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Pickle Me This

June 3, 2020

Thoughts about Being Okay

I started having panic attacks again on Monday, the kind I was having back in March when “all this” began. I’d been feeling sad and overwhelmed since Thursday, on Saturday our summer holiday got cancelled, and that afternoon helicopters circled the sky as protesters took to the street to stand up for Black people’s lives and the roar of those machines was dark and ominous. The scenes in the US were getting more and more upsetting, and Monday ended with news of the US “President” assembling troops to attack citizens in the street, and also peaceful protesters being cleared with tear gas so that dipshit could pretend he was going to church. (Dude did not know it was Monday.)

I was trembling, my heart was palpitating. I knew I was going to be in some trouble, and so after my children were in bed, my husband and I sat down to talk and try to calm me down, which helped a bit, but it still wasn’t finished, and the only way out of panic, I’ve found, is through. My mind so highly strung, and I was scared. We have a fan in our room, for ventilation and white noise, and I started imagining I was hearing the sounds of more helicopters. Trying to convince myself otherwise, but I was lying in bed awake for hours, my mind a million miles and hour, and it was the sound of people shouting and screaming I heard next, and what was happening outside? To this world?

I got up to find out, and went to the window, where perspective shifted—and I realized the sounds I was hearing were birds. I’d been up so long that the birds were awake. And the fact that birds were singing was a lulling thought, this ordinary thing instead of the nightmare I’d been imagining. And I fell asleep finally sometime around 4 am.

Spending the next day bleary-eyed and with a headache, the panic still there, and it was hard to function. I barely did. And then the panic was finished, and I still was tired, but I was calm again, and there was light to see, and the birdsong was birdsong, and world a place I recognized. Such relief in that—euphoric, even. Like an illness and the absence of pain—I was so glad to be through it.

But of course it’s not over. I feel okay again, but it’s not okay again, and I don’t think it ever has been. I was thinking too about how it’s important, perhaps even essential, for white people to feel uncomfortable. And how the greatest reason for my fear when I’m overwhelmed is usually connected to my children, my fears for this world into which I’ve brought them. And the lightness of my imaginary helicopters when compared to the concrete fears of other parents for their own Black children, to feel like that all the time. The people for whom the sounds don’t turn out to be birdsong.

I get relief from my fears—I acknowledge the privilege in that, and how different my experience is from those of other parents all over the world, in my city, even. I get to feel better, which is not a bad thing, because my panic was debilitating, short of rendering me unable to function. But the point is that now that it’s done, I need to remember that my feelings are not the end of the story of inequality and injustice, of battles that are still going on and which we need to be fighting regardless of what I’m going through.

But also that I can be okay when things are not okay, and that is okay too.

June 1, 2020

Calm Is Still a Superpower

It was my fault—all of it.

Do you do this too? Do you have a whole host of reasons why the disastrous spring of 2020 was a product of your own consciousness? Covid-19 has got me out of both jury duty and a colonoscopy, and it’s crossed my mind that I’ve likely engineered all this, my ability to control the universe gone terrifically awry. (I am sorry.)

But the worst of my crimes was this blog post, the one I published on February 21, when I wrote about how after months and years of freaking out over everything (natural disaster, WW3, and mass slaughter, and every theoretical terrible thing), I finally accepted that nothing TRULY bad was really going to happen and calmed down. And even though unrest and instability, war and tension continued throughout January and February, I met it with my Zen approach, because I’d mastered consciousness, and was basically a yogi.

And then the universe said HA.

Or it didn’t, because the universe isn’t so responsive, and I don’t actually reside at its centre (so I’ve been told), but for a long time, I thought of my February blog post and felt sick to my stomach. When I’d been feeling sick to my stomach anyway, because there was a whole week in March where I couldn’t eat for a week, or sleep, or even sit down and look at a puzzle without having heart palpitations—and that I was looking at a puzzle at all is indicative of how bad things were at. I am not a puzzle person, but I couldn’t even read.

I thought I’d figured out anxiety. What a lark! And that was back when I only had abstract notions to be anxious about, when I could shop for groceries or take my children to school without fear of a deadly contagion. When the President of the USA wasn’t sanctioning police violence in the streets. It seems laughable now.

And yet, the answer is the same. And at least I wasn’t giving a prescription in my February post and I acknowledged there was uncertainty, a wavering—I’d never really claimed to have mastered anything. But I was observing a point in my process instead.

None of it’s simple,” I wrote, “and the only way toward an answer is work, which is what’s happening now all around us, and we need to be patient. And calm.”

Which doesn’t mean passive. It doesn’t mean waiting and doing nothing, and eliminate the necessity of action, but instead.

It means breathing. It means grounding. It means thinking, and listening, and connecting, and learning, and (in the words of Ann Douglas) calm is still a superpower.

