Meat Suits

Choosing a career as a writer means I’m forever thinking to myself what is it you’re trying to say?

I’ve spent the last few weeks listening. Listening might be the hardest skill for me there is, so strong is my desire to contribute to the conversation. What is it you’re trying to say? I almost always have something to say, and I’m bursting at the seams to say it. Those who know me are probably snickering and nodding their heads in agreement. I have been interviewing others, which involves listening, truly listening in earnest to what the other person is saying without trying to interject or have a back-and-forth conversation. The experience has been a humbling one that I am immensely enjoying. It’s nice, for a change, to not have to worry about what I think, because in interviewing someone else, what I think doesn’t really matter. Sitting back and allowing others to do the talking is quite relaxing. All I have to do is listen for the story, and I can allow the rest to pass over me like a receding wave, like grains of sand leaking through my fingers, the pearl clutched firmly in my palm.

I have been working on my listening skills for years. All it takes is one person to talk over you to realized how uncomfortable that feeling is. But my desire to be a better listener roots deeper.

Listening to others makes us more compassionate and empathetic human beings.

Listening to nature makes me feel vibrant and alive.

Listening to the ones I love is like a salve for the soul.

Listening, because I spend much time with my thoughts elsewhere, pulls me back into reality, into the story of my everyday life.

The other day, in a writing group I’m a part of, my friend Seema wrote: “A man speaks the loudest when they are unsure.” And isn’t that the truth? I’m guilty of this speaking my way through uncertainty toward acceptance. Words as a way to appear intelligent, when inside I’m unsure of myself. I’m working on embracing uncertainty and listening to others. I don’t always need to have the answer.

In Buddhism, listening is an art form. Listening, without judgement, is a way to help another release pain.

“In Buddhist circles, Avalokiteshvara is referred to as a person who knows the art of listening. In fact, his name is translated as ‘the one who listens to the pain of the world’ — listening, contemplating the cries of the world. It is because of that practice that he became fully enlightened. And he continued to listen.” (Buddhism Now)

I’m no buddha or enlightened one, but for the past eight years, I’ve been listening to the pain of others through reading memoir after memoir. Counter-intuitively, listening to the pain of others has not broadened my own pain, but strengthened my resolve to keep others from reliving the same pain or at least, has given me insight into how to better understand the human condition and empathize with situations outside my own realm of experience.

Rape, incest, freak accidents, death, loss, racism, poverty, homelessness, illness, health, grief, gender fluidity and sexuality, transgender, disability, femaleness and motherhood: I’ve read about a diversity of experiences, which has helped me to better grasp my own existence and grapple with the meaningfulness of our lives. I listen to others, and can then think more clearly about that nagging question: what is it that you have to say? Listening is good for my heart and my mental health; listening enriches and informs my writing.

I’ve interviewed six people and I have two to go and it’s so interesting to consider the approach each person takes on the same story. While I’m asking for their version of a turn of events, I have a sneaking suspicion it is their version I would get no matter what. As human beings, many of us have a tendency to insert ourselves into the story, at least those with a personality like mine, the extroverts, who are bursting from the seams.

In Jordan Kisner’s essay, Thin Places, she quotes a writer who suspects our souls are the same souls, part of god’s tapestry, but we’re just walking around in different meat suits. That was the quote. “We’re all stuck in our own meat suits.” The writer goes on to clarify, “What I’m saying is that maybe we’re all the same, we just don’t know it because we’re separated into our own bodies.” When I read this, I hear a chorus of voices singing as one.

When we listen, and listen deeply, we tap into that collective hum. The art of listening and writing it down becomes a transcendental experience. Perhaps I’m taking this a bit far, but for me, from the perspective of this little meat suit, listening takes me to a greater place and writing is divine.

Own Voices

“Why are we not telling stories that celebrate and include differences?” asked Amanda Leduc, author of Disfigured, in a talk I listened to recently.

The talk was a wonderful online session offered through Writers Literary Festival (put on by The New Quarterly, based in Waterloo, ON). Amanda Leduc and Emily Urquhart discussed fairy tales, Disney and other storytelling, and how classic narratives impact our view of disability. Leduc explained how disability is perceived as ugly, unwanted, and the antithesis of a happy ending. I can’t get these ideas out of my head now, I don’t want to; I especially need to pick up Amanda’s latest book, Disfigured, where she fully explores this topic.

I’m thinking about how the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we listen to, have a huge impact on our lives. Stories are everything.

I’m wondering about the story young people are taking in, and what it means for a country to possibly re-elect a man who makes fun of people with disabilities, by slapping his limp wrist against his chest and rich suits on camera. I’m trying to distract myself from the possibility of that sad ending. (Update: now I am celebrating the story of a Black, South Asian woman as Vice President)

After reading Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s book, Falling For Myself, I now notice ableist slurs everywhere. Palmer calls out ableist language in popular usage, words such as: idiot, moron, imbecile, lame, among others, and expressions, such as blind-sided, deaf or hard-of-hearing (used as insults) and standing ovation. All of this language contributes to the negative persona of the disabled individual.

I’m listening to Sheila Heti’s book, How Should A Person Be? Nearing the end, after I’ve gotten laughs from the book’s quirky characters, I feel quiet inside, stumbling over Heti’s insistence on using the word “retard”. I understand this is a work of fiction, but authors of every genre have an onus and morality to write in a way that doesn’t demean groups of people. You can argue the right to vulgarity in art and the right to self-expression and free speech. Say whatever you want, and I support that idea in theory, but what I can’t support is language that is ableist and unnecessary and that at its core, borders on hate. What I can’t support is using the r-word three times in a row for the sake of pointing out a character is acting stupid.

A man called me stupid to my face once. Interestingly, it was over an argument with language. He called another man “fucking retarded”, and I happen to overhear and stepped between them. One man left, and I was left facing the name-caller. “Please don’t say that.” I spoke calmly, evenly, while looking up at him.

