Now You Are Five

19 Jan

Dear Theo,

Five is a big one, eh? Half a decade. An outstretched hand with every finger proudly displayed. 1,826 loops around the sun.

You look so grownup lately. You’ve lost what little baby roundness you had and now you’re all skinny legs and big feet. You don’t sound like a baby anymore, either. You pepper your conversations with big words and thoughtful observations. Sometimes your brain is going faster than your mouth and you stumble over what you’re trying to say, then complain that you can’t get it out – but you always do, eventually, once you slow down enough to put the syllables in the right order.

I’ve always wondered how much of our personalities are innate and how much are shaped by the circumstances in which we grow up, but looking back through your other birthday letters it’s hard not to feel like you’ve always been exactly who you are. The things I want to tell you about yourself haven’t changed much since the first letter I wrote to you when you were two – you’re still funny, still charming, still easygoing and friendly. You’re stubborn, and when you want to master something you don’t give up easily. You still hate sleeping.

Your teachers tell me that you’re doing very well socially – there isn’t a single kid in your class who doesn’t consider you to be their friend. You have a fluidity that lets you move between different groups of peers with an ease that makes me envious. I ask you every day who you played with at school, and I always get different answers – sometimes you’ve gone tobogganing with R, or played house with E and U, or built a pretend castle with M.

One of your classmates says she wants to marry you, but you say you’re never going to get married because you’re going to be a farmer.

This past September you started public school. Downtown. In French. In a class with 23 other kids you’d never met before September. This was a big change from your tiny, homey daycare in Forest Hill, and it certainly wasn’t without its challenges. I kind of approached with the attitude that if we threw you in the water, you’d probably learn to swim – after all, that’s what I did when I was your age, and I turned out ok, right? We had some rough patches this fall and I don’t know if I’d make the same choices again, but I’ll be damned if you aren’t pulling through with mostly flying colours.

We’ve gone through some difficult times this year. One night – maybe the worst night – I was trying to talk to you about your behaviour at school for what seemed like the millionth time and I started crying.

“I just want you to be a good listener,” I said.

You started crying too, and I was sure that you were about to apologize or promise to do better.

Instead, you said, “I just want to be able to do whatever I want.”

I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry harder.

You’re not as easy for me to understand these days. You’re more opaque; I can’t always figure out what you’re thinking or what motivates your behaviour. I know that babies always think they’re an extension of their parents, but for a long time it felt like you were a sort of extension of me, or maybe another iteration of me – I knew you somehow, just like I knew myself. That’s slowly changing, and I know it’s very normal and healthy. You’re moving away from me and becoming your own person with private thoughts and desires and that’s exactly how this is supposed to happen.

But I do miss those moments of communion where I wasn’t sure where my self ended and yours began. Those aren’t exactly the right words, but they’ll have to do for now.

I love you. I love the way your eyes get so big and blue when you’re excited about something. I love your wild imagination (and all the bizarre things I overhear you say when you’re playing pretend). I love your empathy and your thoughtfulness, how you like to pick out presents for people and you always seem to know what they like. I love how you practice French pronunciations in your room, rolling your Rs over and over until you get it just right. I love the moments we look at each other out of the corners of our eyes and burst out laughing just because. I love that your life goal is to get me a spacesuit that matches yours.

Remember earlier when I said you were very much the same person that you always had been? Well, that’s kind of true and not true. I used to always joke about how little interest you had in art – in fact, I mentioned in last year’s letter that you kind of suck at drawing – and all of the sudden now you’re all over it. You love drawing all kinds of things, but your favourite things to create are blueprints and assembly guides. We got you a loft bed and put a little table and chair set under it and now you call that space your “invention dimension.” You’ll happily spend hours under there “inventing” things like a poop factory or a robot that picks up garbage.

So I guess that as much as personalities might seem set and innate and unchangeable, we probably all have the capacity for change, eh?

I feel like this year you’ve taken your first steps in the grownup world. It’s been scary, and it’s going to keep being scary for a while, I bet. I’m helping you choose your path, and that fact obviously carries a lot of weight with it. Lots of times I don’t know what I’m doing and all I can do is make the best decision possible based on the currently available data. But we’re figuring this out, you know? And I’ll keep running along behind you, acting like your training wheels until you can finally steer this thing on your own.

Happy birthday, Theo.

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A sketch of our apartment building with a secret fort on top and also two spy planes and a pet frog

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Assembly instructions for a robot

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Baby’s first Jays game

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Baby’s first jazz show

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When you fall asleep playing with your dinos

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Practicing his nurturing skills

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Still really into My Little Pony

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Dressed up as a vampire pirate for Hallowe’en because honestly why should you have to choose between the two?

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Blowing out the candles at his fifth birthday

What To Do When You Feel Like Your World Is Ending And Everybody Hates You And Nothing Will Ever Be Ok Again

8 Jan

Trigger warning: suicide

I am not always an easy person to be around.

I’m sure that most people feel that way, and to some extent it’s probably true. But there are times when I am particularly, especially, really awful to be around. What makes these times even more difficult is that they usually coincide with my periods of mental health crisis, which means that the point where my behaviour is most likely to drive my friends away is also exactly when my self-esteem is at its lowest ebb.

