There and back again.

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My friends will tell you that I over-think things. So we all knew this day would come – when I turned 30, and my brain shifted into reflective overdrive.

But a week after my birthday, I’m seeing some serious blue sky through the swirling mists of self-reflection. (Turning 30 hasn’t taken away my inordinate fondness for cheesy literary lines, alas.)

The first birthday party I remember involved the simplest form of fantasy – a Strawberry Shortcake shortcake. Layers of whipped cream, strawberries and pound cake, topped with my first heroine, Strawberry Shortcake herself. I collected more dolls over the years, but she was the one I really admired. Freckled, frilly and surrounded by sweet friends, with an endless supply of happy songs and fresh fruit at her disposal.

By the time I turned 16, I thought I had figured out exactly who I wanted to be. My party was a chaotic, classic Conchie affair, well-wishers packing every available inch of our East Vancouver heritage rental. Kids slipped through the cracks in the crowd, chasing our hapless cocker spaniel while my dad dished out his signature hospitality to an abundant jumble of relatives, friends, mentors, neighbours and people who knew my dad. I flitted from chair to chair, smoothing my hair and showing off a birthday dress bought for me by a dazzling new older friend. I did my best impression of a charming, presentable adult, all the while keeping a teenaged eye on several crushes and frenemies. That party said simply, “You are a part of this world – a part of a large community, whether you like it or not.”

My 19th was a much more controlled affair with strict parameters. On the cusp of university, I required all of my guests to arrive dressed as someone they wanted to be when they grew up. My sullen first boyfriend, a motorcycle mechanic (swoon), came as himself, naturally. Other notable guests included Nurse Ratched, a circus clown, the Queen of England and an anarchist who brought me the perfect token of societal unrest: frozen meatloaf. Good times. I came as a princess, frog in hand. Translating the everyday into the romantic was already a habit of mine, a path I thought I could walk easily through being a famous writer. My friends were all happy to be larger-than-life characters, just waiting to be written into legend.

By the time a quarter century rolled around, I had moved on from playing dress-up to playing hostess. I invited a very distinguished list of sophisticated guests, heroes and mentors, wits and wise ones, and with the help of my adopted Swiss house parents, I served a gourmet meal along with scintillating conversation. This, I thought, was the person I wanted to be: always intentionally thinking about the deeper meaning of life, and surrounding myself with reflective, wise, classy people. Two years later, I staged a similar party, but this time, it was to introduce my almost fiancé to a group of discerning guests. He won them over easily, his handmade vinaigrette being the deciding factor, I suspect.

So last Sunday, when I walked into a darkened dining hall and my 30th birthday surprise party greeted me full-on, I wondered what it would have to tell me about myself.

This is what didn’t happen: a movie-esque montage of champagne glasses, warm smiles and silver trays of perfect appetizers moving about a room immaculately decorated, as I glided effervescent from table to table, a live jazz band telegraphing the sheer joie de vivre and confident maturity of a sensational 30 year old famous novelist. That party belongs to someone else. Someone with money and a personal assistant, and maybe an apartment in New York.

I stood, instead, blinking in the sudden light, speechless, while a wide variety of people, old friends and new, my parents and siblings all stood grinning and fidgeting. There was no choreographed plan – at least not right away. Things were awkward, although the hugs were genuine and I was delighted in the surprise appearances of intrepid friends from out of town.

A random assortment of pot-lucked food was spread thinly on the wooden buffet table, and people fidgeted and made small talk while someone ordered emergency pizza, and I tried to step out of the spotlight. A karaoke machine was playing threateningly in the corner while my sister held a microphone, eyeing me with intent. My four-year old nephew glowered at me from under the table.

After the shock wore off, and the requisite mini-press conference of “Were you surprised?” and “How did you do it?” was taken care of, things began to smooth out. Or at least, we began to play. Sardines, that is. I was the catch, and as I descended into the dark basement of the ranch’s main building, I wondered if I could just disappear for the rest of the night, to escape the encroaching social awkwardness and building tension at not being able to plan everything myself.

I found an old hiding spot, underneath the stairs, and curled up. I could hear laughter, the creak of floorboards and tentative alliances forming as people groped their way through the dark.

The first few seekers found me quickly, and whispered words of solidarity as they fit themselves into my hiding place. My nephew was the bravest fisherman of all, striding confidently through the gloom, telling the world where I wasn’t.

As the crowd grew and we began to giggle and our cramped muscles longed for the lights to go on again, I let my worry over the collective responsibility for a mixed group of people to enjoy themselves drift into the dark. Here I was on my thirtieth birthday, curled up in a basement hideaway with many dear friends and family, found. They had all made the journey to this old ranch at the end of a long gravel road, and were now giving themselves over to the silliness of a teenage game, because they felt I was worth finding, and knowing. Even though I haven’t yet done anything of great importance, according to the world’s (and my own) standards.

In fact, every single person present had walked through at least one prickly/awkward/painful moment of relationship with me, as recently as the day before the party. And yet, they were still there. Showing up as true friends. Bringing presents, their presence and words of life. Telling jokes about the past, and greeting one another with kindness and humour.

The rest of the night was delightful – from silly songs to tender ones, from words of great encouragement and blessing to an overenthusiastic, 80s rockstravaganza session of karaoke, kicked off by a stirring rendition of “God Bless America.” A session that was doubly impressive, because we had no liquid courage to push us to perform. All that gusto was straight up guts. We were clear-eyed and committed, and We Are the Champions may have been our finest moment of all, my friends.

The greatest gift this birthday has brought is a clarity of mind and spirit about where I am. I’m the person who likes singing off-key, can’t afford to throw lavish parties, has a real marriage fraught with everyday romance, is slowly working on the very beginnings of a first novel while slogging through the nine-to-five jungle, and lives in a community where potlucks are essential, technical difficulties still occur, and awkward moments make for shared experience.

I am not living the dream at 30. I’m living the reality of being myself, surrounded by an extraordinary, forgiving and faithful group of people I call friends, and family.

Bring on the next decade. After years of wanting to be someone else, I’m still here. The lights are on, and I’m found.

Hibernate me.

