Saturday, March 31, 2012

True Confession Time

So, true confession time. After reading the book One Thousand Gifts, which takes gratitude as its life-changing theme, I decided I too would become a more thankful person. I would keep a little notebook. I found a little notebook, and while I kept it, I didn't exactly keep notes in it. I did manage to record four items I was grateful for one day.

And then Lent approached and I was debating what to give up. I had given up Facebook twice before and it was revolutionary, but I genuinely felt that having just relaunched my business, it really wasn't the time to go missing from a social network (see how my addiction grows?). I also contemplated going meatless for 40 days, but our diet is already pretty challenging and soon we would be living on air, so I decided that wasn't it either. I had accidentally fallen into sugar addiction this winter; usually I don't have a sweet tooth, but I had some sugary stuff and then some more, and I wanted out of that, so I decided that I would give up sugar (although not scrupulously -- if our spaghetti sauce had a bit, oh well -- but I wouldn't eat desserts, sweet drinks, and I would join my daughter in maple-flavoured granola and such.). But that one felt like something that should happen anyhow.

So, I decided to add a second fast. (Let me say that by talking about it now, I am kind of negating what I'm about to say, but there's a reason for it.) I decided to fast from a certain kind of Facebook: rather than my usual witty, self-centred posts, I would only post things I was grateful for.

There's still a week left in Lent, but I'm not sure whether it's been harder to banish the physical cravings or the emotional ones. Certainly I have wanted a cookie here and there, sometimes quite badly. I've cheated twice -- once utterly accidentally at a work dinner when I was served dessert and didn't even think of it until afterwards. (Interestingly that set off a sugar craving.) The second time was at a farewell meeting with a client -- I decided it would be ruder to refuse. I also have followed the practice of having Sundays be a feast day, where fasting is off for the day. The first week, Dave bought me a small Laura Secord Easter egg -- and I ate half of it before breakfast, and then enjoyed a sugar-induced headache. As time has gone on, though, I feel less of an urge to Eat Sugar Because I Can.

But my Facebook partial fast has been even more interesting. I decided not to tell Facebook what I was doing, but not to keep it an utter secret either. I mentioned what I was doing, a week in, at church and a Facebook friend said, "Ohhhh, I noticed something was different."

So did I. Joining my desire to be thankful with my Facebook habit made it way more successful than my little notebook. That didn't translate into lists and lists of things I was grateful for. At least not some days. Some days, I walked the dog with a cloud over my head, trying to imagine how I could spin gratitude out of the situation that was bugging me. And then, the cloud thickened as I realized how little I had to not be grateful for, and how difficult it sometimes is to even know what is good and what is not -- how gratitude can spring forth from any situation.

I didn't break my Facebook fasts on Sundays. It's one thing to scarf sugar and quite another to whine and complain about a week's worth of woes and inconveniences.

People responded differently to these posts too. There were Likes from different people than usual. There were stories about people's own similar experiences of noticing good things. Facebook asks: What's on your mind? Being grateful changed the answer from MEMEME to looking outside myself.

And here is the kicker. Just this week, I felt a bit surprised and disappointed that my stats were down on this blog -- fewer people had read what I posted than usual. And then, a friend commented in a note that I had been quiet on Facebook for a while. I was puzzled: I had been posting every day. And then I looked closer and realized that actually in sending a link to a friend through Facebook, I had accidentally changed my settings so that only this friend had been getting my posts and notifications about the blog.

It took nine days and a friend's question for me to realize.

The purposes of Lent are many, but among them are learning to say no to self, learning the discipline of delayed gratification, the meaning of the cross. Feeling my occasional crankiness for sugar and saying no to it sometimes felt futile, stupid, pointless and utterly unspiritual -- but still I said no. And I think I'm more ready for Easter because of that discipline. But, the other discipline has had richer changes. It's saying no, but it's also a saying yes -- a saying yes and thank you to what God brings into my life, rather than resisting it, even with charm. It's saying no to self and yes to life. It's resisting the urge to blurt out the emotions of the moment-- good, bad or ugly -- and instead to receive what comes with grace.