Our discussion was civile. He disagreed with me, citing the example of his truck having a retarder. I explained my case against using a derogatory term that demeaned people with developmental disabilities, whether he meant it that way or not.

We happened to be standing in front of my child’s school and personnel soon found out what the man had said. I wrote about the experience, briefly, not naming any names, and the next day, pushing my baby in a stroller with one hand, holding my daughter with Down syndrome’s hand in the other and my oldest just up ahead, the man stormed up to me. He had gotten in trouble from the school.

“I know what you did. Did you think I wouldn’t find out? That was stupid. You’re stupid,” he said, walking away in a huff. It isn’t enough for some white men to have all the power; they have to put a woman in her place.

Name calling is low down on the scale of integrity and intelligence and so I won’t sink to that level. But then, I have to ask the question, why do some artists?

In his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Overstory, by Richard Powers, while there is beautiful prose and heart-rendering descriptions of nature and a sense of urgency to preserve it, the list of ableist language used through-out this book is long, long and as far as I can tell, completely unnecessary. Let me explain what I mean by that.

In the story I recounted above, the language the man used says something about his character, but I am requoting his words within the context of educating. In other words, I used the ableist language above not solely to entertain readers, or for lack of insight, but for the purpose of educating, to show this type of language is wrong. In Power’s The Overstory, ableist language simply is. It isn’t there to portray a character, it’s simply part of the author’s vernacular.

Writers: here’s a great reason to drop the ableist’s slurs. Every time I read the expression blinded or the r-word, I fall right off the page and out of the book, and I see the white man who wrote it in all of his privilege, oblivious to how this language can hurt. I’m not saying that Richard Powers did this deliberately, I’m simply calling attention to a need for authors to be more deliberate in the language they choose, and to steer away from ableist terms when there are better options. Choose words wisely, in other words. Another way of looking at this is to stop appropriating language from the disability community.

If you want to learn more about this, I suggest following people in the disability community on social media. “Nothing about us without us,” is a slogan that began with the disability rights movement in The United States in the 1960s at the time of Judy Heumann (read her book, too: Being Heumann), and truly, any issue pertaining to the disability community is most impactful coming from individuals with disabilities themselves. Be an ally and listen to the ‘own voices’ of disabled people.

Here are some Twitter handles Amanda Leduc suggests following to tune into the conversation:

Dorothy Ellen Palmer — @depalm

Dominik Parisien — @domparisien

Elsa Sjunesson — @snarkbat

Imani Barbarin — @imani_barbarin

Rebecca Cokley — @RebeccaCokley

Yeah Brown — @keah_maria

Andrew Gurza — @itsandrewgurza

Marieke Nijkamp — @mariekeyn

Lillie Lainoff — @lillielainoff

Adam Pottle — @addypottle

Ross Showalter — @rosshowalter

 

I would add:

Andrew Pulrang – @AndrewPulrang

Gregory Mansfield – @GHMansfield

Alice Wong – @DisVisibility

Jane Eaton Hamilton – @eatonhamilton

 

Here are some stories Leduc also recommended in her talk:

  • Brave Enough series by Kati Gardner
  • One For All, by Lillie Lainoff, publication in 2022
  • Voice, by Adam Pottle
  • Falling For Myself, by Dorothy Ellen Palmer
  • Even If We Break, by Marieke Nijkamp
  • Six of Crows series by Leigh Bardugo
  • Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens — anthology, edited by Marieke Nijkamp

When we choose to use ableist language, we perpetuate it. We engrain notions of ableism into our culture, because our stories have power. Our stories are important. And so we have a choice to make. The answer to me seems obvious.

I want to leave you with some of Amanda Leduc’s words, which I hope will become a part of the story you want to tell and live: “Every life, no matter how it is shaped, has inherent value.”

And, “Disabled stories and narratives are for everybody.”

 

Dear Troll Who Thinks My Daughter Doesn’t Deserve An Education

“A writer finds the story,” editor of Geist and one of my fellow MFA classmates, AnnMarie MacKinnon writes. This line resonates with me deeply. Every post, every essay I’m now writing; every thread of my last book is one giant hunt, chasing story down, banging down story’s door.

Sometimes the story comes to you.

What’s the story this week? Well, it’s not looking good. There’s news. This past week, Deondra Foxx, Roberta Buckley and Joey Moss, three beautiful souls from the Down syndrome community, have all passed away, with deep condolences to their families and loved ones.

Deondra Foxx is the beloved little sister of actor Jamie Foxx, who wrote in a social media post, “my heart is shattered into a million pieces.”

An announcement on DSE’s website about Roberta’s death was posted: “Roberta was born with Down syndrome into a world where she faced rejection, segregation and only the bleakest of expectations. She overcame many of these obstacles to live and love with dignity and independence.” Roberta’s mom, Dr. Sue Buckley, is a leading expert in education and development for young people with Down syndrome. Sue is well known for beginning research examining early reading instruction for kids with Down syndrome in the 1980s and she founded Down Syndrome Education International in 1986.

Joey Moss is a legend in the Canadian sports world. Moss was a locker room attendant for the Edmonton Football team and then worked with the Edmonton Oilers for decades after Wayne Gretzky brought him to the team’s attention during the 1984-85 season. You can sign the petition to help rename a downtown Edmonton hockey arena ‘The Joey Moss Community Arena’ in his honour.

And while this is going on, a woman in Toronto by the name of Kayla Sanchez started a petition on Change.org, a very different kind of petition, that came to the attention of the Ds community with the title, “Make Down Syndrome Kids Be Put In Separate Classrooms As Normal Ones.” I’ll spare you the entirety of the description, but it begins: “My son just started kindergarten, where I was heartbroken to learn that there was not one but two children in his class with Down syndrome. I mean first off shame on the parents for not getting the procedure, because instead they have chosen to scar and terrorize normal children.” The petition had only one signature, that of Kayla, and was removed the next day by Change.org thanks to the tireless advocacy of parents ever-vigilant, but was supposedly circulated to other parents in TDSB before its removal. This petition is hate speech and a blatant misrepresentative of an entire group of people.

