Tag Archives: writing

Fiction: Georgiana

17 Jun

*TRIGGER WARNING FOR SUGGESTION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT*

It’s important to find the perfect words.

Not everyone believes this, of course. People will often say that they don’t have the right words to explain or describe something, but in Georgiana’s experience, there is a perfect word for anything if only you’re willing to look hard enough for it.

Most people aren’t willing to make enough of an effort to find the perfect word. They’re happy to stick to the nouns, verbs and adjectives that they know, doing their best to to pinch and pull them into new shapes for new situations. This is, in Georgiana’s opinion, like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole – you might be able to do it, and you might even be able to convince yourself that it fits, but everyone else will still feel awkward and uncomfortable.

Right now, sitting at the kitchen table, she is testing out a new word. She does this by writing it out, letting her hand feel the truth of it as it guides the pen across the paper. First she prints COURTESAN in neat block letters across the top, then, after a moment’s consideration, she writes MY MOTHER IS A COURTESAN in elegant script half-way down the page. Georgiana’s handwriting is the best in her eighth-grade class. In fact, she won an award in a penmanship competition held at her school last year. Georgiana’s mother had snorted at this and said that it was ridiculous to give a prize for something no one cared about anymore, but Georgiana disagrees, and keeps the certificate they gave her in her second-best desk drawer. Penmanship, like baking bread or crocheting lace, is a skill that she has no immediate use for, but could very likely come in handy sometime in the unforeseeable future.

Georgiana slouches in her seat and stares at the paper, narrowing her eyes until her brow begins to furrow. My mother is a courtesan. Does it fit? Is it right? She tilts her head first to one side, then the other, then slowly lets her eyes drift out of focus. She’s feeling as though she’s getting quite close to something when the sound of her mother’s keys in the door interrupts her meditation. She quickly sits up and folds the paper neatly in half, then in half again before sliding it into the pocket of her skirt. A moment later, her mother, Peggy, appears in the kitchen and drops a quick kiss on the top of Georgiana’s head before heading over to refrigerator.

“Jesus Christ have I ever had a long day,” Peggy says to the carton of eggs on the second shelf. “I need about three drinks and then another drink on top of that. Honey, what do I want to drink? Do I want beer or wine?”

“I don’t know,” Georgiana answers, peevishly. “How should I know what you want? I’m not a mind-reader. You’re being stupid. You’re being stupid and you’re wasting energy by leaving the fridge open.”

“My thirteen-year-old daughter thinks I’m stupid. Quelle surprise. Next you’ll be insulting my taste in music.”

Georgiana twists a stray lock of hair around her finger as she watches her mother pour herself a glass of riesling.

“Mom,” she begins, keeping her voice carefully bored and distant. “Mom, what’s a courtesan?”

“Look it up. You know how to work a dictionary, and God knows that there are enough of them around here.”

“I tried, but I can’t find mine, and the door to your office is locked.”

This is patently untrue. Or rather, the lost dictionary is untrue, although Peggy’s office really is locked – it’s always best to add a little bit of truth into your lies, Georgiana has learned. It makes them that much more believable. With the right amount of fact and fiction, Georgiana knows that she can manipulate her mother into giving her some approximation of what the word means.

Not that she really wants a definition. What she wants is to see her mother’s reaction to the word.

Peggy sighs and rolls her eyes heavenward, as if deep in thought.

“Oh, I don’t know. I guess a courtesan is a woman who’s involved with a married man, and lives off the money and gifts he gives her. A sort of sex-worker, but not really in the way that we currently understand that term. She’s not exactly a prostitute, more like a professional mistress. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, though – it’s an old-fashioned word that no one really uses anymore.”

Like penmanship, Georgiana thinks, coolly maintaining her blank gaze as she watches her mother’s face. Is that a ripple of anxiety? Or embarrassment? It’s gone too soon for Georgiana to tell.

“Go change in to something nice,” says Peggy, ignoring her daughter’s stare. “We’re going to Eric’s for dinner,”

“But I’m already wearing a skirt,” Georgiana protests, conscious of the childish whine creeping into her voice.

“Well, I guess you’re going to have to put on a nicer skirt, then, aren’t you?”

And with that, her mother takes her drink into the living room and turns on the news, neatly ending the conversation before Georgiana can voice any other complaints. She sighs and begins to mount the stairs to her bedroom, dragging her feet as loudly and obnoxiously as possible.

Eric is her mother’s boss, and Georgiana is certain that the two of them are an item, as her grandmother would say. Although Eric has been a part of Georgiana’s life for nearly as long as she can remember, she has only recently become aware of his true feelings for her mother. After reviewing all of the evidence, though, Georgiana can’t believe she’s been so blind for so long.

First of all, there’s the fact that Georgiana and her mother should not be able to afford to live the way that they do. Take this house, for example – their neighbours all have high-powered, lucrative careers, and the street is dotted with doctors, lawyers and hedge fund managers. Peggy, meanwhile, is the arts editor for the small, left-wing magazine that Eric owns. Georgiana has heard Eric say more than once that the magazine will never be profitable. How, then, are they able to own this house? How is Peggy able to keep Georgiana adequately clothed and fed? How does the liquor cabinet manage to stay so well stocked?

Next, there are all the evenings that Peggy spends at Eric’s house, supposedly “working”. But why do they need to meet at night? They see each other at the office all day long.

Georgiana’s mother used to leave her with a babysitter on the evenings when she had to “work late”, but lately she’s been bringing her daughter along, forcing her to dress nicely and pick her way through so-called gourmet meals cooked by Eric himself. But where is Eric’s wife? She is always noticeably absent during Georgiana’s visits to his house. The official story is that Eric’s wife is frequently out of town, “on business”, a reply that is both vague and entirely unsatisfying.

And then there are the swanky vacations her mother takes, alone, if you believe what she says. At least once a year Georgiana is dumped at her grandmother’s apartment, left to navigate her way through a sea of porcelain figurines and doilies, while her mother flies off to Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Milan. Last year it was Paris. Paris! Who goes to the most romantic city in the world by themselves? It’s clear that, when thoughtfully examined, Georgiana’s mother’s stories are totally lacking in credibility.

There are other, smaller things, as well. There’s the way that her mother behaves during Eric’s late night phone calls, like a giddy schoolgirl who suddenly has the attention of the cutest boy in the class. There’s the mysterious jumble of soft, velvety jewellery boxes in her mother’s underwear drawer, a stash that has grown alarmingly over the past several years. Worst of all, there’s the way that Georgiana’s mother treats Eric’s thoughts and ideas as though they come from God himself. If Georgiana has to hear “Eric thinks…” or “Eric feels…” one more time, she might slit her wrists.

Up until today, Georgiana hadn’t exactly been entirely certain that something was going on between her mother and Eric. The problem was that she’d been missing the right word to describe their relationship. She’d tried out fuck-friend, but that was crass and uncouth and not befitting of two adults involved in an adult situation. She’d also given the term mistress a whirl, but it was too dowdy, too boring. The word courtesan, on the other hand, has a lovely sing-song rhythm that Georgiana can’t get out of her head. It sounds vaguely foreign, and yet is a perfectly respectable English word. It’s elegant, rich, sensual, and bordering on obsolete.

Exactly the term she’s been waiting for.

After pulling on a suitably nice dress, Georgiana stands in front of her mirror and braids her coarse, wavy brown hair. She stares at herself critically, then suddenly leans in towards her reflection and viciously whispers, your mother’s a whore and you’re a stupid, ugly bitch.

She stays suspended in this position, her mouth so close to the glass that her breath appears as a fog. The edge of the bureau digs uncomfortably into her stomach, but she doesn’t mind. It actually feels sort of good, in a strange way. She waits until the funny ache bisecting her abdomen becomes more than she can stand, then pushes herself back and turns to rummage around in her closet, pulling out a pair of well-worn ballet flats.

She steps into her shoes and then sits on the edge of her bed, her face as blank and impassive as a mask.

