#TenYears of Reusable Produce Bags

About ten years ago, I sewed a bunch of really ugly produce bags:

Look at the upper right side: the photo comes with its own verdict…EEK!

I wrote a painfully long-winded post about these bags shortly after I started this blog, in which I explained that one day I didn’t see plastic produce bags, and the next day I did.

So: I searched my fabric box and chose the most lightweight material I could find—a length of hideous curtain lace that my mother-in-law had probably bought on clearance and kept for a dozen years, before de-stashing and re-homing with her too-kind-to-say-no daughter-in-law, who—probably five years later—did the merciful thing (because fabric wants to be useful) and whipped up some reusable produce bags.

My children—especially my daughter—were horrified.

Why—WHY?!—do you have to be so weird, and NO, I am NOT going to take one of these bags and put apples into it, thankyouverymuch, because we are in PUBLIC (!) and who knows WHO might see us here, and . . .

(Ah, such happy memories . . .)

Ten-ish years later—ten-ish years during which I wore my children down and they willingly participated in my madness and I saved approximately 2000 plastic produce bags and my daughter got her own set of reusable produce bags (non-hideous ones which I bought for her stocking two Christmases ago)—my daughter goes shopping in a new zero-waste bulk store in the city in which she lives, and she texts me this photo:

EEEEKKKKK!!!!

Oh my. I think I will. (And I think I have to email the woman behind allthingspreserved.ca, so I can learn the story behind her produce bags.)

This post is a positive offering for the Ten Year challenges that are swirling around on Facebook and Instagram. So many of the pictures are so disheartening, but there are also so many positive things happening, especially in the zero-waste movement.

Zero-waste stores seem to be popping up everywhere—we even now have a tiny store, in the very small and not especially forward-thinking city in which we’re currently planted, a place where I can get bulk dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, and toothpaste. And while I know (I know!) that 2000 plastic produce bags saved—or two shampoo bottles, or three dish soap containers—won’t save the world, I can’t help but see all these little things as gateways: little things that can lead to other little things that can lead to bigger things, that can lead us from simple addition all the way to multiplication. Ripples to waves, in other words.

In other ten-year news, it’s ten-ish years since my daughter pushed her pork chop away and declared herself a vegetarian.

My children—especially my daughter—were horrified. Her parents—especially her mother—were horrified.

Why—WHY?!—do you have to be so weird, and NO, I am NOT going to take one of these bags and put apples into it, thankyouverymuch, because we are in PUBLIC (!) and who knows WHO might see us here, and . . . Why—WHY?!—do you have to be so difficult, and NO, I am NOT going to be cooking separate meals for you, thankyouverymuch, because that is doubling my work in the kitchen, and . . .

Ten-ish years later—ten-ish years during which she stuck to her guns and her little brother joined her and I learned even more about cooking and I gave up processed food and we all fully joined her and Oh She Glows became my Bible and her father went down two pant sizes—Health Canada ignored industry pressure and released a new food guide, which recommends a mostly plant-based diet.

Just to be clear: There’s is no connection whatsoever between my daughter becoming vegetarian and Health Canada releasing its new food guide.

There’s only this: Ten years will pass no matter what. And when we come upon new ideas or are faced with new realities, we have two choices: We can flat-out refuse to go or be pulled along protestingly, or, we can open our hearts and minds to new ways of doing and seeing. And if we open our hearts and minds, we might just be very surprised—and grateful—to see where we end up ten years later.

Primum Non Nocere — First, Do No Harm: A Resolution for 2019

This past summer, my husband and 13-year-old son and I went to the Montreal Science Centre and spent quite a lot of time in the Human exhibit, playing God with an interactive evolutionary tree.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take a picture, but I found this in an old textbook:

A phylogenetic (evolutionary) tree from Helena Curtis’ Biology, Fourth Edition, p.378 (Worth Publishers, New York 1983).

The virtual tree at the Science Centre was incredibly complex, with branches upon branches upon branches. We could zoom down through millennia in order to see the relationships, but we could also—mwah-ha-ha—wreak havoc: at a touch, we could chop off limbs, sever branches, prune twigs…we could cause entire species to be wiped off the screen.

It was shortly after our trip that I recalled this bit of family history:

My great-grandmother’s first husband was a fisherman who was lost at sea. After the requisite time frame of not-knowing had passed (7 years? 13 years? my mother cannot recall) my great-grandmother got married again, this time to my great-grandfather.