My first impulse, when I saw this post circulating within my networks of parents, was to ignore it. Wasn’t this just some troll behind the screen, like one of those fake Facebook requests I got from solidly built men in the army? Maybe. Or was there a real, honest to goodness mother out there who genuinely, in today’s society, believed these false notions and horrendous stereotypes and wished to perpetuate the misinformation?

If you don’t know anyone with Down syndrome, if you don’t see anyone with Down syndrome, if you don’t hear about anyone with Down syndrome doing good things in your community, then probably you won’t care to learn more about people with Down syndrome, or maybe you’ll form misguided opinions of your own. Stereotypes. You won’t care to learn more about the good things people with Down syndrome are doing in their communities or what they can accomplish, people like Joey Moss who boosted morale on the team bench and worked hard to do his job. You won’t care about the family members who love their family member with Down syndrome, how Jamie Foxx loved and respected his sister deeply, how she danced at the Grammy’s with him; and you won’t understand how hard family members have worked over the years, and self-advocates, the people with Down syndrome themselves, to not only improve the quality of life of individuals with Down syndrome within the medical community, which has resulted in drastic life expectancy increases, and who have pushed tirelessly for social change because people with Down syndrome can and do learn, dream, work, and contribute meaningfully to their communities when they are properly supported and valued. If you don’t know any better, you won’t understand that people with Down syndrome love deeply and are loved deeply by their family and friends. You might, somehow, not even know their lives matter. Their lives matter immensely.

Groups of people who have been historically marginalized and dehumanized become easy targets for uneducated folks who don’t know any better in their heads or their hearts. To say they don’t know any better is to be generous. I am guilty of once being uneducated about Down syndrome, but being uneducated isn’t an excuse for stripping away another human’s rights. There is no excuse for stripping away another human’s rights. If you don’t know anything about people with Down syndrome and you don’t care to learn, then I suggest you keep your mouth shut.

Though many individuals with Down syndrome lead inspiring lives, I’m thinking of Robert Pio Hajjar , Sherri Brynard, Lauren Potter, Angela Covadonga, Madeleine Stuart, Megan McCormick, Eli Reimer, Yulissa Arescurenaga to name a few, these people have nothing to prove. They don’t do the things they do, become incredible human beings, to show their inherent worth, or so that you and I can feel better about ourselves. They are simply incredible humans.

Children with Down syndrome are loved equally by their family members and we would ask no less of society. And society does love our children, but we still have a ways to go. When someone doesn’t understand why there might be a child with Down syndrome in a typical school classroom, a child that has every right to learn as the next child, we still have a ways to go. When people still use the ‘r-word’ and language to demean those with intellectual disabilities, we still have a ways to go. When t-shirts are being sold on Amazon with the slogan, “Abolish Down Syndrome”, we still have a ways to go. When whole countries decide to target those with Down syndrome – Denmark, Iceland – with goals of being “Down syndrome-free” we still have a ways to go.

I can tell you all the ways as a parent that this person’s words and these kinds of thoughts disgust me; how ableist and discriminatory these practices are. But it’s better if you hear it from a person with Down syndrome themselves.

I will never forget the dignity and grace of South African self-advocate Sherri Brynard. Sherri faced many hardships in her life, including losing her father in a tragic waterfall accident. She went on to become the first qualified teacher in her country and around the world with Down syndrome. When I listened to her speak at the 2014 World Down Syndrome Congress in Chennai, India, she spoke clearly and with conviction, “people like me are aborted,” she said, “we deserve to live!” Every hair on my arm stood on end. Every fibre of my being was attuned to this woman’s powerful message, this incredible woman with Down syndrome standing before me on stage speaking up for her own rights. People with Down syndrome deserve to live, and more than that, they deserve the same support and opportunities in life that we all do, the same civil liberties and freedoms to exist, to health care, education and meaningful employment, and to finding joy and meaning in life.

And for those who are unwilling to accept that diversity is part of the human condition, that seeing and interacting with those who are different from us can invoke compassion and empathy, feelings that make us human and make our communities stronger and better; that people with Down syndrome are here and have always existed, that it’s up to us to take care of one another; that up to 25% of the adult world is disabled, that one day you or someone you love, will also be disabled. If you cannot accept all of these things, then I have nothing more to say to you. Other than I hope when you are old and disabled someone will have the mercy and compassion to look after you when you could not find it in yourself to look out and look after your fellow human beings.

Excluding groups of people is not the answer.

Take a look at the people standing next to you. Look after each other.

End of story.

Mom Guilt

When I look outside my window, the rain is falling sideways, leaving wet streaks, not unlike tears, against the glass pane. Pane or pain? I had a rough morning with my daughter. She got up at 6:30 a.m., brushed her hair for an hour, yelled down at me from upstairs, demanding that I put her hair in a ponytail, while I’m frantically putting together three lunches and breakfasts (plus my own, but mothers don’t really count, do we?) I run up quickly and gently pull her hair back, “there you go. Now, please get dressed.” Another hour goes by, most of that time she spends eating, which is great. I need her to eat. I take out the garbage, recycling, and green bin in the rain, continue to serve breakfasts, put away dishes. Clean new dirty dishes. Now I’m chopping up veggies and serving bunny mac and cheese into three thermoses and by golly, she’s still not dressed. I’m feeling less kind, less gentle, the frustration that has been building up over the past few days of solo parenting is about to boil over.

To aggravate the situation, I have a nagging cold that seems to have gotten worse, with each passing day, instead of better as I hoped. Bring on the Hydra sense and Kleenex box. Saying you have a cold during Covid times is like saying you have the bubonic plague. I’m fairly certain it’s a cold, but still. Nobody wants to be sick right now. I’m trying to avoid breathing on my children, desperate for them to stay healthy.