Maybe more than ever.

March 26, 2020

What Are You Going Through?

“What are you going through?” is the question, a line from Shawna Lemay‘s Rumi and the Red Handbag (which I’ve included on a new list at 49thShelf of books in my library I want to reread). And it’s a particularly pointed question for right now, when we’re all going through it, when “we’re all in this together,” except we aren’t, of course. I’m still struck by the essay I read yesterday about a woman whose husband has been brutally ill with the Coronavirus, and this from the perspective of their teenage daughter:

“I took out the kitty litter,” CK says, “and I saw some people standing on the corner, and I was like, I want to see strangers! And then I heard them saying: ‘It’s actually been really nice. It’s been a chance to connect as a family.’ And I was like, No, actually, I don’t want to see strangers, and I came back in.”

My hardships pale. Compared to those who are ill, or caregiving, or grieving. Those who are unable to find childcare, or who are put to work in unsafe situations for minimal pay, or who struggling to put food on the table. For those whose support services have been cut, or whose lifesaving treatments have been cancelled. Compared to those workers who head into the eye of storm, while the rest of us are hiding in our houses. Even comfortably. Sheltering in place.

*

I had been freaking out about the Coronavirus for a while, since the end of February, waking up at night with anxiety, which seemed weird and almost laughable, but it kept happening. We’d been booked to travel to the UK last week, and I’d worried about travelling at such a heightened moment, about the coughs kids always have, and I’d been worried about us staying healthy before our flight anyway, which is a gamble at the best of times. We were applying hand sanitizer quite religiously, perhaps obsessively. On the last Monday before school ended, I had a doctor’s appointment, and friends were taking my children to their swimming lessons that night, and the anguish I was feeling at this situation was definitely out of proportion, though it didn’t help that I was sitting there in the waiting room with the 24 hour news channel screaming from a big screen.

Something wasn’t right, and I started seeing Twitter threads of devastation in Italy. We were leaving for the UK in less than a week, and cancelling our trip was just impossible. (So many things were impossible two weeks ago.) So much money on the line, and we couldn’t throw that away. (Since January, I’d been reading about people living under lockdown in China with absolutely no understanding that such things could ever been connected to me.) On Tuesday, I spent two hours on hold with the airline, only to be told that since there was no travel advisory, we weren’t eligible for a refund if we cancelled. What if we went then, I wondered, but ordered a boatload of face masks? I even looked them up on Amazon, which is anathema to me, but there was no availability anyway until early April.

By Wednesday it was clear though—things were bad. To travel to Europe would be lunacy, whether there was a travel advisory or not. I was starting to realize there was space between the lines of what public health officials were saying, that they were telling us we could go abroad…but that was not the same thing as saying we should. That there was really no one in charge here was something astounding to consider, but also that we had the power to use our own minds and make responsible choices. I did a panic shop that afternoon after picking up my kids from school, which sounds less shameful when you consider that I don’t have a car and had to carry home everything I purchased, and my children are still pretty excited about that trip to the grocery store “because you let us buy everything we wanted.” Mostly chips.

On Thursday, Harriet went to school, but we kept Iris home with a cough we would not have paid any attention to under normal circumstances. Over the course of the day, Stuart gradually stopped fighting my state of high alert and conceded that this was something. This was the day after all the sports were cancelled and Tom Hanks got diagnosed, and Sophie Trudeau the next day. I’d stayed up on Twitter late into the night, and then woke up in the middle of the night in a panic that was only abated by me going downstairs and turning my computer back on to discover that Twitter was not as terrifying as my mind was, which is really saying something.

I kept both kids out of school on Friday and Stuart worked from home, and it was here where our self-isolation began, and the idea of us ever having not cancelled our trip became hard to imagine. We were over it, though still profoundly disappointed, especially as Stuart’s dad has been very ill, and we were due to meet our baby niece, and it’s very hard to be apart from family with so much dire business going on. (This was also while the official UK policy was “Many people are going to die….”)

I could not eat. I wasn’t sleeping. I discovered that phoning friends was a lovely kind of reprieve, something I hadn’t done in years. I felt safe and comfortable at home, lucky for so many reasons, glad we’d done the panic shop early and avoided the rush. I felt overwhelmed by grief and sadness, and sorry for my children, and so much disappointment, and the idea of so much devastation still to come. The idea that nobody really understands what is happening, or how to fix it. Glimmers of hope too. Thinking of my relative comfort, and how to hold that in the same space as my fear for the future, but also awareness of the much more difficult situations that other people were going through. The nurses. The clerks at the grocery store.

