Category Archives: Life

On notice

I’m a noticer. I notice things. I suppose this isn’t all that unusual, lots of people “notice things” of course, this is kind of how humans work. But if you and I work together and one day you come into the library with new earrings or a different bracelet, say, there is a good chance I will notice before anyone else does. The same goes for haircuts, a new coat, that book you’re reading because you were reading a different book yesterday weren’t you? I guess if you’re trying to blend into the crowd or not draw too much attention to yourself, it might seem as though I am the wrong friend to have, but it’s ok! Because guess what? If I sense you are at all sensitive about your new haircut or you’re not sure if those earrings were a good choice with that dress, I will also notice that about you and then at some point, when no one else is around, I will tell you your haircut looks nice or those earrings are perfect with that dress. So overall I am a pretty ok friend to have, if I may say so.

And I bring up haircuts because I’ve often had several inches taken off my hair or had it dyed a completely different colour and NO ONE AT WORK HAS NOTICED. And I mean who wants to be that guy,  the one who is all “Look at my new haircut!” right? So because I tend to see those small details and notice slight changes, I am often annoyed with the people who don’t. But then I remember that not everyone has made what seems to be a career out of being hyper-observant, so I do cut people some slack. Sometimes my husband will say “You are the only person in the world who would notice that” and I just nod sagely like the wise old crone that I am. It’s a blessing and a curse, as they say.

If you have kids you’ll know that once they start to be aware of their own surroundings they like to point out the things that they notice. Worms spring to mind, it’s that time of year after all, and if you haven’t spent 3o minutes or more just watchin’ worms, well you don’t know what you’re missing. There is a lot to take in, worm watching. But it’s not just wildlife, (are worms considered wildlife) kids like to point at everything and it’s up to you, their parent, to name everything they point at. Even if (when!) you’ve named it a million times before if your toddler points at a door you say “Door!” Or “Window!” “Doggie!” “Chair!” “Daddy!” etc. Ad nauseum. Trust me.

And I remember every so often one of the boys would point to something at the park or in the backyard and I would name it for them and then think to myself “Wow I have never noticed that before.”And I call myself a noticer! So it’s true that once you have kids you do tend to take better note of things around you, partly because a lot of things can kill or maim your child so you have to be on high alert but also because they are experiencing these little things for the first time but for them, they are actually the big things! And it is fun to see the same old same old in a fresh new light and to see the little things that you might not have noticed before. Like if your small child hands you a Cheerio that they pulled from the rug, you may notice it’s probably time to vacuum. Kids are so helpful that way.

And so I did start to notice even more things once my kids were walking around and usually they were things at their eye level, of course, and this really gives you a different perspective on the world which is very refreshing, but I think I really became more of an expert noticer once we got a dog.

Our very good dog, Mya.

We have a dog, she came to our family nearly four years ago and I’m honestly shocked that this is my very first post about our dog, this seems extremely off-brand for me, but anyway. She’s a very active dog, she has at least three long walks a day and for the first little while, it was mostly me walking her, with John or one of the boys taking over occasionally. This was mostly because I wasn’t working at the time, both boys had school, and John was at work (not at home, working, strange as it may seem in our current world!) so Mya and I had a lot of time together. And the great thing about walking a dog as opposed to walking with small children is that you actually get to look up and all around you because the dog, unlike the child, probably, is leashed and can’t get away, so you can truly take in your surroundings. And yes, it’s true, you can also do this while NOT walking a dog, just, you know, walking by yourself, but because dogs do a lot of stopping and starting sniffing and peeing, it gives you that time to look around and take note, and sometimes you see brand new things. Like the time I saw a tree FULL of robins. Not just a robin, that famous red-breasted harbinger of spring, but dozens, probably close to a hundred or more and it freaked me out. When we got home I Googled “huge flocks of robins meaning” (which is a terrible search string for a library professional to use but I was nervous, ok?) I had never seen so many robins at once and I was convinced there was something very wrong. The first few hits pulled up robin facts and areas they live, migration patterns, etc. but finally one site’s information went something like “As with most birds, robins travel in large flocks, only pairing off just before mating season, dumbass.” I added the dumbass part myself, but it might as well have been there. Birds are birds, and of course they exist in flocks, but for so many years I thought that robins were the loners of the bird kingdom! You see? Had I not had that experience of noticing the tree full of birds I would have spent the rest of my days assuming that robins were anti-social creatures. How unfair of me.

There is an awful lot to take in for everyone right now, but I hope that at least once this week, no matter how you observe the world around you, you get to notice something brand new or something wonderful or even something that has always existed, perhaps hiding in plain sight then finally, triumphantly, revealing itself to you. And I also hope it’s exactly what you need.

 

 

 

The future’s so bleak I gotta lie down

Hi, hello, how is your pandemic quarantining life going? I know we are all baking and cooking and growing wee little spring onions and (in the case of me) baby romaine lettuces, taking physically distanced walks in our neighbourhoods when we can, building The Big Lasagna together (it was so delicious) and participating in Zoom cocktails with friends. But. But.

How are you actually doing?

Because honestly? I’m struggling.

And the thing is, I’m not struggling with the day-to-day. On that front, I am mostly ok. We are comfortable, we both have work, we all have food. I miss having Charles over, of course, Zoom family chats aren’t the same, but we are managing. We are, actually, in a very privileged position to be able to ride this out, and for that, I am extremely grateful. And if I don’t think too hard about it, if I don’t gaze too far into the future, it can feel like business as usual around here, it can feel almost normal. Even though everything is, of course, so far from normal.

