When September rolls around, I always think about "back-to-school." Usually, I blog about it. Last year I wrote something about clothes -- that first-day outfit. The year before that, it was about the weather -- the sudden crispness in the air. The year before that, I think I wrote something about change, and all the different places where I've lived.
I've always thought that Labour Day was an unescapable emotional trigger. That every year, it would activate something in me through some strange combination of sense and muscle memory. I would feel that back-to-school rush, that prickling motivation to start something new, that remembered-desire to change everything about myself and start fresh, just in time for the "new year."
But this year, I don't.
It's odd. All the old starters are here. I can hear the kids out at recess after months of silence, there's more traffic on the road, the light seems weaker and all the humidity is gone. It's almost chilly. And still, it doesn't feel like "back-to-school." It feels like any other day. And I'm not sure I like it.
I feel outside of something that seems to be happening to everyone else and it's making me a little sad. Is back-to-school gone forever? Will it come back? Maybe if we had children? Never?
I have been feeling a bit old, this summer. Not OLD old, but older. Somewhat bereft of possibility. I keep thinking about what I was like in my early twenties, when I was "just starting out" as they say. It's not that those days feel like they were such a long time ago. (They don't -- they feel recent. Disturbingly recent.) It's just that my realm of possibility has gotten so much smaller since, the borders closing in. At certain moments in our lives (if we're relatively lucky, and I have been) almost all paths are open. You can imagine yourself being almost anything, if only you could make a choice. Astronaut?* It's possible. Given the right education, it's possible! Or rather, it was possible.
There are two schools of thought on this. Nathan, bless him, thinks I'm being too negative. (Compared to him, I'm always being too negative.) Other people have told me that almost everything remains possible with the right amount of will power. They say, "You can still be anything you want to be. You just have to be willing to take a leap! Ask! Believe! Receive!" (Barf.) And then there are those who think that the opposite is true, that with every day that passes, every choice we make limits our future choices, until our respective paths are, if not definite, then very predictable.
I don't know what I think. Both things are true to an extent. I suppose if I really wanted to, I could change my life, begin again. I mean, I've done it before. (But that was because I had to. If you don't have a choice in the matter, reinvention is a very different thing.) At the same time, it's certainly no longer possible for me to be many things. MOST things. I mean, really. Astronaut? It's never going to happen (even if I wanted it to).
At this point, I'm guessing that I'm never going to go back to school. Not ever. I think that part of my life is over. Maybe that's why I'm a little sad today, I'm not sure.
Sometimes I feel like I wasted a lot of my 20s, that I missed out on doing what I should have been doing because I was focussed on something dumb. I don't know ... It's impossible to know how things might have been different. Maybe they wouldn't have been different.
When I started my MA, I was 27, and I remember asking a prof I was friendly with if he thought I was too old to begin grad school. He said no, that he thought I was fine, but he also added that if I had been a bit older, say 30, he would have cautioned me. By 30, he said, he wouldn't advise it. AND THAT WAS SIX YEARS AGO. So I think about that and I think, "Oh well. Another door closed. I guess I'll never get a PHD." I don't even WANT a fucking PHD, I just feel a little sad about not really being allowed to get one, you know?
I think I'm rambling. Anyway, that's this year's back-to-school post in the bag. Maybe nothing's changed at all.
*I don't actually want to be an astronaut. That's just an example. Jeeze.
Well, here we are in February of 2013 and I have yet to write anything new for the year. Actually, that’s not really true. I’ve written lots of new things, just nothing for the blog. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to, or haven’t been thinking about it. I have. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, but hesitating, for various reasons.
The thing is, this blog has evolved a lot. When I first started out blogging, in 2005, I was writing mostly about pithy work stuff. I was so self-conscious. Every post was a name-droppy mess. One week I wrote about interviewing Feist at the Vancouver Folk Festival. Another time, I talked about working a junket for the movie Crash and interviewing Paul Haggis (at the Four Seasons… I believe I made sure to include that oh-so-scintillating fact). This is embarrassing for a lot of reasons. First off, being a name-dropper is inherently gross. (If you’re someone who does it, stop immediately.) Besides that, it just seems … sad. I was sad.
Anyway, after I left that line of work and went back to school to do my MA in Toronto, the blog started to evolve into something more confessional. And okay, that was fine. I like memoir and confessional writing. Always have, despite the fact that the writing scene (literary and less-so) turns a collective nose up at this sort of thing. But my posts were often vague. I can see, looking back, how my posts were a bit like long Facebook status updates where I shared enough to let people know something was going on, but not so much that they would actually know what that something was. I was (and often am) too self-conscious to tell the complete truth about anything. (Again, more on that later.) But on occasion I’d write a post that was truer than others and the response would mushroom. When I wrote that post about high school
for example, about how I felt bullied by the girls in my social group … holy crap. People responded. A lot. In fact, though that post went up a full two years ago, I still get comments on it. (I recently had to close the comments section because I didn’t feel like moderating anymore.) In the same vein, I wrote a post about my grandmother’s death about a year ago that, as many regular readers know, caused quite a stir. I took that one down to appease family members who thought it was unfair (and evidently, that I was a horrible, disgusting person for writing it, if you’re to believe the bilious comments they left), but despite that, as with the high school piece, I still get positive feedback. People get in touch to say they loved the piece, and that they wish I’d left it up. Others write to tell me about their own complicated family relationships and the way the older people in their lives have inspired a mix of love and frustration.
(Sidenote: My own family doesn’t appear to have forgiven me, despite the fact that I took that post down. This has been hard to come to terms with. I try to comfort myself with the idea that I told the truth. My mother-in-law gave me a book for Christmas that addresses this very issue. In her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal
? Jeanette Winterson writes "Unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself." Maybe this is true. I know many members of my own family would interject here that they are
and that I should just shut up
or some such thing. So anyway. I guess I’ll shut up about that.)
