March 25th, 2015
While I was in graduate school, in a pitch of desperation during a flare-up of my Wegener’s, I made a list of accomplishments–not current, but what I wanted out of life. Most of them were typical for someone of my age and state-of-life, I wanted to have kids, and find a better job, and go to Paris, and England–and foolishly, write a book.
At the time, I was barely surviving grad school. I mean, I ended up with a degree by the skin of my teeth, and was then set adrift because my plan of becoming a professor sort of relied upon going forward and doing a doctorate. Further school was not for me, I wasn’t cut out for the competitiveness, nor the cutthroat nature of grad school, but I did enjoy writing. But my work at the time was a mess, I mean, there’s stream of consciousness and then there’s just words on the page, which is what my writing tended towards.
Over the years, I’ve gone back to thinking about that list, because it’s in my nature to simply cross items off and keep moving forward onto the next line that will ultimately bring fulfillment. Except that’s not quite how life works. Goals are hard to achieve, and sometimes they take far longer than you’d ever expect. So, way in the way back I had “write a novel” on that list, and it wasn’t until this passed December that I finally crossed it, metaphorically, off.
Still, I want to distill what I was actually trying to observe–writing a novel is one part of it, following the journey of a character from start to finish in a way that’s readable, entertaining, and engaging is a very rewarding goal. But I think what I was trying to escape at the time from the misery of my one-bedroom underground apartment was my quest for a career. So, it’s never been about just “novels”–it’s more about making a living from my pen. At the time, I was reading a lot of Aphra Behn, and was besotted by the idea of earning my keep from writing. And in the following years, I’ve managed to make a dent in this goal, whether it was abridging classics for kids, being a complete hack on the internet, and publishing the odd poem or two about Johnny Cash. I’m not an artist, and I wouldn’t even call myself an author if anyone asked. I never thought I would make a very good freelancer or magazine writer, although I’ve never pursued either of those options, primarily because I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to fall into a career in publishing over the last decade. I just really like writing. I like characters and pulling out sadness and pushing bad situations to worse and examining the human condition and poor decisions and so on.
I managed, over the course of about three years, to write a solid draft of a very Canadian novel. It was highly flawed and utterly unpublishable. I can see that now, but what it did give me was the courage to keep going. It gave me the idea that I could get to the end of something if I focussed on the process that works for me (I was doing a page a day, rain or shine) and held onto the time. The biggest hurdle was finding the right voice. I’m a natural echo. I am deeply influenced by the written word, by music, and by movies. And so the first book I wrote was super literary, really intense, and completely unbelievable; if you can believe it, I was reading, watching, and listening to super-heavy, intensely artistic, and amazingly gifted art-art at the time. A friend of a friend at work kindly referred me to an agent, who read the book and even more kindly rejected it, and by then I was at the end of my pregnancy, which meant that we were at the beginning of the terrifying journey to bring my son into the world. So, novels were once again put on the back burner.
Fast-forward a couple of years. And I’ve found my confidence again, found the right voice, the right tone, and am plugging away again at something different this time–it’s old-school chicklit, like you’d have read at the beginning of this decade. Think Gemma Townley or Jane Green only edgier because I’m incapable of writing characters who aren’t, at their core, completely messed up for one reason or another. The book is there, and I can see it, the beginning, middle, and end, and I find that if I write the ending, always an afterword of a sorts, I can get TO the end. THE WORK BOYFRIEND had a cute concept, a good conflict, and a resolution at the end that I thought was satisfying.
Starting a business, of any kind, is a challenging endeavour. Even though I’ve been in publishing for a decade now, I knew it would be a challenge to put the book out myself. I’m extraordinarily lucky that I have a business partner with whom I am keenly matched, and I also understand the necessity of certain parts of the process, like copy editing and building a fully functioning epub. In that sense, I’m luckier than a lot of writers who come into this space. Still, the challenges are legion. Just because we work in publishing doesn’t mean that the publishing world will do us any favours. Publishing is, above all, a business. Just because I might have met the editor Globe Books through work at some point, doesn’t change the fact that they don’t review self-published books. And we’re a small two-person company without marketing budgets and have no interest in publishing a physical book. The whole model was something I wanted to try, simply because I’m interested in the differences between how my business does its business vs. how the business could be done outside the business.
So, the book is up–and friends and family have been kind and generous with both their time and their social media space. We have a great cover, and some amazing early reads, with some solid reviews up on Amazon. Now the real work begins. We made the decision not to put the book up exclusively on Amazon, which means our royalty percentage is lower. Kobo’s a big part of the Canadian ebook market, so we spoke to some kind, generous people at Writing Life. And female-driven, romantic-type stories do well on both Apple and Google, from what I’ve seen on their bestseller lists. So we’ve got the positioning down pat. But none of this guarantees the book will be merchandised, and I completely understand that–primarily because, like I said above, the ecosystem of publishing revolves around the fact that it’s a business, and there’s limited space for self-published authors, independents like us, on the homepages of sites like iBooks or Kobo. And the number one way of finding ebook readers, of discovery, is via merchandising.
With merchandising out of the picture, we’ve got to start building up word of mouth and momentum–which isn’t easy. It’s the hard work of find readers, of supplying reading copies, and of asking for favours, which I’ve never really felt comfortable doing. Social media will only take you so far, and a like does not equal a sale. I have wonderful friends and an incredibly supportive family, but they aren’t all ebook readers, and it’s not the same as your aunt heading into the bookstore and buying ten copies of your book because she’s so proud of you… So, it’s interesting. There’s the added issue that there are millions of ebooks on the market, and breaking through is hard–the formula, publish lots, offer your readership something for free, and slowly build an audience is what we’re working towards, but that’s more relevant for romance or, ahem, heavy romance, then the single novel-type novel that I’ve written.
