Before I look forward, I need to do a shoulder check.
Life as a parent means primarily a life of never ending errands, punctuated by making meals and driving to after school activities, so I like to look back to prove to myself my life isn’t one long grocery list. There are other things that move me forward as a human being; a growing and learning and therefore interesting human being – it’s just hard to remember them. Although my life revolves, irrevocably, around my children, I still want to have a little orbit of my own. A part that is separate from my mothering role, so that when they fly the coop I won’t streak out of the Milky Way altogether.
Normally, when I reflect on a year, I figure out what ages and grades my children were in, and go from there. So 2009 was the year of grades 5, 3 and kindergarten. From there I recall the teachers, who largely made up my social circle that year, and then recall the activities they were involved with, the coaches of whom completed my social circle, and so on.
Exciting stuff. I will inevitably do this with 2012. But of course, there was more to my year than how much homework my children did or didn’t have. Fantastic moments that were sandwiched in between orthodontic appointments and marinating pork tenderloin. Some of them involved amazing friends and family members, while others were found in quieter times within the pages of a book or in the stillness of the forest. It’s not an exhaustive list, but here are a few highlights of my 2012:
- It was a year of real estate: I didn’t move mountains, but I moved our family to a new neighborhood. A simple sentence that explains six months of headaches. Not so much a highlight as much as an achievement, but let’s not quibble over details.
- I found wisdom, epiphanies, and triumphs in stories – too many books to list, but The Dovekeepers, When God Was a Rabbit, The History of Love, and Cloudstreet were a few of my favorite reads.
- The wise powers at Lululemon advise me to do something everyday that scares you. I did one thing in 2012: I sent my rough draft of my novel to an editor. It took 364 days to work up to it, in my defense.
- What’s a year without a soundtrack? If using the stereo of my youth, I’d have worn out the needle playing Bon Iver, Hey Rosetta, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and Kathleen Edwards over and over again, but luckily the digital versions are showing no signs of wear. The concert of the year easily goes to The Lumineers, who lit up the Vogue theater like no band I’ve seen.
- I started swimming with a masters group. In my first week I swam more lengths of the pool than I had my entire life. And I’m old, so you do the math.
- We vacationed in beautiful paradises, both near and far, but 2012 will go down as the year that I finally went to the city that Frank Sinatra crooned about. The one that is the setting for so many movies, books, and reality television shows that I felt like I knew it like the freckles on my daughters nose. I had to resist the urge to tell my cabbie to take Atlantic Avenue rather than the Long Island Expressway to get to JFK. It was weird.
There. It’s recorded for posterity – moments of magic amongst the mundane – these assorted flickers of joy help to distinguish my 2012 from the thousands of carrots I’ve peeled. They may pale in comparison to watching my children grow into astonishingly astute beings, but these moments, purely mine, help me to appreciate my little shooting stars even more.
Moving is a pain in the ass. That aside, it holds its share of magical moments.
My angst has a lot to do with the moving method I use. I could simply fire things into boxes, close them up, mark which room they are destined for. But no.
No, this is not the way I move. I hold each item and feel its weight, considering its worth.
My painfully slow (yet methodical) ways have unearthed treasures. Chief among them, a poem my father wrote for me on my eighteenth birthday, four years before he died. I included it in my poetry anthology under the ‘unpublished’ category, compiled for my grade twelve English class. A century ago, give or take a decade.
My father had a habit of jauntily clacking away on his typewriter at 11 pm when the rest of us were trying to sleep, the returning clang of his carriage a lullaby of sorts. Here is one of his creations:
(Note that my birthday coincides with the anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, in which two war-bound ships collided, killing 2000 people.)
Dee and the Blast
What event could possibly compare
With the day Deanna chose to appear?
An explosion – a mighty blast – that rocked the earth,
Shattered homes and reduced a city to crumbling dirt.
Could an explosion mar the day
That Deanna claimed as her birthday?
The two events divided by some five decades of time
Had elements of sameness, simple yet sublime.
Both were historic events by any measure.
One brought death, destruction and desolation,
Deanna dominated with a frailty that invited consolation.
