January 19, 2017
Three years ago, I wrote about the importance of using books as literal building blocks, but it’s true that our metaphoric bookish building blocks are always what’s most fundamental. I suspect that somewhere deeply twined into my DNA is the book The 1980s: Macleans Chronicles the Decade, published in 1989 by Key Porter Books. It is possible that no one, apart from the book’s editors, have read this book as avidly as I did, for years and years, and at point in my life too when my brain was still forming so that its images are now seared upon my consciousness—in particularly, unfortunately, a photo of Lech Walesa fishing in his tiny underpants. It would be years before I learned why Lech Walesa mattered, and even once I did, I’ve never been able to disassociate him from his weird blue plaid briefs.
1991, of course, was the end of history, according to Francis Fukuyama, and this is the lens through which I viewed this book, perused its pictures, fascinated. History was done. In my recollection, I was literally in my grade seven history class when the Soviet Union was dissolved—though I am not sure how this is possible because the coup was in August and the union was finished on Christmas, and at neither of these moments was I at school, but still. It’s the idea of a thing. Suddenly all of history was there in the past, and I remember wondering what The 1990s: Macleans Chronicles THAT Decade would look like. But my family never got that book. If history is finished, who needs a chronicle after all?
A copy of this book lives on my shelf, and I don’t leaf through with the same regularity I did as a child, but I did the other week, after two months of feeling so downtrodden, uncannily not at home within the world in which I find myself. I’d read somewhere about the psychology of nostalgia, and how for all of us the moment of greatness in the past lies precisely when we were on the cusp of everything, with so much hope. Remember the ’80s, I was thinking, a decade so ripe with possibility, Lech Walesa’s underpants aside. But then as I started flipping the pages, seeing those iconic, devastating images—the Challenger explosion, famine stricken children in Ethiopia, Bloody Sunday in Beijing, the body of a child buried in ash after the gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India; another dead child, lying with its mother, the casualty of poison gas attacks in the Iran-Iraq War; terrorist hijackings, albeit the retro kind when in the end the bad guys let the hostages go. But still. There’s an entire chapter entitled “Assassinations.” The ’80s were really terrible.
I want to hug the woman in the above photo who is protesting for the Equal Right Amendment to the US Constitution. “My foremother,” I want to say to her, “you don’t even fucking know.” Except she probably does, hence the look on her face. To think that 30 years after Henry Morgentaler, on the facing page, won his legal battle to strike down Canada’s abortion law, access to abortion would still seem so precarious (and only theoretical to Canadian women who live in so many places). #FuckThatShit has been my go-to hashtag these last few months as I grapple with “the absurdities that have been foisted on me and my neighbours,” to paraphrase Jane Jacobs. As Macleans chronicles the decade, things right now seem not much different from what they ever were.
None of this is a new story, in what I mean. Donald Trump and his ilk have always skulked the earth, knuckles dragging on the ground. Which is incredibly annoying and demoralizing, but also kind of reassuring too, that people have stood up against dark forces before and we can take courage from them. That goodness prevails, that things can get better.
The fight is never won, but maybe the winning is not the point, and instead the fight is.
January 17, 2017
The first definition of “reconcile” in the Merriam Webster is ” to restore to friendship or harmony <reconciled the factions>” but it’s the second definition that is more meaningful to me: “to make consistent or congruous <reconcile an ideal with reality>.” This definition certainly resonating in general, because in the past two months my ideals and reality have certainly been at odds, and reconciling that has been a process. The world is more complicated than I ever knew, which makes “restoring to friendship and harmony” seem like a pipe-dream, except: restoring, how? Because when was there ever friendship and harmony? It all sounds a bit like the notion of making America great again—elusive and facile. The first definition is a misnomer. Reconciliation is a process, and in order to be properly it is a process that will never end.
I’ve been thinking a lot about reconciliation lately, as I’ve been reading I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up. A friend of mine has also recommended Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. I’m interested in and troubled by the way that people seem unable to constructively disagree with each other. (Another book along these lines that I’ve appreciated is Creative Condition: Replacing Critical Thinking With Creativity, by Patrick Finn.) I take some solace in the fact that people in disagreement, while inconvenient, is actually much healthier than the alternative, and that the potential for learning is infinite. A community in which everybody though the very same thing, and nobody challenged anyone or asked any questions, would be the very worst thing I could imagine. Worse even than the state we’re in now.
