Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Covid: Year Two: Friendship

It has been fifty-seven weeks since Ontario shut down for the first time, when the only stores open were grocery stores and gas stations and pharmacies and the LCBO, when people skittered in and out of those stores like they were fugitives, when you couldn't get yeast or flour for love or money. It's been 411 days since the last March Break started, since we got the news that Noah wouldn't be returning to preschool, that someone would be in touch for us to come and pick up his shoes and whatever art projects he had made. It's been nearly as long since my husband took a mid-week train to Stratford, because his office was shutting down and it made sense for him to come here so he could be out of his parent's basement and seeing his kid and his wife every day; since we began fretting in earnest about his parents and their health, my grandmother and hers.

I am tired, friends. I am so tired of my kid and my husband. I know it's not nice to say, but it doesn't come from any mean-spiritedness on my part. They are the peanut butter-and-jam sandwich I've eaten every day for 411 days. They are lovely people, and I want to go check myself into a hotel for a week to be away from them. I want to be with my friends—the moms from the drop-in circles and the ones I DM with on Instagram, the people I'd see twice a year at house parties, the friends-of-friends I'm always delighted to see on the street. I want to get to know my friend's girlfriend better, or grab a casual coffee with the yoga teacher who seems nice, or get reconnected with my high school friend who lives down the street.

I'm tired of every minuscule social interaction being fraught, weighing what I see on social media (are they partying or a hermit? have they posted that vaccine selfie?) with my own activities (have I lingered when I ran into a friend at the drugstore? did my son bring home some horrible germ? are these really allergies?). I'm tired of trying to convince myself that I'm satisfied with seedlings and online shopping, as if I don't desperately want to give my parents a hug. I feel lucky in that socialized health care will mean I will not be bankrupted if I happen to get sick, but it also means that the vaccine rollout in our area has been slow as molasses. 

I am TIRED of Doug Ford and his futile promises that this lockdown will be different, somehow—despite the fact that the hardest-hit areas have been locked down continuously since October—and he is owed back-irritation for defunding public health and canceling paid sick days. I am also tired of the young men and women in my life who are spewing misinformation about vaccines, masks, doctors, COVID treatments and COVID itself. The 30-whatever-year-old men whose biggest annoyance in the last year is that they can't watch a ballgame from a stadium seat, they have to wear a mask when they go to the LCBO, and they can't complete the dating-app casual-sex circuit on a bored Saturday afternoon.

And I not ungrateful for our admittedly non-harrowing experiences throughout—we've been in a safe little city, with less than 400 cases since March 2020, and many of those in congregate living spaces like long-term care facilities, where even the most diligent approach isn't a guarantee against sickness. Our big house meant that my sister could be here with us for nearly a year, another adult to bounce off of (and feel feelings about); it meant that there are nooks to escape to, whole rooms we can dedicate to exercise, kid-play, or seedlings. We are able to go grocery shopping, to attend doctor's appointments, to have ultrasounds, and buy skateboards. We are able to get our mail, have running water, and eat food. We want for nothing.

Except: pandemic life is a grind. It's a grind! When is the last time you felt joy? Just a streak of pure delight, shocking your nervous system with unexpected beauty or pleasure? When is the last time you felt connected to someone outside your house? An intimate moment—a hand on their shoulder, a confession told with heads together, easy laughter? When is the last time you felt peaceful, the jangle of your pandemic-addled nervous system quieted down enough to feel the hum of the natural world, the beat of your own heart? And not in a "are these heart palpitations or is this The Big One" kind of way, either. 

Adult discourse tends to view friends as some kind of vestigial university phenomenon—adults have colleagues and in-laws, not friends. (An aside: the fact that queer folks often say "chosen families"  to mean "my group of best friends who love and support me but who are not blood-kin" tells me what I need to know about the relative status of family and friendship.) However, I will freely admit that I miss giggling like a lunatic with my high school bestie while we drink wine in the driveway, and brunch with The Girls, and the coffee shop outing with a new friend, and a trip to the library with a mom-friend. Not having access to those varieties of friends, and those different spaces, makes life tougher. When the daily circuit is home office-kitchen-bedroom/husband-kid, there's very little room to be surprised by joy.

It feel almost absurd to be advocating for these nice-to-have things at the tail end of an unprecedented year, but fuck it, I'm selfish. I don't want a ballgame or a casual hookup; I don't even want freedom from the "tyranny" of masks or vaccines (what luxury, that this is our so-called tyranny). But what I do want, so much, is to feel like my soul-self is growing and not withering; to feel like the reason I'm keeping my house clean is because maybe someone will come visit one day; to feel like I can commit myself to creative projects because I will have the time (read: school coverage) to actually do them. The birth-to-kindergarten sprint was only really tolerable because I knew, at some point, I would be able to claw back some of the parts of myself that I'd put on ice, the parts that weren't paying the bills or keeping that little human alive.

And then along came 2020.

