Arm(y) of Me

On Monday night I went to bed like every other night, although that night I was anticipating my birthday, which was the next day. Tuesday. Yesterday. It might seem weird to you that a woman about to turn 51 years old was excited for her birthday, but as one of my 2018 goals, I promised myself I would not be mad about my birthday anymore. I was mad when I turned 50, 49, 48…the years stretch back in a series of annoyances. I’m getting old, damn it. But this year I decided to face it head on because, as they say, the alternative is worse.

I suppose I could lie about my age, but I’m a Capricorn, and we don’t like to lie. Mostly because we always worry we’ll get caught – and a lot of times we do get caught – because we’re just not good at it. So it’s either embrace the potential of a birthday in a positive way – another year on this planet! Presents! Cake! etc. – or be an old lady curmudgeon for the rest of my days. I decided to choose the happy persona.

So. Back to Monday night. Went to bed, the usual. Then at around 1:30am I woke up with a screaming, burning pain in my left arm and shoulder. There was numbness in some parts like it had fallen asleep, that pins and needles feeling. But mostly it was agonizing pain. And left arm pain is never a good sign.

I made my way downstairs for a heating pad and some Tylenol. and sat in a chair wide awake and wondering “Is this a heart attack? Should I wake John? What are the other symptoms? Why can’t I remember? Wait, heart attacks in women present differently. What else should I be looking for? Should I grab my phone and consult MedlinePlus?” And then “Of COURSE I would be the person to die on their birthday, why not.”

I need to mention that I was really calm throughout, which pleased me. I am, actually, a good person to have around in a crisis. Should you require one, I can be available. I am very, very practical, and I rarely panic. And I think that intellectually I absolutely 100% knew that I wasn’t having a heart attack, that it was likely just a pinched nerve, or even maybe I had been sleeping funny, but I had to go through all the “what ifs” before I could rule it all out.

I suppose if it was a heart attack I could have been DEAD before my brain reasoned its way through all the evidence, but whatever.

In the morning over birthday coffee, I told my husband what my night had been like and he was pretty pissed off that I didn’t wake him up while all that was going on. I shrugged and then I uttered the words that drove me the most batshit about my mother: “I didn’t want to bother you.”

I DIDN’T WANT TO BOTHER YOU.

Even our 17-year old said, “Mum, I think that if you think you’re having a heart attack and maybe dying, THAT KIND OF CONCERNS THE REST OF US JESUS CHRIST.”

My mother, for reference, fell down a flight of stairs and busted up her face, but waited THREE DAYS to go to the hospital and only ended up there because her friend happened to drop by for something unrelated, took one look at her, and forced her into the car to go to the ER. When she called me later, after they’d fixed what they could, I asked her why she didn’t call me. That’s when she told me “Oh it was a few days ago, I didn’t want to bother you.” And that’s when I lost my shit on her.

 

But, as it turns out, I have that same tendency.

Fortunately, it was a false alarm, I remain alive and able to celebrate my 51st year unscathed, the arm pain was likely from having a 65lb husky drag me around the city 7 days a week. Good to know, I guess.

Happy Birthday to me. Still alive, still annoying af.

Skin in the Game

2017 was notable for two things in my world and they are as follows:

  1. I turned 50 and
  2. I finally started taking my skin care routine seriously.

Don’t get me wrong, I have been taking care of my skin with various degrees of success for as long as I can remember, but in 2017, suddenly skin care was more visible than ever, what with all the K- Beauty products going mainstream in Canada and all. At any given time on any given day I could take a look at Instagram and see photos or video of someone in a sheet mask or an eye mask or doing a lip treatment or a neck treatment. Which is, in fact, amazing. I love it, love seeing people all “yeah, this is me, doing my best to not shrivel up to a husk over the winter” or “late night, too much booze, this is my hangover facial lol.” For a lot of years there was none of this candor, there was a lot of “I woke up like this,” and that’s fine too, but beginning last year it was nice to see people being upfront with what they need to – or want to – do. It was hard not to be inspired by this, and, of course, to want better skin in the process.

