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.

Good, Bad, Who’s to Say?

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

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

The ancient parable of the farmer goes like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Unable to Perceive the Shape of You

What an odd yet strange and wonderful thing it is to tether oneself to another human being through the act of marriage.  To say, “you’re the one!” with the intention that they’re the one forever.  Until death do you part.  Even after death, we comfort ourselves by imagining our dearly departed waiting for us behind those pearly gates, just on the other side.  Well maybe that’s not exactly how we each envision it; from accounts I’ve read from the other side there are bright lights and an energy, a sort of life force that’s difficult to describe.  A place we go back to from whence we came.  I believe in this energy, in the light that glows within us – ‘our spirit’ – that is extinguished once we’re gone.  It’s a romantic notion, but I have to, I have to believe in living on in some form after death, the way I have to believe in marriage and love.  Both forces are equally dubious yet unmistakeably felt.

I began writing this blog yesterday with the intention of dedicating it to Dan in honour of our upcoming eleven-year wedding anniversary, but the piece took a turn when I remembered a line I heard recently in a reading – a poem, The Country of Marriage by Wendell Berry.  Poems apparently have the power to control your thoughts and fingers typing on a keyboard.  Once I began traveling to the country of marriage through my writing, the piece evolved and transformed itself from the lighthearted voice and tone of my blog post writing into a more lyrical, deeply felt, literary piece you would call an essay, which is, as Cynthia Ozick puts it, “A stroll through someone’s mazy mind.”  Pieces of Wendell’s poem became part of the essay and the basis of each scene construction, forming my own ideas about what constitutes a country of marriage.  You can’t just throw a phrase like ‘country of marriage’ out at a writer and not expect them to pounce on it.  I wrote on that idea with a rabid fervour.  Anyway, you’ll have to read about it in my next book.  I promise tears (mine), steam rising, oppressors, ex-boyfriends, rugged terrain, the torn skin of a scalp, the taste of alcohol, knees pressed together, Down syndrome, and a belly (mine) as full as the moon.  We have gone some places, my husband and I, in our country of marriage.

But this post isn’t all lost causes, because today I remembered another line that I happily dedicate to the man who walks alongside me.

Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere.

~ The Shape of Water, adapted and translated (likely) from 13th century Sufi mystic poet Rumi

When I heard this, I thought it was one of the most romantic notions conceived, unable to perceive the shape of you.  Rumi is, of course, speaking of God.  Love may be the closest facsimile of divinity I’ve encountered in my life, and so I think these lines are just about right.

Eleven years in our country of marriage, unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me.  Your presence fills my eyes with your love.  It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere.

Light

Much of what gets written down in books, talked about; the ideas we exchange during human interaction involve a central question: what’s this got to do with me?

During my MFA residency week, my mentor, Jane Silcott, mentioned a few times that she was fascinated by light.  The way light moves and changes, bends or refracts.  And on the one hand, I thought, light…hm – so what?  And on the other hand, I thought me too, because I love light; I just hadn’t taken the time to properly think about it before and its relevance to my life.

In her book of memoirs, Everything Rustles, which is described on the back cover as “a debut collection of personal essays” in addition to looking at “the moments right now that shimmer and rustle around her,” Silcott explores “love, grief, uncertainty, longing, joy, desire, fury, and fear.  Also wandering bears, marauding llamas, light and laundry rooms.”  There it is again, that fascination with light.  Now, when I read through her book, I wasn’t reading with an eye for light in mind and planning to write about it.  But something about her light caught my eye.  A scene comes to mind, something to the effect of Jane watching the light change from her porch and an annoyance at being disturbed by a family member for disrupting her peace.  I can relate.  I remember another essay, Natty Man, where the light is mentioned, “I’m enjoying the last bit of light sunny air when the natty man appeared.” and yet another, where the absence of light, the dark of night, causes her fear.

Flipping through the pages of Everything Rustles now, I come across, “What is it about morning light, the in-betweenness of it, that space between night and day?” in the essay Thereness.  That question is tucked in there, just past the page in my book with the remnants of a dirty paw swipe left on it.  I remember reading that particular essay sitting on the edge of the dock, listen to the happy cries of children splashing in the water, fending off puppy licks as I read about my mentor losing her father, the page swathed in heavy sunlight.

And so the light gets in, our stories blur and her words begin to take on meaning in my own life.  And so it goes with stories well told.

After talking with Jane and reading her book, the question of light demanded to be answered.

After dinner last night, I found myself sitting by the edge of the dock, supported by my hands, legs crossed out in front of me, during that magical hour of dusk when the sun gets sleepy.  I happened to glance over my shoulder.  There, in the space between the boards of wood, was an illuminated support beam.  And I thought, what a miracle the sun can reach its light all the way under there, while also thinking, this is my life, right now, and that the light could so ground me in it.

We bought a small kayak and I took it out for its first paddle to explore our lake.  In doing so, I found the perfect pink granite rock that I could swim to later on.  Not enshrouded by weeds or clam shells, perfectly inviting, and close by.

