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Cake, on occasion

On Tuesday I posted the following on Instagram:

Nothing says “We are so happy you survived a pickup truck hitting you and sending you to hospital one year ago today” like a chocolate cake from Weil’s Bakery!

The post got several likes and comments and one dear friend, confused, mentioned in her comment that she hadn’t heard this before! What happened??

Rather than tell the tale on the post, I decided to text her to fill her in. I told her the story of how Max was walking our dog and when he was (legally! with the lights!) in the intersection, a driver in a large pickup truck hit him not once but twice, knocking him down and sending him to hospital with slight bleeding in his brain which freaked us all out, given what he’d been through 18 months before.

I concluded with “So, we have cake to celebrate being alive.”

I can’t remember when we started marking random occasions with cake, but it was definitely before Max’s hospital ordeal of late 2018. We have birthdays in pretty quick succession in our house – December, January, February – then no birthdays until July, and then nothing, again, until December. Now, I know cake isn’t only for birthdays, but those are truly the traditional “occasion” cake days that we mark in our household, anyway. And so after John’s birthday one February, I declared the new tradition of “a cake a month for whatever reason” which was wholeheartedly embraced by everyone.

And it needs to be said that these cake occasions had to be what I call “occasion cakes” the kind you order from a bakery or pick up at the grocery store. These cake occasions did not include things like banana bread or other types of loaf or pan cakes. No, these needed to be, for want of a better term, birthday cake cakes. Chocolate or vanilla or marble. One or two layers. Heavily iced, preferably with flowers or balloons and such. I don’t know why this is, but those were my deeply arbitrary rules for this new tradition I totally made up. We did mostly grocery store cakes for our occasions which had more to do with me not planning ahead than any great love for grocery store cakes (although who among us can resist a good old-fashioned sheet cake?!) and having to quickly stop by the grocery store on my way home from work to ensure the needs for our tradition were met.

So, that year we had St. Patrick’s Day cake, Easter cake, then cake for Mother’s Day, for Father’s Day, then for a birthday! Then came Civic Holiday, then Labour Day…you get the idea. Sometimes our cake eating fell on the appropriate days, sometimes it did not; sometimes there were random “holidays” like International Turtle Day or something that may or may not have been legit, but it didn’t matter. Because CAKE.

Our tradition stopped when Max went into hospital, but it resumed in full force when he was released, once he started to get his appetite back. Only now, the occasions were a little different. We celebrated “No more IV antibiotics!” and “The PICC line is out!” and “Physiotherapy graduation!” and all those milestones that were so important in his healing. And sometimes there were even two cakes in a month because there were, and are, no rules.

So, on March 2, one year after the accident, we celebrated once again, with cake.

Sometimes cake is all you need

Given the year we’ve been through, it’s surprising that I haven’t continued the cake a month tradition, but it’s never too late to start up again. After all, Easter is only a few weeks away at the beginning of April. And maybe 2021 will see some new milestones requiring cake: “First outside friend hang of 2021!” or “Got your vaccine!” etc. Covid-19-related cake things should probably exist. We’ve all endured so much.

And so when I told my friend that we have cake to celebrate being alive, it felt like I was being funny, but there is just so, so much truth to it.

Maybe cake isn’t your thing, maybe your thing is popcorn or red wine or chicken wings or Skittles. But whatever it is, I hope you also celebrate being alive with it. Regularly, if you can. Because we need that. We need it now, but I honestly think we’ve always needed it. Now just seems more urgent.

Blue Skies Ahead? Yes, Please

In December I bought myself the gift of the Headspace app. If you don’t know Headspace, allow me to fill you in a little bit. It’s a meditation app for your phone or computer allowing you to have a pocket full of meditations of all shapes and sizes that you can do wherever you want.

I had used Headspace before, 4 years ago or so, when things were stressful in my life and I decided I really needed to do something other than pace and stew. And then things got a little easier – although it’s still life, so stress never does actually go away – but I found I was using it less and less, so I stopped the subscription. Then, of course, 2020 happened, and while at the beginning of the shutdown/lockdown/quarantine I didn’t have the patience to sit and be mindful, (you know it’s chaotic when!) there were news reports to read and toilet paper to hunt down, after all. But as we all got into the swing of the slowed down pace (for those of us lucky enough to have been able to maintain our jobs and homelives, of course) I found myself once again needing some brain relief.