The drive to Eric’s house is short and silent. Georgiana slides as far down in her seat as possible, fiddling with her braid, clenching the end of it between her mouth and her nose to make a mustache. Her mother, who hates driving, stares grimly at the road, her hands clenched in a death grip around the wheel from the moment they leave the house until they pull into Eric’s driveway. Eric, as always, is waiting for them, ready to open the door before they can even ring the bell.

“Peggy, you look lovely,” Eric says, kissing Georgiana’s mother on the cheek as he takes her coat. “I can’t believe you’re the same person who was having a minor meltdown three hours ago.”

“Oh God,” Peggy laughs, “wasn’t that a nightmare? I need a drink. I mean, another drink.”

“And the young Georgiana, beautiful as always,” Eric continues as Georgiana shrugs her jacket into his waiting hands.

She watches him out of the corner of her eye, saying nothing, listening for the crackle of her secret paper, stealthily transferred from one pocket to another, as he hangs her jacket in the closet. The noise is wonderfully satisfying.

Dinner is paella, and Georgiana spends the first half of the meal picking out the vegetables and moving them to the edge of the plate. Once that’s done, she concentrates on the edible parts of the dish. She has her first forkful of beans, rice and meat halfway to her mouth when Eric says,

“So, Georgiana, what are you studying these days?”

Georgiana is hovering between answering his question and stuffing her mouth full of food when Peggy replies for her.

“Don’t bother asking her, she’ll just tell you she doesn’t remember. Gigi never remembers what she’s learned at school, it’s one of her charming trademarks.”

Georgiana drops her fork with a clatter and turns on her mother.

“Don’t call me that,” she spits out.

“What, Gigi? Don’t be silly, I’ve always called you that.”

Peggy rolls her eyes at Eric, a gesture so entirely dismissive that Georgiana feels her face and chest flush with rage. Part of her knows that she will later feel embarrassed by what she’s about to say, but right now all she can feel is the rush of it, the exhilarating sense of being swept up in her anger.

“It’s a stupid name. It’s the name for a dog. It’s so humiliating. No one calls me that but you.”

“What do your friends call you?” asks Eric.

It’s such an unexpected question that Georgiana is immediately disarmed. She looks between Eric and her mother, their faces both calm and inquiring, and feels herself deflate.

“George,” she says, neglecting to mention the fact that she doesn’t have any friends. “It’s nice and short and gets right to the point.”

“Ah, yes, but what is the point?” Eric wonders aloud.

Georgiana, unable to tell if he’s laughing at her, ducks her head and takes refuge in her dinner. After a few minutes the centre of her dish is clear, leaving only a ring of vegetables.

“May I take my dessert in the library?” she asks, pushing her plate away.

Eric looks at Peggy, who shrugs her assent.

“It’s the chocolate cake on the counter in the kitchen,” he calls out as she beats a hasty retreat.

Or rather, she beats what only appears to be a hasty retreat. After she’s taken several loud steps towards the kitchen, Georgiana does a quick pirouette on the hardwood floor of the hall and then creeps back towards the dining room. She lingers at the edge of the pool of light spilling from the doorway, her mouth hanging half open as she strains to listen.

God, I’m so sorry about that,” she hears her mother say. “She’s been so terrible lately. I’m trying so hard to just ignore her, because I know that at that age any attention is good attention, but Jesus Christ is it ever hard not to smack her sometimes.”

Eric murmurs something in response, but Georgiana can’t hear what it is.

She know that she should be upset over what her mother said, but instead she feels meanly glad. Good, she thinks, I’m glad she wants to smack me. I hope she does someday. I hope she does tomorrow.

Eavesdropping makes her hungry, and Georgiana feels entirely justified in cutting herself two enormous slices of cake. She carries her plate and a glass of milk down the dim hallway, towards the back of the house. The library, as Eric calls it, is really just a small-ish sitting room lined with bookshelves and furnished with two comfortably ancient armchairs, a couple of mismatched lamps and a sturdy but beat up old table. Most of the shelves are tall, reaching almost to the ceiling, but one of them is a squat, handsome case fronted by two neat little glass doors. This houses Eric’s collection of rare, first edition and out-of-print books, and Georgiana makes a beeline for it.

She spends an hour and a half with a 19th century medical encyclopedia, poring over woodcut drawings of syphilis infected genitalia and deformed fetuses. The pictures are fascinating and nauseating at the same time; looking at them makes Georgiana’s skin crawl, but she feels compelled to keep turning the pages. When she finally can’t take any more she closes the book and reverently places it back on the shelf. She feels strange, shivery and sweat-slicked, as though she’s just awoken from a bad dream. A thin, piercing headache is blooming right between her eyes.

She decides to go find her mother. Peggy and Eric will be upstairs, she knows, in the office, which is shinier and newer than the library. The office is probably where they do it. The thought makes Georgiana’s stomach turn over and causes her headache to spread until she can feel it pulsing through every vein, her scalp alive with tiny filaments of pain. The door to the office is closed, and Georgiana can hear her mother and Eric talking and laughing softly behind it. She is about to knock, about to tell her mother that she’s feeling sick and wants to go home, when suddenly she hears something. It’s her mother’s voice, contorted almost beyond recognition, groaning, sighing. Georgiana turns on her heel and runs to the bathroom.

She crouches over the toilet, sweat beading along her hairline. Her arms are shaking and her heart is pounding, sickness welling inside of her as she stares at the water. She wishes that her mother was there to hold her hair. She wishes that she’d never left the library, that she hadn’t been so rude at dinner, that she’d never started this whole stupid thing. Her breath comes in gasps, her stomach clenches hard and she gags, but nothing comes up. Her body, completely beyond her control, relaxes and then stiffens as she gags again and again. Tears begin to drip down her face, splashing into the toilet bowl beneath her.

Then, slowly, the nausea begins to recede, leaving her trembling and empty. When she feels steady enough, she pushes herself to her feet and runs cold water in the sink, splashing it on her face. Her head still aches, so she eases the elastic off the end of her braid and shakes her hair out until it frames her face like a mane. Between the cloud of her hair and her thin, pale face, the effect is distinctly pre-raphaelite, a wan Rosetti goddess, perhaps, or a despairing angel. She takes a step back and turns first one way, then the other. Her dress is made out of soft, stretchy fabric and she pulls it down over her shoulders, exposing both breasts. She lightly runs her hand across her nipples until they stand up like pencil erasers. Something begins to uncoil inside of her, like a vine, like a snake.

In her earlier haste to get into the bathroom she left the door ajar and now it begins to swing inward. Georgiana turns towards it, sort of almost accidentally forgetting to pull her dress back up. Eric is outlined in the doorway, bright against the dimness of the hall behind him. Georgiana gives him a look that she hopes is defiant, daring, her lashes lowered over what she thinks of as smouldering eyes. She expects him to be embarrassed, or even shocked at the sight of her breasts, but the expression on his face is frank, appraising. She shrinks back as he takes a step towards her, pulling her dress up over her chest. She is trembling again.

“I think I had too much cake,” she hears herself say, her voice childish and faltering. To her relief, he turns away.

She watches Eric leave the room, hears him call her mother. Peggy comes, lays a hand on her daughter’s forehead, then guides her out of the bathroom and down the stairs. Georgiana feels dreamily detached, like a spectator seated very far away from the action. She stands calmly as her mother rushes around, gathering her notebooks and folders together. She allows Peggy to help her into her coat and shoes while Eric hovers solicitously in the background.

At home, Peggy leads her daughter up to her bedroom and peels the dress off her feverish body.

“I’m sorry,” Georgiana says she burrows under her sheets, although she’s not sure what she’s apologizing for.

“My poor Gigi,” Peggy says, kissing the tip of her nose, “I forgive you, even if Eric and I were in the middle of something very important.”

Georgiana, her cheeks flushing pink and her mouth suddenly twisting into a snarl, uses the last of her strength to push herself up close to her mother’s face.

“I know what you do,” she spits, “I know what you and Eric do together. I know exactly what you are, and I think you’re revolting. You make me sick.”

A look of deep, frightened hurt spread’s across Peggy’s face, but is quickly replaced by a wintry smile.

“Go to sleep,” Peggy says calmly, “it’s late. Call me if you need anything.”