What a quiet month, this January! I can blame a number of things: my deep abiding love of staying home when it’s cold and wet out, my tendency to stop talking and start philosophizing when the year turns itself over to the next, and a new sensation, one that has been sneaking up on me like the first overnight snow of winter: a rare animal called contentment.

January is traditionally the time of year when my friends derisively call me an old lady, and leave frustrated messages on my voicemail, have whole conversations with me via Facebook, and rarely see me out of oversize sweaters and fleece socks. The first month of the year also has me armed with fresh excuses for not seeing that fabulous band, not meeting thither, not waiting for a bus on the other side of town, thankyou. I fall into an easy rhythm during the dark weekdays: bike home from work, shower, put on pajamas, and turn off the outside world.

And while those who have enough patience to consider themselves in my social circles protest, Winter and I are perfectly happy with our arrangement, thankyou. I actually enjoy my self-imposed solitude. Because while the calendar whirls along, schedules and parties and adventures and gatherings and new budgets and programs and classes crank the world back into efficiency after the decadent rush of the Christmas season, I stay home and ponder.

The married ones among us know the pull to home is even greater when a real-life teddy bear awaits you, popcorn made, DVD in hand. The urge of the single woman to venture out into the winter night in a cute but flimsy cocktail dress is no longer in my repertoire.

I’ve always secretly been a homebody. Yes, I used to rouse the lazy rabble with cries of “Paint the town! Seize the day!” and chafe at the quiet nights of country living when everything closes at 7pm, but now I’m just as likely to be the one on the couch, ensconced in an idea, unwilling to put on my dancing shoes anymore.

Let me put it another way. If you told me that tonight the Queen was throwing a party in my honour, and had invited all my favorite movie stars and intellectuals, and a limousine was downstairs waiting to whisk me away to the gala affair, I’d sigh, readjust the pillows, and mumble, “Do I really have to be there?”

I also tend to hoard supplies during January: my freezer is nearing capacity with hearty soups and stews, while the cupboards are full of cans and containers of everything one might possibly need to make more soups and stews.

I don’t know if this post is an apology, gentle reader, or a promise, but it does have a point.

You see, while it looks, for all intents and purposes, to the world outside, and to my dear, frustrated friends and family, as if there’s nothing moving in this little corner of humanity, that’s not the case.

In fact, quite the opposite. I haven’t needed entertainment or much interaction because my thoughts have been tumbling about, creating new projects like kids throwing snowballs – the ideas have been coming fast and furious. If you wanted to be mean, you’d call me a frog in the frozen mud, but I’ll take even that, for down here in the warmth of solitude, things are happening. Things delicious and rough, raw and jumbled, scribbled onto pages of secret notebooks and squirreled away. It’s as if the seeds of rich experience over the past few years have finally germinated, and I’ve got a full-fledged…dare I say it…real writing project on my nervous hands. (I am loathe to
be more specific, at least until I have something to show for it). Well, to be technical, it’s still mostly in my imagination, a piece of psychic machinery that is working overtime, composting and rewriting, pondering and daydreaming these quiet January days away. I’ve been hoarding my time and emotional energy, and coaxing the surprising seeds of creativity that sprung up over Christmas.

So call me a hermit if you please, and forgive the lack of posts. I’m okay with hiding out for a little while longer, under the thick floes of winter, while the deep below moves swiftly.

Away.

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I wondered, when we first arrived at this big, beautiful home for the holidays, how its owners could also be looking forward to leaving it for ten days. I wondered, as I sunk my heels into soft carpets and wandered from room to gracious room, how they could be so eager to get away from such luxury. Two fireplaces, well heated and lit rooms, a professional kitchen, every surface pleasing to a peasant eye like mine. A friend of mine, a single mom who lives in my more humble neighbourhood, said what I had been secretly thinking all along: “I don’t know how anyone could be unhappy here.”

Eight days in, I’ve had moments of boredom, sleeplessness, indigestion, loneliness and even a tearful fight with my husband, and I am again reminded that, like the old wives like to say, “Wherever you are, there you be.” Or something along those lines.

Having stepped out of our cramped, thrifty and constantly in motion routine and into another, softer, richer world for the holidays, I am still as human as I ever was. Luxury can deliciously distract me for a time, just as endless rum & eggnog, or a prized bottle of mead, or an impossibly soft couch and a perfect fire can transport me elsewhere.

The next morning always comes, though, and with it, hangovers, dirty dishes, and leftovers invade even the most well-appointed and well-stocked of spaces.

Don’t misunderstand – being away can be the best possible medicine. Away from my usual surroundings, I am given measures of time to reflect, space for stuffed down creative thoughts to bloom unhindered (write a novel? intriguing…), room to ignore the built-in responsibilities of living in one’s own home.

Being away from my husband from time to time, as we live out miniature lives apart (I to my exercise class, my writing, my work, and he to his schoolwork and hobbies) has always satisfied any thoughts of single longing that still may lurk in my subconscious. Being away from him means I am reminded of just how much I don’t care for life without him anymore, even as I enjoy my alone time all the more, because there is less of it. I have a choice in the matter.

I think that’s the real freedom of away. To travel away from my standard life for a time, and then come back to it, afforded through the generosity of someone else’s trust in lending us their home, is an essential part of feeling free at heart. In turn, we’ve given them the chance to be away, without having to worry about their pets and their palace.

I know that part of our mutual sanity as a couple has been to give each other moments of transportation – out of the mundane, into a new experience or a solo setting, letting go of a partner for an afternoon, trusting that they’ll want to return. Unlike my old jealous boyfriends, my husband lets me go and play different roles out in the wide world all the time, freely encouraging me to step into new spaces of personhood, and it makes me all the more willing and eager to come back home and share my stories with him.

My most treasured and still-around friends likewise allow me short jaunts away – their picture of who I am always leaves room for change, and I am not trapped by the person I was ten years ago. They may tease me lovingly about the past, but they have blank spaces of anticipation open for me to step into, instead of getting angry that I can be different or may change my long-held opinions about life. I try, when I’m feeling strong, to do the same for them – call them to places of difference, allow them to be more than the sum of their circumstances or their past. A friend, now a mother, still needs alone time, and someone else to hold the baby, even though she is an incredibly devoted and attentive mother. The people I serve every day, who own nothing and possess very few options, still need the freedom to complain about the food, have a normal bad day, or have opinions about art and music and politics and other people, not just providing hard-done-by soundbytes on the number of beds in the nearest homeless shelter or the safety of their streets.