I read a tweet recently that said "It's wonderful that everyone expects non-stop risk-embracing celebration this summer, but it's slightly more likely people will have two glasses of wine and start sobbing for no reason, then leave the party and walk to the nearest body of water to sit on a bench and watch boats," and friends, I feel seen by this.  It's not so much that I have a specific grief that I can point to (a job loss, a death, a shitty diagnosis, an eviction), but navigating a world where public health has thrown a handful of marbles on the floor has left me feeling like I need to hang onto the walls for a while; it's too bad that the usual walls we reach for —friendship, nature, creativity, time off, time away—are all firmly off-limits. See you at the other end of the hallway. I'll reach out my hand when it's safe.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Aesthetics

When I was twelve, Baz Lurhmann's Romeo + Juliet appeared, like a comet, in movie theatres. That was the year we lived in Victoria, BC, and for the first time in my life, I had some degree of freedom: I walked to school instead of riding the school bus, I could go on some very chaste dates (I saw the Fran Drescher vehicle The Beautician and the Beast with Big Frank, who liked me and about whom I was...neutral-positive), and I was free to roam the aisles at A+B Sound, a kind of Western Canadian Tower Records. It was heaven, to be honest—while that year was terrible for my parents, who struggled in work and family life, I was finally free from the oppressive Ottawa suburb where I had been viciously bullied, and I regained a tiny sliver of the confidence that had been chewed up during puberty and middle-school hell. 

I didn't see Romeo + Juliet in theatres—I was a smidge too young, and I was sort of contrarian in my approach to pop culture: if it was marketed to me, I wanted no part of it. But the magazines I read at the time were loony tunes for it, doing fashion spreads inspired by the film, watering down the sexy Venice Beach/Dolce and Gabbana look for the high school freshman crowd, and doing their level best to underline that Leonard DiCaprio was a heartthrob, dammit. (To me, Leo has always been a heartthrob like he's been an Oscar winner [HEYOOOO].) The story was secondary, but the glamour! My Lord. 

I have always loved a well-developed sense of aesthetics, and Romeo + Juliet had this in spades. It featured cascades of specific, beautiful artifacts relating to the inner and outer lives of its characters. It was so precise, from the neon crosses lighting up a church nave, to the unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts, to the hurricane rushing across the sky as Mercutio lay dying on a beach. I know people find Baz Luhrmann over the top and garish, but when I was thirteen and finally seeing the movie in my cousin's dark basement, it looked the way the rest of teenagerhood felt: like I had stuck my finger in an electric socket.

Over the years, other movies and TV have done this dance of aesthetics—Fight Club, The Royal Tenenbaums, Black Panther, Mad Max: Fury Road, Hilda. They are, after all, a visual medium, so telegraphing information about characters through the way they dress, the songs they like, the cars they ride in, the houses they inhabit, is not lazy or frivolous. It is a way of telling us who they are.

We all have our own sense of aesthetics, which are part of the stories we tell to and about ourselves, even if we allow them to remain largely invisible or unexamined. Think of gender-neutral baby clothes and the parents who buy them; minimalists who ditch their couches; the extreme house-plant set; book collectors; thrift store junkies; femmes in lilac lipstick; dudes in spiked jackets. We have such a wide range of beautiful available to us! What we choose is not neutral: it's political, nurtured by the houses and cultures we grew up inside, influenced by the music we like and the movies we watch, influenced again by friends and housemates and the people we want to attract, and distilled down to our walls, our closets, and our favourite colours. 

It can be a dance, especially with people with whom you share space: my husband is a collector (DVDs, records, teeshirts) and sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of items in our house. His music tastes veer towards industrial/punk; we have a lot of horror-movie posters that remain in tubes. At the same time, he pushes back on my desire for less; the compromise, as of right now, is piles of stuff destined for the donation bin "someday," an "aesthetic" that we both hate. 

Sometimes I daydream about a little house—a downtown apartment, an a-frame in the woods—that can be wholly mine. I haven't had a space that was just for me in many years, and I miss it; now every room is designed with an eye to sharing it. I like lots of art on the walls, and struggle with clutter, but I'm not a maximalist. I love colour and am learning, at the age of 37, how to use it in my wardrobe and in decor. And this is political, even if I don't recognize it: learning how to let myself take up space, to have my own sense of beauty, and to remind myself that it matters because I like it, even if I'm the only one who does. I've spent time adopting other people's aesthetics because I wanted to be close to them (the number of horror movies I watched in the first five years of dating my husband!), and I've spent time under my parent's highly beautiful roof, but the fact is, I'm still learning how to do it myself. 

