Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Take it Off

“Um…that’s not really a Mommy bathing suit.”

We are leaving for our beach vacation in less than 48 hours and I have left that dreaded chore of bathing suit shopping to the last minute as usual. My seven year old daughter has accompanied me to give me her unsolicited fashion advice.  I have been eyeing this cute polka dot bikini, but somehow she doesn’t seem to share my vision of myself as a modern day Annette Funicello skipping down the sandy beach, Frankie and his ukulele serenading me in the background…

 “What do you mean?” I ask her, not quick enough to curb the defensiveness in my voice.

“Well, that’s more of a young person’s bathing suit. (Ouch)  It won’t cover all your …soft bits.”

She’s right of course.  Over the years my mid-section has expanded and not so gracefully begun to rise in an abundance of stretch-marked doughy softness.  Fact is, a couple of nursing babies and the comfort of a secure relationship have contributed to a lifestyle more Poptarts than Pilates and a figure less fit than flabby.

My body isn’t the only thing to soften as I approach middle-age.  My heart has become as Pillsbury as my upper arms and these days it takes little to melt my defenses and reveal my…soft bits.  Hearing kids laugh, listening to a colleague’s personal heartache, witnessing harsh words, receiving kind ones, the slightest human moment releases a hair-trigger response in my eyes which quickly dampen and belie my bleeding heart.  As my waistline grows, so too it seems does my well of vulnerability. 

I used to admire those who are carefully composed, who seem so strong and always put together.  I would listen to friends talk of others who got randomly emotional.  “She’s burning out,” “He’s oversensitive,” “She’s too involved and has boundary issues,” and would feel shame at my own PDS (Public Displays of Sappiness).  What muscles of theirs were so firm and tight that they never open and spill over? How do you connect if always disconnected?  

As a young new Child Protection Worker I would sometimes accompany my teenage clients to juvenile court. On one particular occasion, my client was a 15 year old boy who had already had a few run-ins with the law. He was a good kid who had fallen in with the wrong crowd after his parents separated and his father moved to another city with his new girlfriend.  Today he was facing charges of break and entry. He and some “friends” had gone on a looting spree in their neighborhood, breaking into homes and stealing small electronics they would later sell on Craig’s list to unsuspecting soccer moms.  The kid didn’t lack entrepreneurial spirit, so much as a little basic judgment.

I knew from the moment we walked into the courtroom that my young client was in for a rough ride.  The crown attorney was a man whose path I reluctantly crossed every so often. Slickly groomed, he tended to ooze cold ambition more than warm fuzzies.  Charles was a handsome man but hard and seemingly inaccessible in his rigid determination. While I might have admired his success, I always felt uncertain in his presence. He had a tendency to inspire little in me beyond oceans of internal eyeball rolling. Maybe it was his knock-off Armani suit and the snugness of his tie that made me sympathetically uncomfortable. More likely it was the ease with which he walked the line between truth and calculated manipulation. A master at politicking, a skill I just don’t have and could never compete with.

The proceedings began ordinarily enough. As witness after witness rose to the stand to tell their story, my teen charge slumped deeper and deeper into his chair, mimicking the depth I predicted his future was sinking into this impossible hole he had dug himself. I felt my own body start to slip into that end-of-day-coma as my mind wandered between thoughts about the futility of my chosen career path and the list of groceries I had to pick up on the way home. Finally it was time for closing statements. It had been a long day and we were all tired when Charles began,

“Listen, I know what it’s like to suddenly find yourself without a parent.  To feel lost but …" He paused in mid-sentence. The judge looked up from his bench, waiting for the punchline.

And that is when things got weird and out of nowhere, Charles got naked.

He began to tell us how as a young man he was forced to give up his dreams of law school and take a factory job near home to help support his family.  How his father’s drinking had begun innocently enough, an extra couple beers at half-time on Sunday afternoon but following a work accident, soon progressed to overnight binges and impromptu disappearing acts. He described how almost overnight the man who taught him how to drive a stick-shift became a menace on the road. Charles’ voice wavered as he recounted how sometimes his father, fueled by Scotch and self-loathing, would curse at him furiously, lashing out physically and breaking things around the house.   His childhood story was one of cowering in corners, bruises hidden, and dreams disillusioned. Absentmindedly palming the tears from his cheeks, he whispered how at times he was so angry at his father for disappearing on him, and at others he would rage at the fact that he would keep coming back.

Charles paused for a moment. His words hung in the air and I looked around the room, relieved to see my colleagues as winded by this unexpected flash of exposure as I was.  I don’t know what sparked this spontaneous confession.  I just know that it took one look into Charles' glossy eyes and each of us in that room were swallowing and blinking back the ache of our shared humanity. Finally he continued,

“I’m sorry, I just…” He took a deep breath, pulled himself together and turned to the accused.  “I get it. You feel abandoned and angry. You’re angry at the world. Hell, you're probably angry at yourself. But you can’t let that anger define you, kid. You can’t.  You can’t let it be the end of your story.”

