October 2, 2016
I don’t care who Elena Ferrante is. Not one iota. Having read her books, I feel as though she’s given us everything a person might be required to—and more. Which is why I retweeted such a sentiment this morning, only to have a complete stranger respond to the conversation with a (man)admonishment: “lots of things to get angry about this morning and you settled on this…” A complete stranger whose timeline is non-stop Donald Trump. Donald Trump: who I don’t care about even more than I don’t care about Elena Ferrante.
I don’t care about Donald Trump. I don’t care about his stupid hair, or his weak-chinned son, or his parade of wives. I don’t even care about his taxes. There is nothing at all that I could learn about Donald Trump that will confirm anything about him that I don’t know already. I don’t care about his tweets. I don’t care about his Russian ties. I don’t care about his reality TV and his insecurities and his mystique or his appeal. I don’t care about his fucking stupid ball cap. When I never have to see his hideous smirk again, it won’t be a moment too soon.
I don’t care about Donald Trump, and only partly because I don’t live in America and my interest or lack of in its politics has no bearing upon what happens there. I don’t care about Donald Trump, because the same people who pontificate via their Facebook platforms about the shallowness of celebrity culture and the vapidness of teenage girls fixated on selfies are glued to his every move. I don’t care about the debates, which will teach viewers nothing remotely interesting or insightful. I don’t care about Donald Trump, because I’d rather read a novel by Elena Ferrante and also for the same reason I’d rather not read a novel Philip Roth or Martin Amis, or anyone who is determined that the purpose of literature is to “be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
I am so fed up with maleness, Donald Trump its chief emblem. I am so fed up with nothing being as important as war, except sports, which is a microcosm of the same. I am sick of war rooms and chicanery, and heartless people who proclaim themselves heroic for “making tough decisions.” I am sick of credit being given to contemporary neanderthals for “evolving”—the rest of us did that millennia ago. I am so tired of the sexism, blatant and systemic. For the absolutely shit that women have to go through every day, whether they’re running for office or working in an office. I am tired of valid, heroic protests (a man kneeling during a national anthem, just say) being more controversial than a police officer shooting an innocent person. I am tired of this perception that a life matters more if a person who wore a uniform lived it. The body of a brilliant artist pulled out of a river, and the police officer who racistsplains it all on Facebook. I am tired of Trump and all the other blowhards in pursuit of power (Canadian Conservatives, you people who have no shame and no lows you won’t go to, that would be you) and making all the racist assholes feel pretty comfortable with their points of view in 2016, I am so absolutely tired of the people who are totally loving this train wreck of a presidential election, and feeling morally superior for their attention to it—this is politics, current events, the pursuit of “social justice.” All of you are complicit in making the world a more terrible place.
Naturally the obvious question would be that if I truly did not care about Donald Trump, why indeed have I just written an entire post about not caring about him. A question to which I reply, fervently, as much I don’t care about Donald Trump, I care so very, very much about not caring about him.
So very much that if you need me, I will be reading a giant novel.
Written by a woman.
August 25, 2016
If my copy of Lindy West’s Shrill hadn’t been from the library, among the countless parts I would have underlined would have included the part where she states that she’s never actually hated her body, or felt loathing toward it, but instead was just all too aware that the rest of the world thought that it didn’t conform to its standard. Which has always been my experience, for the most part (which, full disclosure, is also fairly easy for me to say, because my body has rarely deviated very radically from the standard, and let me tell you, there were some years when my body was pretty smoking’ hot [1997 and 2007 in particular were good years; maybe it’s a decennial thing, in which I’m holding out big hopes for the forthcoming annum]).
Truth: I’m still working on losing the baby weight from my second pregnancy—if by “working on losing the baby weight” you mean “eating a lot of croissants and not giving a fuck about the baby weight.”
I’ve always aspired to be quite at home in my body. When I was 17 and wrote for a teen section in our community paper, I plagiarized an article I’d read in a teen magazine about the contentment of a girl who’s eating a McDonalds hot fudge sundae—I wanted to feel that good about myself. That I had to steal the idea though is perfectly telling.