I don’t have a very good instinct for boundaries. I have a hard time enforcing my own, and I’m not always good at knowing how to respect those belonging to other people. I think that for a long time my personal boundaries were treated more as points of negotiation than hard lines, and by consequence I don’t have a very solid foundation when it comes to understanding how they work. If someone spells them out to me, that’s fine – but in my experience that kind of articulation often doesn’t happen until after the relationship has been damaged and feelings have been hurt.

I am a great friend until I’m not. I am fine except for when I am in a crisis, which in a bad year can last for several months on end.

I am a cryer. I am someone who panics loudly. I am a person who feels dread everywhere – in my teeth and the tips of my fingers and deep in my bones. There are days when I know with an absolute certainty that I am a miserable monster who will never feel happiness again.

I have sat in my living room at three in the afternoon and three in the morning and every hour in between consumed with an unhappiness so intense that I’m not sure how to describe it except to say that it just is. And it swells up so huge inside of me that it obscures everything else including my sense of myself and the passage of time so that there is no more past and there is no more future and there is just this exquisitely awful present that can only possibly be escaped through death.

I know. I know. But also that’s just how it is sometimes, you know?

And once you’re there, you just keep going further down the rabbit hole. All you can talk about is what an awful person you are, and the more you say it, the truer it feels. When your friend disagrees, you get angry and accuse them of not being on your side (the joke is, of course, that no one is on your side because what the fuck is your side). You show up at their place crying, asking if you can crash on their couch because you’re not sure you can survive a night alone at home. When they call to check on you, you say that you’re going through the medicine cabinet trying to figure out the deadliest combination of pills.

These are all awful things to do and I am ashamed to write them out but at the time they felt inevitable. I didn’t know how else to be, and every new friendship meant counting down the minutes until they discovered the real me, the awful me, the one who cries over dinner, in the grocery store, during a very normal conversation that shouldn’t be sad at all. I felt like I’d tricked people into wanting to spend time with me, and much of my mental and physical energy was used keeping up the image of what an upstanding not-awful person I was. That is, until the next rough patch hit and I couldn’t sustain it anymore.

I did not drive every friend away. But I can honestly say that I did drive some friends away.

*                    *                   *

When I was going through a particularly hard time in university, a friend that I often leaned on for support – let’s call her C – suggested that I make a list of all the things I hated about myself. “Once you’ve got that list,” she said, “you’ll know what you want to change.”

C was big on self-improvement. She did stuff like quitting the school’s meal program and buying herself a bar fridge so that she could better follow The Zone diet in the privacy of her own dorm room. She was the kind of person who always seemed to intuitively know what she needed – a new rug for her room, an hour at the gym, a quiet night in watching Sense and Sensibility. And, in marked contrast to me, she didn’t have frequent weepy meltdowns about how much of a mess her life was. So when she suggested writing out all the worst things about myself, I readily agreed. After all, if I couldn’t identify the problem, how on earth was I going to come up with a solution?

So I parked myself in the library’s atrium one afternoon to make this list. Another friend – let’s call her K – asked me what I was doing. When I told her that C had told me that I could improve my life by thinking up all the things I didn’t like about myself and then changing them, K said something like: “You know what will really improve your life? Getting rid of the friends who tell you to make lists of the things you hate about yourself. Maybe start hanging around with the people who want you to like yourself for who you are.”

In the decade or so since then, I’ve realized that both of their ideas have merit.

I should be able to expect that my friends love me for who I am, including the wailing banshee that lives somewhere in the shadowlands of my heart who believes that she is anything but loveable.

But I should also try to take what responsibility I can for what I say and do when that banshee does her best to trash the party and leave.

Because that banshee is me and I am that banshee and even though I’m still not quite sure what to do with that information I know it’s important.

*                    *                   *

I’ve seen a few debates lately about what the “right” kind of self-care is. Should you do the dishes or leave them in the sink while you take a nap? Should you make good on your plans and go out with friends even when you feel crappy or should you bail with some transparent excuse? Should you clean your room or hunker down with a good book and let your future self worry about picking up your clothes?

I don’t think there are any cut and dried answers to these questions. There’s no good way to have a mental health crisis. Sometimes it’s smarter to wash your dishes and sometimes you need a break and it’s hard to know in the moment which one is true. On the one hand, a messy apartment makes me feel like the world is closing in on me, but on the other hand the best prescription a doctor ever wrote for me said “do more things that you enjoy.” Maybe the thing that feels worst is not making a choice and spending a four hour stretch sobbing on the couch unable to decide whether you should clean the bathroom or make yourself a cup of tea.

*                    *                   *

Here are a few things I’ve learned after nearly two decades of weathering my own breakdowns:

  1. All feelings are valid, but they are not necessarily an accurate reflection of reality. Treat feelings as symptoms rather than the disease, which is to say do what you can to alleviate them while at the same time looking for a root cause.

  2. When you are down the rabbit hole, there is not a single thing anyone can say to make you feel better about yourself. The best they can do is hold your hand while you go through it.

  3. It helps to prepare for the bad times during the good times. I have a word doc of all the reasons why my friends probably don’t hate me that I go through and read when I feel like all of my friends probably hate me.

