Memories and moments

My friendship with Lois was borne out of a working relationship. It turned into a lifelong “pick up where we left off” kind of thing that nourished me and continues to influence me even though she’s gone.

In 1985, I needed to move from working for an accounting firm, one where I had my first ‘real’ job. When my brand new hubby was going back to university in 1983, that firm offered me the chance to move across Canada and have a job waiting when I arrived.

After a couple years in Toronto, though, I wanted to make more money and definitely wanted to stop the repetition of typing boring letters and tax returns.

I got a job in HR at a real estate developer and began doing boring, repetitive tasks there.

But it didn’t matter because that’s where I met Lois.

At Halloween, I delivered benefit cheques on rollerskates. We wrote farewell speeches in prose and I was performing them like Ginger from Gilligan’s Island (google her, my young friends). When I heard from my family, I would regale her with tales of what my nephew Steven had said on the phone, and she would share the funny anecdotes of her family get togethers.

We laughed. And at times, we cried. She more than once told me, “you know men aren’t mind readers, right?”

I was so lucky because she set the standard for work friendships early in my life and that bar was very high.

After leaving that job, because well, boring is boring, I stayed friends with Lois who also left for bigger and better things. We visited her and her wonderful hubby, Jack, wherever they were living on the West Coast: first southern California and then to Vancouver Island.

We wrote and called and later on moved to email. Not often. But enough.

At the start of 2014, neither of us knew it would be her last year. She wrote hopeful letters about meeting us in Vancouver on a visit.

And then, in late summer and early fall, she realized where she was headed and what her future meant: palliative care and the end of her life.

Sadly, she knew that not everyone was there with her.

I am pretty much ready to go whenever my time comes but I don’t think Jack is there yet. I’ll have to work on that with him.  It is hard to watch him watch me deteriorate.

Shortly before she passed away, after receiving a piece of art I thought she’d like, Lois wrote to me:

As for your letter – I sobbed.  I feel so much the same about you and over the years with getting busy with the other “important” things in life, I wasn’t sure we still had such a bond. The heart doesn’t forget and I certainly haven’t forgotten the wonderful person you are. Yes, I feel loved and  I love you too.  I still think of so many things that we talked about.  I still tell Jack “I’m sweating, Auntie Paula” even though he has no idea anymore what I’m talking about. I still think of you and I writing limericks or something like that for “Ginger” and killing ourselves laughing.

A few days later, Lois sent me an early birthday gift, an incredible necklace from one of her many trips. I thanked her and her response, her final email to me, was typical Lois.

Hi Paula,

I knew you (and Ginger) would appreciate the gift.  I am really grateful for your friendship and I know you are keeping me close to your heart – I can feel it!

You may have already received a response to this email but I am getting a few problems (probably user induced) so I can’t always tell if I have responded or not.

Love and hugs,

Lois

Sadly, two weeks later, I received an email from a very heartbroken Jack.

Hi Paula:

Just to let you know that Lois passed away peacefully on Oct 28 at 10:30 pm  She had been in Victoria Hospice for 5 days and kept her sense of humour until the very end. I will miss her terribly.  I was a very lucky man to have her for my wife as she was such a wonderful lady.

Jack

That she was. A very wonderful lady.

Lois loved Celine Dion’s Because you loved me; I can see why.

You were my strength when I was weak
You were my voice when I couldn’t speak
You were my eyes when I couldn’t see
You saw the best there was in me
Lifted me up when I couldn’t reach
You gave me faith ’cause you believed
I’m everything I am
Because you loved me

I learned so much from Lois, in her life, and with her death.

Hold people close. Love them hard. And tell them how they have changed your life.

And do all those things often.

Miss you. Love you. Thank you.

Just shut up

trigger warning: this blog post contains discussions and links to articles about sexual assault and harassment cases which may be triggering.

******

I have a #metoo story. I recently wrote a piece about it and entered it into a writing contest, and those two acts – the writing, the putting it out into the world – somehow alleviated 150% of my burden. The piece never got any traction in the contest and I don’t care if it ever sees the light of day. It remains my truth and yet it’s no longer rattling around inside of me.

It’s the best thing I’ve ever written because it healed so much hurt.

