Tag Archives: family

Guest Post: Life As A Mountain Hike

7 Nov

My husband Matt wrote the following post about how challenging it can be to have a partner who is depressed. If you are at all technically inclined, you can check out his own blog, Quoth The Runtime, “Segmentation Fault”. He mostly writes about programming, but he also posts some pretty great stuff about the rampant sexism and misogyny in his industry.

LIFE AS A MOUNTAIN HIKE

I’ve come to the conclusion that the best metaphor I can conceive of for everyday life is that life is a mountain trail. Some days you have to work hard to make any progress, other days are simple, and some are nicely balanced. You can see beautiful vistas, or find yourself in the bottom of a dark valley. The weather can be reflective of your mood, a lot like what you see in movies (there’s a reason why it always rains during movie funerals). Some days the air’s become so thin that it’s a struggle to do anything of any great significance. You see your friends from time to time on the trail, and perhaps you’ve arranged to meet sixty miles up the trail in two days, and you only hope it’s downhill or level at worst, because you have a lot ground to cover in not much time.

So, given that life is a mountain trail, what is it like when your partner is depressed? It’s like hiking with someone with impaired lung function. They need to carry oxygen, and some cases are worse than others. Some patients need to basically have the mask on the whole time, while others can operate normally with a couple of deep breaths every once in a while.

How does this affect your relationship? You both have to take more load. Your partner has to carry the tank, so you offset that increased load into your own pack. But you’re also thinking about their oxygen supply. Sometimes it’s “do they have enough air in the tank,” but when you’re really paying attention, it becomes “do they have enough airflow”, and usually that only happens when their depression becomes apparent again. The big problem with depression, not just socially, but functionally, is that it’s invisible. Depression quite literally changes how the patient thinks, both on and off treatment. Enough airflow from the tank, and your partner is brought up to baseline.. except for the fact that they’re still carrying the extra weight, so you’re still taking some of what would otherwise be their load! With the right treatment, the patient can feel reasonably close to “normal”, but if they don’t maintain the treatment, for some reason–maybe a disrupted routine means not taking their medication for a few days, or maybe they’re feeling so good they self-moderate to a lower dose–or their circumstances change and now they just aren’t getting enough air (perhaps their brain chemistry has adjusted), then they can’t perform as well… and as their partner, it’s up to you to keep an eye on that. It’s not just your partner’s concern.

Living with a depressed partner is hard. In addition to everything that normally comes up in any relationship, you’re ultimately their partner in managing their depression, too. Whether it’s as simple as giving them some slack on the harder days, and letting them do their thing while you pick up the housework, or something as detailed as collaborating in their treatment plan, their depression will always be there, whether it’s forgotten, or it’s the elephant in the room, or it’s something than can freely enter the conversation as necessary. But remember, it’s invisible, and it’s insidious. Because it’s part of how your partner thinks (and not, say, an obvious but treatable impairment, like a significant limp) it’s all too easy to forget that it’s even there when it’s well managed.

It’s easy to become resentful that you’re doing more of the housework, because it’s easy to forget that it’s not that your partner is being lazy, they’re depressed. It’s easy to forget that depression manifests itself in more than just tears; it can also be lack of energy, lack of motivation, or lack of interest. When depression isn’t obvious, it’s all too easy to forget that it’s there, and then it’s all too easy to establish a mental separation between your partner and your partner’s depression, because you might only think about it when they’re well and truly despondent. While you and your partner may not want their depression to be a part of their identity, it’s critical to remember that it’s always there, in the same way that an amputated limb is always missing, even if it’s been replaced by a prosthesis.

And when you’re in a long-term relationship, you’ve been carrying the extra weight for as long as you have, it’s easy to forget that what you don’t see in your partner’s backpack is their failing lungs and their oxygen tank. If your partner’s been having an easy time with the hike–perhaps a couple of huffs on the tank a day is all they’ve needed for months–it’s easy to forget why you’re carrying more of the weight. It’s easy to forget that it’s so that they can simply keep up with the pace of every day.

But when the depression becomes apparent again, naturally, you respond with compassion and empathy. You encourage your partner to talk about it, or you give them their space, but if you forget, or don’t realise, just how bad their depression really is when it’s in force, then you may forget how your partner may really need you to respond when their depression strikes. Of course, the deeper problem with this is that your partner is an adult, or at least competent to make their own decisions. It’s very difficult to convince who a person who doesn’t believe they need air–they’re just a tired today, or the trail’s harder than they expected–that they really do need air… At least, it’s hard to do that without coming off as condescending and paternalistic (and, let’s be honest here, if anyone is liable to be offended, and rightly so, by paternalistic talk from her husband, it’s Anne) when you’re in a partnership of equals.

My own overwhelming desire to respect Anne’s agency and autonomy has meant that, on a number of occasions, I’ve dropped the ball badly, because I have a pretty significant mental block around telling anyone I love, “you need to do x.” Particularly so when I know that the thing I believe they need to do is something they would ordinarily object to. Anne has already told the story about how her postpartum depression drove her to pharmaceutical help; but I don’t think she mentioned in that story her difficult history with pharmaceutical treatment, or with psychotherapy. I had broached both ideas in the past during lesser episodes, and met with resistance on every occasion. I didn’t want to press the issue again (and I didn’t know had truly bad her depression had become until I read that post), and every time her depression has resurfaced since, I’ve had a hard time finding the strength to ask basic things like “have you been missing your medication,” or, “have you been using your blue lamp,” because I want to be able to trust that she has, and I don’t want her to think that I think she’s forgotten, or incapable of taking of herself. I don’t think that she can’t take care of herself, but I worry, at those times, that her depression will colour how she hears these things, or tell her that her treatment isn’t working, and that she should just give up.

But as her partner, she does need me to be able to say these things (whether she’ll admit it or not). She needs me to be able to tell the difference between herself talking and her depression talking. She needs me to be able to see that the trail’s too hard for her today, and figure out what needs to be done, whether it’s replace the tank, try to open the flow more, take more of the load (or straight out jettison some stuff, or find someone to help), or even just make her stop and sit for a while. Maybe she needs me to call for help, but I’ll never know–and she may never admit it, even to herself–if I can’t talk to her about her depression.

We’ve both recently started following TSN anchor Michael Landsberg’s Twitter feed. Landsberg, if you weren’t already aware, also suffers from clinical depression, and has written about it on his blog for Off The Record, particularly in light of Wade Belak’s death. Landsberg has been promoting a topic on Twitter, #sicknotweak, in the buildup to launching a website of the same name, in order to promote a change in how we, as a society, view depressed people–that they aren’t weak, but they’re sick, just with something that isn’t normally visible. It’s an important paradigm shift that I need to keep in mind, particularly when Anne’s depression comes to the fore again. Depression is, fundamentally, a disease like any other that needs to be managed.

Just like a hiker with a bad lung needs to manage their air intake.

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Nostalgia Machine: Re-watching The X-Files

28 Oct

I’ve been re-watching The X-Files since I’ve been sick, and it’s weirdly been more emotional than I thought it would be. I mean, yes, I snarkily posted this mini-review on Facebook:

So the x-files is basically a show set in the far distant past, back when they didn’t have cell phones or digital cameras. It centres around a 15 year old boy with daddy issues named Fox Mulder. He sulks around and breaks rules and believes in every ridiculous thing ever and uses his Feelings and Troubled Past to justify everything he does. He has a lot of Feelings, by the way. The show also features an actual bonafide adult named Dana Scully who is literally the most patient, tolerant person on the planet and also understands how things like Science and Logic work.

And I still stand by all of that.

But, still.

Emotions.

I was eleven years old when The X-Files first came on the air.

I looked something like this:

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I was in that weird place between childhood and puberty; I had the beginnings of breasts, but no period yet. I liked boys, but had no idea what to do about that fact. I read grownup books, but still secretly played pretend. The siege of my childhood had begun, and I wasn’t yet sure whether to welcome the invading army or fight at all costs.

As if there was even a fight to be had.