My great-grandparents had several children, many of whom died in infancy or early childhood. The youngest—my grandfather—lived, grew up, and got married. He and my grandmother had five children. Their middle child—my mother—contracted polio at age two. The branch that I was to be on nearly withered at that point, but no, my mother lived. She emigrated from The Netherlands and met a man who had survived a gunshot wound to the leg and a WWII work camp. They had a son, and then a daughter, and because one of each was enough for my father, no one else was born.

At 18, I somehow found myself in a university chemistry lecture. I met a girl who had met a boy who had (years before) met a boy, and because I met that second boy, the tree grew: a daughter was born.

A son was born.

A life was miscarried.

But the loss of that branch meant another got a chance to live—a child who played God with me this summer on the interactive evolutionary tree at the Science Centre in Montreal.

There’s something both humbling and fantastical about the evolutionary tree.

Each and every one of us is the culmination of a line that stretches—completely unbroken—to the beginning of time, billions of years ago. All of us have ancestors who found shelter, foraged edible food, and avoided becoming prey—at least until the time they bore offspring.

It would be easy to imagine that those unbroken lines make us special. It would be easy to believe we’re the ones who are *supposed* to be here.

But of course, the fact that we’re here is merely the luck of the draw.

It’s one man—but not another—lost at sea.

It’s a bit of wind that caught at an arrow. It’s a lost scent, a left turn, a—

(It was a literary stringing-together that my anxiety told me was tempting fate; you get the idea, I’m sure.)

To an over-thinker with anxiety, this trail of thoughts can quickly become debilitating. Not only can you almost start to convince yourself that you can make paths happen, you can also quite easily get pulled under by the weight of responsibility. After all, the last thing an anxious, highly sensitive person wants is to be another creature’s arrow or poison or storm-tossed sea.

Or straw…

Have you seen this video, the one that went viral, the one of the sea turtle that had a straw stuck up its nose, the one that sparked the Ban the Straw movement? I confess I couldn’t bear to watch more than ten seconds of it, but even that small glimpse gave me a visceral two-fold response:

First, wrenching heartache for the suffering of the turtle.

And then, sickening guilt.

Was that MY straw?

(Ah, guilt. My constant companion. And I’m not even Catholic.)

I have, in the past (not often—perhaps only less than a handful of times—but yes, I have done this) precariously placed cups-and-straws on the tops of almost-overflowing bins and told myself that this was ok. After all, the garbage truck would be along momentarily, wouldn’t it? How was I to know the wind would blow and scatter things? How was I to know all streets lead to waterways and all waterways lead to oceans and all oceans lead to turtleswhalesdolphinssharksfish?

We used to have the luxury of being blissfully unaware of our actions.

But that blissful unawareness is no longer possible. It now either takes work—a determined looking-away—or it takes a hard-headed heartlessness that’s born from— well, to be honest, I don’t know what it’s born from. Privilege? Exhaustion? Hopelessness? Complete asshole-ness?

Years ago, when I belonged to the classics book club at my local Barnes and Noble bookstore, the employee who was the book club leader said (referring to something I can no longer remember), “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

So many of the problems we face seem insurmountable and systemic and way-too-big for individual action. And we can argue about whose fault it is and whose responsibility it is—corporations or individuals—until the cows come home. We can also talk about convenience, and time, and work, and wants versus needs. But all of that clouds the fact that we all possess some power.

And in thinking about all of this—in my constant wondering why it is that some people see everything and some people bag bananas (because those two things are opposites, right?)—I was reminded of the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take after graduating from medical school.

I was going to tie all my thoughts together and find some way to say, Hey, how about for 2019 we all make like we’re doctors? Unfortunately for this blog post, Wikipedia tells us that “do no harm” is actually not part of the Hippocratic Oath.

And I had just reconciled myself to adding yet-another post to my growing file of drafts that never get published, when this CBC Sunday Edition episode on Samuel Beckett handed me a ribbon with which I could tie together my thoughts.

Samuel Beckett, playwright and novelist and author of the famous quote Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better (a quote that’s been taken out of context and spun in an entirely different direction than he intended), also said this:

It is so much simpler to be hurt than to hurt.

Yes. There it is: I would rather be hurt—be inconvenienced, be small, be limited, be simple, be quiet—than to hurt.

And maybe that sounds bad.

Maybe it sounds like I’m advocating for martyrdom.

But here’s the thing: Despite the fact that society tells us otherwise, inconvenience and smallness and limits and simplicity and quiet are not actually hurtful things. They’re the things that can expand us—they can breed creativity and thoughtfulness and meaning and purpose and health.