But one of the things about me is that I often do think too hard about it, about everything. I can’t help it. And on the days that my brain just won’t stop thinking too hard, these are the days I struggle.

Because for me, the future seems incredibly bleak.

I’m specifically talking about the future of work as we know it and even more specifically the future of work as I know it in libraries where I have worked, it must be said though it pains me to admit, for over 25 years.

The future will, at least, contain salad.

I’ve always worked in public services – you’ll always find me at the reference desk, answering questions, helping people find things, helping them make sense of subject headings and Boolean logic. In previous libraries where I worked, I had that role and others including teaching library skills to classes of students, teaching web searching classes in the community, and presenting at conferences. Always live, always in person, just the way I like it.

Currently, now that the library is closed not only to the public but to the staff too, we are doing what we can for our students and researchers and that means email reference, telephone reference, and the occasional Zoom reference call and it’s been fine, honestly. It works, and that’s the main thing. It’s not optimal but not much during pandemic times is.

This week my supervisor requested that we all start thinking about what reopening the library – the public services side of the library – would look like and as I read through the document and the different scenarios she had suggested, I couldn’t help but feel weighed down by the fact that once we reopen and for however long after that, public services could potentially be a mere shell of its former self. And that makes me really depressed.

Will we require plastic barriers to protect us from students and them from us, thereby limiting our personal interaction with them? Are we also going to limit the number of people in the library at any given time? If so, how? Should we disable the photocopiers and printers, since students always need so much assistance with them? What about the students who just need to talk? The ones who are struggling to find a safe space? Will we continue to only provide electronic reference services even when the library opens so that we can practise safe distancing from not only our students but among staff? What about the students who don’t have reliable internet or a computer? Will we ever be able to have staff retreats, lunches, and in-class learning sessions? Is the staff lounge off-limits now, the kettle, the microwave relics of the past?

And as I read through this list, a lot of the examples I used (perhaps with the exception of in-person information services) seem small and some of them seem like things that aren’t at the very core of what we do in the library – but that is my actual point. We ARE getting work done during this pandemic. We ARE helping students; we’re calling them or emailing them to take a look at their search to help them find their resources, all the things we usually do. But it’s the other stuff that makes what we do so, well, what we DO. And what we are.

I know a lot of us are rallying around the idea of mourning – mourning the things we aren’t able to do right now and that is so, so valid. We are mourning and grieving for the theatre tickets that we bought a year ago, the weddings and birthday parties that are cancelled or postponed; we are mourning the losses of extended family celebrations and the multiple plans we had and I’m definitely here for that, it’s so important. And perhaps mourning for a future that looks so much different is premature, but I can’t imagine how we go back to doing what we were doing before, all the while knowing what we know now, and having experienced this way of life for eight weeks and counting.

I’ve always been a bit of a pessimist (although I prefer the term ‘practical realist’) but I think about the changes that are going to have to be made and they aren’t small. They’re pretty significant and they will most definitely alter the face of my workplace and the way we function within it, perhaps the face and function libraries – all libraries – in general. And I am truly, truly not ready for that.

 

 

Eleven Springs

My mum died 10 years ago today. This marks the eleventh spring she has missed if you include the year she died, which I do.

It feels impossible that an entire decade has passed, impossible that she has missed so much. And yet, here we are at eleven springs.

I count the years in springs partly because she died in May, but also because spring was her very favourite season. Spring was ordering soil and mulch and starting the process of turning the backyard into a garden paradise. Spring was cleaning out the pond, filling it, and putting the little ceramic frogs and cast iron turtles on the edge. Spring was trips to the garden centre for pansies and geraniums, tomato and strawberry plants. Spring meant pulling out the patio furniture and flying the ladybug flag from the big maple tree. Spring had it all.

Spring is vibrant. When I spoke at mum’s wake, I talked about her love of colour, her vibrancy, how she loved brightness and colour everywhere. Everywhere, it must be said, except for her walls. There, only variant shades of cream and beige would do, but in all other aspects of her life, colour and lots of it reigned supreme.

Spring brings with it an abundance of colour and sometimes it has a slower-paced start, much like it’s doing this year, with cool temperatures helping preserve the magnolia flowers and allowing the tulips to open quietly and for a longer span of time. In other years spring seems to arrive almost immediately, urgently, with a brilliance, an incredible wash of colour everywhere, flowers opening and wilting in nearly the same breath. Such was the spring the year she died.

Towards the end of April ten years ago, I drove mum to the hospital for more tests, and these tests were the ones that gave us – finally – the diagnosis of advanced cancer, unknown primary, possibly lung. It was about to be the beginning of the end, we just didn’t know it yet. On the way there, weak and slumped in the passenger seat of my car, she watched out the window and commented on the brightness of the world as we drove along.

“Everything is so fresh and green, do you see that? It’s like technicolour. And the lilacs are out, too, did you notice? That’s odd, they usually come closer to the end of May, everything is happening so early. And the city looks so clean and beautiful it’s all so green and bright and doesn’t it seem more like summer than spring?” And on and on throughout our fifteen-minute trip.

Her thoughts were jumbled as she took in the scenery but her words have stayed with me. It was the most she had spoken for over a week, talking took such effort. But this wonder, this seeing the world almost as if for the first time was so thrilling to me. It felt like hope. The world was showing off and waking up and maybe that was the sign that she would, too.

I didn’t know then that it would be the last time she would be able to say more than a few words to me, I didn’t know that it would be the last time she’d see trees and lilacs and tulips, or any of the world outside.

