Please don’t ask

notebookWhen I originally started this blog over 4 years ago, I knew better than to make any commitments, even to myself, about how often I would post. I was actually on leave recovering from hip replacement surgery at the time, and I knew that as soon as I was back at work life would get far too complicated to keep up any sort of consistent publication schedule.

I would love to be the kind of person who regularly sets their alarm clock for an early wakeup, bounds out of bed, and cranks out 45 minutes of solid writing time before work every morning.

But I’m not. Maybe it’s my arthritis, but I have never been a “bound out of bed” sort of gal. Mornings are a more gradual affair for me. I need lots of  slow, “unfolding” time between when the first alarm goes off and when my feet need to hit the floor.

Nor do I manage a regular writing routine in the evenings. Some days I’m mentally done  for the day by time I leave the office and head to the bus stop. I’ve written elsewhere about the fatigue that is characteristic of many auto-immune conditions. Furthermore, I actually spend a lot of time at work writing. It may not be the writing I would do if left to my own devices, but it is writing, which means by the time I get home I’m ready for a change of activity.

I fantasize about my (still long-off) retirement years when I will be able to carve out big swaths of time to create literary masterpieces.

We’ll see about that.

Because sometimes, even when I really want to write– even when I have time when I could write, I struggle to know what I want to say.

Last year, during that long period when this blog was in hiatus, I wrote this:

 

Please don’t ask if I am writing.

If I am and you don’t know it,

then today I have not written for your eyes

And I will have to lie.

 

Please don’t ask if I am writing.

If I am not, then your inquiry twists the arrow

Lodged already in my wounded voice

And I bleed silence.

 

Please don’t ask if I am writing.

I can’t begin to tell you

how much more there is to writing

than the marks that land upon the page.

 

I am out searching the forest for a poem.

I am listening for story on a downtown city bus,

I am mining my own dreams for tragedies and gems.

I am testing future footholds for thin ice

 

Please don’t ask if I am writing

Even if I had an answer, today

the words have other things to do.

 

 

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Manifesto

Templates. I’m tired of templates.

I’m tired of “Ten best ways to…” and “Five things you should know about…”

I’m tired of “best practices.”

I’m tired of Change Management. As though real change was somehow a thing that could be managed.

I’m tired of Strategic Plans and Bullet Journals.

I’m tired of Standard Operating Procedures.

I am even tired of Innovation.

Well, to be precise, I am tired of talking about Innovation as though it was a Standard Operating Procedure.

I’m tired of Life Hacks and Self Help.

I’m tired of motivational memes and inspiration porn.

I’m tired of the word “millennials.”

I’m tired of being bombarded with Big New Ideas that look like last week’s ideas with barely a fresh coat of paint.

I am tired of Facebook and LinkedIn.

I’m tired of clickbait.

And yet I keep clicking.

I need a break from the noise of the 21st century. I need to turn off the feed and find some genuine food for thought. I need to close the screen and open a book. An old book, with old ideas that will overwrite the neural ruts in my twitchy brain. I need to build something with my hands and travel somewhere on foot. I need to stop drowning in other people’s thoughts so I can sift through my own. I need to clear the clutter of content so I can mine the depths of my own creativity.

I need to retreat, not retweet.

I need less media and more message.

I need change of scene.

A change of seeing.

A sea change.

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Marching on

March 1
Nope, no daffodils here.

I woke to a light dusting of snow this morning, delicately covering the muck and grit and frozen mud-puddles that make my usually straightforward  trek to and from the bus stop an extreme adventure.  The snow was just enough to render the icy patches even more treacherous than usual by virtue of being invisible. It was not enough to render the filthy sand-encrusted snowbanks any more lovely.

 

Yesterday was the vernal equinox. Where I live, however, it’s hard to get excited about that date as the start of spring. Here we are secretly just celebrating the fact that we are getting closer to the end of March.  I am convinced that T.S. Eliot wrote “April is the cruelest month” only because he never spent March in Manitoba.

March 3
To cross or not to cross?