I did not do very well last week. I kept calling it my roller coaster/ hamster wheel. I’d be doing a puzzle and have to go lie down because I was having a panic attack. The weight on my chest that is either anxiety or a deadly respiratory illness. I kept looking online, desperate for good news, but there was nothing, and I kept waking up at three o’clock in the morning, convulsively shaking. I was so scared, my body on high alert, and I had been right about everything, is what I was thinking. For weeks I’d been in a panic, and everything I was afraid of kept coming true.

And I keep thinking about all those people who are much more experienced at living with uncertainty than I am, how naive and silly I must sound. “Welcome to my world,” is what they’re all polite enough not to be saying out loud.

On Wednesday night, I watched Crocodile Dundee, which I can’t stop talking about, but it was such a turning point for me. I went to bed and slept all night, though waking up feeling okay in the morning made me not vigilant enough to resist indulging in behaviour I’d come to be sorry for, a whole afternoon refreshing Twitter, bad news and more bad news, and that night I went to bed and had legitimate nightmares. I started to see that feeling okay would have to be a conscious choice here, one that took more work than the submitting to the lazy river of media consumption (when will there be good news?). I’d spent too long scoffing at the idea of mindset and staying positive—what’s the use of that when everything is shit? But when everything is shit, I realized, mindset is all you’ve got, and being unable to eat or sleep, or get through the day without five panic attacks is not the way to stay healthy.

So what has helped me?

  • Music! The radio is usually a constant soundtrack in our house, but lately it’s just upsetting noise. In very 20th century problems, our CD player broke last week, but then we finally signed up for ad-free Spotify and now I have all the music in the world at my fingertips.
  • Avoiding the news: I was turning to the news for answers, but nobody has any of those (yet). Once a day or so, I will read the news online at a reputable source. I have stopped following charts and tallies. They are not helpful. Everything is bad. I know it. I don’t have to steep in it.
  • No social media after dinner: The exception is Instagram, which is just wall-to-wall sourdough bread right now. Stupid movies and TV shows are good. Books are even better. Rereading Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books is the best thin ever.
  • Counting my blessings. Even though this makes me feel guilty and I wish that blessings were more fairly distributed.
  • Little rituals: good things to eat. Watching the sunset. Hugs with my loved ones. Talking to friends and family on the phone. Making food last longer. Making somethings out of nothings. Leaving chalk drawings on friends’ sidewalks.
  • Connection! On Zoom, Skype, out the window, across the street, on the phone, etc. etc.
  • Moving! This really helps me with sleep. I have been riding my exercise bike, which (another blessing!) mercifully I never got rid of, even though it’s been sitting in my closet for four years. Taking walks when we can. We’ve also done a couple of online fitness classes, and I really loved these (especially when the instructor’s cat walks in…)
  • Feelings check-in—and sharing my feelings with my children, when appropriate. I think it’s helpful for them to know that complicated and difficult feelings are to be expected in hard times, and that sharing those feelings is normal and even helpful.
  • Everyone in Italy is not dead. I am not being flippant. The situation in Italy is terrible and we should be (and are) doing everything we can to avoid it, but also remembering that most people in Italy are perfectly well inside their homes and waiting for some semblance of life to begin again is something that keeps me going when it seems like the entire world is on fire.
  • Things in China have gotten better. My high school classmate who lives in Shanghai has written a post about how things have gotten better there—and how we know a whole lot more now than they did when things started getting bad there in January. She also has some really practical tips for getting through the weeks ahead.
  • You don’t have to fix everything. You don’t have to save all the local businesses, and carry the burden of healthcare workers, and feed the homeless, and hold the anguish if all those who are ill. (If you can, however, maybe donate to your local food bank.) You don’t have to feel terrible if you cannot do all these things. It doesn’t help anyone if you do.

I’ve been functional for almost a week now, which is not so important in the grand scheme of things, but which is hugely important if you happen to live in my head, or in my household. Staying at home and not falling to pieces honestly is the best thing I can do for our overburdened medical system at the moment, and if this is what’s required of me, then I am happy/grateful to deliver.

I hope that you’re able to take care of yourself too. xo

November 20, 2019

Bits and Pieces

I want to blog, but I don’t know where to start, where to end, where to focus. Which is not only a blogging problem specifically, but also a broader statement about my current state of mind, which is scattered and anxious, as well as mostly fine. But the anxious part is weird, and I’m annoyed because I’ve spent the last while piggy-backing on my husband’s mindfulness, for the sake of efficiency. He’s gotten really into meditation and it’s helped him a lot, and it’s helped me too, because whenever I’m starting to lose it, I call on his knowledge and wisdom, and it’s hugely restorative. But maybe mindfulness-by-proxy is not a great long-term plan, and I might have to start meditating too, but how? There are not enough hours in the day, and of course, I’d rather be reading.