So, one week left. And then there shall be cookies and bubble tea and biscotti and liorice and a certain amount of thoughtless eating. But, I haven't decided yet whether to let go of this other discipline. I think I will post more links than I have, share resources. But I think of that pre-breakfast sugar headache, and I wonder what the consequences are for self-centred spontaneous expression -- whether soul ache, for writer and reader, are the result, and whether this fast may, actually, last.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

If he can make it there, he'll make it anywhere

It was perhaps not one of my finer parenting moments, but the one time I left my then-18 month old in front of the Teletubbies to have a shower, the episode involved a scary lion and a bear fighting, and then there were tears and a letter to TVO.

Flash forward a dozen years or so.

My son has just left for New York City. He's going with my sister and her crew, and will be a combination mother's helper/tourist for the next few days. An hour ago, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't made sure he had out-of-country health insurance. I scurried and called and now he's covered. I made a quick grocery store run this afternoon too and asked him what I could pick up for him (he has an enormous appetite and a moral aversion to the Golden Arches). He shrugged, couldn't think of anything.

And that's what it's like to parent a teenager. (That plus the weird conversations we've been having these days, wherein my kids think I'm mad at them, when actually I'm struggling to understand the words coming out of their mouths. Case in point: coming out of the dentist earlier today, my other son commented that he was walking manually. I apparently gave him That Look and asked what he meant. He explained that it was taking thought to walk after being drilled for an hour. It wasn't automatic. These teenaged metaphors are sometimes beyond me.)

I've been trying to figure out how to best prepare my eldest for the Big Smoke. I went the first time myself six years ago, and frankly, it was less other-worldly than I had been led to expect. Dense, but not unfamiliar. I got to see the best of New Yorkers too, because I was there to see my sister and her newborn baby, and I got to carry the baby around, a talisman for all to touch and bless.

At almost fifteen years of age and scraping six feet tall, my son is likely not likely to be kidnapped (although I have considered possible scenarios). He's packed five teeshirts, one sweater, no coats, and three camerca batteries: he's there to see through a lens, and I can barely think of a better place to do so.

We sat on the couch for a few minutes before he left. I asked him to ask me three questions, to make sure he was prepared. He asked: What was your favourite place in NYC? (Central Park) How should I approach strangers? (polite detachment) and um, um, um... Are there dogs in NYC? (Yes. Sometimes in purses.)

Then I offered him three pieces of advice. Have an adventure. Remember you aren't invincible. ("I am, I am..."") Remember that you have a mom and a dad and a dog and two siblings who love you.

Dave told him a story about one of his students, who stood in Times Square, showing a friend how much cash he had, and how a hand reached out of the crowd and took his wallet back into the crowds.

Today's been a weird day: I'm letting go of this boy while caring for our puppy who badly, badly cut his back paw yesterday and who needed to spend the morning at the vet today and now looks like a wounded veteran.

But here's how the puppy got hurt: bounding through the woods near our home. And we let him do this and will let him do so again, because there are worse things than injuries. For this dog, as I said recently, is made to run and to leash him up forever would be terribly sad. And likewise, to leash my boy up would be a mistake too. Yes, I reminded him he wasn't invincible. But first I told him to have an adventure.

And I hope he does.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Happy Birthday Lucky

My dog is 1 today.

We made it. He made it. There have been more than a couple of times in the last few weeks that I have wondered whether he would make it -- as he took off after rabbits and squirrels in the deepening dusk with no certainty of his return.

He's a dog who is built for running, the second-fastest dog I've ever met, which is why we let him run. His wings have been clipped, so to speak, the last few days, because it really is no fun to chase him in and out of backyards of neighbours.

It is still more fun though than the first hellish three weeks he lived with us, when we tried valiantly to keep him in a crate at night. I almost wrote cage, because that's how he saw it -- cage, prison, exile. Three weeks of sleepless nights, not listening to his instincts or ours, wondering what we had done, remembering our cat with great, great fondness. And then we decided to let him out, let him sleep on our bedroom closet floor at night -- and he slept all night long every night, and we started to like him.

If dogs are like their owners, here's what you need to know about us: we're filled with mischief, we love people and fully expect them to be delighted with us too. We love to dig and to explore. We're smart and attractive. We know lots of words. We're motivated by food and novelty. We are good friends. We prefer cool weather -- and wilt when it's hot. We alternate between indolence and energy. We hate water -- believing we're made of sugar.

It's been good to have a dog this winter, a sentient alarm clock that forces me out of my chair, off my computer and out into the big world for walks several times a day. There are days when it takes actual whining and scratching to actually dislodge me from my desk, so a dog is a perfect exercise accessory.