Being away from my family this Christmas has made me realise something vital that I’d forgotten in the rush of old emotion and previously unspoken hurt: that I miss them, and they are irreplaceable.

I value the choice to not be with family this Christmas, made at first out of a deep desire to just be truly away, to get a better sense of a subject that has been weighing on my heart for some time. I am grateful and pleasantly surprised that I do miss them after all – despite our zen-like surroundings and easy schedule, I am looking forward to these coming weeks, when family members will all be crammed into our tiny apartment, together again. Instead of feeling trapped by duty or guilt, I am choosing, out of a real desire to connect again, to spend time with them.

So however you’ve been away this holiday season, I hope that it will teach you as it has taught me – that you can’t run from yourself, but you can reflect on what personal baggage came along with you, and decide how to repack it, or perhaps even leave it behind. Or maybe being away will spur you to regift awayness to someone you love, trusting that the journey back to the familiar is often the sweetest and most compelling of all.

Driving me crazy.

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I had a driving lesson today. At 29, I’m preparing to take my final test, and step into the world of cavalier, unthinking skill where one simply puts the key in the ignition and drives. Sounds marvellous to me. No restrictions on how many non-family members I can take along, no underlying worries about my unworthiness in the eyes of Insurance, no adjusting or re-sticking of a fickle green magnet, proclaiming to the world that I am still a Novice. Finally, (if I pass the test next month), I’ll be like all those other cool kids in cars, freedom and adventure at their fingertips.

Well, mostly like them. I came home in tears, because the unthinking part, the part psychologists like to call ‘unconscious competence’ and us plebians call second nature, has so far eluded me in the quest to drive.

I know it’s there. I know this because when I stop thinking about driving, it happens. I’ve been behind the wheel sporadically for at least six years now, running my brother to the emergency room at 3am, navigating the curves of a rainy Sunshine coast highway, nipping in and out of traffic on the shopping mecca that is Vancouver’s Fourth Avenue.

I well remember my first year of highschool basketball, drumming the pavement behind our garage, and driving our elderly neighbours crazy with my incessant attempts to score a basket. I thought about every move, every physical action, every muscle and sports theory. I was a benchwarmer.

My second year went much better, mainly because whenever I stepped onto the court, and got near enough to the basket, I tried to think about something else, anything other than the complicated and seemingly impossible physics of getting a rubber ball into a raised hoop. It worked, this emptying of my mind, and I became a decent basketball player once I forgot that I was playing.

But how does one forget, safely, that one is driving? How, when you’re attempting to merge at full speed onto a highway of onrushing death machines, do you relax and not panic? This is not the time to think about one’s happy place, or some puppies playing in a field of daisies. This is driving we’re talking about, not yoga.

I think, in most aspects of my life, I overthink. Don’t get me started on human interaction. One of the writing ideas I’ve had the most confidence in ever producing over the years has been a yet-as-unwritten book entitled “The Awkward Manifesto.”  I am the person who will walk away from a casual encounter, after a casual goodbye, and must use all my willpower to keep walking, and not rush back to ask a thousand questions about what just happened. Whether I said goodbye casually enough. Showed enough warmth and friendliness, but not too overly enthusiastic, because that would be weird. The questions follow me down the road: did I overshare? did I undershare? Should I have sat on the other side of the table? Was there something more or less I should have said? Why did I have to mention toenails at that particular moment in time? And on and on. The puppies chase their tails.

I know this running commentary on social interaction is a product of coming late to the party, an overdeveloped power of keen observation coupled with insecurity. My two years at high school taught me the basics, but never killed the background noise.

And so the same with driving. While other kids were rushing out on their sixteenth birthdays to qualify for the road, I was wandering through a village in Africa, writing in journals and riding on the back of rule-breaking scooters. And I am still miles away from that lucky teenager I spotted the other day, getting pointers from his dad while behind the wheel of his dad’s Porsche. Nice.

Perhaps it’s not a matter of not thinking at all (the horrors of driving without a single synapse to keep you safe are plain enough), but easing up on the accelerator a little. I fixated on the few criticisms my driving instructor had of me, and had no trouble instantly forgetting his willingness to keep me behind the wheel of the car for two hours, or the fact that we didn’t die.

I’m kidding about that last bit, sort of. I know I can handle a car. I know I’m a safe driver. I know that the road is the least of my worries, and that while bad things can happen to good drivers, the odds are I’ll continue to drive like a careful old lady well into my senior years.

It’s not a matter of forgetting everything, whether it’s navigating the bumpy road of human relationships or gassing around town. It’s a matter of remembering. Remembering that I’ve actually got some pretty high mileage out of the skills I do have, and have gotten myself and others safely to some amazing places both in friendships, and on four wheels.

Road trip, anyone?

Just now.

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I have terrible timing, writing about new life and birth, just as all the leaves are dying along with our hopes of sunshine and light jackets for the next four months. But babies, I’ve discovered, have their own timing, and new life often comes, not as a tender shoot or a ray of sun, but as an intense, unstoppable, astonishing movement that will carry you along with it, ready or not.

My friend delivered her first baby, a son, in her home this past Sunday, and I was there to witness it. More than witness. I was part of an event that still leaves me a little stunned. I will never use birth carelessly as a metaphor for anything else. It just doesn’t fit so neatly anymore.

I have no children. (Yet). I’ve used birth as a metaphor for countless projects, thesii, essays, poems, cakes and other creations that I’ve crafted and brought into the world. I’ve compared the angst of not finding the right words, or being afraid to let your work go into the daylight for all to see, to giving birth, and the process of creation as a kind of parenthood.

And for that, I’m truly sorry, because like so many of our most profound human experiences, real, natural, specific birth is indescribable. Which means we writers have fair warning – taking up the powerful, primal and beautiful experience of a birth and comparing it to anything other is pure foolishness.