It’s the flip-side though of something I believe fundamentally, which is that the little things we do make a difference, that they matter. But this can also start to feel like an overwhelming kind of pressure. I was talking to a friend of mine who is a paramedic the other day, about CPR, and how I could never remember anything I was ever taught in a first aid class, but how he has restarted hearts and there are people walking around who are only alive because of him. But as I said these words, it occurred to me that if you get credit for all that, you’ve also got to take on all the people who you couldn’t save. The same as how you can’t believe your good reviews, or else you have to believe the bad ones too, except book reviews are less involved with literal peril.

Of course, because we’re talking about me, who never saved anyone, the stakes are very different. I honestly had a crisis sometime earlier this fall because I read an article about a cheese company that was going out of business, and the weight of having insufficiently supported the local cheese industry was weighing heavy on my shoulders. Does it officially count as a first world problem if you’re feeling anxious about your failure to support the cheese industry? I use this example to show that a) I am ridiculous and also b) the idea that one person can make a difference comes up short, is a scam, and diverts from the necessity of all of us working together, but then working together is hard.

Last fall was a difficult time. All our friends moved away, and my novel was rejected (this is when I wrote a post called Publishing a Book is Not a Catapult), and my husband tends to struggle in the fall in general due to cyclical things involving the seasons and his workload, so it all was not the best. This fall, however, even with some of our friends having moved back and new friends, and my book deal—it was still hard. Maybe fall is just hard? And I forget about it over and over with the promise of September and the glorious beauty of trees on display against a sky that tends to be impossible blue.

Last Friday I took my children to a play that turned out to be in December, but I’d thought we were late and the theatre turned out to be three blocks east of where I’d thought it was, so we were running to get there, but instead we were a month early. And then we went to get something to eat, and a crowd of teenage girls at a nearby table were staring at us and then laughing at us, and I still don’t really know why. (No doubt it was for a very complex and interesting reason, right?) They got up from their table and left, but didn’t leave altogether, instead lingering around a corner peering around to look at us and make faces at us, and why was I so upset and intimidated by a group of actual children? And I felt so powerless, and sad, which is never a great way to feel around your own children, and I wish I didn’t crumble under the scrutiny of a bunch of stupid kids, that those girls didn’t take me right back to when I was their age and intimidated by the power of girls like that. I grew up, but they still have that power. Why do I give it to them? Where is my spine?

Although nothing has taken me back to childhood social dynamics like watching my own child navigate those waters. I feel as though I haven’t fundamentally grown or learned anything since I was that age, because her struggles take me right back there. There is no perspective that I have to offer, except that the life I made (my friends, my people, this family that my husband and I have made together) is like a raft that I cling to on the turgid waters of life itself, and all I can hope for my children is that they get one like it.

And for the success of the local cheese industry, obviously.

Just once, I would like to be cool and laid-back. I would like to forget to bring that letter I need to mail, and instead of getting heart palpitations and reorienting my entire day to go back and get it, accept that it would fine if I just mailed it tomorrow. I would like to buy a block of cheese with no regard whatsoever for its origins (am actually quite good at this) and not even feel bad about it. I would like to genuinely not care if someone doesn’t like me. I would like to not be intimidated by teenagers. I would like to stop feeling guilty about decisions made months ago out of my own volition. I would like there to be be somewhere between my entire life being constructed of mundane to-do-list items, and everything going to shit because I didn’t bother to get it all done. I need to catch up on my emails.

I was sick for the last two weeks, a rather brutal cold that slowed me right down, depleting the energy stocks I count on, and they’re still not all back yet. I am really tired. I also was unable to swim the last two weeks, and I have come to count on swimming too as a kind of meditation and energy-release that keeps anxiety in check. I’ve also not done any creative work since I submitted my novel about a month ago, and I think I’m suffering from a dearth of that. So maybe it’s time to write a short story.

But in the meantime, I’ve managed to write this post, to process something of what has been on my mind. And as always, it’s cathartic.

November 3, 2019

Neither Useful, Nor Interesting

Oh, yet another blog post that begins with me talking about something I heard when I was listening to a podcast. The Mom Rage Podcast, no less—am I predictable yet? This one was about vaccines (it was so good!), featuring a conversation with medical anthropologist Samantha Gottlieb about the HPV vaccine and “vaccine-hesitant communities.” She spoke about how many people are put off by doctors’ refusal to entertain questions about vaccines at all, which only serves to underline skepticism. When the facts are that vaccines can cause risks, that vaccine injuries and reactions do happen. They happen on a disproportionately tiny scale, with risks minute. It’s more dangerous to get in the car and drive down the road, and we all do that all the time, but still. Doctors don’t want to admit it. It complicates the narrative, and complicating the narrative of vaccination is perilous, literally life and death.

