milestone stuff

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
MacBeth, Act 5, Scene 5

it doesn’t matter, of course.

it is only a website and if i am not here it is not the end of the world. i tell myself this.

it’s just a website. a collection of digital words and images in a genre that’s been declared regularly dead for the last four years. dead like the squashed slug on the bottom of my back steps…except, unlike the slug, the blog has a whole Jesus thing going on where it regularly resurrects itself.

or at least quietly continues on, dead or no. i like that about blogs. dead is just a state of mind.

i repeat this to myself as i stare at the trail of ants marching back and forth around the slug’s worldly remains, efficiently erasing all trace.

it’s only a website, i mutter. and dead is just a state of mind, anyway.

i look around and wonder if i am my own set of ants.

once upon a time, if you wrote something, you knew when you were done. the story or the book came to an end and then – if you were very very lucky – it passed the sanction of the gatekeepers and went off to the printers and that was it for that particular tale, that voice, at least until the anniversary reprint edition or the sequel.

print media have an inherent finite quality. they create artefacts, discrete objects. books can’t be 73,000 pages long. you run out paper, of arm strength. you are bounded by physical constraint.

digital media have no such clear lines. i’m in the midst of writing about this, on my theoryblog, for the Reading in a Digital Age class i’m teaching this summer. i’m in the midst of writing a bunch of things, one of which is my long-suffering and increasingly long-overdue thesis proposal. i’m writing all the time.

but i’m not writing here.

at the end of April, i marked Finn’s birth and death here, as i have every year but the first. i didn’t write of him that first year. the blog was three weeks old. Oscar was eight days new and still in the NICU. my very first boyfriend – he of the first sloppy kiss by the bricks out behind the junior high – had just died of AIDS. he was thirty-five years old. his funeral coincided with what would have been Finn’s first birthday.

i was so full up with life and death that everything was dust in my mouth. i sat at the hospital computer and opened up a post window and closed it again. i was not certain, yet, that this was a place i could speak of anything beyond the platitudes of baby poop. i left the hospital for an hour or two, with Dave and my mother, to dig and mulch Finn’s trees. i went back to the NICU to feed my baby. while my friend was laid in the ground, i sat in a hospital rocking chair, my shirt lanolin-stained and my fingers dirty with soil, crooning OMD’s If You Leave to Oscar. it was the best i could muster, for all of them.

that dust is gone from my mouth, now. i have written it out. and that voice has been precious to me. but this year, in the post for Finn, i said “there really isn’t anything else to say, anymore.”

and i realized that that i do not know what to do with this voice.

if this were a book, i would simply say done. rest now. and i would close the covers and feel immensely satisfied at a chapter closed, a piece of life’s work done, and proudly.

but if this were a book i would have said nothing yet because it would still have to go through the gatekeepers and the editors and there would be no thousands of comments and conversations and networks formed here over years, no traces of friends found and since gone and i would be the lesser. and i know it.

yet i think i am finished speaking in this voice. i think i am finished with this story, this piece of the narrative. i think its hour upon the stage is done.

i do not want to mark another birthday.

this August, in NYC, i’m lucky enough to get to host a BlogHer panel entitled Blogging for the Love of It. and i do love blogging, dead though it may be.

but i do not know what to do with this one.

it is only a website, i tell myself again, but i shake my head. i know better.


another part of me recoils and throws my arms around this space as if it were a living thing, because that’s what it’s been, to me: a voice, a network of relationships, a narrative, a precious, tenuous growing thing. an artefact, yes, for my children. but so much more. in the grand scheme of things ever written, a tale told by an idiot, indeed. but to this happy idiot, a life’s work. or at least the beginning of such. an enormous, beloved chapter.

i do not like declarations of done-ness. i am not done with the network, the relationships, the people. i’ll be around, on the theoryblog, on Twitter, in the too-many places i’ve had the privilege of stretching to.

