manifesto (stream of consciousness)

Moins.  Mieux.  Or else just mieux.

Focus.  Make a list.  Actually refer to it.  Do the things on it and check them off.

Do one thing at a time.  Do it better.  Finish it.

Focus.  Make a plan, but mean it.  Then do it.

Be a better employee.  Use your intelligence.  Make the most of time and talent.

Focus.  Set goals.  Work, head down, to accomplish them.  Stop looking for diversions.  Be a star, or earn one.

Close the internet.  Turn off the TV.  Choose the way you use time, rather than letting time use you.

Understand that cleaning house is not the default action in life.

Learn to knit, take a walk.  Write.

Read a magazine.  Give yourself time to do nothing, and then revel in the nothingness.

Construct a sanctuary somewhere, even if it is only in your mind.  Then go there and actively recharge.

Dress better for things that don’t matter.

Control what you can, and release what you cannot.

Reject regret.  Rather, make choices that leave no place for it.

Love your husband.  Show him.  Show him better.

Love your children.  Harder.  Make them know how hard you love them.  Every day.

Love yourself.  You are worthy.

(That last one is tricky.)

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(ir)rational fear

In a few hours, I’m walking back into the mammogram clinic to find out if my life will change forever.

It sounds dramatic.  It feels somewhat less dramatic.

I’m embarrassed to take it too seriously, and afraid to not take it seriously enough.

Six months ago, I went for what I thought was going to be my first, routine mammogram.  They told me it was normal to get called back in for a follow-up if the images weren’t clear enough, so when I got that call, I didn’t think too much about it.  I was there voluntarily, pro-actively.  I hadn’t felt any lumps, wasn’t showing any symptoms of illness; I just thought that it was time I got the girls checked, just in case.  The thing is, I never really thought much about the “in case” part.  In case of what?

So when they wanted me to wait after this routine follow-up scan until they could get me into Ultrasound, I started to get a little nervous.  When they laid me on the table and squirted the cold gel onto my breast, my heart was pumping hard.  When the technician tried and tried and tried to see something, I was barely able to hold it together.  And when the radiologist STILL wasn’t convinced and came in to manipulate the ultrasound wand herself, I was panicking.  All on the inside.  On the outside I was taking it in stride, trying to appear normal, confident, willing to rely on the collective expertise of this group of women in white lab coats.

At the end of the appointment, they said it would be best if I came back in six months.  They explained that the way mammograms work is incremental:  they compare your new scan with the last one.  But when it’s your first one, and there is no history to look at, they compare instead your two breasts, one against the other.  And in my case, the comparison was not what they expected.  One of the girls is evidently denser than the other, and this caused some concern.  In the months since, I’ve wondered how much concern it really caused.  They made it sound like it wasn’t really a big deal, but you never know.  I’ve learned (in the months since) that doctors will often downplay the seriousness of something until they can verify it, confer with colleagues, make room on schedules.

The last six months have been something of a private hell for me.  Cancer seems to be everywhere, taunting me.  One friend going through devastating and almost hopeless chemo and another diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing a double mastectomy all within the span of a couple of weeks.  The principal story line in one of my favourite tv shows is about a young mother, dealing with breast cancer.  Magazines are filled with articles about how to relate to sick friends; survivors’ stories are popping up all around me like targets on a shooting range.

It feels like karma is setting me up for the news.  Get ready, Koot; prepare yourself.

I find myself acting as though I’m already a patient.  Who would I tell?  How long could I keep working?  Would my weight loss go from being an achievement to a side-effect of the drugs?  What will my scalp look like when I don’t have any hair to cover it?

But then I am afraid that if I think too much about it, I will somehow make it happen.  They say that attitude is the best defense; if I’m convincing myself that I have cancer, surely I will get it, right?

Better to think positive.  This will be nothing.  I’ll go in, get a clean bill of health, and move on.  Right?

Although, being cocky can get you into trouble.  The universe doesn’t like you to become too complacent.  If you’re not afraid or humble, it can come after you and bite you in the butt.  RIGHT?

