It was never my intention to stop writing. Life just sort of happened. A lot of life, to be honest. It’s been a summer– and fall– of big transitions. Endings and beginnings. Inner transformations and outward changes, some planned and some from way, way out in left field.
Most of it too big– too life-y– to bundle up into a tidy blog post.
It was, frankly, a chapter in my life where just doing the living took all my energy and attention. It was, therefore, a time that will likely be fodder for a lot of writing–someday.
Mind you, it’s not that I haven’t done any writing these past months. But the kind of writing that helped me negotiate that journey isn’t for this audience. Most of it is, truthfully not for any audience. At least not in its current form.
And then, of course, there’s the hurdle of re-starting. During my years as a counsellor and academic advisor to high school students, I became all too familiar with this phenomenon in its school manifestation. Perhaps you’ve seen it. Or done it. You miss a class or two, perhaps because you weren’t finished an assignment one day. Or maybe you just had too many other things on the go. And then, because you are now even further behind, you miss another class. And so it goes– the more classes you miss the harder it is to go back, until eventually you can scarcely even think of yourself as being connected to that class in any way. At that point there is never going to be a good time to go back. It just comes down to a decision. Go now, or stay gone.
When I started this blog over two years ago, I never made myself any commitments regarding how long or how often I would write here. It started as a glorious experiment in seeking audience, and I was thrilled to discover that people both from the other side of the world and my own backyard were interested in what I had to say. Even though I haven’t posted in months, there are, amazingly, still a handful of hits on this blog most days. Occasionally my readers even tell me they miss it and ask me if I’m planning to post more. (Thanks Marie!)
So here I am back. Sort of. Because I suspect that going forward this blog may not be exactly what it was before I, metaphorically, took a flying leap off one of life’s high diving boards last summer. I don’t know yet exactly what new form it will take. The bigger the jump the longer it can take one to return to the surface, and if I’m truly honest with myself, I’m only just now coming up for air. But I am surfacing. Refreshed, re-engaged, but perhaps still a tiny bit dizzy from the leap.
The female robin lit on the top of the chain link fence that separates my patio from the parking lot. The bouquet of grass clutched in her beak made it obvious that she was constructing a nest. She sat on the fence for some minutes as Lauren and I stood on the nearby patio chatting. We remarked on the grass the bird was carrying and wondered why she wasn’t moving on. Truthfully, she looked as though she was feigning nonchalance.
“Who me? Just hanging out here on this fence. Grass? What grass? Oh this grass in my beak? Oh that’s nothing , really…”
Then it came to me—she was building her nest in the small tree beside the patio– the one by Lauren’s window that is not really a tree so much as a round bush with a bit of a trunk. The robin, I surmised, was being very careful not to signal the location of the nest to us by carrying her load of grass to its destination while we were watching.
She hopped down off the fence toward the parking lot side, away from the patio. I watched as she walked with stealth between the curb and the neighbour’s car bumper until she was positioned on the far side of the slender tree trunk from where I was standing. Lauren had gone back inside, and I moved to the far end of the patio and deliberately turned away. I glanced back just in time to catch a glimpse in my peripheral vision of the robin zipping up into the cover of the leafy branches. As soon as she could see I wasn’t watching she had made a dash for the nest.
Except of course I had seen her, and so had Lauren watching through the window—a vantage point no robin could be expected to account for. She couldn’t know that, despite her best efforts, she had failed to keep her secret safe.
On the other hand, she couldn’t know that we were never really any danger to her in the first place. We have no intention of harming her nest. In fact, now that we know the nest is there, we can take measures to protect it– to ensure that when the cat joins us outside, we will keep her leash anchored in such a way that she can’t reach the tree.
Reflecting on the care with which the robin manoeuvered around the perceived danger to the security of her nest, I wondered how much effort I expend on guarding my own gates against threats that aren’t really threats at all. How often do I misjudge something as malevolent when in fact it is perfectly benign, or even potentially benevolent towards me? What secrets am I guarding that really don’t need to be secrets at all, because I the threat from which I am guarding them is not quite the threat I imagine?
