned the hard labour he was forced to undertake.  Sometimes, you just do things.  Scott took those words to heart, repeated them throughout his life like a mantra. As an ultramarathoner, he ran and then ran some more past the limits the body can take you.  Nearing the book’s end, Scott realizes the answer he has been seeking out his whole life; his true purpose.  He is running to get back to simplicity.  The notion of ‘Doing without doing’, known by the Japanese as Wu Wei.

The book crescendos near the end, and there comes a moment, as Scott is racing for twenty-four hours, when everything else falls away, and he has a monumental epiphany:

“But on this snaking French course, the future didn’t matter.  The past was gone.  There was only the trail.  Only movement.  There was only now, and now was enough. It was more than enough. It was everything.  I ran.  I ran and I ran.”

Now is enough, now is everything.  That day Scott Jurek set a new American record, running 165.7 miles in twenty-four hours.  This is what you came for.  Those words came to him while he was running, but not in the context you would expect, not in the context of winning a record.  This is what you came for sounded a lot to him like, Sometimes, you just do things, the words of his father that he had come to shape as his own.  And to that beautiful rhythm, his feet continued to pound against the pavement carving their way through to the next moment.  “There is no finish line,” Scott admits.  Now would have to be enough.

His words spoke directly to my core.  Sometimes, you just do things.  I am no stranger to pain.  But being here, now, can be so difficult.  Even as I try to sit still, the questions come flying at me: which way to go?  What to do next?

How does this all pertain to my writing?  I received an email from a fellow writer with his latest piece attached – the currency of friendship and comradery amongst writers.  I was instantly drawn to how far from his other pieces of writing I had read this current piece was and I knew with certainty that I wanted that creative flexibility, to expand my own creative writing horizons.  The truth is, beyond my blog, most pieces of writing I’ve sought to publish revolve around one topic:  Down syndrome.  This isn’t a surprising piece of information; beyond being a creature of habit, I also hold fierce feelings of loyalty to the topic that lead me down this creative path.  And never disregard matters of the heart.  Down syndrome isn’t even a ‘topic’ I write about; it’s a way I advocate for people with Down syndrome.  There are human beings behind my words, and I never forget that.  And I’m not going to stop writing about Down syndrome, I can’t!  Way too much passion on the subject, YET I need to immerse myself in other waters.  I’ve dipped a toe, here and there, but painted nails do not a diversified writer make.  There is more world, more story, to explore beyond my front door.  And I’m realizing I need to step past that threshold.  I confessed this sin of single-mindedness to my friend, and he said it was cool, that he was glad I noticed I was pigeonholing myself because he was going to gently encourage me to branch out.  This is what you came for.

He wrote to me about the two key factors in making something a story: change and jeopardy and now I’m feeling inspired to take the plunge and write until I’m blue in the face.  He encouraged me to think about our family’s around-the-world trip as a source of inspiration, and a line for a story floated into my consciousness:  Mothers are supposed to play it safe.  We’ll see where that line takes me.  Right now, I’m holding onto an image of breaking waves, my toes curling downward, hiding in the sand.  My hand cupped over my eyes, shielding out the blinding sun.  A scene of dark waters and violent currents in contrast to the florescent pink bathing suits of my children being towed out to sea.

I feel like I am bursting with stories, bursting with life, the question is: which one to write first?  Where do I want to go?  What is it that I came for.

There are no easy answers.  Sometimes, you just do things.

 

 

 

 

Sentient Beings

What do you get when you cross sex trafficking with an octopus? Wait – hear me out, this is not a terrible joke; this is an honest look at the world around me and the decisions that go into writing about it.  A local article posted to Facebook from Toronto Life about sex trafficking in our region caught my eye – would a line from the piece resonate with me?  Would I find myself writing about this topic?  Before the article took me by surprise, I was intent on sharing my recent interest in a book I’m reading about The Octopus, The Sea, and The Deep Origins of Consciousness called Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

Life is a tapestry, a smorgasbord of content, and my pen is my needle and with each colourful thread I weave into sentences my ideas are brought into being.