Remember my mantra for 2017, “Listen. Be Better.” I’m trying. It’s a challenge, and such an opportunity. Once upon a time, when I was young and things were simpler, I fervently underlined the following bit from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play I loved: “This is the best time possible to be alive. When everything you know is wrong.” Such a prospect is more terrifying than I ever thought it would be, now that we’re kind of here and, you know, with the collapse of the world order, but still, there is something extraordinary about it too. I’m thinking about reconciliations big and small, in terms of domestic politics and literary criticism, even. Literary criticism, especially, because I wonder if this is a constructive metaphor with which to understand the process that has to happen in order for anything to happen.
Literary criticism, the best kind, is a conversation. A back-and-forth, a broadening, the prying of a text wide open. The best kind of literary criticism isn’t just about the text itself, but it’s about everything, and it invites big questions and many different answers. It provokes debate and causes the reader to change her mind—about the text, about the world. It’s not about whether a text is necessarily good or bad, but about the things it makes us think about, the places it takes its readers beyond itself. Literary criticism is a process, a collaborative ongoing pursuit which requires generosity, openness, consideration and respect on the part of the players involved. If no one’s listening, nothing happens, but if everyone is willing, anything can.
I was thinking about all this as I read Debbie Reese’s review of the award-winning picture book, Missing Nimama, which I reviewed in 2015—and you can read my review here. I am a huge admirer of Debbie Reese’s scholarship and advocacy about representations of Indigenous people in children’s books—she’s taught me a lot and she challenges my understanding in uncomfortable and constructive ways. She’s not afraid to go up against really popular authors—see her review of Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts. I don’t always agree with her assessments of certain books, mostly because there are so many lenses through which readers approach a book, and hers is one, but I’ve never found her to be wrong.
While I still appreciate Missing Nimama and celebrate its success, Reese’s review shows me my own weaknesses in approaching it as a writer and a critic. Reese writes: “To me, however, Missing Nimama …. strike[s] me as something Canadians can wrap their arms around, to feel like they’re facing and acknowledging history, to feel like they’re reconciling with that history.” She continues, ” To many, this review…will feel harsh. Most people are likely to disagree with me. That’s par for the course, but I hope that other writers and editors and reviewers and readers and sponsors of writing contests will pause as they think about projects that involve ongoing violence upon Native women.”
And this is just the point. The pause, the reflection. Disagreeing is even okay, but it’s failing to consider that is inexcusable. The point is the conversation, the questions that are asked, which are far more important than the answers. And how we take these questions with us, this broadened perspective, with the books we read and the books we write. The point is to listen, and then be better.
UPDATE From Carleigh Baker’s review of Katherena Vermette’s The Break:“A generous storyteller, Vermette does not take it for granted that all readers will inherently understand how damaged the relationship between indigenous people and Canadian society has become. As readers, we can honour this generosity by not allowing ourselves to be lulled into a satisfying sense of camaraderie, having suffered alongside fictional characters. We can honour it by not repeating over and over how strong the women in this book are. It is true, they are strong. But let us not nod our heads in grim recognition of this strength, as if acknowledgement equals solidarity [emphasis mine]. Let us not pull our lips into thin lines and furrow our brows and express amazement at their resilience, as if its origin is a mystery. This makes it too easy to dismiss.”
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?)
June 6, 2016
I was crossing the street in April when I heard somebody calling my name. I turned around to see a familiar face, a friendly one, but I couldn’t quite place it. My first instinct was that this was my best friend from grade 7, but as we spoke I realized it wasn’t her after all. This woman had a different job, a different narrative, it emerged. But I’d greeted her with such familiarity, that she had no idea I was confused. We kept on talking, and then finally I realized that it was my friend’s younger sister, who I hadn’t seen or spoken to in about twenty years, though our parents in our hometown kept tabs on our whereabouts. I knew a bit about what she’d been up to and we reconnected for a few minutes, and she informed me that her sister, my friend, was about to have her first baby, had gotten married, had found herself in a pretty nice place in her life.