I wanted to be able to tell the robin everything was ok. That she should carry on building her nest. That she would get no trouble from me. But she would not have understood, because I can’t speak to her in robin song.
And how often has the universe tried to tell me not to be afraid in a song I didn’t understand?
I got very little sleep that night, thanks to an air assault to rival the Battle of Britain.
At first, I accepted the invasion as the inevitable side effect of reading in bed. With the rest of the cottage in darkness, it made sense that the mosquitos would be attracted to my little island of light. Besides, the odd nighttime drone of an incoming mosquito is the price you pay for the opportunity to get up close and personal with the natural world. I reasoned that, now that we were done opening doors for the night, there had to be a finite number of mosquitos in the cottage, and if I sat and read long enough eventually I would have swatted them all.
As the tiny carcasses piled up on my quilt, I began to question my logic.
There did not appear to be a finite number of mosquitos in the cottage. In fact, they seemed to be regenerating their forces as quickly as I could fend them off.
My theory that I could read until they were all dispatched broke down further as it became increasing difficult to concentrate on reading in between slaps. I decided to give up, hoping that if I turned off the light I would not be quite such an obvious target.
I employed the standard pulling-the-sheet-over-your-head technique independently discovered by generations of mosquito-plagued children. There are, however, two problems with this strategy. One is that, since mosquito attacks never happen in the winter, eventually it gets too hot that far under the covers. The second problem is the need for the occasional infusion of new air. Nonetheless, I did manage to lose consciousness for a while, despite my conviction that if I did sleep I would surely be exsanguinated by morning.
I woke around 3:00 to the high pitched zzzzzzzzzzzzEEEEEEEEEEEEE of my assailants, who appeared to have called in reinforcements while I was dozing. Another hour of frantic swatting later, I got desperate. In spite of my deep aversion to applying anything to my skin that is specifically designed to KILL something, I found myself spraying insect repellant on my arms in the hope that it would buy me another few nanoseconds of sleep.
It didn’t. They mostly just avoided my arms and attacked my face. So I read for a while. I balanced my bank account. I played FreeCell until my laptop battery died. And I continued swatting until 7:00, when it seemed like an acceptable time to get up and make some serious coffee.
As I leaned across the bed to straighten the covers and brush away the bodies of the slain, an oddly placed beam of light caught my eye. The light was coming from the opening at the base of the screen that resulted from a tiny bend in the metal frame. An opening, directly over my bed, that from the perspective of a mosquito was a clear invitation to enter and feast on the riches within.
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.”
When I first clicked “Publish” back in September I had no idea where this blog was going. It evolved, along with my newly restored ability to go for long walks, out of my time off work to recover from hip replacement surgery. My initial goals were to give myself an excuse to write more regularly, and to find an audience for my writing. The blog has been a success on both counts. While I haven’t been able to maintain the same pace since going back to work, I have managed to post at least once or twice a week even in my busiest times. I have been “Freshly Pressed” and managed to amass over 1000 followers– some of whom appear to be actual human beings, and a few of whom are actually interested in reading what I’ve written (as opposed to trying to entice me to buy their products or join their pyramid schemes… but hey, nobody said this was a perfect world.)
Turns out, the best things about blogging are those actual human beings — both the ones who read and comment on my blog, and the ones whose writing engages and inspires me daily. So when I pondered how I could mark the milestone of my 100th blog post, it occurred to me that what I really wanted to do was to celebrate with those people whose blogs have been such an inspiration to me.
There are, however, some obvious logistical barriers. Most of my blogging friends live very far from me and from one another, and many of them blog anonymously. So as much as I would like to have my daughter whip up one of her epic cakes and have my blogging buddies over for a party, it’s not going be feasible.
Unless I make it a virtual party!
So, welcome to my 100th Blog Post Party. Break out the balloons, pour yourself a glass of your beverage of choice, and I’ll take you around the room and introduce you to the other guests.