Romeo + Juliet is a breadcrumb: I will never adopt the balls-to-the-wall colour scheme and/or lifestyle that those characters are immersed in, but I will identify the cool blue neon light as something I love, along with Margot Tenenbaum's raccoon eyeliner and knee socks, and Furiosa's steampunk practicality. The idea is not to borrow other people's specific identities; it's to give myself the bravery to figure out my own. I want to look like myself, beautiful in my own weirdo way, drenched in colour and light.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Ritual 1

I've been thinking about ritual, off and on, for nearly five years. Because it's such a big topic, I don't always have a very coherent angle of approach: sometimes I think about it from a personal perspective, like when I wonder how having a really solid cultural support system would have changed things after NS was born. Sometimes I think about it from a theoretical point of view—even learned scholars aren't able to really define what a ritual is, which means it's really juicy for academic thought (and, despite this juiciness, the field of ritual studies is a young one, only really formulating itself since the 1970s). Sometimes I think about how we can improve our rituals—what questions do we think we're answering when we come together in community to celebrate a coming of age, or eat brunch together once a month, or kneel and eat a cracker?—and if we can change them, how would we know if we're stepping forward or backwards? Sometimes I feel like my neurons are firing a billion times a second, and the frizz is fun; sometimes, I wonder if I've totally stepped off the path of reasonable thought and am trundling off to accidentally form a cult.

Some background: after Noah was born, I was sad. I was sad because his birth had shaken me deeply on a number of levels. It was painful, first and foremost—the worst pain I'd ever felt, and for a long, long time. I felt abandoned by my midwives, whose roles I'd thought would be more supportive; instead, I laboured for days with just my husband, having been instructed not to call them until the contractions became more regular (which they never did). The goals I had set for myself—a "natural birth," in the beautiful birth centre downtown—did not come to pass; at the end of it, I had a c-section from a doctor whose name I didn't know, shaking so badly from the anesthetic, and feeling like I had failed. The grief from this pain/failure combo was enormous. Plus: I now also had a baby. It was a tectonic shift in lifestyle, relationships, appearance, ability to sleep, comfort, routine, work, and basically every other aspect of my life. Everything had changed. I didn't know how to talk about it. 

As a culture, we're not great with change. We're especially bad at "change with a side of upset feelings:" death, breakups, friendships that drift apart, the post-retirement phase where things are "really exciting" but there's also a deep loss of identity. I've historically had breakdowns when things change on a Big Level: I had them after I graduated high school and university, and I had one after Noah's birth, too. And I started thinking about the ways in which we see each other and ourselves through this big changes, and realized that, if it's not a party, we don't really want to do it.

Ritual is a box for feelings. You can put your feelings into the box, if you want; you can also use ritual to box yourself off from your feelings, although this second option has diminishing returns. When people (both individuals and communities) create rituals, they're typically pointing to something and saying "hey, this is important." 

For example: for months, my Tuesday morning routine was to go to the YMCA, buy a day pass, drop Noah off at the kindergym, and then do some power yoga. Nothing about this was sacred—he would emerge sticky and crabby; I was just rolling around on the floor—but I grieved the loss of our weekly YMCA outings deeply when COVID began. After reflecting on it, I realized that this weekly ritual  pointed to: time to take care of my body; time apart; time spent in the company of other adults, without my child; time to slow down. The sacredness of that YMCA time was not attached to a church or a deity, but to the needs that it met, needs that felt ignored in much of my life. 

And we can do this pointing with almost anything. Why is Christmas important? Why do I crave my evening cup of tea? Why does Friday takeout dinner feel untouchable? These are little boxed-off pieces of time, and ones that we've filled up with stories: the feelings we want to feel, the values we uphold, the need to predict and make patterns in our lives. And you don't have to put your feelings into the box; sometimes showing up will enable the feeling, or it will simply signal to others in the box with you, "hey, I'm here." 

Because rituals aren't just a feeling; they're not ideology. They're action, which means they work very differently from just my little thinky-thoughts. They can be embodied values, but participating in them doesn't require my brain and body to match. I show up at Christmas, and the values I hold around my family and our traditions are a little more entrenched; I stand and kneel in church, and while my questions and doubts remain, I am there in the moment.An outsider would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

All of us have many micro-cultures, overlapping all day long: our personal histories, the media we consume, the way we structure families, our careers, our ethnic and national contexts, the ideas we love and the ones that repulse us. We have different norms, depending on who we're with—I behave differently with my childhood bestie than I do with my mother-in-law. And we have the versions of ourselves that we want to be, the versions that we've left behind, and the versions that we are, right now. Rituals that work well in one context don't translate across the board. What is normal in church is a big old raised eyebrow in a classroom; what works in the family home may be unintelligible to those outside it. Ritual is a way of creating a shared context; we've lost a lot of those, in modern life.

This is all to say that ritual is complicated. It's a cultural technology that can be controlled, weaponized, wrested away, and suppressed. It's a vessel for the sacred that can also be deeply secular. It's an invitation to be together, and a deeply personal way of understanding our world. 