Additional topics floating through my mind:  the weather, the absolute dull greyness of the season; the February blahs and a need to escape, or maybe that was less of an idea and more of a feeling.  Winter weighs heavily on my mind.  One minute (last week) you’re up; the next, the sky is grey and meaningless, a piece of your life’s work gets rejected, your husband abandons you for work (insert melodramatic violin playing here) and you’re looking after your parents’ dog who gives you this look of constant disappointment.  You can’t measure up.  You receive that rejection and think ha! this next piece is going to sell.  That next piece, which you feel like it has taken you five years to get to this place of pitching it; you achieve the impossible and pare down your thoughts into one simplified beautiful email.  You take your time on the email pitch, spend the best hour of the morning on it then send it to its intended destination with bated breath.  You receive the universe’s reply before lunch, “I’m going to pass.”  Hopes dashed right out of the gate, before noon.  But there’s more hope!  They’ve passed your piece onto a colleague!  “They’re going to pass, too.”  Alas, you sigh deeply, failure.

Life is just like that!  Write it down.

I’m waiting to hear about a big project, a story I want to write, but waiting, waiting is so painful.  I’m not a very patient person or perhaps (refer to last week’s post) my type A personality leanings mean I have a hard time relinquishing control.  But you know what helps?  To bide my time, I read.  Whenever I’m in a bit of a rut, I turn to books.  I create a new world around me.  Books hardly ever fail me, and when they do, I put that one away and pick up another.  There are loads of lives to choose from when our own lacks luster.  I keep stacks of books at my bedside and ready to go on my phone.  On the brain and in my ear.  I listen to books when I work out:  on the bike, on the treadmill, out for a run on dry earth and icy sidewalks.  I listen to books when my husband’s away and I need fifteen minutes to do the dishes and clean up.

“Go play,” I tell the kids, and in go my earplugs as the tap whooshes on and now Jessica Simpson is telling me about her latest tummy tuck (yes, I listened to Open Book – don’t judge me – I fully intend to offset said trashy Hollywood star drama memoir by next reading Les Misérables in French, a 19th century hefty literary classic, to give my brain a stretch.  Also, I’m going to stick up for Jessica and say I have to hand it to her for putting herself out there, whether she did really write most of that book like she says she did or not. Though spoiler, I think she skipped over some of the juicy bits, to tell you the truth).

Stories are fodder for the fire that burns within me.  Here’s where sex trafficking comes in:  I see an article where a person is telling their story in a format referred to as memoir or narrative nonfiction – the kind of writing that I write.  From there, I think of selling one of my stories to that same media outlet.  A new pitch is born.  This is the act of paying attention, salvaging what is useful.  A website.  The name of a magazine.  A particular detail.  Illegal sex trade, you name it.  The writer in me also seeks out how does this woman go about telling her story?  I’m curious.  I’m leaning in and I’m learning.

And my connection to octopuses, you ask? Why did I even mention that book in the first paragraph of this blog post?  Well, because there’s a story there.  I feel like I could write a whole essay about octopuses, and maybe I will, but for the time being I’ll imprint upon you a few contrasting images from real-life.

I met with a woman who told me her baby was born with their intestines outside of their body.  This happened to her, twice.  Once with her first child; they told her it would never happen again.  Then again, with her second child.  The first time she laid eyes on her baby’s intestines strung up in a pile overtop of her baby’s body in a clear plastic bag, she thought, well those intestines look like an octopus.  That’s one of those lines and images that stays with you.  After my meeting with this woman, I walked through the library and there was a book with an octopus on the cover and I had to feel it in my hands, take a closer look.  There was something drawing me to the octopus; I couldn’t tear my eyes away.  Life is like that – unpredictable, seemingly random – and so are the connections we make.  But they mean something.

