On Writing Retreats

A woman sitting on a wood deck is reading from her work on a beautiful fall day to a group of women

On Writing Retreats.

The first time I organized a writer’s retreat I did it because, as a mother to three young kids, I wanted the time and space to write. A word to the wise: if you want time and space to write, don’t organize a writing retreat and facilitate it yourself. Renting a space meant I had to do all the grunt work. I was preparing lunches and bringing in yoga instructors and providing feedback on writers’ work. With a clump of memoir writers, I was faced with participants in tears and traumas that risked repeating themselves, skipping from body to body like a virus to a host. How to manage it all, in my new-found role of hostess, chef, therapist, teacher? While still making space for my own emotions? In truth, I didn’t, I could not. I resigned myself to giving the time and space to other women to write, and when I did that I encountered a truth perhaps greater than the value of that writing time I was giving up. Hosting the retreat was a time for me to teach, and to help other women find their story, their voice, and share it with the world. There are times to write and there are times to learn. Teaching is the highest form of learning. Despite being relatively good at math, I’m reminded of this every time I try to give my ten-year-old daughter a math lesson. And it’s not that I necessarily learn directly from the writing of the writers I’m working with, though often I do, but I learn from their bravery; I learn from their curiosity and courage. I learn from their open hearts. And in return, I offer them mine.

Running a writer’s retreat has allowed me to listen deeply to the work of other women writers. And why is this significant? Why do we have to make space to hear the voice of women writers, specifically? Aren’t men and women writers treated equally now? Women writers continue to work within the context of some invisible and some not so invisible forces working against them.

Some not so invisible forces: Recently, the finalists for a Canada-wide Creative Nonfiction contest were announced and the five finalists happened to be pieces written by women. On the contest’s Facebook group for writers across Canada, an individual felt compelled to comment: “Five finalists are women, really? Have we gone too far?” Have we gone too far. The response from the other writers in the group was outrage, incredulity. Too far? The pieces were judged anonymously, irrespective of sex or gender, dependent entirely on the merit of the writing. One of the finalists identified as a trans male anyway, had the commenter cared to be inclusive. Too far? No, we haven’t gone far enough. Would it surprise you if I said the individual who made the comment was a woman? I’m reminded of a former neighbour who read an article I’d written in the newspaper, my very first. “Did your husband help you with that?” she wanted to know. When I insisted that he hadn’t, she looked at me, surprised, “You wrote that all by yourself? Are you sure?” Are you sure? Yes, I’m sure women’s voices deserve a place to be heard, a place where we can be listened to, a place where we can be believed. Yes, I’m sure, we haven’t gone far enough.

Invisible forces. Invisible forces can look like emotional trauma. Mothers are often the work horses expected to carry the weight of emotional labour in the family, of children and spouses, with little space left over for themselves to think and feel. Women need safe spaces to express those feelings, but we also need spaces where we can work, unencumbered by expectation or any other form of labour, besides creativity. Women, all women, deserve access to their creativity.

Invisible forces can look like sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, classism, and heterosexism (homophobia). These forces are invisible in that you can’t pinpoint their origin in physical form, but the effects and outcomes are real. A clear example for understanding the invisible effects of racism against black women recently came to me by way of Audre Lorde’s 1970s book Sister Outsider. She wrote, “I can’t tell you how many good white psychwomen have said to me, “Why should it matter if I am Black or White?” who would never think of saying, “Why does it matter if I am female or male?”” This struck the chord of truth. While I acknowledge my privilege as a white woman, I have experienced the sensation of being lesser than in comparison to a man based solely on the factor of our sex. It’s in the way, in a writer’s group, when a man enters the circle of discussion among a group of women, his voice holds the most importance, his voice is believed and held as the highest truth, his is the voice of authority. This isn’t to say men are always handed the easy ticket in, but more so to say that women among men pay a higher price to enter. As Lorde so beautifully illustrated, it isn’t enough to say we are equal, there needs to be a bigger cultural shift away from preconceived values of worth and who holds knowledge and who has a right to hold that knowledge. Can we, as a culture, listen deeply to the voices of women, our gatekeepers of emotion? Can we push back against ideas that women need permission to write and be heard and that what they have to say is somehow lesser than?