And this is also to say that ritual is something I want to do with my life, and I'm not sure what that means. Broad strokes might include grad school, designing resources, writing that doesn't include the phrase "thinky-thoughts," maybe a ritual space, a cultural conversation about what ritual is and why we need it. In between those strokes is pure terror: what if I fuck it up, do it badly, cause harm? What if I'm not smart enough or dedicated enough? I think this is really important, and I want to do right by it. I want to create something for myself, the sad person I was after Noah was born, that is a way of holding myself up across time and space. I want there to be less sad people, or at least, better sadness: feelings that are recognized and held, remarked upon and not ignored. I think ritual is a good place to do that.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Doing the Self-Care Boogie

Self Care by Erika Lee Sears, 2020

One of the best part about having smart female friends in their 30s is that many of us are aware of how stupid modern life is, and will validate the living hell out of each other when we encounter it in the wild. One such gift was sent my way this weekend, by a dear friend with whom I've spent hours discussing the joys and pitfalls of parenting, and let me tell you: we all need a good takedown of the Instagram Moms from time to time.

In a nutshell, the article focuses on what bullshit it is that we are still falling for the Instamom at all. You know the type: a gauzy look at a big family, usually in some picturesque setting, where there are plenty of crafts, hug pileups, and eyelet rompers. Tantrums happen offscreen, and there is nary a chicken finger in the freezer. These moms have thousands of followers, big houses, cute little husbands, and, it seems, very little interest in regions like, say, "postpartum mental health" or "racial equality." Their kids ride skateboards and swim in the ocean, or they dance at sundown, or they pile into camper vans for weekends away with their church groups. It is all INTENSELY wholesome, a vision of perfect motherhood that is upheld by a scaffolding of capitalism (you can buy your way into this vision) and patriarchy (there must be something wrong with you, as a woman, if you resist it). 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the internet veil, I'm over here, struggling with a kid who is slowly falling apart from lack of other children in his life, with a house that doesn't magically clean itself, with the scheduling nightmare of trying to cram work in at some point during the day, along with managing the bulk of the cooking and food in our house. It's not all a slog, but it is all work, and the majority of it is unpaid and just sort of expected of a mom. If you consider the running of a house work—and you should—I work an awful lot.

The article I was sent goes nicely with another one, about how we've convinced ourselves that meeting our basic needs is the same as self-care. I know self-care is not always glam—it includes things like therapy, crying, exercise, and hard conversations with hard people—but it tends to happen at a level above, say, the basics. Resting, eating, cleaning, and having social relationships isn't self-care. If animals don't do those things, they die. A pedicure? Sure, I'll give you that. A particularly pretty sandwich? No, babe. You gotta eat something anyway.

We have been sold a bit of a bill of goods, here: women's labour is not dreamy, for the most part. It's annoying to drag a kid in from of the computer for the third Zoom session that day, to ensure that the baseboard of the bathroom aren't in an embarrassing state, to plan and execute a diverse menu through the week that prevent any major nutritional deficiencies, to do our paid work, and to do the worry-labour of noticing the plaque buildup on teeth/clocking any major tantrum seasons and how they might map to childhood mental health/ensure that clothes are plentiful and in the right size/blah blah blah, we know the drill. It's hard to translate any of that to a social media post; should I want to?

And when I think about adding chickens, a ballet body, twins, or whatever else is hip among the Instamoms, my blood runs cold and I take to my bed. Because no reasonable person would consider the act of walking around town doing errands to be self-care, no matter how blue the sky or how pretty the flowers you pass along the way. If I have to bring a backpack to tote things home, then it's not self-care. It's household maintenance. (I hope I don't have to convince you otherwise.) The body, chickens, and babies just represent more responsibility, more shit I have to get done. No thanks, ladies. I have enough on my plate today.

I, like the author of the Harper's article, will likely not give up my habit of following the Instamoms any time soon. Despite my annoyance, they do offer a slice of beauty; I just have to remember that, no matter how authentic they seem, they are a packaged product with a point of view and a politics. They're about as real as a Marvel movie, but the scrim of reality—this is just our little home!—belies that fact. Show me the tantrum, the fight you had with your husband, the meeting with your advertorial sponsor. Or don't show me that, and float on into the night, as real as a magazine cover. 

I made a list of things that are truly just for me: things I listen to, watch, cook, do, and buy. It includes things like Stan Rogers songs and cozy blankets, weird cookies and slow walks through fancy grocery stores, my handknit sock drawer and the flavour of cardamom, clean white sheets and reading in bed, iced mint tea and Hilda on Netflix. Some of those things still don't pass through the filter of pure self-care, but even if they're work, I can do them with enough joy and focus on my own preferences that I'll let it slide. I need that list; I think we all do, these days.

If 2020 taught us anything, it's that families work best when they're connected to the outside world—childcare, schools, libraries, the early years centres, grandparents, the kids down the street, the friendly barista. Take away enough of those supports, and life starts to look like the Instamoms: just a family in a house. But it's not the right picture, and it's not the whole picture. I want to know if the Instamoms ever lock the door against their six kids, sit on the toilet, and scroll the way we plebes do. My heart says they do; what do they see?

