“No good sittin’ worryin’ abou’ it,” [Hagrid] said. “What’s comin’ will come, an’ we’ll meet it when it does.” — J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The other night, my husband uploaded his father’s ghostwritten memoir to a self-publishing website and hit order.
This was the culmination of weeks and weeks of work. Some of the work was done by my husband, who learned how to use Adobe InDesign so he could format the memoir into a book, but most of the work was done by me. I’ve spent the last several months editing, fact-checking, and re-writing, trying to hone my father-in-law’s story so that his grandchildren might actually read it (as opposed to saying, Oh, cool, Grandpa’s written his memoir! and then simply shelving it). But although my work on my father-in-law’s story was mostly enjoyable, it also caused a roller coaster of emotions and a merry-go-round of philosophizing.
My father-in-law, now 82, was born on a farm in Poland in 1937 to Austrian parents. In 1945, at the tail end of World War II, the family was warned that the Russian army was heading their way, so they abandoned their farm and hit the road to find safety. Coincidentally, my own father was also born in 1937. He, too, was of Germanic heritage and living on a farm in a place that was going to be overrun by an army at the tail end of the war. But while my father-in-law’s family heeded the warnings to leave, my father’s family did not. The result was that one seven-year-old boy escaped and had—in his own words—an adventure, while another seven-year-old boy was trucked to an internment camp.
Although some of the thoughts that ran through my mind as I worked on my father-in-law’s memoir revolved around questions of chance, strength, perseverance, and consequences, most of my thoughts seemed to centre around storytelling: why we tell stories, who gets to tell stories, which stories help us, and which stories hurt us.
A few months ago, I would have tried to hammer all of these thoughts into something that had structure and purpose—some sort of hall of mirrors where reflections and perceptions were stretched—but let’s face it, these are strange days in which we’re living. They’re days of making do and getting by, days in which you’re scared to go to the grocery store for fear of what you might pick up, but you’re also scared not to go to the grocery store for fear of what you might not be able to pick up.
Because it seems wrong to engage in any type of hoarding—even if the only thing you’re hoarding is an insane number of drafts that could be turned into completely inconsequential posts, ones that may or may not help your fellow merry-go-rounders momentarily pause the ride—I’ve got a small list of things to share:
The podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. Harry Potter is my literary comfort food, and this podcast, which takes listeners chapter by chapter through each book, can be summed up as English class meets humanism meets therapy.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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…)
Agreeing: Forced positivismsucks. 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…
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!
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.)
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.
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:
This was not lost on
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…
This weekend, my 12-year-old son installed the Duolingo app on my phone and I began 5-minute-a-day language lessons in Dutch.
Beyond feeling like learning Dutch is “something I’ve always wanted to do”, and therefore — at 50 — I’d really better get on with it, I’m not exactly sure why I’m bothering. (I’m also not certain Duolingo is the best tool for this task; but that’s another issue and beyond the scope of this post.) The cold hard truth of the matter is that the only Dutch speaker in my life is my mother, who has just turned 86. And although there are apparently incidences of stroke taking away second languages and leaving first ones intact, she does not seem to be faltering at all when it comes to her mental capacities. In other words, I’m perfectly aware that the *need* for me to one day know how to speak Dutch is quite remote.
As many of you probably know, I have a Dutch and German background. My mother emigrated from The Netherlands in the 60s, and then met and married my German father, who had immigrated to Canada when he was 17.
According to my mother, my parents initially had plans to teach my brother and me to speak both their native tongues. Unfortunately for my brother and me, my parents’ resolve on the matter faltered and died very early on, with the result that, except for a smattering of exposure when visiting with relatives (and a quick jaunt through in-one-ear-and-out-the-other high school German), my brother and I did not ever *really* learn to speak either language.