Anyway, back to the mainline. Truth-telling, especially about difficult subjects, seems to be what people respond to, at least in my case. Never was this more apparent than in the response to the post I wrote near the end of 2010 called The weight
. In that piece, I talked pretty frankly about my body obsession and weight cycling and again, people responded. HUGELY. The post was picked up by several other sites, including at least one from overseas written entirely in a Scandanavian language I don’t know. (So I have no idea what anybody said about it, but they sure seemed to say a lot.) In the States, the blog was found by an organization (HealthyPlace
) that focuses on mental health issues and I was invited to speak on one of their podcasts about eating disorders. The comments flooded in, both on the post itself and privately, via email. People wrote to tell me about their own feelings on similar issues. Many people wrote to tell me about their eating disorders. Some just wrote to say hi and to say that the piece made them feel less isolated. (That was nice.)
And ultimately, thanks to the comments and the feedback, I came to see that The weight
was probably the most important thing I’d ever written to date, not because of the feedback itself, but because the feedback gave me perspective. And here’s the big thing that came out of that: I finally faced the fact that I myself have an eating disorder.
Yep. I have an Eating Disorder (ED). And there’s more!
I’ve HAD this disorder for about 20 years. And I didn’t even know it.
Now, to be fair, I knew the way I ate and exercised was (sometimes) questionable, but at the same time, my “disordered behaviours” (this is the way we talk in recovery) all felt relatively normal. I was just dieting. I didn’t have Anorexia because hey, I ate (most of the time). And I didn’t have Bulimia because I didn’t really purge (most of the time). As for those periods of crazy exercise, well, that was just being healthy
. No pain no gain, right? Sigh.
Basically, like a lot of people, I thought Anorexia and Bulimia were all there was. (I bet many of you think that right now, in fact. Nobody tells us about the dangers of sub-clinical disordered eating in general, not to mention Orthorexia, or Anorexia Athletica, or what I have: Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS)
. It’s a real thing – a clinically recognized eating disorder with defined diagnostic criteria. EDNOS is, I believe, the most commonly diagnosed ED out there. And before 2012, I’d never even heard of it. Just one more thing to write in the “society is totally fucked up” column.
Anyway. The good news is, I’m getting better. Without going into too much detail about that part of things, I can say that I’m officially “in recovery” and have been for a while. It’s going okay. But EDs, from what I’ve leaned, can be a lot like substance abuse issues in that relapse is always a possibility, and of course, I have shitty days where I hate myself and I am really REALLY tempted to do the things I used to do to “fix” my body, but for the most part, I resist. I’m trucking along. I’m lucky. I’m a “middle class” person who often passes as “white” living in a big city with a lot of resources designed for and made available specifically for people like me. A lot of people aren’t as lucky as I am. (People can and do die from EDs like mine. Or they lead really sad lives chained to their disorders forever.) I’m getting better.
I’m also fat. Have you noticed? People do. Just last week, I had the pleasure of a longish conversation with a stranger who wanted to know when I was “due.” (I said March, by the way, because it just felt so much easier that saying, “Actually, I’m just fat.” *) I get comments about my “still” pretty face. I am faced with friends who are obsessed with their own bodies who look at me and clearly think (sometimes even say) “What HAPPENED?” They’re obviously terrified that whatever it is might happen to them. Others are fond of chastising me for identifying my body as fat at all. “Oh, Jen, you’re not fat!” they exclaim, with so much speed it’s obvious that fat is the worst thing they think a person could be. (I do this too. I can't help it. We all do. We're all trying to be nice.) The thing is, I'm trying to get comfortable with the notion of fat as fine and to let go of the constantly repeated idea that fat = disgusting, lazy, greedy, ugly, etc. etc. etc. ** but people think that way, even though many don't realize it. It makes a lot of folks uncomfortable when you challenge that. It’s all pretty ridiculous. Fat really scares people. (And the truth is, while I’m fat, I’m not even especially fat. I can’t even imagine the absolute horror show of abuse and shame heaped on people who are fatter than I am. It’s truly terrifying and extremely unjust, but that’s another topic and this blog is already long enough as it is. ***) All I’m really trying to say is that since taking real steps to recover, all this body-talk has made social interactions hard. Or rather, harder than they used to be.
Supportive or not, fat-positive or not, kind or not, other people are “triggers” for me. (There’s that recovery language again.) And this might mean that in the last year, I’ve started seeing less of you. Or maybe I deleted you from Facebook or something. This brings us to the second big mental health revelation in this post:
In addition to my super fun ED, I also have pretty pronounced Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). Hooray!
As with my ED, I’ve had it for a long time, but my diagnosis is pretty recent. I spent most of my 20s fighting this because when combined with my naturally introverted nature I was seen as “anti-social” and “no fun.” I was embarrassed by my desire to be alone or to spend time with friends one-on-one instead of at parties, so I worked hard to hide that. (Note here that being introverted is not the same as being shy. And neither of those things is the same as Social Anxiety Disorder. There’s lots of literature if you want to read up to better understand the differences.) Anyway, like I said, I worked hard to hide both my natural introversion (which is really no big deal, not an illness or even a problem, and which I’ve learned to accept) and my anxiety (which IS a big deal and can be debilitating ) and I got really good at it. People comment all the time on how gregarious I seem, how good I am at talking to strangers, how confident I am (especially on 5+ drinks). What can I say? When I seem gregarious, I’m really wishing I was dead! Ha ha! Fooled you!