There’s Matt from Must Be This Tall To Ride. Matt has just come through the toughest year of his life, but he has distilled an incredible amount of wisdom out of the pain of his divorce. I look forward daily to his insightful writing as he navigates his single life and the challenges of part-time parenting. And speaking of distilling tough life experiences into some amazing writing, I’d like you to meet Fish of Gold, Ziya Tamesis at A Day with Depression and Jess at The Fevered Pen.
I have become very fond of little Phillip through the stories and pictures his mom shares on That Cynking Feeling. Elizabeth at Living with Autism also blogs eloquently about her experiences parenting her autistic son, Dylan.
Back in my days as a theatre teacher, I once scheduled a matinee performance of the school drama production on Grey Cup day, because I was completely oblivious to the Canadian Football League schedule.
I am equally oblivious to the National Hockey League schedule, such that I am apt to get caught up in ridiculous traffic jams or overcrowded restaurants, just because I am unaware that it is a game day.
I don’t understand why the Golf Channel even exists.
I did go to a professional football game once. I fell asleep.
So I don’t fully understand this thing that happens to me when the Olympics start.
Suddenly I care.
Suddenly I am glued to the TV, rooting for my team.
I haven’t forgotten all the reasons these Olympics are problematic–the host country’s record for human rights abuse– the ridiculous amount of money that gets spent that might have gone to making the lives of the local citizens better–the politics– the controversy.
But it is easy to set all that aside for the moment when the camera zooms in on the face of a nineteen year old from Quebec who has just won gold. Against the reigning champion of her sport. With her sister standing next to her on the silver side of the podium. Under those circumstances, I would be screaming ecstatically too.
From where I sit, the Olympics are different than other spectator sports. They engage me. I want to know what the score is, and who is winning.
I am interested in the athletes. I want to know their stories. I am mesmerized by the interviews that offer little glimpses into the journey that has taken these young people halfway around the world to measure their strength and skill against the best of the best.
I am interested in the effort. The sweat. The sacrifice. The camera panning the crowd and zeroing in on the competitor’s family looking down with tense anticipation.
Olympic competition feels real to me in a way that professional sporting events never do. So do the competitors. When I look at Olympic athletes I see real people who have worked hard to reach an incredible goal. When I look at professional sports, I just see highly paid entertainers.
Maybe I just fall victim to the hype. But that wasn’t hype on Justine’s face yesterday.
Well I’ll be. At some point last night whilst I lay sleeping, one of you clicked “Follow” and became number 500. When I started blogging a little over four months ago, my expectations lay somewhere on the continuum between “international fame” and “hopefully one or two people other than my mother will want to read this stuff.” OK perhaps a little closer to the latter. But seriously, if you had really pressed me for a prediction back in September, I don’t think I would have anticipated over 500 followers in just a few months.
I know I didn’t anticipate the flurry of attention that my blog garnered from being Fresh Pressed. I know I didn’t anticipate all the countries that would be represented by my readers. (Not quite “international fame,” but international nonetheless!) And I really didn’t anticipate that I would actually make a few friends out here on the interweb.
I’m kind of curious about the rest of you. I get that many of you only clicked “follow” because you have something to sell. If that’s you, then you should know that I’m going to be a disappointment; that’s not why I’m here. On the other hand, some of you are obviously here for the same reasons I’m here– to hone your writing, and to share that writing with an audience. In between there’s a whole gamut of blogs of all shapes and sizes. I’m especially curious about the number of bloggers who are writing in languages other than English but who have opted to follow my English-language blog.
Mostly I’m curious about what brought you here. What did you see in my writing that made you think it might be worth sticking around? What motivates you to follow a blog? Do you have a favourite post on my blog?
I really appreciate those of you who have taken the time to comment on what you have read here. Now I’d like to invite the rest of you to speak up (well, at least those of you who aren’t spam-bots!) and tell me something about who you are and why you’re here. Please say hi, either by leaving a comment here, or if you’d like, by going back to another post you liked and commenting there.