After facilitating my latest retreat, feelings of wellbeing and gratitude washed over me. I spent the weekend as one of fifteen women sharing stories, with catered food and a team of other professionals to share the load of running the weekend. I’ve learned a few things about how to run a retreat as the years have gone by and I continue to learn. As I drove home alone along the open stretch of road, rows of pines waving at me as I passed by, I knew I had experienced something with these writers so seldom granted to women, and especially mothers: freedom.

Tips for organizing your own writer’s retreat:

  • Know your why. I thought I was getting into organizing writing retreats because I love to write, but it turns out I also love to teach and facilitating The Write Retreat has been a perfect marriage of these skills. I find empowering and supporting women writers deeply gratifying.
  • Know your audience. I’ve heard of a doctor who runs writing retreats for other doctors. Find your niche by considering what specifically you have to offer. With a background in creative nonfiction writing, I attend to attract more memoir/ personal narrative time writers to my retreats.
  • Create a sustainable business model. Consider partnering with other writers and other businesses that can add value to the service you are providing. For example, working with a venue that can provide administrative services for you saves time and energy that can then be put back into the retreat while inviting guests speakers brings in expertise to support the work you are doing.
  • Put your heart into it. Your participants are counting on you to deliver quality programming. Are you able to meet as many of the group’s needs as possible? Consider setting up Zoom meetings beforehand to get to know participants and find out what those needs are. Send out a questionnaire afterwards and reassess how each session went and learn what you can do better for next time. Don’t be afraid to let your passion shine through.
  • Create a safe space. As writers, we know how vulnerable it can feel to share our work, especially work that’s newly formed. Create parameters around how work is shared and how feedback is provided. Focus on what works in the piece and celebrate loudly.

 

Tips when deciding if a writing retreat is right for you:

  • What do you hope to get out of it? Are you seeking comradery and community or solace and space? Do you want intensive feedback, one-on-one time, or time to play on the page? Each writing retreat is going to offer a balance of these things—a coming together and time apart. Feedback and inspiration. Find the retreat that offers the balance that’s right for you.
  • Does it add value for you? Is there a guest author you want to meet or a writer you really want to workshop with? Is the location ideal? Is the timing right given the stage of your project, or during the period when you want to get a new project going? Is it the chance to relax and inspiration that you need? The retreat needs to bring value to you and your work.
  • Does it feel right? Often, we know in our gut if something is right for us or not. Read the fine print. Does the idea of sharing a room with a stranger put you off? Are your food requirements able to be met? Is the retreat space accessible for your mobility needs? Are you attracted to what’s on offer? If not, wait for the next one.
  • Are your friends interested? While attending a retreat on our own is a wonderful opportunity to meet new people and make connections with other writers, there’s a level of comfort that comes with bringing a friend along. Also, reading past participants’ testimonials can be a great indicator of what you may be in for.
  • When in doubt, reach out. My expectations is that if a business wants my patronage, they should be willing to answer any questions I may have. If you’re at all unsure, reach out with any questions and an organized facilitator will be happy to answer them.

What Could Be: On Poetry

Something happened to me this summer. My writing is morphing into something new, taking a different shape, being swayed and pulled in new directions. Perhaps it is my emotions that are demanding the reshaping, orchestrating this coup? Whatever it is that’s happening, I’ve been writing poetry, and learning about poetry, and meeting poets, and reading poetry, too. Poetry is gathered language that evokes a strong sense of beauty and feeling. This is one definition of poetry. One that I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’ve been encountering and striving to put myself in the way of other definitions and interpretations. I’m keeping an ear out for them. Feel free to send your definitions, found or otherwise, my way.