What we can do, and what I hope to do in writing this post, is offer thoughtful reflections on how the indescribable affects us. And for the sake of privacy, and respect, I am not going to give details of the miraculous birth I saw Sunday. I don’t want steal someone else’s story. A story that is specific, tender, astonishing and breathtaking. I feel honored just by participating.

I feel transformed by it. This birth, this commonplace, universal human experience, this messy, intense, painful, rushing river of pure, present moment has put me in my place.

I saw a friend transformed also, strong, impassioned and utterly focussed on accomplishing something that will turn her life upside down, and caused her intense and overwhelming pain.

Birth is the death of self. For the mother, it’s a giving away of her body, time, convenience, and strength to another. She, in the throes of labour, is completely embracing the idea of service, and is fully committed, with every contraction, to ushering in the life of another, and then nurturing that life, at the cost of vanity and self-preservation, and physical comfort.

I was a bystander, with no concept of the feelings my friend was facing up to, both physically and mentally.

But I experienced a small, tiny measure of that precious call to selflessness. I cancelled all my plans, rushed home, dressed as practically as I could, and ran over to her home, to make myself available, with no agenda or expectation. Prepared to do anything and everything, including walking right back out the door if she didn’t want me there, no questions asked.

Working together with the masterful midwives, addressing each moment of need as it came, we fell into a rhythm of alert waiting, reaction, preparation and encouragement, carefully controlling our excitement. Being with a group of women like that, all devoting ourselves to the present, fluid moment, was invigorating. A towel here, a hand gripped, a picture taken, a warm cloth, a shout of encouragement, a quick rearrangement of pillows, a deft clean-up, a pair of hands to hold the baby, be a body to lean on, pour champagne, enfold in blankets, all was pleasurable duty.

All these actions occurred outside of normal time – it was magnificent, truly ordinary time, measured in centimetres dilated, exclamations of pain and instruction, underscored by the frenetic, gorgeous heartbeat of an almost-born boy.

He was born at 2:59pm. He leapt his way into the wide world and was immediately carried from womb to breast, where his cries of insistent aliveness subsided. Our urgency gave way to awe, and shock, the good kind, the kind where you’ve suddenly crossed over into a new country with one single step, and find yourself looking at a whole new landscape you never imagined possible. But you’re in it. There’s no denying the present reality. A child is born.

And I want more. Not just babies. I want to run headlong into more of these indescribable, ordinary moments: giving myself wholly to a present, an event, an experience in which I am committed to just being there, no agenda, no plans, no rewards. I was completely enveloped in the present while my past, my future, my angst and existential problems went missing in the action. I was sharing in experience that required my alert presence, my full attention.

We were all born once. And we are meant for so much more than patterns of consumption, habit and self-preservation. We are meant to engage our hands, our feet, our imaginations, our hearts and our souls in the present moments of need in the lives of others. To be truly human is to be present in this life, right now. Giving our time and ourselves to the holy, bloody moments of opportunity, whether it’s delivering a baby, truly listening to story of another’s heartbreak, enjoying a meal together, sharing a burden, comforting in the midst of illness, completing a task in the fellowship of hard work.

Even a helpless infant, minutes old, has the powerful gift of presence. Totally unable to do anything but breathe and be alive, his arrival drew us all into a beautiful, sudden, changed present, a perfect gift of now.

All the things.

A crabapple pie cools on the counter, bubbling through its buttery pastry. The floor is swept, our essential soups and breads are stocked up again, and the dishes are miraculously on the clean side of the sink. But a pie, and a floor clean enough to eat it off of, is not a post, and my inner artist glowers at my happy housewife once again.

I’ve been ambushed by my overly ambitious Tuesdays for weeks now. My day off begins with promise: writing reams of words while chewing a croissant at my beloved Black Rook, dropping by the grocery store for a few fresh items, lifting weights and splashing about with like-minded women at the community centre, and coming home with clear intentions: cook a little, clean a bit, write a lot, rest and enjoy the day.

Then midnight stares me down yet again, telling me I’ve got to work in the morning, and a hundred little practical things assert themselves, quietly urging, “We really should be done before the day dawns!”  Once I’ve run the gauntlet of the ordinary, bed bests my best intentions for creativity. Another draft of a thought, scribbled in abstract, drifts off into the ether of the blissfully incomplete and incomprehensible as I drift off to sleep, my mind filled with a list of things that I must get done in order to relax, eventually. I haven’t gotten that far yet.

One day, after all the closets are organized, the clothes mended, the shoes fixed, the papers sorted and shredded, the furniture re-arranged, the emails written, the bills paid, the tub cleaned, the phone calls made, the groceries bought, the meals planned, the books read, the holidays taken, the parties attended, the table refinished, the laundry folded, the corners vaccumed, the children born and off to school, the classes taken, the old friends met for coffee, the garden weeded, the prayers for Sunday written, the meetings taken, the second degree finished, the music collection completely organized by genre and mood, I will sit down and write a novel. One glorious day.

I used to grocery shop and secretly wish that one could buy all one’s groceries for life in a single, epic trip to the Store to End All Stores. The same goes for making one’s bed, making dinner, and all the attending niceties of not living in total squalor and chaos. Early on in my marriage, I tended to blame my husband for all the things required to maintain a healthy lifestyle, like cleaning the bathroom and eating dinner, and then I realised that I’d be doing all those things anyways, spouse or not.

The underlying dream that keeps me on this hoary hamster wheel of activity is unattainable, but intoxicating and addictive. A few weeks ago I kidnapped my brother’s car for a day of heroic errand completion and felt the full force of a life lived for the sake of checking off one’s list.

Zipping all over town, feeling powerful and downright accomplished (except when I couldn’t find parking), I eventually made it home, laden with packages and receipts, and felt like broadcasting my plebian victory to all who would listen. I also felt empty. There was no one to share my triumph with, save the visiting cat, who, damn it, I had forgotten to pick up cat food for. A vision of my funeral flashed through my exhausted mind, with a eulogy that began very simply: “She was an unremarkable, efficient woman who cleaned all the things, kept her pantry stocked, her bills paid, and her shoes organized.”