When left to its own devices, my mind gets going on a terrible monologue of competing thoughts.  When I (privately) accuse my sister-in-law of being a hypochondriac, am I setting myself up for a fall?  When 2 of the other March Mommies have been diagnosed, does that make me statistically more, or less, likely to be diagnosed as well?  Is THIS the shoe that I’ve been waiting to drop on my seemingly perfect life?  Don’t be so negative!  Stop planning your future or you might not be lucky enough to have one.  You’re going to be fine.  You’re making mountains out of molehills.  Will Gee leave me when I become damaged goods?  How can I keep this a secret?  Can I get well without my parents finding out? You’re being melodramatic.  How are you going to feel when you have to come back and post that everything is fine.  You should spend your energy worrying about people with real illnesses.  But maybe that won’t be the result.  Maybe this post is the first post of the next chapter (the Cancer chapter).   And on and on and on and on and on…

So here I am:  4 hours away from the appointment, already afraid.  Already not wanting to talk to anybody for fear they will sense the knot in my chest; already prepared to reject the words of comfort, knowing they are platitudes, knowing that hopeful words don’t kill tumours.   The only thing I know is to expect the unexpected, but that of course is impossible.  And seeing that it’s impossible, I just want 2 o’clock to arrive so that I can get it over with, and get on with … whatever.

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The natural thing to do of course, is to write a post about your birthday.

I wasn’t going to; it seemed sort of unimaginative and self-indulgent, not unlike the Facebook posts wishing happy birthday to infants and family pets.  Tee is probably never going to read this; she will be fully content with her presents and cake and sleepover party.  But I have to write it.  I have to write it so that in a few months or years I can read it again, and remember this moment, this anniversary of the most important day in my daughter’s life – the day she came into ours.

My darling Tee, you are a pocket-sized, eight-year-old, third-grade conundrum who continues to blow my mind on pretty much a daily basis.  I still often wonder, as we do our silly routine of a hundred-and-one (or so it seems) different kinds of bedtime kisses, or when we walk home from school and you reach your hand out to mine, how it is that we came to be connected.  You have an aloofness about you that makes me forget sometimes that you really do adore me most.  Well, me and that big guy who lives with us, of course.  And your sister, even though you really have no idea yet just how much you adore her.

I wrote a better birthday post for you when you turned five.  It’s hard to believe that I’ve been doing this thing for three years (albeit with a fairly significant break in there) and hard to believe how much further you have grown and evolved even since then.  You are the clown of the family, but like most clowns (I suppose) you have a sadness and an anger inside you that leaks or bursts out at surprising moments.  You are sensitive, crying inconsolably over the war-time death of my great uncle Hugh, who was gone  generations before either of us was even a twinkle in someone’s eye.  You are fearful and headstrong, refusing to go downstairs or upstairs unless somebody else goes with you.    You are a perfectionist who is thirsty for knowledge and skill, but who finds it hard to accept instruction as anything less than criticism.  You are so much like me, and that thrills and terrifies the both of us.

I love watching you try  to be mature like your impossibly mature sister; I love hearing your complicated retellings of the smallest events; I love seeing your pride when you accomplish a back-bend on the living room carpet.  You love to cook with me and discover the ‘secret’ ingredients that I (and now you) use to make our recipes extra special; you love watching television and riding your bike and reading everything you can get your hands on.

But best of all, you love us, and we are so grateful for it.

Happy birthday baby.

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and where the hell am I?

Uncle Roy died last night.  He was a hundred and four.

Roy and his wife didn’t have any children of their own, but he loved his nieces and nephews as much as any dad loves his kids.  My father is one of those nephews.

It is hard to dredge up stories of my own grandfather.  He was old before his time, and weakened by hard work and a harder life.  My dad has better memories than that.  He is quick to defend his pop, loved him dearly, but as far as I can tell, the true, lasting, character-building presence in his life was Gramma’s brother Roy.

Famous is the story of how Roy taught my dad how to drive, and how he punched my dad full-on in the face one day because he wasn’t keeping his eyes on the road.

There are stories of the two of them, sailing merchant ships up and down the BC coast in the years after the war, stories of Roy teaching my dad how to shoot a rifle (the marksmanship trophies were among the few possessions to make the trip from his house to the nursing home).

If you re-told any of these stories to Roy, you’d better get it right, because his mind was sharp as a tack until the very end, and he’d correct you if you didn’t.

When he was 98 years old, he drove his little pick-up from Summerland to Courtenay, and slept on a bedroll in the back so that he could be there for the infamous party.  He voluntarily surrendered his driver’s licence when he turned 100, because he figured they’d be coming after it anyway, and he wanted to give it up on his own terms.

