and these are my vices

Some time ago, I was sent a prompt from Firefly Writing‘s subscription service, Hello Writer. The prompt was to write about our vices based on a poem by Ceclia Woloch called Fireflies.

This poem barely covers all of my vices, and some are (happily) former vices, but this is the flow that happened.

and these are my vices

self-doubt

self-criticism

lack of boundaries

Hot Tamales and JuJubes

angry words for careless drivers

mindlessness when

mindfulness is needed

(which is always)

calling children sweetie

when they’re too old

or unknown to me

exhaustive worrying

about health and adults

who were children

and people’s perceptions

avoidance and procrastination

thinking about writing

more than actually writing

thinking I’ve failed

more than knowing I’ve

succeeded

living in the past

when the present is fleeting

Looking back

Somehow today, I started to think about all the things.

It started with the idea that this is my final post of the year that I committed to writing at least one blog post each week.

I began January 19 and wrote at least once a week for all but four weeks for the remainder of the year.

One week in October, the first week Evelyn was hospitalized, I didn’t write. And the two weeks after she died, I didn’t write.

It all felt too raw. Losing her was one thing; watching her die, well, that was a whole lifetime of feeling packed into a few weeks, and especially her final few minutes.

Actually, I wrote a lot, but I couldn’t trust myself to post anything.

And now, I’m done with that weekly writing commitment. Partly because it felt performative. Yes, it got me writing, but it wasn’t the type of writing that I have learned to benefit from through my writing courses this year.

I write all the time – even when I’m not physically engaged in the act, I’m writing. I’m bombarded with ideas and fleshing them out. Seeing where they go.

But when I need to sit down at this space, I back away from the ideas and the feelings and the words I want to put down. I feel that it is not a place where I can be the writer I want to be, the writer I am now.

I write as me in the past.

And that’s where my brain went today.

To the things and the events and the people that have shaped me; the past (including the way, way past – the “before I was born” past), the present and the future.

And then I went to the place of thinking about those same factors – events, things, people – who continue to shape me because I let them and not because they should.

Writing has taught me to stop running, but to turn and face those things that haunt me, that anger me, that propel me forward while still looking back, while ignoring the present, and not living within it.

Writing has grounded me in something that meditation allowed me to glimpse: the present. This moment.

For at least ten minutes everyday for the past five plus years, I have meditated. And in those minutes, I am nowhere else, but simply here.

Nowhere else.

Writing, although often a distractive activity, allows me to leave on the paper all those things that have buzzed, like an angry swarm of bees, around my head for years, always threatening to sting if I didn’t keep moving, moving, afraid of what could be if I stopped and let myself feel the feelings.

Writing has allowed me to turn and see that it was only my fear buzzing, haunting me.

I’d long ago outrun the actual negative things. Now, I needed to name them and write them out of my head so that I can move. Forward. Sideways. Wherever I want to go.

Writing has also given me another gift: a way to tell the stories I’ve always been creating in my mind since I was seven. The stories of the things that go bump in the night, that went bump in my life.

Of love. Of laughter. Of sorrow. Of fear.

The stuff of life.

Writing for me is sometimes like finding a piece of wool on the floor. When I pick it up, it becomes apparent that it’s not just a piece. It is the end, or beginning, of something that begs me to follow it. I begin to shape it, to wind it into a ball. And as I gather the wool, winding it round and round, I am taken up and over furniture and round corners, and down stairs, and the world I am in is poorly lit. But the idea of letting go, of abandoning the adventure of seeing where the wool will lead me, never enters my mind.

And then I have gathered it all, so now I must knit all the pieces together. And sometimes I’ll have to go back, pull out some stitches because something’s not right. Or I have to check the pattern, make adjustments. 

Then after a long time, I have a sweater I think I like. Maybe.

And right there – the idea of a long time – is why the idea of writing a weekly blog post no longer appeals to me.

I can’t write well in a few minutes. I need time to do that.

And I also can’t put anything on my blog that I might want to submit for consideration for publishing down the road (because a blog is considered ‘previously published’ in the world of publishing).

So, if and when I come to this space going forward, it will be different.

I can’t say what that will be – perhaps book recommendations, or links to great articles, or, as always, rants about the government.

Or writing that is like that wool sweater – something I think I maybe like and want to know what you think.

So I’ll see y’all when I see ya.

Thanks for coming along for the year long ride.