Headspace is one of many meditation and mindfulness apps out there. When I first decided to give it a try, I tested a couple, signing up for their trial periods. Now, there are quite a few to choose from (stress is big right now, go figure!) but Headspace was the one that clicked for me, the one I stuck with, and the one I’m using daily now.

The theme of the current series of meditations I’ve been doing is Appreciation and throughout, the instructor reminds you to, at the end of the day, write down three things you appreciate/are grateful for. The first time he suggested this, my mind went straight to a blog I used to follow in the mid-2000s, Three Beautiful Things. I was pretty sure the blog had ended a few years ago, but when I looked it up, I was so pleasantly surprised to see that the writer had started back up again in 2020 as a way of coping and finding light in the bleakness of the current world. I suppose it’s a bit weird and somewhat selfish to think “Yay, you’re blogging again because life is shit!” but reading Clare’s blog was a true comfort and rediscovering it has felt a bit like reconnecting with an old friend.

For a time I used the 3BT as prompts in my journal, trying to notice the little things that make life so bright and it was honestly one of the best things I could have done. I didn’t publish them like Clare does, but they were daily sparks for me when things were hard. Sometimes my three things came first thing in the morning on my bus ride to work, for example. I would notice kindnesses that had I not been looking for them might have escaped me, and I would arrive to work feeling grateful for 3BT, for everything, really.

If I were to look back at old journals, my three things of beauty entries ended, as did all my journal entries sadly, when Max entered hospital in November 2018. There was no joy, no beauty to be found at that time, there was only darkness and worry, stress and tears. And yet, if I’d been thinking straight (which I rarely was) there were actually SO MANY moments of beauty that could have been found in that pain. So many wonderful people at the heart of his care, so many friends and strangers who provided love and support, so many things that I saw and experienced that just never made it to my journal.

When you get started with Headspace they talk about the Blue Sky, that clarity of mind that is always with you, even if you can’t see it. Thoughts and feelings can act like clouds. Some clouds are ok, a few little ones flitting around are fine, but too many of them build up to create an all-consuming storm and it’s at that point when you start to wonder if you’ll ever see that blue sky again. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but it’s a really great image. And if you’re struggling with a storm of your own, writing down three things that you’re grateful for, that you appreciate or even three beautiful things, three lovely things that you observe in a day, can be a really great way to help you find your way back to blue sky.

In the journaling workshops I’ve hosted in the past with Hamilton Public Library, some of the questions I get asked the most are variations of “What if I can’t think of anything to write?” or “What if I open my journal and there is nothing to say?” or “How do I write when I don’t know where to start?” And these are valid questions! For those participants my suggestion is always to start with three things: three feelings you have currently, the three items closest to you, three random words. If nothing else flows from there, you’ve at least listed three things on a page, and that’s better than a blank page. But three things – any three things – will usually lead to more. Three is the magic number, after all.

2021 is proving to be as much of a challenge as 2020, and if you’re struggling to find your blue sky, or even your three lovely things, you’re not alone. But remember, it’s there, it’s always there. When you push away the clouds, there it is. And when you are able to take notice of the little things, the beautiful ones will be revealed, too.

Wishing you blue skies and beautiful moments as we launch headfirst into this year, friends.

Book #1 for 2021: Migrations

I chose Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy as my first read of 2021 not for any real profound reason other that it’s a library book and library books need to go, eventually, back to the library. I checked it out before Hamilton went into lockdown then forgot about it over the Christmas break due mostly to the fact that a stomach bug knocked me out for nearly 72 hours and I didn’t have the energy to do much of anything except stare into the middle distance feeling sorry (so very sorry!) for myself. Eventually I came around, got my act together, and started reading again on New Year’s Day.

And while I didn’t plan out the book that would usher in a new year of reading for me, it turns out that I could not have chosen a better one to set the tone for 2021.

“The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here.”

In Migrations, the animals are mostly all gone. Climate change and humanity’s role in it has driven wildlife not just to the brink of extinction (where we are now) but has pushed it completely over the edge. There are no polar bears, seals, or wolves; no lions, giraffes, elephants. Think of an animal, now think of the thousands, the millions of others. All gone or nearly gone. It is staggering to imagine. This is the world Franny Stone inhabits.

A young woman with a troubled past, a troubled mind, and cursed with the inability to stay, Franny’s obsession with the Arctic tern, the bird with the longest migration of any in the world, forces her aboard a fishing vessel, one of the last of its kind, to follow the terns for what is likely their last migration.