As the minutes tick by, 8:30, 8:37 – Ariel’s friend arrives on her bike – 8:42, oh now it’s 8:50 a.m. and we really truly have to go. Everyone has eaten breakfast, three lunches are packed in backpacks, agendas are signed, masks have been changed, water bottles washed and filled, hats, mitts, raincoats and rainboots sorted. Children have used the bathroom; some even brushed their teeth. And we could leave and be on time except that one child is buck naked.

That sounds funny, but I am not laughing. Not laughing at all. These moments aren’t about the specific incidences themselves, but about the dozen or so other moments of annoyance in the past few days that have boiled me down to this point. No water left in the pot.

Two hours after I first handed her – handed her – the outfit (why isn’t she getting it herself?) my daughter looks at me at 8:55 a.m. – we’re now to the point of being late – and she says, “No! I don’t want these pants.” She sits on the ground, wearing only her underwear.

ARGHHHHHHHH

I scream. I rant. I act like a terrible mom. I fail.

The truth is that I can’t handle being ignored. And I refuse to relinquish control. These are not flattering qualities, in case you were wondering. The truth is that time presses into my side, making me uncomfortable.

I listened to an interview with experienced broadcaster and author Howard Green and his advice when interviewing was clear: “There is a great, basic, human need to feel understood.” Listen, listen, listen, and listen well, he stated.

When I feel my child understands, that they are listening but that they choose not to hear me, I find that infuriating. The problem is, and it’s always obvious to me afterwards, it is I who is clearly not listening. I who has misunderstood. When I get angry and scream at a child to get ready, what I’m really asserting is my intense need to be in control. To be the A+ parent. I know this about myself. I am competitive, I want my kids to do things “right”, be their best selves, but in addition there’s an immense pressure on parents to be the best parents too: get kids to school on time, make healthy litterless lunches, take an interest in their day, check their agendas, do homework, and follow-up with the school as necessary. Prepare healthy meals, spend time with your kids, sign them up for extra-curriculars, make sure they have everything they need (hats, coats and mitts – winter is coming!), Halloween costumes. Pressure, pressure, pressure. Get it right, moms. You have a full-time job? Good – then maybe you’ll be able to afford family travel, the ultimate status symbol, and that overpriced house you live in or lifestyle you want to afford. Do you have interests? Good – those you can pursue when the kids are sleeping and you’re exhausted. Don’t forget to plan time for exercise, self-care, and a wedge of time for yourself! Gosh, not sure when you’re going to fit that in…guess you won’t. Balancing these ideals is impossible. Yet, I buy whole-heartedly into the rederick of having it all.

 

The problem is at times I schedule my day so tightly so that I can be the A+ parent, self, student, wife, colleague, etc. that there is little margin for error. For humanness. For the needs of needy children. Children always need something. At bare minimum, love. Let that be the rule and not the exception to the rule. I should have learned better by now.

The truth is also that I’m a bit of a perfectionist.

I scan my email first thing in the morning. I know, I know, nasty habit, but the other day, there was an assignment from my Master’s program sitting there. The email came in at 6:20 a.m. my time (my instructor makes full use of his days, too).

I open it and scan for my mark. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy receiving a grade because it’s shameful. I like it way more than I should. And this has led me to the conclusion that I’m a total pleaser.

Another truth. After the first assignment we got back, it wasn’t enough for me to know I got an ‘A’, I had to know what grades my peers received. How did I compare. One friend got the same as me, and another scored well, but slightly lower. I felt sick at myself for asking; I regretted the words the moment they came out of my mouth. My intention was not to make someone else feel bad, but to make myself feel good. I am a hedonist. Pour pleasure over my body, please, send good grades my way, fill my pot until it overflows and I’m good and wet. Now boil me back down with the work that it takes to get me to that point. I’ll take sick pleasure in the repetition of striving for success.

And that’s what it is, isn’t it – “success”? To reach success takes grit, determination. Pain. Refusing to quit. The willingness to boil oneself down again and again until there’s nothing left or the pot is full to overflowing.

When I do quit, and by quit, I mean cease to be the “good” mom, the “nice” mom, the mom who doesn’t yell at her kids, then as hard as I am on my kids, I am that much harder on myself. Don’t ever feel the need to shame a mom; no one can shame her better than she can.

I drop my kids off, then sit inside my house on the steps, feeling like a failure when the doorbell rings. Knowing I am sick, a friend decides to stop by with a treat. She sends me a text to let me know the treat is on my windowsill. She has left my favourite drink and a dessert. What act of grace is this? I feel completely undeserving. Isn’t that what mothers do best? But I allow myself the first sip, anyway, pour pleasure into my body. Nothing bad happens, the kids are at school, this time is my own. I sit in silence. I slow down. I acknowledge gratitude for my friend, I acknowledge I will try and do better next time with my daughter and I forgive myself. I sit down at the keyboard, latte by my side, and begin to type.

I acknowledge parenting isn’t easy, and I’m not perfect, and truly, I don’t want to be.

The Real Thing

September’s pace hits you in the belly, takes the breath right out of you. Perhaps the greatest indicator are the sounds coming in through my bedroom window from outside at six in the morning. The squealing breaks of large trucks, engines turning over, wheels pressed against pavement. These are not weekend sounds, rumpled sheets, the hot sizzle of oil in the frying pan or the smell of bacon and maple syrup. Another car drives by this morning. Even the sky is screaming with jet engines. Busy, busy, busy. All going somewhere.

Sometimes I want to turn it all off, make the noise go away. I check my phone and my day begins listening to a video of a friend crying. On a phone call with a friend last night, discussing writing, she reminds me that our brains don’t know the difference between real trauma and trauma we relive through our writing, in terms of the toll trauma takes on our bodies, our wellbeing. We feel trauma at a visceral level when we remember it and we actually reexperience it. Does my brain understand the difference between my friend recording a video of herself crying last night and that my friend is likely sleeping soundly when I watch the video today? Probably not. I feel sad when I watch the video because I see her pain, no longer real, but that once was so and were she to be reminded about it, she might be sad all over again too. But maybe not. Perhaps that was a particularly sensitive moment and she’s moved on. Without being there in person myself, I’ll never know the full context.