All the things. Why am I so wrapped up in getting everything done? It’s about control, I think, and about chasing an idea that one fine day, once everything is in order, then I’ll be happy, fulfilled and secure. If I can only get this thing done, that box sorted, blah, blah, blah, then maybe I’ll be in control of my life, maximizing my potential, and on the path to glory – the glory, that is, of being an efficient machine of a person, with a shiny smooth life that I can proudly boast about on Facebook. A novelist who conquered the everyday.

But that’s the lie. All these things being done, all this activity, all this organizing, all this maintenance of one’s posessions, is controlling me instead. It’s backwards. My good friends have told me lately that they know I’m really busy. Doing what? Getting ahead. Getting organized. Not spending time with them. Not writing. Not living.

The caveat, of course, is that as grown-ups, there are things we must do, obligations we must meet, and even mundane things that make the rest of our lives pleasurable, as well as things we do for the sake of others (like making soup every week so that my grad-school burdened husband actually eats something that might be good for him).

I’m not advocating a disavowal of one’s responsibilities. But I am rethinking the belief that seduces my heart, softly telling me if, and only if, I manage to get on top of all the errands and the chores and the cooking and the organizing, my life will be magically better, and only when I have those things under control, I’ll be able to fully live a creative, happy life. The truth is that, the more caught up I feel in getting ahead of my circumstances and taming the tasks, the more I fall behind.

It’s now 1:09am. I’m going to have a piece of that gorgeous pie, and enjoy it, almost as much as I’ve savoured sitting down to write this post. I’ve stared down midnight, yet another Tuesday, and this time around, I have the final word. I can make time for creativity. I’m cutting a small piece of that glorious day, and having it right now.

Home Alone 2

These boots are made for walking...

I usually have a quiver of posts in my drafts folder, just waiting to interest me enough to finish them. Labouring away at the bakery this afternoon yielded some solid writing, but I wasn’t really motivated to publish it, so put it aside and contemplated what I could do with a whole evening of being single.

And a new post is born into the silence of a quiet apartment.

I should explain. Ever since I met my man, I’ve come to realise, through casual conversation and subtle observation, that I am part of a rather unique marriage. Of course, in the early days, I tried my best to remake it into the shape of marriages I knew – gleaning proper behaviour from a back catalogue of romantic movies, family examples, celebrity rumours, church culture and Victorian novels.

And on those days, in the midst of a silly fight, my husband would look at me, and ask one simple question: “Who are you talking to right now, babe? He seems like a jerk.”

The swarm of preconceptions and self-imposed disciplines (perfect host and housewife, unceasingly amorous bedfellow, etc.) would suddenly dissapate, and I’d look again at the man I married, and breathe a sigh of relief.

I am a creationist in the most human of senses: I firmly believe that every person on the planet is unique, and therefore, every relationship they form with another totally singular individual will be utterly different from any other relationship. It’s the same creative force that drives us forward into publishing millions of cookbooks, arranging thousands of bouquets, reworking a handful of alphabetical symbols into an endlessly new stream of words and ideas.

So as much as sociologists would like to say that I am a product of my past, my heritage, my culture, my expectations, my environment and my physiology, I still have that most human of attributes that allows for the creation of something new: unpredictability at what I will make of it all.

Likewise, my marriage is something of an anomaly born out of the union of two rather anti-status, off-the-wall individuals. As such, when I am asked for advice from the outside looking in on a pretty sweet little thing, I hesitate, knowing that whatever morsels of wisdom I may be pompous enough to dispense, I am still only speaking from my own unique experience of a marriage, and therefore, probably don’t have anything universal to say.

Now that I’ve completely undermined the purpose of this post, which is give some advice on marriage, let’s begin.

Perhaps it would be safer to say that this thing I’m about to expound on, is a helpful tool for anyone, married or not, to keep peace and sanity in long-term relationships. There. I’m not annoying generalist telling you how to fix your marriage, but rather, a self-actualized relationship columnist, ready to take on the likes of Emily Post and Dr. Phil.

I’m sitting here in a quiet apartment. I haven’t seen my husband since this morning, and won’t see him again till tommorrow night. For 48 hours, I’m essentially single. And this is good news. For no matter how long I’ve been lonely, dreaming of and finally becoming accustomed to the sweetness that is waking up to a life companion most mornings, being single for a few hours, or a few days, or even, a few weeks, can really help me be good at being married.

Being apart helps me do the togetherness thing really well.

It takes a long time for your brain, especially a single-minded brain like mine, to get used to the idea that you are not alone anymore. From decision making to late-night scares in the hallway on the way to the washroom (Me: AAAAAAUGH. BIG SCARY FIGURE IN THE DARK, BLOCKING MY PATH TO MY BEDROOM. My man: It’s just me, your husband, remember? I live here too.), the transition from “alone” to “accompanied” takes awhile to sink in. And there were plenty of times, early in, that I ached for singlehood: the chance to buy whatever I wanted without having to bear the burdens of rent and a suddenly unemployed spouse, the freedom of making stupid decisions that affected no one but myself. Even down to the little things, like going to bed because the other person is tired, or showing up to a party because you’ve been invited and are expected as a couple, would sometimes spur me to fantasize about getting into our car and driving away over the rainbow into my lost singlehood, and never coming home. Of course, I only had access to said car because it was my husband’s. But it was nice to dream. The dangerous thing about dreams like that, dreams we turn to in moments of escape, is that they can remain unreal, and better-looking than if we are able to act them out safely, and with wisdom. Much better to spend a day now and then remembering what being alone is like than realise after a lifetime of enforced togetherness, that all you want to do is leave, and then find out the reality is nothing like the dream you’ve squirrelled away with all your unfelt feelings.

The opposite is equally dangerous. Haven’t we all met couples who can’t stand to be apart from one another, ad naseum? I wonder if one day, they’ll forget who they are as individuals, and have nothing new to share with one another. It’s a kind of possesiveness that I don’t envy, needing to be with someone all the time, to ensure that your love is still real. I miss my husband right now, but this little window of singleness allows me some reflection time. I know exactly what I miss about being together with him, and appreciate it all the more, as well as experiencing the underwhelming relief of being alone that I sometimes crave when marriage cramps my style and togetherness is complicated.