I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience (because everyone’s mental health issues are different, even when they’re ostensibly the same), but in my case, my ED and my SAD are related, and from what I hear, this is often the case. In recovery support groups we talk a lot about how, for some people, the ED is a reaction to stress – a sort of maladaptive coping mechanism that, at least at one time, helped to relive anxiety and dial down the autonomic nervous system response. (Science talk! Woot woot!) This is probably why you’ll hear people who know nothing about Anorexia, for example, talk about how “it’s a control thing.” I assume they heard something along those lines from a high school gym teacher or a teen magazine. It’s not really that simple, but I digress. Certainly, in my case, my ED appears to be a symptom of my anxiety and I’m working on both things concurrently. And I tell you this to explain my rather strong feelings about what is and isn’t okay for me in social situations anymore, which is, I suppose the driving force behind this entire post.
I'm just out. I am out of patience for most of what constitutes “normal” conversation, particularly between women, but really just in general. Your “juice fast,” your New Year’s resolution to “get in shape,” your “jiggle wiggle,” your “cleanse,” your “awesome workouts,” your “Paleo-Atkins-MediFast-WeightWatchers-BiggestLoser-Homeopathic-GlutenFree-Whateverthefuck” – I can’t talk to you about any of that anymore. I can’t hear about it. I can’t take you moralizing about how “bad” you’re being for having that brownie, or how “good” you are for eating that salad. Personally, I can’t because I’m sick and I’m trying to get better and those kinds of conversations contribute to making me worse. Politically, I can’t because I’m just over it. I’m over women being expected to conversationally bond over shared self-hatred. I’m over hearing people congratulate each other for weight loss, even when the weight loss is a result of an illness, like a severe flu, Cancer or an ED. (When I was at my sickest and most engaged with my ED, people were ALWAYS congratulating me, telling me how good I looked, etc. “Good for you,” they’d say. Sometimes, I’d even tell people about my “diets” – I’d confess about how few calories I ate, or how I used to squirt dish soap on food I didn’t want to be tempted to eat (a little trick I learned from a weight-loss guide I ordered from the back of Seventeen magazine when I was 14. I remember the same trick shown on Sex and the City, by the way). People would just keep congratulating. The sentiment was this: Hmm… 500 calories a day? That sounds weird, but stick with it! It’s working! You may be killing yourself, but you look “good” and that’s all that matters!)
So I’m over it. I’m over the whole insane, sexist, scientifically unsound dialogue about health, weight and appearance.
Almost everything you believe about health and weight is probably wrong. Sorry. I know it might annoy you to hear that, but it’s true. It’s a hard fact for people to swallow in general, because most of us have been hearing lies about body appearance our whole lives and we’ve internalized those lies as “common sense.” (For example, “everyone knows” it’s healthier to be thin. Except it’s not. Scientifically speaking. But try to tell people this and then raise your shield because half the people listening are going to want to kill you. We’ve also been told the lie that being “healthy” is somehow the gold standard for personhood. Except, think about that. Do you really believe that someone is a better person who deserves better treatment because he or she is “healthy?” Isn’t that just a bit ableist? Does it really make a lot of sense?) It’s messed up, folks. That’s all there is to it. I’m not going to go into all the evidence and reasoning and science because there’s already a solid community of activists out there doing that and I’d just be paraphrasing them anyway (see footnotes for more on that), but I do want to point out how messed up it is, and how hurtful. And just FYI, hurtful things are stressful things. (And stress really IS unhealthy, physiologically and psychologically. I’m a perfect example of that whole problem at work.)
There are so many ways in which we all (or okay, maybe not all, but many of us) contribute to a completely fucked up culture of disordered eating and distorted body image and we’ve gotta quit it. Even things that seem on the surface to be “normal” and “nice” are really damaging. Even all that “Ooh, you look so great, I hate you” cutesy nonsense is a problem. All that talk talk talk about your gym schedule, etc. is a problem. **** And it’s a problem I’ve been part of. So don’t get me wrong – I’m not accusing you of anything terrible. I’m guilty too. But as I get better I understand more clearly than ever before that this whole conversation – the one that is about the way people look instead of about anything meaningful or important – needs to end. Period. We’re all trained to be judgmental about our bodies and the bodies of other people. I’m not saying that’s going to magically cease if we stop talking about it, but not talking about it is a nice first step. Keep that shit in your head and talk about anything else. There are so many other things that are more worthwhile.
It isn’t always easy, of course, to hold to all these new ideals as I start to get better and try to stay that way. And I make it harder for myself. Just recently, I appeared on a new show on MTV (hey, remember when I used to be on TV all the time?). Someone I used to know from my days on The After Show
invited me to be on this new series called Losing It
. It’s simple, really. You sit on a stool and tell the story of how you lost your virginity. Now why, WHY would a person like me agree to do this? Hello, I have an ANXIETY disorder. I am introverted. Doing a show that would be super exposing, both physically (me as a close-up talking head and torso) and emotionally (sex stories are pretty loaded for most people)? It sounded like a TERRIBLE idea
. And still, I agreed. I agreed because on some level, I believe that my anxiety disorder and my body image issues, etc., all of those things pale in comparison to the importance of telling the truth about things. I knew I would feel self-conscious and embarrassed and awkward telling my story and I knew waiting for it to air would generate a lot of unnecessary anxiety, but on a more rational level, I also know that I don’t really have anything to be embarrassed about. Not about my story, not about the way I look, not about how smart or articulate I am. There’s NOTHING wrong me with. So I did the show. And then I waited for it to air. Sweating
And then it did air and it was fine. I was fine. I came across as sort of funny, and charming enough. There’s nothing wrong with what I said or how I said it. And while my memory of what I was talking about is pretty dim, I still think I fairly represented the spirit of how I felt as a 17 year old, which was, I suppose the point. It was fine. Except… I looked so fat. Hideously fat, I thought, especially compared to the photo they showed of me at 17. And despite all my lofty goals and my political feelings about fat being fine, I freaked out a little. It didn’t help that I followed the online feedback about the show via Twitter. Most of it was complimentary. People love Losing It. The MTV audience (teens, mostly, I’m guessing) think it’s hilarious and that’s great. Almost ALL the comments online are positive. But I saw one (JUST ONE) comment about how some of the storytellers (like me) had obviously let themselves go. Look how unhealthy [read: fat] you’ve let yourselves get since high school, said some little Twitter twit. And because I’m crazy, that’s the comment that stuck. I felt ashamed and like I wanted to argue, “Um, actually, I’m fat because I’m overcoming an eating disorder, so SUCK ON THAT, you heartless bitch!” Seriously. This is the impulse I had to stifle, because really, whatever my issues, I don’t want to be overly-defensive. I don’t want to be that guy. That guy is a fun-sponge. *****
My point is that it’s hard. It’s hard to maintain my recovery in the world, the world being what it is. It’s hard enough for me to attend social events because of my anxiety to begin with, but pile on the fact that 99% of events include some form of weight, appearance, faux-health, diet and/or exercising conversation and it’s even harder. It makes me want to stay home 24/7. And stop reading books, watching TV and looking out the window too, because this body-lunacy, it’s everywhere. But of course, total isolation probably isn’t a good solution. Truth might be. Or it might help a bit, which is, I guess, why I’m writing this.