But she was right. There was something about that spring. Everything bloomed early, everything was big and showy and blossoming way ahead of its typical time. It was unusual but it was perfect, and I held on to those images; the brightness, the colours, the big blowsy flowers, the fat buds seeing me through.

Not long after she died I wrote this blog post and while I don’t return to it every year, I did this year. Ten years is significant, of course. I mean there are no traditional gifts for marking a death, there is no wood deathiversary or silver deathiversary, but still, a decade. A lifetime, nearly. Or at least it feels that way.

I return to that piece because I remember exactly how I felt writing it. I wrote it quickly without a lot of editing, it just needed to come out all at once. If I was writing it now, ten more years of writing experience, would anything have changed? Likely not.

The night she died is etched in my memory, and while I don’t know that I have all the details exactly right…no, wait, I do. I know I have the details exactly right. Like the thunderstorm that started as I left the hospital carrying my mother’s belongings. Quite the sendoff, indeed. And the feeling of emptiness as I sat in my car for a few minutes, just a few, before I collected myself and drove down to mum’s house to begin the organization of the things that needed organizing.

The next morning was glorious as it often is after a thunderstorm and before I did anything else I took my scissors out to the lilac tree I had planted the year we moved to this house and on the 6th of May, 2010 I was able to cut the biggest bunch of lilacs I had ever cut, a full three weeks earlier than usual.

Today, in the eleventh spring, I spent a lot of time looking out my window, appreciating the peonies and bleeding hearts just beginning to poke through the soil in my garden, and gazing expectantly at the tulips who are not quite ready to open just yet. I paid a short, chilly visit to my lilac tree whose buds still sleep for now. And it’s ok. Every spring is different, each is exactly what it needs to be. But I will be forever grateful that that final spring was, for my mum, exactly what she needed it to be.

 

 

 

Mondays are for Melancholy

I’m on vacation! Just for today, actually. I’ll be back at work tomorrow, but today is a day off for me. And this really just means that I’m on my computer in the living room (at the back of the house) rather than my office (at the front of the house) and WOW what a difference! It truly feels like a vacation!

Not really. These are the things we tell ourselves in isolation.

This vacation day was originally planned for Friday, April 17, the first full day of Hamilton’s gritLIT Festival, so today feels a little bittersweet since obviously, gritLIT didn’t happen the way it was intended – there is gritLIT content coming online very soon which is exciting, but there is nothing like the thrill of being in a room with dozens of writers and readers, of participating in a writing workshop with one of your favourite authors, of attending a reading, purchasing the author’s book and having them sign it right there and then for you. Literary and book festivals are among my absolute favourite things in the world and it’s been hard watching the dates come and go, honestly. And not just gritLIT, there are a lot of other festivals that won’t happen because of our current isolating and physical distancing situation. I hope you are ok

But the really nice thing about these kinds of festivals – any arts festivals I suppose – is that you can still support the work of your favourite artists by purchasing their art, their books, their music, even if you weren’t able to see them live and in person. You can make a donation to your favourite writers festival; you can order books from authors you were hoping to see, and you can order those books from your favourite local bookstore, some of which are doing curbside pickup or making local deliveries! You can find your favourite bands and musicians online and order music or merch directly from them or from their record label if they are signed! You can even purchase works from local artists and artisans to support them while this is all happening. And, if you’re someone who doesn’t have a lot of money to spare right now, you can talk all of these people up on social media! Share their work, help get them followers! Like songs on Spotify, and add them to playlists! You probably know all this, I doubt I have to tell you, but somehow it feels good to say it “out loud” right here.

And it’s not the same, of course. Who doesn’t miss live music, author readings, browsing in book and record stores? Not to mention eating in restaurants and wandering through parks! There is so much we’re missing right now, so very much.

And like the rock says, I hope you are ok.

 

Weather or Not

Yesterday was Easter Sunday and the weather was lovely so we sat for awhile out on our front porch in the afternoon. We had glasses of wine and we waved and chatted with the neighbours who walked by with kids and dogs and there was a light breeze and you could almost believe that the world was normal.

Today is rainy and bleak and, if the Weather Network is to be believed (and you always SHOULD believe the Weather Network), we are expecting extremely high winds along with the rain. It is currently quite blustery but these winds aren’t exactly apocalyptic just yet, just strong enough to have me venture back out to the porch to secure the cushions from our patio furniture that like to upend themselves and flit about.

Two very different kinds of days and for me, two very different ways of reacting to each during these stressful, odd, pandemic days.

I have always loved rainy days. As I said to a friend not that long ago, there is so little expectation of one during rainy days. As soon as the sun appears, no matter the season, there are always loads of people on social media encouraging us to “Get outside!” “Make the most of this gorgeous day!” “Get off your ass, go for a walk, it’s beautiful out there!” There is a LOT of pressure to be outside in the sun when the sun makes an appearance. (Also can we please take a moment to discuss those irritating people who say this to the people whose JOB it is to be INSIDE so those same “Get outside!” people can purchase the goods inside or use the services that happen to be inside?! Can you imagine their reaction to a sign that reads “library/salon/bookstore/ restaurant closed because it’s JUST SO NICE OUT TODAY!” They would flip. Please don’t be one of those people.)

Anyway, rainy, windy, blustery days don’t hold the same level of expectation and I live for these days, I always have. I do like going outside, but I don’t really much care for the sun. Or perhaps it’s that the sun doesn’t really care for me. I burn. I sweat. I can’t seem to find sunglasses that work well enough so I continue to squint. Insects are drawn to me. It’s exhausting.