  4. Wait a day before ending a friendship or quitting a job or running away from the thing that you really want to run away from. You might be making the right choice, but it rarely hurts to give yourself some breathing room before committing.

  5. It’s good to create a safe space for yourself on social media – a group chat with friends you trust or a Facebook page where people can post stuff for you and commiserate about mental health woes. I know this isn’t everyone’s jam, but I live in terror of exhausting people with my shit so it’s better for me to have an opt-in system where friends can choose to participate if they feel up to it.

  6. Your survival rate up until now has been 100%. That is the best possible rate. You have made it through every bad day so far, and statistics are on your side when it comes to making it through the next one.

  7. I don’t know if my good days outnumber my bad and I’m not sure it’s worth counting them, but I do know that after each storm blows itself out I’m always grateful to still be here.

If you’re in a bad place, I hope some of this helps. Happy January, darlings.

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sometimes you need to find that internal weather map (not to mention that internal weather girl so you can get hot tips on her bouffant hairdo)

Blessed Art Thou

29 Dec

 

Trigger warning: mention of rape

I think about Mary a lot.

Not the Mary you see on Christmas cards or in stained glass windows or in children’s bibles. Not the milk-fed blond virgins in Renaissance paintings. Not the grownup white lady in crisp blue robes with the fat baby on her lap. Mary wasn’t any of these people.

I think about Mary as a scrawny kid, barely in her teens and engaged to a man who was probably more than twice her age. She’s be at that age where you’re all arms and legs, when whatever childish grace you had has given way to adolescent clumsiness. She has big dark eyes and long black hair tucked neatly under a veil. Her skin is brown. Her hands are small, quick, good at sewing a tidy hemline or kneading a ball of dough.

I think about what it must have been like to live in a militarized occupied state. How she must have kept her head down, ducked past the soldiers she saw on the street, in the marketplace, out front of the temple. She wouldn’t have talked to them unless she had to, and even then it would be in whispered monosyllables. Not because she wasn’t brave, but because that’s the reality of life under occupation. You don’t give them a reason to notice you. You don’t give them an excuse to hurt you.

They are looking for literally any excuse.

Maybe the baby’s father was god, but maybe it was the boy next door. The one she used to make mud pies with in the alley between their houses. The one whose nose she’d bloodied during an argument over who should get the bigger slice of cake. The one she used to run foot races with until her parents said she was too old to run around like a child anymore. The one who had dug the heels of his hands into his eyes so that he wouldn’t cry when he learned about her betrothal.

Or maybe the father was a soldier who didn’t like the way she looked at him, or else liked it too much. Maybe the baby was the product of one of the oldest and vilest war tactics known to man.

Maybe Mary lied, and hoped that no one would ever question a lie so huge and so outrageous.

Maybe after she said it enough times – to her parents, to Elizabeth, to Joseph – she started to believe it. Anything can seem true if you hear it often enough.

Maybe she talked herself into it, telling herself that the lord works in mysterious ways, that he can use any person in any way to fulfill his wondrous purpose.

Or maybe the only way that her mind could cope with the trauma was to alter the memory of what had happened. A beam of light, like the sun glinting off a sword. An angel in battle armour. A choosing. A blessing. A reason for all that suffering.

I think about Mary walking around Nazareth, her belly too big to hide anymore – not that hiding it would have done any good, because it wouldn’t have been long before everyone would have known her story. I picture her keeping her head high, thrusting her little chin out while the women at the market whispered and giggled, only to break down later at home, sobbing in bed while her mother strokes her hair. Late at night she hears her father in the next room reciting prayer after prayer. He asks for strength, for faith, for guidance, for something, anything.

There must have been some part of Mary that felt relieved when she learned that they were going to Bethlehem. At the very least, she had the chance to get away from the gossiping neighbours. Sort of a fresh start.

The donkey ride across country while nine months pregnant must have been pure hell. Every morning she must have bitten back a sob as she hauled her bruised, swollen body once more onto that beast’s back. She must have clutched the reins and gritted her teeth and counted the hours until she could lie down in the flea-ridden bed of some dirty old back-country inn.

And then there was that final inn, in Bethlehem, the one they came to late at night after being turned away from all of the others. Mary must have been miserable by then – she’d probably been having contractions for hours, barely able to keep herself from howling with pain as the donkey jostled her up and down the crowded alleyways.

Was anyone there to help when the baby was finally born? Did the innkeeper’s wife come out to the stables to hold her hand, wipe her forehead, and finally guide him out between her thighs? Or was it just Joseph, humbly leaning on his staff and trying not to be sick from the heat, the stench of blood, the sound of his wife’s gut-wrenching groans?

Was anyone there to teach Mary how to nurse? How to squeeze her breast between her fingers and draw the baby’s mouth towards her nipple? Did anyone tell her about plugged ducts or thrush or the creeping red ache of mastitis?

Was there even one person there to tell her she was doing fine, it was all fine, she was going to be fine?

I think about how very much alone Mary must have felt sitting there in that stable, a scared kid holding her own kid in her arms.