So naturally I went home and googled my friend and her husband’s name, and I found them on Instagram. And since then it has been really nice to get a glimpse into her life and to provide her a glimpse into mine, because while we drifted apart when we went to different high schools, throughout grades seven and eight, she meant a whole lot to me. Our friendship was hugely formative. We were two weird and awkward adolescent girls, but we were weird and awkward in such complementary ways—both of us had our eyes on bigger prizes in life, though we didn’t know what they were yet. Both of us were utterly unimpressed with popular culture at the time (and for good reason—this was 1991) and obsessed with nostalgia. We used to listen to “American Pie” over and over again, and feel like something essential was forever lost to us. I was crazy about the Beatles and wanted to be a hippie, someone bohemian, and my friend had a bit of that bent herself—her parents weren’t into materialism, and I recall that she didn’t have cable or perhaps a TV, which was as radical as it got in the circles I travelled. What I don’t think we ever articulated but were forever circling around was longing, for the kinds of lives we’d heard about in songs our parents sang. I didn’t want to live a conventional life, but I was so conventional, I didn’t even know how to go about articulating that.
And I can’t help but think how useful the internet would have been to a couple of funny girls like us. Yes, the internet and adolescent girls is a disaster, but not entirely. I recall how lonely it was to be a weirdo in 1991, to love old music and want to wear flowers in our hair. Yes, grunge was starting to happen, but we were sheltered, and we were never wild enough to do teenage rebellion proper. We weren’t grungy. There wasn’t any kind of culture out there that we knew about, that we could tap into, so we made our own instead, in the songs whose lyrics we memorized and analyzed, and the objects we revered, and all the things we talked about, the questions we tried to answer in circles. I recall we kept a notebook in which we wrote each other back and forth, and I remember lists like, “Things I want to be,” “Things I want to do.” I remember the goodness of a friend like that who made those things seem possible.
I sent my friend a message on Instagram this morning. I wrote to her, “Do you remember that 23 years ago today we went to see Paul McCartney play at Exhibition Stadium?” My dad took us. It was magical. I think the weather was terrible all day long, and then it wasn’t just in time, and then a guy offered us a free rickshaw ride. And then there was an actual Beatle on the stage, Paul McCartney promoting his album, “Off the Ground.” I have never felt so small in my life as I felt in that crowd, one of so many fans in the stadium, and Paul McCartney couldn’t see me—it was first time that it had occurred to me that he had no idea who I was. But I could see him, and it felt like I was engaging in something real for the first time in my life, a religious experience of a sort. I was part of something bigger than myself, and gave me an inkling that there could be a place in the world for a girl like me after all.
I didn’t get a reply from my friend. Not long after, a photo popped up on her husband’s instagram feed—their baby had arrived. On June 6, I marvelled to myself. How auspicious. It probably hasn’t occurred to her, but it means something to me, and how wonderful anyway, to paraphrase Joan Didion, to check back in once in a while with the people we used to be.
January 12, 2016
Whenever I start to worry too much about shaping my child’s cultural consciousness, I remind myself that at the age of ten I read The Babysitters Club series exclusively and that I once cried at receiving Swallows and Amazons for my birthday instead of Mallory and the Trouble With Twins. (Remembering this is why I try to read classic children’s books with my daughter, rather than expecting her to gravitate to them on her own.) I used to tick off BSC books in my Scholastic Book Order like they were going out of style, and refused to believe that they ever would go out of style. I remember a conversation with my mom about how it was a shame the books weren’t in hardcover because they fell apart in paperback and how was I ever going to pass them onto my own children the same way my mom had given me her Trixie Beldens and Cherry Ames. (I think had different ideas about hoarding then.) I recall my mom was skeptical about the books’ everlastingness.