First thing the next morning, with goosebumps on my flesh, I suited up, moved my goggles in place, snapped on my flippers and aimed for the rock.  I strive for an even stroke, a calm breath.  One, two, three breathe, one two three breathe, one two three breathe and look where you’re going.  Thirty minutes of swimming without rest is tiring and in a lake, somewhat disorienting, so I am grateful for the rock.  As I swim there and back, there is the greyish blue-green of the water I look down on and the blinding light of the sun as I turn my head to the side quickly to breath.  Darkness, darkness, light; darkness, darkness, light.  I stop to get my bearings, look around.  Scan the horizon for boats.  We live on such a small lake, and I keep mainly to the shoreline, but I think of the cottage we stayed at in Muskoka a few summers ago, and the woman in the neighbouring cottage who paddled out in her kayak to paddle alongside me as I swam back across the land divide because, as she explained, “a woman was killed here by a boat last summer – please, never swim across alone.”  In the bright morning sun, I can see clearly, no boats.  I continue to cut through the water, and there it is – light – beams of it cutting through the dark water in front and below me with ease, diamonds, glittering along the surface.  The light is all around me.  I just need to open my eyes to see it.

 

Forget Normal: a case for the MFA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing the Mermaid

I am a mermaid, with bug bites in awkward places and a new cottage and a new puppy that trails by my side down the dock.  The puppy doesn’t choose to swim, but I plop him in anyway, to make sure he can float, because I am a mermaid and if you’re part of my tribe, you’d better prepare to get wet.

Or maybe I am a fish.  What an odd looking fish, the other fish must think, as I pass them by with my naked scale-less body.  And why does it surface where there are no bugs to be eaten?  Look!  It beaches!  I fool them, those scaly fish, and then my daughter catches them with her hook; but she releases them, like the spider I enfolded in the crumpled-up napkin and carried outside.  I’m not a fan of killing things.  Mermaids are one with nature.

Or maybe I am a seal, with my black leather-like glistening skin, my wetsuit and flippers, making my way along the shoreline, cutting the water down, gliding through it.

No, I am a mermaid, and like those mythical creatures drawn to shore, unsure of where I belong, I’m seeking my place among my school of fish, my fellow merfolk.  My MFA cohort, of course.

This week is my MFA residency through the University of King’s College/Dalhousie, and yes, I am at a cottage, and yes, I have been swimming like a mermaid when I can, and yes, I am trying to figure out my book project and my classmates and my workload and my life beyond this week with children and husbands to distract me and yes.  It is better to remain grounded in this moment.  Not worry too far into the future.  Too many yesses is a no-no.

And I told my classmates, I warned them, “you’re a part of my life now and that means I might write about you.”  They all nodded their heads, they understand.  Writing is not so much the life we have been given, but the one we want to make, that we seek to create.  They would no sooner take away my source, my lifeblood, than I would deny them theirs.  These are my people, these writer folk.  I like them a lot.  My own mother would deny me a rich source of material; she forbids that I write about her.  I told her, okay, I’ll write about you when you’re dead, in about ninety years.  She laughed, I can tell you that much.

Back to the writer folk, because I can write about them.  The books my classmates are working on are going to be so excruciatingly beautiful, I can’t wait to tell you about them.  For the most part, our projects are mostly theory for the time being, but the writing will come, the writing will come.  Let me whet your appetite with: flowers and mental illness, guilt, a dog over a man with pizzazz and glitter, a trip down the Camino on the way to redemption; dogs that eat health cards and other life shit that’s funny as hell and my next book: I Don’t Do Disability and Other Lies I’ve Told Myself.  The writers are equally as interesting as their stories – especially for a writer!  I haven’t met these people – hello, Covid – I just spend all day with them online.  Though we’re spread out about the Canadian coral reef, wow, this group makes it enjoyable to be staring at a screen for so long.  Sharing a passion for writing is enough to bind strangers, more than enough.

It’s a strange and wonderful experience to encounter others who adore reading and writing as much as you do and who are as interested in your work and writing as you are.  ‘Colleagues’ I believe these people are called.  Writing from home, one doesn’t encounter many ‘colleagues’.  MFA programs are good for that.

Perhaps my project is the mermaid, the mythical creature.  My hair may be damp from the lake, but it’s my project that’s the slippery fish to grasp.  I generally have a better sense of what I’m writing, after I’ve written it.  That doesn’t fit well into the academic mould or way of doing things, but it’s fine.  I’ll try it their way. I do have my limits though.  There are some things I just won’t do when it comes to assignments, like follow word counts.

There are some excellent reasons and cases to be made for avoiding the creative life.  Chasing mermaids is hard work.  Hell – they don’t even exist!  Yet, I’m drawn, with my fellow merfolk, to this fantasy world, this place of creation, this transforming myself into whatever it is that I want to be.

What Would Happen?

What would happen if you followed your dreams?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would you listen?

I think I just did.

 

Loss: Tending to the Rose Garden

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

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

There are the losses I’ve experienced lately:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping the Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Sweet Bite

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

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

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

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

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

We can do hard things.

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

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

Perhaps the World Ends Here, by Joy Harjo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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