Georgiana sinks back, exhausted, feeling strangely empty now that’s she’s divulged her secret. Her mind is very still and quiet, the restless anger drained from it like pus from an abcess.

The next day, Peggy lets her daughter stay home from school, although she herself goes to work. Georgiana, for her part, enjoys her fever, the lightness and giddiness of it, and also the weakness. She spends the day in bed, eating grapes and reading comic books. The light outside is grey, soothing. She is safe, cocooned in her illness.

The day darkens into twilight, and her mother comes home. She brings a little tissue paper-wrapped package into her daughter’s room and lays it on her lap. Georgiana peels back the soft, thin layers slowly, revealing a small, lacquered wooden box. On the lid there is a young deer looking nervously over its shoulder, its eyes somehow both frightened and curious.

“It’s from Eric,” her mother says, perhaps a bit too casually, “he says that it reminded him of you. Don’t ask me why.”

Georgiana feels a small surge of triumph as she turns the box over in her hands. Triumph over what? She will have to untangle this later. For now, she contents herself with watching her mother’s face. Is that anxiety, creasing the edges around her mouth? Is that anger flashing somewhere deep in her eyes? Georgiana isn’t sure.

She settles back against her pillow and looks at the box, stroking her fingers along the deer’s back.

“Tell him thank you,” she says, finally. “Tell him that I know exactly what it means.”

Peggy gets up and leaves the room. Georgiana falls asleep, her flushed cheek pressed up against the cool painted wood. Outside her window, the streetlights come on and the world, for once, is very, very quiet.

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Roland Muller

7 Jun

You get two biological parents in this life. If you’re lucky, you get to have at least two people (though not necessarily the two people whose genes you share) conduct you through the first eighteen or so years of your time on this planet, using that time to help you create a map that will, hopefully, allow you to spend the rest of your days navigating this confusing world.

But it’s not just parents who participate in this amateur cartography, is it? I mean, they do the majority of the work, and maybe they do the toughest work, but they don’t get all the credit, do they? So many people contribute to helping any given child flesh out their map, adding towns, rivers, and signs that say “Here There Be Dragons.” Children chart the world with their parents, yes, but also with their aunts and uncles, their grandparents, their babysitters, their neighbours, the old Korean couple who own the convenience store on the corner, that nice crossing guard who can’t speak English, and most of all, and especially, their teachers. Their dozens of daycare teachers, primary and high school teachers, and even college professors, all those people who work tirelessly fill their heads with words, numbers, new thoughts and hopefully a little bit of common sense.

Not all of your teachers will be good ones – for some of them, the best that you can say is that you only had to spend one semester in their class. A great teacher, though? A great teacher is worth their weight in gold.

A great teacher will stick with you for the rest of your life.

Roland Muller was a great teacher, maybe even the best. I was in the last ninth grade English class that he taught before retiring, and I will forever be thankful for whatever stars aligned to place me there, in the second row of that dingy first floor classroom at Eastwood Collegiate Institute, during the first period of day two (we had a day one, day two schedule instead of being semestered).

Mr. Muller was old-fashioned. He was impatient with, sometimes even downright uninterested in, newer teaching methods. He taught us English grammar, even though it wasn’t on the curriculum. When we misbehaved, he had us write lines. In fact, I still have the lines that he made me write – fifty of them – because I talked too much. They read, “henceforth, I will not babble incessantly in class.” I don’t know why I kept them, except that I thought that it was sort of nice and funny that I’d had to write lines. Like a character in one of the English boarding school books that I loved so much.

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In spite of all of this, or maybe even partly because of it, we loved Mr. Muller. He was, hands down, the all-time favourite teacher of the majority of the students in his classes. And you know what? He loved us in return. I’ve rarely had a teacher who cared so damn much about his students. And I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a teacher who put in so much extracurricular time, both with academic issues and with any and everything to do with the Arts Package that he helped found in 1988.

And sure, sometimes his teaching methods were a little stuffy for some of us, but holy cats did that man ever love reading, writing and the arts. His classes fascinated and captivated us, and he found ways to make even the dullest subjects interesting. He was funny, too, sarcastic and snarky in the best way possible. And he was kind. And attentive. And interested in us, this scraggly pack of know-it-all fourteen year olds.

I was his pet that year. I don’t know why or how he took a liking to me, but he did, and I’m forever grateful for that fact. He was the first person who told me that I was going to be a writer, a thought that I found flattering but unlikely. When the school organized a special enrichment “Mystery Writing Tour” field trip for English students, he chose me to be one of only three ninth grade students invited along. When I was having a hard day, he always had a smile or a hug for me. During what was the first full school year after my father had left, he was kind of, sort of, maybe a little bit like a father to me, and I will always, always be grateful for that. I’m grateful for everything.

14-year-old me on the English enrichment "Mystery Writing Tour."

14-year-old me on the English enrichment “Mystery Writing Tour.”

I saw Mr. Muller just a little over a month ago at the 25th anniversary of the Arts Package. He didn’t recognize me right away (which led to me yelling, BUT MIS-TER MU-LLER, I WAS YOUR FAVOURITE STUDENT, I WAS YOUR PET), a fact that honestly isn’t surprising considering how many students he’d had over the years. It wasn’t long, though, before he’d figured out who I was. Once he realized that I was the girl he’d once spent a year referring to as Little Orphan Annie, I got this huge, irrepressible grin on my face. He grinned right back at me then turned to Matt and said, “See that smile? That smile is how she wrapped me around her little finger. How could I ever forget that?”

I only spoke to him briefly at the anniversary, partly because there were so many other former students who wanted to reconnect with him, and partly because I had some very important drinking and dancing to do. Although I hadn’t seen him in well over ten years, I figured that there would be other times, other places when we would be able to catch up or reminisce. I always think that I will have other chances; I never, ever think that anything is happening for the last time.

I wish I’d known that it was the last time.

Rest in peace, Mr. Muller. I know that I probably wasn’t an especially amazing kid to have in your class, and I’m sure that I don’t really stand out among all the other students you had, and I know that I talked waaaay too much. I’m not by any means your brightest or most successful or most talented former student. I wish that I had more to show for the year that I spent in your class, because that would give some kind of indication of how very much of an impact you had on my life. I guess the most that I can say is that now, sixteen years after I had you as a teacher, I’m finally coming around to what you knew all along: I’m a writer.

And if I’m at all a good writer, and if my words have any kind of impact in this world, a large part of that is because of you.

So thank you.

Roland Muller giving a speech at the Eastwood Arts Package Reunion, April 2013

Roland Muller giving a speech at the Eastwood Arts Package Reunion, April 2013

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

What It’s Like To Live Here, Part III

20 May

Your stupid, treacherous heart is like the Sacred Heart of Jesus, naked and quivering on your chest. Except that whereas Christ’s heart rests on his fully clothed breast, your bare skin has been cut and neatly pinned back, your torso resembling nothing so much as a biology class dissection. The muscle and sinew of your heart are gone, too. All that remains in the well of your chest is a tangle of glistening arteries and blood vessels, and a bundle of nerves, jangling and raw.

You talk and talk and talk as if you can’t stop. Words keep tumbling from your mouth, hard and fast, and you wince whenever they hit the ground. Everything sounds wrong, but by the time you’ve said it, it’s too late. You can’t ever call it back.

You feel as if you’re living underwater. People try to speak to you, but their words are warped, distorted beyond recognition. They might have meant something once, but it’s impossible to say, now, what their original shape might have been.

There is a grooved track inside your mind, and all of your favourite fears and worries follow it round and round and round. At night they gain momentum, and even though you’re tired, so goddamn tired, you can’t sleep. The racket in your brain never stops.

You try to explain what it feels like. You try to make people understand that this, this gibbering, twitching creature, isn’t really you. Everything you say falls short of what you mean, and you realize that every single word you know is completely insufficient. You wonder if this would be any easier in another language, if the Germans have a word for waking up to the raw, grey dread that’s become your norm.

You start to cry. You hate yourself for crying. Is there anyone that you will ever hate more than yourself?

