aging – not for the faint of heart

In December, 1982, I met an inspiring lady for the first time. Tim’s aunt Evelyn, born in 1923, has travelled the world solo including Bermuda (21 times!), Europe, Scandanavia, Hawaii, and the Yukon; moved across the country to work in rural British Columbia in 1960, and worked at the United Church for 32 years. In all of those adventures and beyond, she took care of herself and others.

This week, she took a fall that has stalled her independent march and she now has to rely on others for things she has always done for herself. It’s a tough adjustment. She has faced it as she faces everything – with determination.

Everywhere I have been in her nursing home this week, people ask after her and they tell me stories of her many kindnesses and quirks. It’s been nice to get to know her from the perspective of those she lives with everyday.

When I saw the poem below, I thought of Evelyn, not only because it’s titled ‘Prayer’ and Evelyn is a very religious person, but because although overall her demeanor is quiet, she must have been considered ‘frisky’ and ‘risque’ at those times that she defied what women ‘were supposed to do’. I’ve never seen her dance, but I’m sure she’s cut a rug or two in her day.

Prayer, by Mary Oliver

May I never not be frisky,

May I never not be risqué.

May my ashes, when you have them, friend,

and give them to the ocean,

leap in the froth of the waves,

still loving movement,

still ready, beyond all else,

to dance for the world.

Ghosts or ancestors

This term, I am taking a course called Creative Writing through Reading and it has made me pay even closer attention to words. Yesterday, driving on my own for a few hours, I caught these words on the Broadway album for Bruce Springsteen.

We are ghosts or we are ancestors in our children’s lives. We either lay our mistakes, our burdens upon them, and we haunt them, or we assist them in laying those old burdens down, and we free them from the chain of our own flawed behavior. And as ancestors, we walk alongside of them, and we assist them in finding their own way, and some transcendence.

I am not going to pretend that, as much as I love his music, that Bruce is a profound philosopher. He is, though, able to articulate things for some people, give hope to others, and entertain millions.

The words quoted above make sense to me.

I believe that if we are self-aware, we can be better. We can be better parents, better citizens, better partners – simply better.

Not that I’ve been asked, but if I were to give advice to another parent, here it is: deal with your crap, whatever it is, deal with it.

Whatever you need to do to put down your burden, do it, so that you can walk alongside your children, and not be the barrier between them and the life they deserve.

 

Sunday Share

Today was a wonderfully busy day with one of my favourite people. We did some Doors Open, some gluten-free market tasting, some plant buying and a wonderful walk (and a few songs) down memory lane.

Wonderful stuff but stuff that left me behind in my blog post department.

No fear! I was introduced to this lovely/funny/chaotic poem this week in one of my classes. I loved it because I could feel myself relate on both sides of the equation – the mom thinking I knew what I needed to do to push someone out of their comfort zone ‘for their own good’ and being the child having to give something up which I was sure I was not ready to part with yet.

It’s a bit of a cheat to showcase someone else’s work perhaps – but there it is!

Enjoy

Self-Portrait with the Ashes of My Baby Blanket
By Diane Seuss

Ashes, because she set fire to it in the burn barrel.

Leave her alone, with your newfangledness.

I was a clingy, fearful thumb-sucker, and she knew I needed reinventing.

She tore it away and I screamed and she burned it.

Begone, soft, pale yellow. She knew if I kept it I’d stumble over it

the rest of my life, how far I would travel without it

and how many strange birds I would trap

in the story of its burning.

simple traditions

It started out simply enough – the sun was shining, a few birds were chirping.

We were getting married that day.

There was no large hall booked. No long flowing gown or tuxedo.

Six bottles of champagne were chilling and some deli trays were waiting.

We started our married life simply. It worked for us.

We wanted to get married. Beyond that, everything was just icing on the cake (there wasn’t even one of those).

This anniversary, our 36th, we’ll be 4176 km apart – hoping that the sun is shining and the birds are chirping on both ends of the country!

the dress

(this week’s assignment: write a story from the POV of the person in this painting)

This night, one that had all the markings of a triumph, now seemed destined for ruin. A girl plucked from the social margins, Charlotte had been chosen as the star of her school’s musical. She had delivered a flawless closing night performance. The arc of her narrative had captivated the entire community.