“Poetry is not a luxury,” Audre Lorde wrote in an essay by the same name, “it is a vital necessity of our existence.” Maybe poetry is helping me to feel real, to embody the fullness of myself. And maybe poetry has been my way of surviving through a time of change, uncertainty, and upheaval.

Poetry is the song of everyday life humming. It’s my dog pawing against my husband’s closed office door for food; the soft warmth of his muzzle tucked into my hand, as I feed him. It’s a place and space to find the words to set down against experience. A re-creation of moments, a cyanotype image.

In Bahar Orang’s meditation on beauty, Where Things Touch, there is this:
“As Helene Cixous puts it: I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst—”

Maybe poetry is the expression of those luminous torrents? Of my fragile heart bursting shards of light onto the page? I say my heart, because it is my heart doing the work, the heavy lifting.

Here’s a poem that sort of fell out of me when I let my guard down. I was meaning to be doing something else. Does poetry form in the annals of our periphery?

I’m thinking of patches of dappled light I saw on the floor of Algonquin forest. How does the light even get there, in those hard-to-reach places, beneath the canopy of all those leaves? But it does. Light finds a way.

I don’t want to explain my need for this poem. So I won’t.

What Could Be
Dedicated to my daughter’s extraordinary former educational assistants: Mme. Claudia, Mme. Joanne and Mme. Catherine (“Keegan”). Also, Mme. Suzanne. Vous êtes le soleil qui brille dans le ciel. You embody everything that could be.

The best ones
Never have to tell you
How good they are

That they know
Your child
Because they’ve worked
With one hundred of them before

The best ones
Talk
To the child
And look at
Whomever
They’re speaking to
Address the
human whole
Without
Needing to
Point out
The parts
that are broken,
Perceived
broken.

The best ones
Check in
After you’re gone
To see your shine
Light up the room
Engage you
In conversation
Conjure
Your magic
Evoke colours of the rainbow
That exist beyond the visible
spectrum of light

The best ones
Call you by your name

Hold a place for you in their hearts
Find pockets of space
Where you fit in
Foster the friends
Your hand will hold

Remember
You like it best
When the music is playing
And they let it play
As you instrument yourself
A fine tune

They sway to your every scale
Past when
The final note
Rings
Because they believe in seeing beyond
What isn’t necessarily there
to the naked eye
But what
could be.

Dear New MFA Students: Welcome to the Program

Dear New MFA Students: Welcome to the Program

Writer’s Note: This post is inspired by the lovely buddy I’ve been paired with who is heading into the first year of the MFA program at The University of King’s College. They are taking my place as the new intrepid student I was a year ago. In talking to them, as I reflected back over my first year, it occurred to me that some of the information I shared may be useful to others, maybe even entertaining…

Psst. I’ll tell you a secret. Every student, whether they admit it or not, is encumbered by two universal experiences when entering an MFA program: imposture syndrome and the intimidation factor. Imposture syndrome looks like: I don’t belong here, or—my writing isn’t good enough. The intimidation factor is thinking like everyone will be a better writer than me, because they’ve done ‘x’, which derives from the false notion that your writing isn’t good enough. Hopefully, these thoughts come and go so that you aren’t plagued by self-doubt constantly, but I want to reassure you these feelings are normal. Some encounter them more than others. This is a well-documented phenomenon by writers of all stripes. The angsty voice of doubt whispering nasty thoughts in the writer’s ear, clouding their judgement and creativity. Banish that voice, don’t put up with it, shoo it away. You’re in an MFA program now, and—surprise!—that means you are a professional writer with your own form of talent. You got into the program, didn’t you? You are meant to be here. You have earned it, even—especially—if it doesn’t feel that way. You write and you write well. AT LEAST one other person thinks so. We’ll revisit the intimidation factor in a moment.

You’re here—now what? Get writing! Seriously, the cliché, you have no time to waste, is a thing. If you have research to do, start researching. Books to read, get reading. Pages to write—well of course you have pages to write—start getting those ideas down.