I think about her fleeing to Egypt, her days-old baby strapped to her chest with a strip of cloth. Everything there must have seemed so foreign and dangerous – though not as dangerous as what she’d left behind her. I picture her struggling to learn the language, to map the new landscape, to eat the strange food. But I also picture her entering the temple of Isis and finding comfort in the images of the goddess with the baby Horus on her lap. The story of young god growing up in hiding from his evil uncle-king must have felt familiar to her. I hope it made Mary feel less alone.

Mary was the kind of girl who got things done, a problem-solver, a person who thinks on her feet. She was the kind to ask “what next?” instead of “why me?” Mary was someone who doggedly put one foot in front of the other because if she sat down to rest she might never get up. After all, the only way out is through.

When I think about Mary, I think about all the women I’ve known who have faced adversity by putting their heads down and just ploughing through it. These women don’t give up because giving up is simply not an option; they don’t have the luxury of running away to some distant planet at the edge of a galaxy far, far away. They survive because what other choice is there?

That’s the Mary I think about.

Mary the blessed.

Mary full of grace.

Mary the most holy.

Mary the immaculate.

Mary the queen of heaven.

Mary the advocate of Eve.

Mary the seat of wisdom.

Mary the star of the sea.

Mary the daughter.

Mary the mother.

Mary the survivor.

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Being A Girl: A Brief Personal History of Violence

3 Dec

1.

I am six. My babysitter’s son, who is five but a whole head taller than me, likes to show me his penis. He does it when his mother isn’t looking. One time when I tell him not to, he holds me down and puts penis on my arm. I bite his shoulder, hard. He starts crying, pulls up his pants and runs upstairs to tell his mother that I bit him. I’m too embarrassed to tell anyone about the penis part, so they all just think I bit him for no reason.

I get in trouble first at the babysitter’s house, then later at home.

The next time the babysitter’s son tries to show me his penis, I don’t fight back because I don’t want to get in trouble.

One day I tell the babysitter what her son does, she tells me that he’s just a little boy, he doesn’t know any better. I can tell that she’s angry at me, and I don’t know why. Later that day, when my mother comes to pick me up, the babysitter hugs me too hard and says how jealous she is because she only has sons and she wishes she had a daughter as sweet as me.

One day when we’re playing in the backyard he tells me very seriously that he might kill me one day and I believe him.

2.

I am in the second grade and our classroom has a weird open-concept thing going on, and the fourth wall is actually the hallway to the gym. All day long, we surreptitiously watch the other grades file past on the way to and from the gym. We are supposed to ignore most of them. The only class we are not supposed to ignore is Monsieur Pierre’s grade six class.

Every time Monsieur Pierre walks by, we are supposed to chorus “Bonjour, Monsieur Sexiste.” We are instructed to do this by our impossibly beautiful teacher, Madame Lemieux. She tells us that Monsieur Pierre, a dapper man with grey hair and a moustache, is sexist because he won’t let the girls in his class play hockey. She is the first person I have ever heard use the word sexist.

The word sounds very serious when she says it. She looks around the class to make sure everyone is paying attention and her voice gets intense and sort of tight.

“Girls can play hockey. Girls can do anything that boys do,” she tells us.

We don’t really believe her. For one thing, girls don’t play hockey. Everyone in the NHL – including our hero Mario Lemieux, who we sometimes whisper might be our teacher’s brother or cousin or even husband – is a boy. But we accept that maybe sixth grade girls can play hockey in gym class, so we do what she asks.

Mostly what I remember is the smile that spreads across Monsieur Pierre’s face whenever we call him a sexist. It is not the smile of someone who is ashamed; it is the smile of someone who finds us adorable in our outrage.

3.

Later that same year a man walks into Montreal’s École Polytechnique and kills fourteen women. He kills them because he hates feminists. He kills them because they are going to be engineers, because they go to school, because they take up space. He kills them because he thinks they have stolen something that is rightfully his. He kills them because they were women.

Everything about the day is grey: the sky, the rain, the street, the concrete side of the École Polytechnique, the pictures of the fourteen girls that they print in the newspaper. My mother’s face is grey. It’s winter, and the air tastes like water drunk from a tin cup.

Madame Lemieux doesn’t tell us to call Monsieur Pierre a sexist anymore. Maybe he lets the girls play hockey now. Or maybe she is afraid.

Girls can do anything that boys do but it turns out that sometimes they get killed for it.

4.

I am fourteen and my classmate’s mother is killed by her boyfriend. He stabs her to death. In the newspaper they call it a crime of passion. When she comes back to school, she doesn’t talk about it. When she does mention her mother it’s always in the present tense – “my mom says” or “my mom thinks” – as if she is still alive. She transfers schools the next year because her father lives across town in a different school district.

Passion. As if murder is the same thing as spreading rose petals on your bed or eating dinner by candlelight or kissing through the credits of a movie.

5.

Men start to say things to me on the street, sometimes loudly enough that everyone around us can hear, but not always. Sometimes they mutter quietly, so that I’m the only one who knows. So that if I react, I’ll seem like I’m blowing things out of proportion or flat-out making them up. These whispers make me feel complicit in something, although I don’t quite know what.

I feel like I deserve it. I feel like I am asking for it. I feel dirty and ashamed.