but this voice has dwindled to a whisper, and it occurs to me that in this digital age of infinitely expandable and reproducible and extensible creativity, perhaps what we miss is the built-in sense of knowing when to stop, of being pulled up short and silent by physical constraints. i cannot run out of paper, here.

maybe i wish i could. it would be easier, that way, to say fini.

here, all i can say is see you around. and xo.


it was 3:20 when we all raced in from the park and scattered.

four people, six different directions. the calculus of families. physics probably says it’s impossible but i have always said pshaw! to physics.

physics wins, of course, in the end: thirty seconds after scattering the two smaller ones were back, pulling me in entirely opposite directions. physics will not allow me to split myself in two.

physics is a damn honey badger.

but i have my own secret calculus: three, not two. sometimes the invisible has its own demands. i said, i am going to the basement now. and then i disappeared. sha-zam. magic.

they followed me, both of them.

but when i pulled out my laptop, they pulled out Lego and Plasticine docile as lambs and there we sat the three of us companionable and so perhaps it was magic after all.

and i made it in time.

i saw the numbers on the clock. i blinked and there he was, small and splayed as they swept him away from me to the bright lights and the yellow gowns flooding the room. dark hair and a trail of blood and one perfect ear and then i could see nothing else, then or now. the window closed. gone again.

i typed into the Facebook status update: “3:24 pm. seven years. happy birthday, Finn.”

there really isn’t anything else to say, anymore.

we planted two new baby trees, at the new house, but that was mostly by happenstance. we went over to the old house to see the trees planted that first Mother’s Day, seven springs ago. they are thriving, strong. we bought some cupcakes on the way.

a regular day – life for the living. a cacophony. physics.

until i sat down late last night and opened Facebook again and saw the comments, the likes, the acknowledgements. the love.

for us, i suppose. but for him, too. for a child almost nobody ever met.

each time i write about Finn, i feel a bit skinless, even now.

not because he makes me sad. he never made me sad. his absence made me sad for a long time, but it does not, not anymore.

still. too effusive in my words and you might think me maudlin, unkempt and troubled by grief even after all this time.

too casual in my “liking” of your comments and you might think me crass and cheap and ridiculous.

i do not want to be maudlin, or crass.

i simply want him to be part of my story.

seven years ago today, i woke like a bruised thing.

he had been there. i had held him. and i looked ahead and i thought i might choke to death on the silence.

i knew i could not sit, seven years hence, in polite sane company and tell strangers on a park bench: i had a son. he would have been seven today. he’s dead.

in person, in our culture, you cannot do that.

but in the networks of social media, you can. thank Jeebus. some say Facebook acknowledgements take all the human connection out of sorrow and remembrance: perhaps they do, by some people’s definition. but i would say they add back in a whole other dimension of possibility. i do not need you to wail and gnash your teeth on my behalf, especially not anymore. i do not need you to hold me.

i just need a space to speak him, now and then.

Josephine is reaching an age where she is beginning to understand “dead.” Her great-grandfather died last spring, and she has come around to understanding that he isn’t coming back. She knows, vaguely, that she had another brother. Oscar has told her Finn is a star in the sky. I smile, and say maybe he is.

but the other night they were going to bed and Oscar mentioned the stars, and Finn, and suddenly, from her side of the room, a sob.

i don’t want to die, Mummy! she burst out, her voice small and cracked. even when i’m an old lady, Mummy! i don’t want to be lost!

my heart. i went to her and stroked her hair said, of course not, pet. you will never be lost, my love. you are tied to me, to Daddy, to a thousand stories. you will always be my girl.

magical thinking, perhaps. physics might object.

but i write of Finn to tie him to me, to weave him into the fabric of my life. to say, you will always be my boy.

you have given me that space. you have received him, and nodded back, and layered love and kindness where once there was only absence.

he is dead. that is what it is. it is surprisingly okay.

but he is not lost: he exists here. he has a record, like the rest of us.

and more than that, i cannot ask.