The ships met head on in the bay,
Deanna met the world by the light of day.
Her frailty she subdued as her awareness grew
Of hunks and dunks and volleyball, too.
She’s now eighteen and journalism is her thing,
The 1917 blast has lost its zing;
Deanna, on the other hand, is ready to swing.
In my afterword, I boldly proclaimed that I enjoyed my father’s poems over those of Wordsworth and, yes, Shakespeare, using the supporting argument that a poem about oneself is hard to beat. Amazingly, Mrs. Bowlby didn’t fail me.
Not everything in life is fraught with difficulty, and littered with obstacles, like the garbage can I had to hurdle this morning while walking the kids to school. For instance, did you know any idiot can string a few sentences together and self-publish an e-book?
I’ve tested it. It’s true, and fairly easy. If you have all of your ducks in order, it takes about five minutes. By ducks, I mean a written manuscript, cover artwork, and a marketing description.
I thought it would be fun and fancy to put together a book of essays on motherhood in time for Mother’s Day. I found a graphic artist on Craigslist, Ed, who deftly assembled a cover for a miniscule amount of money. While Ed was creating his masterpiece, I cut and pasted essays I have written over the years into a Word document, and voilá, my main ducks were assembled. I planned on winging the marketing description duck. (In fact, I more than winged it, I wrote it in one minute when I heard my children coming up the driveway from school. In a bid to get something accomplished that day, I panicked and hit ‘publish’. I’m not sure what I said, but am hoping it can be changed if it’s as cheesy as the hamburger I’m about to eat.)
Since I have a Kindle, Amazon seemed the like the most natural recipient for my prose. They offer their own publishing service, Kindle Direct Publishing, and it’s simple to navigate the process. There were a few things I had to investigate further: ISBN numbers, Digital Rights Management, and the issue of dealing with an American company as a Canadian citizen, but nothing critical. It wasn’t brain surgery, or as difficult as getting my kids to eat vegetables.
I was hoping to publish it as a Kindle Single, but it turns out you have to apply for that special status. I am waiting for the Gods of Kindle Singles to get back to me on that one, fingers crossed.
But in the meantime, my status has changed from in review to publishing, so that has to be a good sign. I’m not trying to sell myself short here, but if I can do this, anyone can. Getting my children to eat vegetables, on the other hand, takes true genius.
A Mother’s Tonic: Tales from a Real Housewife of Vancouver, is available for $2.99 in the Kindle Store on Amazon, I think.
There were many stories to choose from, so writing a 500 word story about John was difficult. Yet when you have known someone like him, and he is taken too soon from his life’s course, you want to tell everyone you pass in the street about this incredibly dynamic person. As if the loss will start to make sense, the more you speak about it.
I had to virtually sum up his career of teaching kids with a short sentence – hardly doing it justice, knowing that he was a positive influence on countless students. I barely mentioned his close relationship with his wife and children. But that’s national newspapers for you.
At his funeral, his past running coach told me the story about how he ran a 5 minute mile in his hungover state one day. His coach was clearly impressed at John’s abilities, (perhaps less impressed, but still slightly amused, by his priorities). So many athletes wouldn’t have turned up for that practice at all; his youthful bravado and competitive spirit shine through this story – a story long since forgotten by John, but remembered by his coach.
Golfing with John was a treat for anyone, so that story had to make the cut. He took fewer swings than most golfers, so I think he came up with the idea of being the sharpest ball hunter that ever walked the links to challenge himself while the rest of his foursome duffed it out. He proudly told anyone who would listen how he had never in his life bought a golf ball, since he had buckets full of them from his jaunts through the rough. He would stuff handfuls of balls into my bag before we teed off. I blame him for my enduring inability to read a putt, since I would arrive on the green and he would hold his putter where I needed to aim, either to the right or left of the hole. He was always right.
There were so many stories that couldn’t fit. Like the time when travelers were stranded in Halifax during 911, and John ended up bringing two men home, making space for them until they were cleared to fly again. Countless stories about the times he coached Peter or Julia, about trips he and Debbie had taken, and many, many about his antics that were uniquely John. There was truly never a dull moment when he was in a room.
