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?

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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…

Coffee Houses and Introverts, #WittingNotKnitting and #GleaningMeaningNotCleaning

Who’s worried? Do we look worried?

Last weekend at hockey, as our 12-year-old son’s team hit the ice, my husband leaned into me and said (hyperbolically, jokingly, obscurely), “Let slip the dogs of war.”

Julius Caesar? I thought.

“Where’s that from?” I asked, unwilling to commit myself to the guess.

“I think it’s Shakespeare … probably Julius Caesar,” he said.

Although he’s (reasonably) well-read, he’s an engineer, and is hardly a bastion of knowledge when it comes to English literature. So he did what we all now do when faced with a burning question: he pulled out his phone and googled it.

It *was* Julius Caesar.

As neither of us has *actually* read Julius Caesar, I’m not exactly sure how we managed this tidbit of conversation in the opening moments of our son’s house league hockey game. Clearly — or, well, I hope it’s clear — we’re not a couple of elitist and erudite academics —

Here, let me lead you to my shelf-of-shame to prove that point:

No Shakespeare For Dummies for us … but we WILL confess to being rather fearful of it…

— nor are we vociferous and vicious hockey parents who equate the game with war.

(We’re well-behaved whisperers, I swear it, although I have no way of proving that point.)

So where am I going with this story?

A segue, dear reader, a path to something confessional: there is something in me that loves conversations such as these.

There is something in me that craves knowledge — trivial, important, obscure, earth-shattering, useless, practical — I want to know it all.

When I graduated high school in 1985 I was excited to head off to university.

I had this notion in my head, you see, a very distinct picture of what it would be like there: groups of students and professors gathering to share Big Ideas, each person’s remarks and ruminations providing a springboard for another’s, a tangential spider-webbing-out of knowledge and analysis, complete with witty repartee.

In short, I was expecting an Enlightenment-era European coffee house.

This was not what I found.

The Faculty of Science, as it turned out, didn’t present — on a metaphorical silver-platter — a plethora of philosophizing pupils with whom I could sit and talk.

And even if it HAD — even if a group of such people had miraculously appeared in front of me and invited me to join them — I’m not sure why I imagined I could ever take part in such discussions.

I was (am) a capital I Introvert.

I have a brain that curls up, armadillo-like, at the slightest whiff of danger.

Ask me a question, in Real Life, and what will happen?

Well, that depends, really.

If you’re a university English professor you will get a deer-in-the-headlights look of panic. And dumbfounded silence. Please-dear-God-let-him-move-along….

If it’s just the two of us, if I feel comfortable, I will probably be able to answer.

But if I feel even slightly stressed or anxious, my brain will shut down. I will stumble, waffle, stutter. I may be able to salvage the situation — somewhat — because I may still be capable of asking you questions. But I will then likely go overboard; I will pepper you with questions. Because, not only am I genuinely interested (in your answers; not, as you might begin to suspect, in making you squirm under cross-examination), but that is also, you see, an introvert’s best defence: keep them talking so you don’t have to.

I have always been fascinated by people who could easily talk, by people who were witty, by people who waxed philosophical, by those who *knew* about things, who could speak with authority about politics, history, literature.

I’ve always wondered how they became that way. How did they know all this stuff? And how did they manage to coherently convey all they knew?

Were they simply extroverts, the people who could do this?

Or did they have a training ground?

I had seen it in movies: huge families gathered around a dinner table, discussion dancing while potatoes were passed and forks and knives clacked against plates.

And I had occasionally seen it in Real Life. Although my family (growing up) was small and (mostly) alone in Canada, thousands of kilometres removed from everyone else, although it was nearly always just the four of us around the table — my mother, my father, my brother, and me — I did, on rare occasions, get to join in on these bigger kinds of gatherings.

And by joining in, I mean, of course, observing.

Sitting silent, listening, answering if the need arose.

Hoping, fearfully, that the need would not arise.

I knew nothing, after all. It wasn’t as though I was a well-read child. And the things I somehow *did* know? Well, they were trapped inside.

I remember one time being in The Netherlands, visiting my favourite aunt. (The Knitter). Her (much older) children were at home, visiting from university, or from their jobs. We were gathered in the living room, my aunt and her two grown daughters knitting, needles softly clacking, the discussion going from one thing to the next as I sat silently beside the spinning wheel, the talk taking place in English (for the benefit of me and my brother, the only two present who could not speak Dutch). I can still hear the charmingly-accented English of my more-than-a-decade-older cousin, can still see his wavy dark hair falling over his forehead, as he told us the tale of a friend who went to North America. She hated it. Because, you see, she had to plug something into a socket one day, and it felt to her as though she was inserting an electrical plug into a face.