so what i wanted to write last night on Facebook was, thank you. just thank you. and yet so much more.

you are sleeping and for a minute, mouth open, curled small in your bed, you look again like the curly-headed toddler whom i still expect to see, some mornings before my brain entirely catches up to the present.

you are big, long now, leaner, solid. your Buddha belly is only a memory. you have a front tooth coming in. you will have been here six years tomorrow.

i believe it in the waking hours.

yesterday morning, i drove you to school and before Posey and i were even out of the car, you’d grabbed your dinosaur backpack and were running away across the spring frost, all badass in your new jean jacket, and i grinned before i called you back for a hug. you came. later, when you whinged “MumMY” for the seventeenth time in a minute and i barked like a fishwife, your resilience, your unto-your-self-ness, was a glorious thing to observe. i marvel at you, child, i do.

yet in the half-light of dawn, still sleeping, you are a different sort of marvel. i reach out my hand and my fingers in your hair tell me, yes, here. safe, mine.

you, Oscar.

six years later, i am still a doubting Thomas of a mother.

you were my unexpected child.

oh, you were planned, calculated, hoped for against thin and fragile hope. but never had i imagined you, until you came. and never did i bargain for all you’d be.

your brother was my firstborn, the child i’d invented and daydreamed of since i was the size you are now. i am a firstborn, my mother’s only. my father is a firstborn. my friends, all my growing up, were firstborns.

your sister is my daughter, my longed-for girl.

but the second-born son? was no one i’d been expecting, ever. until you came.

i forget now, how i was in our first days together, when this blog was new and i was still brittle from your brother’s death and the fear and the long months four hours from home in the hospital where he was born and died before you. it had not even been a year.

i was afraid you would not make it. i was afraid i was too broken. i was afraid i would want too much from you.

i didn’t know the term “rainbow baby” then.

but that’s what you are. the beauty after the storm, the covenant. the rainbow does not negate the destruction that came before, but it brings wonder to the process of rebuilding.

you are the rainbow that has not faded.

and still, six years in, i marvel and reach out to touch your hair, full of wonder, full of grace.

(Oscar, almost six: thank you, sweet | salty Kate)

you learned to read this year, to ride a two-wheeler. sometimes you to remember to say “please.” you try. mostly.

you can multiply, years ahead of your time, and your father and i half-hold back on scaffolding these worlds, knowing full well smart only goes so far in life.

you love music: you want to be Mick Jagger when you grow up. you play the spoons. you have a curious affinity for Scottish martial tunes that i confess to entirely indulging in spite of myself.

you are moving past your love of dinosaurs into a Star Wars and Star Trek and Space Oddity sort of phase, where each morning when we leave the house in the car you count backwards from ten when the ignition starts.

you are learning to draw. your rendition of David Suzuki at the art gallery the other day kinda blew my mind.

you’re still working on jumping with two feet.

tonight, before bed, i will dig out your hardcover Winnie the Pooh book and read you the poem below…or perhaps you will read it to me. and i will likely smile a little over-bright and some small part of me will wish it could be true, because i would keep you, Oscar, the way you are right now except that would only be for me and you are far too much of a marvel unto yourself to want to hold you back from rocketing out into the world.

and so i will just tousle your hair to remind my fingers again that this rainbow remains, and i will kiss you goodnight, and say happy birthday, my sweet boy.

When I was one,
I had just begun.
When I was two,
I was nearly new.
When I was three,
I was hardly me.
When I was four,
I was not much more.
When I was five,
I was just alive.
But now I am six,
I’m as clever as clever.
So I think I’ll be six
now and forever.