His large personality paved the way for thousands of funny situations. Let’s say he was no shrinking violet. But for the complete picture, he was also smart, generous, warm and caring.
For some people, the word “brother” conjures someone who they rarely speak with and can barely tolerate. The relationship means different things for people. But I was madly in love with my brother, and I know the rest of my family was, too. He was a rare and unique gift. We are missing him, but he is lodged somewhere between our hearts and our minds.
With every breath, I feel his presence.
I’ve read the Facts and Arguments page in the Globe and Mail steadfastly for years. Truthfully, some days it’s the only page I read; I thumb past the political hoopla more quickly than I should and head straight to the back of the Life section. (The Saturday Arts section is also divine and renders me weak in the knees, but on weekdays I have to satisfy myself with the essay.)
On the Facts page they showcase an essay submitted by random Canadians, and run a clever illustration alongside. Often they are lighthearted musings, occasionally poignant, and sometimes delightfully funny. There’s enough space for the writer to delve into the heart of the matter, and dissect it accordingly.
In retrospect, I should have given more thought about my topic, which unfortunately is my love/hate relationship with the mall, but I’m seeking solace in the fact that Adam Gopnik‘s topic for the upcoming Massey Lectures is simply winter. And he’s speaking for a whole week on that one.
When someone asked Gopnik “why winter?”, he replied he was waiting for a bus on a cold day in NYC when he received the offer to give the lectures, and he decided then and there to talk about winter. Right then and there! Shouldn’t he have perhaps consulted Margaret Atwood or Douglas Coupland? Or at the very least Googled “top ten interesting topics for scholarly discussion”? Past topics of Massey Lectures have included The Unconscious Civilization and Globalism and the Nation State. Winter is so simple it’s profound, perhaps.
(In any case, it works for me: winter holds more appeal for my simple mind, I refer you to my aversion to politics.)
Not to draw similarities between myself and Gopnik, because surely there are none besides sharing a few letters in our names and a country of birth, but I stumbled across my topic in a similar fashion. My daughter had asked me for the umpteenth time that week to take her to the mall, when I felt the bile rising in the back of my throat at the thought entering its revolving doors. Instead of taking this frustration out on her I very maturely picked up my laptop and wrote about them. Then for some god-forsaken reason I emailed it to the Globe, and the rest, as they say, is in today’s broadsheet.
Click here to link to the article, and keep in mind I was using the mall as a metaphor for suburbia itself, of course.
To be totally upfront, as writing careers go mine has been far from stellar.
One month after graduating from university with a degree in Journalism, my father, a local journalist and my inspiration, died; and so did my aspirations for a writing career. I wrote about this here, in my inaugural post for this blog, in case anyone besides Mom cares to read it.
Instead I got a job that delivered decent money if not bylines, and the rest is yesterday’s news.
But since everyone loves it when old dogs learn new tricks, I have a modicum of success to report. It is really little – like a freckle on Diana Swain‘s face. But it’s the most success I’ve had since putting the perfect ratio of peanut butter to jam on my sandwich last week, or ever, so I’m rather excited.
As the rain fell and the wind blew one day, I submitted an essay to the Globe and Mail. Granted, my topic was pretty lame; it’s far from Nietzsche in scope and as always short of Austen in form. It’s about the mall.
Yet incredibly, today they replied they were using it (slow essay month, I guess). They would be publishing it this Friday, October 14th.
It took me a minute before I realized that just happens to be my dear father’s birthday, of all days. So happy birthday to my father, who was more profound and witty than I will ever be, and who never lost his enthusiasm for life.
Sometimes the people who motivate me are at a great distance. They are on television or in history books, and I will never meet them.
But other people who motivate me are right under my nose. In fact, today’s case only comes up to my armpit, and I feed her and take care of her everyday. She’s nine. She’s my daughter.
She has a tendency to throw herself into everything she does with gusto, full throttle and heart first.
This daughter of mine has a tenacious grip on what she plans to be when she grows up. Since she was a wee thing, she has wanted to be a writer. And to this end she writes volumes of articles, stories and blogs. Her imaginary play revolves around her role as a reporter, and she walks around the house with a notepad and pen tucked into her shirt. When I clean up, I come across scraps of paper she has written on, and other evidences of her pretend articles.