I don’t know why I started watching The X-Files – I think I overheard someone talking about it at school, or maybe it was because my Aunt Carolyn, the arbiter of all things cool, was a fan. I’m certain that most of the appeal was because the show seemed so forbidden in our house. My mother has the lowest threshold for fear when it comes to scary movies; even Jumanji was too much for her to stomach. She saw one episode of The X-Files, said that it was disgusting and grotesque, and swore that she would never watch it again.

So of course I had to find a way to see it.

I would tape it off the television, onto cassettes labelled Star Trek or Road to Avonlea. Even though we only had one VCR in our house, this wasn’t so hard because the X-Files aired at 9 pm on Friday nights, at which time my parents were either bribing, cajoling or threatening my sister Catherine to go to bed, or else they were holed up in their own bedroom, trying to pretend for an hour or two that they had no children. If they happened to be in the living room when the VCR started clicking and whirring, I would make up a lie about taping some old movie musical off CBC and then change the subject. Somehow, I never got caught.

I would set my alarm for one in the morning, and when it went off, I would creep downstairs and settle myself into a little nest of blankets and pillows on the couch. I didn’t dare turn any lights on, so the house was completely dark. I would sit there in rapt attention, drinking in every tiny detail of Mulder and Scully’s weekly adventures, even the stuff that I didn’t understand. Especially the stuff that I didn’t understand. Afterwards, I would rewind the cassette to the beginning and tape an hour of test patterns or infomercials, so that no one would know what I had been up to.

I was a cautious kid by nature; nothing that I’d done up until that point had ever felt so daring.

The X-Files gave me the same queasily excited feeling that I got from looking through the Victorian medical dictionary we had in the basement. I didn’t exactly enjoy poring over highly detailed drawings of deformed fetuses or diseased genitals, but I couldn’t seem to look away. Those crumbling onionskin pages had some sort of pull on me that I couldn’t quite explain. And as much as aliens and deadly parasites and ageless dudes who wake from their hibernation every thirty years in order to gruesomely murder people and eat their livers terrified me – and let’s be clear here, as an eleven year old, The X-Files fucking terrified me – I couldn’t look away. Part of it was that I was sort of daring myself to be cooler, less wussy than I was, but part of it was that I was genuinely, horrifyingly fascinated.

It wasn’t long before that horrified fascination somehow turned into love. I loved Mulder, whose deadpan goofiness fit perfectly with his desperate need to believe that there was something, anything out there. I loved Scully, with her take-no-bullshit attitude and her scientific smarts. I loved Skinner, and Deep Throat, and the Cigarette Smoking Man. I loved their stupid basement office with its stupid UFO poster. I loved all of it.

I guess I sort of grew up with The X-Files. That show might have been the first inclination that I had that the government didn’t always have the good of the people in mind. I learned about conspiracy theories, and unethical experiments carried out with the full knowledge of legislative officials, and exactly what happens to the people who go against the official party line. Most of all, I learned to trust no one, and if there’s ever been a more fitting slogan for being a teenager, I haven’t heard it yet.

The X-Files also acted as a touchstone between my father and I after he left. He started watching the show too, and during our weekly phone calls we would compare notes on the latest episode. My father had always had strange nightmares about being abducted by little grey men, so aliens were already a bit of a family joke; once my father and I were both watching The X-Files, that joke amplified in and echoed across the distance, both literal and figurative, between us. We would buy each other alien and spaceship-themed presents at Christmas and on birthdays, and those became a sort of code between us, a code that translated to mean, “I love you. I’m proud of you. No matter what.”

I kind of lost the thread of The X-Files plot towards the end of high school. The mytharc was too complicated, and anyway, I was too old to be watching the same babyish shows that I’d liked when I was eleven. I had new and more exciting ways of feeling daring, like drinking and kissing boys and smoking pot. I didn’t have time for Mulder and Scully anymore, in the same way that I didn’t have time for my family anymore. And then in the last season Mulder wasn’t even there, which, I mean, fuck that. Right?

I did watch the last episode of the show, though, which aired just a few months before I turned twenty. And when I say watch, what I really mean is cried through the entirety of. Because, fuck, man. The Lone Gunmen were dead. Mulder and Scully were finally together. And the siege of my childhood was definitely, without even a shadow of a doubt, over. The city was conquered, the population killed or enslaved, and the buildings razed.

I was a grownup, and The X-Files was gone.

But re-watching it? Re-watching brought me right back to that dark living room twenty years ago, the light from the screen flickering across my impossibly young face. It was like rewinding the tape to the beginning, back to the hard, bright cynical innocence of the early 90s, back to Scully’s boxy suits and Mulder’s enormous wire-framed glasses. It was falling asleep and dreaming something lovely, or else maybe like finally waking up. It was perfect nostalgia.

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Hiroshima, 1945

6 Aug

It’s my birthday. I’m thirty one years old, and although I’m still not sure whether I feel like a grownup or not, I’m now far enough in to this new decade to be able to say with confidence that I’m in my thirties.

It’s also the 68th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, a fact that gives this day a complicated patina of heartache, remembrance and a funny thankfulness that, in spite if everything, this dear old planet and I have managed to complete yet another whirl around the sun. I’ve always felt a little haunted by the hundreds of thousands of people who died thirty seven years and half a world away from my birth. I’ve always felt a sort of funny debt to them, as if I owe something to them, though I’m not quite sure what. You would think that as the Hiroshima dead fade further and further into the past that their weight would begin to feel lighter, less real, but instead, the reverse is true – the more distant this event becomes, the more the bombing of Hiroshima colours and shapes this day for me.

Where do you even begin to try to figure out what happened in Hiroshima? You could start by bring the camera in as close as possible, fiddling with the settings and watch as shapes dissolve into other, smaller shapes, the image adjusting and readjusting until finally the atoms themselves are in focus.

The physics of nuclear fission sound more like poetry than science – a single neutron is fired at an atom, in this case an atom of uranium-235, and splits the nucleus apart. Out of each split nucleus will fly several more neutrons, which will smash into other atoms, which will, in turn, split and release their own neutrons. The fracturing of each and every atom releases another tiny bit of heat and radiation; when a chain reaction like this occurs in the millions of atoms that make up a pound of uranium-235, the resulting explosion is enough to lay waste to entire cities.

All of this can be much more simply and elegantly expressed in one neat equation:

fg0-7645-5430-1_0101

Now pull the camera back, watch the atoms coalesce into more recognizable shapes, objects and buildings and people, until your view is that of the Japanese sky a few hours after sunrise.

At 8:15 am on August 6th, 1945, the Enola Gay flew over Hiroshima, releasing Little Boy, a gun-type fission bomb. Little Boy missed its intended target of the Aioi Bridge, and instead detonated directly over the Shima Hospital. The hospital was destroyed, the staff and patients reduced to a pile of bleached bones by the heat of the blast. The centre of the city was destroyed, an estimated five square miles turned to scorched rubble. 80,000 people died that day, and another 80,000 more died over the course of the next few months either from the effect of burns, radiation sickness or other injuries.

h29_19773763

One hundred and sixty thousand people.

Because of one bomb.

I’m not sure how old I was when my parents told me that the anniversary of my birth is also the anniversary of this annihilating atomic flash that was responsible for so many deaths; it feels like something that’s always been a part of my personal mythology. I remember poring over the entry for Hiroshima in our battered green family encyclopedia, nauseated by the descriptions of peeling flesh and charred bones but somehow unable to stop reading. I checked books out of the library about atomic bombs, books from the adult section with mostly incomprehensible text and lurid, technicolor photographs of fiery mushroom clouds. Someone gave me a book when I was seven or eight called Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, about a little girl whose blood cells, irradiated and mutated by the bomb, developed a form of leukemia.  Remembering an old Japanese legend that said that the gods would grant any wish to a person who managed to fold a thousand cranes, Sadako began frantically making cranes out of every scrap of paper she could find. She died in October of 1955, after folding only 644 cranes.

After that, I learned how to make paper cranes.

It seemed like the right thing to do.