It’s odd to realize that I was kind of right, however. The first book in Ann M. Martin’s iconic series (iconic, that is, if you were a certain kind of age in a certain type of place), Kristy’s Great Idea, was rereleased in 2006 in graphic novel form by the award-winning Raina Telgemeier, along with three other titles. Although it stayed peripheral to my experience until our friend Erin bought Harriet her own copy of Kristy’s Great Idea, and Harriet was hooked. She loved it. You can’t imagine how strange it is for your daughter to be telling you about how Kristy Thomas’s two brothers are called Sam and Charlie. That this kind of knowledge is the sort of thing that gets comes down through the ages. Who knew that The Babysitters Club would actually be a series of books that got passed on to my children?
But it’s not really so surprising, when you think about it. There’s always been something generative about the series. The characters themselves are types, but also specific down to their accessories (or lack of them—not everyone can pull off dangly parrot earrings), and that the books were told from all their different points of view enabled readers to try on these roles for size. This is just a starting point for how readers have taken ownership of these familiar characters and their favourite books. These are characters who live beyond the page, as attested to by the popularity of Babysitters Club fan fiction communities online. The books have generated blogs including those revisiting the entire series and another exploring its characters’ tastes in fashion.The series are also Buzzfeed bait: note The Definitive Ranking of All 131 Babysitters Club Covers Outfits. Artist Kate Gavino designed a series of book covers imagining the series had it taken place in 2014. I recall a few years back someone was making notebooks out of recycled BSC book covers. Not to mention that the series was self-generating—so many spin-off series, so many…recycled notebooks. Plus board games, movies, dolls, etc. And the imitation babysitting clubs the books must have inspired as well—though I do wonder if any of these were successful. From an entrepreneurial point of view, it was not the greatest business model. As a parent it would be most inconvenient to only be able to schedule babysitters twice a week and if Kristy Thomas had been a proper capitalist, wouldn’t she have kept all the babysitting jobs for herself?
Anyway, it makes sense, with Martin’s wholly realized fictional world, that Telgemeier would have so much to work with in these stories, and that the graphic novels themselves would be so successful. The books are empowering and feminist (these girls may have worked as caregivers, but caregiving was their business; strong feminist role models, paging Kristy Thomas’s mother, anyone? [before she married a millionaire], and how about their author who lived seemingly single in New York City and hated to cook?), and, as I’ve made clear, most inspiring.
Perhaps we should be collecting them in hardback after all.
October 12, 2015
“I have your grandmother’s china for you,” her mother said. “She took good care of it.”
I highlighted this line from a story in Kelli Deeth’s The Other Side of Youth when I read it, the china emblematic of all the ways in which the lives of women my age have failed to progress in the manner that previous generations might have foreseen. All these boxes of china wrapped up in paper and boxed up in basements, and it means nothing now. I grew up in a house with a china cabinet, is what I mean, and it is very unlikely that I will ever have such an item myself, let alone a place to stand it.
Which is not to say that the domestic has no hold, that we don’t give any value to stuff. My Pyrex fixation certainly speaks to that (and I realize now that since the photo in the link was taken, I’ve acquired a set of turquoise Cinderella bowls, and also put a halt on all non-essential Pyrex acquisitions to keep things from getting too out of control). But what I don’t need is a massive collection of dishes and cups to be hauled out on special occasions, just the same way that I don’t need a parlour for afternoon callers. What I like about Pyrex is its usefulness, and then it occurs to me that there is a similar way around the grandmother’s china as well—what if I actually used it?
I have no recollection of ever seeing this china before—I didn’t pay attention to things like plates as a child, particularly if they were patterned with wildflowers. It is also possible that my grandmother didn’t set the table quite so formally when I was coming to visit. Although I do know my own mother’s wedding china intimately. I have no wedding china, but I have a vast collection of cracked and chipped dinner plates that it’s starting to seem shameful to feed my children from, and so I asked my mother if perhaps I could take a look at my grandmother’s china. If we could use them for everyday. Would that be more or less troubling, I wondered, than the plates remaining boxed up until the end of days, or else given away to a consignment store (where I would have totally bought them if I’d happened upon them)?
