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The Tales of Yadda Yadda

Do you know The Tales of Hoffmann?

It’s an opera. By Jacques Offenbach. The same Offenbach that wrote Orpheus in the Underworld. No? It has that Can-Can music, you know the one. Ok, good.

Today is International Women’s Day, so I thought I would tell you the story of an opera I saw on the weekend, brilliantly performed by Opera Laurier – Laurier is the university my son  attends. He is not in the opera, but he is in the orchestra, and you can’t have an opera without a hard-working orchestra, so we were there to whoop whoop whoop for the musicians, because, as you know, they never get to dance.

But back to Hoffmann.

The synopsis of Tales of Hoffmann is that Hoffmann is a writer, a poet. He is in love with Stella, an opera singer (how meta).  Hoffmann also drinks too much (see above, writer/poet), and is struggling to find his muse. Funnily enough, his muse appears to the audience at the very beginning, and tells us she is trying to convince Hoffmann to return to her, to reject all other love, and devote himself solely to her. Noble!

Stella had written a note to Hoffmann, telling him to meet her after the performance, but the letter is intercepted by Lindorf (dunh dunh duunnnnhhh) so you know something is afoot. An intercepted letter is always the start of evil. Once Hoffmann arrives at the bar, he entertains his friends with a story, but then Lindorf asks Hoffmann to tell everyone about his three life’s loves. Aaaand here we go.

The first woman Hoffmann falls in love with is ACTUALLY NOT A WOMAN AT ALL, but a wind-up doll. Hoffmann dons magical glasses – rose-coloured glasses, actually, prompting my husband and I to have a conversation as to whether this is the first instance of “seeing life through rose-coloured glasses” or nah. We don’t have an answer, so if you know, let me know!

The rose-coloured glasses allow Hoffmann to see Olympia (doll-girl, in an ACTUAL box, but pay that no mind, H) as a REAL WOMAN and someone he promptly falls in love with. It is worth noting that she performs a fantastic aria, but mostly Hoffmann seems to like it best when she says “Oui! Oui!” Eventually things go down, and Olympia is destroyed. Hoffmann is heartbroken.

Lesson: Men like their toy women to say “Oui! Oui!” and little else, and when they break, and they can’t play with them anymore, it makes them sad.

Then there is Antonia, another singer! Her father has hidden her – HIDDEN HER – from Hoffmann, because she has some illness that will kill her if she sings – tragic, obviously. But of course her father doesn’t TELL HER that she is sick and that singing will kill her. Oh ho ho, why would you inform the girl?!? Jesus. Anyway, Hoffmann finds her, hears the news about the death singing and convinces her to give up her singing dreams but HE DOESN’T TELL HER WHY EITHER! Then an evil doctor tricks her into singing and she dies. Like seriously, maybe if she KNEW THE CONSEQUENCES, she would be all, I’m good, actually I will play that violin like you suggested after all, dad, great idea!

Lesson: Men don’t like to burden tiny lady brains with important details about their own health, even if it might kill them.

Finally there is Giulietta, a courtesan. Offenbach’s word, not mine. Hoffmann loves her (because of course he does) and he thinks she loves him too, but, oh those tricky women! She merely seduces him to steal his reflection (seriously, what?) because another dude promised her a diamond if she did. Then there is some Hamlet-grade mix-up of poisons or something, and she dies.

Lesson: Ladies only pretend to love you, but then they friendzone you and take up with douches who give them diamonds, and why can’t these bitches ever like Nice Guys(tm)  amirite fellas?

Finally, the tales have been told, and Hoffmann reveals that all three of those women – the innocent girl, the artist, and the courtesan – are all parts of the same woman – Stella. Who he now rejects because, like Alfalfa sang in The Little Rascals, he’s through with love.

Don’t you see though? Hoffmann SUFFERED at the hands of these women, by falling in love with them, and then not getting them! Never mind that they all DIED, it’s all about himmmmmm.

This opera was first performed in February 1881, and what amazes me most is how well it’s held up with society’s interpretation of what women are and what they should be!

Seriously, though. I could not stop thinking about this story and how current these themes really are. There are Men’s Rights Activists giving voice to some of the most horrific people in the world, men who have a sadz for their rights, because some ladies dare to demand some rights of their own. There is a government (although I use the term loosely) to our south who wants to remove pretty much all reproductive rights and access to healthcare from women, because they feel they know all women’s bodies better than women know themselves. There are still man-children who think women are dolls to play dress up and satisfy their every need/whim, rather than living, thinking, breathing, HUMAN BEINGS.

I’m not blaming Offenbach. Ok, maybe I am. But I’m definitely not blaming Opera Laurier who absolutely KILLED this performance. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to laugh at 130-year old themes that should be silly and far- fetched in a kind of “oh those crazy Victorians, look at the crazy stuff they used to think, not telling women what they need to know about their health and falling in love with DOLLS!” when in actual fact these things are still happening everywhere, every single day.

Happy International Women’s Day, indeed.

But! It’s not all terrible. I mean, so much of it is, but The Tales of Hoffmann is an excellent opera, in spite of its MRA themes. And if you’re one to enjoy opera, allow me to end with, while not the best piece from the score, certainly the most memorable. And by memorable, I mean ear worm. I give you Kleinzach! Enjoy. I mean, you deserve something for reading over 1000 words on my opera hot take. Love you all.

