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.
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.
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.
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.
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) …
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…
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…
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:
— 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.
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.
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.
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.)