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Things That Happened in 2020


January: We rang in the new year with my brother and parents, and it was absolutely lovely and dorky to get drunk with them and watch the ball drop on YouTube. I made Noah a play mat for his birthday, and we all got a text from the Ontario government that was like, "Trouble at the Pickering Nuclear Plant!" and then the government was like lol, jk, idk. I led a workshop for a local climate change group to try to lay out some mission statements and values, and it went really really well. We all got really into dumb Instagram filters.

February: My sister moved in with me! I was so happy that happened. Mike and Noah and I went to Jekyll Island with my parents for the last two weeks, and holy mackerel, what a necessary trip. It was bookended by two absolutely endless travel days, but the six days in between were sunny and full of shopping trips to Target, good seafood, and a kid who pooped on the potty at 4:30 in the morning. It was great to just be with my parents, and in the sunshine. I was working and grouchy for a lot of it, but I was also present and having fun through most of it, too. Given everything that came after, I'm so grateful we got this getaway with them.

March: So, March was when the COVID-19 crisis started to unspool for real. I had a coffee with a friend on March 9, and it felt subversive and strange to be sitting in a coffee shop with them, just shooting the shit about partners and kids and whatever; three days later, schools were being cancelled and the library closed and you could not get a roll of toilet paper for love or for money. I spent that time feel like my skin was on fire: such severe anxiety! Such fear! I was worried that I was going to die, that we would go hungry, that we would unravel the world and be utterly unable to put it back together again. Mike was here, finally, working from home, and the transition from long-distance relationship to being together 24-7 was not without bumps.

April: After my March breakdown, I sort of snapped out of it, albeit with frequent relapses. We got into a semi-rhythm of being home with Noah. I dialed down my hours at my regular job but wrote a lot of things. We planted seedlings and most of them came up, and some of them promptly withered away. I did a lot of online shopping, which was sort of fun. Mostly, I grieved in a very gentle sort of way: I missed my friends and my family, I missed preschool and coffee shops, I missed pop-outs to the grocery store and taking the train. I missed the things that gave my life shape and meaning, and I looked for replacements. Gardening helped. Long calls helped. But nothing can replace being in a room with people, being present

May: In late May, a police officer killed George Floyd and three more stood and watched, and America started to erupt in protests. People in Toronto gathered in Trinity Bellwoods and drank beers and generally were complete knobs about the whole social-distancing thing. In our house, we started to gradually see people after being cooped up for three months straight.

June: We snuck up to visit my parents at the cottage; I spent a lot of time in the garden, after dinner, watering plants and worrying over shoots; America continued to disintegrate, and it seemed like maybe something could grow from the wreckage. A friend who tends towards pessimism told me that, despite everything, this was the most hopeful she'd been in years. Really and truly, the air felt electric with desperation and tenderness and rage and the possibility for change. Noah and I attended a Black Lives Matter rally in Stratford. I read a lot. I donated some money. It was what felt right.

July: Mike's brother died. Jamie was an ornery, persnickety man who had so many secrets; he was also a generous and loving man who had come through fires. His death from liver failure was a tragedy, and I am still in my feelings about it, five months later. Mike went down to Toronto while he was in hospice and had Jamie's last week with him. I stayed away because of COVID. This fucking year, man. This fucking year. Jamie, I hope you're up at the great snack table in the sky, headphones on, a good beer in hand, waiting for the opening band to start playing.

August: We went to Toronto to bury Jamie and have a memorial picnic in High Park, and everything was hot and fraught and ultimately not very healing at all; what grief process is? We went to a playground and some little fucker LICKED NOAH'S FACE, which I will absolutely die mad about.

September: Noah started kindergarten! I was a mess, because it really felt like we were throwing him to the wolves. We also had a visit with my Toronto bestie, a woman (and her family) who has been my anchor for the past 18 years, who had a baby of her own last fall, and who I would literally move mountains for (but I would complain the whole time, because I'm still me). I spent ages in the kitchen processing the last of the thousand or so tomatoes we grew, making enchilada sauces and salsa and tomato paste and one million other things. I realized that, after nearly five years of balancing kid-work-self, the scales were going to have to tip towards self in a more meaningful way, so I tried not to panic as my work motivation evaporated.

October: After Thanksgiving, my mom and I jumped in the car and had a three-day micro-vacation in Dundas, Ontario, with day trips to Hamilton and Guelph. It was a lot of walking, a lot of talking, a lot of reading. We hiked for several hours and talked about nothing and everything. We went to Ikea, which was stressful. We ate ramen and watched a John Mulaney special on Netflix. It was a bit boring and wholesome and, after seven months of heart-mayhem, an absolutely balm. This was right before Ontario's COVID numbers starting ticking back up again; it was not exactly carefree, but it was responsible and delicious and I still think about that hike at least once a week.

November: We had a heat wave! I wore shorts. Also, America had an election. Also, I knit myself a cowl. Also, Rudy Giuliani booked the Four Seasons Total Landscaping for a press conference and I am still laughing about that.

December: We spent the month trying to figure out what we should do re: the intersection of family and Christmas; in the end, we decided to do December 25th at home, with just the four of us, with an eye to having a visit after we'd quarantined for two weeks. I made a turkey dinner. I bought yarn on the internet. It was nearly a green Christmas and then it snowed overnight and was magical.