You sit. You stand. You pace. You chew your nails. You check your email five times, and then once more for good luck. You put on your shoes. You walk across the street. You buy a pack of Belmonts. You strike a match, but your hand is shaking so badly that you can’t light your stupid cigarette. You wonder if people walking by think you’re some kind of junkie, and laugh because nothing could be further from the truth. You finally manage to light the damn thing, inhale deeply, and then immediately stub it out on the sidewalk beside you. You walk home. You take off your shoes. You sit. You feel as if you’ve accomplished something, even though all you’ve done is blow twelve bucks on something you’ll never use. But maybe the action itself was the accomplishment. Maybe it’s enough that you kept yourself busy, gave yourself some sort of direction, even for just five minutes. Maybe that was worth every penny you spent.

You lie in bed under your heavy down blanket, even though it’s still early in the afternoon and hot as hell outside. Your mouth is a cavernous desert; you couldn’t swallow even if you wanted to. A feeling of doom hangs over you, so palpable that you’re sure you could reach up and touch it. You listen to your neighbour downstairs playing twangy, plaintive songs on his guitar. You make a list of all the ways that you’ve wasted your life.

The telephone rings, over and over and over again. You don’t even consider answering it. There isn’t a single person in the world right now whose voice you want to hear.

You ride it out, like a bad bout of malaria. Anxious tremors wrack your body the way that fever chills might. Your bones seem as if they’re made of glass, and you can feel them clinking, gently, achingly, every time you move. Everything hurts. But still, somehow, you know that there’s a life on the other side of this. There is, of course, always the possibility that this time the disease is going to kill you, this time you won’t make it out alive, but still. It hasn’t yet. And that thought cheers you up, because in spite of everything, the odds are on your side. You feel almost optimistic.

The bundle of nerves in your chest, the ones that have replaced your heart, twitch and quiver. You know that it’s not safe to leave them exposed like this, but you don’t know how to protect them. They’ve always been like this, stripped down, bare, too painful to be of any real use. But they’re yours and, somehow, you wouldn’t have them any other way.

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After (short story/fiction)

15 May

After the plague, everything went silent.

It didn’t happen all at once, of course, but over the span of weeks, even months. Television was the first thing to go, disintegrating from panicked news reports into non-stop Seinfeld reruns, followed by the soothing white noise of static, and then finally nothing. The internet was next; websites went dead one by one, until the frantic hours spent hunched over my laptop brought up nothing but error messages. Not long after that the phone lines were down, and then a few days later the lights flickered suddenly and went out, leaving those of us still alive in the dark.

It’s not as frightening as you’d think. Even now, more than a year after those bloody, terrifying days, the absence of shrieks and sirens and bright flashing lights is still a relief.

John died. He was one of the first, actually. He came home sick from work, and then two days later he was gone. The baby died the day after that. I knew she was going to; from the moment the telltale rash started creeping up her fat little legs, I knew it wouldn’t be long. After both of their bodies had been taken away, I waited impatiently for my turn. I just wanted to die, wanted to hurry up and get it over with already; I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything so badly in my life. The rash was supposed to start on your feet, a network of fine red lines that traced their way up to the heart, and I must have taken my socks off a dozen times a day. I kept squinting and prodding at the space between my toes, looking for something, anything, but my skin stayed stubbornly clear.

About a week after the burial I had a fever and a cough and I thought, finally, but it turned out to be just a bad cold. A cold – can you believe it? The whole city is vomiting blood and pus around me, and I catch a cold.

John worked on Bay Street, which the media insisted on calling “Ground Zero”. The official story was that someone had come home sick from a business trip, then gone to work and infected everyone who walked by their cubicle. The disease spread quickly throughout the downtown core, jumping from building to building, pumping through the vents with the stale recycled air. For a while the news outlets were trying to figure out who this mystery businessman had been, as though having a scapegoat would solve the problem, but when everything really started going to shit they stopped caring.

It was lucky that John and the baby died so early, because in those days there were still government clean-up crews to take care of their bodies. The city had these big black vans, corpse-mobiles we called them, and they would cart off dozens of the dead at a time. My husband and daughter are numbers 37 and 38 respectively in Prep Fields East at Upper Canada College. The city bought the school’s grounds for an unheard of amount of money, and used its fields to dig a series of mass graves. You’d think that somebody would have complained, started some kind of campaign against it, but most of the people likely to do so had left Toronto by then. On the news they showed clips of the wealthy being flown out in chartered planes, their eyes darting and fearful, their mouths swaddled in those useless paper masks.

After John and the baby were buried, I didn’t see anyone for a long time. I stayed inside, eating, sleeping and reading. Hiding. Once everything edible was gone from my cupboards, even the barely digestible stuff like uncooked pasta and dried beans, I moved into the apartment next door, and then the next one. I drifted through my building, my body as light and intangible as smoke. John and the baby started to seem like something that had happened in another life. My sadness and emptiness began to change, mutating into a strange sense of calm.

I slipped inside the lives my neighours had shed, taking advantage of everything they’d left behind. I wore their clothes, ate their food, rifled through their personal belongings. I discovered that the man two doors down had had a passion for hunting and I spent an afternoon cleaning and oiling his rifle, lifting it to my shoulder and admiring my reflection in his mirror. I pulled on a pair of his threadbare jeans and lounged in his green tweed armchair, sipping stale beer and flipping through girlie magazines. I learned that the polite young man on the fourth floor had fancied himself an amateur artist, and I spent a few days painting still lifes of the toaster, the light fixture, the bowl of clementines mouldering on his table. After that was the apartment of the wealthy retiree on the floor below mine, where I lay for two dreamy weeks in a decadently wallpapered bedroom, wearing silk night-gowns and pearls, reading Jane Austen. I kept the heavy curtains drawn the entire time. Going outside seemed pointless, now that everyone else was dead.

That wasn’t true, of course. There were plenty of other survivors, and while I was squatting in my draughty old brick fortress, many of them were camping out at the university, in Trinity College, no less. Their little hive buzzed with activity as they organized committees and planned for the new society that would be born out of the ashes of the old one. Life would be better now, they told one another. We would finally be able to purge everything distasteful from our past and start completely fresh. The human spirit would triumph over adversity! The plague could be a blessing in disguise! They would go on like this, jollying themselves with proverbs and trite clichés, ad nauseam.

I have to admit that they were never short of ideas. One of their first was to have a group of people going door-to-door looking for other survivors, which is how they discovered me. They convinced me to come live in the “community” they were building, a word which I was to come to loathe. We slept in “community halls” and ate all of our “community meals” together, plus we had other “community activities”, such as the mandatory “building a bright future” lectures. The other people there were cheerful and outgoing, overwhelmingly so. They reminded me of camp counsellors that I’d known as a child, always wanting to engage you with a craft or a song. They would often stop me in the hallway or on the sidewalk and ask me how I was doing. How’s it going? they would ask bracingly, gripping my shoulder so tightly that it left an angry red mark.

I went to the community meetings and soon discovered that while they were good at coming up with ideas, they were less adept at acting on them. In fact, it seemed that canvassing for survivors was the only plan of theirs to actually get off the ground. The talk at the meetings was endless and detailed, rife with idealism. They were going to have elections, they said, start a new government, start a colony, grow gardens. They were going to found a university so that our new society could have doctors, lawyers, thinkers. They made sketches, wrote proposals, enthusiastically dreamed up ways to save themselves, but in the end they actually did very little.

I moved out just a few weeks after moving in. Being constantly surrounded by other people was really starting to grate on my nerves. On top of that, I’d been sleeping with Gabe, one of the community’s leaders, and then all of the sudden I wasn’t.

Gabe was among those giving talks in the evenings, and one night I was interested enough in what he was saying to go up to him afterwards and ask a question. He smiled sort of shyly for a moment, his eyes blinking thoughtfully behind his glasses, and then told me that he had a book in his room he believed might have an answer. As he led me out of the auditorium he accidentally brushed up against the back of my hand and I jerked back, as though a bolt of electricity had passed through me. I followed him down the dim, echoing hallways, shivering in spite of the oppressively humid summer night.