The fog is lifting

This year, this decade, are almost over. And this one has been big for me and my writing life.

I took my first course back in January and it has been a truly wonderful ride. I have more knowledge, more stories, and a greater ability to understand the connection between writing, reading, and me.

My mother is a writer. I know that for her, being a writer means being paid for your words. And that golden ticket has not yet been awarded to me. (So am I really a writer?)

I can clearly remember, as a teenager, reading mom’s stories, the stories she had shoved into the back of filing cabinets. These pieces were full of wonderfully rich characters and deeply descriptive phrases.

I knew even then that some of her fiction stories were her way of working through her complex and complicated life. I read and reread them, trying to figure out how she did the work of writing, but also in hopes of understanding what parts of the stories were real and which were fiction.

Writing is a deeply personal experience, no matter the genre. My mom did a great deal of reporting on the Arts and investigative pieces but it was her piece on her journey through cancer which won a National award.

As I meet other people in my classes, I become keenly aware that everyone writes for different reasons and those reasons shift and evolve. And as I read their work, I know that we all have something to say and that it will land and have deep meaning for readers. My courses and the people within them have given me confidence – another takeaway. Confidence to keep writing and to submit my work here and there.

Like my mom, I write. And I do a lot of writing to work through life. I also have rediscovered the girl who was me, the one who used her imagination to escape her complicated life.

Life is far less complicated now, and that joy of writing has returned.

Misinformation and negotiating

The misinformation/crafted truths that are swirling around the labour negotiations related to education in Ontario is mind boggling and feels like a case study for how life has become in the World According to Trump.

Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education in Ontario, has nothing on Trump for tweets that make no sense, but only because Leece presents his misinformation in a more palatable, less ranting way.

Here’s a fascinating tweet from today: Standing with parents to keep the focus on their children, not union compensation (December 10, 2019)

Two issues: parents have overwhelmingly shown, in public consultations, that they are not happy with cuts that the government has proposed, including increasing class sizes and insisting on e-learning courses. Lecce is the person who keeps bringing focus to ‘union compensation’ as a diversion to discussing two other main issues that OSSTF has insisted be addressed: class size and e-learning. 

And yet, another tweet from Leece today states: We prioritize investments in class, not compensation. If you are increasing class sizes and insisting students take e-learning courses, you are not investing in classrooms. Plain and simple.

Pro-government followers would point out that the government has addressed class size and e-learning. The government proudly thump their chests and say that they have changed their class size cap demands from 28 to 25.

Since class sizes were at 22 prior to these negotiations, it is misinformation to act as if this was a win for unions or ultimately students.

And e-learning – there were no mandatory e-learning courses prior so again, not a ‘win’ for anyone.

And certainly not for students.

Although some aspect of these two issues relate to job security for teachers, unions are fighting for the issues because they actually do believe in fighting for what’s right for students and all education workers.

Teachers (the people in the classrooms) know that smaller classes mean a better chance to provide the appropriate learning environment for all students and the wide range of learning levels present within the class.

Students also do better and have deeper learning when they are in classrooms with other students and with a teacher at hand. The biggest issues that I see regarding e-learning are that it is an expectation that discriminates against students who do not have access to a computer and/or the internet and it discriminates against students with learning differences.

Given Lecce’s constant focus on compensation, I am curious how he feels that he can claim this is the biggest issue when his government has passed a Bill that holds compensation to 1% per year (unless you are in the government itself in which case you can get a 14% increase to your salary and a further 20% rental housing compensation increase because rental prices have risen – but apparently only for government employees???).

Many people on Twitter have picked up on Lecce’s compensation focus and are singing the same song. When people bring up salaries, the usual negative comments are made – teachers have summers off, they only work a few hours a day, yada yada. Teachers do receive compensation for their work – it is hard work, it is the work that impacts the future of any society. Teachers are in front of their students for a five or so hours a day, and no teacher only works for those hours each day. Teachers do prep work, supervision, planning with other staff, connecting with families and services for their students – and they work from home. Teachers have to provide materials for their classrooms because not enough funding is available for all the consumables and materials needed. I do not know any teacher who does not have a significant classroom library and learning materials collection. And yes, teachers do not work in the summer (unless they are teaching summer school or upgrading). But they are not paid for the summer. They are paid for the months they work; their salaries are spread out over twelve months.