Our youngest daughter, Penelope, is obsessed with octopuses since our around-the-world trip.  While traveling, we visited three different aquariums (two in Japan, one in Portugal), and saw many octopuses, and then she began to ask for one.  A real one.  We aren’t in the habit of picking up gifts for the kids, especially live creatures, like cephalopods; nor do we treat Valentine’s day as a gilded affair, but I walked into Chapters and there was the most perfect plush pink giant octopus with life-like tentacles that a girl could ever want, and so I bought it for Penelope under the guise of a Valentine’s day gift.  Now picture a three-year-old decked out in her favourite magenta dress with sequined stars, and a magnificent mop of golden-brown curls on top, squeezing her beloved new plucky pink octopus stuffy tight in an embrace of pure adoration.  “I love you, octa-pus!” she declares, then proceeds to introduce him to the other stuffies in town.  “This is bunny…”. In ten years, when she’s thirteen, twenty-three, thirty-three, can I hold onto this memory?  Of a girl and her octa-pus.

I signed out the octopus book, Other Minds, on a hunch and took it home with me.  I should note I am not averse to signing books out and taking them right back (you’ve been warned, crappy books).  I make it a habit to swing by the library – a great free location to write, undisturbed, and a great place to stumble across random books about octopuses.  The octopus book opens with a narrative, which is immediately more interesting than just biological or psychological or philosophical babble, which is hopefully not where the rest of the book is headed.

The opening scene takes place off the coast of Australia; a diver descends into the depths of the ocean and comes across an unusual scene:  a large group of octopuses hanging out on a pile of thousands of empty scallop shells with a handful of baby sharks.  What hooked me though, was the diver’s encounter with an octopus.

Octopuses don’t shy away from human touch; they are highly tactile.  The diver explains, “If you sit in front of their den and reach out a hand, they’ll often send out an arm or two, first to explore you, and then – absurdly – to try to haul you into their lair.”  The octopus does this initially for gastronomic purposes, but realizing it can’t eat you, out of curiosity, an octopus will still pull you in for a closer look, if you let it.  In case you were worried for the diver’s safety, the octopus he’s referring to is about the size of a cat.  We aren’t the only ones searching for meaning.

From the time she was born, we have jokingly referred to Penelope as our Genius Baby.  Imagine my surprise at the end of the first chapter of the octopus book when I find this paragraph:

“Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals.  Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behaviour.  If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over.  This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”

I had to laugh then, that Penelope, our Genius Baby, latched onto the octopus, the “intelligent alien” of the ocean as her invertebrate of choice and object of affection.

Interesting cephalopod fact: the eyes of an octopus work like ours.  They zoom in and out like a camera, and it was these eyes that developed through evolution, in addition to more complex brains, to help protect us from predation that similarly evolved over time.  Jelly fish never used to have poisonous barbs.

Another interesting fact.  Never turn your back on an octopus in captivity, as that is when they will make their escape and you’ll turn around to find your octopus, once neatly contained in a bucket, is now crawling along the floor (think Hank from Finding Dory); and even when you are observing them, watch out for their spray.  Octopuses can and will selectively shoot water out at people they don’t like.  What fascinating creatures, right?  I know.  This book was a great find.

The world at large and the world of books are equally as fascinating to me.  If we stay attuned, we learn and grow from both making our way through the world and skimming our finger across the page.  A writer’s job is to then translate that knowledge onto their own page, weave the tapestry, in the form of an interesting story. Make every stitch count.

Do octopuses hold a special meaning for me, now that I’ve given them a narrative in my life, even in relation to others?  Of course.  I will never look at an octopus similarly again.  But whether I imagine a baby’s intestines dangling in a plastic bag, or a friendly cephalopod handshake with a pull, or my three-year-old daughter squeezing her stuffy tight, will depend on the day and the story I want to tell.  The meaning I want to make.

The life of a writer is just like that.

 

The Rise and The Fall

Our lives move in waves.  People come swimming in and out of them.  Projects ebb and flow.  Relationships crest and crash, smooth out and can eventually flatten completely if we let them, while life continues until the next dip, the following rise, the next encounter with the sway of the currents.

My life has taken some pretty interesting rises and falls, let me tell you.

I recently read a beautiful essay about how most stories are like sine waves – whether the telling begins in the dip or the crest, the end on a high or a low, and what happens in between those curves is up to the storyteller – but the basic form of our collective narrative is the rise and the fall.  Again and again.  Throughout history.  We rise and we fall, and we get back up and do it again.