Then, just at the very end of the year, I saw this article in the New Yorker, and a lot of things kind of fell into place with what I’d been seeing over the course of the year:

The Year That Skin Care Became a Coping Mechanism

Ah, so that’s what was happening last year.

I am ultra aware that 50 is a little late to be jumping on this bandwagon – I mean the author of that article, Jia Tolentino is 28 and even she was told she should have been starting earlier with retinol. (As a very pasty person, I am well-versed in daily sunscreen application, so I’ve got that going for me, at least?)

So I’m not expecting miracles, and I haven’t been doing that shitty a job of looking after my skin, but this past year was the year I really started to notice the passage of time and what it has been doing to my face while I wasn’t looking, and the first year that I really looked hard into the mirror and thought, “Damn, girl.” And not in a good way.

Anyway, in honour of this new regimen upon which I have embarked (I won’t bore you with all the details of creams and serums etc.) I would like to take the opportunity to reminisce about Skin Care Products I Have Known. Because when you grow up female in North America, the bombardment starts early.

The first product I ever remember using on my face that wasn’t for decorative purposes was Clearasil. Ah yes, the acne highlighter! And I say highlighter because the only one you could get when I was in grade 6 was the “flesh” coloured one that was supposed to make your zits look like regular skin! Who had a skin tone that was that sickly, muddy brownish pink hue though, I’ll never know, and it was appalling, honestly. And it dried to a crust that just kind of surrounded your zit and let the zit revel in its own true ugliness, and it just made everything worse. And yet.

Eventually there came into the world the Clearasil vanishing cream that at least allowed darker skinned people to participate in the ritual of applying a zit cream that literally did nothing, but at least didn’t turn you into a stippled, brick-coloured mess whose face would crack at the slightest muscle twitch.

From there I learned that the biggest thing holding me back from flawless teen idol skin was not cleaning my skin well enough, so this led to a vicious circle of washing my face – probably with Noxema – yes, the same stuff our parents put on our sunburns. This was likely grade 8 or 9 for me, and once the Noxema came off, the next step was taking a cotton ball and soaking it in something called Sea Breeze, and swiping that all over my face. To really DEEP CLEAN my pores. Sea Breeze was – and still is, you can still buy the stuff – an astringent that wiped away all the traces of dirt on your face and, in the process, stripped all the natural oils away too! Leaving your face tingling! And sore! And smelling like some kind of blend of gasoline and citrus peel. And I used that shit DAILY. And never once did I put on a moisturizer, because I was so afraid of OIL. Oil, the ads told us, was the devil.

This is why Clean & Clear and Bonne Bell’s goddamn Ten-O-Six toner/astringent were such big sellers. Make the teens afraid of the slightest little bit of oil. Wipe it all away, you disgusting creatures. Worry about blackheads too, scrub the shit out of your face to make sure THOSE never rear their ugly heads. Or take a piece of pseudo-duct tape and attach it to your nose, then rip it off and look what you’ve left behind. Filthy.

Some of the best advice I ever got from my mum when I complained about my skin’s inability to be dewy and glowing and clear was to “leave it alone.” Honestly. And I know she was right. I mean NOW I know. At the time I was all eyerolling and grabbing another bottle of diesel for the face at the drugstore, but she was totally right.

It’s been a long ride to get to the point where I feel like my skin kind of likes me again, and I know now that the thing I avoided doing for so long – moisturizing duh – is the best thing you can do for your face. I still get weird days where my skin looks like hell, but now instead of covering up the issues, I think about what might have led to this. Is my sleep off? Have I had enough water? Did I get windburn out in -25 wind chill walking the dog? (The answer to that one is DEFINITELY in case you’re wondering.)

