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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!

NaBloPo No.

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

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

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

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

It will come, I know it will.

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Tales of Yadda Yadda

Do you know The Tales of Hoffmann?

It’s an opera. By Jacques Offenbach. The same Offenbach that wrote Orpheus in the Underworld. No? It has that Can-Can music, you know the one. Ok, good.

Today is International Women’s Day, so I thought I would tell you the story of an opera I saw on the weekend, brilliantly performed by Opera Laurier – Laurier is the university my son  attends. He is not in the opera, but he is in the orchestra, and you can’t have an opera without a hard-working orchestra, so we were there to whoop whoop whoop for the musicians, because, as you know, they never get to dance.

But back to Hoffmann.

The synopsis of Tales of Hoffmann is that Hoffmann is a writer, a poet. He is in love with Stella, an opera singer (how meta).  Hoffmann also drinks too much (see above, writer/poet), and is struggling to find his muse. Funnily enough, his muse appears to the audience at the very beginning, and tells us she is trying to convince Hoffmann to return to her, to reject all other love, and devote himself solely to her. Noble!

Stella had written a note to Hoffmann, telling him to meet her after the performance, but the letter is intercepted by Lindorf (dunh dunh duunnnnhhh) so you know something is afoot. An intercepted letter is always the start of evil. Once Hoffmann arrives at the bar, he entertains his friends with a story, but then Lindorf asks Hoffmann to tell everyone about his three life’s loves. Aaaand here we go.

The first woman Hoffmann falls in love with is ACTUALLY NOT A WOMAN AT ALL, but a wind-up doll. Hoffmann dons magical glasses – rose-coloured glasses, actually, prompting my husband and I to have a conversation as to whether this is the first instance of “seeing life through rose-coloured glasses” or nah. We don’t have an answer, so if you know, let me know!

The rose-coloured glasses allow Hoffmann to see Olympia (doll-girl, in an ACTUAL box, but pay that no mind, H) as a REAL WOMAN and someone he promptly falls in love with. It is worth noting that she performs a fantastic aria, but mostly Hoffmann seems to like it best when she says “Oui! Oui!” Eventually things go down, and Olympia is destroyed. Hoffmann is heartbroken.

Lesson: Men like their toy women to say “Oui! Oui!” and little else, and when they break, and they can’t play with them anymore, it makes them sad.

Then there is Antonia, another singer! Her father has hidden her – HIDDEN HER – from Hoffmann, because she has some illness that will kill her if she sings – tragic, obviously. But of course her father doesn’t TELL HER that she is sick and that singing will kill her. Oh ho ho, why would you inform the girl?!? Jesus. Anyway, Hoffmann finds her, hears the news about the death singing and convinces her to give up her singing dreams but HE DOESN’T TELL HER WHY EITHER! Then an evil doctor tricks her into singing and she dies. Like seriously, maybe if she KNEW THE CONSEQUENCES, she would be all, I’m good, actually I will play that violin like you suggested after all, dad, great idea!

Lesson: Men don’t like to burden tiny lady brains with important details about their own health, even if it might kill them.

Finally there is Giulietta, a courtesan. Offenbach’s word, not mine. Hoffmann loves her (because of course he does) and he thinks she loves him too, but, oh those tricky women! She merely seduces him to steal his reflection (seriously, what?) because another dude promised her a diamond if she did. Then there is some Hamlet-grade mix-up of poisons or something, and she dies.

Lesson: Ladies only pretend to love you, but then they friendzone you and take up with douches who give them diamonds, and why can’t these bitches ever like Nice Guys(tm)  amirite fellas?

Finally, the tales have been told, and Hoffmann reveals that all three of those women – the innocent girl, the artist, and the courtesan – are all parts of the same woman – Stella. Who he now rejects because, like Alfalfa sang in The Little Rascals, he’s through with love.

Don’t you see though? Hoffmann SUFFERED at the hands of these women, by falling in love with them, and then not getting them! Never mind that they all DIED, it’s all about himmmmmm.

This opera was first performed in February 1881, and what amazes me most is how well it’s held up with society’s interpretation of what women are and what they should be!

