All I Really Need to Know

This morning, as I was angrily pummeling kneading this ball of dough, I thought of a book I read over a quarter of a century ago: Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel.

Like Water for Chocolate tells the tale of a young woman who, suffering the heartache of unrequited love, magically pours her emotions into the food she makes for her family. When she sheds tears into the feast that she’s preparing for the wedding that is shortly to take place between her beloved and her sister, the food takes on her sadness and all the wedding guests become ill.

Some of you may recall I had a spot of trouble with the PTO this spring. In a nutshell: one parent didn’t appreciate the fact that I was speaking up for the environment. She hid information in order to prevent my speaking up, and then when I did speak up all hell broke loose. She put me and my motives into her gossip machine, warning the community that they must take action against “environmentalists who are attempting to stop all the fun at the school.”

Going through all this was just about as much fun as it sounds. It was the final straw that sent me packing off to therapy. It’s the reason I quit the library. It’s the reason I couldn’t—for months—walk past the school without my chest tightening with anxiety. It’s the reason I still mostly keep my head down whenever I go to the grocery store. I am the parent who stopped the fun, after all. I am the parent whose complaining caused children to be disappointed, a fact that’s been drilled home on numerous occasions.

This Wednesday, I went to my 13-year-old son’s cross country meet. One of his coaches is a kindergarten teacher at the school. When we moved here, eight years ago, my son was placed in her class. She lives around the corner from us and is the mother of three grown children, one of whom is a good friend to my 20-year-old son.

“I nearly called you last spring,” she said. “After you got thrown under the bus by the PTO.”

— A heartbeat, in which I thought of the one parent who did call me last spring, the one person who stuck beside me throughout all this, the one person who recognized all this for what it was—bullying.

— Another heartbeat, in which I considered the silence last spring from everyone else: from a person I once imagined was an ally, from the principal who—even when all the events were laid out in front of him—failed to stand up for democracy in the school.

“I wish you had,” I finally said.

I left the cross country meet feeling vindicated. At least one other person at the school saw what happened. She saw that it was wrong. She felt for me. She nearly reached out to offer support.

But today, two days later, I no longer feel vindicated. I feel angry.

And after pounding my bread dough this morning, tears flowing, recalling the months of anxiety I endured, remembering Like Water for Chocolate, hoping the bread I’m making for tonight’s dinner won’t take on the flavour of my anger, I’m now suddenly reminded of another book: All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum.

Although stand up for others when you see something is wrong, speak up, and use your voice aren’t among the lessons in Fulghum’s book, those messages are surely somewhere to be found in the subtext of play fair, don’t hit people, and hold hands and stick together. So why is it, I wonder, that we teach our children these things, but we as adults so often fail to practise what we preach?

To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m posting this. Telling a tale of “this is the hell I was put through when I attempted to speak up” is hardly the way to encourage others to speak up. And yet, after listening to this speech by Elizabeth May, Canada’s Green Party leader—after hearing her ask, “Where is the bravery? Where is the courage?”—I suppose that IS the gist of what I’m trying to say here.

. . . remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned — the biggest word of all — LOOK.   (Robert Fulghum)

And then, once you’ve LOOKED, please—if you see something is wrong—please speak up.

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Of Trains and Small Coincidences

I snapped this picture a couple of weeks ago, while sitting in a VIA train, stopped at a station en route to Montreal. It’s my 13-year-old son’s reflection you see in the window. (Don’t tell him I’m posting it here.) Even if you look closely, you won’t be able to make out the book he’s reading (Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, if you’re curious), but I’m hoping you’ll be able to read the words that are printed on the side of the neighbouring train, the ones which hover beside his reflection. The image — the future plus my son’s reflection — is one that snagged my breath and made me think, “Yes, well, there’s the rub, isn’t it? The sum of it all.”

As many of you know, it’s been a hard year for me. I feel the need to qualify that statement, though, to make it clear that it’s not been hard in any solid kind of way — there’s been sufficient food, shelter, and clothing, and — knock on wood — we’ve all been healthy in body. No, the hardness that I’m talking about has only existed in my head, and this — the future, and the prospects my children will face in that looming future — has largely been the reason.

A week after I took this photo we were on another train. And sitting beside us was a group of five young nuns, robed in blue. Why blue? I wanted to know. Where are you going? I wanted to know. Why did you become nuns? I wanted to know. How (these days) does one become a nun? I wanted to know.

I love stories. And I desperately wanted to hear theirs. But I didn’t ask.

The nuns were more boisterous than I would have expected nuns to be. While four of them played cards, the fifth — seated by herself in the row behind them, facing me — embroidered. This seemed a pastime that was more  stereotypically fitting for a nun, and while she embroidered, I knit. What are you making? I wanted to ask. Who is it for? I wanted to ask. She and I caught each other’s eyes a few times. Socks, I told her, silently. For my daughter.

When my hands grew tired, I put my knitting away and pulled out my book: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. I nudged my son, whispered, “Look at the title of my book.” He laughed, immediately appreciative of the coincidence. I wanted to snap a photo of the book against the backdrop of the blue hem of a nun’s frock and the dangling loop of her rosary beads. I wanted to stretch my arm out and hold my book out vertically across the aisle, so this group of nuns, my fellow passengers — on the train, in this life — could see the title. I wanted them to laugh at the small coincidence, to share that moment with me, an atheist. I wanted to tell them that in the absence of a god, and in the presence of never-ceasing worries, the only thing that works to momentarily nudge the weight aside is laughter. Laughter about little ironies and small coincidences, and the small bits of human connection that come along with it.

But I didn’t.

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.

Enough

In 2016, the Danish concept of hygge took the internet by storm.

I’m fervently hoping that 2018’s buzzword will be lagom.

According to Anna Brones, the author of Live Lagomlagom means “just right” or “enough”.

IMHO enough is a concept the planet is in desperate need of…

For me, enough means being attuned to the concepts of equity and justice and humility.

Equity: I shouldn’t take more than my fair share.

Justice: I recognize that suffering occurs when some take more than their fair share.

Humility: I understand I am merely one person in amongst 7.6 billion; Who-the-hell-do-I-think-I-am imagining I somehow deserve more than my fair share?

How does this translate to real life?

It means I try my best to cultivate a simple and minimalistic life.

It means I focus on what’s important: family, health, friends.

It means I take responsibility for my actions.

It means I say No to thoughtless consumerism.

It means quality takes precedence over quantity.

It means recognizing that my need for self-expression or fun or convenience should not come at the expense of other inhabitants of this planet.

Enough: it’s what 2018 needs.

—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…