Yet, here she sat, dress torn, all alone.

Well, that’s typical, she thought.

No good comes from trying to be someone you’re not, her father always said.

Laying back on the bed, the crinoline of her designer gown scratching at her legs, Charlotte tried to ignore the urge to scream. Below her people were laughing, celebrating her success, without her.

The house was full of cast members, crew and school staff. And her mother, the woman she hadn’t seen in fifteen years.

God, what did she do to deserve this new layer of hell? That woman, whose only connection to Charlotte was her DNA, suddenly shows up.Tonight. The one time in her life when she thought, maybe it’ll be okay. Maybe I can fit in.

Her father always said, your mother is useless. A selfish bitch. A taker. Well, she definitely stole something from me, thought Charlotte.

My night. This was supposed to be my night.

Rolling onto her side, Charlotte noticed the ornate fixtures on the sink in the adjoining bathroom. One of the taps was dripping and although she could not hear the sound over the noise of the party below, she noted the rhythm of the drip and began to tap it out on the footboard.

You need to calm yourself, her father always said. Don’t be a hysterical woman like your mother.

By focusing on the drip, her breathing slowed, and her anger began to subside. She did not hear the door open, but the increased audio intensity of the party broke her meditative state.

“Charlie?”

Charlotte’s fingers stopped midair.

That’s a boy’s name, her father always said. No good comes from trying to be someone you’re not.

The woman entered the room cautiously, closed the door and leaned against it.

“I didn’t mean to upset you, and I really didn’t mean to rip your dress. It was my bracelet, it just caught…”

Charlotte stood up abruptly, placing her hands firmly on her hips. “Stop. Don’t make excuses. Father says that’s what you do.”

The woman flinched at the mention of her ex-husband.

Your mother’s the devil, she’ll scratch out your eyes if she gets close enough, her father always said. Who was he describing? Certainly not this mousey creature before her?

The older woman straightened up, trying to square her shoulders.

“Your friends are waiting for you. The hostess says there’s a sewing kit in the room next door, why don’t we see if we can fix your dress?”

Charlotte pushed her mother aside and began to open the door. “No good comes from trying to be someone you’re not.”

 

there is no way to do this wrong

The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time – Mary Oliver

That piece of inspiration sits on my wall as a daily reminder to give the idea of writing power and time.

It’s hard – perhaps because I feel like an imposter some days.

What is a writer? Some people say a writer is someone who writes. Other people say you are a writer when you make a living as a writer. One of those definitions includes a whole whack of people, the other excludes a large swath who spend a great deal of time giving power to their writing.

I have always written – poems and stories. Even before I could write full stories, I had a storybook in my mind which I ‘flipped’ through nightly to tell myself bedtime stories (funny how now I use a meditation app for its sleep stories….).

I have always wanted to give more time and power to creative work. I think, as I go through the process of taking courses, I’ve come to realize that I feared finding out that my writing voice is not good enough, that I am not a ‘good enough’ writer (whatever that means).

That ‘aha’ moment for me was when I received the comments for my final assignment in my last course. I realized I’d been holding my breath, waiting for my instructor’s feedback. The other assignments I had submitted had not felt risky. This piece had felt like a huge leap of faith. I was not writing fiction; I was writing in my own voice, telling my own story.

The courses I am taking have a pass/fail grading system. It’s all about the comments. The instructor was incredibly supportive, while giving criticism. But, she validated the fact that I am now doing the right thing by taking time to give power to my writing.

A consistent theme with the books I’ve been reading about the writing life show that people often doubt, they always wonder, they throw their work away and start again.

That fear, that wondering if I’m getting it right, well, if nothing else has shown me I am pursuing a creative field – apparently, that’s the tell.

To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong – Joseph Chilton Pearce

photo: a desktop inspiration quote from @hellowriter (the monthly subscription service from Firefly Creative Writing)

one day gone

one day gone

unpack my bag

the hand me ups

soft loved items

memories emerge

scented candle

subtle florals

a woolen hug

 

shoes at the door

sharp salt crystals

fall from the treads

memories emerge

walks to the beach

wind whipped our cheeks

frozen belly laughs

 

scroll the photos

your beauty wrapped

in bright orange

memories emerge

the electric track

tinged with fear

high on life

 

hear your voice

one day gone

a stuttered hello

memories emerge

child of my body

woman of your world

small of my heart

when I am…

photo credit: Shari and Mike Photography

Warning, by Jenny Joseph (1932-2018)

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

 

Another inspiring writing prompt from my monthly subscription package – but perhaps not in the way that was intended.