Online, even when we aren’t there, we are there. Through video and Zoom, we are everywhere now. I’m not sure if my brain knows the difference: that I am not actually going everywhere, it just feels that way. My body, my mind, have travelled into the city, across the country from one side to the other all in one day, and it’s tiring. We feel exhausted, fatigued. Burnt out.

I do have a remedy for this. My dog is my lifeline. I HAVE to walk him/run him/play with him. He gets me outside. Outside this time of year is the sound of crickets chirping, the hot sun beating on my bare arms, fading colour and fresh air with a whiff of decay. In town, it’s the cries of children in the school yard and the barks of dogs greeting passersby. Out of town, it’s trees and dappled light, stretching shadows, dusty footsteps along a well-trodden path.

My dog, my children, they are in the present moment. They are my real life. There is no such thing as past traumas, only the right-here-right-now of the moment. I am filling in a form for the school before I go back to the email I was in the middle of typing before I had to pick the kids up, before I phone that person back, before I join my next Zoom call, before, before…

“Mommy,” says Penelope, my youngest, “come play hockey with me in the backyard.”

“Okay.” I drop the pen and the form. This time they can wait, my four-year-old can’t. Or rather, she can, but real-life beckons.

While Zoom may take me to far-off places, my children keep me right where I am, right where I am meant to be.

Outside we go and the sun is blazing, the grass needs to be cut. Penelope hacks away at a tennis ball with her plastic stick. I teach her to always keep two hands on your stick, see, like this? the way my dad taught me. She hacks at the ground. Lower, quick, like this – see? She pauses to look at me, her eyes hold me and she smiles, delighted to have her mom all to herself. In the flesh. This connection between us cannot be replicated on any screen, or rather, it can, a scene in a movie perhaps, the mother dropping what she’s doing to make time for her youngest, a heartening scene that evokes emotion. The listener feels something, real emotion, love even, that approximates the real thing. But do not be fooled. My phone doesn’t love me. My computer screen does not love me. Exchanged in that glance was authentic real-life, an in-person exchange that cannot be replicated again. The exchanges of real-life are the fabric of the universe, not what happens on a screen. I’m trying to remember that. To tell my body to slow down, step away, get outside and into the folds of the universe. We pass the tennis ball back and forth between us; she hits it really far and we cheer. Our happy cries ring out and there is no replacing this real thing.

 

The Place We Are In

I’m back at the cottage for a few days. I watched the water current move all summer long almost exclusively to the right, or eastwardly, but now I detect an unmistakeable shift to the left. Fall is here. Something about the current, the way the water is moving, is reminding me of this global pandemic we are in. The water moves swiftly, as temperatures drop lower and lower, until the water temperature becomes untenable, deathly. For the time being, the water is hovering around 60 degrees, and most people wouldn’t go in. I did. With a wetsuit on. But not everybody has a wetsuit, protection. Many people can’t even swim. For many, the simple act of being asked to float would lead to drowning. Right now, people are being asked to float and people are drowning.

I listened to an audio book on the way up to the cottage, Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. What I’ve heard so far is fantastic, but there is one detail she got wrong. She likens depression to drowning, “but at least,” she says, “with drowning there are signs: arms flailing, noisy splashing, cries for help, etc.” I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the picture. While I appreciate the metaphor and the point is not lost on me, the notion of drowning being loud is incorrect. I was shocked to come across a pamphlet on drowning when I was researching water safety (as mothers are wont to do) when we bought the cottage. Drowning is known, by those who know – by lifeguards and the aqua-savvy – as a silent killer. Most people who drown never make a sound. They slip away, unnoticed. We are in a pandemic, there are people drowning, and they aren’t making a sound.

It’s fall and I’m in a three-season cottage and it’s cold so I’m trying to light a fire. Again, I have resources. I ball up paper and lay down kindling. Put a few bigger logs on top, one or two, not too many. I’ve been educated by those who know in the art of fire building. I asked my local neighbour who lives in the house he grew up in about wood stoves. After I’ve asked my many questions about indoor fire maintenance, he at one point grows quiet and still.

“Please,” he says, “let me know if you need help anytime.”

My question of, “so I leave the door open and then…?” left him feeling anxious.

“I don’t want you to burn down the cottage.”

Step one, pull the lever to open the flu (door at the top to let air out) all the way. Step two, get the fire going, use kindling and a fire starter as needed. Step three, once the fire’s going, close the door and close the flu three-quarters of the way by pushing in the lever, that will keep the fire from burning too hot, which could lead to a chimney fire. Step four, turn on the built-in fan in the back to disperse heat and temper the flame. Be careful what you burn. Always hard wood (maple, oak), not softwood (pine), which burns too hot and fast and can lead to said chimney fire.

Build your fire and watch the flames burn. Revel in the warmth, enjoy.

And I’m trying. I know all the steps, I’m doing the things, but the fire just won’t catch. Smoke pours out of the chimney, inexplicably flowing to the east, but nothing is catching. I’m flickering, flickering and now the flame’s out. I’m cold. Chilled to the bone. I add a layer of protection, but I’m not moving, not going anywhere and so my temperature drops like the lake outside.

And there’s something about being behind the glass and looking out at a lake I can’t touch that unnerves me – a fire I can’t hold. I want to go swimming in the lake everyday like I did before, but everything is different now. I’ve had to readjust my expectations, my way of being. I’m shifting direction from east to west. I’m going a different way now.

The fire, of course, is not for me to hold. But is it not just like me to want the things I can’t have? The very things that will burn me?

A career in writing is like this. Did I mention I’ve received a few rejections lately? I did not win the CBC Creative Nonfiction Contest, I did not place a particular story in the newspaper, I did not land that coveted agent. Burn, burn, burn. In truth, the agent hurt the most, although there I probably had the lowest odds. But here was the thing: this agent gets 10,000 pitches a year and mine was one of the 400 she asked to read further material. I was not one of the ten or so she chose to sign. And that hurt because the first hurdle felt SO monumental, to have made it so far, like getting our cases down so low, only to fail to complete the job. Those outside of the writing industry will say they’re sorry for my luck, and I thank you, really, I’m fine. Those inside of it will nod their heads in understanding and recognition, congratulate me on the rejections. I collect rejections because it means I am getting my work out there, and at some point, there come acceptances too. At some point, this will all be over. But arguably, we’ll be in a different place by then.