And when you’re 50 and you have an off day for your skin, guess what ? It’s not the end of the world. When you’re 13, oh man it 100% IS THE END OF THE WORLD. And I am so glad I’m not there anymore. And if I could go back at tell 13-year old Elizabeth to seriously just avoid the “paint thinner on a cotton ball” years, I so would. She probably wouldn’t believe me though. She was kind of a bitchy know-it-all back then.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday night cold vibes

It’s 2018 now and Happy New Year, and let’s hope we make it through without dying in some horrible Twitter-related dick measuring nuclear strike incident! Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but there it is.

I am currently drinking orange cinnamon tea and eating toast with honey because I am ever-so-slightly under the weather. It’s just a cold, nothing serious, but it’s a good enough excuse to eat toast and honey, which I really don’t do often enough. Not just any honey, mind you. Stay away with your liquid Billy Bee is what I’m saying. I’m only here for the solid, white, slice it like butter honey. There is probably a name for this kind of honey, but it escapes me. But, this is the honey of my youth – and honestly, I didn’t know there was any other sort of honey until I became an adult – and it’s the honey I stand by. I also had it on toasted baguette because I am fancy.

When my mother quit smoking back in 1975, spoonfuls of this kind of honey are what worked for her. She also wallpapered the bedrooms in our house and did some painting to keep herself occupied, but she told me years later that every time she had a craving for a cigarette she would go to the kitchen and eat a giant spoon of honey, then go back to what she was doing. Whatever works, I guess. There were no drugs or hypnosis for smoking cessation, there was really just cold turkey. Or cold honey, in her case.

So naturally I associate honey with quitting smoking, but so far have refrained from asking smokers who are trying to quit “Have you tried honey?” They don’t need that kind of aggravation.

So back to my cold. It’s nothing, really, but earlier I did start to feel a little bit loopy like maybe I had a fever (I don’t.) I did, however, finish reading Michael Redhill’s Giller Prize-winning Bellevue Square and holy hell, now I realize that is definitely what made me loopy.

If you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil it for you. Mostly because I wouldn’t even know how to begin to describe it, other than it’s the story of a woman and her doppelganger. OR IS IT?

It’s worth reading, it really is. Redhill plays with imagery and humour, and his prose is beautifully done. At times I felt like I was the one wandering the streets of Toronto looking for her (I’m not even going to give you character names because I am still not sure of anything) it was that compelling. And like with a lot of novels that are twisty and turny – the technical terms, obviously – I felt completely unmoored at times and smacked in the face like Sideshow Bob and the rakes at other times. It’s a trippy trip, let me tell you.

And obviously, the Giller jury thought so too, so you know, it isn’t just me saying it’s a good book that you should read.

If you’ve read Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things you will recognize this feeling of not being in control of what you’re reading. I mean, I guess that’s kind of a weird thing to say, obviously an author has written the book, you don’t get to have control, it’s not like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” kind of deal, but maybe you get what I mean? I don’t know. Read it, and then we can talk about it. Just not yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review, Year in. Part III: Books

Obviously, it had to happen. I had to compile a list of my favourite books from this year. This wasn’t my best reading year, I’ll admit that right from the start. And by best I mean most books read. Quality-wise it was a pretty great reading year, but by midnight, I will likely have 37 books under my belt, just short of my goal of 40. But it’s ok! Because what I lacked in reading, I made up for in actual writing, and I am feeling pretty good about that.

I’m dividing my top books into three areas: Goodreads 5-star books, Honourable mentions – mostly 4-stars, and faves from the gritLIT Festival. I feel this is the only fair way to do it. So. Here we go.

Top Books from 2017: 5-Stars, baby

  1. Hunger by Roxane Gay. I will read anything this woman writes, and I know I am not alone in that. This book was incredible. Everyone should read it.
  2. Brother by David Chariandy. Another stunner, and how it got left off the Giller Prize shortlist I will never know.
  3. The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble. I wrote a rather incoherent review of that book here, and I stand by my incoherence, but it is a hell of a book.
  4. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. This book made a lot of “best of” lists by people I follow, and that makes me really happy because it is so heartbreakingly excellent and gorgeously written. It remains with me pretty much daily, and I suspect it will for months to come.
  5. The Break by Katherena Vermette. Also beautiful, also heartwrenching. Also one I tell everyone I meet that they should read.