What follows is but one example to illustrate how incredibly unfortunate this state-of-affairs was for me:
My last memory of my maternal grandmother is of her standing on her stoop in Pernis, a small town just outside Rotterdam, waving to me as I — 19-years-young — walked down the street to catch the bus on what was the first leg of my journey back home to Canada. She had, just a couple of hours earlier, led me out of the house, walked with me arm in arm amongst the trees in their backyard orchard, all the while speaking, pointing, gesticulating, looking at my face to see if I understood anything she had said. I caught a few words, here and there, but the underlying here-is-the-important-thing-I’m-trying-to-impress-upon-my-Canadian-granddaughter was entirely lost. Finally, the frustration in her voice a palpable thing, she shook her head in regret and with a rueful half-smile, gave up.
I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t confess that I find it diffiicult, at times, to recall this last day with my oma and to not feel anger at all that was lost.
But of course, dear reader, as you and I both know, it’s useless to cry over spilled milk. So I (metaphorically) pull myself up by my bootstraps (thank you, German father?) and give myself a stern talking-to and proceed to list off all the life lessons my Dutch mother taught me, for which I am utterly grateful:
One thread a night. Dutch girls are (were?) an industrious lot, and I grew up under the notion that if you were sitting, your hands had to be busy. Now, my mother wasn’t an absolute tyrant about it: she herself was an avid reader, and yes, I was permitted to sit and read, but only once I had made some form of daily progress on whatever project I was working on. One thread a night, my mother would continually say, and eventually you will have (for example) a finished cross-stitch piece. Although I sometimes resented the fact that I, THE GIRL, had to sit and embroider every evening — while my brother, THE BOY, did NOT — this has proven to be an invaluable lesson to me. It taught me fortitude and perseverance, it taught me that large and complex projects — crafty or otherwise — are entirely doable when using the one thread a night, each journey begins with a single step, if-you-never-get-started-you’ll-never-get-finished approach.
Is it necessary? The contemplative Is it necessary? is a question I heard often growing up. I remember sliding pocket-sized Peanuts comic books into paper bags — thank-you-for-coming-to-my-birthday-party — while my mother muttered mutinously about how SHE wasn’t going to be the parent who buys UNNECESSARY plastic junk to hand out to our guests. (Ground zero, apparently: this must be where my loathing of plastic crap originated.)
Although I occasionally railed at this frugal and oftentimes utilitarian approach to life — I KNOW a crib skirt is unnecessary, Mum, but I think it will look nice, and YES, I AM going to continue sewing it! — it’s come in remarkably handy while raising children. It wasn’t until I read this post on Finding Dutchland about the pressure an American ex-pat felt when considering whether or not to purchase a Hatchimal, that I fully appreciated that it was precisely this early training with this question that allowed me to coast nonchalantly through the Tickle Me Elmo madness when my daughter was a baby. It was the question that allowed me to easily say No to my children when they asked for all-the-crap littering check-out lanes. It was the question that resulted in Easter baskets and Christmas stockings filled with nothing but socks and books and single bars of chocolate, not a single blade of plastic “grass” in sight, no Dollarama trinkets deemed necessary.
The older I get, the more I appreciate the simplistic beauty of this question. After all, if you only surround yourself with necessary things, if you only perform necessary tasks — if you free yourself from the superfluous — then that allows you to truly see and appreciate and take care of those things that are important.
And, as an added bonus, focussing on what’s necessary is also a more environmentally-friendly way to live. I could do an entire post on all the unnecessary stuff marketers tell us we need, but which in fact is not only unnecessary, but actually harmful…
Sometimes unnecessary things are nice. And, well, kind of necessary. Tulips, potted plants, table runners covering bare wood, suikerbrood, speculaas, coffee and cake and a visit with a friend. There’s *got* to be some lovely unnecessariness to life; it can’t all be about sweeping the stoop and ironing the tea towels and building the dikes.
When you have a book, you have a friend. As I’ve discussed before, I came quite late to this knowledge. But now … I’m not sure where I would be without books; I suspect I’d be very lonely indeed.