I’m telling you this because I sat on a friend’s couch today.  I sat and I listened as she told me a part of her story.  I sat with a notebook on my lap and as she described a sliver of the events in her life, a pattern began to emerge and a sine wave took shape in my mind, which translated into my pen moving in waves along the page.  A story snake.  I saw clearly the rise and fall, the rise and the fall, her rise and her fall.  Over and over, again.  This woman is resilient beyond belief.  She struck me as heroic and she is brave, but I bet she wouldn’t want me to tell you that.  Because she is also every woman.  She is you and she is me.  Hers is a story I badly want to tell.  And the thing is, the thing is, her story has become part of my story.  Our stories are intertwining as we strive to build a relationship, a partnership, ride the waves together.  Our sine waves overlapping, our story snakes becoming friends, acquainting themselves with one another.  She wants me to be the teller of her story.  What happens next will either be the rise, or the fall.  This is the pattern, on repeat, of our lives.

And I couldn’t help but reflect on my own life, on my own story snake, as I drove away from her house and made my way to the library to get to work.  My life has similarly had its troughs and peaks, its highs and its lows, and I realized that at this moment, right now, TODAY, this is a high point.  And in reflecting, I see there are really only two truths to reaching that high, to loving your life and being happy and fulfilled.  If I had to simplify, yes, I’d say there are only two.  I know you know what they are in your heart but humour me.

  1. Do what you love.  2. Persevere.  That is it.

Life is hard, incredibly hard.  And UNFAIR.  So unfair.  You’ll never get what you deserve.  Unless you work for it.  And I’m not talking about I’m going to work on this thing I want for a day or two.  If you want something, and I mean really want something, you have to be in it for the long haul.  I’m not talking about I’m going to hope this happens.  A friend of mine posted this quotation from Antoine de Saint-Exupery the other day, and oh how it resonated within me,

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

I would add, a goal without a plan and the perseverance to see that plan through is just a wish.  Hold onto hope and faith.  They have their place.  But believe, most of all, believe in yourself.  Believe in your goals.  And make a plan.  Then push through it.  Ignore the naysayers, there will be plenty.  Ignore the naysayers in your own head.

I met with a friend the other day who once was a competitive swimmer and knew about my former life as a competitive gymnast.  “You must have body issues from being in gymnastics,” she surmised.  Au contraire.  My coaches never talked negatively about our young bodies, instead they marvelled and praised us for what our amazing bodies could do once we earned it.

I almost quit gymnastics at age nine – the year I became a competitive athlete.  This was a major low point for me.  I had to learn to do a back handspring (popularly referred to as a backflip).  If I didn’t do it, there would be no moving forward.  Go backwards to move forward, I see the irony.  I was terrified.  My mom took me out for lunch one school day after mysterious stomach aches had materialized.  She was rightfully worried about me.  She asked me frankly what I wanted to do about gymnastics, if I would continue.  There was no judgement, only love and support in her voice.  I made the decision then to push on.  This was a conscious decision and it was mine to make.

By the time I was twelve, I could do a roundoff back handspring with a layout full twist in the air.  Floor became my strongest event and I loved it.  That year my floor routine, with all its back (and front) flips, placed second in the province for my age and level.  Was it because I had been given the choice, didn’t give up, and then succeeded that I loved tumbling all-the-more?  Maybe.  Couldn’t hurt.

I didn’t learn to loath my body through gymnastics, I learned to respect it.  My body sent me soaring through the air, flipping around a bar high above the ground, turning backwards on a balance beam and dismounting off the side in a back tuck with a perfectly stuck landing.  My body felt strong and well and could do amazing things and I’ve never forgotten that feeling.  My stint as a competitive gymnast brought me confidence that I have carried with me throughout my entire life.