In 2001, I made my friends come with me to the nude beach at Hanlon’s Point when I stripped down to nothing and walked across a beach full of people on my way for a swim, which was truly a life-changing and empowering experience.
In 2012, I took a photograph of myself in a bathing suit and put it on the internet, which I thought was a big deal at the time (and I hadn’t even gained the baby weight!).
Last week I did the same thing again, but by now this didn’t feel remarkable. (What I wrote beside the image did though. “So glad to live in this body,” I captioned the photo, which is, in all honestly, one of the most subversive, badass things a woman can say, and what does that say about us?). And the single biggest thing that I can credit for finally attaining the self-acceptance I’ve been chasing for two decades is this one thing, or two?
I have daughters.
When I became a mother, I made several promises to myself, many of which I eventually broke (including, I will always speak kind and respectfully to my children; I will never bitch at them for reading too much [I know!—but seriously, put the book down, Harriet]; and I will never suddenly exclaim in the middle of an afternoon, “Oh my god, oh my god, all of you, now, just GO AWAY!”). But one promise I have forever stayed true to is that my children will never hear me say a negative word about my appearance. Not one. Because I think that as much as some women may dislike their appearances, all the more omnipresent is the fact that we’re kind of taught that we have to. It’s how to be a woman. Permitting yourself four almonds for a snack, and worrying about “muffin tops” and back fat. So much of it is a learned behaviour, if even by osmosis, and of course it is, because it’s everywhere.
But not in our house. There came a point when I realized our eldest was listening to every word we said and then I stopped whining, “I feel fat” and “I’m ugly!” to my husband whenever I was feeling blah (and let me tell you, other than me, there is no one involved in my personal transformation who has benefitted more than my husband, who apparently doesn’t miss my insecure neediness. Who knew?). I started delivering non-sequiturs at dinner like, “Man, I sure like my freckles,” and “I think my hair looks really pretty today” (about as naturally, at first, as I might bring up topical ideas like online porn or bullying, the kinds of talks you gotta have).
The think about fake it ’til you make it though, is that it’s kind of true. In my experience, there are only so many times you can say, “I sure love how strong my arms are” or “I really like the way I look in this dress” before you start…meaning it. Before you start actually looking for things about you to like and love, because of course it’s good for your daughters, but the thing about it that you never expected is that it’s also good for you.
And so this is why I love Roz MacLean’s The Body Book, a simple little paperback with enormous ramifications. Because a mother is going to pick up this book for her child, and they’re both going to enjoy the story’s celebration of bodies of all kinds, shapes, sizes, and abilities: “Some bodies are round./ Some bodies are straight./ Some bodies are wavy./ All bodies are GREAT!!!” She writes about bodies that swim and play, and dance all day, and bodies that love hugs, and bodies that need space, and rocking bodies and rolling bodies, and wibbly bodies, and wobbly bodies too.
All well and good, illustrated with simple cheerful images of blobby bodies in a rainbow of colours all doing what bodies do.
The very best thing about The Body Book though, the most excellent and profound, is that every time that mother reads the book, she’s going to have to deliver the line, “I love my body. Do you love yours too?” A line that, as I’ve stated, is actually one of the bravest, most amazing things that a woman can say.
And I love that once that mother has said it enough, there is a chance she might actually mean it.
August 17, 2016
In her essay, “When Life Gives Your Lemons,” Lindy West notes that she’d rarely think about her abortion anymore if she wasn’t driven to speak out against “zealous high school youth groupers and repulsive, birth-obsessed pastors” who win ownership of the abortion conversation by default—possibly because most other people acknowledge that abortion (and pregnancy and life in general) is messy, nuanced, intensely personal and not very well or cleverly served when batted around like a rhetorical badminton birdie. I identified with a lot of West’s essay, but not this one bit. Because the truth is that I think about my abortion all the time. It’s a matter of geography, and I can’t even help it, Abortion Baskin Robbins being case in point.