 

Writing, creatively.

In 2016 a couple of pretty great things happened to me. Well, if I am being perfectly honest, a couple of pretty great things happened because I made them happen. I understand that 2016 was a clusterfuck/dumpster fire of a year for a lot of people, and I am not trying to be”that guy” but I just want to say outright that I have had worse years. And sure, fuck me, right? Absolutely. But I just need to get that out of the way.

The main big, great thing was that I was able to leave my soul-crushing job of nine years to get on with my life. I had no job to go to, no real plan at all. Except that I was going to write. And I did write. Some of the writing was this blog, some was another blog that I write for a friend’s business, and some of it was just personal shiz that I wrote and that may never see the light of day. I also volunteered on a couple of committees that kept me fairly busy, and perfected my pizza dough. In short, it was a pretty great, pizza-filled few months.

By the end of the summer, I knew that if I truly, truly wanted to write, the thing I needed to do was to get myself enrolled in a course of some sort that would force me – FORCE ME – through assignment deadlines and the like, to actually spend a lot of time writing. Not just thinking about writing, but actually doing it. So I did. And then, one Saturday in early September, I found myself in a classroom at Sheridan College, eager to get started in Creative Writing 101. (That is not actually the course code, but you know what I mean.)

For twelve weeks I participated in class discussions, wrote and handed in assignments on character, point of view, setting, and more. Some assignments were easy and fun, others were a damned struggle. On some days I would think that I have written what is probably one of the best 350 word passages ever, and then the very next day I would considering burning my notebooks and jumping off a bridge. I have been told that this is actually what the writing life is like, so it would seem that I might actually fit in.

We would also read our assignments in class. Out loud. To each other. This was terrifying. At least at the beginning. It was a lovely group of people, all very supportive, and eventually I started looking forward to reading my work to them, hearing their feedback, and providing feedback of my own. We were a good group.

The final, culminating assignment had us taking the techniques we learned throughout the course, and putting them all together, to create a short story. We had two full weeks to do this, and then we read our stories to the class.

My story is below.

I’m not putting it here because I am supremely proud of it. I think it is ok. It’s an ok story. I worked hard on it, and I got a good grade, and it’s ok. I know that it is not 100% polished, not 100% perfect, and that too is ok.

I am putting it here because it’s my first story. First ever story. Hopefully, it’s not the last, hopefully it’s the first of many. And eventually, after many, many stories, I like to think that there will be one or two that I am supremely proud of, one or two that are 100% polished. The only way to find out is to continue to write them.

If you read it and you like it, please let me know. If you read it and you don’t like it? Well, I’d like to hear from you too.

Finally, please know that when I handed in this assignment, I had proper paragraph indents, but when I copied to WordPress all my formatting disappeared. Go figure.


Eaton’s Basement              

“You know you have to do it. It’s all she ever wanted.” Carol’s words come back to me as I stand in the centre of the downtown mall. Waves of people move around me. The lunch hour shoppers trying to get their errands done before heading back to their desks. High school kids hitting the food court instead of the cafeteria. People coming from the market with bulging shopping bags, quietly saying excuse me as they try to get around me, and then saying it again, not quite so quietly. I’m definitely in the way. People don’t stand still in shopping malls.

The coldest, rainiest April has given way to the hottest May in recent memory, wreaking havoc on heating and cooling systems everywhere, and it is stifling. I consider taking off my jacket, but then I would have to carry it, along with my purse and the large tote bag I have brought with me. I leave my jacket on, cursing the weather, cursing my jacket, cursing everything.

The food court on the lower level is busy, and the noise of chairs scraping across the tile floor carries up to the main level where I am standing. This, combined with the heat and the too-loud piped in music, is grating on my nerves. The container bounces in my tote bag, and the sharp corner edge bangs against my hip as I walk. There will be a bruise there later. Sweat runs down my back and the handles of the bag dig into my shoulder as I ride the escalator down to the basement level, eyes closed, trying to remember, to get a feel for the place. Memories come in flashes. I see it, and then I don’t. It’s there and then it’s gone, like a dream you can’t remember once you wake up. The more I try to force the images, the further they retreat from my mind. I hate this place.

I didn’t always hate it here. For decades, this place was not a mall, but a large department store, the grande dame of the Canadian retail world, The T. Eaton Company. Or, more colloquially, Eaton’s. I loved every bit of it. Eaton’s was six floors of magic that you were granted access to courtesy of the white-gloved ladies who opened and closed the elevator doors with a flourish, and announced the wonders that awaited you. Second floor, shoes. Third floor, ladies wear.

Or, if you preferred, you could ride the wide, quiet escalators from floor to floor. I loved the escalators because they let the excitement build as the next level came gradually into view. Each floor held something different, and as a child, it was the most incredible place I could imagine. If you had told me Disneyworld was better, I wouldn’t have believed you. I still don’t.

You could buy anything at Eaton’s, and you could do it surrounded by beauty and luxury, in the form of high ornate ceilings, marble stairs, and polished wood trim. The revolving doors at the James Street entrance made a soothing whooshing sound as you moved through them, ushering you into another world where perfectly made up saleswomen offered spritzes of perfume as they moved amid the glass-topped cosmetics counters. It was a world where jewelry and watches, leather gloves, and scarves were laid out in perfect rows, a mixture of elegance and practicality. Handbags and wallets, purses and hats. All this on the main floor alone.