The title of this post, and the promise of a resolution for 2019, is perhaps a bit of a red herring. I have no resolutions for 2019. I only have continuations:

  • I will continue to keep my eyes open
  • I will continue to try to live as responsibly as I can
  • I will continue to seek ways to do less harm

If you’ve been here awhile you know that this blog is where you’ll find plenty of why-to but not a heckuva lot of how-to. So many people do the whole how-to thing so well—and the last thing I want is to contribute yet-more noise to the internet—but maybe my next post should be a list of all the ways I try to do less harm…or maybe it would be nice to talk books for a change. I just finished An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim. Next up will be The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, by Dan Egan, and then Samuel Beckett’s Molloy.

Any resolutions for you?

Like a Dog With a Bone…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about courage, about what it takes to keep going even when things get difficult.

As many of you know, I’m like a dog with a bone when it comes to environmental issues. And because I believe in the maxim, Think globally, but act locally, I’ve been trying my best to effect change at my community level.

I’ve been:

  • plalking — picking up plastic garbage while walking (similar to plogging, but slower-paced)
  • pleaking — speaking up (politely, despite my inner seething) about egregious plastic use (bottles, bags, utensils, straws…)
  • pliting — writing far-too-earnest emails to principals and PTO parents who simply do.not.get.it.

The first (plalking) is easy: just remember to bring a bag, because otherwise your hands will become too full and you’ll have to leave stuff behind.

The pleaking and pliting are much harder.

I’m not trying to ruin a cashier’s day (I swear I’m not), but why (WHY?!) does a customer need her spool of thread bagged (in a minuscule this-bag-will-never-be-useful-for-anything-else-and-will-be-immediately-garbaged type of bag) when she has a GINORMOUS purse slung about her body? Why can people just not see these things?!

And the pliting…good god, the pliting…

The pliting is the (main) reason for the radio silence on this blog.

It seems I spoke too soon when I talked about the success I had had when I advocated for change during PTO meetings this past fall. Indeed, my efforts to raise awareness of environmental issues at my 13-year-old son’s school have gone south in a stellar, shit-hitting-the-fan, okay-that’s-it-I’M-DONE kind of way.

Except…

After calming down…

I’ve decided I’m not.

Done, that is.

I refuse to be done.

Because sometimes things are just too fucking important.

So I’m going back. I will keep trying. I will speak, even though I will be sick with anxiety, even though I feel abandoned by an ally who has seemingly given up, even though I feel intimidated and unwelcome, even though I have little hope of succeeding, even though it seems no one else cares.

I’m telling myself this dog-with-a-bone refusal-to-give-up is what courage looks like. And I’m telling myself I have no choice but to keep at it. My children are watching, after all. My 13-year-old son, who painted the Keep Calm and Carry On sign that sits in my kitchen. My 19-year-old-son, who when he heard the saga, told me I should take it to the board. My 21-year-old daughter, who wants to make it her life’s work to look after the environment, who told me she now looks at pregnant women and wonders, How? How can you possibly think to bring a baby into a world like this? (The hope of a deep-thinking/all-seeing child/adult is a fragile and heart-wrenching thing.) And I’m telling myself I have to do this for other people’s children as well. For the many children in my son’s school who plastered the halls with hand-drawn and coloured posters prior to Earth Day. Because even if their parents don’t seem to care, they should know that other adults do, and that despite the odds, these other adults will keep trying.

—ing

It’s been a tough few weeks, with anxiety over the state of, well, everything, once again wreaking havoc, so I’m going with my “usual” I’d-like-to-post-but-am-feeling-rather-stuckish-and-maybe-this-will-get-the-ball-rolling-once-again kind of post:

Walking: My streak of early morning walking-on-the-treadmill now stands at an uninterrupted 255 days. Moderation is clearly not my thing, and the phrase Once Is A Habit (which got me going) has worked wonders at keeping me going. (Even when I woke up feeling decidedly flu-ish on Christmas morning, I STILL walked, a bucket set on the floor beside me, just in case…)

Reading: Making my way through Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (for the third time). Since Christmas, I’ve read The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott and The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn. I loved both of them. Next up will be Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, because this introvert needs all the encouragement she can get.

Borrowing: Asterix comic books from the library for my 12-year-old son. We currently have 25 volumes checked out. As they’re $13 each, I’m enormously grateful for public libraries.

Watching: Glitch, Death In Paradise, this TED Talk on the gift and power of emotional courage (and the tyranny of forced positivism), and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power.