We've met terrific people of all ages through dog ownership. We've met weirdos too.

I think I've mentioned before my tendency to give my pets an actual voice. (Our first cat stuttered like crazy. This dog's use of grammar is atrocious.) It's like putting captions on photographs. In that light, let me tell you what our dog thinks about turning one. He thinks he's a big boy now, that he will no longer submit to baths, that he's now the boss of himself. He also promises he won't run away or get into mischief anymore, although we suspect he has claws crossed behind his back on that one.

For weeks late last spring, I regretted our decision to get a dog: a dog is not a cat. A dog is very different from a cat. A dog has much higher needs than a cat. This gave way to grudgingly acceptance that he was, nonetheless, a great dog (most of the time). Then, around Christmas, he got to a great age. He was about nine months old, but it reminded me of when babies are five months old and the craving to have another is irresistable. In the dog's case, he was still sweetly puppyish in temperament, energy and looks, but he had learned to listen and his energy could be very much predicted and channeled and eased. He became a complete pleasure to have as a member of our household.

So now, I still wouldn't exactly say I'm a dog person, but I'm very happy -- lucky even -- to be this dog's person.

Happy Birthday, Lucky!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Lemony Snicket meets The Hunger Games

You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”– Madeleine L’Engle

I've had an essay brooding in my mind for months now, and it makes me wish I was in university taking a YA lit course so that I could actually explore these themes in a real and extended way. Instead, please bear with my semi-scattered thoughts (let's blame the unseasonably warm weather, shall we?) and linked quotations from better minds than mine.

If I were writing a real essay, my rough draft would start something like this: The purpose of this essay is to explore the ways in which the young adult novels A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Hunger Games are ultimately hopeful and life-affirming, although in unconventional and very different ways.

First, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. Snicket's alter ego, Daniel Handler, is the son of a Holocaust survivor, who grew up hearing horror stories his father could not contain. This darkness is very clear in his series of 13 books, each of which makes constant tongue-in-cheek warnings to the reader to put the books down if they want to read something uplifting -- “If you are interested in happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters.” This is not false advertising: truth be told, almost nothing good does happen to the three sibling protagonists, from the initial fire that leaves them orphans to the final moments sailing off into an uncertain future alone. Adults betray them whether by intent or foolishness. Bad thing after relentless bad thing happens to them.

A big question in the Lemony Snicket books is how one can fight evil without becoming evil oneself.

So, where's the hope, you ask? YA author Madeleine L'Engle talks of writing, especially for young people. She says, “We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.”

The light in the darkness for the Baudelaire children is very small, but very real. As Lemony Snicket himself writes elsewhere, “Sometimes even in most unfortunate of lives there will occur a moment or two of good.” But perhaps what we need, in order to have hope, is just one small light, defiant against the darkness. And here it where it occurs for the three Baudelaires: “It dawned on them that unlike Aunt Josephine, who had lived up in that house, sad and alone, the three children had one another for comfort and support over the course of their miserable lives. And while this did not make them feel entirely safe, or entirely happy, it made them feel appreciative. They leaned up against one another appreciatively, and small smiles appeared on their damp and anxious faces. They had each other. I'm not sure that 'The Beaudelaires had each other' is the moral of this story, but to the three siblings it was enough. To have each other in the midst of their unfortunate lives felt like having a sailboat in the middle of a hurricane, and to the Beaudelaire orphans this felt very fortunate indeed.” (Lemony Snicket, The Wide Window)

Speaking of a small light, defiant against the darkness, that would be an apt description of the heroine of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen. The darkness in these dystopian novels is systemic, political and pervasive: in order to maintain power, children from the colonies are randomly selected to fight to the death in a televised broadcast to the entire nation.

The same question -- about fighting evil without becoming evil -- arises in this series as well. What fascinated me most about The Hunger Games is the fact that, while the books may appear to be ultraviolent, they are actually radically antiviolence, particularly the first book. The Baudelaires may fight mysterious forces to stay alive, but the task forced upon Katniss is to essentially subvert a rotten system without being destroyed by it, in one way or another.

Another quotation, this one from Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia among other wonders. She says, "I will not take a young reader through a story and in the end abandon him. That is, I will not write a book that closes in despair. I cannot, will not, withhold from my young readers the harsh realities of human hunger and suffering and loss, but neither will I neglect to plant that stubborn seed of hope that has enabled our race to outlast wars and famines and the destruction of death."