Then there are the other education workers – secretaries, Early Childhood Educators, custodians, special education teaching assistants. I cannot speak to all those roles, but as a teaching assistant, my salary never netted me much more than $30,000 a year. I did not have sufficient sick days for being injured and I did not get paid for summer, Christmas or March break. As a group, we cannot spread our salaries over twelve months because there is not enough of it. So, teaching assistants are, unlike teachers, entitled to apply for Employment Insurance benefits and like any laid off person collecting those benefits, we are required to look for other work during the summer months. Few people can secure other work because few people want to hire someone with our skills for only 8 weeks.

Every educator I know is in the field because of students. They stand with students, actually in the presence of students, every day. They know, from their work, from their experience, what works best for students. They are the experts. They are capable.

And yes, they would like to be compensated for that work, at a level that is at the very least in line with the increase to the cost of living; otherwise, the government is asking education workers to effectively take a pay cut.

So, sure, Minister Lecce, focus on compensation. That’s not the whole story by a long, long shot, but if people are going to behave like sheep and follow you into that hole of misinformation, there’s little chance I will be able to convince them that there are bigger issues on the table.

Cause you know me, I’m simply an educator.

Done and done

(Full disclosure – photo has NOTHING to do with this blog post. I just loved finding this birdhouse.)

Yesterday I sent off my final assignment for my Fiction class and the day before, one for Creative Non-fiction.

Big sigh.

I am heading into the final stretch of my certificate in Creative Writing. One more course then the Final Project. A little 20000 – 25000 word project. No biggie.

Big lie.

I’m loving this opportunity to write all the time. It’s a dream.

And I’ve learned so much. My classmates are kind and generous with their feedback; my instructors are supportive and clear in expectations; and, my writing is definitely improving from all this love and attention.

I could do courses indefinitely- and I will because this is a big field to learn about. But for now, I’m feeling capable. Capable of writing good stories, essays with meaning, and revising them without feeling that I’m in over my head.

So as we enter the last month of my year long blogging challenge to write weekly, thanks to everyone who has followed along. I’m glad you’re on the writing journey with me.

little darlings

In all my writing courses, there are two pieces of advice that bubble up again and again:

show, don’t tell, and

kill your little darlings.

The first piece of advice is exactly what it says: as a writer, I need to show you, through rich descriptive writing, an emotion, a scene, an event. I should not list off the physical characteristics of a person or tell you my emotional response – I should show you.

Example:

I poured my tea. The sound was surprising. 

versus

I heard the tea pouring into the cup, filling the silence of the house. I had made a thousand cups, but that was the first time I noticed the auditory beauty of the ritual. I smelled the mint of the tea blend and was mesmerized by the spin and whirl of hot water into a cup, like an eddy in a pool of still water.

(Hopefully you ‘saw’ the tea more clearly in the second example.)

The second piece of advice sounds a bit like a call to action against someone we love – kill your little darlings. As a matter of fact, the first person giving this writing advice stated it even more violently:

If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings. (Cornish writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, pen-name Q)

Stephen King, being Stephen King, states, “…kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Kill three times in a sentence is rather severe.

But what the heck are one’s “darlings”?

When writing, often in early drafts, there can be some really brilliant phrases or single words that come out of one’s brain, through our bodies and on to the page. And we are convinced, completely and utterly, that our work will be diminished without those words.

Judith Claire Mitchell, author of Reunion of Ghosts, sadly parted with a self-description her main character used, stating she was “negligible as an eyelash”. Mitchell was deeply saddened by the loss of these four words, but less so when she saw another writer use them. In the end, her darlings were apparently not so darling.

Now, four words, not such a big deal, maybe. Perhaps. But some people ‘kill’ entire pages, entire bits of stories, entire characters, settings, etc. Because for whatever reason, those pieces of writing simply do not work in the larger piece.

One of my instructors equated the idea of having to make these type of choices to knitting. You have knitted a beautiful sweater and proudly show it to a friend. The friend admires the work and all the fine stitches. But then, the friend points out how the neon green is gorgeous, but it doesn’t seem to go with the rest of the overall piece.

Knitting means unravelling all the work after that neon green section and reworking the sweater. Often, taking something out of a piece of writing is the same: the writer Marian Palaia (The Given World) tells of having to not only cut a few words, but a third of her first draft, including a main character, Cam. The ultimate kicker is that the first word of the novel at that point was “Cam”.