I share this to be clear that I am not opposed to sharing of stories and experiences. Saying the words has helped me to heal. I get it.

I do, though, have a problem when certain stories are privileged over others and especially when space is given to men to cry foul and demand pity for the backlash of their inappropriate and damaging behaviours when that same space has been denied – and continues to be denied – to scores of women.

******

Back in September, someone posted on Facebook I’m not reading Jian’s trash and neither should you.

That was the first I had heard about Ghomeshi in months. And I thought, oh, damn, no. He didn’t.

But he did.

There was a part of me that thought, take that Facebook advice.

And then, there was the part of me that knew that it was going to be talked about on CBC and on the GO train and everywhere I was going to be and that I wanted my anger to be firsthand.

So, I read it.

Probably fifty times while reading the “woe is me, I’m the butt of a hashtag” article, I screamed, you self centred ass, shut up. 

******

The New York Review of Books, which put out Ghomeshi’s piece, fired the editor who made the decision to run it (or he was forced to resign). Recently the Review posted a piece with over 35 letters from readers, including two of Ghomeshi’s victims cause yeah, they had to read his narcissistic, self-serving pile of crap too.

Those two women were asked for comments on the piece before they knew it existed.

Sexual abuse: the gift that just keeps on giving.

(Four letters were in support of Ghomeshi’s article – and well, again, shut up.)

******

Harper’s Magazine published a piece by John Hockenberry called Exile. In the memoir Hockenberry wrote about accusations of sexual harassment against him brought forward by many of his female coworkers.

Hockenberry goes on much longer than Ghomeshi, but the end result is the same: my behaviour (which I have a good explanation for, and here it is) has ruined my life, but I am not to blame. I have daughters (which makes a difference how?). You’re all making way too much of this. I deserve pity not scorn. 

Hockenberry calls his actions “lapses in judgment”.

just shut up

******

On CBC recently, I heard a clip from an interview between Anna Maria Tremonti of The Current and Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine. I found the entire interview online and had a listen. (The interview begins around 11:15.) The publisher was defending his decision to publish the Hockenberry piece to Tremonti. Throughout the nine minute exchange, MacArthur sounds, as Tremonti points out, flippant. He says, your readers need to know that Hockenberry is a paraplegic and so he couldn’t and didn’t do anything criminal and his life is ruined and he’s not Harvey Weinstein and he never touched anyone cause he couldn’t and Harper’s has done a lot about sexual harassment (one firing, nine years ago)….wah wah wah.

do you hear yourself? just shut up

*****

I get it: some people are thinking the #metoo movement has gone too far and they feel that people who are accused are having their lives blown up and they have to adjust and make changes and live with the consequences of their “lapses in judgment”. (It appears the appropriate way to rectify this in the States is to confirm a Supreme Court judge accused of rape.)

Apparently I need to state the obvious: those men’s victims have had their lives blown up, have by and large not been heard or believed but instead vilified and threatened further, were made to follow vastly different paths than pre-abuse, had to survive the crushing weight of the breaking of trust in their lives, live with the consequences and the fallout from the moment that someone’s “judgment lapsed”.

Jian and John, you made a choice, they did not.

Talk to me in 45 years or so; that’s how long I’ve lived with the consequences of my abuser’s actions.

Until then just shut up. 

******

If you harass, assault, abuse, or otherwise harm a person sexually, and you compound those horrific acts by being a person who has higher status to that person, you are harming them, physically, emotionally, mentally; you are breaking their trust and shattering their world.

That’s why this is a big deal.

And yes, John and Rick, legally, there is a difference between raping someone and a sexualized comment. But for the victim, each act has consequences that are unique to them and no two people’s trauma or aftermath is the same. No trauma is acceptable trauma.

So, if you want to argue that these men’s lives have been ruined, I have to say

I don’t care.

They were ruined before all this – they came to their victims hugely flawed, sick humans. And they have zero interest in taking responsibility.

******

There are so many #metoo stories and for a few days last fall, I had to take a break from reading and hearing them all. It was like my own memories were trapping me and I couldn’t turn around without bumping into them again and again. I found it hard to breathe.

Then, I returned to the techniques of compartmentalizing I learned in therapy and found my feet again. I read and listened to victims because I knew that, like me, people were finally finding strength and community and some lessening of that tightness in our chest. They had waited for someone to hear them and believe them.