The way the University of King’s College MFA program in creative nonfiction is set up, after the summer residency in June, and a few pesky assignments, you have the summer ahead of you to do with as you will. I want to tell you to relax, enjoy the summer—I really do—and you genuinely should take some down time because the fall term is fast-paced, but hear me out: get ahead this summer. Write enough so that when September comes, you know you already have at least a submission or two prepared. Work enough that some of the assignments are off your plate. Look ahead to the assignments you have coming so that ideas filter through your consciousness. As you read good books throughout the summer, those ideas will eventually have somewhere to land. Take notes. Get organized. Write most days. Then relax. By the end of the second term (first year), many of my classmates and I had run out of gas. The work I put in through the summer got me through to the end. I did not for one second think of devoting my summer to writing as “lost time”, I thought of it as a return on my investment. You are spending an enormous amount of energy and resources to get through this two-year period. The MFA program is a once in a lifetime experience. Best to make the most of it.

But if you do have commitments, such as children, ill or aging relatives to look after, your own health, perhaps it’s full or part-time employment, do what you can, when you can. Every bit helps. I make it sound as though I toiled day in and day out, but my reality that first summer was that I spent a significant amount of time looking after my family. Your reality will demand the same of you. Find the blank spaces and fill the page when you can.

And once you do start writing, don’t stop. You will have to go back, edit, and revise when working with your mentor, but keep looking forward, ahead to the next piece, what’s the next section or essay or scene to lay out? Once you build momentum, keep the momentum going.

Remember: this is not a solo venture. The intimidation factor. Ahh, we have arrived. I mention this because you are now a part of an impressive group. In the MFA program you will encounter seasoned journalists, PhDs, MDs, MBAs, professors, editors, publishers of literary journals; writers who’ve headed up newspapers and magazines, whose writing has won prizes, appeared in The New York Times and who maybe have even published a book or two—or more. Maybe you are one of these writers with professional or academic notoriety—or maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re like me, and coming from a different field entirely, relatively “new” to the writing game compared to classmates with whole careers behind them. Writers’ backgrounds are as diverse as the books they produce. Our lives inform our writing. Have you lived? I’m guessing you have. Nobody else is better suited to tell your story than you, and nobody can tell it the way that you can. That your MFA colleagues come from rich and varied backgrounds full of experience is wonderful news! Learn from these people. You are now colleagues. And give freely of yourself in return.

Psst. Here’s another secret. A little tip from me to you. Pretend like everyone in the program is your friend. You heard me. Just do it. My husband baulks when I tell him this. “Just because you’ve met somebody, Adelle,” he’ll say, “doesn’t mean they’re your friend.” He’s right and wrong. If you adopt this strategy, everyone in the program will not, decidedly, become your best friend. But doesn’t it make for a better world and friendlier atmosphere if you imagine that they will be? And I guarantee you will make a true friend or two—or twenty in the process. Moreover, some of these folks will be your first readers, your work’s biggest champions. These people are your allies. Who better to understand the ups and downs of the writing life? Who better to commiserate with over assignments and deadlines? The pains and pleasures in the pursuit of publication?
It took a short time for me to realize that every writer in the program was a unique talent, otherwise, as mentioned above, they wouldn’t be here. What I’m getting at is that comparing yourself to others is futile. Wasted energy. You can expect and celebrate that you and your classmates will each become successful writers; what that definition of success looks like varies depending on individual goals. As you move through the program together, one writer’s success does not detract from another writer’s success. While this may be stating the obvious, rejection is part of a career in writing, so if you do feel the need to compete, race against yourself and see how many rejections you can collect (like gaining friends through manifestation—you’re bound to gain some acceptances along the way).