Seriously, though. I could not stop thinking about this story and how current these themes really are. There are Men’s Rights Activists giving voice to some of the most horrific people in the world, men who have a sadz for their rights, because some ladies dare to demand some rights of their own. There is a government (although I use the term loosely) to our south who wants to remove pretty much all reproductive rights and access to healthcare from women, because they feel they know all women’s bodies better than women know themselves. There are still man-children who think women are dolls to play dress up and satisfy their every need/whim, rather than living, thinking, breathing, HUMAN BEINGS.

I’m not blaming Offenbach. Ok, maybe I am. But I’m definitely not blaming Opera Laurier who absolutely KILLED this performance. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to laugh at 130-year old themes that should be silly and far- fetched in a kind of “oh those crazy Victorians, look at the crazy stuff they used to think, not telling women what they need to know about their health and falling in love with DOLLS!” when in actual fact these things are still happening everywhere, every single day.

Happy International Women’s Day, indeed.

But! It’s not all terrible. I mean, so much of it is, but The Tales of Hoffmann is an excellent opera, in spite of its MRA themes. And if you’re one to enjoy opera, allow me to end with, while not the best piece from the score, certainly the most memorable. And by memorable, I mean ear worm. I give you Kleinzach! Enjoy. I mean, you deserve something for reading over 1000 words on my opera hot take. Love you all.

 

Writing, creatively.

In 2016 a couple of pretty great things happened to me. Well, if I am being perfectly honest, a couple of pretty great things happened because I made them happen. I understand that 2016 was a clusterfuck/dumpster fire of a year for a lot of people, and I am not trying to be”that guy” but I just want to say outright that I have had worse years. And sure, fuck me, right? Absolutely. But I just need to get that out of the way.

The main big, great thing was that I was able to leave my soul-crushing job of nine years to get on with my life. I had no job to go to, no real plan at all. Except that I was going to write. And I did write. Some of the writing was this blog, some was another blog that I write for a friend’s business, and some of it was just personal shiz that I wrote and that may never see the light of day. I also volunteered on a couple of committees that kept me fairly busy, and perfected my pizza dough. In short, it was a pretty great, pizza-filled few months.

By the end of the summer, I knew that if I truly, truly wanted to write, the thing I needed to do was to get myself enrolled in a course of some sort that would force me – FORCE ME – through assignment deadlines and the like, to actually spend a lot of time writing. Not just thinking about writing, but actually doing it. So I did. And then, one Saturday in early September, I found myself in a classroom at Sheridan College, eager to get started in Creative Writing 101. (That is not actually the course code, but you know what I mean.)

For twelve weeks I participated in class discussions, wrote and handed in assignments on character, point of view, setting, and more. Some assignments were easy and fun, others were a damned struggle. On some days I would think that I have written what is probably one of the best 350 word passages ever, and then the very next day I would considering burning my notebooks and jumping off a bridge. I have been told that this is actually what the writing life is like, so it would seem that I might actually fit in.

We would also read our assignments in class. Out loud. To each other. This was terrifying. At least at the beginning. It was a lovely group of people, all very supportive, and eventually I started looking forward to reading my work to them, hearing their feedback, and providing feedback of my own. We were a good group.

The final, culminating assignment had us taking the techniques we learned throughout the course, and putting them all together, to create a short story. We had two full weeks to do this, and then we read our stories to the class.

My story is below.

I’m not putting it here because I am supremely proud of it. I think it is ok. It’s an ok story. I worked hard on it, and I got a good grade, and it’s ok. I know that it is not 100% polished, not 100% perfect, and that too is ok.

I am putting it here because it’s my first story. First ever story. Hopefully, it’s not the last, hopefully it’s the first of many. And eventually, after many, many stories, I like to think that there will be one or two that I am supremely proud of, one or two that are 100% polished. The only way to find out is to continue to write them.

If you read it and you like it, please let me know. If you read it and you don’t like it? Well, I’d like to hear from you too.

Finally, please know that when I handed in this assignment, I had proper paragraph indents, but when I copied to WordPress all my formatting disappeared. Go figure.


Eaton’s Basement              

“You know you have to do it. It’s all she ever wanted.” Carol’s words come back to me as I stand in the centre of the downtown mall. Waves of people move around me. The lunch hour shoppers trying to get their errands done before heading back to their desks. High school kids hitting the food court instead of the cafeteria. People coming from the market with bulging shopping bags, quietly saying excuse me as they try to get around me, and then saying it again, not quite so quietly. I’m definitely in the way. People don’t stand still in shopping malls.