How can I be a better writer, she would ask me, and I would reply, keep writing. And so she does. Day after day.
I was not as single minded as a child, wanting to be a veterinarian, a teacher, a doctor, a magician, depending on which way the wind blew. I keep expecting her whim to change, but she remains fixated on her goal.
Inevitably, the day came when she asked me, Mommy, weren’t you a writer? And I so eloquently stammered, ah, well, sort of but not really, um, a long time ago. She wouldn’t let me off the hook. Well, why don’t you write?
I had always thought it would be my job as a parent to cheer my children on in whatever they pursued. It would be my job to instill in them a desire to persevere and work hard to achieve their goals. But quite the opposite has transpired. It is my child who motivates and teaches me.
Watching her diligently go about her work and play, I realized I needed to step it up. I needed to at least try to write. As Lyle Lovett once asked us, “What would you be if you didn’t even try? You have to try.” Taking a good hard look at myself as a role model, there wasn’t much to go on. I didn’t see in myself anything that could inspire her.
So now, everyday, I try hard to be like my daughter. In manageable chunks, I try to emulate her enthusiasm and dedication for writing. Her unfailing cheerfulness, generosity and kindness are other things to strive for, but I will attempt these another day. First things first.
When I grow up, I want to be just like my daughter.
Whenever I’m in a book store discreetly trying to find a self-help book on how to make my life perfect, incognito in hoodie and sunglasses, I inevitably bump into another woman I know.
We exchange weak smiles and tell each other we’re looking for a gift for a down and out friend.
When I was growing up there was a copy of Dale Carnegie’s bestseller, How to Win Friends and Influence People, floating around my house. My brother was a disciple of this book, and quoted it often. I once thumbed through it, but quickly determined it would not help me in any way break into the cool crowd in high school. That was a different chapter altogether.
My inclusive but not exhaustive list includes: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, All I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, The Happiness Project, The Four Agreements, and The Secret. I draw the line at anything with Dummie or Chicken Soup in the title.
It was worth a shot, I thought, if the key to the perfect life was written in black and white, it would be silly of me not to to read it. Like buying a lottery ticket, they were a harmless gamble. But the only thing any of them did was instill in me a desire to write a legitimate self-help book, one that would actually give practical tips on living a better life.
I’m slowly getting it. The secret is there is no secret.
None of these books seemed to speak to me, personally. Of course they didn’t, they were written for the masses. They were written for the world at large, as though our brains function similarly. As though we are all wired the same.
We are so not.
I once saw Sia, a folksy Australian singer, in concert. She came out on stage wearing massive seven-feet high paper mache wings. It was quite a spectacle. She told us they were made out of every self-help book she had ever read. Ironically these heavy wings caused her to suffer from heat exhaustion and she left the stage after only four songs.
All those self-help books did was weigh her down.
And so it goes. Last week I went to the Momcafe in Vancouver, where the speaker implored us to stop looking for that last self-help book. The room erupted in laughter, we all knew what she was referring to. The answers can’t be found on a book shelf. Yet we can’t stop ourselves from looking, which is why The Power, the sequel to The Secret, has become a bestseller. Obviously, The Secret didn’t quite get it done.
Like Dr. Seuss summed up so eloquently in Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, so many of us are in the waiting room. Waiting for the phone to ring, or the snow to snow, or waiting around for a Yes or a No… Everyone is just waiting.
I was waiting to read the perfect self-help book.
The answer is in each of us, if we care to listen. What’s important to me might not be important to you. What I love you may despise. Listen to yourself, and don’t let a book tell you how to live. Instead, write your own personal version.
When terrible things happen to other people, it’s a wake up call to live your best life now. There can be no silver lining from Japan’s tragic earthquake, simply a reminder to all those more fortunate to not take any day for granted, squeeze whatever you can out of today because tomorrow holds no promises.
In creating its famous advertising campaign, Nike inadvertently gave us all the perfect slogan: Just Do It.
Between Nike and Dr. Seuss, I have all the self-help I need. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some wings to build.