Buzz

A perfect summer “re-run” — this post was originally written in response to a WordPress  Daily prompt  about anxiety.

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No way was I going outside.

I’d been actively avoiding “outside” all summer. My mother must have been at her wits’ end. It’s pretty hard to avoid the outside world at the summer cottage. It must have been exhausting having to battle with me every time the family wanted to go out somewhere that summer. I don’t recall how old I was, but I recall the anxiety like it was yesterday. At first it was triggered by the faintest buzzing sound. As time went by it reached the point where I assumed that the danger was present even if I couldn’t see or hear it.

“It” being bees and wasps. ESPECIALLY wasps. I was terrified of being stung.

So I stayed inside, depriving myself of summer fun in the name of protecting my hide from what I imagined to be a fate worse than death.

One warm September evening my dad set about barbequing supper in the back yard. My younger sister played outside, while I huddled on the safe side of the screen door. My mom made one more attempt to coax me outside.

“Come on out, Anna. It’s so nice out. We’re going to have a picnic supper!”

Don't be fooled by the pretty butterfly. If there was a flower there was bound to be a bee somewhere!
Don’t be fooled by the pretty butterfly. If there was a flower there was bound to be a bee somewhere!

“Well…”

Please come out.”

“Are there bees?”

“I don’t see any.”

I screwed up my courage, stepped outside, and started down the wooden steps. The same wooden steps from which hung, unbeknownst to all of us, a massive wasp nest that had been expanding undisturbed while we were away at the cottage.

The wasps, always more aggressive in the fall, were already getting riled by the increased human activity and the smell of grilling meat. My footstep on their roof was the last straw.  They swarmed me.

Surrounded by a cloud of buzzing fury, I froze in panic and screamed. And screamed. And screamed.  My mother, realizing I was too terrified to move, waded into the fray and pulled me down off the steps. I was stung in three places– once on each leg, and once on a forearm. My mother’s rescue effort was rewarded with one sting on the arm that grabbed me.

For half an hour I was a sobbing, hysterical mess. Having ascertained that I was not having any sort of allergic reaction, my mom calmly tweezed out all the stingers and applied antiseptic and Band-Aids.

And then something amazing happened. I was able to go outside. The worst had happened and I had survived. It turned out that my imaginings were far more painful than the real experience.

I have never again felt the kind of anxiety about stinging insects that plagued me all that summer. In my household, I have become the one who swats the wasp that comes in through the hole in the screen. I am the one who takes down the nests under the deck at the cottage before they get too big.

That was the first time in my life that I understood that worrying about something could be worse than the thing itself. It is a lesson I have returned to over and over again. When the familiar buzz of anxiety starts up in my head I remind myself that the sting of reality is seldom as horrible as anything I can conjure in my imagination.

Actually very beautiful --once the tenants have moved on.
Actually very beautiful –once the tenants have moved on.

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Time clutter

I am going to “unplug” for a few days hiatus from cyberspace, so I have decided to use this as an opportunity to “re-run” a few of my early posts that were originally posted back when my readership consisted largely of my mother and a few close friends. 🙂

This was my second post, and remains one of my personal favourites.

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The epiphany happened a couple of years ago in the express checkout line. I stood there with my basket of bananas or toothpaste or whatever other emergency item had prompted that particular grocery dash, and I stared long and hard at the magazine in my hand. It came to me that, if I wanted to reduce the clutter in my life, perhaps a good starting place was to quit buying magazines that promised me “10 easy tips for reducing clutter.” And while I was at it, a corollary might be to start managing my money better by refusing to buy magazines that promised me “10 easy tips for managing my money.” I put the magazine back.

That wasn’t the first epiphany, nor will it be the last. My path to living a simpler life has been slow and winding, full of backtracks and unnecessary diversions. But the one thing that has been consistent is that the more I simplify my existence, the more I want of less. I also discovered along the way that the process of reducing the clutter in my life and the process of managing my money better were in fact one and the same.

Stuff takes up space. Space costs money. It’s a fairly simple equation. By the time I sold my townhouse and moved into a smaller space, I was paying for the privilege of owning an entire basement room that was serving only one purpose: to contain stuff. It was surprisingly easy to part with a great deal of that stuff. The hard part was wading through it all to pick out the handful of items that I really needed to keep. Or thought I needed, because an interesting thing happened when I started unpacking it all in my new space. I discovered that even some of those things I thought I needed no longer had the same hold on me.