And just as that perception was sinking in, just as I thought Oh. My. Gosh.YES! North American electrical plug-ins DO look like faces and of course! one *could* get that feeling

My mother let out a loud tch!

The noise that expressed a mixture of disdain and dismissal and utter impatience.

“A plug-in is a plug-in!” she said, scornfully denying all imagination that claimed otherwise.

A beat. A taste of the atmosphere I breathed at home. Silence, weighted, the only possible follow-up to the not-silence, which was nearly always worse.

And then the talk shifted, moved to things I cannot now recall.

I remember — much, much, much later — long after having left that (mostly) silent or not-silent home, long after meeting and marrying the man who grew up reading encyclopedias, the man who researched facts on ice prior to our second date so we would have something to talk about as we laced-up skates, the man who belonged to a noisy family, his own plus extended, where I (mostly) sat silent, observing, slightly shell-shocked at the civility of their not-silence — long after all that happened, I remember sitting, crowded, around my in-laws’ dining room table, brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephew, and our (then) two children squeezed in shoulder to shoulder, discussion dancing as potatoes were passed. I remember, clear as a bell, my daughter, seven, joining the conversation.

Talking. Offering. Laughing, cheeks flushed. Responding. Enjoying. Relaxed.

And I remember thinking: how?

How is she doing that?

Is that simply her?

Confusion. I had thought she was like me when outside her natural habitat: an observer.

I, the watcher, had pegged her early on, watched her watching.

A program at the library, a gathering of toddlers, all of them marching in a circle to music.

All but her.

An expression on her face.

WTAF.

So then how? How was she doing this talking now, seated at this crowded table?

Where did this ability, this confidence, this fearless fluidity despite being in foreign-parts, come from?

I remember — shamefully — feeling envious of her.

And then suddenly it hit me: did she have a training ground?

And if so, who had provided that?

Had we had a hand in that? My husband and I?

My husband and I, who sat at our kitchen table, our small family of (then) four, hundreds of kilometres removed from everyone else, somehow, someway — imperfectly — dispelling silence, talking about …


You’re probably still wondering where I’m going with this.

And the only answer I can come up with is, nowhere. It was swirling, the words wrapping themselves around my fingers — letters like yarn, keyboard like needles; I wrote it and I wanted to share it. #WittingNotKnitting

Here’s the thing: I want to share more stories.

Because here’s yet another thing: as much as I wanted to — as much as I still feel the need to, as much as I once believed I could (if I can *just* phrase my arguments in the right way…) — as much as this was the utterly naïve and idealistic reason I began this blog … I cannot save the world.

And if this blog cannot save the world (duh), if I am sinking under the weight of responsibility that refuses to give up that delusion, then I am only left with two options: I can stop writing here altogether, or I can use this space to find solace in something else.

I’ve confessed to what I love.

Now here’s what I want (besides world peace and a solution to climate change and the end to hunger and inequality and plastic pollution): I want words to counter-balance weight. I want a way to cope with loneliness. I want less silence in my days. I want to compare notes. I want conversation. I want to laugh about metaphors. But aloud, here; not just in my head. I want my life to stop shrinking, to conquer the fears that crowd out possibilities, the fears that I’ve allowed to reduce me to a list of merelys (merely a cookie-baker, merely a scrubber-of-toilets, merely a volunteer). I want #GleaningMeaningNotCleaning. I want to learn things. I want to know things. Important things — like literary references and the details of carbon sequestration, and what it means to be real and brave and entirely human on this spinning planet — but also unimportant and purely pedantic things, like, could Harry REALLY see Uncle Vernon’s feet as—

(Whoops. That’s a post for another day.)

And although all that seems, on the surface, to be a list of useless things-to-want in the face of everything that’s happening out there, there’s something inside me that says otherwise. Something that tells me the solace of story-telling is somehow fundamental, even when everything is going south.

So I can’t promise this place will turn into a pseudo-Enlightenment-era coffee house, nor can I promise that I will be capable of entirely letting go of the (cranky) persuasive essay, but I do hope you’ll continue to meet with me here, to pull up a virtual chair and sit and talk with me, a person who still has a lot to learn, and not just about hashtags —

(I have no clue if those are real hashtags. I don’t even understand how hashtags work. Or what they’re for. I only know that making them up (is that allowed?) gave me a small hit of joy.)