Honourable Mentions: 4-Stars (mostly)

  1. The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill extracted all of the emotions from me for nearly 300 pages and left me flayed and sobbing on the bus at the end, and that is my kind of book, friends.
  2. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. This was a slow burn for sure. Sparse and mysterious, and a real page-turner.
  3. Bearskin Diary by Carol Daniels. Blunt and raw, Daniels tells a powerful story of one victim of the Sixties Scoop, and her lifelong struggle of belonging.
  4. Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali. Also a story of belonging, this time through the eyes of a Muslim teen as she navigates faith, life, love and high school. This is a terrible sentence that makes the book sound light and fluffy, but trust me, it’s excellent. Really well-written and Ali gives great depth to these subjects and to her characters.
  5. The Prisoner and the Chaplain by Michelle Berry. Kind of a mystery, kind of a thriller, an intense and gripping story of a murderer in his final 12 hours on death row.

Faves from gritLIT Festival: Books I loved from authors I got to meet/hear read.

  1. Even This Page is White by Vivek Shraya. Definitely a highlight from the festival weekend. Shraya’s reading/performance was incredible and her book is outstanding.
  2. Heyday by Marnie Woodrow. An understated gem of a novel with themes of love and loss that I think more people need to know about.
  3. Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety by Ann Y.K. Choi. This novel might fool you into thinking it’s a light, coming-of-age story, but that just scratches the surface, honestly. Such a lovely, multilayered book.
  4. Mitzi Bytes by Kerry Clare also gives you the initial impression that it’s a fun, sort-of-mystery – and it is, but Clare digs deeper into themes of women’s friendships, and the self we reveal – or don’t reveal – to the world.
  5. I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. Holy shit this book. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before, and one of those novels that when you read the last page you immediately want to start over again to see where if you can figure out what the hell is starting to happen. At least that was my experience. A really intense thriller.

So there it is, 15 books that meant a lot to me this year. Lots of fiction, for sure. I seem to alternate between fiction years and non-fiction years, and for a lot of reasons, this was a true fiction year for me.

And I noticed that in many of the books I read this year, including some that aren’t listed here, the theme of belonging, of fitting in, and finding your place and your space in the world came up nearly constantly. I mean nearly every book on my lists here has the main character trying to find his or her (mostly her) place in the world, for better or for worse. Coincidence? Maybe. Perhaps it was just that kind of year. Or perhaps that’s what good fiction shows us; characters looking to fit in, to find who they are and what they want. Like most of us, I guess.

Happy New Year! Here’s hoping 2018 is not an actual trash fire like this year was. Say it with me: Less Trash, More Fire. Because we all could use a little more fire.

Review, Year in. Part II

I am currently sitting in a branch of the Hamilton Public Library awaiting a workshop on expressive writing. I’m not attending this session, I am running it.

*record scratch* Yeah, that’s me near the window making some last minute notes. And you’re probably wondering, much like David Byrne did, “How did I get here?”

A couple of years ago when I was working at the cancer centre, I was approached by the programs librarian from the Concession Branch, who asked if I had any programs I would be willing to run for their patrons. She was trying to build programs from organizations in the neighbourhood, which was – and is – a pretty solid idea. Got a wicked coffee shop nearby? Invite the owner or barista in to talk coffee – complete with samples! Have a yoga studio on the street? Bring the practitioner in to talk yoga for an hour! It’s a super cool initiative, getting ultra-local peeps to come and run a workshop or information session.

When the librarian reached out, I was all “Oh hell yes, I would love to do this!” And then she asked what kinds of programming I could do. And…well, shit. What could I offer? My job was lending books and finding information for cancer patients and their families. It was equal parts library work and counselor/bartender work, honestly. I listened to lots of troubles, handed out lots of tissues, was there for happy endings, and endings that weren’t going to be quite so happy. I had a brain full of information about cancer, its treatment, available community resources…but what did I have for the general public?