Sadly, telling the truth about any sort of mental health issue means living with stigma, which is definitely difficult. That’s the idea I struggled with when deciding whether or not to post this epic truth-spew. Sharing any of this opens the door to a huge amount of judgment and advice from the often-well-meaning, but totally-ignorant public. (And as a result, comments will probably be on moderation, FYI.) And I’m sure some of my more pleasant acquaintances are rubbing their hands with glee at my revelations. (Nice folks, those.) But still, I did it. I’m anxious, but I’m trying not to be ashamed.
Shame is the worst, guys. It’s awful and toxic and it contributed to me being sick for a really long time. I was ashamed of so much about myself, especially my repeated “failure” to “fix” my body. (A lot of people think body “fixing” is possible, by the way. It’s just diet and exercise, they shout. Calories in, calories out. ****** Bleh. It's not. Not for everyone. Not all of the time. And besides that, please please please BE QUIET and MIND YOUR BEESWAX.)
Shame made me a liar, too. ******* Before I was married, I lived with a past boyfriend for years and he had no idea that I was sick at all, let alone how sick I was. (To be fair, we had issues. I probably could have died in that apartment and it would have taken days for him to find me. We weren’t exactly caring toward one another.) But also, he didn’t know because I didn’t tell him. I was ashamed, so I lied. I even managed to lie to myself. That’s the power of shame for you.
I’m told, however, that truthfulness detoxifies shame in real, tangible ways. That’s something I’ve heard in recovery. Telling the truth is one of the things that works when you’re trying to get better. I guess that’s one of the reasons support groups are popular. Telling the truth reduces shame.
So here we are. ********
This week (February 3rd to 9th) is Eating Disorder Awareness Week here in Canada, by the way. So this is all pretty timely, wouldn’t you say? (I’m patting myself on the back right now, in fact.)
Hey, remember all those asterisks? Brace yourself. Here come the footnotes.
* There’s a whole movement to reclaim the word “fat” going on, though you might not have heard about it. So before you start up with the “oh, you’re not fat” comments, that I’m sure you mean to be kind, consider this sort of thing. I’m okay with the way I look. Or at least, I’m trying to be. Saying, “Oh, you’re not fat! Don’t be hard on yourself!” isn’t as helpful as you think it is. It would be more helpful to get your head around the idea that there’s nothing wrong with being fat in the first place. Don’t be afraid of fat OR of the word fat, if you can possibly help it. I know it's hard. It's hard for me too. We're trying to undo a lifetime worth of teaching here, people.
** You might think you aren't participating in this idea that fat people are gross, stupid, lazy, smelly, greedy, etc., but the next time you see a fat character on television or in the movies, pay attention. Is that character smart? Kind? Friendly? Or is that character drawn as evil, dumb, mean, etc.? This kind of repeated stereotyping is rarely challenged, but it's bigoted, plain and simple.
*** Want to learn about fat-activism, size-acceptance, fighting bigotry and/or HAES (Health at Every Size)? I suggest blogs/websites like The Fat Nutritionist and Dances With Fat. Or just get Googling. You have internet access, I know you do.
**** It’s totally cool if you love the gym. More power to you, gym-rat! Love boot-camp? That’s cool too. Talking about these interests and pleasures to like minded individuals who’ve agreed to participate in such conversations is fine. Constantly sharing (and thereby upsetting and even inadvertently shaming) other people for living differently, in real life, on social media, etc. is way. less. fine. Your experience is yours. Hooray! Applying your experience to anyone else, foisting it on anyone else? It's not nice. (I know you didn't mean to hurt anyone, but hey, now you know.)
***** A fun-sponge is someone who sucks all the fun out of social interactions. Do you have a fun-sponge in your social circle? Most of us do.
****** Hey, that rhymed!
******* Eating Disorders are incredibly easy to hide. Lots of mental health issues are. I can promise you, most of the time you CANNOT tell who is sick based on the way they look. Now that I'm in recovery, I know people with eating disorders who run the gamut: women, men, transgendered people, fat people, thin people, racially diverse people, sexually diverse people, socioeconomically diverse people, etc. You have no idea. It surprised me a lot when I started treatment, but it’s a fact. You can't tell. Don't want to hurt people by accident? Don't talk about bodies. Easy peasy!
******** FYI, I’m probably not going to be blogging about this sort of thing often. I don’t think this is going to become some sort of mental health/eating disorder blog. It’s probably just going to keep being what is was: rambling, sporadic and emo. And occasionally, true. Or as true as I can make it on any given day. Make of that whatever you will.