Somewhere around the middle of December those awkward conversations that happen when one meets a casual acquaintance on the elevator start to stress me. I’m sure you know the conversations I’m taking about– the ones that normally revolve around the weather, and start with nice safe statements like “that was some wind yesterday” and “sure hope it warms up for the weekend.” I can manage a benign dialogue on these meteorological subjects for several floors without breaking a sweat. But I have come to realize that there is one elevator conversation-starter that I truly dread.
“Are you ready for Christmas?”
For some reason I feel like I am supposed to provide an actual answer to this question, rather than the usual meaningless elevator small talk. I think way too hard about my response, mentally kicking into overdrive as I silently review the status of my gift-shopping list and my pre-Christmas errand list and the to-do list on my desk of all the things I should really try to get done before I go on vacation. I generally blurt out a lame response like, “Almost.”
I wish I knew why I feel so pressured by this question. I know that the people asking it are just doing it to fill air space– that they don’t really care whether my gifts are all wrapped and my cookies all baked– that they aren’t really judging me on the basis of whether or not the tree is up and the lights hung.
Why then do I catch myself judging myself?
What does it really mean to be “ready” for Christmas? In the Anglican tradition in which I grew up, we spend four whole weeks of Advent getting ready for Christmas. Four weeks in which we light candles and reflect on the significance of the child whose birth we are celebrating. That is, if that is still what we are celebrating.
I admit to being one of those annoying people who starts Christmas shopping in August. I’m not a big fan of shopping in general, so If I can spread it out over a longer period it is less of a burden. Even so, I am almost always dashing out to pick up something at the last minute. This year in spite of carefully buying the various components of Christmas dinner for which I am responsible well ahead, I have still thought of one more thing I will have to go out and buy amidst the throngs of last-minute shoppers.
Even when I’m ready, I don’t feel ready.
I think it has something to do with the fact that the older I get, the more complicated Christmas gets for me– the more I understand that Christmas happens in spite of us. If you are sick or hurting, Christmas doesn’t wait until you feel better. If you are lonely or sad, Christmas doesn’t wait until you feel more like celebrating. Christmas doesn’t care if you are ready. It comes regardless. And, because we have imbued its coming with such significance, with such–dare I say it– baggage, its relentless determination to arrive on schedule despite our degree of readiness can make the things that weigh us down seem all the more weighty.
If you are grieving, the fact of Christmas can make the grief harder to bear. If you are alone, Christmas can be even lonelier. When you are low, there is nothing like the expectation that we will all be “merry” to make you feel even lower.
You know the song “We need a little Christmas?” It’s a mall and radio station favourite, because it screams Christmas without anything suspiciously religious like shepherds and stars. But do you know where the song originates? It’s actually from the Broadway musical Mame. The song comes at the point in the plot where everything has gone about as wrong at it can go. Auntie Mame has lost her job, and lost her fortune in the stock market crash. If you listen carefully to the lyrics, they aren’t exactly merry:
I’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older
Essentially the song is saying that we need a little Christmas to distract us from the fact that, at this precise moment in time, life sucks.
Since I started writing this post I have put the finishing touches on my 5-year old nephew’s made-to-order Darth Vader cape and reversible Indiana Jones vest. (Yes, I’m THAT aunt. Jealous?) I have wrapped my last gift. Aside from that one last grocery run, I am ready for Christmas.
And for me, at this point in time, life doesn’t entirely suck. But I know people– people I care about– for whom it does. And Christmas is coming whether they are ready for it or not.
That’s why I was delighted to come across a blogging initiative called C4C– which stands for Company for Christmas. You can read all about it here. It’s being managed this year by a terrific blogger who goes by the handle Rarasaur, and the premise is that bloggers volunteer to spend some time online on Christmas day so that other bloggers who are alone on Christmas have a community to interact with. I continue be amazed at the kinds of connections that happen in the blogsphere. Just when I start to get the cynical feeling that 99% of the blogs following mine are either spammers or out to enlist me in some pyramid scheme, something like C4C comes along and restores my faith in humanity.