I took a look around my library at the books that were popular, the ones that flew off the shelves and had to be replaced frequently because they wore out or didn’t come back. Books on nutrition – what to eat when you’re undergoing cancer treatment – were hella popular. Movement therapy for cancer patients was always a big thing, exercises for getting your strength back. Yoga for cancer patients. Mindfulness – trying to calm your brain and find strength and peace. Journaling your way through cancer, writing your story, writing your feelings. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

If you look at all those things combined, they can all fall under one big umbrella called Cancer Patients Trying to Take Control Over a Situation They Basically Have Zero Control Over. When you show up at the cancer centre, you pretty much have to give yourself over to it. You’ll be told where to go for treatment, when that treatment is, what to do, and when to do it. It’s all part of the centre’s big ol’ plan they like to call Keeping You Alive, and honestly? They do a pretty great job of it up there.

But if you’re an independent grown-ass human like the majority of the patients, you’re probably used to NOT being told what to do on a regular basis, your life is your life and you make your own decisions, so this regimen of appointments, scans, treatments, and dos and don’ts of cancer life can really bring you down.

That’s where a lot of my resources came into play. There are so many things they can’t control, a lot of patients latch on to the things they CAN control – diet and exercise, meditation, yoga, spirituality, writing to make sense of things. And this is where I got my programming idea.

The writing/journaling piece was the one I felt the most qualified to speak on, but still not entirely qualified, you know? So I did a LOT of research and then sent my proposal to the librarian at Concession. I offered to run a one-hour workshop on the benefits of expressive writing on health and well-being. She loved it, scheduled me for a session, and I got started planning. The workshop became known as Writing Through Illness and Crisis. I led a few and the feedback was terrific, so they signed me up for another session – this time a two-parter, with the first part being the theory behind expressive writing, and in part two we put some of the theories into practice through with several writing exercises and discussion.

Last year I was invited to run a similar workshop, now as a part of the Hamilton Reads program. The pick for this year’s Hamilton Reads was Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, and HPL staff thought that could be a good fit for a workshop, so I tweaked it a little bit and it became known as Healing With Words: How Writing Can Help in Times of Crisis. For this, I was able to take my workshop on the road to several library branches, and I expanded it to include workshops for teens and preteens, for a total of 9 sessions altogether.

In a year that had some shitty moments, these workshops were such a wonderful highlight for me. Running the workshops in a variety of HPL branches, getting to know some of the staff, meeting incredibly inspiring adults, teens, and kids…it’s been an absolute privilege, and I am a bit sad that today was the last one.

Happily, I have been invited back (!!!) for spring programming to present workshops on journaling and memoir writing and I am super excited. This means more research (yay!) and more planning (double yay!) meeting more inspiring Hamiltonians and helping them find their personal writing voice.

I will honestly do this as long as they ask me to do it, and if they stop asking me, I will find another place to do it. I’m already considering taking it to the next level and running some workshops on my own, so if you’re someone who might be interested in this kind of thing, hit me up, we should definitely talk.

Huge thanks to HPL for this opportunity. And Hamiltonians, check out the HPL’s program guide when it comes out, there is some fantastic programming happening. And me!

Review, Year in. Part I.

Remember back in 2016 when everyone couldn’t wait for the year to be over because oh my god it was the worst year ever,? Then 2017 came along and was all hahaha up yours pal, you ain’t seen nothing yet? That was a trip, right?

I don’t see as many of those “just let this year die already” pleas as I did last year. Last year – at least until the US election – there was sadness surrounding celebrity deaths, and there were too many of them, of course. There was also that election, but until the ultimate awful thing happened, no one really believed it would. And when it did, people still held out hope. That everything would be ok. That there wouldn’t be chaos. That there wouldn’t be extreme hate. That there wouldn’t be fucking nazis running rampant and running a large, powerful country.

But there it is. It’s all happening in the worst way possible. And it’s horrible to witness and it’s much more horrible for Americans. American women, American POC, new Americans…you know the list of people it’s awful for, I don’t need to tell you. The list of people it ISN’T awful for is much shorter. Rich. White. Men.