And just as the drawn out silence began to push the boundaries of comfort, adding a cherry punch to this already surreal sundae of a disclosure, the judge, like some black-robed Yoda, recited,

“Qui n’a vu que la misère de l’homme n’a rien vu; il faut voir la misère de la femme; qui n’a rien vu que la misère de la femme n’a rien vu, il faut voir la misère de l’enfant. »*

He who has seen the misery of man only has seen nothing, he must see the misery of woman; he who has seen the misery of woman only has seen nothing, he must see the misery of the child.”

The air buzzed with a collective drawn out exhalation. We sat frozen, wondering who would break the silence. My eloquent client took the leap.

“Yeah ok, guy….whatever.”  (What? Were you expecting a dramatic moment of adolescent self-discovery? Juvenile Court is not produced by Disney.)

The rest of the hearing was unremarkable. My client lost and ended up with 240 days of community service and endless pages of conditions and we all carried on as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.  As if boundaries hadn’t been broken and this hearing hadn’t been turned on its head by one man daring to take it all off. But as we all filed out and I led my teen client to the exit I found myself giving Charles a nod as I said, “See you next time." I wanted to thank him for bravely peeling back the layers to reveal this hole in his heart, for reminding us of the common Swiss-cheesiness inside us all. For proving there is far more power in our softness than our muscles.  My baggy-jeaned companion might not have got the message, but I did. Our soft bits, our real bits, are those that connect us, and at the end of the day, the greatest gift that we can give anyone is but ourselves.

These days I find myself drawn to courageous souls who like Charles, unmask themselves so openly and aren’t afraid to go deep and bare it all.  And when my own tears sometimes unexpectedly rinse my eyes to clear the view, I no longer panic but raise my hands in surrender, laugh and proclaim “It’s hopeless!” as I whip out another brightly-colored minipack of Kleenex from my purse.

In the end, I didn’t buy the polka dot bikini but it wasn’t fear that stopped me so much as geometry and basic physics. I wasn’t afraid to let it all hang out. I actually didn’t even really try it on.  I mean I TRIED to try it on but in the end it turns out the teeny weeny bikini was even more itsy bitsy than I had realized and no amount of sausaging was ever going to get it over my hips.

To my daughter’s relief I chose a different suit, one that wouldn’t threaten to cut off my circulation or lead to a holiday week of awkward poolside wedgies. Instead, I bought a suit that would comfortably display my full self to the warmth of the sun. No cover up. No shame.  Nothing hidden.  Just me.  Fully exposed. Soft bits and all.

*Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Names and some details have been altered to protect the privacy of those involved but remain true to the essence of the events.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sunny Side Up

Scrambled. Poached. Fried. Florentine. Boiled.
No question, no matter how it comes, breakfast is my favorite meal of the day.  I see “Breakfast served 24hrs” in the corner of a menu and my heart fairly cartwheels in contentment.

(Ok, ok, before any of you start getting all up in my face trying to call me out on this, I never actually said that I enjoy eating eggs at some ungodly hour of the morning when no civilized person should be out of bed.  To be exact, I probably prefer “Brunch” to Breakfast and were I Bilbo Baggins, I suppose “2nd Breakfast” would be my preferred fare…)
My point is, I’ll take a couple of eggs, home fries and a mountain of fresh fruit over a fancy dinner any time.  I don’t even care how well the food is prepared.  Runny eggs, charred toast, day old potatoes, dirt-like coffee, no matter how it comes, that perfect combination of carbs, cholesterol and caffeine somehow picks me up and puts me in a good mood all day.

Some would say I am overly optimistic.
“You’re so positive!” a colleague said to me recently.

It was not meant as a compliment.  His tone fairly oozed with exasperated frustration at my refusal to adopt his glass-half-empty cynicism no matter how dim the potential future of our mutual project.
We had been discussing a particularly challenging situation at work.  I had been reassuring him that it would all work out.  That we needed to persist because that was the right thing to do.  That we had to have faith because frankly, what else did we have?  He looked at me as though I had committed the most heinous of office crimes.  Right up there with taking your colleague’s yogurt from the fridge without asking or showing up to a retirement potluck empty-handed.

It was not the first time I have been the recipient of such disdain.  I have been called naïve, gullible, overly trusting, foolishly optimistic.  Bosses have shaken their heads as they write “will learn to accept the reality of inevitable negative outcomes” and “needs to accept some have limited capacity to change” as my recurring annual personal objectives.  But I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around this “constructive criticism”.
I have known Jack for years. I was drawn to him by his intense sensitivity and indignation at the injustices of the world.  But the charm of his apparent concern soon faded to another colour.  At first I couldn’t grasp why he started to lose his appeal.  Why I still cared for him but found myself looking at my watch when we were together.  Why sometimes I would just keep walking when I saw him sitting in the lunchroom.  And then it hit me one day as I sat across the table listening to him recount his weekly grocery list of troubles; his boss was incompetent, he was sure his dentist was trying to scam him, his colleagues were dishonest and weren’t pulling their weight, the parking ticket he just received was an unfair money grab from a corrupt government …He was upset about how he was treated.   He was upset at how others were treated. Mostly he was just upset.  I mean intensely… terminally… upset.