The prompt is to take the gist of the poem above and talk about “some point in the future that holds a lot of energy for you” and think about what it would mean to you.

Your prompt: When I am _______ I shall…

For me, as soon as I read that line I thought of the countless promises I’ve made to myself regarding my weight.

When I am thin, not overweight (pick your poison), I shall be….what? Better? Happier?

Weight has been a thing for me since grade six. That’s a whole lot of times stepping on a scale, a whole lot of times when I made and broke promises to myself.

My heaviest was when my father in law died in 2009. The lightest adult weight I’ve been was in 1994 – after I was overly successful at weight loss and went far below ‘my goal weight’. Equally unhealthy.

You might say, I’ve lived a life where I have over loved food and under loved myself. Or you could say that I have had an unhealthy relationship with food. I’d say it’s been more complicated than I imagined.

My mother used to call me when I came home from school and ask how my day went. Often the answer was not well. As mothers do, she wanted to make it all better and she would send me off to engage with two of my favourite activities: eating cookies with milk and reading a book. (I am not mother blaming here; I put on my grown up girl pants everyday and have full agency over what goes in my mouth.)

I did not associate food with comfort then. But somewhere along the line, I did. Maybe comfort isn’t the right word – maybe escape?

In my life, I’ve read hundreds of books and eaten hundreds more cookies.

When I was diagnosed with celiac, in 2016, I felt confident that the restrictions on what I could eat would be a way to help me gain that illusive self-control when it came to food.

For a while, it did. But I missed what food, especially comfort foods like cookies, brought to my life – that feeling of escape. When the going gets tough, I turned to food.

What I’ve since accepted: it wasn’t about what was going in my mouth, but it was why.

Writing has helped. A lot. It is a new way to deal with stress and anxiety. It is a good way to confront the why.

Writing is a good pairing with meditation. And reading about other people’s struggles with life – and body image – has been amazing. Roxane Gay’s Hunger has been helpful in getting a clearer view on my relationship with food in the context of abuse.

As I started to think about writing this post, I considered who has a great relationship with food and realized that would be my children. And my hubby.

They all love food, but they don’t love it in an unhealthy way. And that made me realize, I haven’t been in love with food. I have loved the anesthetic it has provided.

***

Recently, I started physiotherapy due to knee pain. The therapist is around my age and is wonderful at putting the responsibility for my care in my hands. It’s been a very empowering feeling. I have to decide if I want to be able to access those very necessary joints in my lower limbs; it’s not up to her. This was not stated to me in some sort of shaming way; it is a fact that I have to want to do the exercises for the gains it will achieve.

When I make my short walk home from the GO train, music playing in my ears, I know that I miss long distance walking and so, physio exercises are an easy priority.

Yesterday, we went to a great gluten-free bakery and got some (very expensive, very tasty) bread. When I taste a good, squishy bread, I know that having a true love affair with food is possible. One where I am engaging with the tastes, not the momentary disconnect from whatever negative feeling I am having.

I mean, this is really good bread.

Lately, I have been making note of when I want to grab food that I shouldn’t, that I don’t need, that will mentally and physically weigh me down.

Boredom is the number one culprit. Anxiety is now second.

That is a very big shift in my mental health.

I can deal with boredom – the second part of my mother’s cure for a bad day is reading and that is truly a wonderful thing to exchange for cookies and milk. Those long walks, a good movie, all good remedies.

Having anxiety fall to second place as a reason to eat, well, that’s a good thing. I’ve enriched, enhanced and broadened my meditation practice. I’ve engaged in some good old deep breathing in public places and elevators. Learning to watch emotions and thoughts drift down a river of calm, acknowledging them but not engaging with them (mostly), is a beautiful feeling of success.