So, the experiment continues. I’m over the panic and worry for the moment, the money that’s out there will trickle back with every copy we’ve sold. Right now we’re sitting at over 50+ copies, which isn’t terrible, but it’s not great either. We’ve made about $100.00, which I am incredibly grateful for, and the most profitable copy of the book I sold was emailing the ebook to a friend who bought it directly from me. And I think my experience is very different from what Jowita Bydlowska talked about in the National Post, primarily because the kind of books we’re writing are different, but the struggles are the same–to find an audience, to build up a readership, to make it on your own–it’s akin to the scrappy DIY-nature of most of my life. And I’m staying true to my list, to the distilled goal anyway, of making a living by my pen–even if right now it’s coming in painfully slow drips and drops of $10.00 payments from Amazon.
We’re getting there. I’m now realizing that perhaps I was premature in crossing “write a novel” off my list, because while I might not be an author in the traditional sense, I did find the essence of myself in that list. “Write a novel” wasn’t the end, it was really just the beginning.
January 16th, 2015
Back when my mother was in high school in Mississauga, at Gordon Graydon, she wore a kilt–the one on the attached photo. She’s standing on the far end, next to my grandmother, and both great-grandmothers, with my uncle in front. They lived not far away from where my in-laws live to this day, in the house where my husband grew up. After my mother had her accident, so much of her old clothing ended up folded and away in the closet in our spare room, the sewing room, the one my grandmother would sleep in on the nights she would stay with us if my father was working. I like to think I would have discovered the kilt anyway, would have worn it regardless, because I loved it and wore it all through high school with black tights, liquid eyeliner and big, clunky black shoes. I wore in waiting for the bus in sub-zero temperatures that would meander all around the neighbourhood, eventually picking Katrina up, and we’d spend an hour, even more, in transit to get downtown where we’d walk up and down Queen Street like we knew what we were doing. Oh, that bus ride, it was killer, it took ages and ages, transferring at Square One, which, back then, was just rows and rows of orange-striped buses that were never remotely on time. I wore that kilt out dancing until all hours of the night after Lesley got her license, and we’d end up downtown at RPM after filling up on Diet Coke and Mars bars, which masqueraded for dinner. I wore that kilt late at night, hanging out with the skinheads at Michael’s with my friend Amanda, terrified at the conversation, and thrilled to be there at all, sipping a tiny class of ridiculously warm and watered down draft, and wondering if it was a good thing that a fellow named Chad had my phone number (it ended up being fine, really thanks to Jay, who bailed me out of so many situations when we were in high school). I wore that kilt rolled up so it would appear shorter, and never dry-cleaned it–wore it until the buckle wore through the leather. Maybe I wore that kilt because it was my mother’s. Wore it because it belonged to her, and I could thread my way back to her, ever so slightly, even though we were not remotely the same size, same build, or even really had the same colouring.
It’s a strange thing to raid the closet of a ghost, in a way. My mother wasn’t there to tell me not to cut down her suede skirt or to how not to royally mess up “sewing” a skirt with this phenomenal black-patterned material she was planning to use. My mother wasn’t there to make sure I took care of her clothes, but I did in my own way, just by pulling them out of their ghost-like status, and breathing new life into them. I forgot to ask my aunt where her family might be going on this occasion. My paternal great-grandmother in her splendid pink outfit with that glorious hat. My uncle’s hair is so tidy. My mother is probably in grade nine or ten here, her hair in a bangs-with-bob style that I wore through much of high school, too. I still have this kilt, tucked away in a box in our basement, yet another reminder of stuff I’m not quite sure what to do with, like my prom dress, which I’ll never part with simply because my grandmother hand-sewed it in places, and it’s still beautiful, to me. Maybe my son will have a daughter, and I can hand her a musty pile of 70s & 80s & 90s clothes for when she’s a teenager striving out on her own to define herself by how she looks instead of what she feels inside–I wanted so badly to be different, never really internalizing the fact that we are all inherently our own snowflake. I remember a bus ride, early on in my time at high school, still reeling from the loss of my mother, still beside myself at the weekends visiting her in the hospital, trying to cope with the sheer weight of the loss of her from our everyday lives, our house so quiet, slowly losing furniture, and never really coming back to life, when I got into a fight with someone about something as asinine as whether or not INXS was better than U2, and then burst into tears. “It’s okay,” someone whispered to someone, “her mother was in a car accident.”
And that became the rallying cry. The only story. The whisper between teachers and parents and other kids who knew me before–the girl whose mother was in a car accident. It explained so much and described so little, a definition beside my name in the dictionary of my life. There’s nowhere to go from there. You can’t explain or push it away, it sits there, lump-like, waiting to be unparsed by legions of therapists over the course of a lifetime. We are nine full years away from having a teenager. Our boy, still giddy with the thought of school, of doing his activities, of learning how to swim, of learning about life, only understands the bits and pieces of what’s come before, and he certainly doesn’t grasp the sadness. There’s a wonderful book by Oliver Jeffers called The Heart and the Bottle. It’s about love and the loss of a parent, and the young girl who closes her heart up in a bottle to survive it all. I read that book to him because I think it comes close to explaining what that kind of loss feels like when you’re a young girl who loses her mother. And I cry a lot when I read it to him. Not big, wet sloppy crying, but just some tears that leak out because that’s sometimes what tears do. They’re there just to remind you that the sadness stays sometimes even when you’ve dealt with the loss, and talked about it, and remembered, and filled up some of the spaces in your life.