P.S. WEE UPDATE 05/02/2013: HealthyPlace, the org that had me speak on its podcast/radio show after I wrote my initial weight post invited me to participate in its Stand Up for Mental Health campaign. So, sure! Here are the buttons:
So, as some of you may already know, I have become carless. I have a car no more. The car is gone. It was never really my car to begin with. It was little more than a loaner, really, but it was a costly loaner. It required too many repairs, too much gas, too much stress. It was necessary and really helpful for work a couple of years ago, but now that I'm largely working from home, it started to seem possible to do without. And if we can all agree to understand the notion of "cost" as something more than financial, let's just say the darn thing cost too much and leave it at that. It's gone.
So I am without wheels. Unless you count my classic bundle buggy, which is my new go-to for transporting groceries, packages for the shop and other sundries. I am OBSESSED with my buggy. Using my buggy makes me look like a little old lady (especially when I'm rocking a babushka - it's happened), but it makes me feel like a city-dwelling super-person. (Granted, my powers are lame and minimal, but nonetheless.) As I roll along, pushing my buggy topped to the brim, I find myself thinking a string of self congratulatory and positive thoughts like "Look at ME and my BUGGY! Look how much stuff I've got in here! I'm getting much done! I'm, like, the most effective, practical, environmentally-friendly, getting-stuff-done sort of person ever. Basically. I mean, look at all this stuff. And look at ME, pushing it along like it's nothing. I'm the best. Me plus car = totally average. Me plus buggy? Amazeballs! I love MY SUPER AWESOME BUGGY. My buggy is my new best friend. Me and my buggy. Together forever. Buggy buggy buggy."
You think I'm kidding, but I'm not. (Okay, maybe I am a little, but I'm mostly serious.) Pushing my buggy makes me feel great. Strangely confident. I have no idea why.
And then there's taking the TTC (that's what we call Toronto's public transit system, for you out of town readers). I have historically HATED the TTC. Mean bus drivers, motion sickness and a touch of agoraphobia means public transit and me aren't a great mix. Or so I thought. I've remembered something in these last few weeks without a car. I don't fundamentally hate the TTC. I hate it during rush hour. As long as it's not a peak time, the TTC is fine. Riding the city's subways, buses and streetcars reminds me of being a kid, in a good way. I often felt chained as a child, and long before I knew how to drive and certainly before I had my own vehicle, public transit lengthened that chain. It gave me a tiny little bit of freedom that I was desperate for at a time when I felt trapped. It was a way to go where I wanted to go. Far away, if that was my desire. And who could stop me?
I had forgotten how satisfying it was to be able to get miles away from home, where nobody knew me and nobody seemed to notice me, for just a few bucks. I had forgotten how much I loved the anonymity. Sure, it may have seemed odd to the drivers -- to see a kid travelling alone all the way across the city -- but not one driver ever bugged me about it. This is a big place after all. People mind their own business. (A good thing and a bad thing, I know, but for my purposes, a wonderful thing. A relief and a joy.)
There is so much I've forgotten. When you combine that thought with the idea that there's also so much I don't know, understanding the world seems like an overwhelming feat, but these little re-realizations are comforting nonetheless. The city is a living, breathing thing. It's dirty and frustrating and frightening, yes. And it's teeming and strangely beautiful. I'd forgotten. I was outside of all that, shielded by the comforting bubble of my own car, my little protected space. Mine mine mine. But now I'm back in the mix, where nothing specific is mine and I can have a little bit of everything all the same. I'm part of the masses crawling over the surface of this place that we have to share, and it feels good. Crisscrossing the city on foot, seeing it from the window of a streetcar, climbing down into the subway ... I feel like I'm right inside the belly of the world, close to its beating heart.
Over the past several years, I've been in the process of letting things go. Giving things up. Some of the things I lost in the early days of this went of their own accord, leaving me terrified and worried about how I would get them back. I felt like I'd dropped several rungs on the ladder of success. That feeling passed. It passed slowly, but it passed. And eventually, I started giving things up by choice -- the "career" I thought I wanted, complete with the salary I imagined was necessary -- for example. And every time I made the choice to have "less" I felt better. But still, I've had trouble learning the lesson at the heart of this. Just weeks ago, I was struggling with the idea of giving up the car. What if I'd become to used to it? What it not having it felt too hard? It offered so much convenience. What would I do without it?
I worried and worried and worried, but ultimately, I let it go and now, all those frightened feelings have evaporated. Because, as has happened every time I've lost or given up this sort of thing in the past, EVERY SINGLE TIME, I've gotten more or better back in trade.
Having less, for me, provides a fundamental feeling of relief. It makes me do things I wouldn't otherwise do. It's how I ended up back in Toronto in the first place. It's how I found Nate. It's what made me finally open the store I'd been thinking about for a decade. And now, it's what's getting me out of the house and back in touch with the world. (I think this is called "connectedness.")
This is something worth remembering. For next time.
*Photos from today's post were snapped from the left windows of the northbound Bathurst streetcar.
Hey guys. I know I've been craptastic about blogging lately. That's always the way, isn't it? Long breaks then apologies. Clearly, I've set too heavy a schedule for myself. I can't keep up.
I have ideas, usually late at night, and I have the best intentions about them, but if I don't write them down immediately, the moment I think of them, somehow, the urge tends to fade. That's what happened last weekend.
With Halloween just days away, I thought I would maybe write something about fear. When I was a little girl, I was so sensitive to "scary" stuff and horror films in particular, reading the backs of the VHS boxes in the video store left me practically shaking. A few minutes of actually watching one might give me nightmares for years.
(In fact, after seeing Nightmare on Elm Street when I was about 7 -- in a situation engineered by parents who clearly should have won some sort of WORST IDEA EVER award -- I did
have nightmares for years. They didn't stop until I was in high school. Bleh. I feel like I've blogged about this before. Have I? Anyway.)