I will always, always be drawn to books where bodies of water – especially large, northern bodies of water – are prominently featured as central locations, almost as central characters. For Franny, the sea is as much her home as any place else and McConaghy develops her sense of belonging to it in a kind of magical way. Franny meets two women surfers who are astounded at her ability to brave the freezing sea without a wetsuit. “Seal blood,” she tells them. Then, “Oh aye, you’ve the dark look of them, too,” one of the women tells her, evoking the mythical selkies, the seal people of Norse and Celtic mythology. And you get the feeling, then, that there truly is something otherworldly about Franny, something that explains her need to leave, to keep moving, to keep searching.

As Franny’s past is slowly revealed and as we learn her all-too-human story, McConaghy deftly blends the stark realities of this life, as well as the science surrounding the extinction of the world’s animals and ultimately the destruction of the earth, with lyrical, poetic, almost dreamlike prose. A continued blurring of the lines between fact and folklore, the mystical and the real, gives this novel an incredibly magical feel.

The characters in Migrations despair of the state of the world and of humanity’s role in it, but, when faced with the cataclysmic, catastrophic realities of extinction, of the irreversible change to the climate and destruction of the earth, McConaghy finds for them, for Franny especially, a sense of hope which leads finally, ultimately, to the desire to remain.

This book is a wonder, an absolute gift and I am so grateful for it.

Happy New Year indeed, dear friends.

Behold, I Bring You Tidings of…Something Something…

I feel like I’ve been hitting you pretty hard on the blog lately, what with all the big feelings and deep-rooted traumas. So in honour of the festive season which is upon us as of today, December 1, please sit back and enjoy this tale of how, once upon a time, my newly-formed family became not just any family but the family. I’m talking the big three, here. The Holy. Family.

John and I were married on December 30, 1995 at St. John the Evangelist Church on Locke Street here in Hamilton. You might know it as the “Rock on Locke” but while it didn’t yet have that hip moniker, it was still a pretty nice place. I didn’t grow up in a church, in any church, and as such I would have married John in a parking lot, but he did have a church background, and so partly for his parents and partly because a parking lot in December in Hamilton just isn’t feasible as a venue, we had a church wedding.

When we chose that date to get married, we didn’t expect that not quite two years later we would welcome Charles to the family on December 24, 1997. His due date was December 17 but as we know, babies don’t read calendars, and as the days dragged on (and oh they can drag so goddamn hard when you are 18.5 months pregnant) I feared I would be having a Christmas baby. Feared? Really? Yes, I did fear that at the time. I didn’t want to be in hospital over Christmas! I didn’t want my poor baby to share his birthday with Jesus (I am aware that December 24 is the arbitrary date for the birthdate of Jesus but you WOULD NEVER KNOW IT given…everything!) I didn’t want him to endure the “this is for your birthday AND Christmas” gift situation for his whole life, so I hoped that he would arrive well before Christmas or possibly just after. But mostly before. My god I was tired.

At the beginning of December 1997, a good family friend died after a long illness. I had known him and his family my whole life. He had a long career in the Anglican Church, culminating in being named (promoted to? ascended to? I don’t know the process) Archdeacon of the Diocese of Niagara many years before, so his funeral brought Anglican priests from miles around, including the one who married us two years before. When he saw me at the reception, great with child, (see where this is going?) he pointed at my belly and asked “When is that baby due?” I shrugged, and through a mouthful of church egg salad sandwich I said, “Few weeks, probably?” He explained that the epiphany pageant committee at the church always liked to have a real human baby to play Jesus, and could he tell them to give me a call?

So Charles came into the world December 24 and I did have to spend Christmas in hospital, but whatever, our baby was here and he was perfect and so a few days later we went home. And then, a few days after that, the epiphany pageant people called.

“We would love for you to bring Charles to be in the pageant!” and in my sleep-deprived state I said “Sure, why not?” and so on the appointed day we all bundled into the car and off we went to church.

The ladies all ooohed and aaahed at the tiny human and gave us instructions as to what he should wear, how the show would work, etc. and I remember thinking that this might be nice, actually. Sitting in the front row while Charles made his debut, ready to jump up in case he cried but also enjoying the show, the warmth of the candlelight, the traditional songs and carols. And then they started measuring me and John for costumes.

I remember we looked at each other and then John spoke up, “Wait, are we in the show? Doing what?” and the costume lady just laughed and laughed.