KEEP TALKING. I HEAR YOU. I BELIEVE YOU.

******

The space that #metoo opened cannot close; there are too many victims, too many survivors and yes, too many perpetrators. It has been a long, long, LONG time coming.

There is no place for these men to write and call for a pity party until every single person who has been victimized gets their due.

And I’m pretty sure that’ll be a while.

Until then, John and Jian, JUST. SHUT. UP.

******

photo credit: the feature photo is from the instagram account of Calm, a meditation app (a major contributor to my mental health and well being, and a refuge from the ongoing storm). 

Aging (also known as really getting to know yourself)

Upfront admission: I am not full on embracing my wrinkles or the parts of me which are not “defying gravity”.

I’m not shying away from them or considering plastic surgery but “embracing” implies a fondness that I’m not feeling.

I don’t love the creaky feeling when I stand after a long sit.

I am, though, over worrying about my upper arm flub.

Okay, that’s maybe an exaggeration. With a ‘mother of the bride’ event or two recently, I was slightly worried. But in the moment, it definitely was not even a passing thought.

It’s everything else that has happened in the past few years that I’m really intrigued by.

The chutzpah that comes when you have enough perspective to know what is important and consequently what it means to speak your mind. Kindly (mostly).

I don’t have time for fake or toxic relationships or superficial chats at parties while your conversational partner is looking past you to see who is more interesting.

Generally, I am over pleasing others. As I said to hubby recently, I still like to be liked but I can’t keep throwing rocks (or allow others to) at my self-esteem.

Weirdly, there are still a lot of growing pains when you get older. Not the physical but the mental.

Like rethinking and reorganizing your perspective. So many things I was brought up to believe and lived by in the past were either off base or outright wrong. The volumes of misinformation I was led to and did believe – well it’s taking my whole midlife to rethink.

And that’s okay.

Perhaps the biggest – and the one which leads to all other fundamental changes – is the view I’ve had of myself.

That one flaw or bad choice (or several) does not undo or truly define you.

That speaking my truth – really loudly – actually can set you free. You just might have to speak it more than once and to the right person: yourself.

I wrote my truth and submitted it to a writing contest. I was so proud of that piece.

I didn’t make the long list. Maybe didn’t even make it past the first hurdle.

But I wrote it.

And it is good.

Because it’s mine. My story, my life.

It hurt like hell.

And healed like sunshine.

 

Hello old friend

It’s been too long.

It’s been a busy few months.

It’s been a busy life.

Weddings, vacations, jobs and other new jobs.

Cottage repairs.

No complaints.

And now, as a new year – as in a new school year – begins, I am in the midst of sorting through lives.

My mother in law is downsizing and many things are being filtered through our home. She is a holdover from the days where you always picked up a brochure wherever you went and you took two in case you lost one.

Also, we recently had a film crew take over our home and one of the many outcomes – besides a cool experience and meeting some exceptional young film makers – was that my basement got turned upside down.

And that’s a good thing.

In one day, two film people moved the 27 years of accumulated STUFF (cause junk is too harsh a word) that we had in two of the many rooms in our basement. They moved it into another already STUFF filled room.

When the crew was putting the house back together, we asked them to not refill the basement rooms. We asked them to leave it all.

So now, I am trying to take a critical eye to every single thing.

Why is it that I have enough paper plates to feed a small army? Or literally enough push pins to create a push pin Mona Lisa?

Life has a funny way of being told in material accumulation and man, we have had some kind of BIG life.

It’s easy to know that you don’t need hundreds of cork board push pins.

But what’s harder to decide is about the hundreds of masterpieces my children created over the years; I gotta say – they were a prolific pair.

The handmade birthday cards, sure. Easy choice (keep).

It’s funny, though. It’s those little doodles that Laura did in a notebook I kept in the car. I remember the day when it was finally not about Barney (keep).

The drawings where Kyle made heads HUGE and hands coming out of those heads – I remember talking through why heads are big (“cause they’re the most important part”) even thought it was 27 or so years ago (keep).

We live in the digital world and so I can, and will, digitize much of it.