I never got to fight with my mother over that kilt. Never got to ask her permission to wear it. I just took it out of her ghost closet and put it on, claimed it for myself, a strike in my individuality column, or so I thought. Maybe she’d have been fine with it. Most likely yes. But she was keeping it for her own reasons I’ll never know. Whether it was to remind her of high school or because she did want me to have it at some point, or because she had a hard time giving old clothes away. And because it’s hers, I have a hard time passing it along too, even though it doesn’t fit me anymore and probably never will again, and I don’t need to look like a school girl anymore, anyway. I can walk down Queen Street and know exactly where I’m going. That’s the gift of growing older, being able to look at how silly you were to brave the frigid temperatures just to visit Pages, but knowing you’d have probably not turned out the way you had if you hadn’t read those books or played those records or raided your mother’s closet.
The other day, I was carrying our boy up the stairs for his bath/bedtime routine. He had the hiccups. He pressed himself to me, monkey-like, as we went upstairs, his “hic hic hic hic” right against my chest. And for a moment, it felt like he was back inside, “hic hic hic hic” was what I felt for almost the entire eight months he was in there. I didn’t know it was possible to be reminded of my pregnancy in such a vivid way–it was pretty great. And I wanted, at that moment, to tell my mom, one of the many things I’ve stored up over the years–put away into stories or tales or hidden way into the hinterland of my subconscious–and ached to be able to let out. Maybe that’s what I’m finally doing here.
January 14th, 2015
Oh, so late. It is now two weeks passed the first of the new year, and I have not written down a single revolution for 2015. Maybe it’s for the best. To not have a Revolution in mind for the year. Still, I need organization, but I think a better phrase might be that I need simplification, simplicity, even, in 2015. The last year was a good one–so many terrific things happened: our boy turned four, which is a delightful age; the disease remained stable, which is always a source of worry; my writing year went well, which filled me up in ways I find hard to express (ironic, isn’t it–a writer struggling with self-expression?); and my job remained both in-tact and fulfilling.
I had ten Revolutions last year, from Write to Sustain to Make Dinner–and, in a small way, we made gains in all of these areas. And that’s my takeaway from 2014 leading into 2015, making small, consistent changes works, for me. Ever-so slight differences that add up over time, like riding your bike to work almost every single day for over six months, which carried over into riding the ancient (thanks Sam!) exercise bike I have in the basement whenever I’m home in the evening without other plans. Managing, over time, to lead a more active life, which has rolled over into our family life, too. My favourite parts of the weekend these days are the Saturday afternoon visits to the community pool and the Sunday morning visits to the skating rink. I am wholly more active this year than last, and some of the baby-prednisone-disease weight has come off, seven kilos so far. I didn’t think it was possible, but it is–it’s just as easy for me to watch Sons of Anarchy on the bike as it is on the couch, and I’ve got a routine now, a pattern, and it’s working for me. Tiny steps.
It’s the same for writing. I’ve got a half-hour, maybe three times a week. It’s not much, but I managed to finish a book this year, and have started a grand publishing experiment. I’d like to stay on that track, too. It works, for me.
So, in light of this, and how late I am–I really think I’m going to stay focused this year on small changes. And I’m only going to have one Revolution, just one, and it’s as above:
I think the word encompasses so much of what I want to accomplish over the next year, and while I want to do more–more writing, more reading, more travelling, more movies, more exercise, more, more, more time with my family–in order to get there, I need to simplify.
Like most people, I am my own worst enemy. Make life so much harder than it has to be, and by bringing the focus back down to what’s simply in front of me, what my goals are, and they are not exceptional, I think I can keep on the path of small change equals big difference path I found myself on for much of last year.
So: simplify my spending, which will help us get out of debt; simplify my routine, which protects my body; simplify my worry, which will calm my system down and keep the disease at bay… and on and on and on.
Feels too easy, as I write these words. Feels, almost impossible, when I think of the constant, churning of my mind. Feels, as though I might regret it, but I’m going to try anyway.
December 19th, 2014
As a publishing professional, I’m curious about the changes in our industry, about the opportunities, and about platform. So, here’s our grand experiment. Written over the last couple years in the half-hour I had a few times a week, it’s a chicklit novel (with a bit of an edge) about a young woman trusting her instincts and carving out her life, on her own terms. Because I’m an ebook person, and because I have Rebecca Mills, my amazing partner-in-crime when it comes to this endeavour, we are trying out digital-only publishing.
Like I said, we’re curious to see how it all works. But, overall, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could finish something–and I hope for those who kindly decide to read it, that they enjoy it.
I have a million and a half people to thank, the aforementioned Rebecca, without whom the book would simply not be up at any of the vendors; my family, who loves me but, more importantly, puts up with me; especially my sister-in-law Denise and her friend Charlene, who read early drafts and were encouraging. Jessica Albert, who did our super-cute cover. My friends, who said go-go-go from the beginning, with a special shout-out to Nadine Silverthorne, without whom there would, literally, be no book. And work for giving me the okay.
Anyhow. I’m excited. And terrified. But thrilled to be continuing the indie spirit of our family, from my rock ‘n’ roll husband, who has played independent music for over two decades now. So, we’ll see how it all goes… publishing a book kind of like you would a blog–I like it, I think?
And P.S. The name of our company, Farringdon Road, comes from my British great-great-grandfather, who was a publisher in London–it was his place of business, sort of (we changed the “Street” to “Road” because we liked it better).