And that’s when it hit me.
Jack was a real drag.      

Somehow, he was unhappy and suspicious of everyone and everything...All. The. Time. I mean it’s not like I never feel crappy. Lord knows I am often down, discouraged, or disappointed. And I am the first to admit I have about as much in common with Mother Theresa as I do with the Klingon mothership.  Every day my sarcastic conscience (imagine the love child of Lewis Black and Sarah Silverman, a hot ranting cynic with stilettos and a receding hairline…) sits on my shoulder just dying to editorialize.  Gum-chewing, whiskey-swilling Lara Silverblack itches to yell out, “Yeah, root canals suck, I dunno, maybe put down your soda, get off the couch and floss once in a while! If you’re so upset about your parking ticket, maybe trade in your gas-guzzling sports car for a flashy pair of roller-skates! ”
Like everyone,   I have regular moments where other people’s choices and actions spark such a “WTF” reaction in me that the temptation to spew biting tidbits of mockery is almost overwhelming. But the truth is, as much as I might get a little commiseration or laughter in return, it doesn’t generally change anything and I still feel, well… crappy.

Fact is, Jack’s right.  Every day we’re faced with mountains of frustrations we can’t control- other people’s actions, unexpected hurdles, the backside of human nature… For a control freak like me, this is an awesome revelation.  And I don’t mean “Awesome” in that 13 year old “Groovy dude!” kind of awesome.  More like that 43 year old, holy-shit-how- the-hell-am-I-ever-going-to-cope-in-a-world-of-completely-unpredictable-chaos kind of “awesome.”
Thankfully, I can still try to control my reactions.

This morning I am out for breakfast with my children, and am feeling indecisive.  Scrambled, poached, fried…
My daughter looks up from where she is coloring on her place mat.

“Mommy, Nicky was crying yesterday.”
I brace myself. Nicky is 10 years old and in my daughter’s class. She is a troubled kid whose disruptive anti-social behaviour and unsuccessful pharmacological treatment isolate her from her classmates. For years I have tried to calm my protective mother lioness as I listen to daily stories of how Vicky was “bugging me at lunch” or “calling me names in the schoolyard”.

 “She was crying, Mommy.  She has to change schools and she’s scared no one will like her or they’ll call her a bully.”
Lara Silverblack wakes up on my shoulder, cracks her gum and starts to mutter.  Oh the karmic balance of the universe.    

“So what did you do?” I tentatively ask, taking a drawn out gulp of my coffee.
“Well, I hugged her and told her it was all going to be ok because everyone would love her.”

And with one phrase, Lara Silverblack is knocked off her Jimmy Choos and my wavering needle is straightened out by my daughter, whose own moral compass always points true North, showing me life can be harsher than our reactions need be.
 “How would you like your eggs today, ma’am?” the waitress cuts off my reverie of shame.

And taking a breath, I close my menu and answer without hesitation.

“Sunny side up.”

*Names and some details have been altered to protect the privacy of those involved but remain true to the essence of the events.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Good Morning

I am just not a morning person.  As a child my friends learned real quick not to call on me for Kick the Can until well after noon.   In high school I could sleep whole days away. As a college student I regularly showed up late to my early morning classes, still in my pajamas.

These days little has changed (though it’s much harder to explain my pj bottoms to my boss).  I dread the sunrise so intensely that I often delay bedtime in some desperate attempt to stall the inevitable new day.  Each morning, the alarm goes off and I am paralyzed, my body heavy with hesitation.  The wheels of dread kick into motion as the hamster in my brain starts his workout. He runs through all the things I have to do that day, the things I was supposed to do the day before, the endless scenarios of things I might be asked to do tomorrow.  Where others start their days with quiet stretches and positive affirmations, I will myself out of bed with a routine of cracking bones and self-flagellation. I should have made time to read a story to the kids last night, I should have spoken my mind to that colleague yesterday, I’ll never get that report done by the end of the week, I was unfairly cranky with my husband before bed, how will I ever manage to fold the 17 loads of laundry exploding on the couch etc. I fixate on the mounting stresses of the week, the month, the season… never sure how I’ll get through it all without melting down or at the very least, dropping some of the many balls I attempt to keep in the air like some Cirque du Soleil flunky.