It’s a juxtaposition that amuses me, abortion with an ice cream shop. Some might be uncomfortable with the idea, but it’s the word “abortion” spoken aloud that usually troubles people, not necessarily the ice cream. Some might thing I’m being flippant, and the truth is that I actually am, and I’m still a bit high on the liberation I feel at finally being able to say that word, abortion, over and over. Even in an ice cream shop. (Can you imagine how it feels to have the point on which your adult life has hinged be an event that is meant to be literally unspeakable? Can you imagine how empowered you feel when it isn’t anymore?)
But it’s not all flippancy and irreverence—there is meaning there. This spring and summer, Abortion Baskin Robbins is where we’ve turned up as a family after my children’s Thursday night soccer games in a school playground a few blocks north. The fact is that while the last fourteen years taken me to amazing places, geographically speaking I haven’t left the neighbourhood. The sidewalks I travel in my daily life are the same ones I took when I was people I don’t even remember now, including a girl who was once so sad and relieved to obtain an abortion during the summer of 2002. So that my children’s post-soccer ice cream joint is the same place I went to with my friend immediately after my abortion all those years ago. My children order ice cream cones that turn their lips blue, and I can’t help think about the connections between my abortion and my life as a mother, which are everything. The foundations I’ve built my life upon. (Is it any wonder that I’m grateful for the freedom to design my own fate?)
It was a long time ago, distinctly not fun, and I was pretty drugged, and so it’s so surprise that I don’t remember a lot of it well. I’ve probably got some of the details wrong, and lost most of them altogether, and I cannot actually recall what it was to be the first-person protagonist of any of these events, but there are fragments to rise to the surface. The trip for ice cream for one, the advent of Abortion Baskin Robbins (although it wouldn’t be properly named for more than a decade—but what it means to be able to name these things, these pivotal landmarks in our lives). I don’t remember what I bought there, if it was a cone or a sundae or an ice cream cake. If it offered any satiation, or if it helped me feel better. I remember that my friend was with me, the friend who must have taken a day off work and travelled with me on the subway and the bus. (What an incredibly thing to do for someone—I am sure I was not sufficiently appreciative. How could I have been?) And then we went back to her house and I think we had a stack of movies, and I recall that I’d required they all be empowering feminist films. I wanted battle armour. A bunch of other friends came over and we ate indulgent snacks and watched the movies—I think that one was The Legend of Billie Jean. I was completely, unequivocally supported, and even though in my experience of accidental pregnancy I’d felt isolated and impossibly alone, after the termination I had a circle around me. It is possible that it never even occurred to me that I wouldn’t.
(“Abortion is women’s work, I guess,” writes Heidi Julavits in The Folded Clock.)
All this is on my mind because I’m reading a collection of writing about abortion, and realizing that my experience of support was not something to be taken for granted. That it makes all the difference in the world for a woman coming out the other side pretty unscathed, and not having to carry around a terrible secret shame for the rest of her days. It’s the reason why I’m able to link a medical procedure to ice cream instead of trauma. It’s why I’m able to say the word out loud now. It’s the reason I was able to get on with my life and steer it in a directly of goodness and fulfillment. I cannot even fathom what it would have been to have to go through all that alone, or ashamed. I don’t want to begin to speculate on what would have happened to me.
Update: 20 minutes after posting this, I ran into anti-abortion protestors on the street. I had five minutes to pick up my kid at daycamp, but had to stop. Again, I cannot imagine what it would be like to endure such unnecessary nonsense, to have to defend my life choices to a twenty-something twit who wouldn’t know an ovary if it punched him in the face, if I didn’t have an Abortion Baskin Robbins in my history. These people have no idea what they’re messing with. (Why do you magnify your images so much, I ask him. Because we want people to see them, he said. Doesn’t it mean something quite significant, I told him, that otherwise you’re grossly inflating the situation [quite literally] they can’t?)