I will continue to swim in the lake as long as possible; hold my head and hands up, and warm them by the fire.

The lake by the shore is still now, motionless. As darkness descends, a flash of light and stone, a memory darts into my mind. One last reminder that I am not safe. Taking my dog out this morning, down a trail and beyond where I’d gone before, past the ‘no trespassing’ sign (I know, I know), into the beyond, in the dirt there lay an animal track. Bigger than my hand. My neighbour warned me of the potential for bears, but I just had to see for myself. And there it was, a sign as clear as day. I had been warned. These tracks were fresh. Except, this wasn’t likely to be a bear track, not based on the shape. The shape was more reminiscent of a wolf’s paw. A very large wolf. I followed the tracks, one, two, three, then stopped, came to my senses, and scrambled back through the brambles, back the way I came, thorns tearing at my pants. Turns out that was not the direction I wanted to be headed. I’m still figuring it out, which way to go.

The fire is lit now, burning steady. And I’m thankful for that because the temperature continues to drop with the sun. I’m warm and cozy inside, tucked away from wolves that hunt and the monsters, mostly men, I conjure in my mind. I am finding my way and this is the place I am in.

 

 

The Last Time

This is probably the truest thing I can share with you right now. It’s a poem I wrote this morning, reflecting on nature, but also, in a roundabout way, it’s about heading home, the changing seasons and the kids going back to school. Endings and new beginnings. I have such a strong desire to be close to nature and I don’t want to forget all the elements that have left me feeling so inspired this summer. Poems can convey, with brevity, emotions I may not capture in a thousand words of trying to explain the complexity here. Suffice it to say, time is up, in so many respects, and so please allow me to be brief.

The Last Time
When was the last time
you paused
to stare at your breath on a cool morning;
you tilted your head up
and let the sun
cover your face like a warm cloth;
you strolled through the woods
and appreciated each tree,
the curve of its trunk,
a slender pointed branch,
noted the toadstools tucked in
at its feet,
down to the dew drops hanging from pine needles
like runny noses?

When did you last observe the clouds
dance, multiply,
like the dust kicked up of a thousand horses or
drift slowly by, on an airless day
the glaciers of the sky

When was the last time
you let the cool waters of the lake lick at your toes
or took the time to kneel –
crouch right down –
to peer inside the hole of the chipmunk’s lair;
admire the beauty
of the undulating hills towering above
reflected in water below in perfect symmetry;
the cattails tinged yellow, their colour
fading, bend and bow
in the gentle breeze?

You stare breathless
Pause
(hopefully not) for the last time.

The Curious Incident of the Frog in the Night

I’m a sentimentalist, it’s true.  I am guilty of romanticizing life at the cottage, both to myself and to others. I tend to focus on the good feelings and not so much on the bad experiences. And there’s merit to this, to being an optimist, to seeing the glass half-full, to finding the positives and looking on the bright side. To letting one’s self get swept up in the moment. But we all know that darkness lurks somewhere in the shadows.  I can’t remain clouded to what is difficult and unseemly to write about or I risk only telling half the story – that which is saccharine, sickly sweet. (See Leslie Jamison’s essay, In Defense of Saccharin(e) from The Empathy Exams for a further examination of this topic).

There’s the fairy tale version of our summer stay and the darker elements – the truth of our existence here lies somewhere in between.

Let me tell you a sinister story, reminiscent of brothers Grimm.

Once upon a time there was a princess named Penelope who loved to pick up frogs and toads. All day long, she caught the frogs, watched the toads and cradled them in her hands. At four years old, the little princess was not the best at washing her hands.

Her parents, the king and queen, were very busy running the cottage kingdom, managing three children during a pandemic and working full time. Life in the palace was not always a bed of roses. They argued over responsibilities and often left the children to their own devices. Princess Penelope spent her days down by the shoreline with her frogs.

Now, if this were brothers Grimm, the little princess would likely drown at this point in the story, but stay with me here.

One night, after the royal family hosted visitors for the weekend, the little princess began to vomit. The queen panicked. Was this the dreaded Covid plague?  Her poor baby! What had they done! How could they have been so foolish as to allow others to enter the protective bubble of their cottage kingdom?

Mysteriously, the next morning, after having vomited all night, the little princess recovered. She seemed absolutely fine – better than fine. Life returned to normal with princess Penelope catching her frogs down by the shore. The king and queen stopped worrying about the little princess and fell back into their work.

A week later, the vomiting happened again. This time, there had been no visitors. Was this some sort of evil spell?  No – poison.

The king happened to remember something he once read in a book of potions about toads excreting toxins.

Little princesses aren’t very good at washing their hands. 

Busy monarchs seldom have the time to enforce proper hand washing after every single held toad.

When a toad is squeezed, they excrete a milky poison from their eyes toxic to their enemies. In addition, many water frogs also have bacteria and can carry salmonella, which can lead to some serious intestinal upset. Through further research, the king and queen also discovered that the substance coating certain frogs and toads can be hallucinogenic.  So the story of the princess kissing the frog who turned into a prince – who knows?  Maybe that’s what she thought she saw, high as a kite.

Furthermore, because a frog’s skin is so porous and takes in its environment so readily, holding it in your hand is akin to having someone hold onto your lung. That cannot feel comfortable, and so, perhaps it is best to leave the frogs and toads be.

Now that the case of the curious night vomiting has been solved, his and her majesty have gently, but firmly, instructed the young princess to limit the number of frogs and toads she holds and to wash her hands after handling every single one. Every single time.

According to latest reports, “I’m holding a toad in my hands!”, not much has changed.