Even in my late 20s, I was highly sensitive to anything spooky. I mean, look at this blog post from 2007
. I was awake in the middle of the night even then, kept up by nightmares brought on by the likes of TV shows like Medium
and Ghost Whisperer
. Ridiculous, I know. But that's how it was. (Ghost Whisperer
was a TERRIBLE show, by the way. I'm kind of ashamed to have watched it at all. Medium
But something's shifted. Not only have I stopped avoiding scary stuff, I seem to seek it out. I'm literally OBSESSED with the TV show The Walking Dead
(which is, I know, not that scary for real horror fans, but I find it riveting). And one show isn't enough. Late at night, I find myself channel surfing, looking for anything to do with murders. I have watched every procedural drama out there, in the hopes of finding a storyline that is scary enough
. (Mostly, they're not.) I have this strange urge to see murders before bed. Isn't that weird?
I even order scary movies On Demand when I'm home alone. (Nothing really gory, however. Nothing like Saw
or anything. I don't find that kind of thing good or bad, but I just don't care so much about it.) I'm hunting for serial killer stuff. Rapes and murders. Anything with ghosts or a frightening chase.
So what happened? Why did I go from scaredy cat to oddly desensitized murder-consumer? It's like the brain I have now is completely different from the brain I was born with. I don't know if this is a good or bad thing. Most "scary" stuff in popular culture isn't very good, so I end up watching a lot of crap. That's a downside, I guess. But no more nightmares ... that's definitely a plus. It's just odd that a person's tastes can change so completely, isn't it? And for no apparent reason...
Anyway. In other vaguely-fear-related news, last week was Halloween. We had a party on the Saturday before. Nate was Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and I was a failed mime. Here, look:
It was a fun party, I think. I dunno. I've lost my ability to judge how good a party is. That's something else that's changed. People danced a bit. That's good, right?
Waldo and Wenda, workin' it.
French Kiss. Get it?
(Blurry images are fun. I don't care what anyone says.)
Again, I say to you: ANYWAY.
On Halloween night, the rain kept most of the kids away and we just had a handful of trick-or-treaters make it to the door. Nathan carved the pumpkin. It looked like this:
No, really. That's how it looked. It took him AN HOUR to do this. No kidding.
I had hoped to spend the evening walking around the neighbourhood, looking at the decorated houses and checking out the kids, but the rain kept me at home. Instead, I spent the night hunting for scary stuff on television, as per usual. (I settled on American Horror Story
, which I no longer think is horrible and actually sort of like, but which mostly leaves me feeling uncomfortable and annoyingly confused, rather than scared. Then I rented that John Cusack movie The Raven
, where he plays Edgar Allen Poe. It was so awful/stupid/boring, I had to turn it off before the 30 minute mark. Oh well.)
Anyway anyway anyway. I don't know why I'm hunting for fear since I don't remember enjoying it all that much when it was giving me nightmares and keeping me awake all night. Maybe I miss it because the things that keep me awake now are so much scarier... not to mention real.
I miss the feeling of manufactured fear. It's so much better than the real thing.
Oddly, this is a post about the whole fear thing, but it's nothing like the one I planned to write when I initially thought of it. Weird, eh?
I like rain. I particularly like the kind of dark, cloud-heavy rain we’re having in Toronto today. For the school-aged among us, it’s the first day back, and this sort of weather feels appropriate.
When I was a kid, I both dreaded and loved going back to school in September. I worried about it and longed for it. But alas, the first day was never what I expected or hoped it to be.
Like most kids, I’d lay out my carefully chosen outfit the night before, thinking about how cool I was going to look in it. (The outfit among such outfits that stands out most in my memory included thick-cut cream cords, heavily pleated, and a horrible striped sweater with a collar. See left. No kidding.)
What’s strange is that no matter how many times I was thwarted in years before, as each Labour Day rolled around, I continued to think, against all odds, that this year would be different.
This year, I would tell myself, as I expect some of your children told themselves just this morning, will be different!
Not only did I think that going back to school would signal a sudden shift in the weather and that the soupy humidity of summer would give way immediately, to crisp, cool, fall (enabling me to wear my outfit of course), I also believed that wearing said outfit was part of what would make me that undefined different I so wished to be.
Of course, inevitably, the thick-cut cords would be far too hot and impractical for the first day of school, and I’d have to don shorts and a tee-shirt. (Possibly even the same dirty shorts and tee shirt I’d worn the day before, since my parents were very hands off in such matters.) For most of September, in fact, I’d be stuck in what had been my summer uniform. And that sucked, because summer was supposed to be over and how could I be the new person I was determined to be if I had to wear the clothes I used to wear when I was the person I was before? It was maddening. And it happened Every. Single. Year.
The first day of school was fresh, with no mistakes in it. It meant an open road to the new, better me. And year after year, my dream of a new self would be crushed before lunch time, and by noon I would begin to resign myself to being who I was, which is really, I've come to realize, who I am, no matter how determined I might occasionally be, even now, to prove otherwise.
Today I turn 32 and the blog turns 7.
Growing up, or I suppose, in my case, growing older, is a funny thing. The idea of it is a perpetual preoccupation. Google "growing up" and you get so many disparate things. Blog posts from kids saying they feel old at 17. Editorials from 55 year old women saying they've never felt so young. Poems by A. A. Milne. Clips from The Breakfast Club. Age and aging are perennial, if not constant topics of interest in North America, returning over and over again to haunt the zeitgeist of each subsequent generation.
This is not a "milestone" birthday for me and I didn't think much about it before this morning. Too much other stuff on my mind. My job is ending, as most of you already know. My boss has decided to close the company, so everyone on staff has been laid off. Officially, the business shuts its doors at the end of August, but I opted to check out at the end of July, which means just two more weeks before I'm officially unemployed, or officially a full-time shopmistress, depending on how you want to spin it.