In conclusion: Obviously, we'll remember 2020 as Year 1 of COVID times; the news was often pretty bleak; many of us struggled with anxiety; we were apart more than we were together; we lost people; we had to negotiate things that we previously took for granted; work was touch-and-go; I often felt overwhelmed or sad. But this was also the year my sister came to live with us, that my brother went to live with my folks, that I grew food for the first time, when I sent and received care packages. It was the year my Mother's Day gift was a small cafe set up in our attic, complete with baked good and tea and New York Times Magazine, where I could be alone for a couple hours. It was the year my mom went swimming every summer day, and I ordered books through the library, and I unexpectedly deepened friendships with people I really care about. It was sitting on the front porch at dusk, watching fireflies; it was knitting my mom a sweater; it was homemade Chinese food and a Star Wars Christmas special; it was matcha lattes in the park with a friend. It was a hard, bitter year, but I don't get the sense that it made us hard or bitter. I feel like we're on the edge of something that might change us all, for the better.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

A Year of Living Colourfully

A year's worth of colourful clothes

In February of last year, I opened my closet on a snowy, overcast day, and tried to reach for something, anything, with a bit of spark in it. I was feeling oppressed by the endless black and white of winter, and I craved literally any colour at all. What I had was black leggings, navy blue dresses, gray sweatshirts, black tank tops, slate-gray pants, gray long sleeves, muted green jeggings, black tunics, and a lone pair of red pants best suited for shoulder season. When I looked out the kitchen window, all I saw was a colourless sky and the gray roofline of my neighbour's bungalow. I slept in a gray bed. I had a dead Boston fern in my front room. My husband's clothes run to the gothic: black, white, gray, and red. The only colour in our house came from our son, whose room was a kaleidoscope of bright toys, colourful books, imported fabrics, and a Roy G. Biv's worth of clothing options.

In 2020, I made two resolutions: I would stop supporting Amazon (I've had enough of Jeff Bezos, thanks), and I would wear more colour. The first was because I could no longer stomach even the occasional purchase from a company whose founder I had come to see as a predatory threat to a thriving business ecosystem that included any small or medium-sized options; the second was because I had grown tired of my colourless wardrobe, and I wanted to see who I would become with colour in my life. 

On that day in February, I went to a boutique I don't usually frequent. I went into the dressing room with two shirts—one raspberry-coloured, the other a burgundy-and-neon orange Nordic fever dream—and bought them the same way I had first purchased alcohol: quickly, slightly furtively, and with a half-sense that someone would stop me at the door and say, "Ma'am, those aren't for you." I wore those shirts constantly through the balance of that winter, reaching for them because I knew that their warm tones would lift my spirits. It was low-hanging fruit, because my spirits were pretty grim at that point, but every time I put them on, I was reminded of the day I bought them, and the tonic I was sure they'd be to my soul.

We associate colourful clothes with children, and blacks and grays with serious grown-up life. Suits are typically black, gray, or navy (RuPaul notwithstanding); we go to job interviews in muted tones; the black legging and messy bun has become the women's unofficial weekend uniform; wedding dresses and funeral clothes are white and black; all-black is slimming, which we're told we need; dark and muted clothes allow us to blend in, which we're told we should. Not only that, but patterns, fabrics and colours come and go in trend cycles that have accelerated to the point of nonsense, and fast fashion steals from the haute houses and offers dozens of juxtaposed trends that are influence-able one week and passe the next. Fashion has become a dizzying place. It's simpler to just buy some really good black leggings and call it a day. 

I've personally long avoided colour because I didn't want to be stand out. It's a cliche, I know, but I really believed that I was more appealing as a person if I could shrink myself down: big personality, big hair, big body, big opinions? At least I'm in a streamlined black outfit! I've been a dozen different shapes and sizes since I hit puberty, and hiding it in dark clothes just seems safer. It's a no-brainer to coordinate, and seen as elegant, professional, urban and chic. I've long admired women who have a signature colour—friends who wore mustard yellow or neon pink without blinking—but it wasn't for me, right? 

This year's project wasn't a wardrobe revamp. I went through and pulled out clothes I truly didn't wear—stuff I had kept because it was "once I lose this weight" or "but that person I care about gave me this" or "I used to wear this all the time, and I might again." All that went into the donation bin. I started with what I had: muted blues, dark greens, and those two pink shirts. I set a goal to wear something with colour every day, even if it was just a pair of socks.

I had a breakthrough when I bought a pair of dusty coral pants from Target in February on a family trip, and another when Marimekko and Uniqlo put out a capsule collection full of bright vegetable prints. When I thrifted or went to clothing swaps (online, since, you know, 2020), I tried to skip over the black clothes I'd normally plunder, and ask myself: what about tomato red? Or mint green? Could I try a rose gold, or navy stripe? I found myself buying and wearing unexpected hues: I went for pink over and over, ranging from nearly flesh-toned to electric cantaloupe. I loved chambray denim. I knit a bra (yeah, a bra) that went from green to yellow to orange, and wore it for a week straight. I gave myself permission to buy seersucker pants, even at a size fourteen, because why not? Fat people have summer houses too! I bought yarn to knit myself a copper-coloured sweater. I trusted my instincts, putting the purple boots with the navy pants with the burgundy vest. I made myself a neon-yellow hat and wore it constantly. 