The funny thing about having less stuff is that I enjoy the stuff I have more than I did when it was hidden by a mountain of less important stuff. Now that I have less space to keep stuff, I think harder before I acquire new stuff. Part of the decision process is always “where will I keep it?” Sometimes that means “what can I get rid of to make room for it?”

Which brings me to the next big frontier in simplifying my life: de-cluttering my time. Certainly getting the physical clutter under control helps. If you only have what you need and everything has a space, you don’t waste nearly so much time hunting for things. But time clutter is a challenge for me because I am distracted by ideas. I have a tendency to go after what a friend calls “the shiny thing in the corner” when I am supposed to be concentrating on some other task. I check my Facebook page and before I know it I have spent an hour chasing links, some of which are gold mines, but many of which are of dubious value. What I really want to fill my time with is more writing—more personal creativity. So the same way that, if I want to squeeze a new jacket into my closet, that tatty sweater I haven’t worn in a year has got to go, I need to give up something to make room for something else. This blog is “something else.” At the moment the thing I have “given up” to make room for it is my day job—I’m on a temporary leave of absence. It is going to take some well thought out time de-cluttering to sustain it once my leave ends. Creating the blog is challenge to myself—a commitment to de-cluttering my time as ruthlessly as I have de-cluttered my closet and my bookshelves.

And if my blog lacks the polish and pizazz of other blogs you’ve read, chalk it up to my resistance to spending too much time and money on “10 easy tips to creating the perfect blog.”

Freefall

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I’ve always felt that was a good principle to live by. Which is why, on my outing to the amusement park yesterday with my sister’s family, I decided it was time to try this ride for the first time:

tinkertown3

Did I say the first time? I also should have said the last.

OK I guess it wasn’t that bad. I understand the physics of it enough to know why one should be able to expect NOT to become airborne at any point. And I figured if my small niece and smaller nephew were managing not to be flung into orbit around the sun, the odds were good that I too would live to see another day.

There was, however, the added factor that said niece and nephew had decided we needed to sit in the very end. That would be the part that swings up the highest. Now I’m truly not scared of heights. What I am scared of is falling, and the sensation that one might fall. And, as I discovered when it was far too late to change my mind about the whole affair, when this particular ride is in full swing there is a moment when the centrifugal force that is holding one in place flirts with the competing gravitational force that is seducing you earthward, and you do actually rise ever so briefly from your seat and hover Wile-E-Coyote-style in mid air for a split second before swinging back down.

tinkertown2
Happy screaming people

I have long been mindful that my anxiety about falling has a lot to do with a much more generalized anxiety about relinquishing control. Lately I am consciously looking for opportunities to live by Eleanor Roosevelt’s words. Fortunately (unfortunately?) life affords no shortage of opportunities to do just that. Many of those opportunities are considerably less flamboyant than a ride on the Tinkertown Sea-Ray, but at the same time considerably more meaningful.

In my effort to do the thing that scares me, I have engaged in all manner of difficult conversations that had the same effect on my stomach as that moment when the Sea-Ray hovers at the top of its swing. I suspect that those risky conversations are actually more along the lines of what Roosevelt was really contemplating than the pendulum-pirate-ship-of-doom.

Which suits me fine, because it means that I need not feel obligated to get back on the Sea-Ray or any of its ilk!

Rainbows: Turns out Mom was right

rainbowThe funny thing is, I can’t even remember what the crisis was, but I do remember clearly how upset I felt. I even remember where the conversation took place. I was in my early teens, and we were standing in the front hallway of my childhood home. I was in tears of rage and distress about I don’t know what, when my mother turned to me with the quiet advice that when she was going through an upsetting experience, she followed her mother’s advice to focus on the thought: “This too shall pass.”

I remember that in the moment I did not find this wisdom especially helpful.

Actually, I remember that I was sufficiently angry with her that it temporarily took my mind off the original upset. I was insulted. It seemed to me that she was dismissing my distress as something irrelevant– that I shouldn’t be feeling upset about the thing that was upsetting me. It took me a long time to understand what she was really telling me. Decades, in fact.

When I was young, the end of the world was always just around the corner. Every setback and disappointment was a catastrophe of epic proportions, even though at that point in my life the setbacks were pretty minor compared with what I would eventually encounter.

I have had my share of crisis and catastrophe over the four decades since receiving my mom’s advice. And it turns out Mom was right. It all passes. Even when there have been lasting repercussions of the crisis at hand, the actual crisis state always passes into some new sort of equilibrium.