***

Another big shift over the past few years is about weight versus health. It’s a tough habit to break, focusing on weight. When my doctor stopped weighing me a few years ago, I slowly began to think about what that had meant – the number on that scale – in my way of judging me.

Success vs failure. Weak vs strong. Good vs bad.

***

I went back to university at 51, in anthropology (“the degree that makes you question everything”) which is proof positive that it’s never to late to change one’s thought patterns.

I’ve always said my biggest takeaway from university was the knowledge that I can do it, whatever that it is. 

There are two parts to being able to be successful here: prioritizing oneself and being able to ask for help. That’s another thing that university taught me – the journey is so much easier when you let others walk with you.

***

My answer to the prompt?

when I am ready to love myself enough to do the work, I will do the work. 

I’m ready.

when I am unable, I will ask for help.

I’ll let you know.

 

what is it you do?

I’ve written three different blog posts today and don’t feel ready to publish any of them – could be because I worked on (someone else’s) taxes all afternoon and I’m just tapped out. Or it could be the rain.

But I have wanted to explain my work at McMaster so here goes:

It’s kind of hard to explain – but basically an archeology professor of mine is doing a long-term study on commemorative practices in cemeteries in Cambridgeshire, England. In order to do that, he needs a really big database to be able to make comparisons and figure out what are the motivators for people to commemorate, what are the patterns (do rich people do a type of commemoration and then others follow?), what are the economic factors, do people commemorate children or marginalized people (people from asylums, or workhouses) – he needs data.

I don’t get to do actual on the ground work in England. And no, I don’t dig up dead people. Not even close. I like cemeteries and I like the stories they tell, but don’t put me near bones. No thank you.

The work (done by other research assistants and me) involves taking burial data from the various parish records in Cambridgeshire and filling in commemoration information as well as occupations and other census data for the people buried. In the period we are investigating (1845-1925), the occupation of the head of the household, usually a man, is how everyone within that household is defined.

We look into genealogy sources (Ancestry being our most utilized) and graveyard sites. We have a success rate of finding occupation and other records of well over 85% for most of these parishes.

As a person who likes to make up stories, there is a significant amount of possibilities for storylines – with entire family stories written out over the decades. As the prof once said, you see the birth and the death of many people in that 80-year period.

Most parishes average about 350 burials in that 80-year time span so you get a bit of variety in the work, going between inputting of data and the internet research.

Yesterday, I completed a parish which had 6700 burials in that 80 year period meaning at times there would have been a burial every 2-3 days! It took me two months of work (about 21 hours per week) to complete. It hurt my brain to be doing relatively the same thing for days on end.

Upside: we are creating a database that will help support researchers beyond this project as well as the prof who hired me. This thought has been a good motivator in the depths of the repetitive nature these past few months.

So, not sure about next steps – discussions about what happens when my contract is up (in 10 days) have not taken place. It might be time for a bit of space between me and that computer, or that could just be the ridiculously big chunk of research talking!

 

It is about the students

Déjà vu all over again – the government and the education sector, butting up against one another and the government whipping anger with a media frenzy (and way too many standing ovations). People working in education will be made out as money grabbing and our elected representatives will not only feed that negativity and misinformation, but they will do everything possible to come out as good leaders, stating it’s all for the greater economic good.

What a load of propaganda.

I know about fiscal restraint. I worked in special education for 15 years and was at the top of my pay grid and took home less than $35,000 a year. 

Yup. You read that right. 

Right now, RIGHT NOW, there is no talk about more/less money because we are not negotiating yet. 

Right now, RIGHT NOW, the protests are about the cuts, about the threats of cuts, about the pile of damage being created by decisions being made by the government. 

The government started on the wrong foot by cutting out curriculum development which would have increased Indigenous content – curriculum changes set out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

The debacle that is, was, and continues to be funding for children with autism is part of the protests. 

Increasing class sizes, having students take e-learning courses – and don’t even get me started about the health curriculum. 

The government says teachers are promoting dissention with students and using classroom bulletin boards as places of anti-government information sharing. 

If the term ‘fake news’ was not so overused, I’d use it here. 

There are so many issues to protest, but RIGHT NOW, salaries is not one of them. 

When it comes to fiscal restraint, the Ford government has not actually been practicing what they preach. 