Of course, I like complicated narratives. To complicate the narrative is to get as close as we can to something called truth. I don’t want to live in an echo chamber, a bubble. I relish conversations with my economist friend about the virtues of capitalism; I appreciate the activists who’ve open my eyes to the violent reality of racism; my morning routine is basically putting on shoes, but I’ve got big respect for people for whom make-up is a form of personal expression. On Twitter, I used to actually follow the person whose booking at the Toronto Public Library has created such controversy over the last few weeks, because her take on sex-work complicated what so many of the other feminists in my feed were talking about, and I found that complicatedness useful and interesting… until it wasn’t. I unfollowed this person when she started writing online attacks on the grieving father of a dead teenaged girl. When I realized this “journalist” (whose platform is her own website, which she likes to call “Canada’s leading feminist website” [according to whom?]) relishes attention more than any kind of truth, and had figured out that courting controversy was the fastest way to get there (and solicit donations). When I realized she was more invested in dogma and ideology than the feminists whose thinking (and actual lived experiences) she purports to oppose and complicate. This person is neither useful, nor interesting. She is sensationalist, and purely disingenuous. She is the anti-vaxxer of gender politics. She is not “just asking questions.”

I think there is room for questions and nuance in conversations about gender. Unlike the speaker who was provided space at the Toronto Library, I think that none of this is simple. I wish that the City Librarian had listened to so many smart and respected voices calling on her to cancel the speaker’s booking—the milquetoast mayor called her on it, for heaven’s sake. And no, these people weren’t “bullying the library.” You can’t bully a library. This is nonsense. But I also know that people too are complicated like their issues are, and there are many of them (myself among them) who don’t like being told what to do, to have demands made of them, who double down instead of considering the opposite. We put a lot of truck in unapologeticness in feminism, for better and for worse. I don’t think that we should be boycotting the library, because for so many people, especially marginalized ones, the library is their most accessible cultural institution. Because the library belongs to all of us. Because the people who have the least are the people that lose the most, and I don’t really know what the end-game is of a library boycott, especially now that the event is done and dusted. Though I commend all the people who’ve taken a stance and I do think it’s been hugely worthwhile—the turnout to the protest on Tuesday evening was an incredibly show of solidarity, and the issue has led to all kinds of conversations, which are necessary as we ask questions in generous and thoughtful ways, and figure things out as a society—a process that is far more useful and interesting than anything the speaker might have said on any platform. (This is the work, people. We’re doing it. Even if, or maybe especially if, you’ll only doing it all in your head.)

I do know what it’s like to have my body be the site of a debate. I’ve stood on the sidewalk holding a sign listening to men argue over the semantics of abortion, as to the precise point where the procedure should or should not be permitted, and I can tell you that it’s dehumanizing, insulting, ridiculous, and neither useful nor interesting. And so I have an understanding of where trans people are coming from when they refuse to entertain questions, conversations or debate about their bodies and their identities. When the field of debate is your lived reality, listening to people arguing in abstract terms and citing outlying circumstances as emblematic of the issue at hand—for anti-choicers, it’s all about the case of a particular doctor and abortion provider who was convicted of murdering infants, same as how the anti-trans crew is always going on about aestheticians and waxing, as though these are the actual goal posts and such things are happening every day—is exasperating, traumatic, and a gigantic waste of everyone’s time.

I think there is room for questions and nuance in conversations about gender, because we live in a world where there are no absolutes, but I am sure that insisting on those conversations at this precise moment is not the most pressing thing we’ve got on the go. That democracy and freedom hang in the balance, as so many others might put it in their letters to the editor. I think back to the vaccine analogy, and the distrust and violent suspicion at the heart of the anti-vaccine movement, which is not so far apart from that of anti-trans activists, really. In both cases, there is an over-estimation of vulnerability, and a convenient disregard for those who are actually vulnerable after all.

Of course, there are conversations that need to be had, questions that need to be answered, but not like this, not by this person. As with the vaccine conversation, the harms—here, it’s increased violence against and vilification of an already vulnerable population—really do outweigh the benefit, which is mainly the privileged and smug self-assurance of living in a society where any idiot gets to spout her rubbish in a public building. And if such self-assurance is our guiding principle, instead of listening to, learning from, and taking care of each other, then what does it say about us?