As soon as the door to his room closed, his mouth was on mine, and then on my neck, and then in the well between my breasts. My hands couldn’t decide where they needed to be first, so they went everywhere at once. The very act of touching him, feeling his warm resilient skin against mine, was like finding a tall glass of water and suddenly realizing how very, very thirsty you’ve been. Afterwards, I wanted to feel guilty, because of John, because it was so soon, but the only thing I felt was gratitude. Gratitude to Gabe, of course, but also, for the first time, gratitude in general for the fact that I wasn’t among the dead.

Gabe and I didn’t talk much. We met up every few days, spent an hour or two together, and then went our separate ways. We didn’t sit together during meals, and in fact barely acknowledged each other in public. Because of the talks he gave, I was able to watch him without being obvious. I memorized the way he tipped his head to one side and pursed his lips when someone asked him a particularly difficult question, and the nervous habit he had of taking off his glasses and cleaning them while speaking. I listened attentively and began to notice a trace of an accent, something different but undefinable. When, one night, he told me that he’d come to Canada from South Africa when he was young, I felt a funny rush of pride at having sensed that he wasn’t a native Torontonian. I played every minute of our time together over and over again in my head – the way he liked to run his fingers through my hair, the vulnerable, almost frightened look on his face when he came, the way his breathing altered as he slipped into sleep. I felt strangely, buoyantly happy.

And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, our relationship was over.

“The thing is,” Gabe said, obsessively polishing his glasses on his threadbare t-shirt, “the thing is that I don’t really feel as though I get through to you. I think you’ve put up a lot of walls around yourself, and you’re not really ready for this.”

“It’s okay,” he continued, cutting me off as I tried to say something, “I know it’s hard for you because you were married before and had a kid and all. I understand. And the thing is, I just think that I could help you a lot more if we weren’t, you know, so involved.”

This apparently heartfelt speech didn’t change the fact that he’d also been sleeping with a girl named Nadia, a yoga teacher who was convinced that she’d survived through the power of downward dog.

“People don’t know the healing power of yoga,” she would say, her face glowing with earnest zeal, “they don’t even know. If everyone practiced yoga, no one would ever have even gotten sick. I’m going to make sure that yoga has a really special place in our new community.”

Nadia was not very good at keeping secrets (or maybe she just thought it was bad karma to be discreet) and it wasn’t long before everyone knew out about her and Gabe. When I asked him about it, he looked embarrassed and then said stiffly that he and Nadia had a very deep connection. He said that she had done a lot of emotional work and meditation in order to be with him, and it was because of that kind of dedication that she was going to be an important part of the cultural rebuilding. That was the day I knew I had to get out.

It wasn’t long before they were gone, too. Another former member, Jessie, told me that the community had moved east after hearing a rumour that there were more survivors in Kingston, maybe, or Montreal. Gabe’s plan was to gather as many other people as they could and head north to Ottawa, where they would take over the parliament buildings and start a provisional government. The community left from Union Station, walking two by two along the railroad tracks, like Noah’s animals in search of the Ark. I ran into Jessie a few months later, and she said that no one had heard from them since.

Jessie and I weren’t the only ones who stayed in Toronto, but we were two of few. Those of us still here prefer to keep to ourselves, and I can go days now without seeing another person. This isn’t to say that the streets are empty – there are packs of dogs, formerly fat, contented pets gone feral. It’s not unusual to see them roaming around, or hear their howls as they suddenly catch the scent of their prey. There are cats, too, although I don’t see them as much. They prefer to skulk singly, their eyes luminous and huge in the dark. The rat population exploded after the plague, and the cats have all grown sleek and plump on their suddenly abundant food supply. The racoons and squirrels and chipmunks are more brazen than ever, and there’s an entire warren of rabbits populating the Eaton Centre. They’ve burrowed into piles of soft poly-cotton blends, shredding designer sweatshirts with their sharp little teeth, making nests for their young.

And then there are the horses. During the worst of the plague someone had the presence of mind to trek down to the CNE and throw open the gates of the Horse Palace, and they’ve been thriving ever since. They tend to stay around the parks and ravines, but I once had the surreal experience of seeing a herd of them out on the street. They were running at full tilt, weaving in and out of the abandoned, rusting cars, stamping, snorting, tossing their heads. The sun was low in the sky, and as they thundered past me one of them suddenly stopped short and reared up, lit from behind like some primeval god.

It’s clear that the city is taking its first few stumbling steps back to wilderness. Stately old stone buildings that once boasted a genteel tendril or two of ivy have been consumed with greenery. This past spring, there were flowers everywhere – not just on the ground, but growing out of the fare box of a marooned streetcar, spilling out of cracks in the sides of buildings. Since all its people have died, the city itself has become a living creature.

Gabe and his followers left in the autumn, and I spent the winter in one of the Rosedale mansions, huddled on a king-sized bed under a pile of hand-sewn quilts. I lived off of gourmet canned goods, crackers made from exotic grains and jars of locally-made preserves with labels declaring “Aunt Sarah’s Best Plum Jelly” in delicate, spider-like writing. I found jugs of filtered water in the basement, which I rationed until there was enough snow on the ground to melt for drinking. Burning antique furniture in the three enormous fireplaces kept the house warm until spring, and I found an unexpected satisfaction in taking an axe to the 19th century décor. When my substantial pantry began to look sparse, I started scavenging the neighbouring houses, stalking through the snow in a sumptuous fur coat. I liked its length and weight and also its smell, which was dark and warm and slightly musky. Sometimes I would spread it out across the bed and sleep on it, nestling into it the way a baby animal would curl up against its mother’s soft flank.

Now that it’s summer again I’m living in the Toronto Reference Library. The enormous windows let sunlight in long into the evening, and when I stand in front of the glass and look down Yonge Street, I feel like a sort of benevolent guardian spirit, sent to watch over this desolate city. I picture myself as a pensive old Notre Dame gargoyle, the one with the horns and the wings whose face is cupped in his hands. If I remember correctly, he’s sticking his tongue out. I imagine he feels much the way I do – thoughtful, foolish, not quite human.

I spend all of my free hours diving into the stacks, resurfacing for air only when necessary. At first I bounced from shelf to shelf, choosing books almost at random, gorging myself on the printed word. Lately I’ve been more selective. Last week I got on to this Chekhov kick and now I don’t want to read anything else. I’ve realized that The Cherry Orchard might be the most perfect play ever written, or at least the loveliest play about the inevitability of change and loss. I’ve read it three times already. Sometimes I feel guilty, as though I should be doing something productive, but other than making sure that I’m clothed and fed, I can’t think of anything else to be done.

I walked down to the shore yesterday, all the way to Queen’s Quay. I stood and looked at the boats left scattered in the harbour, rust slowly crackling and colouring their hulls. I looked out to the islands and thought how funny it was that even though they were so close, they were entirely unreachable. The air was grey and damp-tasting, and so still that I could hear myself breathing. Above me, the tall waterfront buildings creaked and groaned, settling themselves in for their long crumbling journey into decay.

I used to feel as though I was waiting for something to happen, as though I could be rescued at any moment. I pulled myself through my days, moving from activity to activity, determined to fill up my hours until normal life was miraculously restored. Now I carry on for the simple reason that I am used to carrying on, because I am better at living than I am at dying. If I can’t see the point of going on like this, then it’s equally difficult to see the point of ending it. I eat, sleep, read, write, watch and wait until the stars come out, until darkness impales itself on one of the needle-sharp skyscrapers and oozes through the streets and alleys, until every tiny bit of this city is consumed.

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Photo credit

High School Redux

29 Apr

So a little while ago I blogged about how I absolutely, no-way, seriously was not going to my high school reunion.

I hated high school. Hated it. There was no fucking way that I was going to be talked into setting foot in that building again.

An old friend and I exchanged several emails coming up with long, detailed reasons for why we were going to miss the reunion.

Naturally, I ended up going.

A couple of notes about reunions:

1. If you blog about how you’re not going to your reunion, every one will spend all evening coming up to you and asking if you’re glad that you went after all. Not that I’m complaining about this – just mentioning, is all. You know, in case you were planning on emulating my life choices (note: I do not recommend this).