Think happy thoughts. Don’t dwell. Remember that there is always someone out there who has it worse than you do. AKA:DIY Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The Dutch are known for their level-headed practicality and stoicism. And while I do firmly believe there is truth to the premise that stoicism is sometimes the only way one gets-oneself-through-life, it needs to be said that Dutch sink-or-swim stoicism, while producing a heckuva lot of strong swimmers, can also result in drownings. It can, and often does, come off as unfeeling. And, quite honestly, as dismissive. I don’t know where the Dutch are at with regards to mental illness nowadays, but my childhood experiences have shown me that there is a vital distinction between preaching stoicism to others, and preaching it to oneself. In other words, I can dismiss and diminish my feelings; I can encourage myself to stay strong, to pull myself together, to cultivate happy thoughts — if that’s what I think will help me get through something (and it usually does) — but I don’t appreciate it when others dismiss or diminish my feelings, or imply that I’m weak or self-indulgent for even daring to feel those feelings in the first place. Just sayin’.
So … I need to find a positive way to end this post (because I am trying so damn hard these days to keep positive) and the only way I can think to do that is to share a bit of knitting. Gezellig — THE quintessential Dutch word — is usually used to refer to the cosy feeling one gets when in a warm atmosphere and in the company of convivial friends or family. This introverted homebody finds knitting — while drinking koffie, while in the company of 12-year-old zoon who is quietly reading a boek — to be the very definition of gezellig.
Keep trying. So, I went to the PTO meeting. And spoke, very briefly, about greening up the activities they run. And yes, my voice shook.
Prior to going, I had asked for some help in honing what to say. Less is more, was the advice. Don’t lecture. Change takes time. Although I railed (internally) at the latter rejoinder, I think the advice was probably spot on: I didn’t alienate anyone that evening. (Because (apparently; who knew?), alienation is unhelpful and makes people dig in their heels.) I’m now planning on attending all the upcoming meetings, and speaking up at each one, addressing each issue as it arises. What’s more, I’m starting to see that seeds I’ve sown over the years are finally starting to sprout: people I’ve talked to are now starting to talk to others. It’s just as Deborah told me in a comment following my last post: Don’t assume that if you don’t win them over, you’ve lost. Never underestimate the possibility that someone (or several people) there will go away and think about something differently as a result of your intervention.
Keep reducing. Determined to do even more to shop local, I spent this summer’s Saturday mornings at the farmers’ market. I brought my own cloth grocery bags, but also made sure to bring my ugly lace produce bags as well as plenty of clean plastic bread bags. All the sellers were more than happy to dispense their fruits and veggies into my bags, rather than providing me with one of theirs, and I managed to not take ANY new plastic bags home from the market this summer. This counter-of-all-things is very happy about this small victory.
I’ve also been doing more shopping at my local bulk store. This past February, Bulk Barn began allowing customers to bring in their own reusable containers. This has proven to be dead easy: I make my list, pack the required number of containers in a bag, stop at the cashier for pre-weighing, and then simply fill the containers.
The end of the summer also saw me on what could easily be described as a TEAR through the house. I was literally flinging cupboard doors open, looking for things to purge. This week, I heard about the latest decluttering craze: Swedish death cleaning. Funnily enough, this meshes EXACTLY with what I was feeling at the time: the instinctual and deep-seated desire to take care of things now, rather than to keep putting off the inevitable, not to mention the uncomfortable realization that if I don’t step up to the task of taking care of things then that burden will one day fall on my children. (To be honest, I was also feeling rather desperate about finally, finally getting to the promised point where I will have cleared enough (literal) detritus to see a (metaphorical) clear path forward.)
Keep the existentialistic nattering at bay. I’m trying to drown out my existentialistic thoughts. Which are pretty damn loud. They seep through and attempt to drain the colour from everything.
Pre-parenthood I listened to music all the time. U2, REM, Barenaked Ladies, The Pretenders, The Tragically Hip, Tom Petty. And when I wasn’t listening to music I had the radio tuned to CBC.