Eventually I manage to get moving and sleepwalk through the morning routine out of necessity more than intrinsic motivation.  I lasso up my negativity, disguise my inner fog with eye-rejuvenating makeup and hustle the kids out the door.  The neighbours must wonder, as they see this disheveled woman stumble down the street each morning clutching a coffee in one hand and Monster High lunchboxes in the other.

Our walks to the bus stop are thus, fairly quiet.  The girls skip and sing as I slowly reboot my brain with caffeine and fresh air.

It was on one of these walks on a first spring-like day after a brutally long winter, that my youngest randomly piped up,

“Mommy, you know what I like about mornings?” Um no… not really. I shook my head back to earth.

“Uh...what’s that, baby?” Her answer jarred my brain awake.

“It’s that they always restart.”

Ok, reality check. Let’s be honest- it is not so hard to be perpetually optimistic at age 7. If your friend doesn’t like the bracelet you made her today, it’s highly probable that by tomorrow your entire peer group will have moved on to some other Korean-inspired McDonald’s-sponsored toy fad and the “Grazzle Dazzle Kids" charm you chose so carefully will be long forgotten. Even as adults, it’s not so hard to keep the faith when things are going relatively well.  Somehow optimism gets a bit further out of reach when you’re having a genuinely crappy day.   Keeping a perky attitude can take some determination when you’re scared your job is on the line, your life-long dream comes crashing down, or someone you trusted turns out to not be who you thought they were.

And what about when life throws you a curve ball so hard and fast it fairly knocks you off your feet-your relationship erodes, you face losing a loved one, your body fails you. How do you get up morning after morning? How do keep the faith when life just sucks?

My sister-in-law was a firecracker. One of nine siblings of an artistic, working class family, she was hit with no shortage of fast balls. As a young woman, she made a name for herself as a professional singer, touring with top-selling artists, and winning over audiences with her powerhouse voice and soulful energy.  But under the bedazzled stage outfits, life was not easy.    Personal heartache and health issues weighed heavily.  She suffered from kidney disease from a young age and spent years on dialysis before undergoing not one but two transplants, her weak body having rejected the first. Only through all of this, somehow she never lost her ability to embrace each morning’s possibilities.

She was an intrinsically creative and fun woman who was forever imagining a new project, each one a little further out of the box than the last. The kind of woman who would show up to your house for coffee bearing gifts of feather boas and magic wands for her nieces, “Just because.”

Here was a woman who embodied the notion of wholehearted living, one day at a time.  Despite her health issues, she was determined to live a full and fun life and was just as determined to coax others into her playful schemes.  The phone would ring,

“I’m starting a new business.  Imagine pies based on people’s favorite cocktail recipes.  Everybody loves cocktails.  Everybody loves pie!”  And before you knew it you were invited to an elaborate launch in her home where you sampled “Key Limerita Pie” and “Banana Colada Crumble” until you thought your belly would burst from the rich combination of her delicious baking and her infectious optimism.

A few months later the phone rang again,

“We’re going to make a movie.  I’ve written a script.  It’s Cinderella with a twist. The grandkids will love it!”  And within weeks she had the entire extended family organized with military precision into a strict production schedule.  Parts were cast, music was recorded, and her middle-aged brothers coiffed and costumed into three remarkably ugly stepsisters. No one ever questioned her or dared to say no.  No one wanted to for we all knew that no matter how it turned out, it was guaranteed to be a hell of a ride. And so instead, we spent weeks together, laughing our heads off as lines were memorized and grown men were strategically squeezed into plus size lingerie.

And then came the cancer diagnosis. 

It was already advanced when it came and we all held our breath as, despite aggressive rounds of heart-wrenching treatments, it took hold of her body hard and fast.

Everyone tried to convince her to maybe take a break.  There was no hurry.  We could finish the movie later. We worried about her in hushed voices in the kitchen while she sat resting in a chair between “takes”.  Someone finally braved the question, “Maybe we should finish here and pick it up another day.  You should rest.”

But she always answered the same way.

“No. This is what we need to do today.”

Between the rounds of chemo, radiation and surgical procedures, she lost weight and stamina but her spirit would not be broken. How did she find the strength to keep going, when most of us would have just packed it all up?  How did she manage to restart each morning?

Months later, still riding the high of her successful “film debut”, she called again. Her voice crackled with excitement at the other end of the line, “I’m calling a family meeting.  I want to do something big.”

Her idea was to produce a benefit concert to raise funds for the local Children’s Hospital. And so once again, like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland we followed her into the barn and began rallying up a roster of talent among family and friends who were just as eager to help her “put on a show”.

The night before the concert, she called me, her voice tired but resolute.  She had gone through a radiation treatment just that afternoon. 

“How are you feeling?”  I asked tentatively.  It had been a hectic week of final rehearsals and last minute preparations and I worried about the toll all the activity was taking on her.  Her answer put me in my place.

“I just need to do this concert tomorrow. That’s what I need to do.”