December 15th, 2014
Funny, I didn’t even know this photo existed until this past summer, when my aunt showed it to me. There’s my grandmother, in the top-right corner, standing beside her mother, and beside my great-uncle, who was a member of the Canadian Navy (I think). The caption on the back says that it’s D-Day, June 1944–and I am nowhere, not remotely alive, but that’s okay.
That my grandmother had a life, an entire world away, before she came to Canada as a war bride and become, as I knew her, my Nanny, intrigues me. It’s a research project, to find out more, more, more about my grandmother’s life. I remember more of her, because she was alive, with me, for longer than my mother, but she’s no less enigmatic, because so many questions I have remain unanswered. Her’s was a hard life, one of supporting tragedy, of having lived through the bombs, and the Blitz, and of ushering in new life (my aunt!) in the wake of all that blew up, oh, those Boomers. What was to come? Losing herself to colon cancer, that runs in our family, her son to follow a decade later, losing her middle child to the accident, like we all did, widowhood, and raising her grandchildren as much as was necessary–and that’s the part that I feel like I can tackle now.
I did not know her in this photo, but I want to. I want to ask her what it was like to be in London during the war. What it must have been to go to work at fourteen, when she really wanted to stay in school. What it was to meet my grandfather, and to see your life in that first blush of romance, to spend all that time with someone that maybe you shouldn’t have been with, to be an only child, to be British, and then staunchly Canadian. To be private, to have lived a life inside yourself, and so responsible, even if life gets beyond you. These are all my questions. These are all moments that I wish I could go back and ask about.
My favourite memory of my grandmother, and there are so many, are of her playing invisible snap with some friends of mine from high school. Of her holding court over a crazy pile of teenagers in the backyard of our house on Chaumont Cresent, where we lived in Mississauga. The first time I had a drink (peach schnapps, I do not recommend it). The first of many times my house was invaded by piles of teenagers and, still, my grandmother had a spirit and a presence about all of it–letting me find my way, enjoying my friends, enjoying herself. Another moment in time: my head in her lap as she ran through family history with me, noting cousins, aunts, uncles. I still have the piece of paper where we mapped it all out. Since then, I’ve gone through a half-dozen more generations, tracing as far back as I can to somehow reach deep down and figure out who I am. I’m not there yet.
In that moment, right before she died, wearing an oxygen mask, and settled in her bed, I wanted to shout out a list of everything she saved me from when she stepped in during the first tumultuous years after my mother’s accident. She saved me, most of all, from myself. She gave me her spirit of adventure, and her tenacity. She cut my hair, and loved me fiercely, but quietly. She was firm, but strong, and had character that came from someplace I would never understand. She made my clothes, and tried to teach me how to knit, backwards, because I’m left-handed, and left behind a space that aches when it’s sunny, in particular, at the cottage, a place she loved.
No special anniversary to celebrate. No giant, sweeping epic. A few secrets, I’m sure. It’s again, more of the everyday that I miss. And that’s the rub, that’s the intensity of losing so many people that you love. You can’t appreciate the small moments, in detail, because they’re forgettable. And that’s the way it should be. You can’t climb back through time, because it’s impossible. You can’t remember everything. But there are moments when I wish I could slip into the photograph, and stand beside my grandmother, wear my own pinny, wave a flag, and shout out: “I was here. You were here. And I love you, desperately.”
December 11th, 2014
Picture the moment before a pandemic–what might that look like–people in everyday situations going about their everyday lives. Some are at the theatre. Some are walking home from work. Some are on a plane going somewhere. Coming home from somewhere. Stuck somewhere. This is the premise that opens Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s captivating novel. In the instant before the world collapses, one man falls down on stage–a renown and infamous actor, Arthur Leander–dead from an apparent heart attack. A young man, training to be a paramedic, hops up on stage to try and save him. He can’t. A young girl in the production of King Lear with him is deeply, profoundly affected by not only his death, but her association with the play itself. An ex-wife a world away who hears the news, doesn’t quite know what to do with it. And what Mandel has done here, sits with me, profoundly–because she has paused on the very moments before a calamity, and allowed her characters to stew in an everyday tragedy. Here’s the mark, the one event that would have scarred your life had it gone on as it should; instead, it becomes the punctuation, an ellipsis, that melts into a much larger event–the end of the world, essentially. And that to me is some smart, smart storytelling.
The Georgian Flu, an extreme case of a type of avian flu, hits the world and within a few weeks 90% (or some crazy number, no one really knows exactly how many) of the world’s population is dead. And with any pandemic, the life that’s left behind is forever “after,” so much so that the years are recalibrated as “Year One,” “Year Two,” etc., after the worst has passed.
Many of the characters in Station Eleven are artists, the members of the Traveling Symphony that roam a mostly safe route to perform, as a troupe would have in the days theatre first evolved, from place to place, looking for an audience. They are storytellers, hunter-gatherers of culture, roaming their way across a civilization that has lost everything. For me, while the threat of other people was always ever-present, it never really approached Walking Dead territory, where every human being puts up a kill or be killed kind of fight. This isn’t a post-apocalyptic situation that I’m used to–there’s Shakespeare in this world. There’s Bach and a museum, and a thread of the “before” in ways that feel as if Mandel means to point out that art is important. That said, the world isn’t without its dangers, and when members of their troupe go missing after engaging with a particularly fanatical prophet, it becomes apparent that the skills of the road, the necessary parts of survival, are as bare and animalistic as one would imagine.