Enter parenthood: bawling babies, talkative toddlers, prattling preschoolers — and suddenly it was all too much. Sensory overload. And worse: the Wait, what? missing of things. The only way to cope was to turn everything else off.
Now that my house is emptying of children, now that the silence sits on my shoulders, a weight compounded by worry as my thoughts wander too much into jungles best left unexplored, I need noise. Radio programs. Podcasts. Music, music, music. This is such a night-and-day shift that I believe I surprised my 19-year-old son. He came into the kitchen one day this summer to find me chopping veggies to Coldplay. Who are you and what have you done with my mother?, his expression seemed to suggest.
(This past week has been The Tragically Hip, on repeat. My fellow Canadians will understand; for others, there’s this song, my favourite.)
Keep reading. I abandoned Beatrix Potter – A Life in Nature. I’m sorry, Linda Lear; it was just so.long. On a whim, I picked up Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Because, what a name for a heroine! And such promise, that title: maybe if Eleanor is completely fine, I’ll be completely fine too. (Because that’s how fiction works, right?) It was part laugh-out-loud quirkiness, part cringeworthy Oh-don’t-be-doing-THAT-Eleanor!, part heartwarming love story, and part heart-wrenching life-can-be-cruel, dontcha know …
After that, I went on to Station Eleven. Perhaps a post-pandemic-civilization-has-collapsed-now-what? kind of novel was not the best choice for the summer I was having. But although the story was often grim it was also, ultimately, one of hope. Its back-and-forth movement between past and present as it told the tale of a travelling Shakespearean symphony roaming amongst new settlements (“because survival is insufficient”) — spoke directly to my story-loving heart. Apart from that, I loved its utility as a thought-exercise (what happens when there are no longer any doctors, nurses, hospitals, medicines? What happens when there is no one left to transport fuel to a gas station? What happens when stores are emptied of goods but the supply chain is irrevocably broken? What happens when law-and-order goes missing, never to return?).
Then came Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time. This was a lovely read: an interesting concept (the protagonist’s life stretches on and on and on); spare writing; a light-handed sprinkling of humanistic pearls of wisdom. My copy has been dog-eared, and I’m well into another of his novels: The Humans, which I am completely loving. Next up will be Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive. And then, what the heck, ALL of his other works. (Thank you, Lynda; I love your reviews and recommendations.)
Keep learning. Keep my eyes open. As much as I’d like to look away, to start humming Mmm-I-can’t-hear-you, to bury my head in the sand, I simply can’t. If this means tears are streaming as I watch A Plastic Ocean or Chasing Coral, so be it.
Keep knitting. Socks, socks, socks. Hockey season has started, which means I’m once again that mum who knits in the stands during practice. I’m also determined to knit while watching TV, because although multi-tasking usually makes me feel I’m doing two things poorly, productivity is key to dispelling the icky feeling I get when sitting in front of the TV. We’re making our way through Star Trek Voyager, determinedly turning our 12-year-old son into a Trekkie. We must have missed quite a lot back when it originally aired in the 90s and we had to be home on Mumblemumble night in order to catch it, because until last weekend I was quite in the dark about how Seven-Of-Nine came to be freed from The Borg. (And inquiring minds do love to know…)
Keep exercising. I’m leaning on a phrase former friends used when describing their über-strict parenting style: Once is a habit. This is the phrase that broke my inertia and keeps me going. I have walked on the basement treadmill every.single.day since mid-June. (I refuse to stop, even for one day, because I know that (with me) Once is a habit is a concept that works both ways.) I get up early enough that I can do sixty minutes … seventy, seventy-five, even eighty on occasion. Once I pass forty-five, I feel like Forrest Gump: I could happily run walk *forever*. My 19-year-old son tells me that’s the runner’s high. (Related: I’ve told my husband when marijuana is legalized next year, I’m going to buy some. I think he thinks I’m joking.)