July 20, 2016
“Everything happened in those five years after my abortion. I became myself. Not by chance, or because an abortion is some kind of mysterious, empowering feminist bloode-magick rite of passage (as many, many—too many for a movement ostensibly comprising grown-ups—anti-choices have accused me of being), but simply because it was time. A whole bunch of changes—set into motion years, even decades, back—all came together at once, like the tumblers in a lock clicking into place: my body, my work, my voice, my confidence, my power, my determination to demand a life as potent, vibrant, public, and complex as any man’s. My abortion wasn’t intrinsically significant, but it was my first big grown-up decision—the first time I asserted unequivocally, “I know the life that I want and this isn’t it”; the moment I stopped being a passenger in my own body and grabbed the rudder.” —Lindy West, Shrill (which I am loving. Particularly the part at the end of this essay, “When Life Gives You Lemons”, when she writes about how if it weren’t for “zealous high school youth groupers and repulsive, birth-obsessed pastors” she would never think of her abortion at all.)
July 7, 2016
Today UofT Magazine tweeted about scientists who inspire us, which reminded me to finally write this post which has been on my mind for awhile. About a month ago, my daughters got Stargazer Lottie (who was inspired by a space-obsessed six-year-old girl AND has been “the first doll in space”), which came with a “Notable Women in Astronomy” poster. But none of the notable women were Canadian, and it occurred to me that I knew of a very notable Canadian woman in astronomy, who was Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg. Whose work I only knew, granted, because she’d had a page in my Grade 8 science textbook and my friend and I used to make fun of her name. Which is ridiculously stupid, but the point is that I never forgot her name, and googled her years later and discovered her story was fascinating. (Do textbook writers know the indirect routes that knowledge might take, I wonder? They would probably be surprised.)
Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg received her doctorate degree in astronomy in 1931, which is remarkable in itself. Her husband was also an astronomer and the two of them would work together until his death in 1951. Although Hogg’s work was not as valued as she was somebody’s wife, and she was often expected to do it without pay. Her first child was born in 1932 and Hogg kept the baby at work beside her in a basket while she studied star clusters at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, BC. , where her husband was employed as a research assistant. Later that year she received a grant which was exactly enough to pay for a babysitter, and I am fascinated by the idea of how liberating that must have been—and also what it must be to be consumed by cosmic things and have a baby in a basket at once. How does a person reconcile such a vast difference of scale?
Her story would never cease to be cool. After her husband’s death, she took over many of his classes at the University of Toronto, where the family had moved in the mid-1930s. She also assumed ownership of his astronomy column for the Toronto Star, which she wrote for decades (and which was collected into a bestselling book called The Stars Are for Everyone).
There is no full biography of Dr. Hogg. Editions of a science biography for children was published by Michael Webb in the 1980s and 1990s, and while it’s pretty informative, I’m hungry for so much more depth. And so it seems I am going to have to do some of my own digging. Helen Sawyer Hogg’s archives are at the Thomas Fisher Library at UofT, and I think I’m going to have to make some plans to start going through them. In search of what, I am not sure. A creative project? A biographical article? But there is something here, I am sure of it. I look forward to reporting back on just what I might happen to find.
April 5, 2016
On Friday I was listening to CBC Rewind, and heard then-Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard on the radio in 1979 telling journalist Barbara Frum to shut up and that females didn’t belong on the radio. And hearing that helped me articulate why I had been taking the heroic eulogizing of disgraced Toronto mayor Rob Ford so personally, why I hadn’t been able to respectfully stay silent while Ford was memorialized (even if he was memorialized with such statements as, “He was a profoundly human guy.” Indeed).
Now, I knew about Harold Ballard. From childhood, I have known he was an asshole, and though I didn’t know why he was thought to be so, and I suppose any reason anybody would have told me about wouldn’t have been concerned with his views toward women. Another important point is that I’ve been extremely fortunate in my life to be surrounded by men (my dad, my friends, my husband) who make the idea that some men think women are literally garbage (or objects to be knocked over, or raped, or joked about raping, or silenced—I could go on for paragraphs about the ways Ford was disrespectful and hateful towards women) completely baffling and foreign to me. But these men exist, and they end up in positions of power, and because it’s not 1979 anymore it’s not all right to go on the radio and say as much, but there are certain men who aren’t containable and so everybody knows.