He lived in his own house well past his 100th birthday.  At 99, he complained to my dad that it took him FOUR DAYS to cut his winter wood.  (The rest of the world chuckled.)

When time marched on and he needed more help, my parents made frequent trips to see him and cut trees, or change a hot water tank, paint a wall.  My sisters helped out.  My other uncle and aunt, cousins and second cousins, family friends, and members of his own community all stepped up to ensure this extraordinary man could maintain his splendid independence.

When he moved to a residence, they packed his things and set up his room.  When he fell ill, they came to visit.  They checked in on him, made the staff aware of what a jewel he was, and how he deserved special treatment and reverence.  Quite simply, they (all of them) were there.

But I was not.

Just as I was not there when my Nana-banana  got sick with cancer.  Not there when, years later, she died and my mom and my sisters joined forces to clean out the apartment.   I was not even there for the funeral.

When I picked up my life and danced across the country for love and marriage nearly 12 years ago, I never considered these moments.  I imagined vaguely a time when I would have to return home to help my parents in their old-age, but I never thought about the in-between.  The now.

It feels wrong.  It feels like a cop-out to avoid the dirty work of loving your family.  It’s easy to send birthday cards and school photos, easy to say “I miss you” and to plan 3-week summer vacations.  It’s not so easy to sit shoulder to shoulder sorting through years of dust and souvenirs, treasures kept for reasons only their keeper knows.  It is not easy to take the garbage to the dump, or the papers to the lawyers, or squeeze your daddy’s hand even though he is a grown man familiar with loss.

If I feel so far away it is because I am.

If I feel guilty, it is because I am.


“Gravedigger” (Dave Matthews)

Cyrus Jones 1810 to 1913
Made his great granchildren believe
You could live to a hundred and three
A hundred and three is forever when you’re just a little kid
So Cyrus Jones lived forever
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party time and silly fretting

Sometimes (okay, oftentimes) I wonder what the hell I was thinking when I decided to have kids. I don’t seem to really have the guts for it.

In fact, I don’t guess that I really decided; it was just something that had to happen, in the normal course of events, after love & marriage.  You know, kids in a baby carriage and all.

We are headed out to a party tonight.  The girls are excited.  It is the 40th birthday of an old friend of Gee’s, who happens also to be our dentist, who happens also to live in an amazing house, who happens to have some pretty awesome kids and a whole lotta everything.

This woman throws an annual Christmas kick-off party that has long been a tradition for our family.  The kids look forward to it every year; it marks the beginning of the season of excess and abandoned schedules and happy parents and plenty.  And yet, for the last couple of years, my two, uber-sensitive, gentle girls have been hurt at this party; left out of the play, tossed aside by older girls who see each other more often, have more things in common, and I am left to mend the little hearts and put the pieces back together.

It is not a role I play well.  I have a hard time locating the balance between self-confidence & accomodation of others for myself, let alone for my children.  I want them to stand up for themselves and at the same time learn to get along, but I’m not really sure where the line is or how to draw it.

So tonight, I’m nervous.  I want to have a good time; I want my girls to have a good time too. I don’t want to be the helicopter parent: I don’t want to encourage my kids to find a niche for themselves when others don’t want to  make a place for them.  They have grown up in the center of our attention; they have never known anyone to not love them wholly for exactly who they are, so when they find themselves in a situation where that is not the case, it is a foreign country for all of us.

I suppose there are worse things…

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a good childhood

Gramma and Grampa are coming down from Vancouver to spend Thanksgiving with us.  They are in the little Beetle hatchback, beige or pale blue with a crocheted afghan on the back seat, Scottie (and before her, Maggie) snuggled in on top.

Gramma would have driven – she always drove, Grampa too frail since before I can recall – stopping along the trans-Canada for a sandwich and a thermos of tea (so thick you can stand a spoon up in it) and Peak Freans cookies.

Walking up the hill from school hoping to see, then then seeing, that strange little beast of a car in the driveway, rushing to the front porch but then suddenly shy just for a moment before the cushy embrace, then timid again for its careful partner.  Gifts of homemade sweaters or slippers, jam, a new silky slip from Woolworth’s.  My mother’s laughter, easy now that reinforcements have arrived, easy with the permission, or perhaps obligation, to have an afternoon cocktail, paired with pickled herring on Ritz crackers and a few precious moments off her feet.