Gymnastics practices were grueling, and they were long.  I learned how to be tough.  How to survive five-hour training sessions that ended with runs outside on the burning gravel in the summer heat.  How to fall on my head and get back up and try again.  How to turn my body into one huge muscle, then how to make those muscles ache; the balance between strength and graceful beauty.  Gymnastics gave me grit.  I learned how to handle pain and stick it out, when it is worth it.  You don’t put yourself through hell for things that aren’t worth it.  Children, worth it.  Athletic pursuits, worth it.  Family and friends, worth it.  Writing a book, worth it.  Building a career, worth it.  Passion projects, worth it.

Some things that aren’t worth it: toxic friendships, money for the wrong reasons, a bad marriage, situations that invoke guilt, doing things out of shame or a feeling that you ‘have to’, letting others take advantage of you, crutches or quick-fixes, abusive partners…the list goes on.  Not all of these things I’ve experienced first-hand, but certainly I’ve been duped into my fair share of bad ideas.  I’ve lead myself down some not-so-good roads, to some not-so-good places.  But today’s my day.

Life is too short not to ride the high of the waves, and lately, I feel like I’ve been surfing.  Literally, I have been surfing, and that’s part of it, but there’s more.

There was a time I had a handful of blog posts and one measly article to my name.  The piece was the story of my daughter Elyse and my love for her.  The piece was about what people with Down syndrome can do if we believe they are capable.  I’m still telling that same story, my message has not changed, but my platform has grown, and so have I.  Elyse is set to be on the cover of a national magazine, with my article as the feature piece.  I did not see that coming, I did not prepare for that high, but maybe I did.  I have a book ready for publication, another on the way.  I’m set to start my MFA in creative writing this spring.  Everything I have done up to this point has brought me here.  Not one thing goes to waste, even those times I was duped, those perceived failures.  Those not-so-good roads to go down; I learned from them.

Was it my teenage years of being a competitive gymnast that gave me the strength and determination to write and keep on writing the past eight years until I would arrive at a book and a new career? Until my writing would appear in newspapers and magazines and that my message would be heard?  You tell me.

“You’re Type A,” my husband says, meaning it as a compliment, in that I am driven, competitive, ambitious, highly-organized and aware of time management (but as psychology is one of my majors, I need to point out Type As are also widely known as being impatient, aggressive, more stressed and a slew of other not-so-nice words, like psychopaths – all of which I reject completely).   But I’m not so sure that’s it.  I don’t think my life has arrived within me innately.  I’m a person who’s always had to work her ass off to get what she wants, and where she wants to go.  I have trained myself hard to ride those waves, and I have no doubt it was the training that got me to where I am today, and the many, many, many, many, MANY times my face has slammed down hard against the waves as I fell off my board.  But I’m in training for the long haul, and I’m not going to quit.  As far as I have come with my writing and my story, there are so many places left to go, pages to fill.  I want to make waves around the world.

My husband, who pokes fun at my psychology degree – but exclusively reads books about psychology – calls this attitude of mine a “growth mindset.”  His eyes get wet when he says it, like the psychological term holds great reverence, and I suppose it does.  There is something to be said for believing that with determination and hard work you’ll get there, no matter your innate abilities.

Whatever comes next, the rise or the fall, and historically speaking, I may be headed for the fall, I’m going to hold on tight and ride my board while this wave of good feelings and good fortune lasts.

Rise and fall.  Rise and fall.  Our chests heave.  In and out, like breath.  Our very lifeforce.  Breathe.

And when the swell returns; I’ll be ready to catch that next wave.

Stay Humble

I’ve been at the pool three days a week lately, triathlon training, and I developed this sort of confidence that maybe I was getting to be a pretty good swimmer.  Despite my affinity for water, up until recently, I considered myself a not-so-good swimmer.  I hit the pool regularly for a whole year leading up to the two sprint triathlons I completed last summer, and I still felt as though I was half drowning on race day (partly because I was).  Regardless, I got through the 700-meter swim portion of the race – twice.  But you can’t ‘get through’ a two-kilometer swim, the half ironman distance I’m now training for; or rather, you can, but it’s not advisable.  I want to feel like a mermaid in the water, otherwise I’m not going to be able to ‘get through’ the ninety-kilometer bike ride and half marathon to finish the ironman.