Because I felt like I had to do something; I felt like I had some kind of responsibility to the history of this day that gave me my first breath, my first sunrise, my first wailing cry. I still feel that way. And though I’ve all but given up on origami, I try to find other ways to honour the dead.

So I spend an hour or so every birthday looking at pictures from Hiroshima – the survivors with their twisted limbs and thick, ropy scars, the cityscape smashed flat and littered with debris, the shadows burned into walls and sidewalks, marking the places where people stood looking up at the sky during their last moments on earth.

I look at these pictures and take the time to consider that these are the things that we do to each other. These are, in fact, the cold, calculated atrocities that humans perpetrate against other humans. These people are the people who died because of us, because of the endless machinations of our stupidly cunning species. The wards full of children lying helpless as the atomic leukemia slowly, agonizingly leaches the life from their bodies? That was us. The old man bloated and swollen from radiation sickness, the raw skin peeling off his face and hands? That was us. The people vaporized in an instant who left nothing behind, not one single thing to be treasured by those who loved them? Still us. The groaning, bleeding, charred mass of people who lingered on for months and months, each day a living hell? Us.

As if being alive isn’t difficult enough, as if there aren’t enough tricks and traps ready to ensnare our brittle bodies, we have to go and do these things to each other.

I want to remember how easy it is for us to live side by side with these atrocities. I want to recognize that when I go to sleep in my clean, comfortable bed in my safe, comfortable city, somewhere out there are people whose lives are little more than grinding daily pain. I want to know the names of all the Iraqis who have died, all the children in Afghanistan who have become collateral damage in this war, all of the people everywhere out their whose agony is directly attributable to other humans. I need to know and remember these things, because the not knowing and not remembering are so much more dangerous.

I’ll leave you with a poem written by Sadako Kurihara, a survivor of the Hiroshima blast. I’ll leave with the thought, the question, really, of how each of us can be midwives in our own lives. I’ll leave you to, hopefully, take a few moments of your own to remember.

LET US BE MIDWIVES!

Night in the basement of a concrete structure now in ruins.

Victims of the atomic bomb jammed the room;

it was dark – not even a single candle.

The smell of fresh blood, the stench of death,

the closeness of sweaty people, the moans.

From out of all that, lo and behold, a voice:

“The baby’s coming!”

In that hellish basement,

at that very moment, a young woman had gone into labor.

In the dark, without a single match, what to do?

People forgot their own pains, worried about her.

And then: “I’m a midwife. I’ll help with the birth.”

The speaker, seriouly injured herself, had been moaning only moments before.

And so new life was born in the dark of that pit of hell.

And so the midwife died before dawn, still bathed in blood.

Let us be midwives!

Let us be midwives!

Even if we lay down our own lives to do so.

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My birthday last year, making lanterns and paper cranes with my sisters at the Rally for Peace:

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It’s Just A Piece Of Paper

13 Jul

I’ve been thinking a lot about my education, or lack thereof, lately.

I’m sure that a lot of this is because of my book; I’ve been editing the shit out of it this week, and it feels like it’s sort of taken over my life. Most of the book takes place in 2003, right around the time that I had to drop out of university. That personal failure, combined with a bunch of other stuff, made that autumn one of the lowest points in my life. In fact, leaving school was a huge part of the reason that I ended up being hospitalized for depression that year.

I’d always known that I’d go to university; there was never any question about that. My father was a lawyer, and my mother spent most of my childhood finishing her Bachelor of Arts in night school, graduating when I was sixteen. I can still remember what I wore to her graduation – a long, sort of shiny black skirt with pinky-purple flowers on it, and a pink tank top with spaghetti straps. Fuck, I can even remember what I had on when my father was called to the bar. I was four years old, and my mother insisted I wear this red flowered dress with a huge white, lacy collar. I hated that dress, because that damn collar made me feel like a clown. After the ceremony, my father took me to meet a supreme court judge. Trying to think up something suitably grownup to say, I shyly said to her, “I certainly admire these burgundy carpets.”

So education was always a big part of my life, and I grew up with the understanding that I would earn at the very least an undergraduate degree. And considering the fact that, after earning her BA, my mother took a leave of absence from her job in order to earn her Master’s of Social Work, I don’t think that it’s much of a stretch to say that my parents hoped I would go on to complete a graduate degree or two as well.

Look, before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way now: I’m smart. I know that. I’m not trying to be vain or conceited; I honestly don’t think there’s anything vain about knowing your strong points. And for a long time, “smart” was the only thing I had – I wasn’t pretty, or popular, or especially talented in any of the ways that I wanted to be talented. The funny thing is, back then I would’ve given up being smart in a heartbeat if that meant that I could have been any of the other things on that list, especially the oh-so-desirable “pretty.” But I couldn’t, so I stuck with being the brainy geek.

In my final year of high school, I applied to a bunch of universities, all of them at least a couple of hours away from home. I knew that there was no fucking way that I was sticking around Kitchener; I’d been waiting pretty much my entire life to get out of there. I was thrilled when I got into my top pick, Dalhousie, and I moved to Halifax in August of 2001.

I was a good student. I got As or Bs in all of my classes, even Astronomy which, by the way, was technically a physics class (although, to be fair, it was a physics class geared specifically towards arts students). I’d thought that I wanted to study English, but in first year I fell in love with Latin and that class, along with Ancient History, was my favourite that year. In my second year, I officially declared Classics as my major, and settled in for the four year slog towards a Bachelor of Arts with honours. And you know what? I loved every fucking minute of that slog. I loved my classes, I loved my profs, I loved the other students, I loved the stupid wine and cheese events my department had, I loved all the nerdy Classics jokes, I even loved studying and writing papers. I loved all of it. Most of all, I loved learning.

Unfortunately, sometime during my second year, things started to fall apart for me financially. My government loan suffered at the hands of a bureaucratic fuck up, and I couldn’t get a student line of credit because I had no one to co-sign for me. I ended up somehow doing a full year of classes without paying for them and Dalhousie, needless to say, was pretty pissed. Then, when I tried to figure out how to register for my third year, I discovered something tricky: you can’t register for classes if you owe the school money, but you can’t get a government student loan if you’re not a registered student.

Can anyone say Catch-22?

So, after spending a month enduring a ridiculous circle-jerk involving various student services employees (with a couple of useless assists from the student aid office), I realized that I had to quit. Finishing my degree just wasn’t going to happen. Not then. Probably not ever, if I’m being totally honest with myself.

That moment, when I went from thinking of myself as a student to realizing that I was now one of the working poor, was one of the most shameful in my life. I can’t think of anything else in my life that embarrasses me as much as the fact that I had to leave school. Even now, it makes me fucking heartsick to think about; in fact, when I was talking about it with a friend today, I started crying. Ten fucking years later, and the memory of having to leave my degree unfinished still turns me into a stupid, mascara-smeared mess.

I guess I’d thought that I would’ve been over this whole lack-of-education thing by now, but I’m not. Oh boy, am I ever not. When I meet someone new, I’ll mention that I went to Dal, and that I took Classics, but unless I absolutely have to, I will never, ever admit that I didn’t finish my degree. If, somehow, it does come up, I will always carefully point out that I had to leave for financial reasons, and not because I failed any of my classes. When faced with well-educated people, I have a borderline pathetic need to prove how smart I am, to the point of being obnoxious about it.

The funny thing is, when I tell people that I wasn’t able to finish my degree, they’ll often laugh and say, “Oh, it’s just a piece of paper.” Which is easy to say when you’ve come out the other side with that piece of paper clutched firmly in your hands. But to dismiss it as being just a piece of paper is to ignore the fact that it’s a very, very expensive piece of paper that has the ability to magically gain respect and open doors. I get that saying that is an attempt to put me at ease, to make me feel like the playing field has been levelled, but let’s be honest: the field will never be level. You and your degree will always been on the higher ground, and I will always, always be down here, feeling small and stupid and mean.