There was one rehearsal. It was all very surreal, but we had to walk up the aisle toward the altar carrying Charles while the choir was singing. After that we mostly we just had to stand around holding him, moving here and there depending on where we were the story. At one point I had to kneel at the altar and I honestly wasn’t sure I would be able to get back up, but I made it. And Charles, that absolutely perfect little human, slept through the entire thing. Little lord Jesus, no crying he makes.

A couple of weeks later we received a package in the mail. The pageant committee had taken some photos that they had included and there was also a really lovely letter telling us how impressed people were with our performance, how so many parishioners were moved to tears, how radiant we all were, the perfect embodiment of the holy family. Never mind that we were so, so sleep-deprived, that I was still healing from the emergency c-section I’d had; that John hadn’t shaved in days, that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d showered. But maybe that was the point. Maybe what they saw was a couple of 20-somethings with their first child, without a real clue what to expect, fumbling along, doing their best in front of everyone. Maybe we reminded some of them of their own early days as parents, or maybe they even thought of that family in the stable and how staggeringly tired and confused they would have been, too.

Over the years it’s become one of our favourite stories to tell and while it isn’t the best Christmas pageant ever (that title belongs to this incredible work of art that you should definitely read) it still has everything. A delightful baby! A hilarious mix-up! Two people completely out of their element but just kind of going with it! A happy ending! And, as much as it was a bizarre, exhausting experience, I’ve always remained happy we did it. They got their live action baby Jesus, and we got to make a lot of people happy. And we got some photos that are absolute GOLD. Everybody wins.

But, while the people of the church were delightful and friendly, and adored Charles, please know that we never EVER answered their calls about the Easter pageant.

Your Life Can Change in an Instant

Although the actual date of the ‘incident’ as we’ve come to call it in our family happened on November 16, 2018, it was a Friday night two years ago when it occurred, and so today I have spent a lot of time thinking about what used to be the unthinkable.

A day like any other is how they start the movies, just a normal day doing normal things until… And it was. And I will always marvel at how fucking normal a day it was until.

We went to work, to school. I met a friend downtown for dinner. I had the duck and we shared some wine. She had dessert because she always has the lemon tart (we go to the same restaurant every time because we are like that.) I hugged her as we left and walked a few blocks towards the theatre where I met John who was just parking the car and we carried on together. John had dropped Max off there a few hours before, his call time was 6:00 or 6:30. We showed our tickets and took our seats. We watched the first act, we had a glass of wine during intermission and watched the second act. It was a very good show and we enjoyed it. We waited for Max to see what his plans were. Sometimes he went out with friends from the show afterwards but this time he was ready to come home with us. His head hurt, he told me. A splitting headache. We left the theatre and he was holding his head. We’ll get you home, I told him. What did you eat today? Did you drink any water? You’re probably dehydrated. I’m dizzy, he said. And then he vomited. And then I can’t see, mum, I can’t see, what is happening to me. And on the sidewalk he collapsed and John ran to get the car, we need to get him to the hospital, but then no, not the car, we need to call 911.

I had never called 911 before. I tried to explain where we were, I don’t know the address, I told him, but you have to hurry. I gave an intersection. MacNab and Vine and please hurry. He asked a lot more questions and I was frustrated, then I heard the sirens. People stopped nearby, do you know him? they asked. He’s our son. I wanted to go in the ambulance but the paramedics said no, better to follow us, we’re going to St. Joe’s. We followed, John drove. I jumped out at a red light in the middle of James Street and ran into the hospital. There was no one to ask, where have they taken him. John parked the car and came back. The ER doc saw me, is this your son? Yes, how is he. A stupid question. He’s intubated now, we have the neuro team ready at the General, CT scan showed a bleeding in his brain. A stroke, I said. But no, not a stroke. Something like that but not that. You can see him for a minute, but the team is ready to go with him. And don’t give up hope, just yet. I wasn’t planning on it, honestly.

At the General Hospital, directed up to ICU to the surgical team. Papers to sign. Consents for contrast CT, blood products, more. Definitely a brain hemorrhage, surgery will take several hours, he will go back to ICU. Back to the waiting room. A foam cup of water pressed into my hand. Waiting. Practical to a fault, I make lists. Appointments to cancel. People to call. Work. The director of the play. The school. Charles. This can’t be where it ends, over and over. This can’t be where it ends. I don’t pray, that is not me. I ask my parents to pull some strings, wherever they are. If anyone can do it they can. I let the idea of a funeral suck me in occasionally but then I force it to go away. This can’t be where it ends.