Oh! And you will be graded. The grading part feels weird, almost wrong. You’re going to put a mark on my heart work? The two seem at odds. My advice is just to embrace it, again, you are a student, and this part of the process can feel rewarding. When else do you get a grade for doing your work? It’s helpful to remember that if you complete the work on time, the grade range for MFA students runs from above average to outstanding. We are all above average writers. Say it with me. We are all above average writers. See? Doesn’t that feel good. Better yet, forget about the grades and use this incredibly brilliant group of individuals to your advantage: tap into their knowledge and skill sets. Which reminds me.

Becoming a part of the MFA community inevitably exposes you to the larger literary community. Make those connections too, where and when you can. Industry professionals will come talk to you. Their presence and attention are part of the perks you’ve paid for. Follow these writers, publishing professionals, editors, agents and so on on social media if their ideas interest you, or if they are someone you could learn from. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them on an individual basis, after you’ve heard them speak, and make a personal connection if you have a comment or question and feel compelled to do so. Do it even if you don’t feel compelled to do so, but know you should. What do you have to lose?

You are a literary citizen now. What does this mean? It means that you should support your fellow classmates whenever you can. Their successes are your successes. Something as small as a ‘like’ or a ‘follow’ is a boost. Many professional writers dedicate time to promoting, celebrating and actively engaging in other writers’ work from reviews to profiles to interviews and attending book launches. The MFA is a good place to get used to this culture of reciprocity, even when the act of writing can feel so singular—it’s not. We’re sewing from the same fabric of the universe, though each patch has its own sheen.

I recall being fourteen years old and openly mocked for the first time. I was a competitive gymnast, peppy and cheerful. The ponytail wagging kind. It may surprise you to find out that not everybody likes peppy and cheerful. I met a wiry looking girl my age who I later found out had a crush on my boyfriend, which may explain what happened next when I introduced myself.

“Hi! I’m Adelle!” I said in my cheeriest tone, extending my hand in greeting.

She did not, I took note, shake my hand.

Instead, she turned her head and said to the group of girls behind her, “Hi! I’m Adelle,” in a snarky mock tone.

While the girl’s reaction says much more about her issues than it does about mine, I share this story to arrive at a point: nobody is going to openly mock you or your work in the MFA program, I promise. There are rules and guidelines around giving feeding, which will come to your attention. Others will be looking to pinpoint what works in your pieces of writing, rather than what doesn’t, because that is helpful information. They will likely have questions too, and that’s okay. Your mentors, professional editors and writers, will gently guide you toward questions that will strengthen your work. Listen with an open heart and you will not be wounded. You are not your narrator, and constructive criticism will pertain to the work.

I could talk to you about deadlines and word count, but I won’t bother, because Dean is there for that.

Perhaps all of what I’m saying doesn’t fully resonate with you, and that’s okay. You get to make this MFA program your own thing. It’s quite likely that you and I are entirely different people. You may be a brood-in-the-dark-corner-of-the-bar-pontificating-and-pondering-life’s-existential-crises, fist-to-forehead, cigarette-dangling-from-your-lips kind of writer, while I’m more of a friendly-run-with-my-dog-ponytail-wagging-mom-of-three-kale-smoothie-drinking-optimist-who-loves-sunshine-and-trails kind of writer. That’s cool. I’d be happy to sit by your side in the dark for the day and learn from you too.

What matters is that we’ve come together from our various corners of the universe, thread in hand. We’re primed to create something, and this is our moment to shine. Raise your needles. On your marks. Get set. SEW!

I hope our seams will butt up against one another’s. I genuinely can’t wait to see what you will make. I know it will be beautiful.

 

Enjoyed this post? Consider subscribing to my author newsletter, The Write Page, for writing, reading and retreats that inspire—many thanks! And writers, please let me know about your author newsletters, I’d love to read them. Reach me through my website adellepurdham.ca. Questions & comments welcome.

Two Hearts: on book launches, disability, writing community and Amanda Leduc

Recently, after having read The Book of Delights, I fell a bit in love with the author, Ross Gay—the book was that good. This falling in love with people is something that happens to me as a person who holds romantic notions inside her head. I let myself get swept away. Offer up my heart. It’s just not something I’m willing to keep boxed up and tucked away. I wrote Ross Gay a note, professing my undying love for his book and he…never wrote me back. Rejection. This is the name of the game with being a writer and being a human. Sometimes you connect with the other person, other times you don’t.