 

The return journey at the end of the day is treacherous in different ways. By then it has warmed up just enough to turn the ice into murky pools, many of which are too large to be legitimately called puddles but not quite large enough to warrant naming as major bodies of water.  As the snow subsides, revealing the roadside litter of car parts leftover from incautious winter drivers, the pavement deteriorates into a minefield of axle-busting potholes and the occasional newsworthy sinkhole.

March 2As you might have guessed, I am not a fan of March. I will take a nice definitive snow storm over this waffle-weather any day. (I should acknowledge that in late March that snow storm is still a very real possibility!) March in my home town is a meteorological guessing game. March does bad things to good shoes and makes getting dressed to leave the house a sort of game show in which you are guaranteed never to choose the right door– or in this case, the right coat.March 4

It doesn’t help that where I work March is also year-end, with all the stress and silliness that always seems to entail. Even when I worked elsewhere, March was always a particularly wearying month. Either I unconsciously gravitate to career options with major March issues, or March itself is the issue.

For me, personally, I know that a big part of my problem with March is that its peculiar weather patterns and filthy sidewalks still evoke somatic memories of the March my father passed away. It has been nearly three decades, but grief etches itself into muscle memory and neural pathways in ways that continue to awe me. Conveniently, March is also when the Canadian Cancer Society holds it’s annual daffodil fundraiser.

In March in Manitoba, you take your spring where you can get it, even if the best you can muster fits in a coffee mug on the corner of your desk.

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Campfire Stories: Childhood Arthritis

 

When I tell people that I was two years old when my arthritis was originally diagnosed, the reaction is usually shock. In this era of everything-we-want-to-know-at-our-fingertips, I am surprised by how many people still don’t realize that arthritis is a disease that can afflict all ages. In fact, according to the Arthritis Society Website  “it is estimated that as many as 24,000 Canadian children aged 18 and under live with a form of arthritis.”

Yesterday I attended a fundraising luncheon hosted by the Manitoba chapter of the Arthritis Society. The goal of the luncheon was to raise funds for Childhood Arthritis Camp—an initiative that has been around in other parts of the country for a while and, thanks to the generosity of many donors, will be happening in this region for the first time this July.

One of the features of the luncheon was the opportunity to meet a group of young ambassadors—kids living with Childhood Arthritis—who openly and articulately share their stories to offer a glimpse into the impact of this disease on their lives. These are kids who are dealing with daily pain, mobility challenges, physiotherapy, fatigue, and some pretty heavy-duty drugs. I know what they are living, because I’ve lived it. But they are also kids who play hockey and basketball, who take dance lessons and gym class, and who are really excited about going to camp with other kids who comprehend the unique challenges they face.

Fifty years ago, I would have given anything to know another child with arthritis. There was no Arthritis Camp in the ‘60s and ‘70s when I was navigating school with an invisible disability that no one seemed to understand.

My primary school music teacher clearly did not understand how painful it was for me to sit cross-legged on the cold, tile floor for the duration of music period.

My elementary school teachers clearly did not understand how the practice of inviting students to “pick teams” for a gym activity can quickly become a form of teacher-sanctioned bullying.

My junior high gym teacher clearly did not understand that there were better ways to accommodate my limitations than relegating me to the bench.

To this day, I feel a residual discomfort in school gymnasiums, and I avoid any sort of team-based physical activity because I carry the deeply ingrained assumption that I will be a liability.

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A different camp, but with the same powerful potential for community. My own kid is in this huddle, not wanting to tear herself away.

I’m fortunate to have had five decades of good medical care, and no shortage of good friends. And I did go to camp. But I have never had a community in which I could look around and see my experience of living with childhood arthritis reflected back in the experiences of my peers. I envy these kids that, even more than I envy them the huge leaps in medical research and awareness that have occurred in the past 50+ years.

My parents didn’t have the benefit of that community either. Which is why I made a point of introducing myself to the mom of one young ambassador. Why I took the time to tell her that, just like her son, I was a toddler when I was diagnosed. And that here I was now— A successful professional. A parent. A happy and healthy adult with my arthritis well-managed and having minimal impact on my day-to-day existence.