With a coach, I now have so much of a better idea of how to prepare in the water – of course I do!  I used to jump in a lane and swim for distance, completely ignoring technique, interval training, and speed work.  It’s swimming!  I’ve been doing it since I was a kid!  What’s there to know?  As it turns out, a lot.  The mermaid bit, those aren’t my words.  Let me explain.

So I’m hitting the pool about three days a week, as per my coach’s plan, and feeling pretty good about myself.  If you ever want to feel good about yourself, this is how you go about doing it: look the part.  Get properly outfitted, in other words.  I bought myself two snazzy new suits that actually fit me correctly and goggles that were made for my face.  I also snagged a cap that has extra room for hair pulled back in a bun – genius design!  About the suits, bathing suits should fit you like a second skin.  I had no idea.  I was wearing a bathing suit that was about four sizes too big for me before, I kid you not.  The bathing suits I squeeze myself into now feel like they were made for my kids’ dolls, but the kind woman at the swimwear speciality store assures me they are the correct fit.  I can tell you without a doubt that tighter is better when it comes to swimwear, especially after a friend recently shared her swim story with me.  On her first day back to the lane swim in years, she got eyeballed for choosing the ‘medium speed’ lane (there are complicated pool politics) and rudely asked, “are you sure you’re fast enough to swim in this lane?”  As if that wasn’t bad enough, poor woman, determined to prove the bugger wrong (in yesteryears she was a competitive swimmer) she took off down the medium lane, determined to make a good pace.  On the way back, in the middle of her exertions, both of her breasts popped out.  I’m sorry, there is no redemption in this story – my friend hasn’t gone back – but we will honour the incident as a cautionary tale, the moral being to wear a suit that fits snug in the chest.

One of my weekly swim training sessions is part of a Masters swim class.  The beauty of these classes is there is a coach on hand, and we are presented with a set amount of drills.  There’s a camaraderie with the other swimmers and best of all, you usually have a lane to yourself or with only one other person.  At the onset of the Masters swim class I was feeling good about myself because a) I looked the part, with my skin-tight suit and shiny new goggles, and b) I was finding Masters relatively easy, while some of my peers seemed to find it hard.  To give you a sense, the harder workouts my triathlon coach provided including almost an extra kilometer of swim work in the same amount of time as the one-hour Masters class.  On top of that, at Masters we are allowed to wear fins.  If you aren’t familiar with the awesome power of fins let me tell you this: they give you turbo power in the water.  It’s like going from a rowboat to a yacht.  I flew through the first few weeks of Masters swim and didn’t I feel so high and mighty.  Then it happened.

On the third week of Masters swim class we got a new coach.  At the end of class, he suggested the workout he was assigned to give us seemed too easy for some of us and that he would be stepping it up a notch the following week.  I clearly thought he was talking to me.  I approached him when the other swimmers went to get changed and told him I was training for an Ironman and he said he’d help me get there.  Surprisingly, he made no comment about what an outstanding swimmer I was.

Fast forward to the next week.  The new coach gives me a few pointers about my stroke.  I’m not getting it.  I’m not lifting my elbows high enough out of the water, but my arm is going too high.  This is really tricky to try and fix when you’re trying to keep up with a pack of swimmers and the pace of the workout, but I did my best.  I couldn’t help but notice for the first time that whenever we did a drill holding a flutter board and using only our legs, I was generally the first one across by quite a few seconds (yay running legs!), but when we threw arms into the equation, many swimmers were finishing close to the same time as me and some before me.  Some who weren’t wearing fins like I was.

Here it comes.  “Hang back a minute,” the new coach said, as he sent the others on their way.  “I want you to watch her technique over there, do you see how her arms and hands barely skim the surface of the water?  You are lifting your arms up way too high.”  I stood there and I watched, and I learned from someone who was doing the work better than I was.

“I am going to record you so you can see what you’re doing,” new coach told me.

Oh. My. God.  So that’s what I look like?

I was grateful for the new coach’s honesty.  He was so kind about it too, not making me feel bad in the slightest in front of the others.  Clearly, he doesn’t want me to drown in the two-kilometer portion of the race, either.