Keep reaching out. It was just Canadian Thanksgiving, and I’d like to say thank you; I’m so grateful to those of you who not only bear with me as I go on my philosophical — and, ahem, oftentimes depressing, lecturing, alienating — meanderings, but who also take the time to reach back to me. You make this earnest-and-anxious fish-out-of-water feel less alone.
Feeling … grateful that my son is the kind of kid who, at age eleven, will still lean shoulder to shoulder against me as I read, and who, when I ask, Now, where were we?, is able to tell me exactly what happened at the end of the previous day’s reading.
Realizing … 40-some years on, I can still “hear” my Dutch grandfather’s voice, and can picture him across the table, as he prayed and then read aloud from the Bible after lunch. Onze Vader in de hemel…
Knitting … constantly. A hat, a smitten, a pair of mittens, and three miniature Weasley sweater ornaments in the weeks before Christmas. Another hat and a half in January, some progress on yet more socks, and another pair of mittens requested and planned.
I am — once again — reading the Harry Potter series aloud to my youngest son.
This is his second read-aloud, and although I’m thinking this must be my fourth complete-series read-aloud, I may be mistaken; my older son claims I did not actually read the entire series aloud to him. Said older son is, in fact, extremely irritated with the fact that I am STILL reading books aloud to his 11 year-old brother: WHY are you reading to him?! He can read on his own! He’s like TWENTY!
Um … because my 11 year-old asked? Because I LOVE Harry Potter and am more than happy to re-visit the story?
I think the thing I love most about Harry Potter is the richness of the story. I’m one of those easily fascinated people, someone who positively craves details, and — curmudgeonly irritation over comma splices aside — Rowling’s vividly imagined and deeply nuanced world absolutely bewitched me 😉 when I first read Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone* years ago, before my kids were old enough for the books. As a knitter, one of the details which utterly charms me is the role knitting plays in the series: Hagrid knitting a large yellow something; Mrs. Weasley presenting knit jumpers* for Christmas; Fred and George fighting off hand-knit mittens; Hermione knitting hats for house-elves; Dumbledore wanting — above all else — thick woollen socks, and confessing a fascination with Muggle knitting patterns.
On the subject of knitting (and coincidentally continuing with the Harry Potter theme), I’m knitting yet another set of Hermione’s Everyday Socks (in what is not quite, but hints at, Gryffindor scarlet).
In January, I had set a goal of one pair of socks per month, and although swimming lessons and soccer practices have afforded me some extra knitting time this summer, and although I continue to slot in knitting whenever I’m able (in between pancake flips, for example) I’m still finding that goal to be a bit too ambitious. I am continually torn: how best to spend my free evening hours, when my youngest has gone to bed. Although I’d like to be reading more (I’m almost halfway through Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca), the fact is, I love making things. I cannot imagine a life in which I am NOT making things.
On the subject of making things, my sewing continues, albeit very slowly now that the kids are out of school. My 17 year-old son has cleared his schoolwork out of the dining room and I’ve moved my sewing machine and serger to the window end of the table and set up the ironing board in front of the window. The light is MUCH better and I love looking out, snatching glimpses of green and growing things as I work at sewing or ironing or mending.
And lastly, I deliberately used the term work in my last sentence, even though the flow would have been better had I just said, “…as I sew or iron or mend.” I’ve just hit a how-the-heck-did-this-happen anniversary: twenty years ago, mid-July 1996, I went on maternity leave from my job as a pharmacist. The very day I started my maternity leave was the day my husband told me he had gotten the position he had been hoping for — the one in another province which would necessitate a move; the one he had assured his pregnant wife he would *never* get — setting in motion a chain of events which resulted in me not returning to my career. Twenty years of stay-at-home-motherhood is a long time to ponder the meaning of work, and — cough*whatasurprise*cough — I have a LOT of thoughts on this subject. I could do a whole (meandering, semantical, over-thinking) post on work … you know, if I were actually brave enough to wade into this quagmire on the internet …
*Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone and sweaters (and a myriad of other changes) in the U.S. editions… The Americanization of these stories so got my detail-loving-goat that — even though we were living in the U.S. at the time — I bought our books on trips back to Canada.