It was heaven, and then it was gone. I had taken it for granted, assuming it would live forever, but almost overnight all this beauty became a pile of rubble and dust. The store was eventually replaced with another Eaton’s, half the size of the original, and attached to this generic mall decorated in the awful 1990s colour scheme of seafoam green and peach. No grandeur, no beauty. This place has not aged well, but it is this place in which I now find myself, tired, overheated, and searching for what would have been the basement of the original Eaton’s, in order to fulfill my mother’s only dying wish: for me to scatter her ashes there.  

Nine days ago I was sitting in Carol’s kitchen, the urn that contains my mother between us on the table, to the left of my large glass of red wine. Carol is my mother’s best friend. Was her best friend. It’s still so hard to think of her in the past tense. Tall, silver-haired and sharp-tongued, my mother was the polar opposite of Carol, a short, blonde, and sweet-tempered woman twelve years her junior. But their friendship worked, in spite of their differences, and the bond they had was one of the strongest I have ever witnessed.

I knew Carol was struggling through the grief of losing her best friend, grief that was different from mine, possibly even deeper. I thought of my best friend, tried to imagine my life without her, and I couldn’t. You think your friends will always be there. But they won’t. They can’t be. Everyone goes, eventually. Even my larger than life mother, who stood nearly five feet ten inches in bare feet, has been reduced to a small pile of ash. And now that small pile of ash is on Carol’s kitchen table, in an urn.

At the cremation place, while the man in charge talked about the costs of cremation and options for urns,  I walked through the room and ran my fingers over the ones on display. SAMPLE ONLY, the labels read. I casually lifted the lid of a brass one shaped like an angel, and peered inside. It was empty. The labels, thankfully, were correct.

Urns are big business and the cremation place promised a style for everyone and something to fit every budget, but none of them looked right for my mother. I told the cremation man we were going to scatter her ashes, eventually. I started to tell him about  my plan to take her to where Eaton’s basement used to be, and that this, one of her favourite places in the whole world, would be her final resting place, but he told me he didn’t need to know the details. It was probably just as well.

I don’t remember when my mother first suggested I scatter her ashes over the sales tables in Eaton’s basement. The bargain basement was her favourite part of the store, everyone knew that. Her friends, family, even the Eaton’s ladies who were always interested to see what fantastic deal she would end up with on her regular trips downtown. It started as a joke, something she would say at a party, laughing, after a couple of glasses of wine. A joke that showed not only the reverence she had for Eaton’s and for a good sale, but also illustrated her irreverence, and the way she flew in the face of expectations, and scoffed at traditions. But at some point, as she got older, it became something more than a joke, something important and more urgent. Then later, as she became sicker, the ‘scatter my ashes on the Eaton’s basement sales tables!’ battle cry became real, and it seemed I would be required to carry it out.  

“Well, for scattering ashes,” the cremation man told me, “you don’t need a decorative urn, you can just use the basic container that the crematorium provides.” This was a practical solution, and my mother would have approved. Basic black, recycled plastic, and also recyclable once we were done with it. Ashes to ashes, dust to blue box.

I finished the last of my wine, caught up in these thoughts. I looked over at Carol who was quiet, and then to my mother’s container, also quiet. So unlike either of them. I stood up and addressed the urn, arms outstretched, “Well, I guess I have to do this, don’t I? Think I can?” I smirked and raised an eyebrow. Carol started to laugh. My mother had an opinion on everything, especially when it came to my ability or lack thereof to get a job done. We stared hard at the container, waiting for guidance. It remained silent.

Carol walked me out to my car, we said our goodbyes, and I watched her head back into the house with an overwhelming feeling of loss. She was here now, but one day she too would be gone. Like everything else.

I dig my phone out of my bag and call her.

“There’s not a lot to go on,” I tell her. “I mean, I checked with the archives, looking for floor plans or layouts or anything, really, but there wasn’t much. I’m mostly going by memory, but it’s so confusing!” My voice but not my voice. Desperate, pathetic.

“I know it’s hard, but you can’t give up. You can figure it out, you just have to keep trying,” she told me. Her words were meant to be supportive, helpful. But at that moment they just made me angry.

Keep fighting. Don’t give up. You can do it. These words were said over and over to my mother, from other well-meaning friends, as she lay in her hospital bed, the cancer eating at her brain. It was maddening. There was no fight, no positive thinking that could stop the tide of malignant cells.  These friends would tell me the same thing, that she needs to keep fighting, there has to be something that can still be done, let her know we’re pulling for her. Hollow platitudes, as unwelcome as the hugs that I accepted with fists and teeth clenched. Stay strong, they would say, stroking my cheek. Like there was another choice.

When she was still conscious, and the doctors said it was only a matter of time, I told her, “We’re going to lose you.”

“I know,” she said with a shrug, “but when your number’s up, your number’s up.” “But it isn’t fair!” I was sobbing.

“Life isn’t fair, and sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want.” Practical to the very end, she had accepted what so many refused to. Shit happens.

I ride the escalator back down and try again.

The food court is quieter now, most of the shoppers have gone back to work or school, and I slowly walk the length of the lower level trying my best to remember.