At 7am the surgeon comes back to us. We have been there since 11:30 the night before and so has he. He is happy, confident. He is so kind. The surgery went well, we removed the faulty blood vessel. We won’t know the full extent of the damage to his brain for a couple of days. Can we see him. They are getting him settled in ICU, go home for a bit. Rest and come back later.

Saturday now. A plastic bag of his clothes, his wallet, his phone. Personal effects. Phone calls and no sleep, little food. When can we go back.

ICU day one. The nurse says he’s doing well, all things considered. Max, she says, you have visitors, do you know them. The breathing tube muffles his voice, makes it hard to talk but we hear it. My mum and dad. I squeeze his hand he squeezes back. Max, the nurse says, can you move your feet for me? He does. Wiggle your big toe. We love you, Max, you don’t have to talk. But he does, softly, around the tube, I love you too.

ICU day two. That breathing tube needs to come out, the nurse says, he doesn’t need it. Progress. Let me get the doctor. Extubation. Better, Max? Yes, better.

You need to know this story has a happy ending and many of you do. Max remained in hospital for another 30 days and endured more surgeries to clear out infection that had developed, but on December 19, 2018 he got to come home and after heavy duty antibiotics to clear his brain of all signs of infection and a few months of physiotherapy to work on strength and balance, he is the same kid he was. We are so very lucky.

I wish I could remember more, Max tells me and I laugh and say I wish I could forget. But I don’t, not really. I need to remember, even though it’s so hard. The details of that night are there and sometimes they creep up on me, startling me with their clarity, and I’m back on the sidewalk, in the ICU, in the surgical waiting room.

Your life can change in an instant, they say. And they are not wrong.

Words come.

I mentioned on social media last week that in the past several days I’d started many blog posts, all currently residing in the drafts folder, languishing, it could be said, while I try to organize my thoughts enough to finish them.

Each time I open one up to write, the words don’t come. Or, they do come, but they’re trite, silly, words from before. Before we were isolating, sheltering in place, under quarantine and with an extra-large dose of social distancing. It wasn’t that long ago that these words would have been just fine, perhaps even good words, strung together in a blog post about something small, about nothing consequential, and that would have been ok. People would have read the words, maybe enjoyed the words that formed the post, they might have become thoughtful about something I’d written, or they might have smiled or laughed at the words and moved on with their lives. I feel now that these words aren’t right, they aren’t important enough to be said right now. And it’s ok. Honestly.

I have been working from home since Wednesday. But even before that, on Monday and Tuesday of last week, it was hard to focus on the work that needed to be done. Students were sent home from residences, classes moved to online delivery exams were cancelled. The campus felt deserted. Everyone was on edge. What would happen to the library? On Tuesday we spent the morning training on how to do our jobs from our homes. Tools we would use for meetings, for the public services work we normally did face-to-face. And we adapted, and it’s been a seamless move, really, but – and I am sure I’m not the only one to say this – the focus has just not been there.

When we have reference questions, sure, we’re focused and working hard to help the person virtually. And even with check-in meetings with our supervisor and our team, everyone is there, we’re doing ok, we’re getting by. But, as always, the elephant in the room is this: What is happening and when is it going to end. And the answer, of course, is that we just don’t know.

And so the words don’t come in this instance, we just don’t know what to say, so we say those things about coping, about getting by, and when we end the calls we say things like “Stay safe, everyone!” which is not, in case you were wondering, a sign-off greeting we have ever used before in our lives when speaking with co-workers at the end of a day.

And I know there are places and communities where that is a way to sign off a conversation and it’s likely my co-workers also know this and now we are all thinking the same thing –  that things are not safe in our world now and how did it come to this. But we don’t say it because the words don’t come. Or they do, but no one wants to be the one to say them. Out loud, anyway.

In my library, we have an archives and that archives is, as are most archives, run by an archivist. On Wednesday morning while we were all struggling with our technology, the resources that were going to help us do our job all alone in our homes, our archivist sent us all a message.

She told us she was going to be keeping a journal of this time. A document that outlined her day-to-day existence under self-isolation. Things like her daily routine, the weather, challenges and successes with work, reactions to the news, grocery lists and costs, etc. etc. Anything at all, really. And she encouraged us to do the same. Documentation of crises all through history has been crucial to understanding regular people living through difficult times, and whether it’s through poetry or letters or journals, the experiences are important. And they are necessary. And they should be documented.