The coldest, rainiest April has given way to the hottest May in recent memory, wreaking havoc on heating and cooling systems everywhere, and it is stifling. I consider taking off my jacket, but then I would have to carry it, along with my purse and the large tote bag I have brought with me. I leave my jacket on, cursing the weather, cursing my jacket, cursing everything.

The food court on the lower level is busy, and the noise of chairs scraping across the tile floor carries up to the main level where I am standing. This, combined with the heat and the too-loud piped in music, is grating on my nerves. The container bounces in my tote bag, and the sharp corner edge bangs against my hip as I walk. There will be a bruise there later. Sweat runs down my back and the handles of the bag dig into my shoulder as I ride the escalator down to the basement level, eyes closed, trying to remember, to get a feel for the place. Memories come in flashes. I see it, and then I don’t. It’s there and then it’s gone, like a dream you can’t remember once you wake up. The more I try to force the images, the further they retreat from my mind. I hate this place.

I didn’t always hate it here. For decades, this place was not a mall, but a large department store, the grande dame of the Canadian retail world, The T. Eaton Company. Or, more colloquially, Eaton’s. I loved every bit of it. Eaton’s was six floors of magic that you were granted access to courtesy of the white-gloved ladies who opened and closed the elevator doors with a flourish, and announced the wonders that awaited you. Second floor, shoes. Third floor, ladies wear.

Or, if you preferred, you could ride the wide, quiet escalators from floor to floor. I loved the escalators because they let the excitement build as the next level came gradually into view. Each floor held something different, and as a child, it was the most incredible place I could imagine. If you had told me Disneyworld was better, I wouldn’t have believed you. I still don’t.

You could buy anything at Eaton’s, and you could do it surrounded by beauty and luxury, in the form of high ornate ceilings, marble stairs, and polished wood trim. The revolving doors at the James Street entrance made a soothing whooshing sound as you moved through them, ushering you into another world where perfectly made up saleswomen offered spritzes of perfume as they moved amid the glass-topped cosmetics counters. It was a world where jewelry and watches, leather gloves, and scarves were laid out in perfect rows, a mixture of elegance and practicality. Handbags and wallets, purses and hats. All this on the main floor alone.

It was heaven, and then it was gone. I had taken it for granted, assuming it would live forever, but almost overnight all this beauty became a pile of rubble and dust. The store was eventually replaced with another Eaton’s, half the size of the original, and attached to this generic mall decorated in the awful 1990s colour scheme of seafoam green and peach. No grandeur, no beauty. This place has not aged well, but it is this place in which I now find myself, tired, overheated, and searching for what would have been the basement of the original Eaton’s, in order to fulfill my mother’s only dying wish: for me to scatter her ashes there.  

Nine days ago I was sitting in Carol’s kitchen, the urn that contains my mother between us on the table, to the left of my large glass of red wine. Carol is my mother’s best friend. Was her best friend. It’s still so hard to think of her in the past tense. Tall, silver-haired and sharp-tongued, my mother was the polar opposite of Carol, a short, blonde, and sweet-tempered woman twelve years her junior. But their friendship worked, in spite of their differences, and the bond they had was one of the strongest I have ever witnessed.

I knew Carol was struggling through the grief of losing her best friend, grief that was different from mine, possibly even deeper. I thought of my best friend, tried to imagine my life without her, and I couldn’t. You think your friends will always be there. But they won’t. They can’t be. Everyone goes, eventually. Even my larger than life mother, who stood nearly five feet ten inches in bare feet, has been reduced to a small pile of ash. And now that small pile of ash is on Carol’s kitchen table, in an urn.

At the cremation place, while the man in charge talked about the costs of cremation and options for urns,  I walked through the room and ran my fingers over the ones on display. SAMPLE ONLY, the labels read. I casually lifted the lid of a brass one shaped like an angel, and peered inside. It was empty. The labels, thankfully, were correct.

Urns are big business and the cremation place promised a style for everyone and something to fit every budget, but none of them looked right for my mother. I told the cremation man we were going to scatter her ashes, eventually. I started to tell him about  my plan to take her to where Eaton’s basement used to be, and that this, one of her favourite places in the whole world, would be her final resting place, but he told me he didn’t need to know the details. It was probably just as well.