It may not be a surprise to learn that this project, as a 2020 venture, was fun as hell. Recasting myself as a person who wears a lot of pink wasn't just an aesthetic shift. I'd long created little personae to go with various outfits: this one inspired by post-apocalypse farmers, that one by 1970s camp counselors, another by gallery owners. Since having a child, I put that on hold, and just tried to find stuff that hid the flaws. But when the whole goal was just "find colour and wear it," I let those stories drift away. I stopped trying to be someone else, even if that someone was aspirational, interesting, or fictional. Reflecting on this, nearly a year later, I can see that giving myself permission to wear things that made me feel a certain way, rather than look a certain way, or tell certain story, was something I really relished. There are still holes in my wardrobe, as well: I'm on the constant search for a pretty dress that feels right, and for pants that fit, and sweaters and sweatshirts. But as the owner of three pairs of pink pants, I'm confident I can find some garments that work.

What a gratifying project, to seek joy and then find it. I'm ready to be seen: I'm done apologizing for the size of my body or the space I take up. I crave adornment and pretty colours, like a flower or a sunset. Does that sound childish? I'm not sure I care any more. I love fashion and clothes, and I always will: I adore their ability to reveal people in a glance. By only wearing black and gray and navy, I had been telling the same story over and over, relying on an old vision for, frankly, an old version of who I am. This pink makes me feel happy. It really suits me. 

Saturday, October 31, 2020

A Bookshelf for COVID Year 1

Painting by Victoria Riechelt
 
This was a year where I read a lot—maybe more than I had since I was an undergrad earning an English lit degree—and I also read barely at all, if you judge by how much remained in my brain after I closed the book. I think a lot of people can relate to this, given the general mood of anxiety and distraction (as a side note, my favourite thing right now is that when you google "how many days since," the search engine will helpfully auto-suggest "since March 13?"which, for us here in Ontario, was the day when the shit really hit the fan in terms of lockdowns). Reading is, of course, transportative, recreational, imagination-play for grown-ups. It can make us more empathetic, improve our vocabularies, helps with stress and with sleep, all of which are helpful—perhaps vital—skills to practice in 2020. 

During These Times, I read a lot of news: doomscrolling on Instagram and Facebook, reading issues of The New York Times and The New Yorker basically looking through my fingers because everything seemed so dire. Reading the news was homework in the apocalypse; reading anything else was a distraction, a balm, and a reason to keep my brain from turning into an anxiety Jell-O.

Here are the books I read that made a difference in this year! Instead of chronologically, they can be roughly filed into three categories, all of which say something about my position in the world. This is also not a complete list, but rather the ones that stuck to me; I thought about them after I closed them up. Feel free to read them, or don't! But message me if you do, and we can do Zoom book club. 

Category Is: Ugh, Family

* I kicked off the year with This Is Where I Leave You, the story of a dysfunctional family sitting shiva after the father dies. I didn't love this one, because no one in it seemed all that likeable (and yes, I know, if we required that book characters be likeable, our shelves would be quite sparse), and the whole book seemed like an exercise in how much toxic masculinity Jonathan Tropper could pump into a single manuscript before an editor pursed her lips and went "hmmm." (Not recommended.)

* I read Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine in a single evening while in bed with a fever, so the book's impression on me is rather more emotional than literary. I liked it, as I tend to like any story of a woman self-actualizing out of her own shitty life, but it has some tough spots. People sell this as a comedy, but if you're tender-hearted (temporarily, due to pandemic, or chronically, as I am), be warned that there are some dark bits. (Recommended.)

* Rules for Visiting, which I listened to as an audiobook and did not finish, was a very gentle probing of friendship and relationships, family and travel. It's not silly, but the stakes are fairly low, and that can be reassuring. I also learned a lot about trees, and in a year where much time was spent in the gardening, this felt like a lovely supplementary text. In fact, I just got the audiobook out for a second time as I typed this. (Recommended.)

* I read Educated in two nights, in a thrill of anxiety. It is grim. It is Grimm Brothers-grim. It is not particularly well-written, but it is absolutely gripping: Tara Westover, raised by apocalyptic Mormons in Idaho, eventually realizes she wants to go to university after never stepping foot in a school as a child. It is just full of horrible moments, and sometimes, the only thing that kept me reading was knowing that the girl in the pages also had her name on the cover; she had made it out alive. This was not a "great read" in any sense, but functioned as a bit of a reminder that horror is not just relegated to the front page of The Globe and Mail: it lives in our own houses just as often. (Recommended, but yikes.)