But this post isn’t about Ross Gay (even though I think his work is wonderful and definitely worth reading), and it isn’t about rejection (though writing involves heaps of it); instead, this post is about my admiration for disability author and advocate Amanda Leduc and it’s about organizing a fabulous book launch and it’s about writing community.

I attended Amanda’s virtual book launch recently, hosted through a Zoom webinar with the support of her local bookstore in Hamilton, Epic Books. I’m going to stop right there for a minute. Local bookstores. Take a minute to shop in them. I placed a huge book order in my hometown’s local bookstore right after Amanda’s talk and got a lovely thank you note. I’m learning about the beauty of local bookstores, and I have my MFA to thank for that. Local bookstores support authors by hosting literary events in their spaces (or providing tech support online), and they buy local authors’ books and host them for book signings and other events. Most books sell by word of mouth, so these types of on-the-ground events are so important. I ordered two of Amanda’s books last night: Disfigured and her newest release The Centaur’s Wife. Book events can equal book sales, which is obviously good for an author.

Back to Amanda Leduc’s book launch. What made it so good was the bringing in of others and Amanda herself who is articulate, real, vulnerable and intelligent. She talked about “post-traumatic growth” and how some people use grief to imagine themselves into a new world. She talked about grieving, but also surviving, “the wonderful work of survival,” she said. She writes mainly fiction, but she’s an idea writer. I love idea writers. And by that, I mean, there are juicy bits I can grab onto that inspire my own work. Here’s an example of a thought fragment that appealed to me, “…lay them out in the sun…what the light shows.” The idea here of something being examined, exposed, but with the light, you know it’s good, pure. I can work with this.

Amanda bravely shared the story of losing her best friend to cancer in December, “you wake up and your world is completely destroyed.” The core of her book, The Centaur’s Wife, is about grief and loss. Desire and grief intertwined. She realized almost near the end of writing the book, which she started in 2016, that she was writing a road map for herself about grief, to deal with the loss of her best friend. I cried tears with her on the other side of the computer screen as she told the story. And I cried harder when she said that sometimes a happy ending is putting one foot in front of the other. If you’ve been through grief, then you will know what she means.

Amanda Leduc not only spoke about writing strange worlds, with fascinating details such as, were they to be real, a centaur—half person, half horse—would need to have two hearts, but she gave inspiring bits of wisdom to writers of all stripes.

Simply by attending her book launch, I learned what I would like my own book launch to look like. She had a fantastic host, author Jael Richardson, and an engaged interviewer in author Larissa Lai. A beautiful singer/songwriter, Victoria Carr, who was cast as the actor to read Amanda’s audiobook for The Centaur’s Wife, opened the launch with a moving song about a high green hill. Anne Collins, Amanda’s editor, was next interviewed for her perspective on working with Amanda to get the book to completion, which was so fascinating. Anne said her job, as an editor, was “to ask her the questions to help her see what she’s making.” Anne also served as a spoke’s person for the book, saying that The Centaur’s Wife is a huge answer to the question of what a diverse fairy tale can be, and she added that Amanda’s gift is “to make us feel so much about mythical creatures.”

As an aside for other writers/authors, there was a tech elf behind the scenes posting links and other bits of information in regard to accessibility, book buying, and presenter info in the chat that was perfect and necessary for the wonderful flow of the evening.

Amanda then spoke in an interview/conversational format with interviewer Larissa Lai about The Centaur’s Wife and the writing process. She talked about advice she received early from the brilliant short-story writer John Gould, “You can do whatever you want in a story!” and she took those words to heart creating fantastical worlds. She also shared Sheila Heti’s words, “You’re writing yourself into the person you need to be to finish the story.” Amanda faced real struggles with her book, overthinking at the beginning and getting stuck later on in the writing process, which was nice as a writer to hear and commiserate. But she advised writers to “trust the story and where the story is taking you,” acknowledging “it’s a hard thing to trust the narrative and trust yourself as a writer.” “Get comfortable with the ragged edges of things,” she says.