And everybody lets it go too. It’s harmless. He’s just a character.
I was dismayed when Toronto’s current mayor came into power and his first motion was to thank Ford for his service. Really? Ford was ill, but regardless, here was an opportunity for a new beginning, a chance to do better than an ineffectual, decisive council that fuelled resentment and anger across the city. A chance, perhaps, to say nothing, and in that silence to tell this city, “We are better than that. We will no longer stand for this. This is not who we are.” To honour the women of this city, the people of colour and gay community, all of whom were derogated by Ford throughout his term in council. That was when saying nothing would have been a respectful gesture.
But not now. Not when Ford was able to milk his whiny victim narrative right into the grave and beyond, and everybody played along with him. History whitewashed: that this was a man who loved his city, the best mayor Toronto ever had, a man of the people. None of it remotely the truth, and the truth matters. And if “putting politics aside” means overlooking abusive, offensive comments about women uttered by people in power, I really don’t think I’m capable of doing it. Basically my politics are that women are people worthy of respect, an idea so elementary, basic and foundational that I can’t imagine putting it aside ever.
I hope that in 40 years the story of Rob Ford ends up on an episode of CBC Rewind, and a young woman listening won’t be able to believe that there was ever such a person like that, instead of seeing such an anachronism reflected in the world all around her.
March 15, 2016
My friends at Plenty are talking about friendship throughout March, and I was pleased to contribute an essay I wrote about my nearly 25-year-old relationship with my best friends, Britt and Jennie (pictured above in Grade 10 French class, I think). I wrote about how with friendships that old, you eventually have a million things to apologize for, and also about how the Spice Girls taught us how a person should be, how our boyfriends were quite disposable, and how (in a numerical feat as remarkable as “2 Become 1”) 3 becomes 12.
February 8, 2016
I’ve never read anything by Constance Beresford-Howe. Why not? Because her books were old, their covers not very enticing. That her focus was on older women also would not have meant anything to me for a very long time, would have been a drawback, actually (I’d had been through enough with The Stone Angel; I still don’t really love that book) though I recall that my mom had a copy of The Book of Eve. I never read her because her books were never assigned to me for a class, which the reason that I read many things. I suspect I didn’t read her books for the same reason that women proclaimed our universe “post-feminist” in the late 1990s. But her name was familiar when I encountered it in The Globe obits a couple of weeks ago. (You see, I am now at the point in my life at which older women have become interesting; I pore over the death notices every Saturday.) A name with which I am that familiar should perhaps have the death of its bearer meet with more press than just an obit: “Educator, Author, Lover of Literature.” The Globe’s Marsha Lederman had tweeted about her death, as well as had a few others who’d had her as a teacher at Ryerson. And I was glad when I learned that a longer obituary for Beresford-Howe was in the works. Because, see, I’d recently read the essay, “The Amazing Disappearing Women Writer”, and realized that lack of attention to Constance Beresford-Howe, in later life and in death, was not a literary anomaly.
In her essay, Jeannine Hall Gailey asks the question: “So, how can the mid-life woman writer attempt not to disappear right before the eyes of prominent male writers, king-makers, editors, judges and juries of prizes and grants? How do we stay seen and heard when perhaps our youthful charms may be diminishing but our art may be improving?”
It was a question I came at as a reader, though I am a writer too with greying hair and a body that is slowly turning into a splendid pudding. But it was as a reader I considered it, how much we are missing. And it affirmed why I do what I do here and elsewhere, championing books from the platform I’ve made, making noise and shouting my darnedest to ensure that women writers don’t just disappear. And that I have to backtrack too, take note of all those books and readers who weren’t bright and shiny enough when I first encountered them, give them another chance.
I was so happy to read Judy Stoffman’s profile of Constance Beresford-Howe in the Globe this weekend, and to have it affirmed that she’s probably a writer I will deeply appreciate, with Barbara Pym comparisons as the cherry on the sundae. I went out on Saturday afternoon and picked up a second-hand copy of The Book of Eve, and look forward to tracking down her other books in time, and to doing a lot of shouting about them.