We talk a lot in our society about how education is pretty much a cure-all for all kinds of social ills. Poverty, neglect, abuse, poor health and hygiene: you name it, and a bunch of people will tell you that education is the key. But what we don’t talk about is how fucking unattainable post-secondary education is to a huge part of our population. Oh, sure, there are government loans, but they can be hard to get, and they often fall short. Student lines of credit aren’t available to kids who don’t have someone to co-sign, and working full time over the summer just isn’t enough to cover tuition anymore. And all of that doesn’t even touch on the fact that tuition fees are rising at an alarming rate; I don’t even want to think about what they’ll be like by the time my son graduates from high school.

Higher education is a business, and don’t you ever forget it. We may like to have these misty-eyed ideas that we live in an egalitarian country where everyone has an equal opportunity for success, but anyone who honestly believes that is seriously fucking kidding themselves. Universities and colleges want your money, and if you can’t find a way to pay them, well, they’re not interested in educating you. You could be the smartest kid in the world, but if you’re poor – well, I’m not going to say that post-secondary school is impossible, but I will say that you’ve got a way harder road ahead of you than most. What makes all this even more difficult is the fact that most people who’ve earned university degrees don’t seem to be aware of the luck or privilege that helped them along; they truly believe that it was all their own hard work and sacrifice.

Which is really just another way of saying that poor people don’t work as hard or sacrifice enough.

Whenever I talk about my half-finished degree, someone will inevitably tell me that I’ll finish it someday. But the truth is that I probably won’t. What’s the point? Why shovel tens of thousands of dollars into that hole when all that I’ll get out of it is a piece of paper that says that I’m pretty good at translating things into Latin? I mean, sure, I would love to someday earn my BA, but if I’m being honest with myself, I know that there are so many other things that I would need to spend that money on before I wasted it on myself.

My kid, though? My kid is going to earn that piece of paper. We started an education fund for him when he was born, and we’ve asked our family to contribute to it in lieu of presents. My kid is never going to have to quit school because he doesn’t have enough money. My kid is never going to have to sit through two months of classes without a textbook because his loan hasn’t come in and he can’t afford them. My kid will never have to live off of one crappy cafeteria dinner a day because he had to cancel part of his meal plan in order to pay his phone bill. My kid is going to accomplish what I was never able to.

And once he has his degree, I will never, ever refer to it as just a piece of paper.

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On Friendship (Or, How To Over-Think Everything)

13 Jun

This past Sunday I took Theo to the park, hoping to score a little mother-and-son quality time. We went to the “Secret Park”, so-called because of the way it’s tucked behind our local high level pumping station, an Art Deco monstrosity that’s designed to fit in with the rest of the gorgeous early 20th century architecture in our neighbourhood (rich people: even their municipal pumping stations are pretty). My plan was for Theo and I to spend the morning chilling out on the climber, engaging in some witty banter and maybe taking turns pushing each other on the swings.

I hadn’t counted on my toddler totally ditching me for a new-found friend.

This other kid was already at the Secret Park when we got there, running around like a madman, waving a huge stick in the air and screaming. Theo was immediately entranced. He watched, shyly, as this boy tore around the grassy slopes, and I could tell that he wanted to join in but wasn’t quite sure how to achieve that. I suggested that we could go play on the climber or on the swings, thinking that doing some park-type stuff might make him feel a little more at ease and thus help put him into the right frame of mind to make friends. He shook his head, though, his eyes never leaving the other boy. Finally, still not looking at me, he said with a great deal of seriousness,

“I need a stick.”

So I found him a stick, and that was all it took for him to feel comfortable enough to start playing with the other boy (whose name, it turned out, was Duncan). Once Theo had that stick in his hand, he and Duncan were running around shrieking delightedly together. Then they played in the sand doing something at once precise and elaborate and yet totally mystifying with a plastic cup and a Christmas tree ornament shaped like a chilli pepper. Then they buried Duncan’s extensive collection of dinky cars, then dug them all up again and started racing them up and down the trunk of a nearby tree.

Insta-best-friends.

I was hella jealous.

I’ve been thinking about how that situation would have played out had it involved myself and some other adult who just happened to be doing something that I found incredibly intriguing. Would I have been able to just jump right in and befriend them, without even so much as an introduction? Oh, fuck, no. Here’s how it would have gone if I’d been in Theo’s place:

Anne’s internal monologue: Whoa, that person seems amazing. I really want to run around and wave sticks with her! But probably she’s way better at waving sticks than me. I mean, I guess I could ask her to teach me, but isn’t that a little pathetic? And anyway, I’m sure that she has more than enough friends. I’m sure that she doesn’t want to talk to me. Maybe if I google “how to wave sticks and scream” I could just do it by myself? Maybe it’ll turn out that I’m really great at it? Maybe if I do it awesomely enough, she’ll come over and try to make friends with me? Do I even really want to make friends with her, though? I mean, she seems great now, but she’s probably not as awesome as she seems. I have a lot of great friends – I don’t need this not-as-awesome-as-she-seems stick waver!

Anne (out loud): Guhhh nice stick!

At what age does the ability to instantly click with someone over something like screaming and waving sticks end? At what age do all these stupid, tangled thoughts take over and prevent people (and by people I mean me) from taking any kind of initiative from befriending others? My kid is (currently, at least) the kind of person who can just jump right in and assume that his awesomeness will be evident enough that he can make friends with anyone he wants to. Or, going even further, he doesn’t even bother to wonder about the state of his awesomeness. He just does his thing and goes from there. And I’m kind of jealous. I fucking want that personality trait so badly, like, you don’t even know.

I really, really want to be the type of person who sees someone cool and is like, “Hey, let’s hang out sometime.” But I’m not, and I never have been.

Instead, I am the type of person who, when I went camping as a little kid, would get my father to visit the campsites of families with kids and act as a sort of friendship matchmaker.

I am the type of person who daily descends into the bottomless black hole of saying too much and then trying to correct that by saying even more.

I am the type of person who goes out for dinner with a writer that she particularly admires and brings cue cards full of things to say in case the conversation lags.

I really, really want to be the kind of person who says, fuck cue cards, but you guys? I actually love cue cards. And I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with loving cue cards, except that maybe it’s a problem when you come to depend on them as a sort of social crutch.

I don’t want to be the type of person who, in the middle of a nice dinner, whips out a list of interesting conversation topics, but what the fuck else am I supposed to do? Think thoughts and say words in real time? As Barney Stinson would say: please. Putting my thoughts down in a blog post is fairly easy, because I can edit and then re-edit until I’m sure that I’ve got it right. But having an actual, un-plannable, give-and-take conversation with another person is a different beast entirely.

I mean, seriously, how does anyone ever figure out the right thing to say? Because this must be something that other people are capable of doing, unless everyone else has somehow learned to be extremely stealthy with their cue cards. And how do people not only manage to say the right thing, but also avoid saying exactly the wrong thing? And how do you come to accept that it’s not actually a binary, that there is a wide gulf between right and wrong, a deep valley full of conversational material that’s perfectly fine, but for whatever reason isn’t particularly scintillating or thought-provoking.

And that’s just the basics of general small talk. That’s just beginner’s stuff. What about all the crap that comes later, once you’ve managed to become friends with someone and actually establish some kind of relationship? Then comes the really tricky stuff – carefully cultivating that relationship, making sure that you make time for that person, learning how to deal with any conflict that arises with them.

Ugh, conflict. Oh, conflict. My old nemesis.

On Sunday, I watched my kid get into an argument with Duncan over who got to hold which car. It didn’t quite come to blows, but there were definitely angry words and hurt feelings involved. Then, miraculously, two minutes later they were firm friends again, discussing the various merits of blue race cars versus red race cars as if nothing at all had happened. Meanwhile, when I get into a fight with someone, I end up spending days, sometimes even weeks, treading and retreading the same mental ground over and over and over again. I I spend ages trying to figure out what I could have done differently, as if I’m ever going to be presented with the exact same set of circumstances at some point in the future. Worst of all, I need an incredibly amount of reassurance that yes, I am a still good, yes, I am still loved.