The long and lazy Sunday.  Gramma in the garden, trimming and digging and harvesting for the feast.  Grampa and Scottiemaggie and Niska and I walking gingerly through side streets and alleys, picking maple leaves and pussy willows for the table.  The air has lost the roundness of Indian summer and holds instead a brittle chill, even in sunlight.  Wood smoke from early fires and burning barrels drapes across the afternoon, tickling our noses and bringing each of us to our own earlier time.

Back home, the dogs sleepy, the humans thankful for the oven-warmth and good smells sweet and savoury.  Children tasked with setting the table or passing a plate of cheese and crackers to whichever grateful strays have been invited to join our family feast.

Maybe grace, though more likely not.  Maybe wine – Black Tower or Schloss Laderheim – and definitely more food than anybody ought to have a right to.  Stories, never memorable, potatoes and gravy deliciously so.

Pie – pumpkin or apple or more probably both, with whipped cream or ice cream or a slice of orange cheese.  The kids slide soundlessly away from the table when dessert is gone and the grown-ups slide into adult conversation.  Coffee percolating on the stove, then served in pottery mugs with Carnation milk and crisp white cubes of sugar.

The fire simmers in the old wood stove, the dogs chase rabbits in their slumber, and we fall lazily into unconsciousness, borne off into dreams by a houseful of love and bounty.

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writing out of the blue

I’m in a rut.

It happens sometimes, as I’m sure it happens to everyone. Change in habits, change in season, something, and then we pass through a period where getting up and slogging through the day seems like more work than it ought to.

Eventually it passes and we’re back to rainbows and unicorns and the little rituals of our life give us comfort again rather than ennui.

This time though, it’s taking a little longer than usual.

At the beginning of the summer, I felt melancholic. I couldn’t put a finger on it. According to the paperwork, everything was perfect. I’d won a job competition that would bring me a small raise, more time off and the half-length commute I’d had my eye on for years.

Our kitchen renovation was finished. The first floor of my house looks (on its cleaner days) like the pages of a magazine that I’d like to read. The work was done on time and on budget, and without any serious nightmares.

The mortgage got paid off. THE.MORTGAGE.GOT.PAID.OFF. ‘nuff said.

And, I am thin again for the first time in 10 years.

Life is good. This is a life that people would wish to have. It’s a life that, if someone described it to me, I would envy.

And yet, I’m blue. I’m tired. Not a “get a good night’s sleep and you’ll be good as new” tired; more of the “if I have to go through one more day of the whole damn world depending on me I’m going to scream and punch kittens” kind of complete and absolute exhaustion.

And since curling up in my bed and ignoring the plaintive wails of small children and grown men for the next ten years is not really a viable option, I have to figure a way out of it.

If you tell a friend that you’re down and she’ll give you a hug (and hopefully chocolate).

Tell a message board, and you’ll be bombarded with suggestions to a) go to a spa for a day; or b) go to the doctor for some happy pills.

My friends, my wonderful, sweet, intelligent and beautiful friends, are all thousands of kilometers away, and chocolate, frankly, is just not the same without them.

And since spas and pills are simply not in my personal-care lexicon, I have to come up with some other solution.

Which, as it turns out, is writing.

I used to keep diaries. Dozens of spiral notebooks full of tidy, straight words expressing my deepest despair and greatest regrets. If a friend hurt my feelings or a boy broke my heart, I poured the pain out through the tip of my bic disposable, and could then get so enthralled by the language – the texture and shape of the words themselves – that the original agony sort of got lost in the syntax.

That’s kind of what happened here.

I’ve been struggling with a post for weeks, trying to put a pin in the exact source of my gloom, trying to write about it clearly if not eloquently. Finally, I told myself: “Self, you don’t write for anyone else; you write for you. What is it YOU want to say? What is it that you FEEL?”

And Myself kind of shrugged and went, “It’s okay now, thanks anyway”.

Funny how when you put something in black and white you can see it more objectively. When I tried to complain about my husband not helping enough around the house it felt incomplete or wrong to ignore the garbage he takes out or the oil he keeps changed in my car. When I attempted to express how needy my children can be, I realized how much I adore the closeness we share; and when I pondered my anxiety about random and potentially phantom medical problems, I was reminded of close friends who really are sick, some enduring painful treatments; others suffering the anguish of slow goodbyes.

How utterly ridiculous is this? How completely absurd is it to be unhappy in the middle of such a beautiful life? How very, very lucky am I that my particular rut has been worn wide with laughter, good health and love.

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