February 18, 2019

Lemon, it’s Wednesday

“Lemon, it’s Wednesday,” so goes the 30 Rock meme after Liz Lemon comment on the week that’s been, which is the way I was feeling last week about the month of February, when we weren’t even two weeks into it yet. We’ve had stomach bugs, and kid emotional turmoil, disturbed sleep, terrible weather, and so much snow shovelling. We have a provincial government whose sheer incompetence is the only thing between it and the destruction of our public institutions, and so last week I was out at two community meetings with galvanizing plans and discussion for how we can stand up for public education. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that most of my neighbourhood is covered in a thick and impermeable sheet of ice, which means that any walk down the street is a hobble, and I’ve got leaks in my boots. I’m feeling discouraged and sad about how my writing career is panning out, with a novel rejected in November and the one I did publish prominently featured in the chain bookstore clearance bin. And I’ve reached that inevitable point in my own plans for exciting things this year where I wonder if I’m fooling myself and everybody thinks I’m a total idiot. I was so tired last Thursday after running around taking everyone to their swimming lessons, and also having dinner ready early so that everyone could eat around their swimming lessons. “I’m sorry I was cranky,” was the text I sent home while Iris was practicing her flutter kick in the pool before me. “I think what I need is to just come home tonight and take a bath.” But of course there would be no bath, because before the night was out it would become clear that I have head-lice. Head-lice was the one thing my February had been missing.

My brain is still teeming. The itch. It doesn’t require proof or evidence. Thought is enough. You do it yourself. Lice. Imagine them crawling on your head. Claws touching skin. They pass over us, across this family. —Alexander MacLeod, “Wonder About Parents”

In the last few days, we’ve spent over a hundred dollars on expensive shampoo and a lice comb, and my husband has spent hours picking over my scalp with attention to detail. And it makes me wonder what the women who end up with lice who don’t have partners do? Let alone the women who have lice who don’t have a spare $80 lying around to buy the shampoo necessary to treat the whole family (and for best results, repeat the process in seven days). I feel outclassed by the people who are able to call in the lice-trepreneurs (this is a thing!), but at least I can afford Nixx. And it makes me think about the “Bug Economics” essay in Carissa Halton’s wonderful book, Little Yellow House, which I read in January. She writes about how many families are unable to afford the “kill-these-damn-bugs shampoo,” which might not even work anyway. She goes on to write about another inner-city scourge, bed-bugs, but the principle applies to lice as well: “While everyone can get [them], the poor are most likely to have to deal with the creatures longer than most.” I am lucky: I am not poor. Also, I don’t have bed-bugs. (Yet? February has a lot of steam left in it still.)

Lice. The third week. Head checks in the morning and head checks at night after the baths. You need to go slowly. A separate bath for every person. New water. Fresh pillow cases every night. New sheets. New blankets. The washing machine is going to die. Hats and T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts. Brushes and combs and hair elastics. Water boiling in the kettle. Everything that touches us needs to be scalded. —”Wonder About Parents”

Lice is a metaphor. Lice is also not a metaphor, which is the unfortunate part of this story, or at least one unfortunate part. (It is February. There is very little fortune.) But still, lice is a metaphor for the secret shame that creeps around your head, and makes you unfit for others’ company. It marks you and makes you less than, and everybody tells you that they’re attracted to people with clean hair, but nobody believes that anyway. You start contemplating pixie cuts, crew cuts, buzz cuts. The chance to be somebody different. Because what if I’m completely hopeless, and I’m just the last person to realize it? It’s taken me almost forty years to contact lice, and I’d always kind of thought that I was immune to it all, just like how I thought I was immune to failure. Or dared to hope my story would end up different than most people’s, is what I mean, that it could even be a story of triumph. Everyone gets lice sometimes (although usually it’s when they’re six and not thirty-nine), and everyone’s book ends up in the clearance bin, but still, who wants to be everyone? Necessary humility, certainty, but insufficient consolation.

The only way out is through.

Which is true for head-lice, and Februaries, and any period of unhappiness. It’s never easy, because you get to March and you’re still carrying February inside you, and maybe you’ve still got nits (although I’m really hoping I don’t). And to be honest, I don’t any advice that is better than that, to just keep going, in addition to washing one’s hair with vinegar, which might not even help, but I like that there is something else I can do—in addition to the chemical shampoo.

November 19, 2018

A Hat Like That

Millinary grief: It’s a thing. And you would think that mere hours after having listened to a radio interview with a woman whose child had died after she forgot him in her car, I would be able to refrain from going into a paroxysm of sadness from the realization that I’d lost my hat, but you’d be wrong then. Because relativity is a bitch, and it was not just any hat, which I know for certain now because I’ve tried three other hats in the 24 hours since, and none of them have measured up…to the specific proportions of my outsize head, I mean. But my Kyi Kyi hat always did, with a fleece liner and room for a ponytail even. After putting on a hat like that, all the others just seem paltry, scanty, barely worthy of the title “hat” at all—more like antimacassars for the head. And what’s the point in that?