It took me well into my 40’s to comprehend the wisdom of This too shall pass. And it’s only now, in my mid-50’s, that I am able to say with any conviction that I am learning to actually live it. Learning. I may never master it.

But I can say that each time I have made it safely through to another rainbow, it becomes a tiny bit less daunting to walk into the next storm.

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”  –Haruki Murakami

 

 

 

Have a… Day

It’s complicated.

And by “it” I mean families. Which is why I find the whole notion of “Mothers’ Day” and “Fathers’ Day” problematic.

For some families, it’s an unnecessary guilt trip. I have a good relationship with my mother. Likewise I know that, through all our differences, my kids love me. It irks me that on one particular calendar day we are somehow expected to go through a set of motions to prove all that. For one of  my daughters, Mothers’ Day falls at a point in her school year that is outrageously busy. I try that to make it clear that I personally have no expectations surrounding this date, but at the same time I am not immune to thinking that, regardless of the fact that I do things with my mother on a regular basis, I must organize some so sort of joint activity on this particular day, regardless of whether doing so fits with everything else that is going on in our collective lives.

For other families, it’s a slap in the face. Today is Fathers’ Day. My own father died in 1990. I know children who are estranged from their father for a variety of complicated reasons. I know children and fathers who would like to spend the day together but are prevented from doing so by equally complicated reasons. For any family that is going through any number of crises, these days serve only to pour salt into already gaping wounds. And that’s not even talking about those situations where a parent is, or has been, genuinely abusive.

It’s all about the marketing. At my most cynical, I see both days as elaborate marketing gimmicks. If you make a living off of flowers, neckties, or Sunday Brunch, clearly you have a vested interest in these celebrations. And it hurts my head to even think about the number of trees that are felled to produce the rows upon rows of greeting cards, oozing with generic saccharine messages of parent adoration. Messages that, for most families, don’t even begin to capture the complexities of parent-child relationships.

And yet I know that there are good things that come of these arbitrary days. Somewhere the ubiquitous marketing will prompt someone to pick up a phone and call a parent with whom they have not communicated in a long time. Somewhere a small child will gain a new sense of confidence and agency from mastering the toaster in the process of producing a celebratory breakfast-in-bed. In spite of my cynicism, I still have a collection of plaster disks embedded with little handprints tucked away in a box of priceless keepsakes. I am, as evidenced by my previous post, generally a great advocate of the importance of annual rituals and remembrances in our lives.

Lots of families will have brunches and barbeques and other sorts of joyful gatherings today in honour of Fathers’ Day. But here’s the crux for me: maybe those families happily celebrating the day didn’t need the greeting card manufacturers to tell them they should do it today. Maybe the rituals and remembrances about something as personal as family relationships should be just that: personal. Maybe if you are able to celebrate Fathers’ or Mothers’ day uncritically and unambiguously you don’t really need an official day to celebrate the role a particular parent plays in your life, because you celebrate that on a routine basis. If that’s the case, then the only purpose these days serve, aside from the obvious economic purpose, is to make us feel bad when our lives are not, at this precise moment, living up to the expectations placed on us by these secular “holy days.”

Have a happy Fathers’ Day…

Have a happy Fathers’ Day.

Have a happy Fathers’ Day.

Have a happy Fathers’ Day.

Have the day you need to have. Today. Now. In whatever uniquely complicated family situation you find yourself. No neckties required. You don’t even have to be happy if doing so would violate the truth your family is living at this moment. Give yourself permission to just have a day.

Remembering my tomorrows

It starts at the moment of birth–a date on the calendar is claimed as your own, and year after year the anniversary of that date holds a particular significance for you. As time goes by, you collect other anniversaries. First date. Graduation. Wedding. The death of a loved one. Some anniversaries you share with other, but others are more personal.

Tomorrow is one of my personal anniversaries. Fifteen years ago I started feeling sick. What seemed at first like a bad flu turned out to be the start of a downward spiral that would have provided enough medical drama for a whole season of House M.D.

Turns out, sometimes it is Lupus. Or at least some sort of mysterious and difficult to diagnose autoimmune condition that behaves like Lupus.

June 11th is the first of a whole cycle of anniversaries that I walk through every year in memory of my own personal journey to the underworld and back– from the day my kidneys failed and I was moved to Intensive Care, to the day I came home, to the day I finally set foot back at the office.