I want to stand up for myself and tell these men off, but I am afraid. I am angry that I’m such a baby about it. I feel like if I were braver, they wouldn’t be able to get away with it. Eventually I screw up enough courage and tell a man to leave me alone; I deliberately keep my voice steady and unemotional, trying to make it sound more like a command than a request. He grabs my wrist and calls me a fucking bitch.

After that I don’t talk back anymore. Instead I just smile weakly; sometimes I duck my head and whisper thank you. I quicken my steps and hurry away until one time a man yells don’t you fucking run away and starts to follow me.

After that I always try to keep my pace even, my breath slow. Like how they tell you that if you ever see a bear you shouldn’t run, you should just slowly back away until he can’t see you.

I think that these men, like dogs, can smell my fear.

6.

On my eighteenth birthday my cousin takes me out clubbing. While we’re dancing, a man comes up behind me and starts fiddling with the straps on my flouncy black dress. But he’s sort of dancing with me and this is my first time ever at a club and I want to play it cool, so I don’t say anything. Then he pulls the straps all the way down and everyone laughs as I scramble to cover my chest.

At a concert a man comes up behind me and slides his hand around me and starts playing with my nipple while he kisses my neck. By the time I’ve got enough wiggle room to turn around, he’s gone.

At my friend’s birthday party a gay man grabs my breasts and tells everyone that he’s allowed to do it because he’s not into girls. I laugh because everyone else laughs because what else are you supposed to do?

Men press up against me on the subway, on the bus, once even in a crowd at a protest. Their hands dangle casually, sometimes brushing up against my crotch or my ass. One time it’s so bad that I complain to the bus driver and he makes the man get off the bus but then he tells me that if I don’t like the attention maybe I shouldn’t wear such short skirts.

7.

I get a job as a patient-sitter, someone who sits with hospital patients who are in danger of pulling out their IVs or hurting themselves or even running away. The shifts are twelve hours and there is no real training, but the pay is good.

Lots of male patients masturbate in front of me. Some of them are obvious, which is actually kind of better because then I can call a nurse. Some of them are less obvious, and then the nurses don’t really care. When that happens, I just bury my head in a book and pretend I don’t know what they’re doing.

One time an elderly man asks me to fix his pillow and when I bend over him to do that he grabs my hand and puts it on his dick.

When I call my supervisor to complain she says that I shouldn’t be upset because he didn’t know what he was doing.

8.

A man walks into an Amish school, tells all the little girls to line up against the chalkboard, and starts shooting.

A man walks into a sorority house and starts shooting.

A man walks into a theatre because the movie was written by a feminist and starts shooting.

A man walks into Planned Parenthood and starts shooting.

A man walks into.

9.

I start writing about feminism on the internet, and within a few months I start getting angry comments from men. Not death threats, exactly, but still scary. Scary because of how huge and real their rage is. Scary because they swear they don’t hate women, they just think women like me need to be put in their place.

I get to a point where the comments – and even the occasional violent threat – become routine. I joke about them. I think of them as a strange badge of honour, like I’m in some kind of club. The club for women who get threats from men.

It’s not really funny.

10.

Someone makes a death threat against my son.

I don’t tell anyone right away because I feel like it is my fault – my fault for being too loud, too outspoken, too obviously a parent.

When I do finally start telling people, most of them are sympathetic. But a few women say stuff like “this is why I don’t share anything about my children online,” or “this is why I don’t post any pictures of my child.”

Even when a man makes a choice to threaten a small child it is still, somehow, a woman’s fault.

11.

I try not to be afraid.

I am still afraid.

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The author, age 7

 

I Published A Goddamn Book

24 Nov

Sometimes I forget that I wrote and published a book, which is both a real truth about my life and also something I never imagined saying or thinking.

When I used to imagine what Life As A Writer would be like, I thought a lot about how writing would Change Me. I invested a laughable amount of time picturing how I would dress as a writer (casual but kind of wispy and with lots of floaty scarves), what my desk would look like (slightly messy but in a deeply creative way), and what my writing process would be like (sitting at my desk writing long-hand in a leather-bound journal while the early morning sun slanted in through the window). I also had some ideas about what it would be like to finally publish a book that were not very firmly rooted in reality – glowing reviews in big publications, an award or five, and maybe even a movie deal.

Of course, my actual writing process involves weeping frantically over a half-finished first draft an hour before my deadline, my “desk” is whatever surface has enough clear space for my laptop, and while typing this up I’m dressed in a soup-stained black tank top and a pair of pyjama shorts printed with tiny horses. And my book? The one that I thought was going to be made into a raw, heartfelt Sundance-screened film starring Ellen Page? It just sort of happened, and then it was over. It felt like such a non-event that when I put together a new writing bio last year I didn’t think to include it.

I guess I never really thought of it as a book-book – it was only ever available in a digital format, which is cool and all but also not very different from the time I got my roommate to record me singing a Tori Amos cover which I then proceeded to refer to as my “single.” It was real, but it didn’t feel real – I don’t even think most of my family knew that it had happened. I mostly didn’t feel like a person who ever wrote a book, which I’d thought was a feeling I’d know and recognize immediately. Instead, I felt like a person who had spent several months pouring her feelings into the black hole of a Word document and then walked away.