I walked up to the woman afterwards who was oblivious at having been my good example of how to swim, and I told her in a friendly tone, “he told me to watch you.”  I was pleasantly surprised when she explained that I will know that what I am doing in the water is right because I’ll feel like a mermaid.  I want to feel that way.  I’m working toward that ease and delight.  I told her my frustrations with my arms, and she explained that when she gets tired, she tells herself, “think eleven and one, arms at eleven and one” that is where she aims in front of her.  I found that to be a helpful piece of advice.  I regularly find it helpful to defer and inquire of those who possess more skill than I do.  In other words, it’s beneficial, as a learner, to stay humble.  Keep yourself in check.

After giving a talk about Down syndrome in a school with my friend Emily, where hundreds of kids screamed, clapped and cheered for us, I hit up the pool.  Nearing the completion of the hour-long lane swim, I was one of the only ones still out there, if not the only one.  An older gentleman who has been kind to me in the past sat there watching me, and as I took my ten second break between sets, he called out, “I don’t know how you do it!” which made me laugh.  I felt like ducking my head under the water.  “She’s a wonder woman!” he called out to no one in particular, as I blasted off away from him, propelling myself through the water to the other side of the pool.  On my way back, he called out one last sentiment, “You deserve a gold medal!” And with that, he left, leaving me to figure out the mechanics of my stroke.

Rage & Rising Up

I am debating with myself whether I am really going to go from a post about my dog dying to seething rage.  I’m going to do it.  Angry Adelle says fuck it.

Angry Adelle is a real person, a part of me, though only a select few have met her.  My husband, my children, my parents, my brother, and likely my in-laws have caught the cusp of her.  In her element, at full appearance, she is a beast to behold.

I felt a storm brewing this morning, that old combination of not enough time, too much to do and take care of, too little support.  This may be the war cry of women everywhere.  Angry Adelle’s appearance this morning was in relation to wanting to work and be free of childcare responsibilities in direct contrast with my current reality.  Whoa, whoa, whoa, let’s back up a minute and dissect what I just said.

I want to work.  I want the time and luxury that my husband has in his career to immerse myself in my art, in my passions, in my writing so I can build a career.  I should be clear that I have some of this already; I likely have more of this than a lot of people, but Angry Adelle doesn’t give a fig about other people – emotionally extreme versions of ourselves are selfish like that.  My husband is totally supportive in regard to my building a career as a writer, but truthfully our society isn’t.  People who love me, friends and family, struggle with the idea that I need time to write.  When it comes to what we value as a society, money talks.  If I were a gainfully employed, full-time hours, read: paid creative writer, there would be no question that I should, for example, receive moral support in finding childcare when school is not an option.  That I should not have to squeeze my work day into a six hour frame on the days when I do have support.  But, to become a paid and published author, and more important still, a better writer, imagine that I need to practice.  Daily.  Imagine this required time, which it most certainly does.  Ten thousand hours plus to become an expert, to be exact – where is society’s support then?  The idea of supporting oneself through one’s art alone is ludicrous to the point of being a farce in Canada.  The top one percent of writers will potentially do this, but even their roadway is not paved in gold.  Many award-winning Canadian authors hold down regular paying jobs to support their art, and here’s the catch-22 for the emerging writer: to qualify for any grants or bursaries in Canada, you need to have at least one book published.  My first book took me over three years to write, and I’m still seeking publication with response times from publishers that can be obscenely long, a process that is pushing four years, soon to be five.  That’s a long time to go without a paycheck.

The struggle to become an established writer is real and alike for men and women writers, but there is the added stigma that women should be managing their families and their homes, an added responsibility that takes time away from their writing.  This is what’s grating at me lately.  The obligations of my sex.  Men at large seem to be released from this particular association of women and house.

Now I’m not trying to play the victim.  You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.  I built this life I’m living and I am an active participant in the choices that have gotten me where I am, master of the house and all.  I mean, ladies, could we really leave it up to the men?  Come on.  Yes! Yes we can.  And we should!  I do when I can.  You should!  If you ever want any time to yourself to get some work done.  I love my kids, but there has to be a balance.  Now let’s get into this building a new career and having kids thing.