The show was a great success.  The lineup included a rousing gospel choir and a gaggle of adorable musical kids. (An unintentional stroke of emotionally manipulative genius I admit. The Grinch himself would have had a hard time resisting the general feel-good energy of the house.)

Finally it was her moment to take the stage. Someone supported her up the steps with her walker as by this time the cancer had begun to ravage her bones. Her voice was not as strong as it had once been but there was nothing weak about her spirit. She sang her heart out that night and the audience responded in kind.   I rose to my feet and danced in the pew with those around me.  I don’t know if they were simply moved by the music or if like me, they were acutely aware that this was her farewell performance.  I was so caught up in the moment that I barely noticed the salty tears washing over my openhearted grin as I watched her.  Tears of grief for what was to come mixed with tears of overwhelming gratitude and respect.  Sorrow and love.  Two opposing emotions that cannot live independently.

On my way out of the church I stopped to kiss her goodnight.  She was sitting alone in the lobby waiting to be helped to the car. Behind the adrenaline-fueled sparkle in her eyes I could see she was feeling some pain.

I gushed, “That was so great. You did it.  It was amazing.”

She gave me a tired but blissful smile, “It was a great night, wasn’t it?”

It was not long after that night that her morning restarts ran out.  These days, I think of her often. Life is full of hard moments- losses, parental heartache, painful realizations. Moments so heavy it can be hard to breathe. Moments that steal your drive to restart each morning. Maybe the secret lies in pressing a finger on that hamster wheel and just focussing on what needs to be done that day, whether it’s devouring a second slice of Tequila pie, stuffing yourself into an extra-large brassiere, or shedding some tears as you dance in your seat.

I’ll never be a morning bird. It’s just not part of my genetic makeup.  This morning I got up with the same “Oh crap, this again?” attitude, only this time I took a deep breath (ok, ok, several deep breaths between several snooze alarms and well yes, a couple shots of caffeine and well, ok, maybe just a little groaning, moaning and very mild cursing…) but then for real, I turned off my negativity as firmly as my alarm. I have no idea what this day might bring, but watching my daughters skip ahead to the bus-stop, I think I felt the slightest new spring in my step as I passed my burly neighbour walking his candy pink-coated dachshund (yes, reallyJ) and I impulsively shouted,

 “Good morning!”
*Some details have been altered to protect the privacy of those involved but remain true to the essence of the events.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Look Up


I haven’t told my husband yet, but I am in love with another man.  It has been a couple of years now that I have found myself repeatedly returning to him for servings of the joy he brings me.  I supposed I should feel guilty, as he is about the same age as my sons, but instead I feel only pure affection.  To be clear, my love for him is strictly platonic and we rarely see each other for more than a few minutes at a time, but without fail, each time I walk away with a smile on my face that lasts all day. 

Not long ago, a noodle shop opened down the street from my office.  For most of my colleagues, the novelty of a new lunch spot wore off within a few weeks, but for me the significance of this commercial expansion was far more important.  The truth is...

I have a deeply entrenched noodle addiction.

I know Cosmopolitan magazine and Bridget Jones have the world convinced that eating ice cream out of the tub is every woman’s go-to “feel-better” activity, but in times of stress, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, shame, boredom, credit card overdraft, bad hair days etc. for me there is no quicker fix than a steaming takeout box of rice noodles slurped through disposable chopsticks so cheap that avoiding a splinter becomes the entertainment part of “dinner and a show”.  I don’t even really know why, but the simplicity of that perfect blend of steamy, sweet and spicy always brings me comfort.

Noodle boy’s sunny disposition confused me the first time we met. He looked up and met my eyes as I walked up to the cash. He smiled warmly, his focus never wavering. 

“Hi.  What can I get you today, Ma’am?”

Scanning the endless possibilities on the massive billboard, I wondered how I would ever decide.  Choose your protein, choose your sauce, choose your garnish.  Is it just me, or has takeout become exponentially complicated?  All I wanted were some hot sticky noodles. 

My breath got shallow and I started to feel anxious.  I heard the smartly dressed business man behind me breathing down the back of my neck.  He shuffled his Italian leather shoes impatiently at my indecision.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw him masturbating the screen of his smart phone absentmindedly with his thumb, like he might an old girlfriend he was growing tired of.

Noodle boy was unperturbed. He flashed me another smile. “Ma’am?  Have you made your choice?” He whispered gently.

            “Umm….a veggie pad thai please.

            “Spicy?”  His eyes twinkled, windows to his warm, calm heart.

Mr. Italian leather cleared his throat behind me.  His General Tao Special seemed sure to be the only thing standing between him and solving the Middle Eastern crisis. 

             “Maybe just a little.”

And so go our interactions.  There is little variation.  On occasion I’ll feel adventurous and try something else on the menu, maybe even ask a couple questions but mostly, our meetings are, on the surface, completely insignificant- money exchanged, few words spoken.  He doesn’t even know my name but somehow, our brief encounters stay with me.