For me, being forced to make a professional change has been a good thing. I would have coasted along for ages letting things lie had I not been forced to reevaluate. And psychologically, I think the lay off has been positive as well. It's helped stride toward the things I should have been doing all along -- sticking up for myself, for example, being less of a pushover, teaching people how to treat me. I've already blogged about these things. No need to go into them again.
It's all been going surprisingly well. There's been resistance, of course. When you suddenly change the rules of any relationship (in my case, by telling people in no uncertain terms what I will and won't tolerate), there's always some blow back. Those least willing to change are squirming about it all, fighting with everything they have at their disposal -- passive aggression, emotional punishments, manipulations, insults, guilt. I get that. It's like dealing with toddlers. When they don't like something, they fight. They fight with everything they have in their stubby little bodies. And it doesn't make sense to fight back. Rather, you simply have to teach them that no matter what they do, their circumstances aren't going to change. They can scream and kick and struggle all they want, but eventually, they're going to have to adapt. It's more difficult with adults, obviously. The tantrums are more subtle, more calculated, but the method for dealing with them is similar: stay calm and don't waver. Repeat yourself. Say, "This is the way it's going to be. Pound your little feet all you want, but this is the way it's going to be." I was anxious about the process before it began, but now that I'm in it, I see it's not as hard as I expected. It just takes patience.
So many people have told me to expect life changes in my 30s. People say this is the decade when you come into your own as an adult. I have no idea if this is true. My 20s were so traumatic, so filled with confusion and insecurity and change, I feel like life can only continue to settle down and improve, so maybe it's true. Maybe it's true for almost everyone. Those poor souls who are happiest in high school and/or their early twenties are few and far between, which is lucky all around.
Anyway. I suppose I'll just keep on keepin' on. Happy Birthday to me.
If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you've probably already heard that I bought a bike. No big deal in the grand scheme of things, but for me, a fairly major step. My last bike was purchased around 1991 and I haven't ridden regularly since I was 13, but once upon a time, my bike was an extremely important part of my life. It seemed to represent everything I craved: independence, freedom, loyalty.
That sounds sad, I know, but I loved my bike to life, regularly patting the handlebars as I would a horse, whispering to it as I stabled it in the garage. My bike was a friend to me, and I to it. We were constant companions.
Ontario's helmet law was passed in 1995, and while it wasn't the primary factor in my bike abandonment, it certainly contributed. When I was a kid, biking was easier. No accoutrement required. Stupid, certainly, but I never wore a helmet. I didn't even own a helmet. Sometimes, I didn't even wear shoes. (Don't worry -- I owned plenty of those.) I didn't carry a lock, opting instead to drop my wheels in a heap on the sidewalk outside any establishment I decided to enter.
But then the helmet law came in and there was significant uptick in thefts besides. Locks and helmets became required. And in my teens, I became self-conscious. The mountain bike my dad had purchased for me from Canadian Tire just a few years before (black with funky multi-coloured spatter paint) seemed embarrassingly juvenile. Kids at my school seemed to have fancier bikes. And U-locks. And they ALL wore helmets. They were serious about cycling. (At least, that's how my narcissistic teenage brain processed it. I felt like I didn't fit in.)
I tried to transition, riding a few times with boys from my class, but I couldn't keep up. They all seemed to want to race around the city at high speeds, on main roads. I was used to tooling around on the sidewalk in residential areas. And they regularly traversed big hills and long flights of stairs, lifting their bikes to their shoulders and running up the steps. I tried this with my gazillion-pound mountain bike exactly once and nearly died from overexertion. And that was when I was 15 and fit. I came to hate Casa Loma's Baldwin Steps.
My bike went into the garage and stayed there, gathering dust, for the next ten years. The tires went flat and the chain turned rusty. Eventually, I think my parents threw it away. Barring the very occasional (completely utilitarian) ride on a borrowed cycle, I haven't been on a bike since.
But lately, I've been thinking about all the things I once loved and lost. Singing in choir, for example. Making art. Riding a bike. I want to recapture those things. But my teenage experience with cycling was so hideous. That's not the past I want to return to. I want to go back further, to when riding was pure pleasure and my bike was my friend. (Is that even possible?)
I figured the first step would be to get the right kind of bike. That 90s era mountain bike was a bust, so I thought back further, to the bike I had before that -- the one I liked to pretend was a horse. It was a Blue Angel, with a white banana seat and a pink chain guard. Boys in my neighbourhood mocked it, but I thought it was beautiful.
And even before that, before my friend the Blue Angel, I had a had another bike I loved -- a BMX purchased from a garage sale in Florida in 1985. The bike I learned to ride on. My first without training wheels.
It had pedal-brakes and a low profile. It was perfect for doubling. On the day he bought it, my dad fixed up with a yellow, racing-strip Troxel banana seat, which was, in my opinion, the coolest seat on any bike in the neighbourhood, if not in the world, if not in the universe.
These were the types of bikes I needed to remember.
So, I shopped. And last week, I bought. My "new" bike is a CCM Imperial Mark IV. Red with chrome details, a double kickstand, and a big ol' yellowish/brown/sparkly banana seat.
It is standing, right now, in my living room, awaiting an oil and polish. And soon, I will ride it. Wearing a helmet, and toting a U-lock, of course, because not everything can be as it once was. But last night, before I went to sleep, I gave the handlebars a comforting pat.
I think we're going to be friends.
For various reasons, I am currently in the process or purging my childhood collections. Much must go. Clay ashtrays. High school agendas. Audio tapes.
But surely not the stuffies? Not the well-loved ones, with their bald patches and button eyes, all smelling vaguely of saliva and dust? They have to stay.