Because when it comes right down to it, being ready for Christmas doesn’t really have anything to do with how many tins of cookies are stacked on the kitchen counter, or how overdrawn your bank account is. Remember the Whos down in Whoville? Even after the Grinch stripped their homes of all the gifts and treats and trappings of Christmas, they were still ready. Ready to hold hands and be a community that celebrates together even when times are tough. Now I’m ready.
I have Friday Brain tonight. I’m in that head space where my thoughts are a messy jumble of all the things I didn’t get done this week and all the things I want/need to achieve this weekend. I am tired past the point of productivity, but because there is so much to do I keep thinking I should be doing it. But I don’t do it.
When I was young my parents used the expression “too tired to go to bed” to describe that point in the day when you really ought to just pack it in for the evening, but simply can’t muster the effort it would require to hoist yourself up off the couch and down the hall to your bedroom.
I know what I need to do when I get this way. I need to make a list. I need to usher the swirling flock of thoughts out of my mind and corral them on a note pad by my bed where they will patiently await my attention at a time when I am more fit to focus.
I have been a list maker for a long time. Lists are my defence against chaos. I have a work to-do-list and a home to-do-list. When I get especially busy the two are apt to cross over and merge. That’s partly why my brain is so addled tonight– the work list is spilling over into the weekend– but I already HAD a weekend list. I’m not sure where the overflow valve for THAT is going to come from.
But here’s the thing. It all gets done. Except the things that don’t, but I have learned over the years that the things that don’t get done likely weren’t that important in the first place. There are lots of reasons to cross things off a list. Sure, you can cross off the things you’ve done. Heck, when I start a new list I often include at least one item I’ve already finished, just so I can have the pleasure of crossing something off right away! I’m a big believer in giving myself rewards for good behaviour.
It has taken me a lot longer to learn that you can also cross something off a list when you haven’t done it– because you have decided you don’t need to do it after all. Maybe someone else needs to do it. Or maybe it simply doesn’t need doing, period.
It has also taken me a long time, too long really, to prioritize the list around the things that matter most to me. To be mindful not to let all the “shoulds” crowd out the “wants” and “needs.” I have been trying for years to adjust my priorities so that writing was not just something I squeezed in when everything else was finished. Because “everything else” is never finished. There will always be laundry and dishes and one more piece of work correspondence to catch up on. And I’ve found it’s much easier to “squeeze in” a load of laundry than some focused creative time.
For now, I’m going to crawl into bed and make the list that will clear my busy head so I can rest. The list will start with this item:
I recall that the topic of the assignment was “bats.” I had written my little composition, inserted several well-researched facts about bats, and illustrated it with a passable resemblance of a generic bat. By grade 2 standards it was pretty good.
When it was my turn to stand and read my composition to the class, I’m sure it went well. I’m sure the teacher said something like “well done, Anna.” But I don’t actually remember that part.
To be honest, the only reason I remember that particular assignment at all is what happened when another kid– I’ll call him Davy– stood up to read his composition. Even the halting manner in which Davy read his composition didn’t detract from the fact that it was very well written. I was puzzled, therefore, when the teacher got up from her desk while he was reading and walked quietly to the big bookcase at the back of the room. Without missing a beat, she selected a book, opened it and started to read aloud — the precise words that Davy was reading from his composition paper at the front of the room.
It took Davy a few moments to process what was happening before he stopped reading. The teacher, an imposing woman with the improbable name of “Mrs. Hickey,” then launched into a lecture on the evils of plagiarism that would have left any college student quaking in his boots. Davy slunk back to his seat.
I remember being baffled by Davy’s decision to take the easy way out. Somehow even at the age of 7 I knew that if you were going to be singled out, it was important that it be on the basis of your own words. That lesson has stuck with me.
Forty-five years later, I started this blog in the hopes of gaining some readership and recognition for my own words. I have been thrilled by every “like” and every comment. This morning I woke to a message from a WordPress Editor that one of my posts will soon be featured on Freshly Pressed — which is kind of the blogging equivalent of having your grade 2 composition on “bats” pinned on the bulletin board with a gold star.