Clothes make the (wo)man

In the early weeks of my blogging venture, I found the Yeah Write weekly challenges to be a great way to hone my writing and find new readers. This was one of my early entries.

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I have a secret.

I’m not really into clothes.

Now that I have your attention, I should explain that I am not referring to a penchant for nudism.  Given the choice between clothes and not-clothes, I would definitely pick clothes every time. But I don’t care much about what clothes.

That’s not to say that I don’t dress well. I have been described as “well put-together.” I manage to show up to work looking reasonably professional. But I don’t have a lot of clothes, and when I latch on to something that I feel looks “right” on me, I guarantee you will see a lot of it. I own one purse. I have a couple of pairs of black leather shoes for work that have been chosen because they can be worn with everything (or rather, I WEAR them with everything, regardless…)

black shoesI sometimes think it would be nice to have the kind of job where I was expected to wear a uniform to work, so I wouldn’t have to think about what to wear. In lieu of that, I’ve created my own ersatz uniform that generally consists of plain black pants or a plain black skirt, an equally plain black shirt, and one of an assortment of solid-colour blazers.

One of the (many) nice things about being on leave from work is that I have, for the past two and half months, existed pretty much exclusively in a black t-shirt and a pair of black yoga-capris, until the weather turned cool and I could trade in the capris for my jeans. Actually, never mind the uniform. What I really want is a job to which I can wear jeans and a black t-shirt every day. (Maybe THAT’s why I would like to be able to write for a living.)

Another nice thing about being on leave has been the discovery that, if one faithfully walks and does one’s leg-strengthening exercises daily as prescribed by the nice orthopaedic surgeon, one’s jeans suddenly start to get looser!

So when I screwed up the energy to go and try on clothes today, I found myself hating the process less than I usually hate clothes shopping.  Not that I was inspired by my newfound muscle tone to go sartorially crazy—I hasten to point out that I came home with black pants and a black shirt. But they looked REALLY GOOD. And I suppose the shirt is slightly less plain than many other black shirts I have owned.

But actually, my real secret is this: I would love to be on What Not to Wear. In my heart of hearts, I would give anything to have Clinton and Stacey knock on my door, confiscate my drawer full of faded black t-shirts and tease me about my sensible shoes, and then waft me off to New York to build a whole new wardrobe from scratch. The “Cinderella” transformation story that runs through every episode totally captivates me. My favourite was a reunion episode where a group of program alumnae talked about their lives after being on the show. These women really were transformed by the discovery that they could feel good about their appearance. I don’t think that’s shallow. Actors will tell you that putting on the costume helps you become the character. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that learning how to dress your particular body well is going to make you more confident.

And I bet those New York boutiques have some really nice black pants.

This post has been entered in a weekly writing challenge. Click the button to read other entries, and on Thursday vote for your 5 favourites.

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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.

Enter, Chucky

Not all middle school classes are created equal. Teaching grade eight requires nerves of steel. Teaching grade eight Art requires the reflexes of a prima ballerina and the fortitude of a linebacker. And teaching mandatory grade eight Art to the big guys at the back table who are in grade eight for the third time takes a special kind of crazy.

And then throw in a chicken.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was my first teaching job, and I was far from home— a city kid who found herself in a small town school. In a small town where my colleague, having lived and worked there for thirteen years, was still considered the “new guy.” So it was pretty much a given that I was going to be subjected to some sort of initiation ritual.

For that reason, I wasn’t really surprised when I came back from lunch one day to find a small “house,” cleverly constructed out of a cardboard box, sitting on the floor next to the table at the front of my art room. The little house had a cut-out “doorway” over which was mounted a construction paper sign sporting the word “Chucky.”  Sitting on the table was a construction paper booklet with pages cut out in the shape of a chicken–its craftsmanship clear evidence that the kindergarten teacher was in on the prank. The booklet was an instruction manual, with information about how to care for “Chucky.” On the chalk board at the front of the room, an anonymous hand had printed “Hi! I’m Chuck! I want to stay please.”

My initial response was: “Oh isn’t this cute. They’ve even gone to the length of tying one end of a piece of string to the table leg and sticking the other end through the doorway into the box so that I will think there’s actually a chicken in there. How amusing.”

Did I mention I was a city kid?

I don’t know what finally prompted me to crouch down and look, but when I did peer into the darkness, I discovered to my amazement that Chucky was real.