2. Everyone will tell you that you look exactly the same. This is meant as a compliment, although admittedly I didn’t initially take it as one. I mean, come on – the whole point of going to this reunion was to prove to people that I’m not the gross, ugly, greasy-skinned loser that I was in high school. But then I realized something – everyone is, in one way or another, an ugly loser in high school. I doubt that even the prettiest, most popular girls were immune from hating the way they looked. I also realized that, as hard as I was on myself back then, I didn’t look that bad.

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I mean, sad, angry and consumed with ennui, sure. Wearing an ill-fitting velour shirt, yes. But not exactly the horrific, Medusa-like creature I’ve been picturing all these years.

Anyway, in response to everyone who is absolutely dying to know whether or not I’m glad I went: Yes. I am.

That’s not to say that it wasn’t overwhelming, because it was. The first part of the reunion, which took place at the school itself, was especially tough. I feel like I spent a good chunk of the afternoon wearing my I’m-so-emotional-right-now-but-I’m-trying-hard-to-smile grimace, so if we ran into each other and I seemed flustered and weirdly toothy, that’s why. It was just a lot of people, and a lot of energy, and a lot of complicated feelings all at once, you know? And by “complicated” I mean “run the whole spectrum of emotions from great to achingly terrible.

The “great” moments include running into friends that I haven’t seen for years and years and spending hours starting every sentence with, “Hey, remember when?” For example: hey, remember when John Winter told the drama teacher on her last day at the school that she had a beautiful body and he wanted to make love to her? Remember how our mascot was Johnny Rebel, the Confederate soldier, and we had a Confederate flag hanging in our foyer, and NO ONE THOUGHT THIS WAS A PROBLEM UNTIL 1999? Remember every fucking crazy thing that Jason Baker ever did?

I was also super happy to be able to see a bunch of my old teachers, including my two favourite English teachers of all-time (one of whom occasionally reads this blog, YEAH, YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE). Some of my old teachers barely remembered me (or else didn’t remember me at all but faked it pretty convincingly), but most of them seemed glad to see me. One of them, a music teacher, took me aside later in the night and said that she was really, really happy to see that I was in a good place with my life, and that was kind of gratifying because it meant that at least one of my teachers had noticed how miserable I was back then.

Another high point was finding this extremely adorable (if I do say so myself) picture of me from when I was fourteen:

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This was from a writing “mystery tour” that happened in my first year of high school. It was a small group of students, and I was one of only three ninth graders invited along. They took us to various exotic locations around Waterloo Region (including the West Montrose Kissing Bridge and the boiler room of our high school), and at one point a photographer from the local newspaper showed up and took a picture of me sitting on a giant pile of tires behind Paleshi Motors in Elmira. The whole idea was that we were supposed to be inspired to write amazing things by all the places that we visited, and maybe that worked out for some people, but not me. Every word I wrote that day was terrible, and even as I was writing them, I knew they were terrible.

But you know what? My English teacher thought that I was a good writer, and that’s how I ended up being asked along on the trip. And now I look back at this picture and I think, Whoa, someone actually thought that I was a writer, and look, there’s me writing like a real gosh-darn writer lady.

Plus I am just super adorable. LOOK AT HOW SERIOUS MY FACE IS.

The less-than-great moments were watching the “documentary” that someone had made about the Integrated Arts Package and hearing people talk about how the program had absolutely, definitely, for-sure been a wonderful, life-altering experience. Because I guess the fact is that I’m jealous of those people, jealous in a gross, green-eyed-monster kind of way. I wanted to have been able to say that I, too, had come out of high school feeling brave and confident and talented. I wanted to be able to go on record saying that the Eastwood arts program was the best thing that had ever happened to me in my whole stupid life, but it wasn’t. The fact was that I couldn’t get my shit together, and not a whole lot of people there really seemed super interested in helping me get my shit together, and that was that. And, I mean, I did get my shit together later, and I have a great life now, and everything worked out fine, etc. It’s just that I feel sad that I missed out on this apparently amazing time that everyone else was having.

Except that not everyone else was having an amazing time – you just don’t find out until afterwards that pretty much everyone else was, in some way, miserable, too.

At one point on Saturday, while we were still at the school, I texted a friend and referred to Eastwood as the “pit of despair.” And like, I was kind of joking? But also kind of not?

I mean, I guess maybe that’s the thing – maybe high school is supposed to be a pit of despair, you know? Maybe that’s what these reunions are really about – reconnecting with people who went through this terrible, hormone-fuelled hell at the same time that you did. Maybe reunions are supposed to help you realize that everyone was so wrapped up in their own self-loathing that they had no time or energy to notice how much of a loser you were. Maybe you were fine all along and you just didn’t know it. Maybe.

Your high school classmates are like people that you lived with through a war, or a natural disaster, or some other awful event. You might not have a whole lot in common, and maybe they wouldn’t be the people that you’d pick as your friends if you were given a choice, but they understand something about you that not many other people do. Just the fact that you were able to push through and survive and make it out the other side with all of your faculties intact somehow binds you together, even if nothing else does.

I guess that one of the main things that I took away from the reunion was a realization that so many of these people would have been willing to be my friends, if only I’d let them. At the time I didn’t think that I was building walls and pushing people away from me, but of course I actually was. And I’m not saying oh God imagine what could have been, but still. I keep thinking about the part in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, when Francie graduates from the eighth grade and discovers to her astonishment that all of her classmates, none of whom were her friends, suddenly want to write in her yearbook and know what her summer plans are and where she’ll be going to high school:

“They’re nice,” Francie thought. “I could have been friends with them all the time. I thought they didn’t want to be friends. It must have been me that was wrong.”

I mean, I guess that’s the thing about walls, emotional or otherwise – they make excellent defences, but they can be isolating, too. If you’re smart enough, you’ll let the good people in and keep the bad ones out, but Jesus, who’s that smart? Especially when they’re fifteen?

I guess what I really want to say is this: high school. It fucking sucked, and maybe it didn’t have to. But it did, and that suckiness got me to where I am now.  And my life now is pretty sweet, so there’s not much point in regretting any of it, or feeling bitter about it. I mean, okay, maybe I still regret some stuff, but on the whole I’m a lot more at peace with everything. And that’s pretty cool.

My only disappointment with the reunion was that they didn’t play this song:

Because you know what? I would have fucking nailed it.

On Wanting

22 Apr

I.

The problem is wanting.

Sometimes I think that the trick to living a happy life is to stop wanting things. If only you could not want anything, not even happiness, then you could be happy. But then you end up wanting to not-want, which is maybe one of the weirdest paradoxes ever. How does one achieve a state of not-wanting? I could probably ask one of the many pseudo-Buddhist white ladies that I know, but to be honest, I’m not sure that they’d have a good answer. They’d just tell me to maybe read the Bhagavad Gita and then meditate, but I’ve already done both of those things, and no dice.

The main problem with wanting is that sometimes you actually get what you want, and in some weird way that actually feels worse than not getting it. Like, what if you get what you want and then you’re still sad? What if you get what you want and it just doesn’t feel as good as you thought it would? Do you then A) start wanting something else or B) actually try confront your existential sadness crisis, since it seemingly cannot be solved by fame or love or material objects?

I guess that choosing option A is how capitalism works. You want and want and want but then nothing is ever enough so then you want some more, and then everybody makes money off of each other or whatever.

II.

I wanted a kid because I thought that having one would be like taking on a massive, life-long project. I liked the idea of being able to shape a person. I thought that if I just knew the right things to teach my kid, then he would end up being an artistic, scientific super-genius. Honestly, though, I don’t know why I believed that I was the type of person who knew all of the right things to teach my kid, but I thought that probably I could just learn from all the mistakes that I’ve made in trying to be a good human being. Then if I taught him to do all of the opposite things to what I did, probably he would turn out perfect.

It’s weird having a kid. Like, one day you’re just sitting in the hospital, minding your own business, when suddenly you’re handed this little bundle of raw potential. And you’re supposed teach this totally empty, blank little creature about how to live in the world, but the truth is that you don’t even know how to live in the world, so how can you act as a reliable compass for someone who can’t even hold up their own head?