There is so much to keep track of. This is what I was thinking on Friday evening when Stuart rushed Iris out of a movie theatre shortly before the credits because she was tired and ragey, and then I was charged with carrying out four winter coats when the film was finally over, along with mittens, neck warmers, and everybody’s hat. And I managed not to drop a single item, which I was particularly proud of, and then Stuart took Iris outside because she was threatening to vomit (she didn’t) and put on her coat there, and then they came back in—she only had one mitten. “No, we had all the mittens,” I was adamant. It was a point of pride, and then Iris started crying, and the theatre staff were promising they’d find it for her after the show was done, but I knew we’d had the pair and went outside to find the errant mitten lying on the sidewalk. Which was better than the time I had to go all the way back to the theatre at Yonge and Dundas Square to locate Harriet’s mittens, which turned out to have actually travelled home alongside her in her pockets, I suppose. But still: why do I spend so much time time enlisting cinema staff to locate missing mittens? What is it about the psychology of mittens anyway that gives them such a propensity for lostness? Such an endemic problem that they even wrote a nursery rhyme about it.

Hats too have a similar propensity, I suppose, as demonstrated in Jon Klassen’s loose-linked trilogy of books about missing hats and our the extent of our longing for these things. And while I would not eat a rabbit, if I could I would go to great lengths to track down my missing hat, which I think I must have left in a taxi on Saturday evening—except taxis apparently don’t have lost-and-founds, so it’s almost as thought my hat has ceased to be altogether. And I miss it desperately, even as I realize I’m lucky enough that I’ll be able to replace it. But not in that exact colour, and further, my thoughtlessness in losing it makes me feel like I was never really worthy of such a hat in the first place, plus I’ve lost my place in our family pom-pom squad. I miss my hat very much.

June 20, 2018

Us.

Kent Monkman, The Scream

‘Politically speaking, tribal nationalism always insists that its own people is surrounded by “a world of enemies,” “one against all,” that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man.’ —Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

“Not they. Us” —Hassan Ahmed

Please forgive me for stealing my epigraphs from Rebecca Woolf’s Instagram feed. But I just want to take a moment to think about books, to think about Zlata’s Diary, a book about a young girl being a young girl during the siege of Sarajevo in 1993, a book that was compared to The Diary of Anne Frank, much to Zlata Filipovic’s consternation, I recall—because Anne Frank died and Filipovic didn’t want to. I remember reading both these books and imagining my way into the lives of their writers, the recognizable landmarks of girlhood, childhood. There was nothing extraordinary about their lives or their worlds, and that was the very point—how perilous was safety, was everything. How easily these people could be me, and didn’t you think this too when you read book like this? When I used to think that books about the Holocaust were even over-taught (my childhood was absolutely saturated with Holocaust novels), although I don’t think that anymore. Not since I learned that not everyone is reading, or at least reading and realizing how easily it could be any of us. Which is what I thought when I read Sharon Bala’s The Boat People, or even An Ocean of Minutes, which is also about being a refugee, about that desperation. I’ve read so many of these stories that imagining my way into the minds of people who risk everything for the chance of a better life is like a reflex—there is no difference between that mother and me. And I’ve seen enough of the world during these last two years politically and even in terms of climate that has undermined all my certainties about who we are and where we’re going that I’m unwilling to be sure that my own safety will never be in peril, that I will never be the kind of person who has to run. We are all that kind of person, or we all could be, and that’s only my selfish reason for condemning the separation of children and their families at US borders. Let alone the humanitarian one. Acknowledging too that I live in a country with a shameful history of separating children from their parents, a history that lingers on into the present—so this “not them. us.” as well. The Thomas King quote: “You see my problem. The history I offered to forget, the past I offered to burn, turns out to be our present. It may well be our future.” Let’s be as loud and brave as girls in storybooks and ensure that’s not the case.

‘In grade school we studied WWII. Learning about the genocide and the concentration camps and the way a whole group of people were dehumanized and carted off like cattle, many of us said, very earnestly: “I’d never let that happen.” Well now we are adults and guess what? It is happening. We are watching it happen.’ —Sharon Bala. (And now read her blog post, “What to do.”)

April 12, 2017

All Just Fine

I read Jennifer Weiner’s essay collection Hungry Heart in the fall, intrigued by it because while I’ve found some of Weiner’s books really interesting, it’s her authorial persona that continues to fascinate me—and also drive me mad. The way she complicates things, which is also to say that she messes them up. She’s can imperfect candidate. Sometimes she’s so smart and right on—and then pushes it all a little too far. There is a line, and she crosses it, or rather, she tap-dances up and down it. Which, theoretically, I should be delighted by, women who occupy spaces in between, who stir things up, who persist. But with Weiner, it’s not always delightful. With Weiner, sometimes it’s me going, “Jennifer, no.”