There are lots of reasons one might want to forget such events. It would be easy to view these anniversaries as a morbid re-playing of the worst experience of my life. But that’s not why I relive these moments.

These anniversaries matter to me. Perhaps my Anglican upbringing instilled in me a keen sense of yearly rituals of remembrance. These anniversaries form my own personal liturgical cycle. Marking these dates represents both a physical and a spiritual reminder that every day is a gift– that I am here today, but very nearly wasn’t– that it is possible to leave the office one afternoon and drop off the face of the earth for months– that life must be lived in the present, because anything can happen.

These anniversaries matter because they are not just about remembering a nasty past. They are about all the tomorrows I can never take for granted.

 

 

Seeing the whole picture

Albert* was one of the old-timers who sat at the back of the room, moseying their way through high school on the extended plan. To be honest, I suspect that the unspoken consensus among my teacher colleagues was that Albert’s chances of graduating were pretty slim.

In a small Manitoba town in the mid 1980’s Albert’s outward appearance was guaranteed to evoke judgement.  He wore threadbare t-shirts with rock band logos, torn never-washed jeans, and long greasy black hair, perpetually falling in front of his eyes and draped across a complexion ravaged by adolescence and poor nutrition. I never knew whether he lived in town or commuted from the Reserve up the highway. I suspect that there was some degree of undiagnosed Fetal Alcohol Effect in Albert’s story. The teachers who attempted to teach him Math and English despaired over his erratic attendance. But I was the Art teacher, and Albert, I discovered, was an artist.

Albert’s attendance in art, while far from perfect, was somewhat more regular than his attendance in his academic courses. He sat in the back corner of the art room, head down, eyes hidden by his heavy black hair, deeply entranced by whatever project I had conjured up for the week.  Whatever the assignment, Albert produced something beyond my expectations.

In a big city school Albert might have had the option to rack up all manner of high school credits in a comprehensive arts program. But all I had to offer him was one credit per year of his high school career. And at the rate he was going he was going to run out of art options before he ran out of years.

The more I got to know Albert, the more I ached over the disconnect between his artistic talent and the way that everything else about school conspired to beat him down. I wished there was something more I could do provide him with some validation.

One day I had a brainwave. Remembering that there was a process to create a special project for credit, I proposed to Albert the idea of creating a mural. To my delight, he agreed.

And then the bureaucracy began. First the principal hemmed and hawed. He was not a man given to making decisions if he could possibly help it. I suspected that, had Albert been a more conventionally studious student, the answer might have come quicker. Eventually consent was given, on the condition that I consult with the School Division office regarding the acceptable kind of paint to use on the school walls. After another lengthy runaround, I was informed by a bemused Director of Facilities that ordinary latex paint would be just fine. For a location, we agreed on a boring segment of hallway that joined the two wings of the school.

All that was left was the matter of the mural composition. Fearing that I was going to have to go to battle to defend Albert’s artistic freedom, I asked him to draft a prototype on paper before starting. I waited nervously to see what Albert would come back with, scarcely able to imagine what he would propose. Given that his overall school experience had been less than uplifting, I envisioned something dark and angrily abstract.

Albert sought me out late one afternoon. “I’ve got my picture for the wall.” He unrolled a sheet of poster paper, and revealed, to my astonishment, an exquisite sketch of a unicorn, rearing up on its hind legs in front of a backdrop of lush green forest. I said all the right approving things, but all I could think was “where did that come from?!”

Albert toiled for weeks, painstakingly recreating his work as a mural that spanned roughly 8 feet of hallway. The result was stunning. The other teachers didn’t say much, but once in a while I would catch them looking with veiled astonishment and grudging respect at Albert’s creation. Whatever else they might have thought about Albert, we all saw a part of him we had never imagined was there whenever we passed through that hallway.

I only spent two years at that school, leaving for a position in the city before Albert graduated. I don’t know if he ever did. I have always wondered what became of him. I hope that he found something worthwhile to take him far away from that town. I went back myself a few years ago, and had occasion to walk through the halls of the school.

Albert’s mural had been painted over.

It broke my heart.

When I knew I wanted to write this story, I combed through my albums in search of the one photo I remember taking of the mural. I couldn’t find it.

And it broke my heart all over again.

paint-wall-lg_A2

 

*name has been changed.

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Daily Prompt: Does it ever make sense to judge a book by its cover — literally or metaphorically? Tell us about a time you did, and whether that was a good decision or not.