There are some outfits that were in a box, alongside a box of crib bedding. Those all have a new home in a cedar lined trunk. Little runners and dance shoes and Sesame Street dishes somehow made it in as well.

For now, I am looking at things like roller blades and tote bags, wrapping paper and grapevine wreaths.

There are people who can use these things that have sat for years and years (and years).

And the childhood treasures, well, they will have to wait for another day.

 

The river flowed both ways

A while back, I used daily prompts to keep me writing. This is one of my favourite outcomes from that experiment.

Take the first sentence from your favorite book and make it the first sentence of your post.

The river flowed both ways. And each decision has at least “two ways”. For too long, I didn’t really know that “in my bones” and often looked to others to decide my fate. That made it seem to me, at least, that the river only flowed one way – their way – and each decision had only one side – theirs.

I’m over that now. I watch the way the river flows, that way and this way. And then I wade in. And walk the way I want.

The first line is from the finest book I ever read – The Diviners by Margaret Laurence. 

reflections on the unexpected – 2017

It’s the time of year where people reflect on their year and for some reason, I’m feeling the need to join in.

Perhaps it’s because my longest held ‘big goal’ was achieved.

Or more likely, it’s because of the things which happened which were unexpected.

Let’s get the big goal out-of-the-way:

I received my Honours Degree in Anthropology from McMaster University, 37 years after I began. I walked across the stage and that was it. Bucket list item number one, check.

And I was happy, even gleeful that June day cause I was truly proud of myself. I did it up right. Done and done.

The last year of university was not golden, though. I had a terrible first semester course with a prof who believed that talking for three hours and using outdated research and technology was sufficient. It was not. I did not learn anything and my final mark proved it.

My second semester was amazing and included one of my favourite and inspiring courses: art history. Sadly, as I was working full-time, I could not fully relish in my final months. I was resentful of my divided attention, even though it was my choice to ‘do it all’. Immediately upon graduation, I wanted to go back and do it again, or more likely, do more.

Which brings me to a somewhat unexpected decision: not to do my masters, at least not yet. I was sure that I would jump back in as soon as possible. Head back to full time university in 2018. As the months wore on, I decided I was not ready to make that commitment. The moment I sent an email declining the opportunity to apply, I felt relieved. That’s when I knew it was the right, albeit unexpected, decision.

In 2017, I had also decided to stop working for the school board. For about 10 years, I had a goal to successfully apply for a job in professional development, a job that is one of a rare few at a higher level of pay and responsibility for teaching assistants. In 2016, I got the job. At first, I thought my displeasure in the role was that I was still in university and was torn between the two worlds. I started off on the wrong foot as my predecessor had not trained me properly (or at all really). My office was isolated from others whereas I had spent the last two years in a sea of people all the time – and the previous 12 years in classroom settings, full of activity and people and interactions.

I was disillusioned, dismayed and distraught. Once I accepted that I didn’t love the job, or even like it some days, I knew that the opportunity needed to be given to someone else, someone who truly wanted the job. So, I resigned – another unexpected decision.

At 55, you’d think I had things figured out, but I really got to know myself this year. As someone who has walked several half marathons, I am familiar with the concept of training, but this year, I took my training very seriously. I strictly followed the training schedule for my November race including a ridiculously hot 21 km walk in Florida in late October.

The night before the race, I set out my schedule for how I wanted to walk the race and I initially kept to the schedule. As I wrote previously I came up short of my goal, but only by a smidgen (as in two minutes). As I reflected on the race I was able to clearly see – embody really – the results of negative self talk. This was an unexpected, but critical, realization.

Shortly before my race, I had begun to work with a personal trainer. I knew that cardio work was only half the battle for my health and fitness, especially as I head to the upper range of my 50s. I needed to take seriously the idea of strength training. I did well with the trainer, having someone nag me and take me through my paces. (I often said I hated my trainer and loved the feeling of having trained!).

One day, though, I decided I would only feel successful if I could do it on my own. I spoke with my trainer and he developed a three-day a week program for me. In the weeks since then, I have surprised myself by only missing one day and that was due to weather. One other bad weather day, I used weights I have at home.

I have a long history of giving up physical activity when things get tough and I don’t actually like to work out. I really like how I feel after – a lot. I like how much stronger I feel overall. I have been surprised by how I have found ways to work around obstacles to my training rather than ways to avoid it – totally unexpected.