Agreeing: Forced positivism sucks. Can we please stop pushing happiness and belittling ourselves and others for having normal but “bad” emotions? And: Al Gore gets quite hot-under-the-collar in An Inconvenient Sequel. I can empathize…

Acknowledging: Clothes make the man. Or the woman. After years of *needing to*, both my husband and I bought new winter coats this fall: a classic black woollen coat for him; a classic black woollen coat for me. We both look and feel like grown-ups now. It’s rather a nice feeling and we don’t want winter to end.

Knitting: Scarves to tuck into the V of my double-breasted coat. Socks are always on the needles, and I finally bought yarn and began knitting this sweater.

Darning: My daughter’s favourite pair of cross-country skiing mittens. Knit by me years ago, they’ve been darned at least twice before (by me), and once by her boyfriend’s grandmother, who just happened to see a hole in the thumb as they were hanging to dry at their cabin. Although my latest fix would have looked neater had I cut away her boyfriend’s grandmother’s darning, I’m a person who finds metaphor in stitches, and I simply could not bring myself to do it.

Cooking: Why do we only eat Indian food nowadays, Mum?  This from my 12-year-old son. It’s not entirely accurate, but yes, I can see his point. My answer: Um, because it’s so damn good…and because I’m in a rut and completely lack the gumption to seek out new recipes…?

Approximating: Taking my no-longer-vegetarian 19-year-old son’s request for butter chicken and naan bread and completely bastardizing the meal: omitting both the butter and the chicken and healthy-ing-up a flatbread recipe by adding whole wheat flour. I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that I am NOT to proclaim to friends who hail from India that I have cooked butter chicken and naan bread.

Buying: Fenugreek from Amazon because I can’t find it locally in our small city. This will allow me to *finally* make something from the cookbook I bought my husband for Christmas (Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen), which will expand our repertoire but will only make matters worse for both sons.

Tweaking: I need to add bamboo toothbrushes to that Amazon order. I’m looking for even more ways to reduce our consumption of plastic. I was hoping to find vats of eco-friendly laundry detergent and dish soap at Bulk Barn so I could bring in my containers and go zero-waste with these two items, but unfortunately, they don’t stock either. This means I need to look up recipes for laundry detergent…

Baking: I’m trying to get back to the regular baking of bread. My favourite recipe is the peasant french bread from The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book. It makes a delicious couple of whole grain loaves and helps with my goal of plastic-reduction.

Listening: My new favourite band is The Decemberists, discovered when driving with my 19-year-old son. Love The Wrong Year, A Beginning Song, Make You Better, Don’t Carry It All.

Podcasting: Not making, just listening. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text (the deep-thinking, humanistic production I cannot seem to stop raving about). They’re currently making their way through The Goblet of Fire, and it’s both lovely and spooky that each episode seems to somehow address the very things I’m pondering.

Wondering: Whether it’s okay for me to bring up the fact that I’m wondering about all the outrage that’s been expressed over the news that an adopted pig ended up on the dinner table. Why is it that some animals are worthy of protection but millions of others are not?

Editing: I removed a 300-word rant about wanting to let loose and lecture someone about egregious plastic bag use. (Yup, I was *this close* to causing a scene in a store last week.) Perhaps this will become a post all on its own. Perhaps it’s best if it doesn’t…


Do share: tell me what you’re —ing these days…the good, the bad, the ugly; it’s all allowed here…

Honesty and Accuracy and Connections

The new goal: to keep this recycling bin from filling up…

I mentioned in my last post that I recently went to a PTO meeting and spoke up, suggesting some changes to the annual March school dance. I also mentioned that I then went on to ask — entirely without forethought — whether or not anyone else had heard the news that China was going to be refusing to take Canada’s recycling.

So I don’t know if you also caught this bit of news (because it’s not just Canada’s recycling that China is refusing; it’s the world’s recycling), nor do I know what your reaction was upon hearing this news —

(yes, that’s an invitation: please, do tell. Perhaps it didn’t come as news to you at all; perhaps you already knew … ?)

— but my reaction entirely explains why that Have you heard?!?! question popped out, completely unbidden, revealing the fact that I was still reeling, days after hearing about it. My reaction, you see, had not been a calm and reasoned, Oh well! Canada will simply have to explore other markets for its recycling…

No, dear reader.

My reaction was, rather, an incredulous and curse-laden, WTAF?! Our recycling has been going to China?!?!?!?!

Which then progressed to anger: How can it possibly BE, that our recycling has been going to China?! Are they *actually* telling us that our recycling has been put on ships and, well, SHIPPED (?!?!?!) halfway around the world?!?!?!?