While there might be argument about the later books in the series, the first of The Hunger Games trilogy -- the one that's coming out in theatres in 36 hours!! -- illustrates Paterson's philosophy well. These too are dark books, and darker still because of the shiny parts -- the televised, glamorized violence that holds an uncomfortable mirror up to our own all-too-real dystopian world. (Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games says the genesis of the series came when she was flipping back and forth between television channels, some televising the various US wars around the world and others offering reality television.)

At the heart of these books too are a set of siblings whose love for one another is sacrificial and transformative. Such siblings and friends, companions along the way, make the difference between hope and despair.

Which brings me full circle to Lemony Snicket, and one last quote:

“It is a miracle if you can find true friends, and it is a miracle if you have enough food to eat, and it is a miracle if you get to spend your days and evenings doing whatever it is you like to do, and the holiday season - like all the other seasons - is a good time not only to tell stories of miracles, but to think about the miracles in your own life, and to be grateful for them, and that's the end of this particular story.”

It's not the traditional happily ever after, but it'll do. It'll do.

A Wee Break

It's March Break and it's been glorious weather all week -- mostly warm and sunny and sometimes crashing thunder and lightning.

March Break is officially my favourite holiday of the year -- because there are no family or church or societal obligations whatsoever to it. It's not long enough for leisure to become a burden but it's so much longer than a long weekend.

March Break is always when the winter breaks too, when spring bursts forth. Not usually as much as this year -- I almost literally watched the ice on our pool melt from total freeze to total water on Monday, and now our ducks have returned. A week ago today, I walked the dog on the golf course after a freak snow/icestorm and fell three times. Now the greens live up to their name and I've planted the beets, the carrots, the arugula, spinach and peas. The garlic scapes are an inch above the ground. All the bedsheets are washed and one room is newly painted a soft blue with shiny white trim. This missive comes to you from my front porch.

We've watched a bunch of non-award-worthy movies this week -- none of which I can recall right now -- a bit of basketball, and an episode of Survivor and one of The Voice. It probably is more time I've spent with my television screen since the last Olympics.

The dog has run away a couple of times. He has spring fever, baby. Last night it took a village -- four members of our family plus a couple of neighbours -- to track him down. My rugby-playing son got one of his runs in, circling the blocks to the house where he heard the lady calling, "Puppy...puppy...get off the ice." He was found standing in the middle of her inground pool, on an icefloe, and then he escaped again and was captured by a friend. (Thanks, Leah!)

I've had a couple of days with morning sickness this week -- no, not that kind -- which I think was my strong constitution fighting off a stomach flu (either that or it was the olives that may not have been properly sealed), but because the week started off with my new novel finally starting to sing, and kids who were happily engaged, and work that could be done before kids woke up or while they made supper, I didn't really care. It felt like such a good week.

Today, I really had to finish the article on time management so I barked a little at people who invaded my space to chat, but I got it done. And then I looked at that frightening HST remittance form and did a small project that got postponed. I remembered about maintaining my Twitter account.

But I'm barefoot on the porch. (Again, not that kind of morning sickness) I'm planning burgers on the barbecue for supper. I'm loving the lengthening days. And keeping the puppy on a leash even while my spring dreams soar.

(Oh, and it was 25 years ago tomorrow that I started dating my husband -- although he says he started dating me on March 26. But then, I was an early bloomer.)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Work Clothes

In 1998, I graduated from a university program and as a gift, my parents gave me money to buy myself new clothes, but with the stipulation that they be Work Clothes. I was to "stop wearing jeans and sweaters' and prepare for a real career. I bought two skirts, a jacket, a pair of dress pants, and probably a blouse or two. I still own and wear one of the skirts.

But today.

Today, I put on a pair of jeans, my Ithaca Rutabaga Curl teeshirt, a black blazer, my green agate earrings, a fleur de lys necklace and my purple velvet sneakers and I went to work -- to say farewell.

And someone -- admiringly, I hope -- told me I looked hipper than ever.

I chose my clothes with care today, to make a really personal, if silent, statement. You know all those "when i am an old woman I shall wear purple' poems. Well, I'm not old and the only purple was the aforementioned shoes, but it's kind of like that.

I know that there are many, many people who need to wear a uniform to work, who have no choice about what they wear. This post is not aimed at them in any way.