And so this story – and her nausea – may continue unhappily ever after.

But, honestly – what can you do?  She’s a kid. Kids are disgusting. And to those who would judge: if you think your kid hand-washes after doing something as dirty as wiping their own ass, check next time, use a magic mirror or whatever you have to do. And when you watch them walk out, hands dry, wipe their nose and pass you by with a grin, maybe then the frog vomiting won’t seem so bad.

Accompanying every bit of life, every piece of beauty, there’s a darker side.

“Oh, I just love the loons!” I told one neighbour,

“Yes, well, they’re not as great as you might think.”  The loons eat the native ducks’ eggs, effectively almost abolishing them from our lake. And the ducks that do survive, another neighbour informed me,

“The ducklings – the snapping turtles pull them under by the legs, one by one.”  One webbed foot at a time.

Nature is murderous, cruel, relentless, toxic. Leeches that suck your blood, wasps that sting beneath the eye. Toads that poison little princesses like a blood-red apple.

At the end of the summer, I’ll hold a picture in my mind of our sweet four-year in a pink tutu bent over the toad in her hand. All eyelashes and a mop of curls. The remnants of salmonella on her small hands.

I’ll try not to get all sentimental over that picture, over the notion of a tiny girl cuddling with her toads, enjoying her warm summer days, the sparkle of the sun reflected in the water, dazzling, under a bright blue sky, the apple of the frog’s eye.  That kind of romanticizing, especially in writing, is enough to make you sick.

 

Blog Post: On Observing Humans

We learn in a multitude of ways.  Directly, from others.  Directly, from ourselves, from the front row seat of the skins we inhabit, with our bodies, our five senses.

I’m standing at the end of our dock in my underwear.  I have de-clothed after a forty-minute run in an attempt to convince myself I should jump into the lake.  The air feels cool, it’s fifteen degrees Celsius and there’s a breeze.  The lake temp is in the seventies – that’s not bad.  Already, here, up North in the Madawaska Valley, fall is sidling in.  A smattering of trees are painted in hues of warm colours.

My toes hang over the edge of the dock, and I’m wrestling with myself over going in when a large white orb torpedoes by under the water right before my eyes.  My first thought is baby sea turtle!  But of course, there are no sea turtles in our lake.  The creature seems too big and moves too quickly to be a snapping turtle.

I don’t have to guess for long.

The beautiful loon crests a few meters to my right.

Wow, I think, surprised a loon can move that fast under water.  To have read the fact would not have sufficed; experiencing the loon move with such streamlined speed and grace is now forever etched in my mind.

I jump in off the dock and feel the water against my skin, warm and not unpleasant as expected.

Recently, we had my sister-in-law and her family visit us at our cottage.  My brother-in-law is a trained and practising ecologist, an environmental consulting expert.  I ask if he’d like to join me on a grueling hike, in the rain; the ascent goes skyward, but the lookout at the summit is dazzling and worth the exertion.  He agrees.

The hike has become a right of passage, an initiation of sorts, to life at the cottage and an introduction to the stark and startling beauty of the area.  On certain days, the climb involves blazing heat and humidity that leaves your neck and t-shirt soaked and bugs sticking to you like Velcro.  On other days, as was the case when my brother-in-law agreed to hike with me, the rain renders the path muddy, the rocks that protrude slick.  On the way down, my foot gives way beneath me.  I catch myself, elbows in the mud on either side of the rock that would have bruised my spine.

“You okay?” my brother-in-law asks.

“Yep.  Close call.” It’s all part of the climb.

I can tell a lot about a person by the way they make it up the mountain.

I power through the path, half at a run pace, treating the hike as sport, legs strong, hopping off rocks with vigour.  Sometimes I pretend I’m flying, while keeping a solid pace.

Dan, my husband, keeps pace with mine, never pulling ahead of me or falling behind.  He knows I like to take the lead and that I expect him to keep up.  We talk amicably, easily, on the way up and congratulate ourselves for exploring and for breathing heavy when we arrive at the top.

“Good exercise!”  We both agree, cheerily enough.

He empathizes over my attire; I would not have chosen to wear a summer dress had I planned this unexpected detour.  He understands my need to plan.  He takes my picture at the summit when I’m not watching.  He offers me a sip of his water, even though I have my own.  He pets our dog and does most of the caring for him.  He poses in pictures with me, even though I know he doesn’t particularly like to do so.  He kisses me, a quick peck, back at the van.  We’re both sweaty.

My brother, my little brother as I call him, sets off up the trail ahead of me, head down, and at a fast pace.  We take turns chasing one another up the mountain.  I think that we are racing and having fun.  We sweat equally hard.  We discourage the dog from biting at our fast heels, equally.  He really appreciates the view at the top, as do I.  At one point, he worries about the dog being too close to the edge.  I agree and we rein him in.  We are both parents.  He is okay with me snapping a few pictures of us, but even having owned a photography business, he takes few to no pictures himself.  I think it’s because he has owned the photography business.  We talk little on the way up, neither one of us can much breathe, but we engage in friendly chit-chat on the way back down.  Afterwards, we chug back water and he thanks me for taking him there.

My friend, a woman my age, approaches the hill with wonder and excitement.  She asked to do it once I mentioned it.  I feel the urge to check back on her as we make our way up, but she shoos me ahead, insisting she’s fine.  She never complains, though her ankles give her trouble.  She is excited about the view before we even get to the top.  She takes many pictures.  She snaps my picture from behind – an action shot – and I pause to take a few of her, too.  I hold the dog and keep him moving ahead so that he won’t bite at my friend or knock her off the edge of the mountain.  The dog is incredibly strong.  At the top, she orchestrates a photo shoot and I oblige.  She admires the view fondly, fully.  She expresses some regret – guilt? – that her husband is not also enjoying this activity, the climb and the view.  She worries about him.  We pick our way back down the trail slowly.  She tells me I remind her of a spry woman in her sixties she sometimes hikes with who blazes along the path, while she often trails behind.