Which then led to the damning question: HOW is it possible that I DID NOT KNOW that this was happening?!?!?!?!

That’s one helluva lot of interrobangs, you might be saying to yourself.

That’s because this level of flabbergastation REQUIRES the use of that many interrobangs.

I feel, quite honestly, as if I’ve been lied to. Or if not lied to, precisely (because that presumes intent), then at the very least hoodwinked, misled, encouraged-to-look-away-and-not-question.

I’ve known for a long time that the three Rs — reduce, reuse, recycle — are arranged in their particular order for a very good reason. The most important thing that one can do, after all, is to reduce their consumption. The next best thing one can do is to reuse, if at all possible. The last resort is to recycle, because while recycling does indeed divert stuff from landfills, it requires energy to recycle.

So yes, I have known all that for a very long time, and have been trying my damnedest to reduce (just ask my family, who, incidentally, have a very unflattering nickname for me, one that is entirely based off this hellbent mission I’m on to reduce reduce reduce), as well as to reuse (and here, the farmers I’ve pestered — insisting they stuff their carrots into my bread bags — will roll their eyes and sigh vouch for me and agree that I’ve been trying my best) …

But.

While I’ve been busy reducing and reusing wherever possible, I’ve continued to be a staunch believer in recycling. I’ve been recycling diligently since I was a child, even going so far as to bring our recycling to a depot (when we lived in an apartment and didn’t have pick-up), all the while thinking it was a Good Thing To Be Doing.

And now … now I see that the truth (The Whole Unvarnished Truth) has been quietly withheld, not just from me (or IS it just me who didn’t know this?), but from all of us.

Seeing this — and putting this together with some conversations I’ve had over the last few weeks — has caused me to reflect on what it means to be honest and what it means to be accurate, as well as to consider the deeper question of why it is that some of us are able and/or willing to make those honest and accurate connections, to possess the wherewithal to have that first inkling-of-a-thought that leads us to actively entertain the possibility that there might just be something more lurking underneath the slick surface, even when the underlying Whole Unvarnished Truth turns out to be inconvenient or flinchingly uncomfortable.

Because I’ve been feeling that most of my posts are far too wordy, I’m going to leave this one here, but with a promissory To Be Continued … I’ve started a running list of topics that not only fit in with the themes of honesty and accuracy and connection, but also seem to mesh with my wish to share more stories…

Stuffing In The Stories. And Being A Person This Was Not Lost On.

(MAJOR snark alert … )

Last Monday evening, after the PTO meeting wound up —

Because yes, dear reader, this quaking-in-her-boots introvert went to another PTO meeting.

I raised my hand and — my voice tight and quavering — spoke:

“I have a really out-there suggestion,” I began. “The annual school dance that’s coming up in March … ? Well … I’m wondering … could that dance *ONLY* be a dance?”

(As opposed to what it’s been for years, dear reader:  a dance PLUS a pop-up Dollarama (Plastic crap for sale! Step right up, kids, and get your plastic crap here…!) PLUS a pop-up corner convenience store (Hungry? Thirsty? Of course! It’s been — what? — a half hour of standing around the gym dancing? Here, have a bag of candy, and here, have a bottle of water that — yep! — you can open, take one sip from, and then set down and forget! Oh, don’t worry, it’ll be dumped out later [thus becoming a complete waste of resources] by your friendly host of parent volunteers!).)

Whoops. Did I say all that? Out loud, at the meeting, I mean?

No. Somehow or another, I managed to keep all my snark bottled, although I confess I *did* slip up and — before I even knew what I was doing — I was asking if people had read this CBC news article about China refusing Canada’s completely-wasted March dance water bottles recycling.)

(Some people should simply not be permitted to venture out.)

Slip-up notwithstanding, discussion ensued.

And then: agreement, tacit as well as expressly stated.

🙂

🙂

🙂

So as I was saying:

After the PTO meeting, I stayed awhile and visited with my son’s friend’s mum, and we had a discussion that largely centred around the difficulties of getting boys to read, for goodness’ sake!

I commiserated.

Twelve is a hard age, especially for boys, and especially when those boys have easy access to a screen. As this Luddite has said before, screens rob from reading.

“We have all these wonderful books in our house,” she lamented. “Shelves full of classics! And the boys do not pick them up. It’s as though they’re allergic to paper.”

My solution, I told her, lay in the fact that I am determinedly — actively — stuffing my boy’s head with stories, by — warning, warning: shameful admission alert — continuing to read aloud to him, despite his advanced age.