There used to be an intimate apparel store in our local mall called Moments Intimes.  I laughed when a friend once misunderstood the chic French title and referred to it as Moments in Time.  But maybe she was right, that really, there is nothing more intimate than those little moments in time when we are truly present, whether with a lover or a complete stranger at our favorite takeout joint. With so much talk about BFFs and soul mates, maybe we underestimate those little connections we make when we just look up to truly see the person in front of us.

Today once again I found myself craving noodles and so decided to run into the grocery store on my way home.

Ten minutes later I get in line to pay.  I sigh as I see that the young woman working the cash seems to have time-warped into an alternate universe of slow motion. She struggles to identify the most basic of fruits and vegetables and after finally scanning each item, pauses to categorize its dimensions before carefully bagging it with bomb squad precision so as not to bruise or crush any fruit or baked good.  The line continues to grow behind me both in length and impatience.

I find myself feeling grumpier by the second so I pull out my phone to pass the time.  Facebook, the cyber-crack of checkout lines.  I swipe away, images spinning faster and faster in my palm.  Pictures of pizza muffins and the amazing healing properties of kale, interspersed with status updates of “7 easy steps to spiritual enlightenment,” and “Look what I just ate for lunch!” (Aside: has anyone else noticed that since the advent of Facebook, elephants have become increasingly artistically inclined?) My thumb scrolls faster and faster. The information overload only increases my angst.

Finally it’s my turn.  I am obsessively replaying a “pig nursing orphan kittens” video in disbelief.

And then I look up at the cashier. She can’t be twenty, this young woman with the fabulous afro and intricately air-brushed nails. I meet her eyes.  They are the deepest of dark browns. She gives me a pained smile and I can’t help but smile back.  We look at each other for a moment, I at her beauty and she, I fear, to see if I am about to give her a hard time. No way.  I drop my phone in my pocket and reach out to grab the package of vermicelli she has just passed over the scanner.

“Here, why don’t you pass them to me and I’ll bag,” I suggest.  She nods and her smile softens.

Yup, I think I’m in love again.

I toss the snow peas and mushrooms into the bag.  They will be perfect in tonight’s stir-fry. A dish that’s just the right blend of steamy, sweet, spicy comfort.

A dish I won’t be posting on Facebook.

*Some details have been altered to protect the privacy of those involved but remain true to the essence of the events.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Kindness Lights The Way

The words of kindness are more healing to a drooping heart than balm or honey. -Sarah Fielding (1710-1768)

I’m no techno wiz, but I am pretty sure that when you press the power button of your computer it’s not supposed to go all black. I stare, waiting…nothing.  The tiny arrow sits alone, lost in the middle of the screen.  I can relate.  I fiddle with the mouse and tap the keys randomly.  Nothing but darkness stares back at me.

It’s not the first time this has happened.  The last time, I googled “Help!  My screen is black.”   The search brought me to an endless series of YouTube videos where pimply-faced fifteen year olds in their parents’ basements shamed me with their patronising techno-speak.

Was my computer finally dead?  Or was it trying to tell me something. Maybe reflecting back to me- a sarcastic pathetic cyber fallacy of the void I was currently going through.  The arrow pointing fluorescently to the nowhere my life was heading.

I had had a hard few months.  It was one of those winters where the universe seems to align the stars to test your inner strength and ability to stay in motion.  When circumstances breathe of pivotal choices to be made and transformational moments that lie ahead.  A season where you question not how you got yourself in this painfully tight spot, but what the hell you are supposed to do now and what “important life lesson” you are supposed to be learning.  A season that has you taking that second glass of wine more often than usual and rationalizing the consumption of carbs that are now nesting conspicuously on your hips while your eyes leak tears of exhaustion that speak of your raw spirit.


At the young age of 19, my sister-in-law found herself unexpectedly pregnant. With twins.  A remarkably resilient woman, she has often retold me the story of how soon after their birth their father had to go out of town for work and so upon discharge, she juggled them alone into a taxi along with cases of donated formula and proceeded to wade through the many months of sleep deprivation and isolation that followed as best she could.

But like all new parents she soon learned that the scary exhaustion of infancy eventually gives way to years of unfathomable joy.  That while we are worrying and puzzling at them, our kids inevitably manage to burst open a well of profound emotion we never knew existed and to wrap their sticky little fingers permanently around our hearts. Only this terrifically tight grasp also increases our vulnerability.