But in bidding farewell to working in this office, I was also saying no to unnecessarily high heels, uncomfortably structured suits, depersonalized fashion -- which is kind of its own uniform -- and yes to just being me, weird teeshirt and all.

I'm really grateful to have this luxury. I'm grateful that an English degree ended up not being utterly useless. I'm grateful to have the luxury of not working in the salt mines of marketing. I'm grateful for texture and comfort and colour and design and secondhand stores and sale racks and Etsy and even skirts that my mother bought for me -- whether she imagined them paired with a rutabaga or not.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Publish or Perish

Around the time my first book came out, I overheard someone say something that was singularly unhelpful for me: you're only as good as your next book. This person was a relatively successful writer with a number of published books and a family that depended on the income, but what happened for me that day was that I was taken out of the present joy and into a place of pressure: it is not only in academia that one experiences the publish or perish phenomenon.

I've run into people lately who ache to be published or to find meaningful work, and I know that feeling very well, but I'm also well-acquainted with people who are very successful and still feel the pressure.

There's always a higher mountain to climb.

I know a visual artist who is struggling with this same concept right now -- pressure to submit paintings for a juried show, no inspiration and a leaden hand. This artist is suffering nightmares and anxiety -- and two or three years ago was tickled pink to be in a show at all, to have artwork sell, to have people compliment the work.

There's a little niggling voice that speaks to creative types -- and possibly to accountants too. I don't know-- and says, "what you're making is a) crappy, b) overdone, c) pedantic, d) crappy, e) derivative, f) crappy, g) stupid, h) crappy." It raises its eyebrows and asks, "Who do you think you are?" (It also has a twin who asks, "Why does no one recognize your sheer, magnificent perfection?" although that guy is usually off somewhere else.) It's a really common experience to hear that voice. When I found myself unexpectedly writing my first book, I had an answer to the questions: it didn't matter in the least what awful label should be applied to my writing -- I was doing it, at the base, for my own pleasure. There was also another line I found handy: "It's better than watching television."

But one book or a couple of art shows in and the stakes are raised. You're only as good as your next book. Maybe this explains the frequency of the sophomore slump, the second book that lacks the zing of the first.

Sometimes inspiration doesn't hit -- although the discipline of regularly trying, interspersed with good rest and recreation increases the possibility of coming upon something that works.

Here's what doesn't help: listening to those negative voices, succumbing to the pressure, feeling like you're only as good as your next book/painting/creation.

The thing is that it is better than watching television -- and that can be enough right there. It can be enough to read your book aloud to a group of kids or adults. It can be enough to paint or dance or sculpt or bake for a small audience who pays you only in applause and gratitude.

We buy into a myth that makes the dream impossible when we put so much pressure to perform on ourselves. That writer I talked about in the first place sacrificed an awful lot of joy in the writing process -- it might have been a better decision to write for love and to get a decent-paying job on the side.

It took me a long while to get over that pressure-that-masquerades-as-ambition. Thank heavens I did, since it's been six years and no published books since. Because I love what I've written, because others have too, and because at very least, it's better than watching television.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

International Women's Day

Three years ago this week, Dave and I were in Florence, Italy for the most lovely holiday. As we walked through the city, three years ago, we saw vendors everywhere with bunches of tiny yellow pom-pom-like flowers. They had not been there the day before, but this was Italy, where strikes could break out at any moment, and so apparently, could unusual flowers. Almost every other person seemed to be carrying these flowers, and so, I thought, when in Florence... and made Dave buy me a small nosegay. We asked the north African man who sold them to us -- and who incidentally spoke French rather than Italian or English -- what they were for. He had no idea. It was not until later that evening when we walked past Galileo's old observatory in the hills above Florence to have supper at a little restaurant that we found out. Upon our arrival, I was handed a small corsage made of the same scentless flowers and wished a happy Fete della Dame. It was International Women's Day and the Italian tradition was for women to receive and wear yellow mimosa to celebrate the fact.

This year's version has dawned cold and gray, with rain dashing away the last of the snowdrifts. I walked my daughter to school today and told her what day it was, asked her why she thought it was observed. She was running late, didn't care much and said she had no idea. We talked about the fact that a day like today was to remember the fact that equality was a pretty fresh concept, that in many parts of the world, she would be staying home to help me make supper while her brothers went off to school. She nodded, thought about that a bit.