I am starting anew, and building a career in writing after having three girls.  Let’s dissect having three girls.  First of all, I chose my life with my girls.  I loved being home with them – mostly.  The ability to stay home was a gift for which I can thank my husband’s career.  Not to sell myself short, before there was his career, there was my career that carried us into our first home.  For me to stay on at home with each of our babies, there would not have been another way without my husband’s salary.  He thanks me in return, for the time I have invested in our family.  Eight years have come and gone.  I nursed each of those babies to completion.  I fed them, walked them, watered them.  They grew tall, strong and narrow toward the light.  I have guided them to the best of my abilities and sacrificed myself many times to do so.  And I’m done.  I don’t want to be the one to do all the sacrificing anymore.  And this is where Angry Adelle and the rage comes in.  I think this is a collective rage of women of old, of days gone by.  Felt by women since there was a man to look down on her and keep her in the home.  Felt by the Austens and the Brontes and the Woolfs.  None of these women writers had children though I’d take my freedoms over theirs any day.  Two hundred years ago women needed permission and an escort to leave the hearth.  And there was no time to write and what decent woman would?  Women could write letters, say in their idle time, if they were attending to an ailing father’s bedside, but Writing was a man’s domain.  Sadly the only writing about women from that time is by men.

The rage that bubbled forth inside of me was not directed at my children, for they are innocent; or for my absent husband who’s earning a living for our family.  The rage that boiled forth was a resentment of circumstance; circumstances that make it hard for me to write.  Maybe this post is about not getting in my way, not getting in the way of any female who knows what she wants and is ready to earn it.  Maybe it’s about acknowledging the brunt of the work women have taken on for centuries, millennia even, that goes unpaid and therefore unvalued and unappreciated, or maybe it’s about a writer struggling to find her way and make a living in exchange for creativity.  Do we still care about passion and creativity?  Do we value artists who make art in its various forms as a society?  Do we value the unpaid work of (mostly) women?  I think we can do better.  Maybe this post is about all those things combined, the underlying seething rage, the entrapment of domestic life and the monotony of the daily grind.  Maybe this is a way for me to push back, as a woman and a mother, and say, “hey!  I’m still here.”  Maybe I’m just taking a hard look at myself and not liking everything I see.

But here’s what I do know.  Angry Adelle comes and goes.  She was here before lunch, I fed her well and was joined by good company, a fellow female creative, and regular Adelle, also known as me, Adelle, is back now and in good cheer.  Kinship and companionship have a way of doing that, lightening and elevating the mood.  Fellow creatives unite!  That soothes the soul, too.  So does doing a good deed.

On my way to lunch, working through my snit, a man stood waiting for me as I parked my car.  What did this asshole want? He better not try and mess with me.  Grrr…Angry Adelle.

Turns out he needed a boost for his wife’s car, which he was quick to point out was a bit of a junker and he could hardly squeeze himself into it.  I saw the car right across the street and immediately agreed to help him, texted my friend to say I’d be a few minutes late, and left with a different perspective than the one I came out with.

“You sure have a nice car,” he said, “really good motor too.”  My shiny red van happens to be brand new.  I am not a starving artist.  My husband supports me.  When he called his car a junker, I told him we had a junker, too.  The car my husband drives used to be mine when I bought it fifteen years ago for work.  That car could go and at any moment it might.  My husband makes sacrifices for our family too; I think most modern, forward-thinking men do.  These men are invested in raising their families and raising up their wives.  I’m incredibly fortunate to be married to such a wonderful man.  Also, I know when our car breaks down, we have the financial security to replace it.

With his car hooked up to mine, the gentleman’s car started right away (notice how he’s a gentleman now?  That’s the power of a change in perspective)

“That’s it? I asked.  His needs were simple.

“That’s it, thank you so much!”  and he repaid me with a kind smile.

This man did not look down on me one bit.  Ironic how good helping can feel when it’s not forced or ritual or expected.  When it’s just a person helping a person in need.

My rage subsided; it usually does.  But there’s a history there.  Back to work.