Daily life with young twins is a logistic complexity that rivals the tactical manoeuverings of the most sophisticated of armies. Gone are the days of jumping into the grocery store on your way home to “pick up a couple things for dinner.”  This simple act is replaced by a week of budgeting and meal planning that culminates in a full day excursion which includes lifting one child in and out of the shopping cart 17 times because they are tired and/or touching everything in the aisles and/or persistently irritating their sibling by poking them in the ear, dislocating your shoulder steering your cart in an erratic drunken manner to avoid running over the other child who is determined to ride on the front end but jumps off every time they see a TV-advertised sugary treat, a requisite 12 unplanned trips to the bathroom, and packing  your purse with 3 varieties of  emergency snacks and juice boxes in order to get through this marathon shopping trip you absolutely have to do in order to buy more snacks and juice boxes.

It was after one of these relaxing outings that my sister-in-law found herself finally waiting at the bus stop with her daughters, her six overstuffed bags of food balanced precariously against her legs.  She was tired and deflated.  The weekly grocery trip was a cyclical reminder of how tight money was and how life had turned out so differently than she had expected.  Life was not easy and many a day they lived on little more than love and dreams for the future.

The girls had caught a second wind and were now chasing each other in fits of giggles around the sidewalk.  They were having a great time when all of a sudden one of them missed her footing and went tumbling face down on the concrete in front of her.   After a suspended second of disbelief, chaos unraveled.  The young girl screamed in fear and pain.  Her mother yelled as she leaped to pick her up in her arms.  Her sister wailed at the sight of gushing blood. 

Before they could compose themselves or fully assess the situation, a car pulled up beside them.

“Get in!” the driver called out.


“I saw what happened.  Get in!  I’ll drive you to the hospital.”

Perhaps in a more prudent moment she would have hesitated to get into the car of some random man with her two young daughters, but maternal instinct kicked in and so leaving her groceries bags standing alone by the side of the road like the forgotten remains of some impulsive ghostly chef, she pulled her girls into the car and delivered herself to the trust of this stranger.

At the hospital they were rushed into a triage room where a nurse cleaned the wounds and her daughter was artfully stitched up by a friendly resident.  Hours later when the adrenaline of the crisis had subsided and they sat quietly awaiting their discharge papers, she realized that she had not even had the chance to thank the kind stranger for the ride.  Moments later a nurse came in to check on them.

“So you’re all set then.  When you go, don’t forget your bags by the front desk.”

“Bags?  I don’t have any bags.” Confused, she followed the nurse to the waiting area.  There lined up by the reception desk were six white bags.  It did not take long for her to realize what had happened. The stranger, understanding what it meant for a young mother of two to lose a week’s worth of groceries, had gone back to the bus stop to retrieve them.


Without warning, my screen clicks on.  It lights the room in a warm glow. The email browser pops open.  1 new message.  I click out of curiosity. It’s from a colleague I don’t see often but who has heard about my current struggles.

Was thinking about you today.  Like this cat, I know you will land on your feet and that your best is yet to come.”

A crazy cat photo jumps out at me and I laugh, my heart lightening for the first time in a long while.  My breath comes easier and my eyes are wet this time with gratitude for this unanticipated note. It was the reminder I needed of gentle goodness served during a season where the grey skies and heavy air only contrasted more sharply with every unexpected moment of kindness. Sometimes we just need reassurance that all will be ok when we don’t have the resolve to believe it on our own.

Like a stranger stopping to let you know they saw what happened,

or a few little words that reach out through the screen to take your hand, let you know you are not alone and remind you that in darkness,

…kindness lights the way.

*Some details have been altered to protect the privacy of those involved but remain true to the essence of the events.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