And so we took them, and now they’re here, unpacked in the kitchen. Some of them need cleaning—the gravy boat is still stained from some dinner more than a decade ago. But for the most part, the plates and cups are in excellent condition. Plates of various sizes, 10 of one, 8 of another, 11 side plates, 11 saucers and 9 tea cups. I wonder what they started with? Only 2 soup bowls—what happened to the rest of them? Or was soup more an intimate course, something best suited to a couple?
Predictably, I’m now a bit obsessed with my grandmother’s china. Who knew? Spode China in the cowslip pattern with a chelsea wicker design. There turns out to be a busy online marketplace for fervid Spode collectors, and now I’m lusting after Spode eggcups and a teapot. I also admire the buttercup pattern (seen here). The former curator of the Spode Museum Trust blogs about all things Spode here (and this is why I love blogs so: there is almost nothing under the sun that has not been blogged about yet). Spode was founded by Josiah Spode in 1770 in Stoke-On-Trent—Josiah Spode was almost an exact contemporary of another pottery-maker called Josiah but instead of a Spode he was a Wedgewood.
We spent this morning at the museum, which re-enlivened my delight in the thingness of things, and it occurs to me how much of my boredom with and dismissal of my grandmother’s things has to do with the idea that this is baggage, something to be carried and put somewhere. (My grandmother never ever put her china in the dishwasher, my mother tells me. We don’t have a dishwasher, so we will quite easily be able to continue in the same tradition.) But with the idea that these things could be used rather than put up on a shelf to be dusted—it changes everything. The best part about things in museums is what they tell us about ordinary life, and so it seems fitting that my grandmother’s china should become part of our ordinary life as well.
Which ensures, I suppose, that each piece will be eventually get broken and never be passed down to anybody, leaving nothing for us to be known by, our ordinary life an enigma to those who come after us, should they even care to wonder. A paradox—the Pompeii exhibit is case in point; does it matter if your frescoes are preserved if you’re dead? But I wonder if it isn’t better to simply live in the moment after all. From a person’s point of view, I mean, if not from that of an archivist.
September 16, 2015
I’m something of a pathological truth-teller, which is a line I stole from Lauren Groff’s new novel, Fates and Furies, the book I’m reading right now. The interesting thing about that line being that the character described has a more ambiguous relationship to truth than the speaker supposes. Which is always the way. Truth is fudgy. I think I only have such a strong affinity for the principles of truth because lies are so easy, the slipperiest slope—and then anything one says ceases to have meaning, and then what is the point?
It’s true though I’m often willing to forsake a bit of truth for the sake of a story. Which is why I wouldn’t be surprised at all to have made up the whole thing, the story of my friend Britt and I driving down a country road outside Peterborough during the summer of 2000. How there was a hydro truck pulled over by the same of the road, a crew working on a Sunday. (At the time, I don’t think I knew the song, “Wichita Lineman”, or else I would have been humming it.) We pulled up alongside, and somehow had the nerve to roll down our window.
“Could we have a ride in your bucket?” I asked.
And I’ll never forget the so-perfect response: “I can’t think of a reason why not,” the crewman said.
And he even meant it.
And so the crewmen paused their work for a moment and gave us each a chance to put on a hardhat and take a trip up in the bucket. Violating more health and safety policies than I can dream up, though I was 21 at the time and didn’t think in those terms. Still though, we knew it was amazing. We took pictures. That vivid blue sky, the wispy clouds.
If not for the photo, I really wouldn’t believe it. I’m not even sure I really remember it happened. That ride in the bucket seems more like a figment. A figment of reality, if there exists such a thing. “I can’t think of a reason why not,” that crewman said—has there ever been anybody else with so limited an imagination? And yet. Perhaps he was dealing with a surfeit, head in the clouds literally and otherwise.
And I mention this story here now because for the past few weeks, I’ve been stuck in the past, working on a story whose roots are autobiographical. All this spurred on by my husband’s application for Canadian citizenship, and how I was rooting around in boxes to unearth his university degree (which confirms his competency in English). I found my diary from my final year of university, a diary that begins on September 14 2001 and is written by a girl who was dazzled and devastated by the world at once. And I found the scrapbooks I so painstakingly compiled back in those years, determined to preserve every single moment. Not yet understanding then that there are so many moments, if we’re lucky, more moments than ever could fit in a storage locker full of scrapbooks. Not understanding then either that I mightn’t want to hold onto everything forever. That there would be so much I’d want to let go.