Step off the escalator and the bins of records and tapes are right here, sporting goods over there. I move to the right, the restaurant comes into view, and its orange vinyl booths are vivid in my mind. I keep walking. The thin wisp of memory is close, but I am afraid to let it take over, afraid that if I let it in, I am going to lose it. Then the fog lifts and I see them. Two large, square tables, shallow bins on legs, heaped with clearance items: socks, toys, cutlery, china. Books, candy, stationery. My mother in her camel coat and pink mohair hat, peering in, shifting items to get to something interesting, picking it up, putting it down again. Picking up something else, showing it to me, smiling. And me, too warm, always too warm, dragging my coat behind me, trying to be patient until it’s time for lunch, grilled cheese and chocolate milk in the restaurant, and then maybe a visit to the toy department on the fifth floor.

The image fades, and I am standing facing an electrical panel and a large potted palm near what had been a dollar store, vacant now, a For Lease sign in its window. This area of the mall is deserted. I reach out and touch the leaves of the palm, and my fingers come away dusty. Fake. I pull out my phone to call Carol, to tell her I am successful, but I don’t dial her number.

The bus is nearly empty for my ride home so I open as many windows as I can, and place the urn on the seat beside me. The air is warm, but the breeze picks up my hair, cooling my neck. I let my arm rest on the urn, and close my eyes.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

In 2007 I began reading an excellent blog called Shapely Prose. I don’t remember exactly how I discovered it – likely a link from another blog, something like that – but it was, for the 3+ years that it ran, one of my favourites. The contributors were sassy, smart, feminist; the founder, Kate Harding, was and is one of the best writers out there, writing on topics that were new to me at that time, topics like fat acceptance and fat politics, as well as feminism, and everything in between. (Note: She also seems like a super cool woman, and I am still mad that I couldn’t get to her reading in Toronto last fall BUT I DIGRESS)

One of the first posts I think I ever read on Shapely Prose was this one by Harding, The Fantasy of Being Thin, and it was a massive lightbulb moment for me. I encourage you to read it, because not only is it an excellent piece of writing, it’s an important one. Even if you are someone who has never struggled to lose weight, it can really do a lot to help you understand what (can) go on in the minds of your fat friends, fat family members. It blew me away all those years ago, because I could relate – oh my god could I ever relate! That was actually me circa 1994 thinking “if only I could lose 25, 30, 40 pounds, watch out I will be unstoppable!” And I did lose that much weight. And guess what? Like the lady says, I was still me. Pretty great, but not the superwoman I fully expected to be once I dropped 4 or 6 sizes, you know?

This post was on my mind the entire way through Mona Awad’s excellent 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, because Lizzie’s story is in a lot of ways this fantasy of being thin. She starts out a fat girl, and, spoiler alert, when she does get thin through an excruciating regimen of diet and exercise and sacrifice, she is still the same person: Lizzie, from Mississauga. Somewhat awkward, often difficult, unmotivated. Go figure.

And if you read Kate Harding’s Fantasy post, you’ll understand where this excruciating regimen of self-punishment can come from, and how the roots of this fantasy take hold. When society tells you from day one that thin is the only way to be, and you’re not thin, and there are hundreds of ads and commercials and billboards screaming at you daily that all you have to do is try harder, fatso, and you too can live out your fabulous life as a thin, worthwhile person, well it’s no wonder so many of us buy into that fantasy. It’s a hard cycle to break.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is Lizzie’s journey from fat teenager in suburbia, to thin, almost-30-year old woman, and along the way we get to meet her friends, her parents, her early love interests, and the others who shape her outlook on life, her self-worth. There is Mel, her friend and sometimes competitor – for attention, for guys. There is her mother – herself fat, and only proud of Lizzie once she starts losing weight. And there is Tom, her boyfriend then husband, who got together with fat girl Lizzie, but becomes increasingly distanced from intense, over-achieving, weight-loss Lizzie:

“I did this for you, you know, she always tells him.

Did you? he wants to say.

Because he doesn’t remember ever asking for kumquats or hybrid cardio machines, but who knows? Maybe all this time, all the little ways he looked at her and didn’t look at her, all the things he said or didn’t say or didn’t say enough added up to this awful request without his knowledge or consent, like those ransom notes made from letters cut from different magazines.”

Lizzie’s relationships with family and friends, while not particularly healthy to begin with, become strained and more difficult, as her relationships with food and exercise become more and more disordered. As the story progresses, as she herself begins to disappear, the miracles that are supposed to accompany thinness don’t occur, life goes on. And when that life is one you’ve been keeping on hold until you were a certain size, a certain weight, there is always the feeling that there is more to do, more to lose, another size to drop.

Awad does a great job of getting the mindset of this fat girl turned thin, the mindset that never allows you to feel you’ve accomplished enough. The mindset that has you waiting and waiting for the amazing life you were promised, once you became thin enough, once you become acceptable enough to society.

As Harding says:

“The question is, who do you really want to be, and what are you going to do about it? (Okay, two questions.) The Fantasy of Being Thin is a really convenient excuse for not asking yourself those questions sincerely — and that’s exactly why it’s dangerous. It keeps you from being not only who you are, but who you actually could be, if you worked with what you’ve got. And that person trapped inside you really might be cooler than you are right now.

She’s just not thin.”

I loved this book. I love Mona Awad for giving a voice to the expertly flawed character of Lizzie (Elizabeth, Liz, Beth) who I adored in all her funny, sassy, complicated, and sometimes ridiculous glory, and I will be recommending this book to everyone I know, fat or not, girl or not.

You’ve been warned.