A Life Well Chosen

     Our dining room table is longer than most.  It stretches eight feet and can comfortably sit 12.  It is the heart of our home, where secrets are unveiled and life choices are debated.   It is a solid piece, narrow in width which only serves to bring its diners closer together. The long beaten planks of pine have absorbed tears of grief and uncontrollable laughter.  It bears the markings and scars of many a glass of wine spilled and platter dropped.  It is where unsolicited counsel is given and joys are celebrated long into the night.
     But mostly, it is where the members of our intercultural, intergenerational, blended and extended family come together to break bread and mend hearts.  We are 14 in all, our six collective kids, their partners, biological mother and our new treasured grandbaby who is passed down the chain of arms with the same ease as the bowl of peas.
     Meals at this table are far from elegant sit-down affairs.  They are raucous and chaotic events where steaming plates of food are carried over the heads of wrestling young men and gossiping women.  Where beer and homemade wine flow as freely as the uncensored conversation that runs from wedding arrangements to hemorrhoid treatments to the feasibility of time travel.
     Sara* is a long-time friend who recently spent an afternoon at this same table tearily recounting the impending dissolution of her marriage.  She had just given birth to her third child and was in that all too familiar phase of readjusting marital expectations.
     “But it wasn’t supposed to be like this.  I didn’t know.  It was supposed to be different!” I take a sip of my coffee to quiet my tongue.  I cannot help but wonder how she ever thought a forty year old man whose mother continued to buy his socks and underwear would easily give up his bachelor lifestyle to change the diapers of the children he had reluctantly agreed to have.  But my heart went out to her as she sat there trying to reconcile the life she had imagined with the one she had created.
     I try to remember my own visions of the future.  As teenagers my friends and I could spend hours talking about our dreams of what our lives would become. We would run these dreams like reels of film in our starry-eyed minds.  I would leave home to study journalism and would promptly begin a skyrocketing career, traveling the world bringing light to the brutal humanitarian stories of those less fortunate. (It was the 80s.  I watched a lot of 60 Minutes….)
     Later, I would settle in some cosmopolitan city and quickly land a job as a columnist for some well-respected newspaper.  I could picture myself strutting to the office every morning, latte in hand while the theme from St. Elmo’s Fire played in the background. (Somehow in my adolescent imaginings I inexplicably became Caucasian and full-lipped, a cross between a well-fed Angelina and a 1986 Molly Ringwald…). I would rise in the ranks, passionately putting in long hours at a job I loved.  After hours I would banter cleverly with colleagues at the local bar like some rerun of LA Law.
     I would marry a man not unlike myself, a mirror of my own ambitions and interests, a suit-wearing nine-to-fiver who would read the Times with me Sunday mornings before we would head out to brunch and a new art exhibit with our equally hip young couple friends, a man who amazingly knew every Indigo Girls song by heart and would lead guests in a moving sing-a-long on his battered acoustic guitar at parties.
     Once established in our careers, we would go on to have a couple of children.  On weekends, between driving the kids to soccer games and ballet recitals, we’d host fabulous dinners.  While my metrosexual-looking husband artfully whipped up an impressive meal of leek soufflé and home-made crème caramel in the kitchen, I’d copy Martha Stewart table settings that creatively reflected the season and coordinated perfectly with our stylish home furnishings. (Note to self: At next session, ask therapist why in my dreams I seem to have married a character from Will and Grace. I’m also not quite sure how we managed to get all this done in a twenty-four hour day. Interestingly in my teenage version of my future, I had clearly managed to learn how to bend time…it was a futuristic vision after all.)
     (Obscure aside: This reminds me of one of my favorite jokes.  How many Martha Stewarts does it take to change a light bulb? None, because if you carefully use an Exacto knife to score out a quadrangle  from the front of the bulb, fill it with tufts of tissue and chiffon and hang it with a silk ribbon in your garden, you can turn it into a lovely birdfeeder...)
     But life isn’t a John Hughes movie.  It’s a series of karmic forks in the road that present us with choices.  Sometimes the choices induce stomach–churning nausea in their obvious life-altering importance.  But sometimes the seemingly innocuous opportunities are those which most alter our paths- the day you opt to take the bus to work and end up meeting a new job contact in the subway; the choice to buy a cup of a coffee where you run into an old friend you thought you would never see again; the last minute decision to go for an afternoon walk during which you end up meeting your future husband. Each choice leads to another, like links in the chain of moments that lead to your today. 
     My own choices have brought me far from my Diane Sawyer imaginings, but I am proud to own them as my own. I am neither journalist, nor sophisticated world traveller.  I did not imagine that after many stops and starts I would choose an entirely different career path.  That I would make professional choices that sometimes led to doors opening wide and sometimes to inadvertently jumping off such a career cliff that I’d scrape my shins trying to climb back up.
     I did not imagine a life where at times I would sleep-walk through the work day wondering how the hell I got here, or that I would ever feel fortunate to have a job where amidst the pendulum   of stress and boredom I would be happy for that occasional meeting or moment that has me declare “Well, that was kinda cool.”
     I did not imagine finding myself at mid-life, faced with the choice of stepping over decades of paying my dues to completely reboot my career into the teasing potential of the unknown.
     I did not imagine being barely out of school and falling head over heels for an older man.  A man with four children of his own, not much younger than me.  I did not imagine I would fall as hard for them as I did their father, or that I would eventually find myself happily embracing their mother as family.
     I did not imagine that the only art displays I would visit would be those in my children’s elementary classroom or that I could revel in the infinite possibilities of macaroni sculptures.
     I did not imagine choosing to marry he who is at once my complete opposite and my completion.
     I did not imagine I could be...
    ... so happy.
     We are no Norman Rockwell family. In fact tonight, as I carry out steaming plates of chicken curry and gluten free tofu balls (NONE of which were home-cooked by anyone) over the clatter of my rag-tag clan, I can’t help but think our eclectic menu reflects the eclectic mix of characters gathered at our long table.  There are groans and giggles as my eldest daughter reads out puns from her smart phone.
     “Two peanuts were walking down a dark alley.  One was assaulted.”
     I snort and pull up a chair.  Reaching over to grab a nearby bottle of wine I scan the faces of this rainbow coloured Brady Bunch I proudly call my family, and I cannot help but grin, not at the life I imagined…
     ...but at this life I have chosen.
*names and some details have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.