I don’t remember when my mother first suggested I scatter her ashes over the sales tables in Eaton’s basement. The bargain basement was her favourite part of the store, everyone knew that. Her friends, family, even the Eaton’s ladies who were always interested to see what fantastic deal she would end up with on her regular trips downtown. It started as a joke, something she would say at a party, laughing, after a couple of glasses of wine. A joke that showed not only the reverence she had for Eaton’s and for a good sale, but also illustrated her irreverence, and the way she flew in the face of expectations, and scoffed at traditions. But at some point, as she got older, it became something more than a joke, something important and more urgent. Then later, as she became sicker, the ‘scatter my ashes on the Eaton’s basement sales tables!’ battle cry became real, and it seemed I would be required to carry it out.  

“Well, for scattering ashes,” the cremation man told me, “you don’t need a decorative urn, you can just use the basic container that the crematorium provides.” This was a practical solution, and my mother would have approved. Basic black, recycled plastic, and also recyclable once we were done with it. Ashes to ashes, dust to blue box.

I finished the last of my wine, caught up in these thoughts. I looked over at Carol who was quiet, and then to my mother’s container, also quiet. So unlike either of them. I stood up and addressed the urn, arms outstretched, “Well, I guess I have to do this, don’t I? Think I can?” I smirked and raised an eyebrow. Carol started to laugh. My mother had an opinion on everything, especially when it came to my ability or lack thereof to get a job done. We stared hard at the container, waiting for guidance. It remained silent.

Carol walked me out to my car, we said our goodbyes, and I watched her head back into the house with an overwhelming feeling of loss. She was here now, but one day she too would be gone. Like everything else.

I dig my phone out of my bag and call her.

“There’s not a lot to go on,” I tell her. “I mean, I checked with the archives, looking for floor plans or layouts or anything, really, but there wasn’t much. I’m mostly going by memory, but it’s so confusing!” My voice but not my voice. Desperate, pathetic.

“I know it’s hard, but you can’t give up. You can figure it out, you just have to keep trying,” she told me. Her words were meant to be supportive, helpful. But at that moment they just made me angry.

Keep fighting. Don’t give up. You can do it. These words were said over and over to my mother, from other well-meaning friends, as she lay in her hospital bed, the cancer eating at her brain. It was maddening. There was no fight, no positive thinking that could stop the tide of malignant cells.  These friends would tell me the same thing, that she needs to keep fighting, there has to be something that can still be done, let her know we’re pulling for her. Hollow platitudes, as unwelcome as the hugs that I accepted with fists and teeth clenched. Stay strong, they would say, stroking my cheek. Like there was another choice.

When she was still conscious, and the doctors said it was only a matter of time, I told her, “We’re going to lose you.”

“I know,” she said with a shrug, “but when your number’s up, your number’s up.” “But it isn’t fair!” I was sobbing.

“Life isn’t fair, and sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want.” Practical to the very end, she had accepted what so many refused to. Shit happens.

I ride the escalator back down and try again.

The food court is quieter now, most of the shoppers have gone back to work or school, and I slowly walk the length of the lower level trying my best to remember.

Step off the escalator and the bins of records and tapes are right here, sporting goods over there. I move to the right, the restaurant comes into view, and its orange vinyl booths are vivid in my mind. I keep walking. The thin wisp of memory is close, but I am afraid to let it take over, afraid that if I let it in, I am going to lose it. Then the fog lifts and I see them. Two large, square tables, shallow bins on legs, heaped with clearance items: socks, toys, cutlery, china. Books, candy, stationery. My mother in her camel coat and pink mohair hat, peering in, shifting items to get to something interesting, picking it up, putting it down again. Picking up something else, showing it to me, smiling. And me, too warm, always too warm, dragging my coat behind me, trying to be patient until it’s time for lunch, grilled cheese and chocolate milk in the restaurant, and then maybe a visit to the toy department on the fifth floor.

The image fades, and I am standing facing an electrical panel and a large potted palm near what had been a dollar store, vacant now, a For Lease sign in its window. This area of the mall is deserted. I reach out and touch the leaves of the palm, and my fingers come away dusty. Fake. I pull out my phone to call Carol, to tell her I am successful, but I don’t dial her number.