This is not news, these are not revelations, I am not being profound or even original here. You’re all just as aware as I am, just as outraged as I am, and just as ready to burn it all down as I am. Perhaps even more.

But now it’s time for me to admit that while I know it’s not all about me, and I know that I actually have it pretty good from where I sit, based on who I am, based on where I live and all that, that this year has brought me the closest to absolute gutting anxiety, stress, and levels of depression that I have never before experienced. Ever. And I have had some bad years, trust. But this one. Man, the feelings of rage and angst, sadness and depression have been unprecedented.

It’s not all about politics and the state of the world, I’ve had some personal challenges as well, but I do believe the end times in which we seem to live now have had a rotten effect on my brain and my emotions. And I have struggled this year to make sense of a LOT of things, with varying degrees of success.

I come from a very long line of people with stiff upper lips. People who just dealt. Coped. Kept calm and carried on. It’s a very hard thing to break, this feeling that you need to keep it all inside, to just keep on keeping on, smile though your heart is breaking, etc.

When you’ve always been admired for your strength, it can feel like betrayal to admit you’re struggling. Betrayal to yourself (I should be able to handle this, what’s wrong with me) and betrayal to your friends (You’re always so strong. I don’t know how you do it, I would be a mess in your position.)

This is not to imply that my friends and family would feel betrayed by my asking for help, this is 100% me not wanting to burden anyone with my problems. Like I said, it’s a hard thing to shift.

And not to go all It’s a Wonderful Life on you, but I think we can all agree that if George Bailey had been able to send a group text like “WTF my crazy uncle lost 8 grand on me, can u guys help me out til the new year? Thx pals” he might have saved himself a lot of agony.

And while I have been George Bailey in the past, and in some ways continue to be George Bailey, I am working on it. Taking care of myself and making my needs a priority is new. Telling people I’m suffering, struggling, not dealing well is also new. It’s baby steps. And the people who love me get it, and I am so grateful for them.

2017 has been, we can all agree, an absolute trash fire in a lot of ways, but good people can still get you through. Find your good people and let them know. Check in with them on the reg, and find out how they’re doing. See them as often as you possibly can. Eat delicious food with them, have lots of laughs and drinks. Take copious amounts of selfies with them and host impromptu dance parties.

And when you’re struggling, ask them for their help. Don’t pretend you can go it alone, don’t pretend you’re fine when you’re not. Your people want to help you, and you need to let them help you.

That last paragraph was for me, mostly. But it’s yours too, if you need it.

 

 

 

NaBloPo No.

Back at the end of October, I toyed briefly – very briefly – with the idea of once again giving NaBloPoMo a go. It is, today, the 15th of November, and I have yet to contribute a blog post to the cause, so I guess you could say that idea is dead in the water. And that’s ok.

It’s definitely a challenge to work up a whole blog post every day for 30 days. I mean, maybe it’s not for you, but taking a look back at my most current posts, I seem to have gone back to being a once-a-month blogger. So if there is a challenge that is “write a blog post EVERY MONTH for an entire year” I could probably manage that. But even then…

The good thing is that I have at least been writing. I write a twice-a-week blog for a friend’s business. I’ve been asked to write some promotional material for another friend’s business, and I even wrote a book review – and then read and recorded it – for a radio program. So I’ve got that going for me.

And, of course, in the midst of all this are the short stories and potential novel (I know, right?) that I’m slogging away at on a fairly regular basis. So the words are getting out there. They’re just not getting in here.

It will come, I know it will.

For now, as proof of my actual writing, you can go ahead and listen to my shaky voice read my review on Get Lit:

http://www.jamietennant.ca/index.php/2017/10/26/get-lit-e49-with-karen-smythe-plus-a-book-review-by-elizabeth-obermeyer/

My voice isn’t that shaky, really. And writing a book review to be read out loud was a really fun challenge.

So I’ll leave it there for now, with a promise (to myself) to be back. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say. I just need to make time to say it here.