 

The Name Therapist Is Real In.

A couple of months ago I read The Name Therapist: How Growing Up With My Odd Name Taught Me Everything You Need to Know About Yours. The author is Duana Taha (odd name, yes, by her own admission) and I saw her speak at LITLive, one of the gritLIT Literary Festival kick-off events back in April. Duana was a funny, lively, bubbly speaker, and the topic of names – given names, that is – is one that has always fascinated me, so it’s no wonder I hung on her every word and bought her book.

According to the book jacket, Duana has never met another Duana. For a very long time, I could totally relate to this.

My name isn’t particularly unusual, or unusual at all, really. I have never experienced a “Oh, that’s exotic, where are you from?” or a “E…liz…what? Can you say it again?” kind of thing when I have introduced myself in a variety of different countries, so there’s that. I also know the name Elizabeth exists in lots of different cultures, with various spellings perhaps, and slight variations on pronunciation, but it’s still pretty recognizable.

So, with a relatively normal kind of name – for North American culture, anyway – what sparked my interest in names? Well, it’s probably due to the fact that for a long time, I really, really REALLY disliked my name.

It seems ridiculous now – I mean it’s a fine name, I have grown to like it, maybe even love it – but 40+ years ago? Oh hell, no.

Elizabeth, to me, as a child, was a name for old ladies. “But…but…!” people would stammer, “What about the Queen? What about Elizabeth Taylor?” Um, well yes. To a child those are OLD LADIES WITH OLD LADY NAMES. Get it? You are literally proving my point.

Elizabeth was the stern aunt in Emily of New Moon, who didn’t understand Emily’s desire to write. I have never forgiven L.M. Montgomery for naming that character Elizabeth. To be fair, Elizabeth was also one half of a set of twins in the book Twin Spell, by Janet Lunn, (now known as Double Spell) one of my all time favourite preteen reads. And, to be fair further, there are some pretty great Elizabeths in literature and pop culture, but remember, I was 7 or 8. I wasn’t reading Pride and Prejudice or Frankenstein back then.

And in the 1970s, in Hamilton? I never ran into another Elizabeth. Ever. In fact, I was an adult before I encountered another Elizabeth. There was at least one other Elizabeth in my high school, but the name only existed in the yearbooks, as far as I could tell. I never knew the girl personally (And yes, I scanned yearbooks looking for my name, doesn’t everyone. Never mind, I know the answer to that.)

The 1970s were a heyday for all the names I loved and wanted. Debbie? Yes, please! Lori, Tracy, Tammy, Sandy and Brenda. These were the girls I wanted to be. The girls who had to be known by their first name AND their last initial, because there were multiples in the class. Multiple people with your name! It made me giddy to think about it. I never got to be Elizabeth O. There was only ever me.

I asked my mother once (ok, probably more than once, if I’m being honest) why she called me Elizabeth. She didn’t have a definitive answer. It wasn’t a beloved grandmother’s name, it wasn’t that she was obsessed with royalty or the movie stars of the day. She just liked the name, and mostly she liked the name Beth, which my parents had intended to shorten my name to, but when I was born, I didn’t look like a Beth. So Elizabeth stayed. (Incidentally, if my dad had had his way, I would have been called Corinna, after the song “Corinna, Corinna” which you can listen to here. To this day I haven’t decided if that would have been worse or better than Elizabeth. It’s a pretty great name, but I have only met one Corinna in my life. Maybe she’s writing the exact same blog post. We’ll never know.)

In spite of my dislike for my (lovingly given) name, one thing I never did get the hang of was a short form for it. I’d already learned that Beth didn’t work, I never liked Liz, and maybe today I’d go with Eliza, thanks in part to the Schuyler Sisters, but when I was a kid Eliza seemed worse than just sticking with Elizabeth. (There’s a hole in my bucket, right? Sing it with me. No thanks.) The only exception to this was the time I tried to be Betty, because of The Flintstones. You know the episode where Fred gets hit on the head (or something) and goes all posh? And he starts calling Betty Rubble Elizabeth? That blew my mind, I wanted to be Betty! I went back to school after lunch and announced to my friends that they should now call me Betty. It never took. Actually kind of grateful for that, in the end.

Our names do kind of shape us, don’t they? And this is something The Name Therapist goes into in greater detail through stories and interviews – can your name determine your destiny? If I had been called Tammy, for instance, would that have affected my life immensely? What if Betty had actually stuck? What would be different in me if I had been the fourth Brenda in my grade two class? It’s an interesting line of thought, and one we can all relate to. With few exceptions, we don’t get to choose our name, yet it’s with us for the duration of our life. Those of us with children will tell you about the stress caused by making sure your child has the perfect name, the name that suits them perfectly. It can be very intense, and people can be downright hostile.

The Name Therapist is a great book, highly recommended. It’s funny and thought-provoking, serious at times and occasionally poignant. And in case you were afraid I was venturing into special snowflake territory with my stories about being the only Elizabeth, like, ever, Duana Taha set me straight:

nametherapist

Well played.

 

 

Svetlana and The Stone Thrower

Back towards the end of 2015, when the world was in its annual “oh my god let’s all make some intense promises and resolutions for the coming year that will be impossible to maintain for longer than 4 days” state of mind, one of the things I actually DID resolve to do for 2016 is to read more nonfiction.