Anyway. I frankly thought the rest of the world had forgotten about my book even harder than I had, and then out of the blue a new dude working for my publisher emailed last summer and told me that he’d been revisiting some of their old publications and thought mine was pretty great (!!!!!). He said he thought it deserved another push wanted to do a re-launch of my book. He also said that they had an actual budget for cover art now, and they wanted to publish it not just as an e-book but also as a paperback.

All of this is to say that just over a month ago I got to hold my actual book in my hands for the first time and it was really fucking beautiful. I mean, the book was beautiful, and the moment was beautiful, and I couldn’t really breathe or see straight for a while.

I wrote a book and then I held it in my hands and holy shit sometimes really great things do happen.

I wrote a book and that is a real thing I did and you can read an excerpt here and you can read reviews here and you can buy it and own it and hold it in your hands.

I don’t know if I feel like a person who’s written a book yet, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that’s maybe not a thing that just happens  to you. There are some pretty clear dividing lines, of course – one day you’ve never published a book, and then the next day you have. But feelings are full of grey areas and what-ifs and yes-buts, which means that you can be staring at your own book on a screen and still talk yourself out of believing that you’re finally, truly a real writer. Impostor syndrome is a hell of a drug.

I often think about an essay that Betty Smith, the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, wrote while she was attending college classes at the University of Michigan. It’s called “I Want to Write!” and sadly I can’t find it anywhere online, so I can’t link you to the full text. To give you an idea of what her situation was like, I should mention that she wasn’t actually enrolled at the university, but rather was auditing classes while her husband was a student in another department. In spite of the fact that Smith hadn’t finished high school and had two small children, she managed to convince several of the professors to let her sit in on their creative writing classes.

But as much as Betty Smith wanted to write, she struggled with it in a way that is probably deeply recognizable to anyone else who writes:

“[…] I have my doubtful periods. I am ashamed of the things that I have written in the past. I am ashamed of the things I wrote last month. But when I wrote them, I thought that I was inspired. The hardest thing to bear is the sneaking knowledge that in a year or two from now, I shall be heartily ashamed of the things I am writing now. Still —?

The cruelest thing about this desire to write, is the hopeless hope that it engenders. Deep down in my heart, I know that I shall never get anywhere in this writing business. But who can tell? Sometime, tomorrow even, someone may find something marvellous in the things that I write.

[…]

Some years ago, I decided to be sensible and to put all this writing foolishness aside. Other events crowded close; anther life opened for me. I married, had two babies, other interest, other ties. I wrote nothing for eight years.

Eight years? But I am lying. I have forgotten my friend. As a relaxation from the cares of the children and the house, I formed the habit of writing to a mythical friend. I wrote about everything, and wrote and wrote and wrote! Then I mailed the letters in the waste basket.

Now I have come back to my first love. I frankly admit that I am writing again. I hate it and I love it. It is labour. It is travail. But it is the most fascinating thing in the world.”

When I think of Betty Smith, I think of a writer who was gifted beyond anything I could ever imagine. I mean, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – have you ever read that shit? It is one of the most fucking heartbreaking and true books I’ve ever read.

And yet while she was writing it, Smith never felt like a writer. She felt like someone who was waisting her time; someone whose first drafts stunk; someone whose time would have been better employed playing with her children or cleaning her house. But, bull-headed marvel that she was, she ploughed through it hoping that someday she would write something that she could be proud of. And in the end she didn’t just write a book – she wrote the kind of book you sleep with under your pillow because you want it to be the last thing you read when you fall asleep and the first thing you read when you wake up.

So, in the fine tradition of Betty Smith and her fictional doppelgänger Francie Nolan, I will doggedly push through all these insubstantial feelings until I come out the other side feeling like a a real writing writer who writes. And then I’ll know that I’ve always been this thing, like how on some level a sculpture already exists somehow inside the solid block of granite.

Writing is just work. Talent is great, but painful truth is that talent can only get you so far. The rest is work – and usually not even particularly interesting work. Mostly it’s the kind of work where you’re stuck dragging a fine-toothed comb over and over through the same sentence, trying to unsnarl those harebrained nouns and verbs and adjectives into something that makes some kind of sense.

And I did that work. And I wrote a book. And it’s very real and you should buy it if you want to and tell your friends if you think they might like it and leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads if you’re so inclined.

You guys?

I wrote a book.

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What I Wish Everyone Knew About Sylvia Plath

28 Oct

Today is Sylvia Plath’s birthday. She would have been 83 years old today. Maybe in an alternate reality she’s living in a cottage somewhere at the edge of the cold, grey Atlantic where she paints and writes and keeps a hive or two full of bees. Or maybe that’s what the afterlife looks like for her, not that she believed in an afterlife. Is it wrong to wish something on someone if they don’t believe in it? Probably.

You don’t have to be much of a detective to figure out that I love Sylvia Plath. My blog is named after her only novel. I have an embroidered portrait of her on my dining room wall. I even have a necklace with a tiny gold inscription of that old brag of her heart: I am. I am. I am. I’m obviously a pretty big fan.

But I’m a fan for different reasons than you might think.

I write a lot about mental health, and I think sometimes people assume that I love Sylvia because we’re both part of the Depressed Ladiez club. And we are! And I do love her in part because I see my own struggles reflected in in writing and in her life. But that this is not the sum total of my relationship with La Plath.