How do I explain all of the arbitrary rules of life to him? Like, when I make dinner but he doesn’t want to eat his dinner because he’s still playing, what reasonable basis do I have for saying that my desire trumps his? Because I’m bigger? Because I earn the money that keeps him fed and clothed and housed? Because I can pick him up and carry him over to the table and force him to sit down in his chair?

I mean, the real reason is, of course, because his still-developing brain lacks the necessary critical thinking skills that he needs in order to competently make decisions for himself. If it were up to him, we would play with his train set all day, pausing only to eat cupcakes, and never go to bed. Which would be fine, if no one ever had to worry about going to work, or paying rent, or getting scurvy.

But I guess that what I really need to know is how I am supposed to train him to be a polite, conscientious, productive member of society without sucking all the joy out of him. He has all of these things that he thinks would be fun or good to do, things that seem perfectly natural to him, and here I am telling him to ignore all of his spontaneous wants.

Like, how do I teach him not to burp at the table or play with his food or splash in the bath without making him second-guess his every want or desire? On the other hand, I can’t send a kid to school who thinks that, for example, throwing toys or saying rude things are acceptable behaviour. And while, yes, all kids burp and fart and think that it’s hilarious, probably those aren’t things that future employers are looking for. But do I want to raise a kid who is exactly what future employers are looking for?

Where do you draw the line?

Maybe raising a kid is really just about teaching them to want the right things? But who gets to decide what’s “right”?

III.

Whenever I meet someone and they ask what I do for a living, I say that I’m a yoga teacher. Then I pause and say that I’m also a freelance writer (I think the word “freelance” makes it seem more legitimate, although to be honest most of what I do is blog about my stupid life).

Then, as soon as I say the word writer, I stop talking and gauge the other person’s reaction.

Because when I tell someone that I’m a writer, what I’m really doing is asking, Do you think that I’m a writer?

And then depending on how they respond, I think that they’ve either said yes or no.

I have no issues calling myself a yoga teacher, because I paid $5,000 and spent a year learning how to teach. I even have a certificate with my name on it that tells everyone that I’m a yoga teacher. I don’t have any certificates that tell people that I’m a writer. I don’t even know what the criteria for being a writer are. According to some people, it’s being published. According to others, it’s being paid to be published. And then some folks think that if you write, no matter whether you write for an audience or not, well, then, you’re a writer. But if you go by that logic, then isn’t everyone a writer? I mean, wouldn’t you consider anyone who’s ever made a grocery list or left a note for someone or sent a quick email to be a writer?

The problem is that I want so badly to be a writer.

IV.

How would you even live a life without wanting anything? How would you ever get up in the morning, or go to work, or write a blog post about want?

Why would you ever procreate if you didn’t want a hilarious, incontinent, miniature version of yourself?

How boring would it be to eat food just because it kept you alive and not because you loved the taste and smell and the satisfaction of filling your stomach? How awful would it be to get dressed just to protect your body from the elements and not because you love the colour, fabric, texture or cut of what you’re wearing? How sad would be it be to have a kid just because you feel as if you’re under some kind of obligation to perpetuate the human race, and not because you wanted a sweet, stinky little bundle of wriggly joy?

What kind of a life would you live if you did things only because you had to and not because you wanted to?

And if you were to get rid of that want, what would fill you up instead? How would you spend your days? Would the absence of want truly make you happy? Or would it just make you feel emptier?

I don’t really have any answers, so I apologize if you’ve made it this far and thought that you were going to have some kind of epiphany. I’m not very good at epiphanies, anyway. I don’t think I’ve had one since I was about eighteen, and even then, it was kind of a pitiful epiphany, to be honest.

I do think that it’s important to find the balance between wanting and not-wanting, and I think that it’s hard not to fall into any of the tricky traps that desire sets up for you, and I think that a lot of the times our wants set us up for misery.

I’m just not sure how to find that balance.

vintage-beautiful-womanhood-magazine

13 Ways To Survive A Hangover

12 Apr

1. Stay in bed. Hunker down under the covers. Read Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? and highlight the passages that you feel specifically apply to your life. Eat too many cookies. Let your cat lick your face clean, but stop her when she tries to groom your eyebrows.

2. Practice your humble-yet-flattered face in the mirror. Smile with genuine warmth, but look down bashfully. Shrug nonchalantly and say thank you, then quickly change the subject. Remind yourself that this is what you should be doing when people compliment you, instead of rolling your eyes and making a self-deprecating joke.

3. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t turn on the news. Don’t read any articles whose headlines contain the words government, statistics or attachment parenting

4. Make a list of potential titles for the memoir that you might someday write, e.g. My Heart Is An Autumn Garage, Everything Is Overrated, or The Blunder Years. Wonder why no one appreciates your clever Salinger references or your hilarious puns.

5. Write a letter to Simone de Beauvoir that begins,

Dear Simone, 

I wish you were still alive so that you could teach me to do my hair like yours. You always looked great.

Listen, I’m sorry Camus was such a dick to you, but let’s be honest, between him and Sartre, he was the better writer.

6. Look at pictures of baby otters:

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Or else this picture of a kitten cuddling a potato:

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7. Make a list of underused words that you love, and pledge to include them more often in your everyday vocabulary. These words might include bivouack, erstwhile, mawkish, hullaballoo, skullduggery, caterwaul, quotidian, skedaddle, peripatetic, zeitgeist.

8. Resist the urge to think about the future, dissect your failings or re-evaluate your life choices.

9. Invite your sister over. Drink fancy tea together. Watch Stand By Me and discuss what it would be like to a) live in 1950s America, b) have testicles, and c) discover a giant leech attached to said testicles.

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10. Allow yourself wallow in whatever form of misery you currently feel like indulging in, for example self-pity, hopelessness or despair. Sure, your pain is self-inflicted, wallowing won’t help anybody, and you should just buck up and do something productive, but let’s be honest: that’s not going to happen today. And giving yourself permission to feel like crap is better than being angry at yourself for feeling bad, and also still feeling bad.

11. Hide your favourite pants, which now smell of gin, olives and regret, at the bottom of the laundry basket so that you don’t have to gag every time you walk by them.

12. Read your old journals. Marvel that your twenty-year-old self wrote the following:

This is the kind of love where you can be sitting watching a movie with someone and look over at them only to find them looking back at you, and you know in that instant that they were going to say exactly what you were going to say, so that in the end no actual words have to be exchanged. Maybe it’s not the most exciting kind of love, but sometimes it’s all that we’ve got.

And this:

If you can’t make it good or beautiful, at least make it interesting.

And this:

I’m lonely here, and I’m not tough enough for this neighbourhood – its inhabitants can see right through my translucent skin to my uncertain heart.

13. Swear that you will never, ever drink again.

Desert Island Books

5 Apr

The funny thing is that you’re very rarely enough of anything for anyone.

When I write about radical-lady-type-stuff, I’m always too feminist for some people, and not feminist enough for others.

When I get worked about something, I’m always too outspoken for some, and not outspoken enough for others.

When I wrote that post about Easter, I was, according to commenters, either too Christian or else too atheist.

A few commenters even wondered if I was a pantheist, the thought of which sent me scrambling to my bookcase, scanning the shelves until I finally found Ann-Marie McDonald’s Fall On Your Knees.

I flipped to the end of the book, the section that’s an excerpt of Kathleen’s diary, and, after re-reading all of her love scenes with Rose, found the passage I was looking for:

O Diary. My loyal friend. There is love, there is music, there is no limit, there is work, there is the precious sense that this is the hour of grace when all things gather and distil to create the rest of my life. I don’t believe in God, I believe in everything. And I am amazed at how blessed I am.

That’s the kind of paragraph that makes me want to take a long drag on a cigarette, exhale the smoke oh-so-slowly , and mutter, Yes, yes, exactly, yes.

 Fall On Your Knees was my favourite book when I was a teenager. I mean, Jesus, what’s not to love about it? It’s a huge, generation-spanning Canadian epic that takes place in early 20th century Cape Breton (NOVA SCOTIA REPRESENT) and jazz-age New York. The writing is teeth-achingly beautiful, not to mention clever, funny and smart as hell. The characters are brilliant, multi-faceted and all that other good stuff that actual literary-type people say in actual book reviews; in fact, I think that my first ever girl-crush was on Frances Piper.