So there are survivors, and there are victims. There is magic and there is brutality. There is humanity and there is insanity in this new world post-flu. And overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book–I loved Arthur’s flawed character, and how, even in death, his presence haunts the entire book. I really liked the Traveling Symphony and their wandering band of actors and musicians. I even, truly, appreciated the ending of the novel, which I won’t spoil here for obvious reasons.
Still, I’ve been ruined by post-apocalyptic situations. Mainly, I’ve been ruined by Battlestar Galactica. I know. That might be the strangest sentence I’ve ever written in a book review before. But stay with me–here’s what I think. The nature of the attack on humanity was different, alien, in fact, and the humans were stranded on a small fleet of vehicles up in space–but they managed to keep civilization somewhat in tact because there was government. And that’s, I know, not Mandel’s point–she’s more focused on individuals, and not what a country would do, but that’s where the book fell down for me, ever-so slightly. That in all the years, and all of the small civilizations that would have sprung up, there would have been some effort to at least locate survivors of government, to keep something at least barely organized, in communication–and that the whole world essentially stops around a band of what feels like to me, the least likely to survive, felt a bit contrived.
I’m probably not expressing myself clearly–so I’ll stop there. It’s a good book. Highly deserving of all its praise and accolades, and one I am so pleased I read this year, when reading has been more of a challenge for me than any other time in my life.
December 1st, 2014
The last few months of my reading life have been bereft of a key ingredient: actual reading. I was having a hard time finding books, reading them, and finishing them. Not sure if I’ve found my way. Books have been the one constant in my life and, yet, I have so little time for reading. Caroline Adderson’s wonderful Ellen in Pieces put a spring in my step, and not just because it’s the first book in a long time that I’ve read cover-to-cover in a super-short period of time. It’s the perfect kind of book for a weekend afternoon of reading when your kid is ensconced in watching some Disney movie you’ve already listened to a million times. You will fall into this book and feel at various moments that, for a woman of a certain age, living a certain life, with or without children, Adderson has seen right into your life.
Forgive me for allowing that the “pieces” of the title refer to the book’s non-linear format. It slips back and forth through time and up and down different points of view. It’s disconcerting at moments, not because the book doesn’t make sense or the parts beyond the novel’s central character, Ellen, are lacking, but simply because I loved that character so much I resented those other voices, the other perspectives. But no one lives their life in a vacuum, and when you hear about Ellen from her best friends, from her cad of an ex-husband, from her young lover, from her children, it adds layers upon layers to a life already rich with mistakes, misgivings, happiness, and wild abandon.
And I’m taking lessons from reading The Empathy Exams, which is another book that I managed to actually finish these days–polar opposite to a book of fiction written in Canada–but there’s a central thesis in one of Jamison’s essays that touches upon the state of “female pain.” It’s a very worthwhile essay to contemplate, for many reasons, not the least of which is an insistence, ever so slight, that despite the tropes around the idea of women in pain, these kinds of stories exist, they are our stories, and we should claim them. I am paraphrasing, badly, but I was thinking about this, desperately, over the last couple weeks, and found that pain resonates throughout Ellen in Pieces, whether it’s the pain of your own broken dreams, of broken relationships, of failed friendships, of mother-daughter bonds–really, simply, of life itself.
Novels about women who have breast cancer are a dime a dozen. I can think of a few off the top of my head that made me want to punch a wall for how obviously they were manipulating both the idea of loss and the illness itself. I can think of one other book that I’ve read in recent memory where illness wasn’t a device but a wonderful, necessary part of the story (Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That). Let’s put the SPOILER tag in here now… Here, Ellen’s breast cancer doesn’t feel manipulative. It’s not maudlin, and it’s not melodramatic. But what’s also interesting is that is the moment that Adderson skips Ellen’s point of view and begins to tell the story from the perspective of the other characters. I missed Ellen through the second half of the book. I missed her raw, angry, and sometimes unforgiving voice. I also missed her energy, her motion, and her voice. She’s a great character, and I wished, in a way, that Adderson had at least continued to show us her own thoughts during her illness. But then maybe I’d be missing the point. Because what her death allowed was the rejuvenation of so many people in her life, her eldest daughter in particular; and it stopped the book from turning me completely into a puddle. There are many voices in this book, each crowding to the surface to show ordinary life at its most extraordinary. Still, the true heralding success of this novel, for me anyway, has to be the author’s voice–it’s rich, symphonic even, and had me from the first page. It’s a rare feat these days, finding a book that can cut through my exhaustion, my own trials and tribulations of being a middle-aged mum, and bring me out the other side sad that it’s over because I’ll have to return to my seemingly never-ending unreading-reading state.
November 21st, 2014
The in-between nature of the last few weeks has done a bit of a number on us. We had a bit of a scary time with our attached-to-us-neighbours, which resulted in us having to call the police, which is the last thing on earth one wants to do with attached-to-you-neighbours. The situation has calmed down now, and the panic has started to subside. My bike is away for the winter, so I don’t have that outlet, I’m barely reading these days, so my brain feels a little mushy, and I could always be eating better, so you know the 3PM sugar cravings are just about doing me in. Still, I wasn’t prepared, like so many people in Toronto, for the absolute onslaught of winter. Freezing temperatures, an icy-cold walk home from the subway, big coats, hats, mittens–today I wore sneakers and said f*ck it to the boots. I’m just not ready yet.