I love her because she was fierce and unabashed and so fucking ambitious and hard-working. I often hear an argument among writers about whether good writing comes down to talent or hard work; Sylvia drew on both. She had an unarguable natural gift for language – she published her first poem when she was eight, after all – but my god that woman worked so hard to hone her talent. If you’ve ever read her journals, you know that she spent most of the pages alternately giving herself pep talks about writing and berating herself for not doing enough. She was determined to create great works, and she was willing to put in the time and energy necessary to do so.

For Sylvia, writing a poem was like solving a puzzle – it meant turning it this way and that way, trying to fit the words together just right. She was dogged about it. Once a project was started, she wouldn’t or couldn’t give up on it. One thing that Ted Hughes wrote about her has always stuck with me:

“To my knowledge, [Plath] never scrapped any of her poetic efforts. With one or two exceptions, she brought every piece she worked on to some final form acceptable to her, rejecting at most the odd verse, or a false head or a false tail. Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity.”

I think about this quote a lot. Whenever I am in the middle of working on something and I am angry and frustrated because it’s not going the way I want, I stop and ask myself, “If this is not going to be a table, can it be a chair instead?” Usually it can.

Sylvia was funny – darkly, brilliantly funny. Even when things were terrible she still often managed to be funny. One of my favourite lines from her journal comes from a moment when she was pretty sure Ted was cheating on her with one of his Smith students. She wrote, “Who knows who Ted’s next book will be dedicated to? His navel. His penis.” From one dick joke lover to another – I salute you, Sylvia.

And she was angry. So fucking beautifully angry. She was angry because her father was dead. She was angry because she felt her mother was a “walking vampire,” feeding off her emotions. She was angry because she felt that she wasn’t allowed to hate her only living parent; in her journals she wrote that “in a smarmy matriarchy of togetherness, it is hard to get a sanction to hate one’s mother.” She was angry because Ted left her for another woman, just like she’d known he would all along. She was angry because she was a woman, a woman who was not supposed to sleep around or hold her own or walk home alone at night.

She had the frantic anger of an animal throwing itself against the bars of its cage, determined to free itself at any cost.

Her rage is what shines most clearly in her last poems – her huge, perfect, unfeminine rage. As her marriage shuddered and jolted towards its end, she had to reevaluate who she was – not the adoring wife, the sweet daughter, the earth mother. She shed her good-girl self, the self craved everyone’s approval, and was reborn a fury. Like Shakespeare’s Ariel, for whom she named her final book, she had finally burst out of her prison and was soaring, winged and lethal, towards the sun.

And the poems she wrote then. My god, those bright, hard poems that cut with the precision of a scalpel. She knew it, too. In a letter to her mother dated just a few months before her death, she wrote, “I am writing the best poems of my life. They will make my name.” And they did, though not in the way that she’d imagined. Ariel was published posthumously, and the poems were reordered by Hughes to match the idea of a tortured writer driven to suicide. I don’t blame him for that; I’m sure it was a necessary sort of therapy at that time, a way of making sense of what had happened. But Hughes’ arrangement Ariel wasn’t what Plath wanted. Hughes’ order ended with three poems about death and obsession, whereas Plath’s preferred sequence had the book ending with the line: “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” Her version saw a hopeful future; his saw the obliteration of all hope.

But just as her darker poems obscured everything else in the published version of Ariel, so are Sylvia Plath’s life and work overshadowed by her suicide. When people think of her, they picture her in her last awful hour, her head in the oven, her face dark with the stove’s grime. Her death is romanticized; men like Ryan Adams write songs about how they want to fuck her and love her and maybe save her. She’s seen as a martyr to something, although none of us are really clear on what that something is.

But she wasn’t a martyr. She was someone who was exhausted and worn down and in a moment of despair took her own life. It wasn’t meant to be a gesture or a call to action or anything like that. She was tired, and felt that all of the people around her had failed her by one measure or another, and on one particular bad night she could no longer see her way out. That’s it.

Here’s the thing I want people to know about Sylvia Plath: she was a survivor. She survived years of debilitating mental illnesses, she survived a suicide attempt, and right up to the end she was trying her damnedest to survive.

Sylvia Plath died on February 11th, 1963, in the middle of the coldest winter London had seen in 100 years. She had moved to the city hoping to find a better support system there and more writing opportunities, but things weren’t working out as she had hoped. The pipes in the flat she had rented kept freezing and bursting, her two small children were often sick, and she didn’t even have a telephone. She was isolated because of the people who had been her friends were, in truth, Ted’s friends. The Bell Jar, which had come out the previous month, was met with critical indifference. Meanwhile, Ted was becoming increasingly well-known in the literary world and, while Sylvia cared for their children in her icy flat, was planning on taking his mistress for a holiday in Spain.

Sylvia fought hard to live. She was seeing her doctor on a daily basis and had just started taking antidepressants. Recognizing that she might be a danger to herself, she took the children and went to stay with a family friend. Meanwhile, her doctor was frantically trying to find her a hospital bed, but none were available. She was trying. You could even argue that Sylvia didn’t die from suicide; she died from the deeply broken infrastructure of mental health care. She died from a system that failed her when her when she needed it the most.