I am an indoors kind of person, I guess. I like to read, I like to cook, I like to watch TV and movies, and I like to clean and organize things like drawers and cupboards and the attic, things like that. And often if you spend a sunny day telling people that’s what you’ve been up to they become slightly to massively offended, as if you wasting (their words) a glorious sunny day by staying indoors is a personal attack. So I used to pretend, I honestly did. The beach? Oh my god I LOVE THE BEACH! A picnic? Absolutely what could be better than eating food on the grass in a public park? An outdoor music festival? Oh I am so down to spend 19 hours in a massive crowd, dehydrated and unable to tell who exactly is even onstage, let’s go!

I…might be exaggerating a little bit, but still. The sunny day  p r e s s u r e  is real.

In the before, a day like today, one where I don’t have to leave the house even to go to WORK would have been my dream. I am productive on rainy days. I dive into projects, I read entire books, I organize down to Inbox zero. I am a machine. Except now? I’m not.

Now I see these high, potentially catastrophic winds as a sign that the world really is in some kind of weird trouble, some apocalyptic limbo. I imagine the rains and the possible flooding in some areas as a kind of warning. I mean yes, climate change is real and a lot of extreme weather acts – or should act – as a warning to get that shit under control. But now, as the kids say, it hits different.

There is an electricity-like hum of stress that exists under everything now, a tight wire of tension. You probably feel it too. Extreme weather just adds to this tension. We’re going through so much, can’t we just have some nice, quiet, sunny days until we’re through the pandemic days? Is it too much to ask? Um yeah bitch, it is, says Mother Nature (or climate scientists if you want the real talk.)

For me it’s a completely new way of looking at the days as they unfold. Sun in the forecast? Great, nothing to worry about, relax and look at everyone out and about staying 6′ away from each other, yes, yes, nothing odd about that, nothing to see here it’s all ok. Rain and wind? We’re doomed. Such a complete turnaround for me, but that’s about where I’m at these days. So little makes sense right now and if sunny days give me (and possibly you) a false sense of security, I’m more than happy to live in that sunshiny little bubble for as long as it takes.

But maybe ask me again in August when the sun is baking down and it’s 39C. Provided the pandemic is history, you’ll probably find your girl back inside cursing the obnoxious yellow orb and trawling the Weather Network site for signs of rain. Let’s hope so, anyway.

 

 

 

Some things can be more than just things

At the end of November I attended a fiction writing workshop at Hamilton Public Library that was given by Claire Tacon, author and lovely human being. Claire’s novel In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo was one of my favourite books from this past year and so I was more than excited to attend her workshop and hear her thoughts on writing. At the start of the evening she had the attendees go around the room and introduce ourselves by giving our names and then telling everyone gathered there a little bit about an object that fascinated them as a child. Claire started the introductions by telling us about an ancient apple press that had fascinated her, and then it was our turn.

This is the story I told about the object I remembered. I’m massively expanding on it here because I can.

For as long as I can remember the hat rack had been on the wall at the cottage. My memory blinks on and off as to which exact wall it hung on, and I think my mother moved it occasionally, but I am nearly positive it was on the south wall, just above the wood stove, a skinny Quebec heater that resided in the corner of the living room. The living room also included the dining room and the kitchen, divided up into rooms by the merest suggestion of walls. I suppose if I was a different kind of person from a different kind of family that room might have been known as The Great Room. But to us, it was really just the living room or even the “front of the cottage.” The house had been built in pieces: first the main room, a rough cabin structure designed to keep the rain out on days when my grandparents drove up for the day to picnic and swim. Then later, no longer wanting to rely solely on picnics, a small area to cook meals and wash dishes was added to the main room. Bedrooms were built later, when picnic days wanted to turn into overnight stays, and after that the outhouse, deemed too rustic now that my family were becoming “cottagers” was replaced by indoor facilities. Later still, the front of the house was pushed out toward the lake to accommodate a dining table and chairs and the little patchwork quilt of a cottage was complete. I might have the order incorrect, this was all happening long before I was born, but if you look at old photos of my parents and grandparents enjoying the place, or if you look very closely at the walls of the house itself you can trace its evolution.

The hat rack, as I knew it, was a bit of an oddity, and seemed to me a strange thing to have in a rustic cottage. We didn’t even have a hat rack at home and yet here was this solid wooden structure, hung close to the ceiling and over our woodstove – an odd location indeed. There were six pegs, three on each side, that came out of the back and angled slightly upwards. The top was about 6 inches deep and held a variety of treasures – tchotchkes, knicknacks, whatever you want to call them. Those nursery rhyme character figurines that came in boxes of Red Rose tea; novelty salt and pepper shakers, purchased in touristy places like Niagara Falls, Cape Cod. Probably also some shells and rocks from our beach.

The hats it housed were changeable, much like the people who lived there. There was always at least one Toronto Blue Jays cap (after 1977, of course) as well as cloth sunhats for children, and a wide brimmed straw hat belonging to my mother. At one point my father had been given a traditional Greek fisherman’s hat by a friend and so it lived there for awhile too. Sometimes other things were draped over the pegs; a dog’s leash and collar, a decorative scarf, a skipping rope.  As my brother and I grew taller and were able to better reach it, it became a catch-all for hats and more.

The most fascinating part of this hat rack was the drawer at the bottom. The drawer spanned the entire width of the rack and it had a lock. The key had been lost years before and the drawer, unlockable forever now, held batteries, other keys, sunglasses, some fishing tackle, fuses for the electrical panel and other bits that required housing. It was the equivalent of a kitchen junk drawer, a hall closet, that black hole of detritus and lost and found that resides in many homes.

Did anything change when I learned it was actually a gun rack?