When we moved back to Canada ten years ago, I got rid of a whole bunch of stuff. Diaries, scrapbooks, yearbooks, tossed out in black plastic bin bags. There wasn’t room for all of it. Who wants to go through life with so much baggage? But I didn’t get rid of all of it. Enough to fill a couple of boxes, from the years that were most monumental. So there would be gaps, big gaps, but I don’t regret it now. I don’t regret the bits I kept either, which become more and more precious all the time. But so too are the gaps, which allow me tremendous freedom both as a writer and as a human being. To let stuff go, to be allowed to forget, but also to fill those gaps with other things—creation.
To go for a ride in the bucket, I mean, whether it happened or not.
- If Creative Nonfiction is your thing, check out Amanda Leduc’s series this month on The Puritan’s Blog. She writes about Lucy Grealy and chutzpah, see Julia Zarankin on birdwatching and the pursuit of the strange, and Liz Harmer on writing without rules.
February 1, 2015
The weekend was unexpectedly quiet, all plans cancelled, and unexpectedly long. Thursday night delivered a stomach ailment that felled all of us, and meant we spent Friday lying down and eating popsicles while a brutal winter wind raged outside, and we didn’t really miss it. The children slept for hours after lunch that day, which meant I got to spend the afternoon reading in the tub—such an indulgence. On Friday night, we watched episode 3 of Broadchurch Season 2—we’re wholly riveted, even when it gets ridiculous—before finally getting a good night’s sleep after missing Thursday’s entirely. Saturday was a lot more lying down, and then we watched Gone Girl. This morning we were ambitious enough to go skating, which was wonderful, but it’s all still touch and go—we’re still only 20 hours since the last time anyone threw up. But other than the sickness and far too much laundry and really only eating bread and butter and saltines, it’s been kind of a nice weekend. There is nothing like being ill to make one appreciate feeling better, and nothing like being ill with 2 small sick children to make one appreciate a spouse who is a partner in every sense of the word—for better or for worse.
The whole thing made me think of the story “Wonder About Parents” from Alexander MacLeod’s collection, Light Lifting. It’s the story about lice, perhaps my favourite in the collection, the one I bring up whenever I’m recalling just how extraordinary that book is. That one scene with the father changing his sick baby’s diaper in the truck stop men’s room, the shit covered baby clothes he tosses into the garbage, and how his wife makes him go back in there and fish it out again. Because she likes that outfit, and it was a gift from her mother. That’s a moment so emblematic of the people parenthood turns us into, the absurdity of these situations. Those nights, those crises. We never think about them when we sign up for any of it.
We could never have imagined. I was thinking about this on Thursday night as I lay in bed sleeping in five minute bursts, interrupted by Harriet throwing up downstairs, Stuart on the floor beside her bed, a pile of soiled sheets and blankets growing up in the corner. I could not sleep because I was hearing strange voices singing, every muscle in my body ached, because I kept having to get up and puke in a bucket, and because I was listening desperately for the sound of Harriet sleeping finally, but she wasn’t. (Her door downstairs just opened now, and its squeak has me wracked with anxiety.) Finally at 3am, I went down because I was finished being sick, and Stuart came up to get some sleep. I was awake until 5am beside Harriet but listening for Iris, who woke up then as usual, and then she was sick. And a new pile of soiled sheets was started in our room. By morning (or at least the part of it when the sun was up), we were all sleeping on top of beach towels, those of us who were sleeping at all.
And it occurred to me at several moments throughout that night, that long long night during which the every passing hour brought a little relief because we were that much closer to morning, when I was holding on and holding my bucket as my child cried, thinking, “it really doesn’t get much worse than this.” It occurred to me it had been remarkable luck and not foresight that 12 years ago I’d met a boy on a dance floor who would become a man who’d take such care of our ailing daughter in the middle of the night, who’d spend the following day doing our laundry as I lay listless on the couch, even though he wasn’t feeling so hot himself. How do you ever, ever know? And what fortune that the whole thing worked out anyway. “You can’t tell anything in the beginning… Could go any number of ways.”