I am a fairly avid reader, clocking in at between 40 and 50 books per year. If you’re like a lot of people in my life, right now you’re all “Holy hell woman, that is TOO MANY BOOKS.” And, if you’re like other people in my life, right now you’re all “Whatevs, talk to me when you’ve passed 100 books.” And this is fine, to each their own, etc. In the past few years I have found the time, or made the time to read more, and I’m happy about it.

If I go back through my Goodreads library (are you on Goodreads, we should totally be friends!) I notice there is a lot of fiction, with sporadic hits of nonfiction. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but in order to become a more well-rounded reader and individual, (and to partake of some seriously excellent writing) I decided to make an effort to add more nonfiction to my repertoire.

Interestingly, to kick off my nonfiction pledge, I read two father-daughter relationship stories back to back. This was not intentional (as always, the order in which I read things depends entirely on the HPL holds gods) and the fathers, daughters, families, situations, and relationships in both books could NOT have been more different.

Although, is that entirely true? So many themes relating to family are universal. And while you might not think that the daughter of brutal dictator Joseph Stalin would have anything in common with the daughter of revered and legendary football star Chuck Ealey…well you might just be surprised to learn that there are indeed some similarities.

Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan was one of the most intense books I’ve ever read. Particularly the first part, which described her earliest years, and coming of age during her father’s purges, the gulags and prison camps to which even his own family were not strangers. Svetlana watched her large, extended family dwindle as her father became more and more paranoid, and more and more brutal.

For me, there were two things going on while I was reading: the first was the story of Svetlana herself, which was interesting and fascinating and rather sad, but the second was the underlying knowledge of Stalin’s atrocities that were slowly revealed as Svetlana grew and began to better understand her father and what he was capable of.

The story of Svetlana’s life and family going about their day to day lives while Stalin was shipping people – including many of his own family members – off to gulags, and having them shot, was surreal, and at times macabre, but there was also some real affection within her family, some lovely people, memories, and stories. Hers was an unusual family, no doubt, but it was still a family. Sullivan does a fantastic job of weaving the two stories as one, as a parallel, always with the “real Soviet Stalin” never too far away. That Stalin often takes centre stage in the life of his daughter and in her story, and indeed Svetlana’s story could not exist without her father and her ultimate realization that she needed to get away from his legacy as best she could.

The story of Svetlana’s defection to the west reads like something out of a spy novel, all cloak, dagger, and intrigue, and indeed it really was, to be quite honest. Most defections do have an air of drama, because they need to be so well orchestrated, one wrong word or look can ruin the entire enterprise.

But, if the story of her defection was espionage, the story of her struggles to adapt in the west was more screwball comedy or farce, and this era for Svetlana was, to me, an extremely sad one. It was difficult for her to fit in, to cast off the stain of her father’s atrocities and his history. Happiness – real, true happiness – was always just slightly out of her grasp.

Svetlana was a woman in search of belonging, in search of a story that was her own, and not her father’s. She grew resentful of her past and attempted to throw it off by renouncing her Soviet citizenship, only to reestablish herself in the Soviet Union in later life, still floundering, still searching for her identity.

Flash forward many years, to suburban southern Ontario and Jael Richardson’s story. Unlike Svetlana who knew EXACTLY who and what her father was all about, Jael’s story is so much about discovering her father’s past in order to understand her own place in the world that much better.

Chuck Ealey was a high school football star in his hometown of Portsmouth Ohio, then a star at the University of Toledo (his undefeated record still stands in the NCAA) and ultimately a star in the Canadian Football League.

Full disclosure from me: Ealey is a LEGEND in my family, and indeed in the city of Hamilton.. He led the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to the 1972 Grey Cup victory, at home in Hamilton, and he was probably one of my father’s favourite players of all time. Not just because of what he could do on the field, but also for who he was off the field, the kind of man he was.

Growing up in Mississauga, not really knowing much about her father’s past, except for the bits and pieces she could get out of him on occasion, Jael and family accompanied Chuck to his high school reunion, meeting his friends, former classmates and teammates, piecing together the life he had, the life he left behind, and the reasons for doing so. It was the trip to Portsmouth that helped her better understand her roots, learning about the experiences her parents had growing up in Ohio in the 1960s, in the climate of the civil rights movement, one of the most tumultuous eras in US history.

Richardson’s experiences in high school and university, of finding it difficult to identify with a particular culture, resonated. Many teenagers go through a period where they’re searching for identity, especially when that whole “so where are you from?” question is hard to answer.  She does an excellent job outlining her own lived experiences, juxtaposed with stories about her parents, their struggles and the choices they had to make.

While learning more about her father and mother, Richardson began to understand more about herself and her roots. It’s no surprise that when people discover where they’re from, what situations caused them to be the way they are, they embrace those things wholeheartedly in a sort of “yes, here I am, finally” kind of way.

Svetlana, on the other hand, rebelled against her dead father the best way she knew how, by defecting to the west. She wanted in absolutely no way to be associated with him, with his name, with his politics, his reign of terror. Even living in near poverty in the US and then the UK, she always refused to talk about him, she would never resort to granting an interview about what she knew, how she lived and experienced life under Stalin, even if it would have meant a more comfortable living for her and her daughter.

Two women, decades apart in age and experience, opposite sides of the world, Jael turning to her history and her roots as comfort and important, with a desire to know, in order to help her understand herself better – even when some of the story was difficult to hear, to digest. And Svetlana, running from her history, shaking off the experiences of her homeland, never completely sure of herself in the west, yet no longer a Soviet, in that whole “you can’t go home again” kind of vein, but far more complex, far more dangerous.