My dad had been a hunter in his youth. Mostly deer, sometimes moose. Our photo albums are filled with pictures of him and his grubby, bearded friends posing with their kills… Did I say filled? Filled with grimy looking men who’d spent a week or so at a hunt camp, yes, but I really only remember one or two with an actual deer present. Dead, but present. And never a moose.

I’d never put the two worlds together in that way, but that legendary gun rack turned hat rack was one of the last remnants of my father’s younger self’s hobbies. That and a tattered hunting jacket and a 1950s-style sleeping bag that smelled permanently of wood smoke and cigarettes.

My father stored his guns on, you guessed it, that very same gun rack. It would have originally resided in my parents’ apartment in west Hamilton, I imagine (there is no one left now to ask, I’m afraid.) The lockable drawer made sense now, you would lock your ammunition away, of course. Safer that way. Space for three guns (on those pegs we tossed our hats on) a drawer for shells. I suppose it should have made me wary of it, but by 1976 it was so far removed from its original use that it was laughable. Imagine, weapons of ungulate destruction removed to make way for left over Lego pieces and packs of playing cards with most of the face cards missing.

When I asked him about the gun rack and the guns that were conspicuous in their absence and had been for as long as I could remember he told me this:

In 1966 we lived in a tiny apartment. I sold the guns before you were born in ’67, that was always my plan. I didn’t want them there once you came along.

I asked him if he missed it. The guns and the hunting.

No. My priorities changed.

But you kept the gun rack.

It makes a good hat rack.

Can’t argue with that.

The gun rack slash hat rack is no more. Eventually, after more than forty years of living through sweltering summers and frigid winters, the glue that held it together dried and cracked, the pegs fell out and the facing of the drawer broke and the whole thing just fell apart. My mother was, I believe, secretly happy about its demise because when I think back to it, this gun/hat rack was, while fascinating to us as children, deeply, deeply ugly. So she bought pegboard and hooks and our hats and other things were moved to the hallway. Now, I don’t think I could write 1000 words about pegboard but you know what? I bet there is someone who could.

I love the object exercise as writing prompt, it’s one of my favourites and I loved that Claire incorporated it into not just the beginning of her writing workshop during our introductions, but that she also brought along several objects for us to write about throughout the evening.

She encouraged us to choose one that spoke to us (not literally, of course, how weird would that be) and to think not only about its intended use but how it can end up out in the world to be used in other unintended ways. Think of its backstory and describe it in great detail using all your senses and then imagine how your character might use it or see it or react to it.

In her handy guide 5 Prompts to Bring Back Your Blogging Spark (which you yourself can and SHOULD obtain at no cost from her newsletter via her blog picklemethis.com) favourite blogger and lovely human Kerry Clare encourages us to explore the hidden lives of ordinary objects because so many of them have a story. You might not have a gun rack, but you definitely have objects with stories. What are they?

And even if you aren’t a writer, the object exercise can be a excellent one for mindfulness. Developing your observational skills, using all your senses to describe something thoroughly can help you to be more present in your day-to-day life, and taking the time to notice the world around you in greater detail can help you move through that world at a less hectic pace.

I’m so grateful to Claire and her wonderful workshop and to Kerry and her always on-point newsletter for reminding me to take the time to dive deeply into the world of observation, to mine memory and see where it takes me.

 

 

 

 

Happy Friday! We’re All Going to Die One Day!

Alone in the kitchen this morning, while waiting for the kettle to boil, I raised both arms way, way up over my head in a luxurious stretch, and severely pulled a muscle in my upper back.

There is a lot going on in this opening paragraph, truly, so let me break it down for you. The first thing you might have noticed, should you know me in real life, would be the presence of a kettle. Surely, Elizabeth, you are a coffee drinker, are you not? And yes, I am. Or rather I used to be. Coffee, sadly, no longer agrees with me in the mornings, and so I have taken to brewing tea as my wake-up beverage of choice. And it’s fine, really. Although as I have said to my husband many times, “Tea is lovely, but it is not coffee.” Which is, I believe, a fair assumption. But, a hot beverage is one of the nicest things about waking up early – whether it’s for work or school or just life – and so tea it must be for me.

I can drink coffee, mind you. Just not first thing in the morning with nothing else in my stomach and not all the time and definitely not too much in one go. It is a fact, universally acknowledged, that getting older blows, yadda yadda yadda.

You might also be interested in the kitchen stretching portion of this opening sentence, but as one gets older (as one does, should one be mortal) one ought to take the opportunity to stretch whenever one can. And by one I mean me. Stretch like nobody is watching is a good motto to live by. Again, for me. I have a comfortable bed, a ridiculously-priced pillow (good for the neck and shoulder support or so I was told) and yet I wake up daily with stiffness and aches and pains. Often the root cause is one 65-lb husky who likes to lie at the end of our bed and rest her chin on my leg/hip all night long. She is a very good dog and her proximity and warm furry body are just delightful. For the first ten to fifteen minutes. If the entirety of the dog is about 65 pounds, the head of this same dog seems to be about 50% of that entirety. Dead-weight husky head clocking in at around 30 lbs, easy. I might be exaggerating. But even if she isn’t snuggled up to me all night, there are still those same – or sometimes different!? – pains each and every morning. So yes, stretching is essential and I try to do it whenever and wherever I can. Again, what a drag it is getting old.

But! The absolute horror story of stretching is that after a certain age you must, must, MUST pay close attention while you’re doing it. Failure to do so can result in severe muscle cramping and straining (like I experienced this morning) sharp pains in muscles that linger all day long (also like I experienced this morning) and death (you know, probably.)