She talked about finding a writing community, which is a common refrain writers hear often, but then added a qualifier which I loved, “a community can be one person who is just your cheerleader.” I like how that takes the pressure off. One person seems manageable. Her description of finding the right actor for her audiobook also taught me about that process of the audition reading and finding someone who understands your book.

But Amanda Leduc isn’t just an incredible writer, she’s a disability advocate. A woman with Cerebral palsy. I am deeply inspired by her commitment to the disability community and to making her book available in every accessible format: braille, accessible pub, audio and conventional print (Check out CELA and NNELS for more information). I hope to be able to do the same with my books. Amanda is also the Communications and Development Coordinator at The Festival of Literary Diversity, FOLD, Canada’s premier literary festival. She uses the centaurs in her book as a disability metaphor; an “act of disability reclamation,” as Dorothy Ellen Palmer put it. Her book asks the question: who survives catastrophe? Maybe someone who’s gone through adversity, Amanda proposes.

She talks about her own mindset switch: “Not, why don’t I walk like everyone else, but nobody walks the way I do.” I love the empowerment of her words. “There’s always been a space for me,” Amanda says, “I just needed to claim it.”

Amanda’s claim that writers inhabit weird worlds was a reminder to me that I spent my evening listening to a woman talk about a book about centaurs and thorough enjoyed myself. But The Centaur’s Wife is so much more than that, as is every world we create as writers.

At the end of her book launch, Amanda took the time to properly thank the many people who’ve helped her along the way. “A book takes a village,” she said.

During my writing day, I sent out a new essay for feedback to four different people, for a variety of reasons: from beta testing to fact checking to literary content to seeking permission to tell someone’s else’s story. I couldn’t agree more, Amanda, it takes a village. Thank you for your wise words, the many ways you are giving back and changing the disability narrative, and congratulations on the birth of your new novel! Amanda Leduc is definitely a writer whose work you should fall in love with.

 

 

Leave

I want to be upfront about something. I love my family; I am grateful for my quality of life and the joy I get from spending my days writing. I love my husband who keeps me particularly happy and understands my humour when I call him “pony” and tell him to “make it rain” a pros pos of nothing, at least not something I could explain out of context (or in context). I love having my kids in school and I feel an extra abundance of affection for their teachers this year who educate them during the day. After Covid, maybe all parents of school-aged children are feeling this way? I’m having these fond feelings while simultaneously repeating a silent mantra in my head. One that keeps popping up. Leave, the voice whispers. Just go.

I’m completely happy in my work life. I love my Master’s program, engaging with other writers, having my work reviewed and receiving feedback and criticism and giving that gift back to others. And attending literary events. I’m mostly new to the scene of book readings, workshops and panels and it’s been such a rich experience. But I’m missing something. Something Covid has taken from me.

Freedom.

The freedom to connect with others in person, to gather over the holidays and, especially, to travel. I miss travelling. I miss traveling the way you miss an old friend, deep in my bones, like a visceral ache, a phantom limb. The world was there to explore, full of enjoyment and novelty, and now it’s not.

The other day, I was in the middle of an online poetry reading session, one that I was truly enjoying, when my eye caught the bottom of the Zoom screen window. The word ‘LEAVE’ stared back at me in bright letters. Leave. LEAVE. Yes! That is exactly what I want to do. That voice inside me screams louder.

I want to go away; I want to leave right now and be gone, away from here. I tell my husband, “My brain is sick of this place.” I am fine, physically, but my mind, my mind is not. I spend most of my day in the same room where I work, sleep and often eat. My mind is craving something new. An adventure. An escape. LEAVE.