The older a thing is, the harder it is to lose.
Stuff from the 90s is easier to part with. The Soul Asylum cassette I bought when I was 13 because I heard some "cool" girls discussing the song "The Sun Maid" -- this can go. Also easy to leave behind is the double cassette version of Smashing Pumpkin's mid-90s epic Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I can hold the memory of listening to "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" over and over again in my closet in the dark, rewinding obsessively between plays without a physical reminder.
In my adult life, I've become the sort of person who lets thing go easily. Stuff is not so important anymore. Relationships that aren't working are easy to abandon. I am quick to delete people from Facebook if they bore or annoy me. I am better at leaving things behind. I would recommend this course to anyone. The past is important, but not primarily important. Some things are important, but not all things.
But what this purge has shown me is what a magpie I used to be. Once upon a time, I kept everything. It all seemed so necessary. And that hoarding tendency seeped into my relationships and my work. I couldn't let go. I was afraid of loss.
I suppose I still am, to some extent. But I try to keep that tendency from boxing me into spaces and places that aren't much good.
Some talismans will stay: My great grandmother's pink marble egg; my collection of 1967 centennial pennies (an early indication of my love of birds); my wedding ring, which was my grandmother's and her mother's before her, my bronze cross, the strange little velvet sombrero Patty brought me from Mexico when we were six.
These things must stay, not because they're valuable, not because they're especially important, but because they make me happy. If you use that benchmark -- does it make you happy? -- it's easy to know what to keep.
I was a superstitious kid. I'm not sure why exactly. Some combination of my anxiety-driven nature and a catholic school education maybe.
For whatever reason, I was the sort of child who started out whispering curse words, in fear that GOD might strike me down (with a lightning bolt, of course). I read my horoscope religiously and coveted those pastel-coloured new age scrolls they sold near the cash at the grocery store. (I think they still sell those, come to think of it.) I believed, as a Cancer, I was a "moon child" and a "water baby" and that there were certain inalienable truths about my personality. (I was a crab. I had a hard exterior. I was sensitive. I was loyal.)
I held my breath when we drove past cemeteries in the car. I lifted my feet when we went over railway track (can't remember why, though). I stepped on or avoided cracks in the sidewalk, depending on how I was feeling about my mother on any given day. This sort of thinking took up a great deal of my time.
Superstition seeped into my teenage life as well. I gathered talismans - good luck charms, found pennies, broken bits of jewellery, things I thought might be imbued with goodness or power. And I attached significance to dates. My first real romantic relationship started in the new year of 1995, my second in January of 1997, my third in January of 2002. And to this day, January sort of whispers at me.
I've turned into an atheist and I'm not really superstitious anymore, but it's been hard to shake my attachment to dates. There's something about January in Toronto, about looking out at the night sky glowing reddish, ready to snow. There's something about seeing the flakes fall through the halos around the streetlights.
The other morning, I went for a walk through Cedarvale ravine, which is a small woody path near my house, and I was struck by the white light and the general quiet and the seemingly extreme sound of ice being brushed beneath my boots. It felt like something magical was going to happen.
Of course, nothing magical happened. Not unless you count depositing my pay cheque and visiting the local Starbucks as magical.
Still, I felt like something was going to happen. And that's what makes January bearable, I think. At least for me.
Today's photos are from my walk through Cedarvale ravine.
I've always loved Halloween. Always. Even when I was a little girl, and my parents made me wear my winter coat and a cowbell over my costume, I loved it.
I even loved the cowbell.
For my very first year of Trick-or-treating, my Dad fashioned bunny costumes for us, complete with tin-foil ears (as shown). We used my mother's eyebrow pencil to draw on whiskers and rouged our cheeks with lipstick. He seems bothered by this effort now. Thinks he did a bad job. He's become an advocate of the "store-bought" costume.
But I loved my bunny ears. I don't remember feeling that I was missing anything.
Regardless of the friendships I forged at school, Trick-or-treating was always a neighbourhood activity. I tended to troll for candy with a small pack of boys from my street, like Peter (seen above, in the early 1980s, dressed in a sort of Hobo-clown costume that put our bunny ears to shame).
As we got older, he (and the other boy I palled around with -- Dennis) would run ahead, trying to hit as many houses as possible, while I was left struggling with my costume or adjusting my mask and calling, "wait up!" But I didn't care. I still loved every part of it.
Halloween was magical. More exciting than Christmas.
I "made" my costume every year, sometimes using my allowance to buy components from the drug store. My parents didn't have the time (or inclination) to help us out with this sort of thing, so the resulting costumes were often strange, but I think we were lucky. Halloween was about having fun, being creative, and learning self-reliance. It wasn't a fashion show.
This is not to say I didn't wish for the perfect store-bought costume. I did. And at school, when I compared my odd efforts to those of the girls who'd dressed as cheerleaders, punk rockers and princesses, I was embarrassed. But a little embarrassment can be good for you, don't you think? In retrospect, I'm glad I was who I was, and glad that my parents generally left me to my own devices. (And that my mother let me do what I wanted with her scarves and old maternity clothes.)
Sometimes I wonder what it would have felt like to have been a "princess" for a day. I wonder if it would have been as wonderful as I imagined? To head off to school with confidence, feeling that no one could possibly make fun of me in my perfect, store-bought costume? That might have been nice. And I understand parents who'd want to give their kids that kind of peace of mind. School is a battlefield. And kids who conform are generally safest in the wild world of institutionalized education.
This year, Nathan went as Jim Henson and I went (in keeping with tradition) as ... something odd. And it was kind of scary and kind of funny. In other words, everything Halloween should be. But as usual, I felt a bit anxious about my costume. Was it too weird?
Was I too weird?
And then I remembered... I'm grown up. There's no such thing.
Happy Halloween, everyone.