It’s completely unfair that doing something to RELIEVE THE PAIN THAT AGEING CAUSES YOU can also cause pain – worse pain, actually – unless you apply the kind of laser focus on each tiny section of your body that is typically reserved for surgeons and air traffic controllers.

And so, to recap, I am too old to drink a damn morning coffee and too old to stretch on a whim, and the best part? Is that it only gets worse!

I don’t usually get too bothered about ageing, it’s mostly fine. There are even some perks, honestly (the virtual invisibility of the 50-something woman in society can be quite freeing) but there are days when everything seems to conspire against my body and it’s frustrating. And on those days I get a glimpse into my future and my fleeting mortality which, let’s be honest, no one really wants.

So now I sit with an increasingly stiff and sore back and I am AFRAID TO STRETCH IT OUT because that doesn’t always work out for me! And so instead I sit (and stand sometimes too because too much sitting is bad!) in the discomfort that represents the downward spiral of my ever-ageing body while I ponder what might be next on the growing list of age-related ailments and stare into the void.

Fuck it. I’m going to get a coffee.

 

 

 

Windsors, Schmindsors

I started watching The Crown last night. Yes, I am a habitually late adopter of basically everything, but what finally prompted me was the trailer for the 3rd season. I’d heard that Gillian Anderson would be taking the role of Margaret Thatcher and that kind of sealed the deal, but also the trailer for season three is excellent. It helps, of course, that this upcoming season – which begins as the country prepares for the Silver Jubilee – occurs in my lifetime, with events that I remember. And I toyed with the idea of just watching the third season on its own, (It’s history after all, and fairly easy to fill in the blanks) but decided to go for it and try to get the first two under my belt before embarking on the third. So I did, and after watching the first two episodes last night I have some thoughts:

  • John Lithgow makes a very good shrewd and curmudgeonly Winston Churchill.
  • Queen Mary is a literal boss, and I love that Eileen Atkins has already played Queen Mary at least once before as well as Eleanor of Aquitaine, so she truly knows how to get her royal matriarch on.
  • I am SO glad they portray Philip as the dick he is right from the get-go. The only unfortunate thing is that this entire series is based on real life because if it was fiction, you know he would get his comeuppance, but alas, he never does. And now he’s like, what, 95? Annoying.
  • They sure do like to shoot things, those mid-century royals. Ducks, pheasants, whatever. Just shoot ’em all, all the time. “Want to go shooting? Of course you do, you’re part of this family now, we shoot things.”
  • The monarchy is a helluva drug, you guys.

The other thing that struck me as I was watching is that although this royal family and royal extended-family has always been complex with its lineages as well as with its marriages that make the most sense politically and economically, is that even with all that background, all that history of ruling, it is still just an arbitrary group of people who hold enormous wealth and (now dwindling, it should be said) power, and it irks me beyond belief.

And by arbitrary, I mean of course hundreds and hundreds of years of being descended (sometimes but not always!) from the original arbitrarily designated person or people. Obviously I am reducing nearly 1500 years of history here, but if you do look into it, there’s a lot of “guy shows up and claims the throne and no one argues” or “guy shows up and claims the throne and there IS argument and possibly war, too” but I stand by my initial statement. Who were these people? Why them and not someone else?

I mean, I don’t often quote Monty Python, but when I do, it’s typically these lines from Monty Python and The Holy Grail:

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony…You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!

Indeed.

When I was just out of university I got a job at a museum downtown and was what was known as a historical interpreter. It was a pretty great job, one that actually kind of related to my degree, I’ll have you know, members of my extended family!  Historical interpreters would take groups and individuals on tours of the house, imparting knowledge of the family who’d lived there, making note for visitors of various important parts of the house itself, the furnishings, what rooms were used for, what else was going on in Hamilton at the time, etc. I worked mostly during the holidays, and the house was very popular with school groups and organizations who loved to see it done up for Christmas. A giant decorated tree, the dining room table set for a big dinner, garlands and wreaths, that sort of thing.

Most of the time we had groups scheduled in advance and we would listen for the doorbell from the staff room/kitchen at the back of the house. There were usually three of us working at a time and when we heard the bell we would hurry to the front door and greet our visitors. It should be noted that women interpreters were in costume (uniform) dressed as upstairs maids, and any men on staff wore attire suitable for the male equivalent to that (I hesitate to say butlers, because I’m not sure that’s quite right, but something like that, anyway) so there was almost always an “Oooohhhhh!” from people at the door who were likely expecting normal-looking people, not these weird transplants from the Edwardian era. We were also meant to remain in character as best as we could throughout the tour and interaction with visitors, and that part could be a lot of fun. I was very good at deadpanning “I’ve always been here” whenever people asked how long I had worked there which mostly made them laugh but every so often a less humorous group would be unsettled by my joke. Occupational hazard. Everyone’s a critic.

When there were no groups scheduled we sometimes did a bit of research in the back, reading up on what was going on in Hamilton during the era we were to represent, thinking of other issues and events that we could potentially highlight during our tours so they didn’t get stale. The house was officially open all week and on weekends, and we didn’t get an awful lot of action during the week with people just dropping by, but it did happen.

One afternoon it was my turn to get the door when the doorbell rang and I smoothed down my apron and made sure my little bonnet was on straight and I opened the door. I was about to launch into my scripted greeting when a woman pushed past me into the hallway, dragging a large stroller with her. She wore a fur coat of indeterminate age and animal and there were large round circles of red blush on her cheeks. Her eyes were wild. She was taller than me and I would have put her at the time in her late 30s early 40s, and as she looked around the hallway for a place to park her stroller, I noted that it was filled with stuffed animals and one smallish baby doll.