Am I reaching, to make these connections? Perhaps. And perhaps it was merely the back-to-back reading of the books that caused me to even try and draw any parallels in the first place. But the themes of belonging and happiness, of reconciliation and understanding, as well as that relentless search for our own place in the world…that’s what drew me into both books, because that is something we all share.These themes are universal, and in the hands of Sullivan and Richardson, they shine.

Whatever your history is, it’s impossible to ignore, and it shapes you. Whether you embrace it or run from it, it has to have an effect on your world, your make up as a human. Not everyone has a dramatic history with an actual dictator for a father, and not everyone has a football star father with a past he didn’t like to talk about, but we all have a story, and like it or not, it’s ours.

How we tell it is up to us.

 

The way.

Isn’t it funny how well I did for a couple of months with my blogging? And then I unemployed myself, and suddenly found myself with a lot LESS time on my hands? So strange how that worked out. But it’s true. And I’m probably not alone in this discovery, I imagine it’s kind of how newly retired people feel. Instead of banging on at the office or the wherever for 8+ hours a day, where your routine is set and immovable (for the most part), a person with many more hours stretching out ahead of them might find that they want to pack so much more in. Because they can. And they do. And, so do I.

I suppose if you asked me how I filled my days and I told you, you would cock your head confused puppy-style, and marvel at how boring it is. There is some writing involved – I am blogging for a friend’s business and I am loving it. I belong to a couple of committees, so there are occasional meetings and action items (can’t get away from workplace speak, like, ever) to take care of. There is general household houseworky chores and things that now don’t have to be done JUST on the weekends. And there are occasional naps and mid-afternoon reading breaks with cups of tea and cookies.

For the first couple of weeks of my self-employment I felt pretty guilty if I had a quick nap or took some time out for reading. Btw, I am under strict orders from my husband to NOT call it unemployment, cos I’m actually doing some stuff currently and hope to do some more stuff eventually, and self-employment – or freelance – just sounds a lot less negative than unemployment, so that’s what I’m going with. For clarification.

But, now that I am more than a month into this situation, I have considerably less guilt. There will always be some guilt of course, it’s who and what I am, and I can’t change that. But I am working on it.

One of the things I have started is something that is long overdue. I have begun to incorporate yoga back into my routine and my life, and it has been amazing.

About 15 years ago, when our youngest son was just wee, I decided I needed something to do that didn’t necessarily revolve around children. I figured yoga would serve a couple of purposes: it would allow me to have some time to myself, and it would be a type of fitness that I could (probably) handle. This was long before my adventures into karate and kickboxing, and my early-30s was not a particularly “fit” time in my life. I took to yoga immediately, partly because it took place in a darkened room, it was quiet, and I was there on my own, no one needed me for anything.

But the main reason I enjoyed it so much and looked forward to the nights when I had class was due to the teacher. M was one of those people who, when you meet her, you feel as if you’ve known her your entire life. You want to pour your heart out to her, and you don’t even really know why. She was so welcoming, so quietly enthusiastic, and her classes were calm, her instruction delivered with encouragement, with grace and respect, and without judgement. It was no wonder I fell under the spell. The classes were perfect for me, it was exactly the kind of environment I needed at that time.

I stayed with those classes, weekly, for about seven years.  Over that time I started to see other yoga classes being advertised in my city. Hot yoga, yoga dance, extreme yoga. The ads and websites showed people in – what I thought at the time – impossible postures. “I could never do that”, I would think. “Those classes are not for people like me.” I thought of my own teacher’s website and her smiling and welcoming face. That was where I belonged. I was never tempted to stray.

Eventually I became a martial arts student, going to karate classes and falling in love with that. For a time I tried to do both, but when I found kickboxing, the sport that I wish I had discovered in my teens, those classes conflicted with my weekly yoga class. I tried alternating weeks – yoga then kickboxing – but the sport won out. I loved it- still love it – so much.

“Well, I’ll just do yoga at home” I told myself. I never did, not even once.

Martial arts took over, and many years later, I earned a black belt in karate. It’s a pretty amazing accomplishment, and a very long haul, with a lot of injuries and pain along the way. In fact, injuries have forced me out of karate entirely, and my kickboxing career might also be in jeopardy, although I am working hard to be able to get back to that. But it’s like my body has had enough. A sort of “Look, girl, I got you through to that black belt, but you and me, we’re done now. Haven’t you heard of Netflix? Sit down.”

I go to massage therapy on a regular basis and my therapist mentioned yoga to me, as a less boring way to do the stretching she recommends to me EVERY TIME I see her, and which I have promised to do, but never get around to. By the way, you can’t fake that with a massage therapist. They get wrist-deep in all your muscles and they KNOW what has been stretched and what hasn’t. Trust me on that.

We talked a bit about yoga, and I told her I had considered going back to my teacher, now working in a different location, but that the class times didn’t work for me. “Why don’t you try a home practice first?” she said. And I thought, yes, why don’t I? Because I’d tried that before and it didn’t work? Because I don’t have time? Well, we all know I currently have time…so?