This last one has been killing me lately. I’ve realized that a huge part of it is because when you take up residence in anxiety-town, you lose any ability to trust your own senses. So you end up feeling like you have to sort of crowdsource your thoughts and feelings, constantly asking, “Is this okay? Is this a normal reaction? Am I right to respond this way or am I going overboard? Do you still love me? Is it okay for me to love myself?” And yes, sometimes this way of coping is super helpful, but sometimes it can be totally toxic as well. Even when all of your neurons are misfiring in exactly the right way to make you feel like you are a terrible person, it’s dangerous to think that someone else can give you an accurate read on what you’re doing or how you should feel about yourself. On top of that, you might not get the answer that you want, and at the end of the day constantly demanding feedback and reassurance can make you feel pretty pathetic.

So what’s the answer? I’m not sure, to be honest. Lately I’ve been making a lot of checklists for myself (for whatever reason I find list-making to be very soothing). After a couple of days of trying to unsnarl this mess in my head that I call my brain, I now have a bunch of easily-accessible documents that I can refer to whenever I start to doubt any given situation. These lists are full of reminders about all of the empirical evidence that I have that yes, people do love me, and yes, there is value in the things that I say and do. I’ve also made lists that help me to remember that conflict isn’t the end of the world (even if it sometimes feels that way), and that it’s totally possible to have a horrible fight with someone and then move past it and maybe not exactly forget that it ever happened but also not let it be what defines your relationship from that moment forward.

All of this is to say: I really want to be the kid who one minute is screaming about how it’s my fucking turn to hold the red car, and then the next minute is fine. I want to be the kid who jumps right in without a single thought. I want to be that goddamn kid who runs around waving a stick and screaming without first having to google how and why I should do this so as to prevent myself from looking like an idiot.

Because that kid? That kid seems really fucking rad.

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Wet (Or, I Am Acadian)

24 May

Earlier in the week I participated it Write Club Toronto, which is basically like Fight Club, but for writers. Eight writers are pitted against each other in two-person bouts, and whoever wins gets to pick a charity that the proceeds of the evening will be donated to. Each writer is given a topic, and has a little over a week to prepare a seven minute piece based on that topic. My topic was “wet” (my opponent’s, naturally, was “dry”), and I somehow emerged victorious even though I mostly wanted to throw up all over everyone.

I think that my proudest moment was when they asked what my charity was, and I accidentally said the Toronto Ripe Crisis Centre. Go team awkward.

Anyway, if you’re interested, you can find a free podcast of it here.

You can also read the full text below:

My great-grandmother, Alma LeBlanc, was born in this dilapidated old wooden house just outside of Arichat, Nova Scotia. If you’ve ever been to the east coast, you know exactly the kind of place that I mean – peeling paint, sagging walls, everything suffused with an air of grim defeat. The house was on the edge of a cliff on Ile Madame, which is an island off the coast of Cape Breton, and the place where it stood feels like the ends of the earth. When you stand on that cliff, all of North America lies behind you while in front of you the cold, dismal, grey Atlantic stretches on forever and ever. The ground drops away at your feet, and far below you the heartless, grinding waves smash against the rocks.

The climate is damp there, always. Sometimes it’s barely noticeable, just a faint clamminess blowing in off the ocean, and other times it takes the form of a suffocating fog so thick that the droplets of water hang suspended in the air, and it seems like a marvel that you can still breathe. But you can, and you do; you force yourself to keep breathing, you put one foot in front of the other, you keep going. And eventually the damp becomes a daily fact, and you barely notice its presence.

We’re a water people, us Acadians; it’s our element, you might say. This wasn’t always true – not so long ago we were farmers in the Annapolis Valley, that warm, rich, fertile strip of land across mainland Nova Scotia. In those days, our only interaction with water was through the dikes that we built. We were famous for those dikes. In fact, the other day, I did a google image search for “Acadian dykes” and not a single lesbian came up. Our dikes were ingenious, apparently, with mechanisms called aboiteaux that allowed fresh water in from the marshes but kept back the salt water from the sea. Our farms thrived. Things were good.

Of course, this idyllic life didn’t last for long. In 1755 The English rounded up the Acadians and put us all onto boats heading who-the-hell-knew where. Our expulsion officially had something to do with the Seven Year War, French and English politics, oaths we were supposed to swear and the religion that prevented us from doing so, but really, it was about the English wanting to have free run of the east coast.

We could have fought the expulsion, I guess, but that seems foolish when you consider the fact that the English had guns while we had pitchforks and shovels. We don’t come from fighting stock, anyway; most of us are short and pretty scrawny. So we went fairly quietly. But when the English turned us off our land, we threw aboiteaux wide open and let the salt water pour in, our own version of a scorched earth policy. Maybe that was the first time we realized that the water was our ally. A dangerous, unreliably ally, but an ally all the same.

We were split up, families torn apart, and sent off to wherever the English thought there might be room. We were dispatched to places like Baltimore, Boston, Williamsburg – they even built special forced labour camps in England. The boats were little more than prison ships, and over half of us died, but still. We kept going. We had to. And on those ships we learned to tentatively embrace our new home, the water, and treat it with equal measures of fear, love and respect. Thus far we’d thrown our lot in with the land gods, who were by and large fairly gentle and generous. The sea gods, on the other hand, are different. They’re cold, grey and pitiless, and view humans with complete contempt. You wouldn’t make a compact with them unless you had no choice.

We had no choice.

So we became fishermen and shipwrights, we learned to weave nets and build lobster traps. We added widow’s walks to our houses and learned to get used to losing our loved ones to the sea. Some of us straggled back home to Acadia, now called New Scotland, and settled the grim, barren coastlands that no one else wanted. We chose to isolate ourselves from the world around us, with the result that our clothing, speech and way of life didn’t much differ from what would have been found in 17th century France. We grew insular, as a way of protecting ourselves. We tried our best, on the whole, to steer clear of the modern world, and as a result we grew a bit peculiar.

Our names, for example, were peculiar.

I mentioned earlier that my great-grandmother’s name was Alma, but that’s not exactly true. Her full name was Marie Alma, and all of her sisters were also Marie, and all of her brothers were Joseph. Their middle names, though, the names they were called by, are what really fascinate me – Artemise, Evangeline, Sabine, Stella, Napoleon, Casimir, Leander. Strange names, old names, nearly all Greek or Latin; names you wouldn’t think to find among a largely uneducated population. I asked my great-grandmother once where they came from, and she said they came out of the “other” book. Because they had two books, the Bible and the “other” book, though exactly what that second book was she didn’t know.

Alma came from a family of twenty three – twenty three! I can’t even imagine. But as my grandmother says, “My God, Annie, what do you think they did on those long, cold winter nights? They didn’t have tv or radio, and they sure as hell didn’t have birth control.”

What they did have was a farm, and all those children came in handy as free labour. It was impossible to scrape a living for so many people out of that thin, rocky soil, so Alma’s father left his wife and children behind and took to the sea, wrestling the bitter Atlantic waters for whatever he could get. He would leave for weeks, sometimes even months at a time, often returning to discover that all that keeping-warm-on-cold-winter-nights had resulted in yet another mouth to feed. Meanwhile, Alma’s mother oversaw the farm, managed the household accounts and raised their children. Or rather, she did all of these things until she died giving birth to poor Joseph Alfred, unlucky baby number thirteen.

Alma’s father remarried almost immediately, because who the hell was going to take care of his thirteen kids? But like an evil stepmother straight out of a fairytale, his new wife hated her new life, and took out her resentment on her husband’s children. While he was off at sea, she beat them. She starved them. She let them freeze during the bitter winters. She forced one of them, Sabine, who had a bleeding disorder, to walk across sharp grass until her feet bled. The blood oozed out of her for nearly a week, and the priest came three times to give her extreme unction. Somehow, though, she managed to survive.

Survival is the reason that my great-grandmother left Cape Breton as soon as she was able to. Survival is the reason she married an Englishman, had ten English kids with ten English names, and gave up her mother tongue entirely. Assimilation can sometimes seem like the only way forward.