One thing I’ve learned from living a story that others didn’t always understand is the importance of telling that story. And telling it again. And again.

Telling it, so the people who have never lived that story can grow to understand. And telling it so the ones who are living it will know that they are not alone.

 

Do you have a story that someone needs to hear?

 

For more information about Childhood Arthritis Camp, or to donate, click here.

 

 

 

Things

Imagine your house is on fire. All of the people and pets are safely out, and you have time to save only one item from your room. What do you take, and why?

I might have been in grade five or six when we were given this writing assignment. Even at the time I thought it was a weird question to ask. If my house was truly on fire I am not certain I would have the presence of mind to think through which of my possessions was most important to me. Maybe that was the point of the assignment—a sort of mental dress rehearsal so that, in the unfortunate event that my house DID burn down, I would know what to grab.

But because I know people who really have lost everything in house fires, there’s something about the writing prompt that makes me uncomfortable. I tried looking around at my stuff today and asking myself “what would I save?” The only thing that came to mind wasn’t even mine—I thought if I really did have to grab something quickly I might go for my daughter’s Envirothon trophy—in part because of what it represents, and in part because I have been entrusted with keeping it safe while she is away at school.

The truth is, the older I get, the less sentimental I am about things. Sure, I have things that are special because of the people and the memories with which they are associated. But it’s ultimately the people and the memories that are important to me—not so much the thing itself.

I’ve been thinking about my attachments to things this week, because I let go the biggest thing I owned—my car.

car
It had more hubcaps when I bought it.

I’ve never been one to anthropomorphize my cars by naming them, but this decision did feel in some ways like saying goodbye to an old friend. I bought the car new in 2003, and, over the 14 ½ years I drove it, accumulated a lot of memories.

That car carried me through a divorce and three house moves. It travelled east as far as Toronto, west as far as Lethbridge and south to Minneapolis. It started up reliably even when parked outside through a Winnipeg deep freeze and negotiated a lot of Friday night highway traffic in pursuit of summer weekends. It hauled tons of holiday groceries down the highway and up the gravel road to the boat landing. It ferried kids to many camps and home from many late-night parties. The back-seat upholstery is deeply infused with banana loaf and goldfish cracker crumbs. And the duct tape anchoring the side mirror to the door has withstood several winters.

I taught both kids to drive in that car—one of the single-parenting accomplishments of which I am most proud. The kids, in turn—both excellent drivers—have subsequently had the opportunity to acquire their own set of memories at the wheel of that car.

It is my eldest, in fact, who will have the dubious honor of remembering the smoking engine.

As I cleared out the crumpled roadmaps and dusty window scrapers in preparation for relinquishing my too-broken car, I found myself conjuring specific car memories. The time the tire blew and I was stranded on the Trans-Canada with my daughter and her friend. The time the garage door narrowly missed falling on the hood of the car. All the times I got stuck in the snow, and all the friends and strangers who helped me out. The cherished opportunities to get to know my children’s friends, because I was the mom who would drive.

The time we loaded it up with everything my youngest needed to embark on her first year in residence. How anxious I was about the prospect of driving it 2,000 km back all alone, and how thrilled I was to have done it. So thrilled that the next summer I drove off in the opposite direction on another solo road trip, just because now I knew I could.

But in the end a car is just a thing—and in this case, a thing no longer worth rescuing from the “fire.” Even my solo summer road trip was important more because of the people that were at the end of the journey than because of the car that took me there. On reflection, all of my most cherished car-memories are really about people—the people I was driving with, or away from, or towards.

 

 

Making it look easy

The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.

“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of master associated with being a world-class expert—in anything, “writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. “In writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

– Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

Canada’s favorite skating pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir scored Olympic gold again. I’m not much for watching sports, but I find something captivating about the blend of technical athleticism and artistry that is ice dancing. I watch them with some degree of dissonance between my rational awareness that they have invested hours and months and years in grueling preparation to get to this moment, and the perception-in-the-moment that they make it look easy.