I want to plan a trip, NEED to plan a trip. I pull up travel advisories and wow, that’s just a whole lot of red. The world is bleeding.

I’m in the head space where I want a vacation to look forward to, a means of escape to break up the dreary winter months ahead. I regularly feel that pull this time of year, but this time, no amount of planning is going to make any difference. Covid will decide when and if I go anywhere.

And I know, I know, this is a small loss in a sea of loses. Only a drop into the pool of our collective tears. But it’s how I’m feeling. I’m feeling the loss of experiences I would have had. I’m feeling the activities that have been taken from a chunk of my kids’ childhood. I’m feeling like my home has become a box, or so the story goes at bedtime, “The mommy lives inside a box and the walls keep getting smaller and smaller.” Penelope’s eyes grow wide. “Oh no!” she says, “what happened to the mommy inside?” It isn’t good. For one, she feels squished, which makes her want to lash out.

Space. What an interesting construct. Physical, as in measurable dimensions, but more so, mental, parameters of the mind. Having my husband work from homeis wonderful in so many respects, but before, pre-covid, he travelled extensively, and I was used to his absence, to filling that space. Now there is no space to be filled, instead there is overlap. And even when he was around before, he drove on the daily to his office. I had days without children that were to myself, when I had to cater to no one’s needs but my own and the needs of my work. Not so in the days of Covid.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m a bit sick of you too pony,” I tell him, not unlovingly. But it’s more than that. I’ve been a ‘stay-at-home’ mom for the past nine years. Finally, FINALLY, and I have been waiting a few years for this, I was getting to the place where I no longer felt like the mommy-in-a-box, caged in. I chose to be home looking after kids and then chose for that time to end. I was regaining my freedom and autonomy. I signed up for my Masters that included two weeks away, AWAY per year and I was so SO excited about that prospect. A break from my family AND the chance to hang out with writers and just write? With the bulk of my time spent at home with my family? Perfect. I was euphoric to be accepted into the program. The trip out east. The New York City getaway. Both since gone virtual. That low-residency piece was the cherry on top. Covid has eaten the cherry, and some of the cake, too.

This isn’t just about me needing time away for myself, but it is that too. I’m better for my family when my own needs are met. And I care about them receiving the best version of me, a mom and wife in a healthy head space, not the mommy-in-a-box who feels claustrophobic and desperate. At this point, I don’t even know if what I need is to go somewhere else, or if just knowing that I could go somewhere else would be enough. I suspect the latter. Call me spoiled, but I don’t do well with being told I can’t.

Over the last few years, I’ve gone on trips by myself. These might be for a conference or to visit a friend, but they are scheduled time away. That space worked its way into my life because I needed it. We all have different needs. Mine involves space and time to myself and in Covid-era, this has become impractical, unsafe and in many instances, impossible. Even going to the library has become perilous.

I am not oblivious to the rest of the world’s needs, but I am acknowledging this one small loss, because maybe, just maybe, you feel your own version of stuck-in-a-box. Covid has pushed the walls of our world smaller.

While instant gratification is nice, I do seem to have a knack for the long hall. Writing a book. Long trips. Marathon training. My marriage.

Waiting for Covid to go away is my least favourite activity, but in this case, I want to be around for the long haul and so I will hold off on the gratification piece. Other than solitary dog hikes in the forest, I’m mostly staying home. Sometimes sitting on my hands, watching my mouth, pulling at my hair. But I’m staying home to keep my family safe. I’m staying home to keep your family safe. I’m working through my personal frustrations and dissatisfactions because it’s the right thing to do. I’m pushing back against the walls closing me in created within the confines of my mind. I’m especially holding onto memories of past travel, allowing myself to dream about a near future where everyone is vaccinated, the world is safe again, where I could go somewhere if I wanted to and hoping this small grievance and annoyance is all I will have to face.

For the time being, I’m relying much more on a cheaper method of travel. Leave, just go, the voice whispers. And so I pick up a book and fall inside, and that world has never been more appealing.

 

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.