… my ten year-old son and I did a KenKen together at breakfast.
And then, after school, we raided his older brother’s bookshelf and found some new-to-him books — The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Klutz Encyclopedia of Immaturity (volumes I and II; we seemingly really wanted to encourage immaturity in our older son) — which he pored over all afternoon, alternately rapt and giggling.
So, of course — needless to say — the i-Pad didn’t actually wander off to die.
I had hidden the damn thing.
And the reason I had hidden the damn thing was because I had decided, early that morning this past fall, that I had simply had enough.
Enough of time limits on devices which were constantly being stretched; enough of me nagging him over and over and over again to get off; enough of me wondering how the heck we had progressed from him being allowed to watch amazingly cool and creative videos on MinuteEarth or MinutePhysics or CGP Grey to him being immersed in — addicted to! — the utterly inane world inhabited by Minecraft YouTubers.
And perhaps, had I not been in such a foul and fragile mood that day, I would have simply ‘fessed up. I would have been, you know, an adult and told him I had taken it away. I would have told him that he was spending too much time on it, and that that time was pre-empting other more important things, things like reading books, or perusing Popular Science or National Geographic or Muse, or playing with Lego, or just plain conversing with me as I stood there in the kitchen making his lunch while he ate his breakfast.
But because it was last fall and I was neck-deep in an existentialistic grinchy funk and my husband was away yet again, for the whole freaking week, I took the easy way out.
I lied played dumb.
So when he asked, that morning, Hey, Mom, do you know where the i-Pad went? I simply said, Huh! Is it not on the couch? Well, then I dunno…
Remarkably, it took three days (three days of a wholehearted effort on my part to distract distract distract) before the truth came out.
We were walking home from school when he floated yet another query of Where the heck could that i-Pad have gone?!
Sighing internally, knowing I was going to have to tell him sooner or later that I had imperiously made up some new rules (no technology Monday through Friday afternoon), but suddenly inspired (and truth-be-told, desperately wanting to inject some humour into what I suspected would shortly be an angry situation), I said, “Hey, you know how old our i-Pad is, right?”
(Very, in case you’re wondering; he rattled off something about generation two.)
“And you know how it hasn’t been working properly recently?”
(He agreed. It was a very annoying i-Pad as of late; even I had noticed that.)
“And you know what some animals do when they get old and sick?”
(I didn’t give him time to answer, reflecting as soon as the words left my lips that it was his brother who had been animal-crazy, not him.)
“They wander off to die!” I announced.
(So, yes, I’ve since looked this up. Um, that’s right: specifically for this post. (Yes, I may be a bit of a nerd). And it turns out this wandering off to die thing may actually be a myth.)
My son looked at me funny and said, “The i-Pad did not wander off to die, Mom!”
(At this point — no word of a lie — I had a sudden vision of my son, as an adult, pushing his frail and elderly mother out onto an ice floe. And it occurred to me that I would perhaps one day sorely regret ever putting this nugget of an idea into his head.)
And then the jig was up.
“You took it, didn’t you?” he suddenly accused. “Where did you hide it?”
Ah … I tell ya, hardly a day goes by that I don’t feel slightly sorry for my kids, saddled as they are with me for a mother …
Because my son didn’t have a hope-in-hell of arguing me down from my position.
In the first place, I am, and always have been, a bit of a Luddite. When I was in university, I typed my term papers and essays on a manual typewriter, despite the fact that there was not only a perfectly good electric typewriter in the house, but also one of those early you-know-you’re-a-nerdy-geek-if-you-actually-have-one computers (complete with word processing capabilities and a dot matrix printer!), sitting there, waiting for use, in my father’s basement study.