I may be a city kid, but I know a chicken when I see one.
I may be a city kid, but I know a chicken when I see one.

Now, mandatory grade eight Art is a classroom management challenge at the best of times. But mandatory grade eight Art right after lunch and with a live chicken strutting its stuff around the front of the room is… well…interesting!

It was a long and somewhat surreal afternoon. Fortunately the Art room came with an ample supply of old newspapers, because Chucky was most definitely not house-trained. As the afternoon wore on, I began to feel a little anxious about what I was supposed to do with Chucky when the school day ended. I mean he was cute and all, but was I supposed to take him home?

My fears were allayed shortly after the final bell as, one by one, the perpetrators appeared in my doorway to ask how my afternoon had gone. Chucky went home with his rightful owner–a high school science teacher with a hobby farm just outside of town. I got to keep the house, the instruction manual, and a handful of feathers that I still have, pressed into the pages of a photo album.

And the warm feeling that comes of being well and truly welcomed by one’s peers.

chucky (2)chucky

The Dance

After a week of driving around the city in the most terrifyingly icy conditions, I was quite committed to staying home today. Nevertheless, the need to get the rapidly drying Christmas tree out of the living room and off to the tree recycling depot forced inspired me to venture out in the -44° C wind chill. (For those of you operating in Fahrenheit, that translates into approximately -44° F. Cold is cold is cold.)

plow 1We dropped off the tree at a nearby park where it will wait for spring when city workers will feed it though a wood-chipper to prepare it for its next life as mulch and path covering. Then we dropped in briefly on my sister. On the way home, we were rewarded for venturing out in the cold with an opportunity to watch the snowplows at work.

I suspect that most of the drivers with whom I was sharing the road did not perceive this as an “opportunity.” It would be easy to see it just as an inconvenience, because the presence of the plows meant it took us 15 minutes to travel down a stretch of road that would normally take about 2 minutes. Maybe I would have considered it an inconvenience myself had I been in a hurry to get somewhere. But because I wasn’t in a hurry I was free to enjoy the dance.

Grader
Grader

I wonder sometimes if I am the only one who sees it. To me, the fleet of plows working its way down the road in tandem really does look like a dance. The grader leads, its powerful blade scraping the ice and snow off the road and leaving it to one side in long, lumpy windrows. Behind the grader, several front end loaders, weave back and forth, lifting the mounds of snow up off the roadways and onto the already mountainous snow banks.

I am in awe of their gracefulness, these huge beasts that seem to manoeuvre effortlessly in spaces cramped by traffic and other obstacles. The loaders in particular move with such elegance and precision they seem almost alive to me– like a massive animal, dancing in the snow. It is easy to forget that I am seeing a huge metal machine with a human driver, tucked up in his perch in the heated cab, animating the dance.

Front-end loader
Front-end loader

They are out working now because the traffic is less of an obstacle at night. When the rest of us are curled up in front of our TVs on a cold January night, these unsung heroes of the winter city are out sculpting the roadways. Do they ever perceive it as a dance? I often wonder.

And I often wonder what other dances I miss when I am hurrying about my life. How many times I fail to see the graceful and poetic because my haste only allows me to see the mechanical and utilitarian.

I’ve been suffering from a bit of cabin fever lately– feeling sorry for myself because the bitter cold is preventing me from going walking. Feeling like if only I could get out and go for a walk I could think more clearly, be more creative, think of more things to write. Forgetting that there are dances going on around me all the time in places I least expect them, if only I slow down long enough to watch.

 

A New Year Carol

New Years Past

I remember one really great New Year party. I was in high school, and we were visiting my cousins. The party was great for a lot of reasons. I thought my cousin and his friends were cool. We were in a strange city, so none of the people at the party knew me. (As in, none of the people knew that I wasn’t cool.) And all the parents had gone to a party at another home, which made it a cool party even if nothing terribly wild happened.

There were other parties, some  “cooler” than others. But mostly, when I think of New Years past, I think of rented movies (remember those?), pajamas, and takeout Chinese food.

One year when my eldest was small we got ambitious and went downtown to see the fireworks. We found a vantage point close to the action , which proved to be a spectacular judgement error. The toddler was TERRIFIED of the noise, but because we were at the very front of the crowd it was difficult to move back to a lower decibel location. I spent the whole show with my mittened hands clamped over the ears of  a sobbing child.  After that we went back to celebrating at home. Over time, Chinese food was replaced with things the kids would actually eat, and rented movies gave way to whatever family-friendly specials happened to be on TV.