“The present tense. Everything happens here,” writes MacLeod in “Wonder About Parents,” and this is what makes the whole thing so mysterious, I think. How did we get from there to here? How did we become this people awash in a sea of vomit, these children wretchedly ill in a way I had no idea people could be ill (and now we even know it’s totally normal. We go through it a couple of times a year now)? If someone had told me about it, I would have speculated the whole thing was unsurvivable. One of oh so many things you think you could never get through, until you do. I am thinking of Maria Mutch’s Know the Night too, and how I never knew just how many minutes there were between midnight and morning until my children born, an unfathomable number. (In Mutch’s book, referring to her partner, she writes of “that ingredient vital for love, which can best be described, I think, as conspiracy,” which I think is part of what I’m getting at here.)
Everything was always the present tense, which makes it that much harder to understand how it turned into the past. Like the night, it always seemed to be an eternity until it wasn’t anymore. MacLeod writes, “The place where you wait for the next day to come.”
“We get to choose each other, but kids have no say about the nature of their own lives… What are we to these people? Genetics. A story they make up about themselves.” –from “Wonder About Parents”
“Wonder About Parents” is a story whose workings are fascinating, and I would like to write about it in a more in-depth way when I’m not recovering from illness and the loss of 1.5 nights of sleep. Though I also suspect it’s a story whose wonders are mostly firmly grasped from my current state of mind, if not wholly articulated. The story begins with a couple picking nits from another’s heads, their household under siege. “It’s the third week”. There is so much laundry. “Can’t go on forever./ No.”
The fiction is part entomological investigation of the mighty louse. “The history of the world indexed to the life of an insect.” The parasitic relationship between louse and human is vaguely connected to the parent/child relationship, something persistent in the sheer determination of louse to be, related to that of the human, of the human’s drive to reproduce. The force of life also bringing with it death—typhus is transmitted by lice, MacLeod’s narrator tells us, and killed 30 million people after WW1. And then a scene with the family lining up to be inoculated for swine flu, all that hysteria, fights in the line-ups that started at 4 in the morning. What we do for our children, the ridiculous scenarios. How fragile is our safety, but still we all go forth.
And then before the children, achronological, but all still present tense, and fertility struggles. You never do imagine the care with which you might end up examining your vaginal mucous, all for the eventual outcome of sailing on a sea of vomit, tucked into bed beside your finally-sleeping child wishing that you hadn’t bought her a $45 foam mattress (though the vomit would ruin it anyway, so perhaps it was all for the best).
“Desired outcomes. What we want is when we want it. No way to connect where we are and where we were. This is the opposite of everything we’ve ever done before.”
There are the worst nights, hospital visits with babies a bundle in your arms. A reference to the DDT that solved typhus, but dug its way deep into the food chain before anybody noticed. Causing infertility, cancer, miscarriages. “But life adapt. They go on. Become resistant. Completely unaffected by DDT now. Not like us. Trace amounts of it in every person’s blood.”
The baby has kidney disease, “a congenital abnormality.” We’ve seen this girl already in the shower receiving her lice treatment: “A scar on our daughter’s stomach from before.” So we know which way this story will go. But MacLeod leaves us here, in the hospital, the couple only four months into parenthood, and already they’ve entered its darkest places. And how they lean on each other, how they need one another. They are everyone they’ve ever been, squeezed together in an uncomfortable vinyl chair. Wedded to all of human history.
“Darkness in the room. Our baby makes no sound. Only the bulb from the machine now. Inscrutable purple light flashing on the ceiling. Like a discotheque, maybe, or the reflection of an ancient fire in a cave.”