Buck a beer? License plate redos? “Open for business” signage? Stickers to agitate against carbon tax?

And then there are the salaries of friends and associates in jobs that either didn’t previously exist or were at lower salaries previously: $348,000 to a health care advisor; $140,000 for a formerly part-time position as EQAO chair; $350,000 for a trade representative. And then there are folks who are in senior positions after being part of the Ford team in various capacities: Ontario Energy Board appointee, $197,000 and chair of Public Accountants Council for $166,666.

These inflated “dollars for supporters of Ford” would make an incredible difference in the lives of students in Ontario. Money that would allow for more speech and language support, autism intervenors (cause given new policies and money shuffling, we are definitely going to need more specialists), and specialized equipment within schools.

What about the senior students, those with learning needs who do not have the depth of programs they need to prepare them for the world beyond the education system? Their programs have been cut and their support diminished because special education has been underfunded for years. And years. And years, first by the Liberals, now by the current government.

Another way in which this government is failing is that they keep announcing funding as if it’s new – slapping a ‘new and improved’ label on already existing, lower than needed, funding. And people are being fooled into believing it, because they want to believe their vote for this government was the right one. 

Wrong. 

Special education students are capable and want to contribute in whatever way they can to society – but they need the foundations to do that and they need those programs to last through the end of their final year of school (and beyond).

I worked in special needs and behaviour from 2003 until 2018. I value the work of all the members of our education system, but special needs is what I know and therefore the reality of that work is what I can best speak to. Special education means working with the most vulnerable members of the system and of society – children with physical, intellectual and mental health issues. We are the people who, along with the teaching teams, deliver education to students who need more – perhaps it’s personal care, or curriculum support or behaviour management. Everyday, members of that employee group are faced with unimaginable stress and incredible types of successes.

Let me focus on the stress aspects: We feed students who cannot do it themselves. We change diapers, clothing and sanitary pads, often lifting students the size of grown men and women. We can be kicked, pinched, punched, scratched, spit on, urinated on, have feces or furniture or pretty much anything thrown at us. I have worn protective gear to minimize the chances of injury, which makes it harder to move around. In addition to this physical abuse, we also can be subjected to verbal abuse. Personally, I have had all of these things happen to me, including being hit so hard in the face that I fell to the ground. I have visited the emergency department of my local hospital on more than one occasion for myself, in addition to accompanying students with seizures and other medical conditions.

When you pull money out of the system, more of these tasks are put onto fewer workers. People think their child will have one on one support. 

Those days are long gone. Student supports are prioritized by categories such as safety and personal care, not by educational needs. 

The more money pulled out of the system, the less time front line workers and teachers have to teach students the skills which allow them to be successful, to not have levels of frustration that can cause them to act out in aggressive and violent ways – skills that allow ALL students to be included in schools and their communities in meaningful ways.

And that violence? It is experienced by all students and staff who are present when it occurs.

Appropriate funding needs to be in place in order to make school a place where students can learn and grow; it should not be about warehousing children and youth with special needs.

That is my greatest fear when I think about their future. 

And guess what? When I was dealing with out of control students, or otherwise doing my job, you know who was standing right next to me? The teaching staff. Early childhood educators. Other teaching assistants. My principal. All are at risk every day and they need to know that their government is behind them.

When the government make claims in the media that it’s about the money, they are right.

There is a component about being compensated for the work we do and for the injuries we sustain doing that work. 

That is not the issue RIGHT NOW. 

The bigger, RIGHT NOW issue is that people (students, staff, parents, Boards) are angry about the government not properly funding the education system.

I want to tell this government, as I tried to tell the last one, walk a mile in the shoes of those teachers and education workers you talk about in such negative ways. You would love aspects of your job. You would be exhausted and inspired.

And you would be devastated that your government undermines you both on a personal and on a professional level.

You would be more than devastated to see amazing students not get the chance to succeed because your government felt it was important to support personally motivated projects over supporting students. 

No matter how you spin it, this is the reality: the government has chosen other priorities in front of the future of Ontario. That future includes the children and the people who are educating and shaping them every single day.

For education workers, teachers, administrators, communities and families, RIGHT NOW AND ALWAYS  

IT IS ABOUT THE STUDENTS.