I had already decided not to ask her to pay the entrance fee, but it turned out not to be an issue, because she began by introducing herself as the rightful heir to the house and she spoke in a sort of English accent that would, more often than not, slip during our time together, and she also told me that she was expecting to move back in any time now. I asked her if she would like to take a look around and she agreed after I assured her the stroller and baby would be safe in the hallway.

We headed upstairs and she regaled me with tales of her connections not only to the family who had lived in this house in particular but also to the royal family in England and possibly some others.

I tried to do a little bit of my official tour guide banter, but she was more interested in checking out the furnishings, ensuring they were suitable to her tastes and telling me more about her royal lineage, her claim to the throne and more. I was 23 years old and had a pretty good idea that I was dealing with someone not entirely based in reality, and felt it was better to just listen.

At the end of our tour, she thanked me and I asked her to sign our guestbook which she did in a flourish, taking up three full lines:

Mary Elizabeth Anne Rose III (Royal)

She collected her stroller and bumped it down the front stairs and I went back to the kitchen to my colleagues.

I think about her every so often, usually in conversations with friends about odd or interesting situations we’ve found ourselves in with various jobs, but I thought about her a lot last night after watching The Crown when that whole “one random person eons ago started something and look where we are now” concept kind of struck me.

In this case, the woman who visited that day back in 1990 was likely extremely far removed from the family who lived in the house where I worked, and even further removed from royalty of any sort, but, much like those ancient “kings” who showed up from Denmark or wherever and claimed the throne, because someone sent them, who is to say who gets to be what they get to be? There are probably people who show up to royalty-type things all the time claiming some kind of connection – modern-day Anastasia Romanovs if you will – and security gets called to oust them and their claims, yadda yadda. But all I’m saying is that a few hundred years ago, this kind of stunting could have totally worked, and probably did work, too.

People are born into the situations they are and it’s honestly just sheer luck of the draw whether you’re born a Windsor or a Hamiltonian playing dress up in a historical house giving tours to people at Christmas.

And, if you work backwards from the Windsors and you go back far enough into the past it all gets pretty muddied, anyway. In another reality or another time, it just might have been my visitor shooting all those ducks or marrying that dick Philip.

I’m grateful she was spared that last part, at least.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who Are the People in YOUR Neighbourhood?

A couple of days ago, a woman I know only because we follow each other on Instagram, had a baby. This is her second – she now has two boys which of course I think is great because I also have two boys – and I also remember when she had her first son, almost three years ago now. Time flies! She and baby boy seem to be doing well, and he is the loveliest, chubbiest little fellow. My heart is so happy for her and her sweet family.

Early yesterday morning, another woman I know posted a photo of herself heading into the hospital to have her second baby. This woman I actually know IRL; her grandmother and her great-aunt were good friends of my parents back in the day, and so we’ve chatted and interacted over the years, and now she and her family live across the street from me. Small world! And, not only that but when I was around 14 years old, I attended a baby shower when she was born. Which is…weird, yeah? I held her when she was a few months old and now she is a grown woman with a successful business and a family of her own.

Which, ok duh, yes, that is indeed how time and life work, but there is a very visceral part of me that kneejerkingly wants to react with “Oh my god, I’m so old!” But there is another part of me that says “Oh wow, this is keeping me so young.”

And then I started thinking about community and about belonging.

When John and Charles and I moved to this house in the fall of 1999, we were, clearly, a young family, just starting our lives together. Charles was not even two, Max, not yet even conceived. We had hoped to add another baby to our lives and when Max arrived in July 2000, our family was complete and we began to fully settle into our home and neighbourhood. Eventually, the boys went to school, we met neighbours who became friends and we met neighbours who we knew only to say hello to. There were neighbours who moved in and stayed for a time then left, and neighbours who were there before we got here and are still here.

And as we’ve aged and our children have grown up in this neighbourhood, a funny thing happened. It seems as though, now, we are the old people. I know, right? But, at 52 (me) and 53 (John), and having lived in the same house for nearly 20 years, it’s honestly true. And I kind of love it.

I love sharing in a community of people who are at different stages of life; like the older couple behind us who were here the day we moved in, and are still living in that same house behind us. Like the family two doors down who moved in back in February and just had a baby (hooray neighbourhood babies!)  I love that nearly 19 years ago we were the ones introducing a new baby to the neighbourhood and now, going forward, we get to be the ones to do the welcoming, to introduce ourselves to the families with the tiny new additions. To look out for them and their kids, like our neighbours did and continue to do for us and our kids.

And that is our community, our physical community. And I love it. But what about the other community, the online community, the one created through follows, and the friends I’ve met through social media? Where does that fit? Does it fit? My argument is that it does. Of course, it does.

And yes, some would insist that these people, these online people cannot actually be my friends since I don’t actually know them, and to those people, I say, whatevs and also shhhhh, let people enjoy things. Because it’s 2019.

I have engaged with people online who I have not met, who I might never meet, but my heart has broken for them when they tell me/their followers that their mother is terminally ill, or that their child is being bullied. I have celebrated the births of their children and mourned the loss of their parents, their beloved pets. I have reached out to these people sometimes on their timeline or feed, but more often in a private message (should they welcome private messages) because I wanted to offer condolences or congratulations or support not in a performative way, but in a heartfelt way. This isn’t to say that all posts on timelines and feeds are performative, but much like a handwritten thank you or sympathy card from days of old, a direct message seems more personal, more thoughtful. We see a lot of “thoughts and prayers” in the media, from politicians and celebrities and regular people and the entire meaning of that phrase has been lost in the noise of the online world. Many people lament the loss of human interaction in favour of this online world, but I am not one of those people. I think if you are deliberate in your intentions and your wishes for your online friends truly come from a place of caring, a Twitter dm can be as effective and welcomed as a letter.