But you can’t avoid the weather, just like you can’t avoid the truth of your own body. Blasting you in the face like a snowstorm in January-November, that’s what my roots were, a meditation in how my genes betrayed me, yet again, sapping all of the colour from my hair starting when I was twenty. So, I’ve decided, like wearing my sneakers in the winter, to f*ck it, and let my hair go grey. There were parts of my hair that had turned a greenish tinge from too much colour, from trying to hold the colour in, and I’ve given up paying a bananas amount of money I don’t have at the moment to keep myself groomed, which I was never truly successful at anyway. My mother’s hair turned grey when she was young, really young–in the above picture, she’s thirty-four–this is the summer, I think, just before the accident (it might be the one just before that, too). She could be thirty-three, if it’s the year before the accident. I’m not sure. And that’s okay. The timeline isn’t important any more. She, too, battled the grey, henna, hair dye, perms, you name it, my mother tried it. It was a different time. It’s a different time now, with so many women suspended in terms of their aging by being able to keep their hair in colour instead of black and white. By the time of her advanced stay in the hospital, toward the end of the second decade, her hair had turned white, so white it looked like down, and it was a beautiful colour. So like my grandmother’s, and I think if mine turns out half as nice, I can live with it for the next forty years I’m on this earth.
So, we’re I’m in the in-between stage, between giving up the ghost of my youthful looks and embracing my age. I’m in the middle of so many things these days. Waiting for the hammer to drop at work, maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Waiting for a big project I’ve been working on to drop, which I hope it will in December. Waiting for our neighbours to act bananas again. Waiting for the good weather to return and waiting to accept winter on its own terms. Waiting. And so much of my feelings around my mother, and what happened to her, and what happened to us as a result was about being in between, too. She was in between life and death, we were in between mourning and acceptance. She suffered, and we felt guilt. Those are complex emotions that are hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t been in the situation.
The theme of being in-between has, haunted me–I don’t really want to use that word because it implies a sadness, an echo of malcontent, that I don’t think is accurate. Being blessed with the in between has allowed me, after much therapy, to be able to see around the edges. Without the sadness, and the heartache, and the simply hard bits of my life, I would have no context for the rest. And I crave context. It’s what allows me to write, and to wonder about the world, and to feel empathy–a most important aspect of emotional life.
My book club has been reading Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. It’s not a book that I would have ever come to without my ever-generous, ever-brilliant Vicious Circle. And I am finding so much in it, it’s a rich study, both because of Jamison’s writing, but also of her particular perspective, of her time, of her place, and how she relates to her life. She says, in an essay called “In Defense of Saccharin(e)”: “But why is it that my memories offer me back to myself in my most trivial moments? Why do I hunger for significant barometers but find myself tethered to banality instead.”
Here is my in-between. I am writing a post about being vain and letting my hair go grey. It’s banal. It’s not particularly saccharine, but I could inflict more of that within my post if I tried. But this toss and turn, and back and forth, and up and down–these are my memories at the moment. I’m reaching back for the everyday, to be tethered to the banality of the life I lived when my mother was alive, and I can’t get there. I find myself, raking back through my tired brain, and come up against the very happy or the very sad. The moment when I cut my bangs way too short (and all by myself) in grade eight because I was babysitting for the Andersons and was kind of bored. How my mother laughed when they dried and were about eighteen different lengths. How the principal made me take off my hat until he saw what I had done, and then let me wear it in school because it was so bad. How my mother laughed at me, giant, gaping, huge, laughter. And I mortified I was, but I was always doing stuff like this–half-sewing a skirt and wearing it to school anyway, threads trailing along down my legs, my seamstress mother and grandmother horrified, I’m certain in the wings. I have always been utterly myself. I’m sure I was born this way–barreling through life–through my own trivial moments hoping that they’ll own themselves up to me in a way that I’ll remember. Because there are moments that I can’t bare not to remember her. There are moments when I wish I had more than the memories I have. Where I wish, with everything, to ask her how I learned to read or what I was like when I was small, and was I anything like my boy who is so open it makes my heart ache.
So yes, Leslie Jamison, I remember the banal because my life was so boring–it was there and it was happy and I was a kid and I was awkward and silly and bright and loved and loved and loved. What I don’t want to remember, too, lingers on, and on: the hospital, and the deep welt of sadness that defined my life, and how it affected my brain, and my being and who I became. The in-between girl.
Still, even with all of this on my mind lately, wanting to write more and more about my mother and about these experiences, there are moments when I simply can’t help myself. We were coming home from the Santa Claus parade last weekend. After the cold, but before the snow, and there was a giant pile of leaves in Dufferin Grove Park, and I wanted to lie in them SO BADLY. So my husband took a picture and it was a lovely day. The small parts adding up, a bit of extra sleep, homemade waffles for breakfast, a parade, a long walk home, and the fading light of a fall afternoon. I was happy. But I’m sure I’m not at all making sense. I’m sure that’s okay, too. I’ll walk home in the cold, in my sneakers, ride the bike in my basement, work some of it out, and start again tomorrow.
October 21st, 2014
We spent the Thanksgiving long weekend at the cottage. It’s a bittersweet moment–closing the cabin down for the winter. Getting all the laundry into bags, emptying the kitchen, pulling everything out of the drawers and bagging it. The whole process marks the end of a season for me. Summer, well and truly over, the kids picking up multi-coloured leaves for crafts, apple picking, playing ball outside, still, fall has its charms. But what we lose in those deep winter months that the cottage is uninhabitable is our escape. Even getting out of the city for a day or two does wonders for your brain, reset, rewind, however you want to describe it, there’s something about being there that allows my mind to rest. For years, before I had kids or my cousins had kids, I would spend a late-summer, early fall weekend up at the cottage with a fire on all the time, reading, sleeping, reading, sleeping, eating, playing cards, reading, sleeping, writing. It’s odd, but I am more myself there than anywhere else in the world.