I asked for hiking poles for Christmas because of another surprising thing that happened this year: I have fallen in love with hiking. Not days long hikes, but several hours at a time. I like hiking with people, I like hiking alone. I like being in nature, even when it’s cold.

Surprise.

So, the year that has been unexpected has challenged me, surprised me and made me content with life. And has made me pretty keen to see what’s up ahead.

Stay tuned.

Feedback as a gift

I was at a great workshop a while back and one of the presenters talked about how you can take feedback as a negative or as a gift.

The comment got my brain reflecting on my experiences at McMaster, partly because feedback is a big part of being a university student.

Being a university student was a gift; a multilayered, surprising, challenging, amazing gift.

So there’s feedback. When I first began, I took feedback hard. In the lower year classes, feedback was often a mark only. There are hundreds of students in each class and if there are no teaching assistants doing the marking (and even if there are), there simply is not enough time to give in-depth, meaningful feedback to all students. Even in some of the upper year classes, I did not receive significant feedback. I found it hard to get a mark and not know what I did right or wrong to deserve that mark. I was clamoring for more.

Then life and readings and assignments took over, and I moved on.

When I hit my final year, some events occurred that opened my mind. I had done an independent study and received an excellent mark. I felt good about the mark because I had worked really hard and the prof is someone whose work I really respect. I was confident he did not hand out marks.

During the feedback session, the prof spoke for more than 30 minutes about all the things he disagreed with, that he didn’t like or that I had wrong. As we headed towards 45 minutes of this, I stood up and said I had to go. Not because I had anywhere to go, but I had to stop hearing criticism. It was soul crushing.

Maybe he did hand out marks?

I was enrolled in one of his courses that fall and I paid closer attention to how he worked – how he gave feedback. It was months before I realized what had actually happened: despite being having come to an invalid conclusion in my study, I had presented a really strong argument for my perspective. Being wrong is not always “wrong”.

The second example of my shift in feedback came when I handed in a proposal for a final course project and the prof – a different and equally brilliant prof – told me I was headed down the wrong path and directed me to a pivotal article. That reading allowed me to crystallize my thoughts and my direction. I ended up with my highest mark in university on that paper because I was able to improve when I opened myself up to the feedback (and the feedback was truly constructive).

And then, there’s the gift part.

I went back to university to complete my degree, to have the piece of paper that I somehow thought I was not complete without. The gift of those 3 years is that the paper is nothing compared to the moments and the learning and the relationships and the vision I have of myself. Everyday was life-changing, even when I was too tired or too stressed to see that.

It is like every experience of university was a type of feedback. It helped me realign my thinking and my being.

It’s not only about the lessons learned. The people I was surrounded by helped me by allowing me to bounce ideas around and have them share their worldviews. They made it impossible for me to see anything in the world in black and white ever again.

I am so lucky to have had that gift, those moments, those experiences. The paper I got is not my trophy – although it is a beauty.

It is those moments culminating in the shifted way of being; that is what remains and what matters in the end.

Decision to try

Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try”  JFK

As this year winds down, we tend to reflect. 2017 will always be the year I graduated from university, a long term goal achieved.

Without question, I am so glad that I decided to try – to try to finish my degree that I started in 1980 and to try to be as immersed in the experience as possible.

I have difficulty remembering where my head was at when I began, why I ever wondered if I should try.

I cannot even begin to fathom what my life would have been like without this experience.

I am getting to know myself within the new framework of the knowledge and experiences of my three years in university. Other than the first years of being a mom, nothing has changed me more than this.

One thing that I do know is that I want to give more – spend time giving back. I always knew I was fortunate; going back to school has shown me the depth of my privilege. I have deeply missed volunteering.

For the past several months, since I stopped working full time, I have been focused on regaining a foothold in the world of volunteering and also spending time dedicated to the part of me that got neglected while in school – the physical part. My new sense of accomplishment comes from hitting the gym and exceeding what I think I can achieve. It’s not as fun as university, but it does give me a keen sense of accomplishment.

In the New Year, I will return to McMaster and work one day a week on a research project. It’s an incredible opportunity and a way to keep my connection to a favourite “home away from home”.