So tonight, as I sit here solo, fiddling about an empty house, eating way too much chocolate, and remembering what it feels like to be alone, I am mindful of this: that tommorrow night, I’ll be happy to have someone steal the blankets, leave the dishes on the table unwashed, drop my favourite salami on the floor by accident, and snuggle up to me in the morning when I really should be getting out of bed for work.

By the rivers dark

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It’s been a hell of month, this August.

I never imagined I was capable of such strong feelings. I’ve watched others flame out and burn the world around them and I’ve vowed, at various times in my life, to never do the same. But raging and burning through a fragile forest of relationships is not something I’ve been able to avoid entirely. I have lost my temper and lost a few friends in the process.

I have sat alone this month, so filled with storm that I had to leave the company of family for fear of saying horrible things. Unforgivable things. Unfair, insensitive, selfish, passionately felt things.

I’ve always been an emotional person. Some would say strong-willed, intense. I prefer the term ‘expressive.’ Even as a baby, I displayed a generous capacity for emotion – banned from the church nursery for my robust protests at the absence of my mother, nicknamed the “Little Red Fire Engine.” Tears of loss and longing, joy and surprise are never far from my arsenal of expression. I am generally resigned and sometimes even appreciative of my deep river of emotions and I am at ease with the fact that I’m a heart-on-sleeve kind of gal.

But anger found me unprepared this month to deal with its rushing waters and I was almost swept away. Almost. I offer this post as a meditation, a declaration of hard-fought victory, in a sense, and hopefully, encouragement to anyone reading who is likewise struggling.

I am relieved and humbled to say that somehow, I have managed to climb up onto the banks of this raging river, and not get carried away.

My former strategy to deal with anger was simple. Run away. In the early days of my marriage, as sharp words threatened on the horizon, I’d lock myself in the bathroom or leave the apartment entirely to avoid the rush. I’d shut out the conflict, hoping and praying for some divine pause or exit.

When I was unable to run, I’d stay and fight by putting on the sweetest of sweet faces, or become deadly calm. Especially in the customer service industry, one can’t just walk away. I’d tell myself that how I felt wasn’t important, and focus on being that nice, logical person I was supposed to be. And then, on my way home from work, or in my spare moments, the calm would break, and passion would come pouring out, or be triggered by an innocent bystander.

I once walked away from a frustrating customer and grabbed the nearest cardboard box, tore it to pieces with my bare hands, and then walked back out to the counter, and quietly finished serving them. What did that box ever do to me? Nothing. Collateral damage is never far from expressions of anger.

I have been that box, too. I watched an old man brawl his way through the lineup, every word a foul and hurtful dart. And I know why: it was his 76th birthday, and he was celebrating it with an 85 cent bowl of soup and a friend who seemed more like an enemy.

Anger has many parents: dissapointment, frustration, injustice, rejection, neglect. The very love and acceptance I need, in my worst moments, is pushed further out of reach by my angry expressions, and a vicious cycle of self-loathing, alienation, rage and regret can ensue.

I’ll spare you the details, but I was trapped by my anger this month, trapped in a way I had seemingly no escape from. I was stripped of my usual coping mechanisms, and there wasn’t a single cardboard box within reach.

And in that moment of extreme pressure, I didn’t find any answers. Instead, two beautiful questions were tossed into the foaming, surly sea, and I grabbed hold of them for dear life.

The first is the hardest, I think. The one that many of us are afraid to ask, because we don’t want to go down such dark paths into the past. It requires a look back, a sense of responsibility for one’s own emotions.

I ran straight back to my anger and asked, “Where did you come from?”

And suddenly, I was on the other side of a glass window, looking at a lineup of the usual suspects. The dirty dishes, rude customers, careless drivers, visiting inlaws, and clueless spouses were nowhere to be seen. Instead, lined up in front of me were resentments, hurts, unmet needs, judgements and indignations that had been sitting around, locked up.

I was afforded, by this simple, straightforward question, the opportunity to study and examine my feelings from an adjacent room of semi-reason.

These causes of my anger, then, lost their potency to direct my actions, and led me gently to that second, instructive question: “Where do you want this to go?”

I knew immediately the places I didn’t want to go. Harsh words, emotional uproar, broken bridges, loss of a still-new relationship, hardening of battle lines, destruction of property.

I also knew that I couldn’t go back. Having asked the questions, and found myself looking at my anger honestly, I had to move forward, and look into the eyes of those I was angry with. And I found redemption there, both in the asking and the telling of what went wrong, and how we could fix it together.  How incredible, to run back into my anger, and find that I was not alone, that someone was still willing to wait for me on the other side.

The space between those questions, of coming and going, is not for the faint of heart, and it can’t be rushed. You must stand still in the storm, and be battered, drenched, awash in feelings that you may have carefully avoided feeling for long time.

When I was overwhelmed, swimming in the sea of my anger, I almost drowned. The pain of looking at the causes of my fury was almost unbearable, and I struggled to breathe, to keep treading water. I know why people turn to addiction to distract themselves from themselves. I was sorely tempted to enlist my old ally, alchohol, in the fight.

In place of a hangover, however, I feel a deep sense of survival pride, and peace, armed with a new way to understand old issues.

I am also deeply grateful for the love and forgiveness that has been freely offered to me, and am almost breathless at the delicate, supple grace that has appeared in relationships that are miraculously moving forward.

It’s going to be a heavenly season, this Autumn.

Ladies and gentlemen…

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Some people regard public speaking engagements and trips to the dentist with equal terror. I’ve done both in the space of 48 hours, and I’m still alive.

Emceeing a wedding and getting a root canal are both filled with anticipation, a few shots of necessary nerve numbing substances, and the willingness to keep one’s mouth open for an extended period of time. The similarities likely end there, and I’m guessing, that you, dear reader, would like to know more about the wedding than the dentist.

I’m no stranger to public speaking, and I’ve been using my voice to address groups of people since I was shorter than a podium. From zealously playing teacher (much to the chagrin of my sibling students) to instructing a crowd of 1,000 students and their overjoyed parents on the joys of leaving highschool, the microphone and I get along just fine. I’ve also had plenty of unamplified practice, from drill sergeantry in Air Cadets to leading groups of eight year olds on horseback down perilous backcountry trails, but I try not to pull out that voice unless there’s a dire crowd control emergency.