I emailed her back right away and told her to count me in. I told her that I too would keep a journal of all of these things, these thoughts and feelings, these challenges and fears, and by sending that email I had found the words. And not only that, I understood that the words are important, even the trite and the silly. They are human, and they need to spill out in a format of our choosing to be documented. I hesitate to say documented for future generations but that’s exactly what this is. How will people in twenty or fifty years understand if we don’t actually tell them?

In the days, months, and years to come, there will be a LOT written about the pandemic.  Government officials, healthcare professionals, researchers and scientists, economists, financial experts and others will be weighing in with their expertise.

Maybe we should all weigh in too.

 

 

 

 

Back 2 School, Back to the Future

I am late, so late to the back-to-school season, I know. I had planned this post for much earlier in September, but things happen. Not terrible, awful things, mind you. Just…things.

But a few weeks ago, closer to the beginning of the school year, I posted this picture of me on Instagram and it sparked a back-to-school kind of vibe that I didn’t even know had been lurking in my brain.

This was Kindergarten class photo day. The year? 1972.

When I look at this photo I am overwhelmed by some pretty intense feelings for this little girl, this tiny 5-year-old whose cardigan game was fire, even then.

There is a kind of trend online these days where people write letters to their former selves, their childhood selves, their other selves. And I love it, I really do. Imagine being able to confront yourself in another dimension, so to speak; to be able to warn yourself, to prepare yourself, to encourage yourself. To impart the knowledge you have now to yourself back then. What a wonder.

What would you say to another you, a younger you, a different you? I had never really felt the urge until I posted this photo.

There is something about the girl in this photo that feels, to me, more vulnerable than any other school photo I own. Perhaps because it’s Kindergarten, her first foray into the education system, a year that helped forge her love of learning, of reading and writing and of following rules. (oh how she loved and continues to love rules.)

And perhaps it’s because of this vulnerability that I do, finally, have some thoughts for 5-year-old me:

  1. You are a pretty smart little kid and for the longest time, you will be picked on for being “the smart one” in the class and you will resist that completely until one day you will learn that someone else is “the smart one” and you are just the ok one, and you will find that extremely hard to take. So I am here to tell you that it’s ok to be the smartest kid in the class. It’s also ok to not be the smartest kid in the class. This probably feels like a contradiction but as with everything I’m about to tell you, you just have to trust me. Be yourself. You are actually pretty great.
  2. Your illness does not define you. I know it’s hard right now, it’s so, so hard. But soon, very soon, you will get a diagnosis. You will be asthmatic for your whole life, I’m sorry to tell you, but there eventually will be medication to help you breathe. It won’t be great at first, but it will be something, and the medication only gets better as time goes on. Trust me. You won’t always miss so much school, so much life. You will dance and you will run and in 2015 (a lifetime from now, I know, but just you wait) you will earn a black belt in karate. YOU will do this. YOU.
  3. You will always be emotional. Lots of things make you cry now, and lots of things will continue to make you cry. But this: your empathy, your compassion, your ability to put yourself in others’ shoes, these things actually make you strong. So go ahead and cry and continue to feel things deeply. Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t.
  4. I know that Rosa Too Little by Sue Felt is your favourite book right now, and the only book you ever want to borrow from the library,  and that’s ok, but you know what? You will move on from that book, and even though it will always hold a special place in your heart, you will read HUNDREDS of other books. Really! And the library will continue to be a place of solace for you and one day when you are grown up you will not only WORK in libraries but you will also be asked to teach classes in the public library and you will think that you could not be any luckier. And this will actually be true.
  5. You will spend years trying to find your signature “look” with various fashion trends but your ultimate style will come full circle to this very photo. A plaid dress, a sensible cardigan, tights, and cute shoes. Own it. It’s your destiny.

Happy September, friends. Knock ’em dead.

 

 

Food for Thought

I’m not much of a blogger anymore around here, but there’s something that I’ve been wanting to chat about that requires a bigger venue than Twitter, where I do most of my chatting, ranting, laughing, etc. It’s a bit of a heavier subject than some of my recent tweets and posts, and if you’re easily triggered, or there are subjects you need to avoid, I want to disclose that I will be writing about disordered eating, body image, and the like. I won’t be upset if you click the tab closed right now, in fact, I will applaud you and your knowledge of what you do and do not want to read. We have to take care of ourselves, friends. Close it down, or continue along, it’s your choice, always.