The theme from my last post, the idea of being set adrift from the expected course of my life by the death of my mother, is still resonating through me, and my thoughts. My aunt sent me some more photos of my mother, and I find the one attached profound. I have no memory of the photo itself, I didn’t take it, and it’s not familiar to me. Except that it is, intimately, in a sense, because I know exactly where my mother is sitting and the landscape she’s looking at. It’s been unchanged for as long as we’ve owned the cottage. The sun deck looks out at the lake, and this is what you see–the big island straight ahead, the bay to the right, pickerel bay behind the big islands, the dam at the end, and way at the other end, a beach. Cottages dot the shore, and there’s a small island that’s within reasonable swimming distance, if you’re wearing flippers or feeling strong.
The facts are the facts. The view is the view. But the intangibles are what catch me up. What is she thinking about? What happened before, or after this photo? The light looks like it might be later on in the afternoon, which means we’ve had lunch, probably on the deck. Maybe we’re in the water or running around somewhere outside. It’s that magical time when the kids are all fed, occupied with summer-stuff, and it’s not time to make dinner or do something. As a mother, now, I know this time well, or the gift of this time. Back then I would have been off with my cousins somewhere, not thinking about what my mother was thinking about, at all. Now, I wish I could ask her what was on her mind, not only that day, but in every picture we have of her. It’s the loss of a relationship with my mother as an adult that I acutely miss these days. Fourteen years is a good long time to spend with another human. Using my most successful relationship with my RRHB as an example, those years have flown by, but they are also punctuated with vivid memories, and I can crawl back through them at any point. But so much of the time with my mother was forgotten moments, too young to remember conversations, caring, cuddles, and all of the bits and pieces that punctuate my life with my son.
And this is tragedy. Standing in an ocean of your life, maybe a bit too far out for safety’s sake. A big wave crashes into you–a wall of water and you are swallowed up, salt stinging your eyes, scraping your feet on shells and other sandy detritus, until it’s passed, and you can find your bearings again. We don’t have waves that strong at the cottage. The biggest boat going by will barely make a ripple that doesn’t even throw you off your floaty. Still, this view, the one my mother’s staring out at, is our compass. We come to it again and again in our family. It’s comfortable and the closest thing to home we have. The landscape has not changed and nor has the meditative quality of a summer day at the lake. Of a life lived in bathing suits, in the water, out of the water, on the dock, and right up until you go to bed. I love that we spend the summer in bathing suits. I love that we dangle our feet off sun decks and docks, and that we feel as much love for this place as have for one another.
I am lucky. To have been loved by someone so much that still, decades later, the space they occupied in my life has never been absorbed by anyone else. Still, these places are never the same once they are left. An an echo of laughter is missing. Their contribution to a card game is an empty seat. For us, that emptiness became obvious in our everyday lives. For years we lived without furniture in our living room. I missed my mother’s parenting. The simple, stubborn fact of life never letting you forget that you are walking around while she was trapped in a hospital room–the dreary and dull air surrounding her in stark contrast to where she wanted to spend her time, I’m sure.
The summer swings by so fast. In a moment we’ve packed our bathing suits away and closed up the cottage. It’s too cold to sleep there in the late fall, takes too much to heat it up, and it won’t stay warm for long periods of time. We spend so much more time indoors in the colder months; it’s the nature of being Canadian. I don’t think that’s what my mother was contemplating in this photo. I’ll never know what she was. But I can take comfort in knowing what she was looking at is the same as the one I see all summer. There’s continuity there, and that will have to be enough.
September 24th, 2014
Since our boy’s been in full-time school, we’re all getting used to a new routine. Lunches away from home, half-eaten, yoghurt spilled all over his lunchbag–I never thought we’d need more than one. We (and by “we” I mean “I”) bought a fancy “bento”-style container-thingy to go in said lunchbag without really thinking about it. The issue? He can’t open it. So, not really going to work when it comes down to sending it to school with him. My husband is working these next couple weeks, and our lives sort of grind to a halt–there’s simply never enough time to do anything, and September is a sad month anyway. For all the new beginnings, I’m constantly reminded of endings as well, of the simple punctuation of life itself, and how we are tethered to one another by these invisible forces, family as gravity. It’s a metaphor I’ve been thinking about for a while of how untethered I felt after I lost my mother the first time.
Trying to explain it to myself, or to understand it, I kept coming back to the idea of an astronaut in space–left adrift to float until they run out of oxygen without gravity to hold them in place. And that’s what it’s like when you lose your mother. You’re adrift without any context of yourself in the world. Or, at least I was, because I had a wonderful childhood with two parents who loved me, who loved each other, and an extended family that worked hard to bring us up as one big unit. And then our lives began to be punctuated by tragedy, we are not alone in unexpected deaths–but, at the time, it felt like we were cursed. My uncle died in a car accident, a drunk driver hit he and my aunt. Two of my grandparents died while I was in middle grade. And then my mother’s car accident that left her hospitalized with a serious brain injury for decades. And when her body had finally had enough of the appalling life it was subjected to in a long-term care facility, she died on a beautiful September day. It’s not often that people go through losing their mother twice–once to an injury she would never recover from, and the second time as a release from the burden of life. Each time was different, but still, the feeling of being adrift resounded through me.
For years I’ve contemplated how to write or what to say about my mother. How to remember her. What I remember of her, her life, and of who she might have been. I have stories, but memory is a funny–I will remember some incident, a flutter in my mind, and talk to my brother, who’ll have no recollection of that day, that event. Stories cannot cobble together a life that was meant to be lived. They are paved stones in a giant field placed too far apart to truly make any sense. There it comes again, that thought, the idea of my life being that astronaut in space–set adrift when gravity fails to hold me down. The moment my mother had her accident, I lost all context for my life, and I am a person who needs context and clarity.