Category Is: Supernatural Teens

* I re-read the Harry Potter series in the first eight weeks of lockdown; it was my bedtime reading, something I could dive into without paying too much attention. I know JK Rowling is intensely problematic, so if you would like to follow in my footsteps, may I suggest your local library? Or at least being aware of why she sucks and what we can do about it if you want to engage with the texts but not support her. As a fan of Harry Potter who came to the series in adulthood, I still enjoy the books and the fandom especially; because they're as immersive as any other fiction, they're a great thing to read during long periods of being in the house (aka Q2 of 2020). If you read the books, I'm also going to insist that you listen to Witch, Please, in order to give yourself the skills to do critical takedowns where needed; you may also like Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which sounds religious but is actually just a very well-structured podcast that is a bit gentler but still gives lots of food for thought. (Recommended, but do your homework.)

* In the summer, after JKR's baloney statements made wide circulation, several corrective "If you like Harry Potter but are done with this bullshit" reading lists circulated. Many included Akata Witch; the story of a Nigerian girl who discovers she's a "leopard person," or a juju practitioner/witch, and falls in with a group of other leopard people as they do battle against evil. It's a fascinating rejection of what we think of as "witch" (white women being persecuted for herbalism, abortion, and Satanic dealings) and globalizes the perspective in important ways. It's also a fun read! (Recommended.)

* When I asked online what the funniest book folks had read was, Lamb was a resounding winner. Telling the story of Jesus (yes, that Jesus) during his childhood and teen years, it wasn't the funniest book I'd ever read (that dubious honour goes to Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs, which is extremely funny if you were 13 in 1997), but it was pretty funny. (Lukewarm recommended.)

 Category Is: Self-Work, Ritual, and Community Vibes

Okay, so bear with me. After my son was born in 2016, I started to become aware of a hungriness in my life. The birth had been unexpectedly traumatic, and there was no obvious way for me to work through the transition from not-a-parent to parent, which was a surprisingly tough switch. I felt unmoored, on edge, different and in mourning for myself and what I had gone through. And yet, I was also relieved beyond measure to have had our small bear, loving him and finding reserves of patience that I had no idea existed. 2016 was a long, confusing year. 

2018 was another such year. We got priced out of Toronto in February and moved to Stratford; Mike stayed behind and there were, as his mother would memorably put it, "shenanigans;" our house was small and dark and full of cockroaches by November. When I look back on November 2018-February 2019, I can see now that I was having a mental and emotional breakdown; when I was in it, I thought I was losing my mind. 

After I started feeling better—another move, EMDR, spending time with my parents, and preschool all helped—I realized that I had been through something. Lots of people have this in their lives: the loss of a loved one, through death or divorce; unexpected moves; births; illnesses; chronic pain; toxic jobs. I'm a person who finds it much easier to talk to the void (a blog post, an Instagram story) than to say, in a small voice to a friend, "I feel sad and lonely, please take care of me." Honesty is hard. So is figuring out how to mark the transition from the person I was, to the person I am now. So is living in a society where positivity is enforced through "you go girl!"-ish statements that make me want to screeeeeam. I started looking at rituals, because if felt like that was the void in my life: the conversation about how we (personally, culturally, and humanly) mark the change from not-a-parent to parent, from healthy marriage to one that teeters on the brink, from one house to another, from a boss that makes us feel like an insect to one that doesn't, from healthy bodies to something more complicated, from one way of being to another, is a conversation that we have become fairly bad at. Like any good fan of Hermione Granger, I started at the library, and I'm still there. We'll see where this all goes. 

ANYWAY, the point of that long and meandering digression was to say: these are the books I read this summer and fall in service of this interest.

* The Power of Ritual, which talks about different types of modern ritual and why they exist, in a chatty and rather less-secular way. I will probably go back to this one a few times as I continue this journey. (Recommended.)

* Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home, which I bought because I love the cover artist and it's been floating around on the bedside table of women I admire for years. It's about dreams (like, literal sleep-dreams) and also finding who you are where you fit. I like it but it's also dense with things that make me stare off into space while I think about them, so it's taking me a while to get through. (Recommended, so far.)

* Belong is much quicker and poppier, a community-building workbook for people who like to do eat brunch and jet off to Bali for dance parties (obviously, me). It's a bit 101 and extremely cheerful!!!, but I still learned a bunch of stuff. (Recommended.)

* For Small Creatures Such As We was written by Carl Sagan's daughter Sasha, and is a meditation on the natural world and its rhythms, along with her grappling with the death of her scientist father. It's not prescriptive the way the other books here are; rather, it's gentle, personal and open-ended. (Recommended.)

* The Art of Gathering is freaking great. I might be biased because I am deeply interested what makes good community happen, especially on a small scale, but this one is fascinating if you ever spent time in a structured way with other people—parties, book clubs, dinners with other couples, conferences, walking tours, yoga classes, whatever. It's all in there. I don't know how her advice will change in COVID-inflected world, but I am so glad to have read this book. (Highly recommended.)