“I want to be fit like her when I’m that age,” she says.

We talk about fitness, how my friend has lost weight – and she has, noticeably – but that she doesn’t weigh herself.

“That’s just a number,” she says.  She goes by how she feels.  I completely agree, though I know my number, more or less.  I know best by the way I feel, too.

At one point near the end, I spot a harmless house fly against her neon green tank top and calmly reach to flick it off.  My friend’s happy and calm demeanor changes, her face drains.

“Is there a BUG on me?”

“Yah, but it’s just…”

She’s flailing her body, shaking her head and hands.

“A fly.”

The offending beast is gone, close call.  We share a little laugh.

My brother-in-law is happy to tag along behind me up the mountain, and I enjoy looking back over my shoulder at the scientist at work.  He is completely lost studying the local flora and fauna.  The ecologist in him shines.  He reminds me of my toddler, always lagging behind on our family hikes, bent over a branch to examine this leaf, or that blade of grass.  His childish nature is glorious to witness.  Simultaneously, there is a meta-analysis happening: the ecologist observing plants in their natural habitat, the writer observing the ecologist observing the plants; the writer taking a snapshot of the scene in her mind; the ecologist collecting samples, “I’ve never seen this before,” he later exclaims, photographing a generic-looking stem he’s collected.  His very words become the evidence of the writer who is the documenter of human behaviour.

I frequently stop climbing and wait for him to catch up.  His eyes never leave the side of the trail, his hands are busy delicately grazing this or that greenery.  We ascend mostly in silence.  He seems unbothered by any physical discomfort the climb is costing him; he’s too busy observing.

Predictably, I reach the lookout before him.  I double back with the dog to make sure he’s okay.  When he arrives, he exclaims, “I want you to show me where this is on a map so I can take (my wife) and kids.”  Also, so that he may document the plant species he has discovered, single samples of which he grasps like a bouquet.  I admire his passion, understand it, recognize it in myself.

“That was great,” he says when we’re done the hike.

I ask my brother-in-law to identify tree species on my property.  I learn that a hemlock, an evergreen wispy tree with droopy limbs and numerous short needles, is one of my niece’s favourites, and where the forest of red pines is at the top of our drive, and how to tell the difference between the white and the red pine anyway: the white pine needles are long and in bunches of five, whereas the red pine have a reddish trunk and long needles that gather in clusters of two.

My favourite new piece of knowledge from hanging out with my brother-in-law the ecologist pertains to the beech tree.  This is where the writer and the ecologist collide.

“They say the trunks of beech trees look like the feet of elephants,” my brother-in-law tells me.  The feet of elephants.  Somehow this line reminds me of a piece I wrote about the souls of dinosaurs.

I have a look at the beech for myself and I have to agree.

 

The Absence of Something

Do you give yourself time to be creative in the way that you need?

A storm blows in.  I’m sitting beside an open sliding door and there’s the smell and warmth of fresh rain in the summertime wafting in, and the pitter patter of water droplets hitting leaves and branches creating a cascading effect all the way down to the forest floor.  The sound of the waves lapping the shore is overshadowed by booming skies, crackling thunder.

With overcast skies, the lake’s the colour of a silver coin.  The sun wants to push through.

Bright, hot, and sunny this morning, cloudy and thunderous this afternoon; the day’s as undecided as I am.  With the children visiting their grandparents, the pressure to enjoy the absence of something becomes too great.  One minute I tell Dan I’m going to focus on writing, use the time to get some work done, the next we’re packing up the car to take our dog Louie for another hike.  We hiked sixteen kilometers total the day before, but yet, somehow in the absence of something, more was not enough.

So we hike again, then after the hike I plan to visit the dock.  I pack my tote bag full of books, notebooks and pens, silicone earplugs and oversized black sunglasses.  I slide my pink flip flops on then get sidetracked writing a poem.  The poem complete, more or less, I scoop up the handles of my tote just as the rain comes pouring down.

Dan and I spend more time talking about what we’re going to do next then actually doing anything.  We talk some more, and we talk some more beyond that because in the absence of something the space must be filled with everything else.  An onslaught of words and ideas rushes forth.  We could talk for years.

Dan has committed to running a few errands.  He waivers, attempts to tell me one more story about his conversation with a local dog trainer before heading out the door, but my mind is already elsewhere, onto the thing it is I will be doing in the thunderstorm in the absence of something.  I wish to fill the space perfectly, deliberately, with an activity of my choosing – not of necessity.

“Do you want to hear about the dog trainer?”

My husband has caught me tuning out, moving into the space and sphere of my own consciousness.  Did I reply, “not really,” or “how about you tell me later,” or plain “go ahead,” I can’t recall, but what I do remember specifying is my desire for him to be in charge of that project.  I’ll take part, do my duty, but it’s not my show.

A hummingbird suspends itself in front of my window, hovering long enough to have a good look.  Its wings beat so fast I can’t see them, and I think, yes, that is the speed I travel in the presence of everything. I beat my wings fast and hard so that I too may look in on the writer.

I shoo Dan out the door and turn to my pen – or should I type on my laptop?

At Algonquin Park, where we hiked, I picked up two books from the visitor centre.   One titled Braided Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and the other a lovely illustrated edition of The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.  In lieu of picking up my pen, I sit down on the couch with the latter, open the front cover and notice the author’s name written on the page.  I decide I should follow him on social media and so I sit back down at my desk to pick up my cell phone.

But instead, I reach for my pen and fill my life with the presence of words, the absence of regret.  Time well spent.

I squint looking outside, the day is now bright.

The storm has passed.  The water’s calm and the skies are clear.

I hear a few measly drops, the soft hum of the fridge.  A truck passing by in the distance.

A lone moth flutters by, otherwise the world is still and silent.  Not even the birds sing.

The sun peaks out.

I think I’ll go back down to the dock, but who knows.

A single bird breaks the silence with its melodic trill.

An echo beating in the sky, the sound of base drums, reverberates in the distance.  This isn’t over yet.