– A.A. Milne (1927)

it is not-quite-spring but the snow is mostly gone, reduced to salt-and-pepper-crusted mounds.

we have no cherry blossoms here to herald the end of winter, only crocuses, the modest, cheery crocuses that pop up even before the mud loses its icy cover.

when the crocuses come it is spring, for me, and i am a child again after school at my grandmother’s house and each year when they first pop through she takes me outside, deliberately, around the edge of the house to where they grow and we smile upon them. or they – bright things in the gray of the long melting season – on us.

one year i saw them first, making my way from school towards the tall yellow house and their purple and yellow-orange buds were there, popping through, and i saw them and ran in and she got her coat and i was proud, for seeing, for noticing.

they are out again. in that same garden bed at the house that is now just across the street and Dave spied them last week, out for a walk in the half-warm of the evening and i felt my face drop thirty years and i beamed and waved and pointed to show my children, Look! Crocuses!

the same damn crocuses. well, not really. but kinda.

last night after supper, we left the house and dug the Radio Flyer scooter and the little pedal-less run bike out from the new shed for the first time. found the helmets. still glove weather here, and matching sets were procured and we set off.

they elected to go downhill first, snaking down a sidewalk and around and over a block, then back three, the long way to the Lebanese grocery that is the neighbourhood corner store in these parts. it too is a relic of my childhood, though its owner is thinner and whiter of hair, now. he knows the names of all the teenagers who come in; accepts that i know his, though mine has long receded for him.

i introduce the children. Posey chooses chocolate milk. Oscar hands over the bill.

we are on the way back when we spy crocuses on another lawn, a few blocks from home. we stop, like pilgrims paying homage.

and then the children right their respective wheels and start off ahead of us, both still stumbling a bit, learning balance, finding their feet.

Two or three years, i said to Dave, apropos of nothing. That’s all there will be of these walks, like this. he nodded. a hockey net loomed in the middle of the street ahead and it did not look so utterly foreign as it would have even a few months back.

when you have small children, their age and size is the measure of the world.

to the parent of a tiny baby, especially the first time ’round, even older babies – those round, crawling, laughing ones – are enormous and strange. the window of parallel kinship is narrow.

i have never been able to see ahead, very well, with my kids…i’m always only barely keeping up with where we are. and so children who are older than mine, even by a couple of years, have for the longest time looked to me like mini-adults. smaller, yes, but impossibly old nonetheless. seven and eight and ten have been unimaginable worlds, for me.

do they need parents, these giant children? they stay up late. they wipe their own bums. they go places independently.

they have seemed another species, their families built on entirely different structures than my own.

’til now.

suddenly Oscar is almost six. i pick him up and stumble to adjust to the weight of him, long limbs, fifty-plus pounds of boy.

even Josephine stretches up up up, the soft baby roundness disappearing. her hand snakes up for mine on the stairs rarely now, but when it does, i grab it and marvel at the delicate bones emerging from what was once the softest, tightest grip.

we are entering a whole new phase.

suddenly those big kids we happen upon? the ones i’ve been unable to see as children?  they begin to shrink like Alice in Wonderland, to look…like kids again. long, gangly ones, less cuddly perhaps, but still so very much…kids. logic and proportion.

this is what happens when your babies are gone.

i thought it would be sad. it is in the sense that i would like to slow things down and stay and stretch the time out in this twilight of what has been.

but there is nothing for it. we grow up, all of us. it is the way of things and the alternative is far more terrifying, yes. but there is more.

in the strange, surreal nostalgia of this return to the neighbourhood in which i was a child, i am confronted daily with the ways in which we do not leave our childhoods but we carry them within us, layers of sediment.

in my daughter, i see the last days of toddlerhood and the bright, fierce emergence of a big girl to be reckoned with, but i see more. my last baby, tiny fuzzy bird-limbs splayed against the skin of my body as she slept.

i look at my son and see the big, big boy who karate chops his way through his days and reads and does not want to hold my hand in the hall at school anymore. and still, in the tilt of his head, the same curious, open spirit we first brought home: our rainbow baby, joy after sorrow.

it would be a terrible disservice to my children to keep seeing them through these lenses as they grow.

and it would be a greater disservice to stop.

the best gift my grandmother gave me, i think, in all the years in which she was my extra parent and my caregiver, was that she continued to see in me the child i’d been.