That certainly would be a large chunk of unravelling.

Sometimes little darlings are truly ‘little’ – a word or phrase here or there. But when you have fallen in love with the sound of those words or phrases, it feels impossible to imagine your story without them.

There is a solution – and that is also something I hear with each class I take. Create a file for your ‘little darlings’ – whether they are words, or phrases, or entire stories. And kill them for the sake of your story.

A better analogy might be that you are engaging in literary cryogenics – merely putting them on ice until the right environment comes along to resuscitate them.

I have a file of little darlings – and big darlings. Stories and paragraphs, sentences and words. They lie awaiting the day when they too can shine.

forgetting and being mindful

After I Fall Down the Stairs at the Golden Temple, by Mary Oliver

For a while I could not remember some word 

    I was in need of,

and I was bereaved and said: where are you,

   beloved friend?

There’s so much going on in this poem – I was first struck by it because of the endearment of beloved friend in reference to a word. I do so love words.

But it is the idea that the word is forgotten that I am struck by more.

It’s hard to watch as someone becomes a regular patron of forgetting.

Forgetting a question just asked.

Forgetting what they ate for dinner.

Forgetting a comment just made. Again. Again. Again.

And on the flip side, those around the person need to be able to forget dealing with the forgetting. Not for days or weeks. But for a while.

We need to be able to go sing at the top of our lungs in a karaoke room the size of a phone booth. (Best five dollars and twenty five cents ever spent. Just sayin’.)

The effect of spending time with someone who is forgetting makes you mindful – to be present. To appreciate life for what it is, in this remembered now.

 

Mary Oliver and comfort

Thank you to Mary Oliver for her words; they have sustained me more than usual of late.

Fall

the black oaks fling
their bronze fruit
into all the pockets of the earth
pock pock

they knock against the thresholds
the roof the sidewalk
fill the eaves
the bottom line

of the old gold song
of the almost finished year
what is spring all that tender
green stuff

compared to this
falling of tiny oak trees
out of the oak trees
then the clouds

gathering thick along the west
then advancing
then closing over
breaking open

the silence
then the rain
dashing its silver seeds
against the house

 

Goals and bumps in the road

Yesterday, I completed my eighth half marathon walking race.

3:05:31 to complete 21.1 kilometres.

I’ve always said, I hate training but I love finish lines. I’m not usually a fan of the actual race either.

I know, right? Why do it?

I do it for my heart, my lungs, my muscles, my brain, and, to be perfectly honest, my guilt. I like food. And not all of it good and not all of it in the right proportions. When I’m training, I am much better about my eating and hydrating.

And so, I train, and I race.

Someone asked why don’t you just exercise and not race?

I find a goal is the best way to keep me getting outside. The eternal optimism that if I train properly, I will improve my results and not have such a hell of a time during the race.

And by that, I mean mentally as much as physically. A half marathon is a physical challenge, but I struggle as much or more with the mental challenge. Without fail, at some point during a race, I start to beat myself up. I berate myself for those times I did not get outside to walk. I tell myself, I can’t do this. I start to figure out my escape hatch. Where will I bail? My wall is usually about 16 km in.

Then there came yesterday. I decided not to wear a watch. At about 11 km I asked Siri what time it was. At about 11 km, I had a moment.

I realized I was doing much better than my expected pace and I panicked. Weird, I know. Until that point, I’d simply been listening to my music and putting one foot in front of the other. But in that moment, I wanted to set new goals, try to beat old records.

And then, I stopped the mental mania and told myself, trust your training.

I slowed down in the second half of the race, settled back into a closer approximation of my training pace.

And I enjoyed the rest of the race in a way that was different than the previous seven races. I complimented myself at every kilometre. I enjoyed the beautiful day and the amazing scenery (I mean, the finish line was Niagara Falls, so yeah).

I did not break any records. I had my sixth best time.

And my best mental race ever.

Sadly, the stress of the past days and the strain on my body resulted in a rather hard physical crash – nausea and overwhelming fatigue. Thankfully, my personal cheer squad, hubby, was there to take care of me.

Not the planned way to end out my birthday but if nothing else, the past days have taught me, you have to adapt to what’s in front of you.

So, after the drive home, I showered, climbed into bed and slept.

This morning, I’m back at the bedside and ready to meet the challenges in the days ahead.