So two weeks ago, I dug out my yoga mat, and once the house was quiet I rolled it out on my kitchen floor. I began the way I remembered M beginning her classes, and oh boy, it was awkward at first. I flopped about like a fish, breathing hard, not breathing when I should have been breathing, stiffly moving from one posture to the next… You get the picture. It was brutal. But I persevered. The next day was better, and the day after that was even better. Finally by about the fourth or fifth day, I found my way.

I started to hear M’s voice as I went through the flow. Be mindful of the breath; let the belly be soft; find your edge – anything more would be too much, anything less, not enough; let your body come back to stillness… I was giddy. How is it possible, that something I had not done in nearly 8 years had come back to me so quickly, and so perfectly? I could go all Wizard of Oz on you and tell you that I had it within me all along, I just had to realize it, and to be honest, it’s probably true.

I think when you experience something that clicks with you, that provides what you need at a certain time, it can stay with you. It’s maybe why we get nostalgic for a particular time in our life when we hear a song, why we remember those lyrics so fondly, why 80s nights are so popular among people of my generation. You loved it once, you still love it, it still speaks to you.

M’s voice is like that for me. Coming back to a yoga practice after so many years has been a bit like coming home. Nostalgic. Fondly remembering the way I felt waiting for class to begin, the soft music, the smell of the burning sage, the quiet way the students would greet each other as we came together on our mats.

And sure, it’s very different being in my kitchen for yoga, in the light of day, with a cat wandering in occasionally, and the fridge making that weird noise. But so far it’s working, and it’s been good to get back to being present, being in the moment. To not pressuring myself to push harder or longer, or even to be better than I was last time. M taught me that it’s all about what you can do right now, don’t compare yourself to anyone else, or even to yourself yesterday. Be in the moment, do what works for you today, let go of the idea of perfection, and of judging yourself too harshly. Basically? Be kind to yourself.

It’s a good message. And one I really needed to hear again.

 

 

Day two of my captivity…

Wait, dammit, no. I meant day two of my freedom! To some it might seem like captivity in that I haven’t left the house since Sunday afternoon, but remember, this is all by choice. Also it’s cold  and windy out there, and, according to the Weather Panic People on TV, a storm is on its way to my part of the world, so best to stay put if you can. At least that’s what they are saying. So far there is nothing but cloud cover, although if the scary weather network music is any indication, we are practically doomed. As always, I will believe it when I have to shovel it.

So. You might be wondering “is it weird, being home and with no actual job to go to for the foreseeable future?” and it kind of is. So far this week seems as though I have just a couple of days off, you know, an extended weekend kind of thing. So it’s weird, but it’s kind of not weird at the same time. I have set up a little “office” at our kitchen table (which I have to dismantle before supper, so this might not be the optimal space for me, but it’s ok for now) and I have been digging into a few things, making some project plans, and generally just enjoying my makeup-free existence.

And I’m not alone. Much. My husband works from home at least 3 days each week, and our eldest son is around too. It’s only the 15-y/0 that actually has to leave the house on a regular basis for school, and so far he doesn’t appear too bitter about this situation.

The 18-y/o is part way through his gap year, and is in the process of auditioning for universities, taking music and theory lessons to help with these auditions, and looking for part-time work. Beginning in September, when school started, we have been ensuring that he is up at a regular “school day” time each morning, so he has the same routine as the rest of the family. He has been mostly fine with that. I say mostly because when you don’t actually have anything to be up for in the morning, and you’re 18, it’s hard NOT to stay up ultra late with Netflix or the PS3, right? But he’s been pretty good about it.

This morning I went into the boys’ room with the usual thinly-veiled threats about getting their arses out of bed, and while the youngest only needed to be told once, the older one could not be budged. Finally after an hour of speaking sternly go him and occasionally poking him in the ribs, he made his way downstairs.

As soon as I saw him I said “Are you ok? You’re awfully pale.” He said he thought he was ok, but that all night he alternated between being way too warm, and freezing cold. I took his temperature, and sure enough, high fever.

I sent him back to bed. He went willingly, and slept for another four hours. Aaaaand don’t I feel like a terrible mother now, demanding he get himself up and organized for the day. Poor kid.

It’s funny because  when kids are little and they have fevers,  you’re like “of course.” Because that’s what happens to little kids. Fevers and ear infections, colds and flu, strep throat and chicken pox. It’s par for the course, it’s having to cancel all your plans because you have a sick kid. You get used to it. Schools and daycare centres are petri dishes of germs and viruses, and a lot of kids get a lot of those common ailments in that kind of environment.

But when your kid is 18, and generally as healthy as a horse, you kind of forget that he is still susceptible to these same viruses and ailments. The difference now is that he can’t crawl onto my lap to be comforted, the Advil comes in pills instead of grape-flavoured liquid, and  I have to ask him to sit down so I  can reach his ear with the thermometer to take his temperature. I am not even kidding about that last part.

Before he went upstairs for a nap he said “Good thing you were home today to look after me.” And I agreed, it was a good thing. Then he said “What if you weren’t home? What would I have done?” And I said that he would have probably done the same kinds of things; Advil, sleep, tea. When you’re alone and you’re sick, you just kind of cope. He said “That doesn’t sound good at all.” I told him “That’s being an adult though. That’s what that is.” He looked unimpressed. Then he hugged me, and went to lie down. I checked on him periodically while he was sleeping, and it almost felt like he was little again, like I had merely taken a vacation day from work to look after him. The only thing missing from the scenario was his blankie.