The necessity to repeat myself, to say to her — “No, you’re not following me … (my son) did not read Animal Farm on his own; I read it aloud to him…” — really brought the point home for me: it does seem that my continuing to read aloud to my 12-year-old son constitutes some sort of subversive act. (As further evidenced by our mutual reticence to sit on the couch and read together when his older brother is home from university and is prowling in the adjoining kitchen. “Why are you STILL reading aloud to him?!” he scolded TWO YEARS ago. “He can read on his own!!!”)

Okay, yes, I get it.

I *do* know this will not — and cannot — go on forever.

And there was, in fact, a space of about three months this fall in which I thought, mournfully, Well, that’s the end of that!

Earlier in the summer, we had finished Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (the Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass). And, oh my gosh, how my son LOVED that epic tale! We then went on to Mary Norton’s classic, Bedknob and Broomstick, which my son also loved. After that came Orwell’s Animal Farm, which my son thoroughly enjoyed. (He also, it must be confessed, enjoyed the look on his teacher’s face, who, when he asked this fall if anyone had read Animal Farm (their next classroom read-aloud), fully expected no hands to be raised.)

But then we went on to Howl’s Moving Castle, and therein lay my mistake.

My son didn’t love it. At all. (Nor did I, to be honest.) We stopped two or three chapters in. And at a bit of a loss as to what to choose instead, I allowed time to pass. Several long weeks of it, in fact. And evenings which had formerly been given to reading were instead given over to Star Trek Voyager. Evenings in which I sweated:

  • Sometimes literally: It was a sweltering summer and the misery of that was compounded by the arrival of surely-this-is-a-cosmic-joke hot flashes.
  • Sometimes figuratively: Without our read-alouds, this kid is barely reading at all! How on Earth will I get this kid reading more? He/we can’t stop yet! — surely there are more stories I should be stuffing into his head?!

An overheard snatch of conversation between my older son and his girlfriend led to me casually putting Artemis Fowl into my 12-year-old’s hands. Pay dirt: EIGHT books for him to devour! And once those were done, a second windfall arrived: Robert Muchamore’s Cherub series. EIGHTEEN books! And a further seven in a prequel series…

So yes, I had him reading again.

But still: the loss of the reading-aloud — the loss of the thing I’d done for 21 years, the loss of the thing I (fancied I) did so well, the loss of the thing I SO loved doing … the loss of that ached.

And then, serendipitously, Lynda came along with a post about a perfect holiday season read-aloud. Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas. That got us back on the reading-aloud horse and A Christmas Carol followed immediately thereafter.

Which has now led to The Neverending Story.

Which will lead to …

Of course, I don’t know if it will lead to anything else.

Because he’s inching up to 13. And if the requirement of reading-aloud has long since passed, then the wanting must surely be hanging by a thread.

Hanging by a thread seems to be a fitting phrase for the way I’ve been feeling the past while. I’ve felt — very keenly at times — that my purpose in life is shifting underneath me. It’s been a year of introspection, a year of gathering — words, ideas, quotes, lyrics — a holding-tight and clinging-on, as though those gathered words were life preservers that could buoy me up and keep me afloat.

And although a listing-out of those gathered ideas is perhaps coming soon to a blog near you, there’s one, in particular, I’d like to share now, as it perfectly ties this post together with my last.

In my search for a 2018 wall calendar this past December, I came across this:

This is the work of Austin Kleon.

And on his blog, just last week, he had his latest instalment of newspaper blackout art and this lovely freeform poem:

A person

This was not lost on

is

who

I

want to

be

YES, I thought, the cadence of his words sending a symphony through my psyche.

This is NOT ONLY who I want to be — who I’ve always wanted to be — but this also — poetically — sums up my life’s work as a mother.

This explains the reasoning behind all my efforts to get my children reading, to keep them reading, to read aloud to them well beyond the point of normalcy.

Because: Not only were all these efforts simply the best part of motherhood — the snuggling-up intimacy, the sharing of stories, the lyrical turn-of-words that fashion prose into music, the breath-held pauses as four (six, eight) eyes roved over work-of-art illustrations, the ceremonial slowing-down, the communal savouring of ideas, the unspoken desire to learn-new-things together — but this ALSO spelled out a means to an end: it was (is) the route by which each of my children could (can) grow to become a person this was not lost on.

Literary references. Humour. Irony. Walking-in-another-person’s-shoes-for-200 pages-empathy. Sarcasm. Dry wit. Meaning which can only be found between-the-lines, or in a shrug, or in a raised eyebrow.