Sylvia Plath was a fighter, and she went down fighting. She did not lose the battle or give in to depression or whatever weird euphemism you want to use. She did not die because she was weak or had a moral failing. She died because she was very sick and did not have proper care. There is nothing more to than that, not that there should be. Dying because there is no room for you in the hospital is tragedy enough without embroidering it.

It’s a full moon tonight. Sylvia would have loved it. She was obsessed with the moon; it featured heavily in her poems, and she mentioned it literally hundreds of times in her journal, dissecting its colour, shape and size. It had a sort of elemental pull on her, just as her writing tugs indescribably at something in me. I keep returning to her, reading her, writing about her. No matter how much I dig up and sort through, I’m never done. I don’t want to ever be done.

I hope there’s a moon wherever she is.

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My Kid Is A Tiny Pedant And I’m Not Really Sorry

26 Oct

My son is going through a pedantic phase. It’s a long phase; it’s been going on for over two years now and shows no signs of flagging. I distinctly remember when it started – he about two and a half and we were visiting my in-laws in Alberta and during an after-dinner walk corrected me when I referred to a large metal play structure as a park. “Actually,” he said, “that’s a playground. The park is what the playground is in.” I remember turning to my husband and saying, “Did you hear that? He just CORRECTED me.”

My kid has been well-actually-ing me on a regular basis ever since, which is like medium-funny because I feel like I spend half my life having dudes on the internet WELL ACTUALLY about anything and everything and the other half of my life hearing the same thing from my four year old. I know this probably just sounds like I have an extra sassy four year old and should probably spend more time disciplining him and less time explaining how casual misogyny works to strangers online.

To be fair, my kid is definitely the argumentative type. If I tell him to put on his shoes, he’ll spend about ten minutes coming up a list of solid reasons why he doesn’t need to (“I just need to play with my train first!” “My sock has a wrinkle in it!” “The sky is a funny colour!”). A friend of mine recently joked that he’ll probably have a police record by the time he’s fifteen and a lawyer by the time he’s 25, and I don’t entirely disagree with that. I sometimes worry that people think he’s rude and undisciplined, but I swear that I shut him down any time he’s actually being sassy (for example, the other day I asked him to sing me a particular song he’d learned at school to which he grumpily replied “you sing it if you like it so much” – that kind of shit earns him what we refer to as a consequence, let me tell you). But the thing is that as much as “well, actually” might grate on my nerves, especially when served up by men trying to pull some kind of power trip on me, I’m going to let my kid keep saying it for now. Because I think it’s a normal developmental stage and also a perfectly healthy reaction to how weird and messy reality is.

You probably have a pretty set idea about how the world works. Things behave according to a certain set of rules, some of which are specific to you and your environment, some of which apply to everyone you know. You spend your life working within these rules, and they mostly stay pretty constant. But every once in a while you get learn something new, and the rules change. Sometimes it’s something small, and you can adapt pretty quickly. Other times it’s something huge, something that shakes the foundation of how you understand the world. When that happens, you find yourself making big changes, maybe even feeling like you’re starting again from scratch. Luckily, the latter kind of change doesn’t happen very often. If it did, most of us would have a very, very difficult time functioning because we would always be second-guessing reality.

But for kids, especially young kids, huge sweeping changes in how they perceive the world happen all the time. And while probably on some level they are kind of used to having to rebuild their world view from scratch all the damn time, but on another level it must be terrifying and destabilizing. I’m sure their little brains can handle it because it’s all part and parcel of children develop – they create an understanding of reality based on their lived experience and build onto that as they go. But it still must be scary as fuck to have the rug swept out from under your feet on a near-daily basis.

I think that part of how kids cope with this is by being very specific about language and ideas. It’s both a safety blanket for them and a way of checking in with adults. They’re saying “this is how I understand the world” and at the same time asking “is this what you mean?” They’re not trying to be rude, just accurate.

I know that WELL ACTUALLY sounds like sassing and maybe in older kids it actually is. I’m sure my kid and I will have plenty of conversations about gender, language and how not to be a weird jerk who talks over women. Right now, though, I firmly believe that a lot of the time it’s born out of anxiety. Children know when they’ve said or believed the wrong thing. And just like grownups feel acute anxiety whenever they realize that they’ve been saying/thinking/doing a silly thing for years and years, children feel the same way too. Except they feel it all the time, and then have to hear their mistakes and misunderstandings repeated by the grownups they trust as examples of GOSH DON’T KIDS SAY THE DARNEDEST THINGS?

I’m trying to keep this in mind while my son tries to navigate this whole trying-to-figure-out-the-world thing. So when I say something like “vampires eat blood” and he answers back “actually vampires eat AND drink blood,” I’m making a real effort not to be like “yeah sure but you know what I meant.” The truth is he didn’t know what I meant, not for certain. He wanted some clarification, and for now I’m happy to provide it. “Yes,” I told him, “you’re right. Vampires drink AND eat blood. It covers all of their nutritional and hydration needs.” Then we talked about how cool it is that vampires sleep in coffins. Hopefully at some point I remembered to tell him that vampires are imaginary. Probably I did.

If I didn’t, I’m sure I’ll get a WELL ACTUALLY about it soon enough.

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