My mouth, however, doesn’t always have a smooth working relationship with my brain. From a disastrous high-school fashion show where I mistakenly pronounced the collection, “Crystal Night” with a German accent, to a hilarious-in-retrospect class presentation where I came across as an old, old woman who hated television and all its ensuing evils, I’ve had my share of verbal gaffes.

The wedding reception was free of such missteps, although I’d still only give myself a B+ overall.

I stumbled a bit at the beginning, and fumbled a joke about Germans and synchronized watches, which, in retrospect, was probably a good thing. I let the stress of the father-of-the-bride seep into my own lack-of-confidence, and having him rush up to me telling me that I either needed to have a different voice entirely or use two microphones simultaneously almost made me lose my nerve completely.

Being an emcee is a significant responsibility – and although you could buy this guy’s book and find some pretty standard advice, I thought I’d add my own counter-cultural advice to the mix. I have the maid of honour’s permission for this little tutorial, as after the reception she dubbed me a professional and said I could start charging for my services. I’m going to go ahead and take that as a compliment.  This little guide, then, is especially for those of us who have been mantled with the responsibility of emceeing a wedding, but don’t really want to tell fart jokes.

Rule #1: Don’t be the star of the show, or blah, freakin’ blah

Seriously. Have you ever been to a wedding where the emcee won’t stop talking about themselves, like the time they broke their leg, or broke up with someone? Nobody came to the wedding to learn more about the master of ceremonies. The less you talk, the better. The more you allow the show to continue smoothly, interjecting and guiding the proceedings with the understanding that you want to be the man or woman behind the curtain, and not having the audience wishing eagerly for your final curtain call, the better.  I sincerely hope that no-one remembers exactly what I said, unless it prompts them to reflect on the loveliness of the bride or the overall happiness they felt.

Rule #2: Don’t expect a captive audience or, let the peanut gallery be itself

I am usually seated at the back table at most weddings I attend. I’m not sure if this is because I was, until recently, in that awkward yet fun category of single gal with nothing to lose and relegated, therefore, to the distant cousin/single friend from work table, or because the happy couple knew that I am a die-hard commentator. I love to whisper and jest, poke my fellow guests in the ribs and mutter some bon-mot, and generally cause a bit of a ruckus.

So when I’m up at the podium, I know that I’ll never have everyone’s complete and utter attention. And instead of going hard-core math teacher on the assembled crowd, I gently reminded them that the speakers and presenters deserved their respect, and left it at that. I did threaten once to “use my school teacher voice” and got a good laugh out of the mock-spectre of detentions, but I know instinctively that there are members of my giggly/witty/rowdy tribe that compulsively whisper, and the way to win them over is not through heavy-handed warnings rumbled into a microphone. It merely has the effect of making everyone feel like children, and usually just adds fuel to a heckler’s fire. Rather, the better thing to do is be entertaining, give a shout-out to that back table, and get on with the show.

Rule #3: Hold your schedule with an open hand, or, keep calm and carry on

I honestly could have lit my reception schedule on fire and it would have at least kept me warm.  But continuing to pretend that everything was well in hand, and surreptitiously re-arrange things to suit the changing moods of the bride and groom, the angst ridden in-laws and the inevitable time creep that a wedding reception brings with it is one of the most important things an emcee can do. I wasn’t very good at this in the first half-hour or s0 – still timid/people pleasing enough to ask the question, “What do you think?” was a bad idea – it only made the wedding party nervous, and the scheduled speakers feel uncertain. Their whole focus is usually on the one presentation/speech that they need to deliver, not where and when in the schedule they’ll best fit.

Once I started simply telling people what to do, things went much more smoothly. I wasn’t bossy, just quietly confident, letting the affected parties know what was coming up, quickly cutting and rearranging events to suit the weather, the photographers, and the changing mood of the crowd.

Having a demeanour that exudes, “I have a plan, and we’re going somewhere good,” even if you had to scrap your original schedule, helps you pilot the fickle, fun and free-flowing waters of an unpredictable event like a wedding reception. Even if that means you have to fudge a little – appearing to have a plan allows you to smoothly cut that unnecessary swing-dancing lesson with confidence, or break it to the aunt from out-of-town who wants to share a diaper story that she can share that with the couple in a card, rather than onstage.

Rule #4: No sex jokes or, TMI!

I know this is a hotly debated topic – and it’s certainly a hot one. But we’re in the modern era of too much information, not the bygone days of tribal ritual and public executions. Sometimes the elephant in the room needs to be quietly herded to the back and fed lots of soothing punch, not paraded about, dripping with tassels. Everyone knows that the happy couple will have some sort of wedding night. Everyone knows that there may be some awkwardness/passion. In fact, joking about a couple’s sex life at a wedding is probably the most predictable, boring thing you could do as an emcee. It also shows that you haven’t got a very original imagination, or that you’ve put very much thought into what might be entertaining.

I heard a story of a couple recently being utterly embarrassed at their reception by a heretofore discreet emcee who blindfolded them both and made them feed each other bananas. It was a memorable occasion for all the guests, but everyone wished they could forget.

So forget it. There are myriads of funny, interesting and honouring things to talk about, like first dates and the time the groom left his emergency brake off, and destroyed the grandparent’s garden shed, or the bazillions of mosquitoes being the first ones to their very own human buffet table while the rest of the guests wait to eat. Just look around you and you’ll find a whole roomful of material unfolding before your eyes.

Rule #5: Allow yourself to fail, or you can’t please all the people, all the time

I remember clearly freaking out while planning my own wedding, wondering how I could make every single guest have the best night of their lives. That’s right, all 120 of them and their emotional well-being were completely resting on my over-responsible shoulders.

My husband reminded me once again, in the middle of emceeing this wedding, that I really couldn’t do that anymore. I had been fixated on one particular guest, an acquaintance from years back, and couldn’t seem to make her smile. In fact, she looked my way with a mixture of surprise and disapproval. (Perhaps the salmon kebabs didn’t agree with her palate…)

And I am a wooer – I’ll try to win over the one person in the room who isn’t paying attention, who doesn’t like me, who could care less.