I didn’t (don’t) want any of those important things to be lost on my children.

And maybe, just maybe, there’s an extension to be made here.

Maybe, just maybe, if all those things are not lost on my children, there will be one more thing that’s not lost on my children: Connections.

Connections between, oh, say, the plastic bottle they might have held in their hands at the school’s March dance, and the news report that China is no longer willing to take Canada’s glut of recycling…

Reflections From Post-Toy Parenthood

I never used to be a dog-earer of books.

Books, it seemed to me, were *this close* to being sacrosanct, and as such, were things that one shouldn’t mark up, mar, or mutilate in any way, shape or form.

But lately, I find myself so moved by what I’m reading that — not content to merely pass by truisms that speak to me — I’m needing to mark them.

Here’s one such truth I recently came across, from Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive:

If you are the type of person who thinks too much about stuff then there is nothing lonelier in the world than being surrounded by a load of people on a different wavelength.

The only thing I would add to his words would be the qualifier, And during the holiday season, when seemingly *everyone* (except you) is hohoho-ing, this loneliness will be magnified ten-fold.

So … where the heck have I been since mid-November?

Stuck in my cranky head, I’m afraid.

I knew, when I happened across this scene in my local big box home improvement store on October 5th (OCTOBER 5th!) —

— that it was going to be a grumbly kind of a fall.

The words “going to be” are inaccurate, of course; my grumbly-ness is a humming continuum that began who-knows-when, but was last mentioned in this post, in which I reported that I had spent the last part of August in high dudgeon, flinging open cupboards, hunting and purging as though my life depended on it.

Well, what I didn’t mention in that post was the fact that my 12-year-old son was going through a similar phase:  “I feel like my room is too full of stuff,” he told me one scorching August day.

So, with my help, we embarked on a major clean-out of his room. We went through his closet, his desk, and his bedside table, and we got rid of a heckuva lot of crap.

(I feel it’s important to note that what I consider to be a heckuva lot of crap is probably minuscule by other people’s standards.)

Because I am a see-er of all the stuff, a noticer of everything, it was interesting to observe him as he went through the process of deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. He is the least sentimental of my three children, and as such, he had a fairly easy time making his decisions. The thing that pulled him up short, though, and caused him a bit of angst, was the actual fact of disposal. After making sure to recycle anything that could be recycled, and after setting aside those items we deemed were ok to donate to Goodwill, he was still left with a pile of items. And as he looked at those non-recyclable, non-donate-able items, as he picked up each one individually and turned it over in his hands, several observations came flowing from my deep-thinking boy:

  • Why do I have this?
  • This can never be unmade, can it?
  • We came in LAST…why would they think it’s necessary to give us trophies?
  • I guess I can get rid of all these medals because they’re meaningless, but they all came from China, didn’t they?

My son’s exercise in purging reminded me of a show I watched just after we moved back to Canada seven years ago.

Now, I should explain that our family has had three major moves over the past twenty-one years, and although they’ve all come with their unique challenges, this last move was the one that nearly did me in.

With little to choose from, we naively bought a fixer-upper, a house brimming with “potential”. My husband moved here six weeks ahead of the kids and me and began his new job, spending his lonely evenings stripping wallpaper, and hiring a contractor who began gutting the laundry room. When we joined my husband the house was in a state of upheaval.

And when our moving van arrived and deposited all our stuff into the midst of that?

Total overwhelm.

In an effort to make myself feel better, I did two things:

First, I set gratitude mantras on replay in my head:

  • we have a roof over our heads
  • it’s winter and we have heat
  • all the faucets deliver clean, safe drinking water
  • we have sufficient food
  • we’re not living in a war zone
  • the kids are safe and healthy and beginning to adjust to their new schools

And secondly, I also began (in my evening downtime, when I wasn’t scrubbing wallpaper paste or mudding-and-sanding damaged drywall or cursing the original owners to hell-and-back for (evidently) allowing wallpaper to be applied to unprimed walls) to watch Hoarders and what was probably a little-known show on HGTV-Canada called Consumed.

If you’ve ever watched Hoarders you’ll know it’s an utterly painful and pitiful watch. But Consumed (which could be termed Hoarders-lite), was somehow less disturbing. The show featured “normal” families whose homes were (somehow, someway) overrun with stuff.