And I went home to celebrate International Women's Day in a really different way: by finishing something I never should have started, by saying yes to my intuition, by trusting myself rather than voices of prudence, by listening to the man who has supported me in my dreams for more than 20 years, by being bolstered by the encouragement of two good women friends, by saying yes to risky new ventures and no to others.

It felt nearly impossible and it was only in hindsight that I made the connection, only as I took a deep breath afterward that I thought that it was a fitting day to stand for what I know to be right and true and to finally put away something I've been done with for a while.

I was raised in a family where our gender was part of who we were, but not where it restricted us. I've been fortunate to be part of communities and even churches that have affirmed my abilities and not reined me in. I have had a husband who has respected me. So, even though today was hard, it was part of a continuum I am grateful for -- and to do otherwise would have been to stand against the deep and relatively rare privilege I have enjoyed.

To take that hard step, though, today feels significant. It feels like saying yes to a bright bouquet of yellow pom-poms -- and saying thank you to those who have given them to me. It feels like the step is one that shows my daughter and sons how to be in the world. And it makes me think about how I am in the world, and whether in my dealings with people, I recognize how hard it is for some people to step out of the limitations that have been placed on them -- men and women -- and whether I help or hinder them in taking authentic and free steps.

And so, that's the next thing -- to use my hard no to be able to say hard yeses, to hold out a bright bouquet of hope to those who need it most.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Walking in Circles

"And when you fast, don't make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get.: Matthew 6:16

So we're two weeks into Lent now. 14 of 47 days, with time off on Sundays, if you so choose to observe Sundays as feast days, rather than fasting days.

I didn't grow up with the observance of Lent as part of my tradition but I have observed it for most of my adult life. I remember the year I gave up television and someone brought The Princess Bride to my house midway through the fast. It was relatively new at the time and I had never seen it. Imagine your first introduction to ROUS and iocane powder and the six-fingered man being all audio, from around the corner.

Two and three years ago, I gave up Facebook for Lent and it was a good discipline for me.

For some reason, this year, I'm slow to reveal what I gave up, but I'm willing to say that one of the things I gave up is a kind of food and the other is a kind of behaviour.

Sunday at church, my fasts made a lot of sense. It's not about giving up something one should give up -- I always give up smoking for Lent, ha ha -- but more choosing to learn to say yes to suffering on the smallest scale and to say no to self, to identify with Jesus and to train oneself in the way of willingness to sacrifice.

I had a dream the night before I herniated a disk in my back, five years ago, and it was one of Those Dreams. Again, I don't want to give it all away but in the dream I was avoiding suffering any way I could and also advising someone else to do likewise.

Neither the sermon nor the dream should make you think that I think we should seek out suffering or that the Bible teaches doing that, but whether it's as small as minor forms of self-discipline for a set period of time or willingness to identify with oppressed people, at the core of the Christian faith is the cross: the place where love and sorrow meet.


Except today, all I can think about is what I can't eat. Today, for the first time in two weeks I have a full-blown craaaaaaaaaaving. This often happens at some point in Lent, when the discipline seems utterly unconnected to anything higher and the decision to persist seems stupid.

So today, there's suffering.

The place I go to for retreats has a labyrinth made of field stones and punctuated by gnarled, thorny bushes. Unlike a maze, if you walk the labyrinth, you will make it to the centre and out again. I like walking the labyrinth, but nearly every time I walk it, I'm struck by the wild notion that I could simply step across the stones and make my way to the centre in three seconds flat. It's kind of compelling, in the same way you can picture yourself falling as you watch Niagara Falls in all its power. Or in the same way that a craving hits during a fast.

But you walk the circle of the labyrinth or the hunger of a fast by choice and it becomes something more, something consecrated and transformative.

That's not what my tastebuds say just now, but I believe it to be true. And so I wait for Sunday and for that Sunday.

Monday, March 5, 2012


You'd think eleven was in between. Tween even. Not a girl and not yet a woman.

But you'd be wrong. At least wrong on the actual birthday. There was pushing and pulling about the nature of the birthday party in advance, but the day itself was filled with grace and lightness.

The girl dressed herself in skinny jeans, a lace shirt and a stunning red jacket. She wore medallion earrings and wrangled her hair into a messy bun on the top of her head. Maybe it was because it was her birthday but she glowed like a supermodel. Or possibly a supernova.