One New Year when the kids were too young to stay up late, but old enough to negotiate, we were suckered into allowing them both to stay up until midnight. We all piled on the big bed in the master bedroom to watch TV. Both girls decided that the most comfortable seat was on Mom, so I spent the evening fighting to maintain some circulation in my legs, and some peace between my daughters.  The later it got, the less charming my overtired offspring became.  Shortly before 11:00 pm, the youngest, and grouchiest, child left the room for a bathroom break. While she was out of the room we hastily located a channel from a time zone one hour later and swore her older sister to secrecy with the promise that, if she didn’t rat us out, she could stay up until it was really midnight. When daughter #2 came back into the room, the TV was counting down to midnight. The con succeeded, and she was out cold in her own bed by 11:08, satisfied that she had achieved her goal.

Par-tay!
Par-tay!

New Year Present

As my children grew into their teens, my New Years evolved . Some years my role was to be home waiting for the call to pick them up from their festivities. I did manage one year to go to hear a friend’s band, but for the most part my New Years are quiet. Mostly that suits me just fine. This year I don’t even have any pickup duties. I might watch a movie or curl up with a book. I’ll stay up until midnight, but then I do that regularly. I will actually enjoy the solitude.

New Years Yet to Come

But lately it has occurred to me that I may have erroneously left the universe with the impression that solitude is all I enjoy. That I wouldn’t ever be interested in a big noisy party. It’s true that there have been lots of years when a quiet night at home truly appealed to me. But I have a secret to confess.

Someday, some year, I’d like to go dancing.

Buzz

Today’s Daily prompt invites us to write about anxiety.

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.

I go walking: in the snow

riverscape 2It’s warm today by Winnipeg winter standards– the overcast sky holds in the earth’s warmth, helping the temperature to hover just below the freezing point. It makes for sloppy roads, but it is perfect for a walk, and warm enough to take off my mitts and take some pictures.

The river is frozen now. Almost. If you look closely you can see dark patches that signify an area where the water is still peeking through a thin layer of ice. The river is most dangerous in times of transition– in the early spring when the ice is breaking up, and in the early winter when it is still not fully frozen. But even in the dead of winter there can be treacherous open spots, especially near bridges and outflow pipes.

Note the dark patch. Not a good place for a walk.
Note the dark patch. Not a good place for a walk.

My cousin fell through just such a patch of thin ice one winter when he was a teenager, taking a short cut across a river to go visit our grandparents. Thankfully the friend he was with was able to pull him out and help him up the bank. By the time Grannie met him at her kitchen door he could barely walk because his pants had frozen solid.

I make my way along my familiar southward trail , observing the way the snow hides some things and highlights others.  I’m pleased to see there is a well-trampled path. I don’t encounter any cyclists now, but the regular walkers are undeterred by the arrival of wintery weather.  Rabbit tracks zigzag around the trees. I watch for deer, but it’s too early in the day. I would be more apt to encounter them at dusk.

Even more beautiful highlighted by a dusting of snow.
Even more beautiful highlighted by a dusting of snow.

The fallen tree that I wrote about in early October now lies adorned with a layer of white lacework that brings out the complexity of its structure. Everything that was lush and green a few months back is now either grey and angular, or hidden beneath a blanket of white.

As my boots crunch against the packed snow, I think about how grateful I am that the hours of hip-therapy walking I did to recover from surgery happened in the summer. I love walking in the snow, but it’s more difficult than walking on grass or pavement. Where it is packed down it is slippery, and where it is still fresh my feet sink and twist. At the same time I celebrate the fact that I can go walking in the snow. This time last year I was not walking anywhere but to and from the bus stop, and that was slow and painful and aided by a cane.

No one home to shovel the front step.
No one home to shovel the front step.

High in a tree, something catches my eye. A tiny birdhouse sits, abandoned for the season no doubt, while its inhabitants spend the winter months in more temperate conditions further south. The roof of the house is covered with snow, and there is a tiny mound of snow in front of the entryway.

It strikes me that I have no desire to fly south for the winter. No interest in tropical vacations or white sandy beaches. In spite of the cold, the ice, the inconvenience of snow covered cars and winter boots, I prefer to stay put in this wintery city. Even if it is more effort, I prefer to walk in the snow.

grass