This was the way the show worked: after allowing the families to select a set number of items to keep, the remaining contents of the house were boxed and carted off to a warehouse. The family then spent a month living in their bare-minimum house, and after enjoying the freedom of living in an uncluttered environment (because yes, they all *did* seem to enjoy the experience), they trooped to the warehouse where they were forced — under the pressure of time — to sort through the entirety of their possessions in order to determine what to keep and what to toss.

Moral objections aside —

(it’s doubtful that this sort of ripping-off-the-bandage approach to hoarding is therapeutic or helpful in the long run)

— this show added one more item to my gratitude list: however overwhelming our living situation was at that moment, however resentful I felt at becoming Chief Shuffler Of Stuff, however angry I was that I had somehow allowed my life to be taken over by a house … things were at least NOT AS BAD as they could be; obsessive squirreling of sentimental items aside, I was at least not (quite that much of) a hoarder.

Now, although it’s been at least five years since I’ve watched this program there’s one clip from one particular episode that still runs through my brain, as it did that day in August as I was helping my son to clean out his room, and as it did this December, when I went to the mall, feeling the weight of holiday expectations and the pressure to provide *something* in the way of Christmas presents:

There’s a girl, blonde, about 14 years old. She’s standing in a warehouse, and she’s surrounded on all sides by boxes upon boxes upon boxes — some closed, some opened, some unpacked, the detritus on display for all to see.

This is ALL her family’s stuff, and she and her family are working against a ticking clock, a TV camera documenting the painful indecision that marks each and every decision. And suddenly, after working for hours, this girl has had it, and she upends a huge box of plastic toys directly into a large garbage bin.

Over-thinker that I am, that scene never fails to elicit the following grumbly questions:

What was it all for anyway? Why were those crap toys made in the first place? For five minutes of fun? And then, once the *actual* fun was over, what were they good for then? To sit on a shelf, on display? To gather dust? To be crammed into a drawer? To clutter up this girl’s life, to make her room — and her house — so fucking full she and her family required an intervention?

I realized something this December, when I looked at my 12-year-old son’s Christmas wish list and saw that he hadn’t even asked for a LEGO Architecture set:  I am now on the POST-TOY side of parenthood.

The hard truth that I’ve come to over the years is that so much of what gets brought into our children’s lives constitutes junk, and while there may be small hits of pleasure at the moments of receiving and the moments of giving, the net cumulative effect isn’t a positive one; I think it’s actually damaging — to them, to us, to our relationships, to the environment.

  • We stuff our kids’ rooms and then get angry at them when they can’t keep their spaces clean.
  • We fill their Easter baskets and their Christmas stockings with cheap trinkets and then wonder why they’re ungrateful.
  • We buy them toys with little-to-no play value and then complain that they can’t settle to one thing.
  • We give them prizes for *everything* — for doing the very things they’re supposed to do, for merely showing up, for coming in last — and then call them entitled.

It’s worth noting that even when we ourselves actively try to set limits, even when we completely buy into the truisms of less is more, quality over quantity, expectations are best kept low and reasonable, even when we ourselves are refraining from stuffing and filling and buying and giving —

(even when that refraining is still — after years of practice — accompanied by a panicked notion of not-enough that sneaks insidiously in and threatens to derail it all on the 23rd)

— the stuff STILL seeps in.

It comes from well-meaning grandparents, from teachers rewarding good behaviour, from school fundraisers, from fast food restaurants, from informational giveaways, from sports organizations, from birthday parties … it enters our children’s lives and sits there, until — at the age of 12 (or 14, or 18, or whenever they’ve said why the heck do I even have this) — it gets swept ignominiously into garbage bags and set out on curbs and trucked out of our sight.

At which point, the over-thinking grumblers among us may reflect, What was it all for anyway? Why do we do* this?

I think we do it because it’s fun, because it’s expected, because everyone else is doing it, because it was simply there — on sale! and so irresistible! — in Wal-Mart.

I think we do it because we worry about our children’s self-esteem, because we don’t want to disappoint them, because we ourselves felt deprived as children.

I think we do it because although we recognize monetary costs we still don’t understand (or we refuse to see) the connections between the things we consume and the raw materials and energy it takes to create them.

I think we do it because enough is a concept we continually struggle with.

I think we do it because saying yes is easier than the thought that we will be perceived as a crank.

Of course, this fear of being perceived a crank is really what this post — and my silence since November — is all about.

But I suppose, if I want others to speak their truths, then I have to be brave enough to speak mine, even if I come off as a crank.

/hits publish after three months of revisions/


*”We” refers to both me and the royal we-as-a-society; the active verb “do” is equally interchangeable with a passive how the heck did we allow this to happen?