January 5, 2016
We discovered Lottie Dolls over a year ago, and their premise intrigued me. A proper alternative to Barbie, designed to empower girls and their play. I wrote about them here (and check out the pictures! Iris was still a baby! Harriet was so little). It could have been a one-time thing, but I return to Lotties because now it’s my girls who are crazy about them. They’re the one toy, along with Legos, that gets returned to again and again, and they play with them together, which I love so much. We have five or six of them, and received more for Christmas, along with two new Lottie outfits, including the Superhero Lottie suit shown above, which has proven very popular—this is the one Lottie who never gets her clothes changed. When Harriet and Iris received Christmas money from their grandfather last week, they knew what they wanted to buy with it—more Lotties. And so we’re currently awaiting Rockabilly Lottie and Spring Celebration Ballet Lottie in the mail, expected delivery scheduled for tomorrow. Everybody is very excited.
Though we’ve also got our eye on Stargazer Lottie, who was sold out from Indigo.ca when we made our order last week. (Darn!). Like all the Lottie dolls, she’s designed around what she can do and be rather than how she looks (although admittedly, once they’re indoctrinated into Harriet’s play, the Lottie dolls also take on peculiar new identities…) I was so interested to read this post about how Stargazer Lottie was designed in consultation with an astronomer, and even more thrilled to learn that a Stargazer Lottie doll was currently in space with British astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station.
And most remarkable? That none of this would have happened at all without a six-year-old girl from Comox, British Columbia, who helped dream up the Stargazer Lottie doll. I showed the video below to Harriet who had her mind blown, and then went to put on her own dress with a space print and proceeded to have her head in the stars for the rest of the day, totally inspired.
December 5, 2015
The Planned Parenthood shootings in the US last week have brought the pro-life zealots back out of the online woodwork, which means that men have been explaining pregnancy and abortion to me on Twitter again. (At a fraction of the rate before, but still.) I’m still honestly just baffled about how somebody without a uterus could feel entitled enough to tell me anything at all on these topics; it would be like me purporting to teach the Canadian women’s hockey team how to win an Olympic gold. How does a person get to be that sure of himself? To be honest, I’m not sure I’d ever want to be. (From my essay, “Doubleness Clarifies”: “But I’d like such a person to shake their convictions for just a moment or two.”)
These are men who have definitive opinions on the question of when life begins. (And about sluts. And morality. And the right to have extensive collections of weaponry, oddly.) The question of when life begins, however, is one whose undefinitiveness I’m so comfortable with. And I would be, as a woman who has made a choice to end a pregnancy, and who so desperately valued the pregnancies I wanted.
It’s simple: when does a fetus become a baby?
When a woman decides it does.
Women make and unmake our children, not just in the biological sense, but in the ontological sense, too. The fetus is a fetus, and the child a child – only the woman knows. If we deny her the power to define her own pregnancy, we deny the power inherent in womanhood.
From my essay, “Doubleness Clarifies”:
With my second pregnancy, from the moment of my positive pregnancy test, everything was different. The fetus growing inside me was never anything but a baby. We’d been quietly dreaming of her for years, imagining the colour of her eyes, her hair, trying out a parade of hypothetical names. Five weeks into my pregnancy, I bought her a book and we started reading to her even though she hadn’t yet developed ears.
But of course, it’s not really simple. Sometimes I think you have to be a man who hasn’t lived much to ever imagine that anything is. What I find so fascinating and worthwhile about thinking about miscarriage and abortion together is not just the intersections between the two experiences (and that “a single thing can have two realities” after all) but that so many women I know have gone through both. Abortion and miscarriage are not experiences in opposition, but together are threads in the fabric of so many women’s lives, and, however uncomfortably, we learn to decipher, to determine even, the pattern of these threads, how and what it all means.
Women continue to be in control of the narrative, is what I’m saying, making and unmaking, and it’s this control—without which one’s bodily autonomy is impossible; Kimball’s “power inherent in womanhood” —that makes so many people so impossibly angry.