Sometimes you wonder if your memories of an event or experience are true. Lately, I’ve been converting old videos into digital files and am frequently reminded of the joy that we did get to experience with our kids because we decided to try to build a family.

Looking back at my grad photos, it’s pretty evident that I was truly glad I made that second big decision to try.

 

growing up with my imagination

A neighbour recommended The Crossroads of Should and Must by Elle Luna. The book is highly visual and, as with many self help genre books, promises to take you to that quintessential moment – “oh right, that’s what I am supposed to do with my life!”

I spent a lot of my early motherhood years reading self help books, trying to figure out how to do the thing that, once I let it happen naturally, well, happened naturally.

After dropping out of the world of work for two years to pursue my degree, followed by a year of hellish work/school juggling (resulting in early retirement), I struggled to figure out everything. “What’s next?” didn’t even begin to cover it. I had a lot of big life stuff already handled. Still, I was a bit adrift. The years of a direction, a schedule and goals were suddenly not before me.

I read the book. I wanted to rush to the end and find my passion (as the subtitle suggested I would) and then follow it.

Instead, I discovered something else.

One of the activities is to look back and ask: “What were you like as a child?”

I took a bunch of sticky notes and wrote down things I remembered. Of course I wrote “Chatty” (seriously, every single report card had that comment).

The one that stuck HARD was “alone with my imagination”. I guess the idea of remembering being alone could be construed as sad, but that wasn’t it.

I was happy to be with my imagination. I loved to make up stories and adventures. When life felt scary, I had an escape.

I had grown up with a self published story book in my mind. I frequently accessed it at night, after my light went out. I would turn the pages in my mind and pick the story, written by me. Sometimes, I’d edit it, but mostly just let it unfold as is.

I remember reading Harriet the Spy and then spending weeks wandering my neighbourhood with notebook in hand, making observations and then conjuring up stories about the things I saw. I loved that sense of self-produced adventure.

I don’t know if the secret to my “must” or passion is inside this learning; I do know that two great realizations came:

  • I love my imagination: what it can do and the great comfort it has always been
  • I was a pretty cool kid

I know what and who made me stop writing and making up stories, but the last few years of growth and self-care have taught me – the big bad wolf can’t scare me anymore.

So, excuse me – I’m off to observe the world and see where my imagination takes me today.

#dontteachlikegord

I am baffled about the recent spate of hashtags telling educators, specifically during ‘Treaty Recognition Week’, to #teachlikegord.

This is not intended as an insult to Gord Downey; he recognized that his social status and impending death allowed him to focus people’s short attention spans on issues affecting Indigenous people in Canada. Good on him.

I never thought he was an expert on Indigenous issues. Downey was using the last days of his life to learn and bring attention to issues of significant importance.

I have begun following a wide variety of people on social media, from all around the world and Canada. Sound bites, whether they are 140 or 280 characters, are not enough to help me learn in depth information about issues. Yet, I am finding that having a variety of people, from wide ranging backgrounds, saying similar things, makes me uneasy, a sure sign that I need to go looking for more information.

To try to combat the ignorance I possess about my own country and its history, my education involves reading literature and opinion pieces and pretty much anything written by people who do not come from the same place that I do – and by place I am talking not just geographic, but also who have had different experiences due to economics, structural injustices, ancestry, religion, politics – all things which have not impeded my life in any significant way.

Biggest need: to LISTEN.

The #metoo movement (second movement?) helped me: having people listen to my story and acknowledge that I suffered made a difference. Even if those people cannot take away my pain, or change my narrative, having an opportunity to open up the dialogue made a big difference.

So how can I take that experience and move forward?

I have an ongoing awareness of my ignorance on many big issues; a kind of ignorance that comes from being insulated by privilege. I grew up without a lot of money, but I never went hungry. I always had clean water and clean clothes and a solid roof.

I never had to worry that by going outside my home community to a different high school could mean I had a higher chance of being murdered.

I cannot imagine. So I have to listen because I do believe (cliche alert), if I am not part of the solution, I will remain part of the problem.

I do not know what to do to make a difference.

I am not going #teachlikegord. I am going to keep listening to the voices who have first hand experience and keep learning the lessons they want to share.