I’m pretty much assimilated. Really, I’m barely Acadian. I’m not even really sure what it means to be Acadian. Is it where you live? The food you eat? The language you speak? I mean, I speak French, but only rarely, and with great embarrassment. I grew up in the wilds of suburban southwestern Ontario, far from any ocean or sea. I don’t know the first thing about dikes or irrigation or anything like that. I can’t even swim, not really – the most I can manage is a pathetic dogpaddle.

Still, though, I’m a water person. It’s in my blood – I mean, both literally and figuratively. As removed as I am from the ocean, it’s still my element. I love being wet. I run outside during thunderstorms and let myself get soaked to the skin. If there’s a lake or river or stream, I have to be in it. Even a public fountain will do, if I have no other options.

Water is where I feel the most like myself.

And when I stand in the spot where my great-grandmother’s house was, and I feel the cold sting of the saltwater on my skin, and I look out into the vast grey Atlantic in front of me, I feel like I’m finally home.

Cape Breton

Cape Breton

Mother’s Day

12 May

I’m gonna be totally honest here: Mother’s Day makes me feel weird.

I think that part of it is that I have an automatic distrust of anything that’s gender-specific. Like, why is it Mother’s Day? Why not just Caregiver’s Day? Or Excellent Parental Unit Day? Or, as a friend of mine mentioned on Facebook, Gender-Diverse Parents’ Day? I mean, I get that it’s supposed to be about how hard mothers work, and how under-appreciated they are, but something about this sentiment seems … off to me. We spend most of the year crapping on moms, picking apart their parenting choices and publicly lambasting mothers that we disagree with, but suddenly we’re supposed to spend a day talking about how great they are? It sort of reminds me of the way that a good friend spoke about her ex – he was great at the big things (like buying her lavish gifts and taking her on fancy vacations), but not so much with the little day-to-day stuff. And really, it’s that day-to-day stuff that keeps the world turning, you know?

I guess that part of my ambivalence comes from the fact that Mother’s Day was never a big deal when I was growing up. We would make cards for my mother, and maybe bake her a cake or something, but it never went much beyond that. I mentioned once or twice that I might make my mother breakfast in bed, but she always vetoed that idea, saying that she would be the one left to clean up my mess (which was, to be fair, probably true). Even when my dad still lived at home, we never went out for brunch or anything fancy like that. I think I remember really wanting to make it a special day for her, because school and television and books made me feel like that that’s what I should be doing, but not being entirely certain of how to about that. I realize now that the best gift I could’ve given her would have been a kid-free afternoon or more help with household chores, but those things didn’t occur to me at the time. I wanted to either go big or go home (and I had no way of knowing just how “big” a few childless hours would have seemed to a single mother).

I guess that what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t really understand how HUGE Mother’s Day is for some people until I became a mother myself. Then, all of the sudden, people wanted to know what I was doing for Mother’s Day – they seemed especially interested in what, exactly, my husband was going to buy me. As my first Mother’s Day approached, I heard more and more about all the gifts I should be expecting. What do you think you’ll get for Mother’s Day? people kept asking, as if I had submitted a list of desired items months ago and had only to use my mad deductive skills to figure out which one my husband would pick. When I told them that we would likely go out for a nice family brunch and then go to the park, they seemed disappointed, as if I was somehow missing the whole point of the holiday.

The whole “Mother’s Day is too commercialized” thing has basically been done to death, but you guys? It’s pretty much true. It’s now more about picking out the perfect jewellery or the cutest card or the fanciest chocolates than it is about honouring the hard work your mother does. And to get back to that weird gender thing, why are we so obsessed with honouring how hard our mothers work? Or rather, why are we only interested in thinking about it only once a year, and why is our solution to throw sparkly things and candy at it, and then ignore the issue for the next 364 days?

I can’t help but notice the differences between how Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are marketed. Mother’s Day is all about honouring the sacrifices your mother made for you, showering her with pretty, mostly useless things as a sort of payback for all that she “gave up” in order to raise you. Father’s Day, on the other hand, seems to be about high-fiving your dad for being such an awesome friend, and maybe thanking him for somehow, occasionally having had a hand in how you turned out. Even these lists of suggested Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gifts are pretty telling – a whole lot of stuff to make Mom look and smell pretty (with a few gardening items thrown in), and then a bunch of fun, boozy, outdoor-adventure stuff for Dad. I mean, I’ll be honest – I would way rather read a book on my Kobo while sipping a glass of nice scotch than put on a stupid scarf and spritz myself with floral-scented chemicals. Not unexpectedly, all of the gifts for mothers are about her appearance, whereas all of the gifts for fathers are about going out and having a good time.

I guess that, at the end of the day, what really bothers me about Mother’s Day is this idea that sacrifice is somehow inherent in the idea of being a mother. And also that there’s something sacred about getting knocked up and then giving birth, as if that raises you on a pedestal above all other women. I feel particularly irritated by this image from Indigo’s website:

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Because, you know, everyone doesn’t have the best mom in the world. The ability to be sperminated and pop out a kid doesn’t really mean anything; I definitely know enough people with awful mothers who pretty firmly disprove that rule.

Instead of celebrating how much women have to give up in order to have children, why don’t we look at ways that we can even the playing field? Instead of insisting that mothers have to be the nurturing caregivers, how about finding ways to help promote these behaviours in fathers? And instead of having Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, why not just a day that celebrates all of the people who help make our kids the way they are? Why not have a day that acknowledges the fact that some people owe more thanks to their aunts, uncles and grandparents than they do to their mothers or fathers?

But if we have to have a Mother’s Day, I would much rather celebrate Julia Ward Howe’s proposed Mother’s Day for Peace. I would rather honour the sentiments put forth in her Mother’s Day Proclamation than receive a bunch of flowers that will be dead in a week. Because you know what? This is a Mother’s Day that I can really get behind:

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means Whereby the great human family can live in peace, Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask That a general congress of women without limit of nationality May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient And at the earliest period consistent with its objects, To promote the alliance of the different nationalities, The amicable settlement of international questions,

The great and general interests of peace.

—Julia Ward Howe

 

To those of you who celebrate Mother’s Day, I hope that you have a wonderful day. To those of you for whom this day is painful, I hope that it passes quickly and peacefully for you. And if you’re someone looking to give a mother that you know a really amazing gift, consider finding a way of giving her some time to herself. I promise you that she’ll love that more than almost anything else.

And finally, to the amazing kid who came along two years ago and made me a mother: thank you. The same goes for Matt, who does more than his fair share of co-parenting. I’m super lucky to have these two dudes in my life. It’s been a hell of a ride, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anyone else.

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A Love Letter To Boston

20 Apr

Dear Boston,

I’ve never visited you.

I know that that’s a strange way to begin, and of course I don’t mean it as a slight against you. I’m just stating a fact: I’ve never visited you.

I’ve always wanted to, though, and that must count for something, right? I’ve heard great things about you. A bunch of people whose opinions I really respect have highly recommended you. I’ve planned a fantasy vacation (which my husband has nicknamed The Dead Author Tour of New England) that involves you.

I don’t really have any great reasons for not having visited you, to be honest. It just never seemed to be the right time, and our vacations often get eaten by visiting various family members, and travelling with a toddler isn’t exactly optimal.

But still, I’ve always meant to visit you.

The truth is, I think that you might be partially responsible for my existence on this earth. And as much as this life can sometimes be a rocky ride, I’m still grateful that I’m here. I’m the type of person who occasionally likes to consider of all the things that somehow coalesced so that I, this particular me, could happen to be born into this particular time on this particular planet, and the thing is, Boston, you play a small part in that story.

Let me explain.

My great-grandfather, William Cave, had what would be considered by most standards to be a pretty miserable childhood. He grew up poor in Halifax’s north end, living in a flat with his parents, his two sisters, and his grandmother. Things were tough but manageable until the cold, damp climate, inadequate nutrition and limited access to healthcare began to take their toll on his family. When my great-grandfather was nine, his sister Agnes Pearl, aged eleven, died of tuberculosis. The next year, his sister Annie Florence died, also of tuberculosis, at the age of sixteen. In 1915 his mother, Louisa, died, and in 1916 his grandmother, Mariah, died – both of tuberculosis.