I can’t skate. Not because I lacked opportunity to learn. I had ice skates as a kid. I even lived a short walk from a duck pond that was converted to a public rink every winter. I recall going skating with my family periodically. I managed to stagger around the ice with sufficient coordination to survive my cousin’s childhood birthday parties and the occasional winter sports day in elementary school. My one disastrous roller rink experience is proof of my failure to transfer whatever minimal ice skating skills I did acquire.

The last time I remember being on ice skates was in university. It was an outing of a student group I belonged to – at that very duck pond I had skated on as a child. I remember that for a fleeting moment I actually felt like I was getting the hang of it. I was just starting to progress from a cautious shuffle to something resembling a glide and thinking that maybe, just maybe, if I actually put some effort into it, I could someday get to a point where I would be comfortable on skates. Then I wiped out.

I’m willing to bet that Scott and Tessa have fallen a thousand times each for every time I ever laced up a pair of skates. In fact, as I learned in this lovely TED Talk, Tessa fought her way back up onto the ice several times after painful injuries and multiple surgeries and had to relearn much of her technique to accommodate her overtaxed muscles. If you’re going to do anything for ten thousand hours you’re going to have plenty of opportunities to do it badly before you get to the point where you can do it well.

Still, even if I had persisted with skating to some level of mastery, it is unlikely my arthritic knees would ever had taken me to an Olympic podium. I don’t really think that’s how the principle of ten thousand hours of practice works. I don’t think that you can just pick something at random and become a world-class expert on the sole basis of logging rehearsal hours. As Levitin suggests, not all practice is created equal. Plus, there has to be a place in the mix for that mysterious quality we call talent.

I don’t know for sure if I’ve spent ten thousand hours writing throughout my lifetime, but I expect I have come close. Do I think of myself as a “world-class expert writer?” Absolutely not! There are lots of writing spins and jumps left for me to master, if only I can manage to carve out enough hours on the “practice rink.” I suppose that’s one reason for my return to blogging.

When I listen to Scott and Tessa speak, I am struck more than anything with how comfortable they are with their expertise. They have proven themselves the best at what they do, and in talking about their accomplishments there is no hint of either boastfulness or false modesty. They know what they are good at, they know how hard they worked to get good at it, and they own it.

Unlike ice dance, writing is not typically a spectator sport, but once in a while my work places me in boardrooms with large screens, essentially writing for an audience. I was helping someone write something at work earlier this week and, as sometimes happens, there was a moment when I was able to take a cluster of complicated sentences and render them into a single clear statement. As also sometimes happens, someone commented on my skill. When this happens, I’m always surprised that I have, in that moment, taken this thing that I continue to  work so hard to master, and somehow made it look easy.

Greening

lazarus-plant.jpgI am not in the habit of naming plants. But this one has earned a banner.

I’m plant-sitting this winter. My sister’s family began the process of putting their house on the market in mid-October just before winter descended, and the plants came to visit as part of the decluttering/ house-staging operation. Since the house sale and subsequent move dragged on into the heart of the Winnipeg winter, the plants are here to stay until spring when Mother Nature finally renders it safe to transport them outside.

In the meantime, I’ve been playing nursemaid to Lazarus, who arrived at my door as one withered leaf dwarfed by an enormous pot. It’s a plant with some sentimental significance to my brother-in-law, and so I was entreated by my sister to see if it could be salvaged.

I would like to be able to say that I performed some clever acts of horticultural wizardry, but the truth is Lazarus was stuck randomly near a nice big window, and watered generously once a week. Maybe it just needed a change of scenery. For what ever reason, it’s back, and growing.

I’m back too, after a blog hiatus of over two years. I have no intention of boring you with a lot of excuses reasons for my long silence. Let’s just say I needed a change of scenery.

I’ve celebrated my return with a new look for the blog. Bear with me, because it’s still a bit of a work in progress.

As am I. Because one of the reasons I will acknowledge for my long hiatus is that the things I want to write about are changing. Maybe not drastically– I’m still me, after all. But just as Lazarus is essentially a whole new plant sprouting from an old root, I’ve been growing some new metaphorical foliage of my own. “Turning over new leaves,” as it were.

Stick around if you want to watch me bloom.