But I had a revelation recently, about Jennifer Weiner. And that it’s while I’ve been making allowances for a long while for crotchety, dislikable, annoying, rude and awful women in public life—because it is highly likely I am going to grow up into such a thing precisely, and it’s in my interest to nurture spaces for such women in the world—but I wasn’t offering Weiner the same consideration. Displaying the same prejudices Weiner has been railing at for years—against lightness. For women who’ve forsworn the usual female templates, I’d forgive nearly anything, but I keep demanding conformity of Weiner, and being disappointed when she doesn’t comply with it. And then it occurred to me that it wasn’t necessarily that she was being inconsistent, but maybe the problem is that I was.

Weiner’s essays themselves though were the first revelation, fascinating insight into her character, her background, the struggles in her life that have left her starving—for affection, validation, for sustenance. The fact underlying so many of them being the thinnest skin, a furious yearning for everyone to like her. She is so sensitive, and no amount of success can take care of that. “Jennifer, no” is what I was thinking again. You’ve got to grow a rhinoceros hide.

Which is easier said than done, of course. Jennifer Weiner knows that. Although I didn’t, not really, not until a month ago when my novel was published. And while it’s been a month of incredible highs and the kinds of experience many authors only get to dream of, success brings with it complications. Some friends of mine—Heidi Reimer, Suzanne Alyssa Andrew, Carrie Snyder and Maria Meindl—ran a panel last year called “The Shadow Side of Success” (and if you’re a TNQ subscriber you can read it here and if you’re not, see Heidi’s post) about those complications and I was grateful for it as my pub date arrived, figured it would help in preparing me for the spectrum of experiences. And it did, but it also didn’t. The same way, I suppose, you never know the ways in which you’re going to fall to pieces when you have a baby. I mean, you know there will be dysfunction, but how will it manifest, is the question. And I bet it’s different every time.

I’ve been having a tough time these last few weeks, which is ridiculous because I’ve also been having a glorious time. It’s been a joy to have my novel received by the world, by readers who get it, by great reviews even. But I’ve also had those peak moments of joy followed by moments of the most melodramatic despair imaginable. Highs can be rough, of course, because everything after seems like a come-down. And I’ve found myself feeling profoundly sensitive, vulnerable. The number of perfectly stupid things that have managed to hurt my feelings these last few weeks are too high to count. And suddenly I have a new level of sympathy for Jennifer Weiner. I can’t imagine how terrible it must be to be a writer when you’re as predisposed to being sensitive as she surely is. Publishing a book, as I said to someone recently, is a bit like turning yourself into a walking talking gaping wound. It’s not pretty.

Which was why I was heartened by Shawna Lemay’s Transactions With Beauty post this morning, “A Proper Cup of Tea”. Balance is the thing I’ve been struggling with, not that there isn’t goodness, but how do you put it together with all the rest? Make a whole? Once again, I’ve thinking about in-betweenness, but not necessarily tap dancing. I want to be thinking about grace.

And Lemay writes, “So there you are, walking with your sorrow and your joy, teacup balanced in hand, on the path that has heart, walking impeccably. No one said it would be easy. But the key is the wholeheartedness. The key is that you will constantly need to right yourself.”

She writes, “The key is that this is all just fine.”

January 30, 2017

Together We Stand Tall

I know it’s not a good news day, but I’m feeling positive. Maybe it’s because there was sunshine, or how it felt like something that I wrote letters to my MP and Prime Minister and two other cabinet ministers today imploring them to take a stand against #UnpopularDonald’s Muslim Ban and in general just to do better in order to give Canadians a government we can believe it. It’s because there were marches all over the world today in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters, and my husband emailed me today with a note that said, “Next protest.” And we’re going. It’s because the government’s response to the shooting at a mosque in Quebec City last night was to call it what it was: a terrorist attack. It’s because of this image, and because of the thousands of Americans who’ve been protesting all weekend. It’s because the people are a force, perhaps in a way I never dared to dream of.

I remember listening the radio in September 2015 and hearing the dreadful news of refugees out of Syria. This was when our government was shrugging about the whole thing because what can you do, and then the body of a child washed up on a beach, and someone was recounting the incredible way Canadians stepped up for refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s, and I remember feeling so hopeless. Because things like this just don’t happen anymore…except they do. And they did. And now, 16 months and a new government later, thousands of Syrian families have settled in Canada, their settlement supported by people who are my friends and neighbours. My mom volunteers at her city’s New Canadians Centre, my dad’s partner tutors Syrian women in English. Syrian families were brought to small towns and big cities across this country. These are Canadians I know, and so many I don’t, and they’ve changed lives and the world, and they give me hope that anything is possible.

What oppressive governments do is try to keep their people from seeing other possibilities outside of the present, try to keep them in the dark about the people’s own power—but my feeling is that #UnpopularDonald and his band of merry fuckwits are not doing a terrific job on this front. I think he’s underestimated Americans, and how closely people around the world are actually connected with each other. It’s not going to be soon and it’s not going to be easy, but he’s not going to win, and America’s going to come out into the light.

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