I have had a complicated relationship with food for a very long time. There were a number of years when food was primarily the only thing I thought or cared about. I counted it in calories or in Weight Watchers points. I measured it, weighed it, bought diet versions of it, and withheld it from myself for long periods at a time. I marvelled at how little food I needed throughout my day. I was in control of this, this body that just would not conform.

I was a chubby baby, a skinny little kid, a pudgy preteen, a thinnish teenager, a fat teenager, and a fat adult. Then a thin adult followed by a too-thin adult. Then a fat adult once again. Throw a couple of pregnancies in there, and one or two abdominal surgeries (not counting the c-sections from the pregnancies) and my body has endured a lot. And it is only recently, now, in my 50s, that I have started to appreciate it. Not appreciate it in a “Woweee look at meee!” kind of way. At all. It’s that I have learned to appreciate the fact that even though I tried to beat my body into submission, it was resilient. It survived, intact. I survived. Mostly intact.

I use the caveat that I have survived mostly intact because there are some things that will likely never leave me. I still often think in terms of how many “points” are in certain foods, and if I do the math I can have this many, and so on. Points, if you don’t know, at one time was a Weight Watchers tool of measurement for foods, and let me tell you friends, Weight Watchers, for me at least, was a helluva drug.

I will also still want to substitute certain foods for others, remind myself to make “healthy choices” and consume litres and litres of water in order to stay “full” so I won’t want to eat. Basically, so I can subsist on water and air and whatever is in car exhaust I guess? It’s maddening. But it’s not surprising.

When I was in my 20s and 30s and living the WW lifestyle, losing weight, dropping sizes, buying smaller jeans, I thought I had found the secret. I watched other women, women I worked with, try all the fad diets: Atkin’s, grapefruit, the one with lemon water, maple syrup, and cayenne. And I scoffed at them. But, even as I scoffed, I wanted to know does it work? Was someone doing that diet for a few weeks and then stepping into the office in a smaller size? Should I try that too? Maybe that’s what I need to drop those last five pounds.

I was on the WW program for years, dropping it when I was pregnant, but then going back as soon as I could after the babies were born. I cringe to think of it now, but WW had a program for breastfeeding mothers, and yes, I was on that for months too. In those months when I was so very tired with a baby, and then with a baby and a toddler, I somehow stuck to that damned regimen, weighing and measuring and restricting, and eventually I started to think what the hell am I doing? And I needed to get out.

And I got out, and I have been trying to heal and deal ever since. It’s been a long road, friends, and anyone who is nodding along right now can tell you that it’s hard, so very hard not to fall back into the routine, the ritual.

I have been wanting to write something like this for a long time, and I think what kicked it into gear was a tweet a friend liked or retweeted and it was something along the lines of how eventually we need to talk about how a lot of the diet cultures that have sprung up in recent years (think clean eating or vegan culture) are sort of code for disordered eating or eating disorders (I forget which was used in the tweet.) And I felt that so very deeply.

There is a lot of diet culture talk in the lunchroom at my workplace, and while I love the people I work with, and I normally love chatting over soup and sandwiches, I often have to remove myself from the table when paleo or keto or whatever latest trend is the topic of conversation.

And I get it, I was one of those young women (it’s mostly the young women who chat about diets) and I remember how exciting the changes to my body felt and how I wanted to share them, how powerful it felt to restrict myself to certain foods at certain times, to eliminate entire categories of foods when I needed to. But these are conversations in which I can no longer participate.

I sometimes want to say, “Let me tell you a story,” but I know that wouldn’t have worked on me. I thought I had it all under control, and they do too. And who knows, perhaps they do. Part of my issue might be my personality, my desire for control, no matter what kind of control it is, my deep need to organize, to classify and to restrict. So I continue to work on it, and I continue to quickly finish my lunch, and move on.

And on those days I try to be extra nice to my body, to myself. I try very hard not to deconstruct and critique the lunch I just ate, and sometimes I will go and buy myself a little treat or take a 5-minute meditation break to prove to myself and my body that we are enough. It’s slow progress, but it’s progress just the same.

And if you’re reading this and feeling like I am speaking to you or to your experience, please do feel free to reach out. I don’t have a lot of answers, but I have experience (did I mention I am an old) and I am always happy to be a shoulder or an ear if you need one. Always.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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!