In the photo attached, we were at a wedding. The youngest son of the family that owned the cottage next to ours was getting married. We drove to Pennsylvania for the wedding. I was thirteen so my mother must be thirty-four in this photograph. She made what she’s wearing, and she made my dress too. My mother inherited my grandmother’s ability as a seamstress. It came naturally to her, from what my aunt has told me–she sewed from a young age and I can appreciate the skill, seeing as it wasn’t necessarily passed down to me. The ring she’s wearing, an amethyst, is too small for my fingers, even though I still wear it sometimes–it fits on my right ring finger, just barely. She’s wearing a gold chain with an Aquarius symbol on it, it’s the one you can’t really see–she wore it all the time. I wear it all the time, too, when I need to feel lucky. The blue eyeshadow she’s wearing is actually from an eye pencil. I watched her apply it time and time again sitting on the toilet in the bathroom as she did her makeup. Watching, as girls do, their mothers get ready to go out to party. In the weeks before the accident, the pencil, called Robin’s Egg Blue, ran out, and when my mother threw it into the garbage she said, “Well what am I going to do now?”
Her laughter was huge, roiling over like a pot at full boil, I can still hear it if I concentrate hard enough. She wore a musky perfume that I still recognize. A woman, years ago when I first started working in Toronto walked by me wearing it, and I followed her for blocks trying to get up the nerve to ask her what it was, because I don’t remember the bottle, only the smell. These fragments aren’t enough to pull me back down to earth. All those years my mother spent in the hospital, her life was unbearable–as much to her as it was for us, bed-ridden for the most part, her short-term memory eradicated, her body bashed up and never to recover. She faded and faded and faded, and even as I grew older, she never failed to recognize me, or my brother. We were tethered to her, as were her siblings, her mother, while she was alive, my father. And the guilt crushed me. And when she died, it was as if that floated away in the most positive sense.
All of this is surfacing today because I drove by the intersection of the hospital on Saturday for the first time since she died. I didn’t even realize, really, where I was going until I was there and saw the signs. I was on my way out of the city to drop my son off at his grandfather’s. A friend and I were going to Guelph junk shopping for the afternoon. The sun was shining. The weather was perfect for a day of hunting for treasures. And as I drove by the sign for the hospital, I said, “Oh, that’s the hospital where my mother died.” We did a quick u-turn (traffic) and sped off in another direction, and it wasn’t until we were stuck in another traffic jam (it was that kind of day) where I got to thinking about the fact that it was September, and my mother had died in September, and I hadn’t been back up to the hospital where she died or the hospital where she lived since then.
There are concrete places: she died at Humber River Hospital. There are concrete dates: she died on September 8th, 2008. But the rest is a blur. I remember when the hospital called to tell me that my mother had a serious infection, and that she had been transported from West Park to the closest hospital. My husband and I went to see her the day they called, and spent the next few days watching and waiting as she grew progressively worse, her lungs wet, her breath, raspy, until the very last moments when her body started to shut down, her limbs turning waxy, and in the very moment when she died, how she opened her beautiful, beautiful, beautiful eyes up wide and looked at us–in that moment, she was herself for the first time in decades. As if she knew it was time, and we would be okay, and it was okay for her to pass on–I will never forget the haunting wonder of that moment. I will never forget that moment–it was a gift of clarity for the years and years she was trapped by her injuries. It was a moment of freedom, when being set adrift was more then just the loss it represented, it was an end. Of course, there’s a finality to death. There’s an explanation and an understanding that’s easier to put words around. For years, I would say that I “lost” my mother when I was fourteen. Because I did. The accident happened two weeks before I was about to start high school, and while my brother and I were both away at different camps. But when my mother died in September 2008, the loss was different. We had been living with her dying for over two decades at that point. We had come to a sort of anxious peace about the state of her life, and where ours needed to continue. We visited the hospital as often as we could. Those days were unbearably hard. It’s an immediately sad and overwhelmingly clinical place–and I’d be reeling, in tears, for days around any visit depending on how she was. Nothing of how I felt could come close to what my mother must have been going through in that stale room day after day, what she knew, or how time passed for her. And still, she laughed, it wasn’t the same laughter, but she still laughed at times, at jokes, and she adored my husband, even though she wasn’t quite sure who he was.
Six years have passed. And in that time, I’ve had a child, moved forward in my career, written, read, travelled, loved, and been cocooned by my own family unit. Still, there’s an urge to roam through the memories of my aunt, her sister, of my father, her husband. For a while now, I’ve wanted to sit down and record everything that they might remember. Hope that it’ll give me a fuller picture of who my mother was out of context of our relationship. The space she occupied in my life is undefinable–I understand that now after having my own child. He’s his own person, but there’s not much space between he and I, especially now because he’s still so small. And after all these years, I’ve finally found some context outside of being the girl who lost her mother so tragically. Yes, that loss defines me in ways that I find hard to articulate. But I have also gained so much: a strength and understanding about tragedy and what it does to your brain; an appreciation for the family my husband and I have created; how I value loyalty, and how much I held on to my husband on those days when we visited the hospital; and how lucky I was to have my mother for those fourteen years. She raised me well in that time. She raised me into the person I am, and that is concrete–I have my feet on the ground, pulled down by her gravity, and there’s something to be said for that kind of invisible strength.