When I was in university, I had the chance to go see Ann-Marie McDonald give a reading from her latest, The Way The Crow Flies. She was gorgeous and articulate and funny (naturally), and I was totally smitten. Afterwards, I got the chance to meet her and have her sign my copy of Fall On Your Knees. I felt like I was meeting a movie star; my palms were sweaty, my mouth was dry, my chest felt tight. I felt light-headed, and kept having to remind myself to breathe.

When I made it to the head of the line and she asked me my name, I somehow managed to squeak out that her book had really been important to me. I knew that it was going to sound stupid and trite before I even said it, but I didn’t know what else I could say. Here was this person who had strung together the loveliest, smartest, best words possible to create an absolutely perfect story, one that I could disappear into any time that I needed a break from the real world. I wanted to tell her everything that I loved about her book, from why Frances was my favourite character all the way to how her brief mention of Nova Scotia’s Africville had spawned an hour-long conversation with my grandmother about Halifax’s racial landscape.

But how was I supposed to do that with the auditorium lights shining in my face as if I were being questioned for a crime I hadn’t committed? How was I supposed to tell her all this with my clumsy tongue and my woefully inadequate vocabulary?

So I told her that it was important. And she smiled and thanked me and scrawled For Anne, From Ann-Marie McDonald inside the front cover of my book. Afraid that I might embarrass myself, I hurried away, stumbled down the steps, and, while walking home, thought up a million brilliantly witty remarks that I could have made to McDonald if only I’d had the wherewithal.

(Hint: I very rarely have any wherewithal whatsoever)

All of which is to say – oh my dear sweet Jesus I love books so fucking much.

I love reading books, I love buying books, I love writing about books and I love talking about books.

So with that in mind, I asked you guys what your all-time favourite, desert-island books were.

Here’s what you had to say:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

In The Time Of The Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

The Long Walk by Richard Bachmann/Stephen King

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Oz series by Frank L. Baum

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

Summer Sisters by Judy Blume

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

The Master And Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino

Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Claudine series by Colette

Little, Big by John Crowley

The Alchemist by Paulo Cuelho

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

The Devil’s Teardrop by Jeffery Deaver

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

Wyrm by Mark Fabi

The Refugee Summer by Edward Fenton

Headhunter by Timothy Findley

White Oleander by Janet Fitch

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Neuromancer by William Gibson

China Court: The Hours Of A Country House by Rumer Godden

Memoirs Of A Geisha by Arthur Golden

Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky by Patrick Hamilton

The Hottest State by Ethan Hawke

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein

Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Dune series by Frank Herbert

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving

Winter Of Fire by Sherryl Jordan

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

It by Stephen King

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb

Operating Instructions: A Journal Of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott

Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon

Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie McDonald

If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Fool by Christopher Moore

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Apathy And Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan

The Good Mayor by Andrew Nicoll

Popular Music From Vittula by Mikael Niemi

1984 by George Orwell

Down And Out In Paris And London by George Orwell

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

A Catskill Eagle by Robert B. Parker

Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman

The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds

Skinny Legs And All by Tom Robbins

Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

Harry Potter series, specifically The Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling

The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

Franny And Zooey by J.D. Salinger

The Cat In The Hat by Dr. Seuss

Love Is A Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

There’s A Girl In My Hammerlock by Jerry Spinelli

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

To A God Unknown by John Steinbeck

The Log From The Sea Of Cortez by John Steinbeck

The Eagle Of The Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Queen Elizabeth Story by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Mary Poppins series by P.L. Travers

The Making Of A Psychiatrist by David Viscott

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

A Room Of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments, and I will add them to the list!

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An Open Letter To My Son

4 Apr

You.

Sometimes I wonder about you.

I wonder, for instance, where you came from. I understand the dry facts, of course, the complex mechanics of ovulation and ejaculation. I understand how cells divide, and then divide again, their numbers growing exponentially as seconds tick by. I know a thing or two about gametes and zygotes and embryos.

What I don’t understand is how all of that made you.

The facts of your existence seem like they would be better explained by alchemy rather than biology. We made you out of nothing, or rather, we made you out of two randomly-selected bits of genetic code that we unintentionally sent slamming into each other deep in the darkest recesses of my body. And out of those tangled strands of DNA grew you, incredible, beautiful you, with your father’s blue eyes and my heart-shaped mouth.

It feels more like magic than science, really.

I don’t know that I believe in souls, but I do know that I have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that there is now an entirely new, unique human being on this planet who has never been here before.

And I wonder how I managed to carry you for eight months inside of me without somehow fucking it up. I mean, this is me we’re talking about here – the person who is totally incompetent when it comes to the most mundane, run-of-the-mill tasks. I can’t swim or drive a car or even whistle properly, for God’s sake, but somehow I made an entire kid from scratch? How does that even work?

I’ve spent two years watching you unfold from a scrunched up, red-faced, newborn cipher into something that’s starting to bear a remarkable resemblance to a human being. You walk, you talk, you have feelings. You have preferences, even, very specific likes and dislikes that seem totally arbitrary to me. You have a sense of humour. You make jokes, on purpose, just to make me laugh.

You tell me that you love me and I wonder what you think that word means. At thirty, I’m still getting a handle on all of the possible interpretations of love, all of the implications and connotations that it might bring with it. I’ve learned to use the word cautiously, sparingly, oh-so-carefully, because those four innocent letters can be so incredibly loaded with meaning. But you, what do you know about meaning? You don’t know anything, or at least certainly not enough to overthink things the way I do; you just love me.

And oh God I love you so much. So fucking much.

And I wonder, how on earth do I protect you? How do I keep you safe?

Like some poor, naïve fairytale mother, I’m trying to help you navigate your way through a forest that’s by turns enchanted and haunted. The path is familiar, as if I walked it once years ago, but different, too; overgrown and seemingly impassable in some parts, and unexpectedly clear in others. And as we pick our way through the undergrowth, as we do our best not to trip on twisted roots and sharp stones, I try to remember the lessons I’ve learned from all folktales I used to know.

For example, I won’t make the mistake that Sleeping Beauty’s parents did when sending out invitations to her christening. Unlike them, I’ll be sure to invite the dark fairy godmothers as well as the good ones, because I know that they’ll come anyway, slipping in through back doors and lurking in corners where you least expect them. I’ll let them give you their murky gifts in broad daylight, so that I can look them in the eye while they do so. Then I’ll smile and thank them, recognizing that I have to let life give you the bad as well as the good.

And when I send you out into the world alone, as I know that I will someday have to, I’ll give you something more substantial than bread crumbs with which to find your way back home.

And I won’t make you go to your grandmother’s house alone until I can be sure that you can tell the difference between an old woman and a wolf in a nightgown.

I look at you and wonder what will happen once I’m not there to navigate this forest path with you. I wonder what trolls and goblins and clever tricksters you’ll have to face. Will your monsters look anything like mine?

I wonder what else I’ve passed on to you, along with the shape of my eyes, my love of books, and my brilliantly trenchant wit. What ticking little genetic time bombs lie dormant inside of you? My anxiety? My depression? The weird nail on my right big toe that turns black and falls off every winter?

If and when these things surface, what will I do?

Will I even be able to help you?

And how will I teach you about a world in which you, a white, middle class boy, will have more privilege than most?

And how do I teach you that it’s your job, among other things, to give a hand up to those less privileged than you, when everything else around you will seem to be telling you to grab whatever you can and run with it?

And how do I teach you that you’re allowed to cry, that you’re allowed to feel afraid or weak or inadequate?

How I do I help you decode all of the toxic messages that the world will try to shove down your throat?

What I want for you most of all is a place of safety. I want our home to be a place where you feel safe making mistakes, a place where you have a healthy respect for but never a fear of consequences. I want you to feel safe being yourself, whoever that is. And above all, when you’re out there, alone and afraid, I want you to know that you always have a safe place to come back to.

I will always love you, no matter what.

Photo by Diana Nazareth http://www.diananazareth.com

Photo by Diana Nazareth http://www.diananazareth.com