December 15, 2014
One day I want to write about how I met Stuart and life properly began, and how all the energy that I’d previously directed toward trying to make people fall in love with me (and despairing when I always failed) became channelled into useful things. I stopped thinking that “Angie” by the Rolling Stones was a really romantic song. Suddenly my eyes were open and I could see the world, and we began travelling together, learning and growing. I spent a long time before that convinced that I wouldn’t really exist until somebody loved me. This was stupid in retrospect, and contrary to all my feminist principles, but my experience has proven that there was some truth to the notion—that I needed somebody. He’s my enabler in the very best way. And because we met when we were 23, we’ve also grown up together, which is an extraordinary thing to share with someone. When we met, our cumulative possessions would fill two backpacks. Which made it pretty easy for us to run away to Asia a year and half after that, and those experiences would cement our relationship. We’d never argued before—there was so much negotiating and learning involved in figuring out how to live together, and in a foreign country at that. But we made it, stronger for the struggles, and at the end of that adventure, we were yearning for home, so we got married, and began the process of making one here in Toronto, and for two years, we had no money and lived off chickpeas and couldn’t afford to take the subway, and were oh so slim. Whenever I think back to that time now, a part of my brain spends a split-second trying to remember where the children were, until I realize the unfathomable fact—they weren’t there. We didn’t know them. And the paradoxical thought that comes with that one—how miraculous that they’re here at all. I read a line in Gilead today that made me nod, the narrator writing to his son: “…it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.” I know precisely what he means, but I feel it toward my children’s father as well. That there is a Stuart in the world—I will never quite stop marvelling at that. And that he wasn’t always in my world, when he seems as much a part of me as my limbs are—how did I ever get around? Which was probably much of what Mike Reno and Ann Wilson were getting at in their hit song “Almost Paradise (Love Theme From Footloose)”, which is a part of the repertoire in every karaoke room I’ve ever sang in. It’s curious really, because there is no place else you ever hear that song, but it is a karaoke mainstay. We sing it every time we go, at my insistence, and Stuart goes along with it. Though we hadn’t been out for karaoke in ages—not since before Iris was born. But on Saturday night we went out after the children were in bed and we celebrated 12 years since the night we met, and we made wonderful, sweet, terrible unmelodious music together, and came home after midnight.
December 11, 2014
“And then I knew, Tom, that the garden was changing all the time, because nothing stands still, except in our memory.” –from Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, which we just finished reading tonight
Alfie never gets older. We’ve been reading his books since Harriet was baby, and I love them impossibly. Their stories are as familiar to me as stories from my own family. I know the corners of their house so intimately—the teapots, and the toy teapots, and Flumbo the elephant, and Willesden the consolation prize, and I’ve speculated aplenty about Maureen McNally, whom I suspect is actually a cat-burgler. And speaking of cats, I know that Alfie’s is called Chessie, and I remember when he comforted his friend at Bernard’s birthday party, and how he likes to play This Little Piggie with his baby sister’s pink toes.
Stuart’s aunt gave Harriet and Iris a book voucher for Christmas, and I ordered them a copy of Alfie’s Christmas, which came out last year. And it arrived today and I opened it at once, because this is one Christmas present we’re going to enjoy before Christmas. It’s a lovely simple story of the countdown to Christmas in Alfie’s house, and all his preparations—his advent calendar, and drawings of stars, and songs at school, baking cookies and putting up the tree. Iris is drawn to the book for the cats in the pictures, and as we were reading the book, we’re realized that she’s probably the age of Annie-Rose, precisely (and she similarly gets into boatloads of mischief).
Harriet liked the book too, which I was relieved about, because I’ve been sensing lately that she feels a bit too old for Alfie and his tales. “Isn’t he in nursery school?” she asked me the other day at the library when I’d proposed taking out one of his books. As a Senior Kindergartener, I think she regards consorting with nursery schoolers, even in literature, as kind of insulting. But I think she still does like these books as much as I do—they really are our foundational texts. And the Christmas in this particular volume won her over, so she was totally game.
It makes me sad though to think that someday Alfie might really be outgrown. It’s inevitable, of course, but it’s also kind of lonely—this wonderful world I’ve discovered through her that we won’t get to share anymore.
I feel as though Aflie’s Christmas might be one that lasts though, having taken up residence in our Christmas book box. A book that will be pulled out again every year, a process whose very appeal is nostalgia. And one day we’ll be telling a wholly different version of Iris, pointing at Annie-Rose, “Once upon a time this was you.”