When Max was in hospital last fall, people I had never met, people who follow me on Instagram or Twitter for my dog or my wine and library-related antics (which are truly legendary it must be said) reached out to tell me how much my updates meant to them, how hard they were pulling for Max and for us, and how much they wished they could help. Many of these messages began, “You don’t know me, but I follow you and I want you to know I am thinking of you and your family…” and others read “Thank you for sharing and for being so open…” and honestly, some of these messages moved me as much or more than ones from close family members. Some had had similar experiences and offered an ear if I had questions. Others just wanted to send a virtual hug and a kind word. And it was lovely and it was overwhelming.

“People are too nice!” I would say, almost daily, to my husband, usually through my hiccuping tears in the midst of an ugly crying session. The thought of (virtual) strangers taking the time to send their support, their prayers, and good vibes was astounding to me. And at the same time not astounding to me, because it’s the sort of thing I do too.

It makes me so happy to be the old person in the neighbourhood now, the one that has been here “forever” as my kids would say, and I’m just as happy to be the old person on your Instagram feed encouraging you and supporting you and feeling for you too. I want to read about your struggles with getting your toddler to eat or getting your dad to go to the doctor about that mole on his leg. I can even offer advice if you want it (I would never give unsolicited advice of course) too! Please do keep in mind that my parenting skills were honed in the early to mid-2000s and any advice I have to offer is likely highly out of date, but it’s yours if you want it. And it will come with a warm internet hug and a LOT of encouragement that you are already doing amazing. Just keep going.

And, as I said way up there at the beginning of this post, being involved in this kind of community keeps me young. Not in a “How do you do, fellow kids?” kind of way, but, much like living in a neighbourhood with families and seniors and more, having a varied internet community allows me to witness life unfolding in so many different ways, and at so many different points in time, and that can only be a good thing. It is such a privilege to be able to share in the experiences and milestones of my social media friends and their families. At times it’s heartbreaking and at other times it’s glorious and wonderful. You know, just like life.

Community is community is community. And I know the internet can be a dark, dark pit of despair, but I’m not willing to give up on it just yet. There’s so much more I want to be a part of. And I like all of you too much, too.

I Survived Barton Street Too: For 52 Years and Counting

I should be working on my Camp NaNoWriMo project because I am a few hundred words behind, but after reading an Opinion piece in the Hamilton Spectator earlier today, I was inspired to blog instead. Well, inspired might not be the correct word. I was seized with a blinding hot rage is more along the lines of what I felt, honestly. And oh boy, where to begin.

In this piece, the author decides to walk the entire length of Barton Street in the northern end of Hamilton. Barton runs from Stoney Creek in the east end of the city, to Locke St. in the central part. Why? Well because he is a transplanted Torontonian, don’t you know? (sorry Toronto, but most of these dudes are) and it seems he wanted to get to know his new city – his “adopted hometown” and its “most maligned thoroughfare.” Ok, sure. I guess?

It’s a pretty big task, honestly. It’s a long street. And when he said that he survived, I thought maybe he meant because it’s a really long walk and wow, maybe that’s a little much for him? Haha, no, of course, I didn’t think that. I knew exactly what he meant.

Throughout his walk and the article, he manages to hit nearly every stereotype in the book and then some. From the bars that would have been “heaving with steelworkers in the ’60s” to the closure of the Prince Edward Tavern being “One fewer place to drown your sorrows on cheap pints – or advance alcoholism, depending on your perspective.” I guess because hipster bars only have expensive pints and contribute to zero alcoholism? Help me out here, bud.

There’s more, there is oh so much more, and I encourage you to read it. It is, as I’ve said, an opinion piece, but some opinions ought to be kept to oneself.

He does seem to like the gentrification of a couple of areas on Barton because of course, he does. But I don’t know how anyone can walk that street and not notice the lovely churches at Barton and Sherman. St. Ann’s and St. Stanislaus have a proud history of serving the residents of that area. Or Woodlands Park. Or the Polish and Portuguese bakeries, the small grocery stores, the bustling hardware store and the stores selling bonboniere and other gifts. There is community there and there always has been, but it’s much, much easier to write about how downtrodden the street is, how it’s drug dealers and no sidewalk buzz. Was it a weekday when you undertook your epic walk? People work during the day. During the week. Consider that perhaps before making sweeping pronouncements about how the place requires serious saving.

You might already know or have guessed that I grew up on Barton Street, well just off it on Oak Avenue. So by disclosing that it would be easy for you or anyone to dismiss my thoughts as just anger at someone sullying my memory of the street, but the truth is I would defend anyone’s street in anyone’s city from people who arrive, agenda firmly in place, form an opinion, and leave. Whether it’s another street in Hamilton or Windsor, Calgary, Halifax, or Toronto – ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, honestly. And no, I don’t want to talk about how great Barton Street was when I was growing up, that is so not the point. And I also don’t want to try and convince this writer to come back later in the spring or summer when the street is livelier! And prettier! And please come back and like usssssss!

Barton Street is not without its problems, of course. There are no streets in any city anywhere that are without problems, and walking the length of a street you’ve never been on before in a city you barely know and congratulating yourself for living to see another day doesn’t make you a hero. It just shows what a privileged asshole you are.