She had a plan: games, movie, presents, snacks. She had friends: four of them were able to come, all giggly, posturing, bouncing around.

The games involved a shoebox filled with dollar store items, wrapped in ten layers of paper. My job was to play Taylor Swift songs, stopping at intervals for paper to be ripped off. Their job was to toss paper in the air, laugh, snort, and pass the present. The last one to open a layer was allowed to choose among the items and then it was a free-for-all. The most desired item was a squishy plastic tube filled with blue water and frogs, but the girl who got the slinky glasses and the one who was left with the feather boa were pretty happy too.

They played Wii, but spent the vast majority of their time making their Miis, complete with birthmarks co-opted into black ("giggle giggle") boogers. I left to put the laundry into the dryer.

We made mixed drinks using eight kinds of juice, two turkey basters and wine glasses. Everyone's drink was different.

Three of the five were enthusiastic about wearing accordion-pleated yellow paper napkins as moustaches en route to see The Lorax. Two would not be caught dead. One commented that the moustache waved in the breeze. We crammed five girls into our micro-van and took them to the movies, where they ran into The Principal of their school in the bathroom. Quelle horreur! We crammed them back in again and took them home.

She opened gifts and they knew her: rainbow toe socks, a novel as thick as a brick, hairbands, a sweatshirt, a music gift card, an iron-on smiley face and a teeshirt.

They ate cupcakes and had no idea they were gluten-free and vegan. They mixed more drinks.

They collected lootbags: Chinese takeout boxes filled with necklaces made of Florida seashells, bright miniature cactuses, homemade lipbalm, weird crystal tree-making kits.

They went home.

The birthday girl had requested pulled pork for supper and so we went what she used to call Meat-i-tarian for the meal. We had a birthday strawberry-rhubarb crisp for dessert. We opened family gifts.

As I watched her face light up with joy as she found out she had been given six weeks of guitar lessons and a sewing box filled with proper equipment, it occurred to me that eleven was supposed to be in between. She was supposed to feel like we or her friends either thought she was more or less grown up than she actually was.

The great gift of this birthday was that everyone got it exactly right. The fact that this girl is creative beyond measure and has hobbies and interests made it easier for all of us to delight her with good presents.

The puppy's gift was his willingness to have a bath that day. Not every gift was a thing. We told her that every girl wanted to watch the Leafs play the Canadiens on the evening of her birthday, but she just wanted to snuggle with her freshly-laundered pup, to discuss whether she would go with acoustic or electric, and to cut a tuxedo for a stuffed animal with her new sharp sewing scissors.

She blew out her candles but I'm not certain there was anything left to wish for.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

From the Gray Files

It's easy to confuse intuition and emotions, but let me give you a simple way to tell them apart:

Emotions are the perky impulses I have that tell me to get all the brown chopped out of my hair at tomorrow's haircut -- to go all Ellen Desgeneres after a particularly short cut. Intuition is the voice that lives somewhere near my sternum that tells me I'm not quite ready yet.

I might leave it up to my hairstylist but I don't know.

An older friend told me she knew women who took "several tries" to actually go gray. Good glory -- I'm only going through this once, I think. I haven't had second thoughts about letting my hair go gray. It feels like the very right thing to do, even though I wish I was less prematurely gray.

(A friend told me the other day, "Your hair is pewter-coloured." OK, prematurely pewter. Yeah, it is better.)

What I'm having a much harder time with is getting rid of the brown. Images of Rapunzel come into my head. I watched the Deepa Mehta film Water last week: in it, the beautiful widow who lives an almost cloistered life has her hair rudely chopped off by an older widow who wants to keep her younger counterpart from marrying a man who loves her beauty. I dreamed last night that my hair was similarly hacked off. And maybe tomorrow it will be.

I've always been the kind of person who, when I make a decision, bam, I try to make it so. Except as I've gotten older (yes, dear, I've earned this gray hairs with all my many years of experience) I've encountered situations that just don't call for a bam response. Situations that need to be approached organically, with a listening ear and a willingness to wait, even if the decision is clear. Like watching paint dry, letting one's hair grow out takes time, and it feels like, rightly so.

(The emotions pipe up at this point to remind me that I have always wanted to try super-short hair and that there would be no time like the present to attempt it -- and this is true also.)

It's only hair, I think. Maybe it's only hair.