Making matters worse for my son is the fact that his Luddite mother has an inherent, nearly supercilious, do-something-constructive-with-your-time!, distrust of video games. An attitude, I admit, that is borne of ignorance and compounded by idealism: I have never — not once — played Pac Man; I don’t get the point of Angry Birds or SimCity (even though I can appreciate the fact that my husband and son get a kick out of playing them together); the fact that tweens play Grand Theft Auto makes me despair for humanity; and I greet claims of superior hand-eye coordination, which are floated as an excuse for all of it, with a shake of the head and a heavy bit of eye-rolling. And while I know for a fact that there are indeed PLENTY of video-game-playing-kids who grow up to lead perfectly normal lives (cue the utterances of So then shut the hell up, mom who doesn’t know anything, yet somehow has a blog), that fact fails to change how I feel about them.
The second battle my ten year-old son faces has to do with his siblings. As you may have noticed, we have a rather wide age gap between our first two children (who are now 19 and 17 years of age) and our youngest, who is a month away from his eleventh birthday. This means we have a bit of a social science experiment going on in our household: because we didn’t buy into the need to get computer games for our older two kids, AND because we were late adopters of home internet service, our older two essentially passed the first decade or so of their lives computer and video game free. Our youngest, on the other hand, cannot remember a time when we didn’t have a computer or the internet.
And here’s the thing: I can tell the difference.
Although it’s not fair to compare children, it hasn’t escaped my notice that our youngest isn’t quite the reader that the older two were, both of whom became voracious readers with little to no prodding on my part. They read all the time — books, magazines, encyclopedias — anything they could get their hands on. And while their young lives weren’t technology-free — they watched plenty of children’s programming on TV — there seems to be something fundamentally different about TV-watching versus gaming, or even TV-watching versus what I’ll term I’m-just-going-to-click-one more-link internet browsing.
This past weekend I was listening to Spark, a program on CBC radio, and they had a really good segment on why your kid can’t turn off a game when you ask, and holy moly hello … this is finally addressing the refrain I hear constantly from friends who have kids the same age as my youngest. We’re all going through the same thing, and yet there still seems to be that myth out there, that subtle parental put-down that says you’re not doing your job as a parent if your child is hooked to a screen.
I ran up against this perception at a meeting last spring with the resource teacher, when upon discussing my youngest and listing off activities he enjoyed, I confessed that he was rather more fond of the i-Pad than I would have liked. Her response was a cut-and-dry, matter-of-fact “Set limits!”, to which I replied, rather testily, “I DO set limits! The problem is that it’s addictive. I can tell my son to get off and he’ll say just a sec. Two minutes later, I will tell him once again to get off and he’ll say just a sec. And on and on it goes, until 20 minutes half an hour 45 minutes later, I am having to physically wrench the device from his hands!”
(Thank goodness there was a younger teacher in the meeting with us. She chimed in at that point and said, “Devices ARE addictive; I’ve even noticed that with my own use.”)
So when I finally did have a proper I’m the adult and you’re the child and here’s what I’ve been observing conversation with my son, he — amazingly — understood my point. And we have managed to keep him technology-free Monday through Friday afternoon ever since. I’m happy to report he’s reading WAY more than he used to. He’s helped me on a few more KenKens. He’s been devouring the Popular Science magazines that we subscribe to. He’s even occasionally been dipping into the encyclopedias, just as his older brother used to do.
I should probably leave this story here, but it seems I’m utterly incapable of leaving out this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twist at the end, despite the fact that it hints at just a bit of dysfunction in an otherwise strong 25 year-long marriage:
Here’s what happened when Friday rolled around after that first technology-free week, and my technology-loving-Angry Bird-appreciating-I-love-her-but-why-is-my-wife-such-a-Luddite husband came home from his business trip (to a province with a lower sales tax, I have to add (in an ominous foreshadowy sorta way 😉 )):
My husband (henceforth known as “my child’s father”) commiserated with our ten year-old son, who wasted no time in telling him what his mother had done, to which my child’s father replied, “Yes, I heard about that!”. And when my son turned to me and said, “Hey, Mom! It’s Friday evening! Where’s the i-Pad?”, my child’s father said, “No need…” and pulled out a brand new one.