My great-grandfather rarely spoke about his childhood. I’ve seen photographs of Agnes and Annie, and I’ve visited their graves, but beyond that, I don’t know much about them. In the picture of Agnes that my grandmother has, she’s very blond, her hair tied back in an enormous bow, and sits in a chair clutching a doll.  Annie is older in her picture, and is standing in front of a white fence wearing a long black coat; she has dark hair and eyes that slant upwards like mine.

In 1917, my great-grandfather was fourteen years old. On the morning of December 6th of that year he was getting ready to start his first day of work at a nearby newspaper plant. He happened to be running late. This fact would prove to be incredibly lucky.

Halifax, like many port towns, tends to profit during wartime, what with all the troops and ships and military big-wigs passing through. On the morning of December 6th, 1917, the harbour and the Bedford Basin were full of big boats, each one crowded with dozens, maybe even hundreds, of crewmen and soldiers on their way to the front. Halifax’s waterfront was packed with people, either working or hurrying to their school or job. Some were just out for a walk, enjoying the nice weather and taking in the excitement of all the ships’ comings and goings.

Every account I’ve ever read of that day has said that it was bright and sunny, the sky clear and the air sharp and bracing.

In order to get from Halifax Harbour into Bedford Basin, a ship has to pass through a strait called the Narrows. On the morning of December 17th, two ships, the Norwegian Imo, which was bringing relief supplies to Belgium, and the French Mont-Blanc, collided in the narrows. The Mont-Blanc caught fire.

What very few people knew was that the Mont-Blanc was a munitions ship carrying TNT, picric acid, benzol and guncotton. Once fire was added to that mix, she became a floating bomb. The captain ordered his crew to abandon ship, and they fled in lifeboats to the Dartmouth side of the harbour. The Mont-Blanc drifted towards Halifax and came to rest at Pier 6, which lay at the bottom of Richmond Street.

As black smoke filled the sky, even more people flocked down to the harbour to watch the ship burn. A few of the dock workers knew what kind of cargo the Mont-Blanc‘s was carrying, and tried to evacuate the waterfront, but they were unsuccessful.

One sailor made his way to the Richmond Railway Yards to tell men working there, Vince Coleman and William Lovett, about the coming explosion. Lovett fled, but Coleman realized that there was a train due in the station within minutes. He stayed behind to send a series of urgent telegraph messages to the train, saying,

“Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”

At 9:04:35 am, the Mont-Blanc’s highly volatile cargo exploded. The ship disintegrated, and the blast travelled at more than 1,000 metres per second. A mushroom cloud rose into the air and hung over the city. Tremors from the blast were felt as far away as Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island. The harbour floor was briefly exposed, then a tsunami formed as water rushed to fill the void.

Halifax was devastated.

The north end was levelled, with huge brick factories reduced to little more than rubble and wooden houses flattened as if smashed by a giant’s hand. Fires raged everywhere, sometimes consuming entire city blocks. Hundreds were blinded by shards of glass as thousands of windows were shattered by the shockwave.

Fireman Billy Wells, who was thrown and stripped naked by the force of the explosion, described the immediate aftermath:

“The sight was awful, with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads missing, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires.”

That night there was a terrible snow storm, and many people who had survived but been left homeless by the blast had nowhere to go. A city of canvas tents was set up in the Halifax Commons, but the shelter they offered was meagre at best, and anyway, there weren’t enough to go around. People froze to death in the city that had, up until a few hours before, been on fire.

It’s estimated that two thousand people died in the Halifax Explosion and its immediate aftermath, and nine thousand people were injured, six thousand of them seriously. Nearly two thousand homes were completely destroyed, and twelve thousand homes were badly damaged. More Nova Scotian residents were killed in the Halifax Explosion than died in combat during World War I.

And my great-grandfather? Well, he was late for work, which meant that he was out in the middle of the street when the blast happened. As it turned out, this was the best place for him. The newspaper plant where he was supposed to be working was destroyed in the explosion, and his house was a pile of rubble. Had he been in either building, he likely would have died.

His aunt and uncle died, and so did all of their children. A few of his neighbours died. Many of his friends and family were badly injured. He couldn’t find his father after the blast, and had to wait until the next day to learn whether or not he was safe. Miraculously, his father didn’t have a scratch on him.

So what does any of this have to do with Boston?

Well, Boston was the first city to send relief to Halifax. The Boston Red Cross and the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee in particular collected money and supplies to send to Halifax. They didn’t care that the victims of the explosion weren’t Americans; they didn’t care that they were in the middle of a war and resources were tight. They did it anyway, because it was the right thing to do.

And when I imagine my great-grandfather in the aftermath the explosion, homeless and shivering in the sudden storm, alone and not knowing whether his only family member was still alive, I can’t help but think that Boston must have somehow helped him get through that long night. Boston must have been a part of what kept him going through the days and weeks that followed, as he and his father tried to put their life back together.

Boston, who clothed and fed and sheltered Halifax when they were in need.

Boston, who sent help without a second thought.

Boston, the city that now needs our help.

Halifax has a long memory. This is a trait that is, in my experience, both charming and irritating. It means that after you’ve lived in Halifax for a few years, everyone in the city knows your all your business and remembers every single stupid thing you’ve ever done. You can never live anything down in Halifax. If you stay there long enough, an act as simple as walking through its streets becomes tricky, because you feel like even the buildings and trees are passing judgment on you.

But sometimes Halifax’s long memory is lovely. Halifax doesn’t forget the awful things you’ve done, but it doesn’t forget the good ones, either. And Halifax has never forgotten that Boston was there to help first, before even the rest of Canada was able to respond. Halifax sends a Christmas tree to Boston every year, and that tree is lit on the Boston Common. Haligonians traditionally cheer for Boston sports teams. Halifax calls Boston its sister city.

And now, Nova Scotia, the province that can barely afford to feed its own residents, has pledged to donate $50,000 to the Boston Children’s Hospital. While announcing this, Nova Scotia premier Darryl Dexter said,

“When we were in need, Bostonians were there. There is a border and hundreds of miles between us, but Massachusetts is always close to the hearts of Nova Scotians. We will do everything we can to support our neighbours and friends in their time of need. Boston’s resilience and fighting spirit will persevere.”

And he’s exactly right. About everything.

So I guess, Boston, what I really want to say is thank you. Thank you for helping us when we were down. Thank you for saving my great-grandfather. Thank you for my life.

I’ve never met you, but I love you.

The days and weeks ahead of you will be really fucking tough, but I just want you to know that we’re up here, cheering you on. We’re here to help if you need it. We know that your spirit will only grow stronger in the face of this adversity. We know that you will fucking beat this.

And also, we haven’t forgotten.

Hope to see you someday soon!

Sincerely,

Annabelle

My great-grandparents on their 65th wedding anniversary

My great-grandparents on their 65th wedding anniversary

My Sister Claire, Or Why No One Should Ever Tell Folktales To Children

12 Mar

Have you ever heard of the myth of the changeling? It’s an old one, woven throughout most of the folklore of Western Europe. The details differ from region to region, but the basic premise is always the same: some kind of fantastical being, usually a fairy, elf, or troll, secretly switches its own offspring for a human child. The switch isn’t discovered until it’s too late.

This exchange might be made for a variety of reasons – some tales tell of fairies and elves taking children as servants or slaves, while a handful of Norwegian myths explain that trolls were left in the place of human babies to help prevent inbreeding (because, of course, we all need a fresh injection of troll in our family trees every now and again). Some stories say that the fairies and elves did it out of a desire for human love, and some, like a few variations of the ballad of Tam Lin, refer to the idea that the fairies must sacrifice a life to hell every seven years. One popular version of the tale tells that fairy children require human breast milk, and so the switch is made to ensure the continuation of the fairy species.

When my youngest sister was born, though, I wasn’t overly concerned with why the fairies had left her in place of the child my mother gave birth to – I was just fascinated by the fact that we now had what I thought was almost certainly a changeling in the family.