But this wedding wasn’t about me, or my need for affirmation, at all. My job was to simply weave together an entertaining evening, diplomatically weeding out the unnecessary, deftly avoiding the disastrous, and above all, reminding everyone why they were still there, fending off mosquitoes and small talk. To help family and friends say goodbye to one way of relating, transition from treating the happy couple separately, and get used to the notion of seeing and celebrating them together.

Which may have meant that I was completely forgettable, and, one can only hope, the stars shone ever more brightly on those two dear friends of mine, now married.

My absolute favorite moment? Listening to the birds, nature’s airborne party-crashers, sing magnificently throughout the entire ceremony. They had no name cards, no place at the table, no wedding favours. And yet they contributed effortless beauty and atmosphere to the occasion, anonymous, joyous choirs.

 

 

Swimmingly.

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In a city of serious exercise, I am a lazy revolutionary.  Yoga scares me, Zumbafit mystifies me, Kitsilano beaches nudge me to cover up my inadequacies and the gym is an alien landscape populated with fitter-than-thous and complicated Spanish inquisition machinery.

I run…if a bear is chasing me. The only weights I lift are overflowing laundry baskets, and the occasional unruly four-year old. I do work out…my issues, by reclining in a comfy chair for an hour at a time and exercising my extremely fit and generous tear ducts.

But I do live in a city rife with recreational possibility, and just because I own less than two pieces of Lululemon, have pipes under my sink and not on my arms, and like to shop at Mountain Equipment Co-Op strictly for the fashion, doesn’t disqualify me from discussing exercise.  After years of plans, hopes, and rumours of push-ups, I am happy to say that I’ve come to a pretty decent understanding of recreation – one that doesn’t involve punishment, spandex, or sweltering bamboo-walled rooms.

My kind of exercise operates on the following motivational principles: thrift, necessity, fresh air,  anti-ambition and play. I love long, meandering walks that happen because I want to smell some flowers and coo over heritage houses, perhaps even practice some pop psychology on dog-walkers and gossip with the neighbours. I like walking dogs, or rather, letting them walk me: running and stopping, jumping and simply playing, with no direct point from A to B. I occasionally flout playground age limits and climb on things, practicing my secret Russian gymnast moves. When I managed a kitchen, I’d arrive before my staff and pirouette around the stainless steel counters, maybe even throw in a couple of  pliés by the ovens.

So Aquafit at the local pool is right up my alley. Give me a swimming pool full of bathing-capped old ladies, floating about like distracted water lilies, and groups of retirees vaguely paddling while discussing gardening and grandchildren, while the instructor shouts vainly over the 90s era disco music, and I’m ready for some serious exercise. Every Tuesday, I dip under the chlorinated waters and begin to flail giddily to the sounds of Haddaway’s What is Love?, and a marvellous thing happens. I understand what all those pavement pounding joggers preach about, what the mountain bikers and climbers rave about after a killer afternoon overcoming challenging terrain – I get an aquafit high. As I lunge through the water, and wave my hands in the air, an overwhelming rush of childish happiness and laugh-out-loud excitement at simply being alive encompasses me, and I let the music (which, by this point in the routine is usually a Cher remix or a Chumba Wumba tune) carry me away.

It wasn’t always this way. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with swimming since I knew it was possible to drown. My sister has reminded me more than once about the time I rescued her from cold and mysterious waters of Vancouver Island’s West Coast. I don’t remember diving in to snatch her from the sea, but my overactive imagination has no problems keeping me beachside with fictional events. My born and bred back-country husband can’t get me into his beloved turquoise lakes without a convincing argument against the existence of pre-historic aquatic dinosaurs trapped in said lakes, and sabre-tooth fish with a taste for man-flesh.

And then there’s the whole breathing thing. I failed Orange, the second color in the rainbow of beginner’s swimming, four times. That’s right. Four times. All because I refused to put my head under water and breathe out. At eight, my instructor picked me out of the newest crop of dolphin-like four year olds and simply shoved my head underwater, holding it there for one terrifying minute. Her first words to me on resurfacing were, “I’m tired of seeing you in this class. You pass.” I trust that municipal swimming instructors have more certification tests in the past 21 years. One can only hope.

Lest we forget, swimming also brings on the brave battle that every woman must wage against insecurity, from inopportune hair to culturally under-appreciated juiciness of stature. I’ve done my time in the trenches of bathing suit warfare. I’ve hid in the changerooms, and cowered underwater, and it’s only since I’ve been married and felt fully appreciated by a specific someone that I’ve really let go of that particular angst-filled activity: the walk of trepidation from the privacy of a towel or a bathroom stall to the forgiving, image-distorting waters of the pool.

My weekly ritual of Aquafit engages and redeems more than just my fear of monsters, drowning and bad bathing suits. I love the changing room experience. Seriously. It’s an all-female space where one’s body is just one of many different expressions of womanhood – where “sexiness” and “fashion” are off the table, and the only looks you get are ones of sympathy when you realise your bra is irrevocably tangled or your socks are sitting in a puddle on the tiled floor. Or in my case, you smash your head on an open locker door, and garner motherly attention and sympathy.

The childlike feeling of play that spurs me onwards to splash about is no petty thing either. Psychologically, exercise can make the difference between depression and alertness, the dividing line between vague, unexplained sadness and specific contentment. Moving through the water introduces me to anti-gravity, lesser known muscles, and a pleasant awareness of my own proportions.

Proprioception is a sixth sense that governs balance, movement and the understanding of oneself in relation to the world. Essentially, it’s the fundamental awareness of how your body moves through physical space – for example, my motor brain knows how heavy my arms are, and therefore remembers how much strength to use in moving them underwater. I have spent much of my life feeling too heavy, or out of proportion, and even just a smidge of non-punishing exercise has the powerful effect of nudging me back into a comforting sphere of feeling just right, perfectly fitted in my own skin.

I don’t imagine Aquafit will ever lead me down the epic path to ultimate, jaw-dropping fitness, but it fits me. The cardinal principle of recreation programming is simple: it’s not the outcome of the activity that matters most, but how people feel while participating. (I am still learning to apply this to playing games…)

So here’s to exercise that feels like play, costs less than a latte, and helps me practice my sweet, sweet dance moves.