The bus is nearly empty for my ride home so I open as many windows as I can, and place the urn on the seat beside me. The air is warm, but the breeze picks up my hair, cooling my neck. I let my arm rest on the urn, and close my eyes.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

In 2007 I began reading an excellent blog called Shapely Prose. I don’t remember exactly how I discovered it – likely a link from another blog, something like that – but it was, for the 3+ years that it ran, one of my favourites. The contributors were sassy, smart, feminist; the founder, Kate Harding, was and is one of the best writers out there, writing on topics that were new to me at that time, topics like fat acceptance and fat politics, as well as feminism, and everything in between. (Note: She also seems like a super cool woman, and I am still mad that I couldn’t get to her reading in Toronto last fall BUT I DIGRESS)

One of the first posts I think I ever read on Shapely Prose was this one by Harding, The Fantasy of Being Thin, and it was a massive lightbulb moment for me. I encourage you to read it, because not only is it an excellent piece of writing, it’s an important one. Even if you are someone who has never struggled to lose weight, it can really do a lot to help you understand what (can) go on in the minds of your fat friends, fat family members. It blew me away all those years ago, because I could relate – oh my god could I ever relate! That was actually me circa 1994 thinking “if only I could lose 25, 30, 40 pounds, watch out I will be unstoppable!” And I did lose that much weight. And guess what? Like the lady says, I was still me. Pretty great, but not the superwoman I fully expected to be once I dropped 4 or 6 sizes, you know?

This post was on my mind the entire way through Mona Awad’s excellent 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, because Lizzie’s story is in a lot of ways this fantasy of being thin. She starts out a fat girl, and, spoiler alert, when she does get thin through an excruciating regimen of diet and exercise and sacrifice, she is still the same person: Lizzie, from Mississauga. Somewhat awkward, often difficult, unmotivated. Go figure.

And if you read Kate Harding’s Fantasy post, you’ll understand where this excruciating regimen of self-punishment can come from, and how the roots of this fantasy take hold. When society tells you from day one that thin is the only way to be, and you’re not thin, and there are hundreds of ads and commercials and billboards screaming at you daily that all you have to do is try harder, fatso, and you too can live out your fabulous life as a thin, worthwhile person, well it’s no wonder so many of us buy into that fantasy. It’s a hard cycle to break.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is Lizzie’s journey from fat teenager in suburbia, to thin, almost-30-year old woman, and along the way we get to meet her friends, her parents, her early love interests, and the others who shape her outlook on life, her self-worth. There is Mel, her friend and sometimes competitor – for attention, for guys. There is her mother – herself fat, and only proud of Lizzie once she starts losing weight. And there is Tom, her boyfriend then husband, who got together with fat girl Lizzie, but becomes increasingly distanced from intense, over-achieving, weight-loss Lizzie:

“I did this for you, you know, she always tells him.

Did you? he wants to say.

Because he doesn’t remember ever asking for kumquats or hybrid cardio machines, but who knows? Maybe all this time, all the little ways he looked at her and didn’t look at her, all the things he said or didn’t say or didn’t say enough added up to this awful request without his knowledge or consent, like those ransom notes made from letters cut from different magazines.”

Lizzie’s relationships with family and friends, while not particularly healthy to begin with, become strained and more difficult, as her relationships with food and exercise become more and more disordered. As the story progresses, as she herself begins to disappear, the miracles that are supposed to accompany thinness don’t occur, life goes on. And when that life is one you’ve been keeping on hold until you were a certain size, a certain weight, there is always the feeling that there is more to do, more to lose, another size to drop.

Awad does a great job of getting the mindset of this fat girl turned thin, the mindset that never allows you to feel you’ve accomplished enough. The mindset that has you waiting and waiting for the amazing life you were promised, once you became thin enough, once you become acceptable enough to society.

As Harding says:

“The question is, who do you really want to be, and what are you going to do about it? (Okay, two questions.) The Fantasy of Being Thin is a really convenient excuse for not asking yourself those questions sincerely — and that’s exactly why it’s dangerous. It keeps you from being not only who you are, but who you actually could be, if you worked with what you’ve got. And that person trapped inside you really might be cooler than you are right now.

She’s just not thin.”

I loved this book. I love Mona Awad for giving a voice to the expertly flawed character of Lizzie (Elizabeth, Liz, Beth) who I adored in all her funny, sassy, complicated, and sometimes ridiculous glory, and I will be recommending this book to everyone I know, fat or not, girl or not.

You’ve been warned.