It was my Irish grandfather who first put the idea into my head. See, my sister was born with slanted eyes and sharply pointed ears, and although the hospital staff seemed to feel that the shape of her ears, at least, had somehow been stretched or compressed into that shape as she’d passed through the birth canal, my Poppa thought otherwise. I remember him muttering darkly that she looked like she had the fairy blood, something that made my mother laugh. When my four-year-old sister Catherine heard, she started crying, saying that she wanted to be a fairy and it wasn’t fair.

I wasn’t laughing or crying, though. I was paying attention.

When Claire was born, I was nearly eleven years old, and happened to be cursed-slash-blessed with a huge appetite for books, a love of mythologizing my own life, and a day-dreamy streak a mile wide. I’d recently been reading books of Irish and Scottish folk tales, so it didn’t take me long to put the idea of my sister having fairy blood and the myth of changeling together.

It didn’t help that Claire was totally unlike my sister Catherine and I. We’d both been skinny, temperamental babies, chronically underweight throughout our childhoods. Claire, meanwhile, was enormous and placid, constantly ranking in the 99th percentile for height and weight and nearly always in a happy, smiling mood. And while, yes, her ears did round out as she grew older, her eyes kept their epicanthic fold and turned a startling green. On top of all that, my mother gave her an other-worldly sounding Gaelic middle name, one that she’d found in a Maeve Binchy book.

I tried to treat Claire as my very own human sister, but the idea that she was a changeling almost certainly coloured some of the things I did and said to Claire.

Like the time when I told her when she was about three years old that she was actually a Victorian princess stolen from her real family by time-traveling bandits.

I even had evidence to back me up – a picture frame that someone had given us containing a sepia-toned image of a thoughtful-looking woman in a huge, frilly dress. This photograph, I told Claire, was a picture of her real mother. Maybe she would see her again one day, and maybe not. She couldn’t go looking for her unless we told her the secrets of time travel because, of course, at this point, the mid 1990s, everyone she’d known and loved in her own time was dead.

Catherine got in on the act, and my mother laughed a couple of times over Claire’s reactions.

She laughed, that is, until she went to hug Claire, who pushed her away, screaming,

“I HATE YOU. I WANT MY REAL MOTHER. TAKE ME BACK TO MY REAL MOTHER.”

She may or may not be scarred for life. It’s probably too early to say.

It was around that time that my parents separated, and my mother, sisters and I moved into low-income housing. The only benefit to our new living situation was that it was backed by a former land-fill site, nicknamed Mount Trashmore, which was covered by acres and acres of meadows and fields. The landfill, which leaked methane gas but was, naturally, considered safe enough for poor people, was a paradise to us. It was that fact, coupled with the series of books I was reading around that time that took place in Renaissance England, that renewed my interest in fairies. After all, if Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare believed in fairies, then why couldn’t I?

And it’s not like I really believed, except that I sort of did. Or rather, like Mulder’s famous poster, I wanted to believe.

Did I mention the daydreaming and tendency to mythologize?

I started having my sisters perform little rituals. We would leave food in the backyard for the fairies, and chant rhymes that I’d made up. We built nests for the fairies in the fields near our house. I wove daisy chains for us to wear in our hair, and tried to build a maypole. And while Catherine and Claire and I were far apart enough in age that we were rarely able to find something that interested all three of us, these activities, for whatever reason, deeply absorbed each one of us.

I don’t really know how or why our own personal fairy kingdom came to and end. I guess I outgrew it, or at least became embarrassed by it, once I started high school and discovered boys. I don’t know, either, what effect it had on Catherine or Claire, or if they even fully remember it. I do know, though, that it was a nice time, maybe one of the nicest the three of us had together while growing up.

So thanks for that, little changeling sister. I’m glad we got you, although I would still like to know what happened to the real Claire. If you ever find her, let me know okay?

I love you. Happy birthday. You’re the best (possibly non-human) baby sister ever.

Claire, Catherine and I - see what I mean? Totally a changeling.

Claire, Catherine and I – see what I mean? Totally a changeling.

Checking In

20 Feb

I know that I haven’t written here in a while (SIX WHOLE DAYS, LIKE, YOU PROBABLY THOUGHT I’D QUIT BLOGGING OR SOMETHING), and I just wanted to check in and let you guys know that I’m doing all right.

More than all right, actually. I feel better. Frighteningly, miraculously, tentatively better. It’s so new and so strange that I’m a bit hesitant to write about it yet or even say it out loud – like I could jinx it or something. But I also want you to not worry about me, so I thought I should tell you: I feel better.

I don’t know if I would say that I was happy exactly, but then I’m not sure that “happy” is the opposite of “suicidal”. I’m coming to distrust the idea of being happy anyway – I hear the word thrown around too much, hear too many people talking about how they deserve happiness. But I’m not sure that anyone deserves happiness, you know? There’s a quote from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth that the cynic in me has always loved, and I feel like it might apply here:

You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, ‘Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He just couldn’t deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me.’ Now how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll—then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.

I’m starting to think that maybe not everyone deserves happiness all the time. Actually, I think I’m just getting tired of hearing people talk about deserving anything – I’m tired of people’s sense of entitlement, their willingness to trample over others in order to acquire something they feel that they deserve.

But anyway, I digress.

I’ve been trying to follow the hospital psychiatrist’s orders and prioritize things that make me happy, and I think that by and large I’ve been succeeding. I’ve started keeping a proper, paper journal again, and it’s actually wonderful to be able to write without thinking about having an audience (except that I basically always think about having an audience, but I’m figuring that no one will read my journals until I’m dead and thus don’t care). I’ve been taking time out of my day to go to hip cafés where I sit and scribble happily in my notebook while sipping a latte, feeling like everyone looking on must know that I am a For Real Serious Writer Lady.

I’ve been doing other things too – things like spending an hour or two at the art gallery, or wandering around Roncesvalles and checking out the cute shops. Today I went to a friend’s place and lay on her couch for three hours, sipping gin and tonics, dissecting Salinger books and watching Star Trek. It was nice – more than nice, really. And I felt like myself, for the first time in a long time. But I also felt guilty.

Let me see if I can explain the guilt. It’s like this: I constantly feel like I’m running out of time. I don’t just mean that there aren’t enough hours in the day to get things done (although I do feel that way) – I also mean in general, in my life. I feel like I spent too much time fucking off (read: being depressed) in my early 20s and now I’m 30 and all of my peers are ahead of me and I’m struggling to catch up. And I know it’s not a race, but it still feels like one, and I feel like I now have to work extra super hard just to prove that I should even be allowed on the track.

Anyway, what all this amounts to is that I have a hard time doing anything that I don’t view as useful or productive. Even spending time with Theo fits into this category, as I see parenting as a way of creating and shaping an awesome future adult. And yeah, being Theo’s mom is pretty rad, but sometimes that seems more like a pleasant side effect of parenting rather than the main point.

I also feel guilty because it’s like, who am I to get to do all these nice fun things? Like, why do I get to go out and see my friends and hang out in coffee shops while Matt has to stay home and parent? How is that fair? What if he starts to resent me?

Do I actually believe that being depressed gives me special privileges or something?

And then I think, if I were sick with anything else and the doctor’s orders were to take it easy, would I feel guilty?

No, probably not. But if I were sick with anything else, there would be blood drawn, tests run, and hopefully some kind of irrefutable scientific proof that I was sick. But with depression there is no proof, not really. You all have to take me at my word that some days, I feel like dying.

And what happens if you ever stop taking me at my word?

After years and years of talking about suicide but not actually dying, won’t I start to seem like the boy who cried wolf?

I don’t want to lose you guys. Because I love you. Because I’d be lost without you. Because your support has mostly been what’s kept me going these past few weeks.

Anyway, all of this is to say that you don’t have to worry about me, because I’m feeling better.

And that means that, at least for now, I don’t have to worry about losing you.

xoxo

Annabelle

P.S. On a lighter note, just in case you were wondering what a Shrevolution looks like:

shrevolution!