oh, i grew older and too cool and there was that time i slouched in the front seat of her little Datsun as we drove to junior high because i did not want the ruling clique to see me with my – ack – grandmother, as if having one were some sort of mortifying embarrassment…and i was by turns surly and frustrated and enamoured by all that i wanted to rush to embrace. she saw that. she honoured some of it, critiqued my mother for some, i know. but she did not mistake that prickly, uncertain becoming-adult for the whole of who i was.

the spring i was thirteen i had big pink glasses and a Frankie Says Relax tshirt and my jean jacket collar and my shoulders were all turned up against the world most of the time. we lived there with her, that year, and it was a hard year and my mother did not know what to do with me and i did not know what to do with anything and my grandmother was nearly eighty-one and unused to having two extra people in the house.

but when the crocuses came out she met me at the door, as ever, and her eyes were bright and they did not say you told your mother to fuck off this morning before school.

they said, simply, it’s you. it’s spring. come see the crocuses with me.

and so we did.

it is April. twelve springs this year since i’ve seen myself reflected in her eyes, and mostly – even living here – she seems like memory. time does that. my children grow and i wax wistful and i know these early days will soon feel gone and historical and…simply done.

yet there they are, the crocuses, those same damn crocuses, kinda. and they remind me that my babies remain in the long limbs of the children in front of me, as the child who once welcomed spring flowers remains in me. and i suppose my grandmother does too.

and so we wave at the flowers, and some part of me is waving to the grownups in these tiny bodies still beside me, holding my hand.

i turned forty and Dave said, happy birthday, have a new house and i said yes, that will more than do and then we both took a deep breath and jumped off the bridge together.

but then he added, i know the house is a big deal, a big financial commitment. but for your birthday…it’s still your birthday. maybe you’d like me to ask Kate to come visit, and take some pictures of you? Bon at forty. sort of a marker?

and my breath caught a little because yes, Kate! and yes, how cool! and yes, the days and years slip by and i am the one behind the camera, always, and it would be nice to have a record of who i was, here and now in these first days in this house but oh, will i look silly? and oh, will i look vain? and oh, oh, will i recognize myself in what comes back? 

i hide in pictures. i like them fine, but it’s because i have a mask. a smile, a gaze cultivated over twenty-odd years. it’s “photogenic,” if i get it right. not ingenue, though the risk of that is fading, with time. the mask stumbles towards “straight shooting yet pretty enough to pass, to be left alone, to not be judged.” it is a tough line to walk in a female body, especially a female body that feels…alien…to its owner, as mine always has. inside, i am David Bowie. i wish i could explain.

instead i try to haul my shoulders back, neck up, chin downish, eyes straight ahead, smile. try not to look pinched. i have learned to mostly get right. it it is almost instinct, now. and i delete the rejects.

but there are so many ways in which i have never seen myself.

we were packing as we talked, Dave and i. i lifted my grandmother’s ancient paper-bound black photo album, white corner tabs holding each photograph to the page. i flipped through. people long dead smiled out at me. my staid, prim grandmother, posed at the seaside with a sandpail in her hand. she must have been fortyish herself.

call Kate, i said.

and she came.

it was like playing, for an afternoon. like dress-up with the Master Pirate of them all. i looked at them and i gasped. then i wondered….what on earth can i do with these? they are…lines. they are roles. they are versions of me i’ve never seen, on film or in mirrors. maybe reflected in others’ eyes. some i recognize. most i don’t.

yet i am grateful that i got the chance to be them, for that few minutes. for the record. before the moment passes forever.

when my grandmother died, in the spring of 2000, her dear friend Lottie sent my mother and i a little envelope. i remembered Lottie, a bit: a fun little old lady who laughed a bit like Mrs. Roper from Three’s Company. compared to my grandmother, she was quite lively. still, the envelope shocked me.

inside were four black & white snapshots of two couples, both middlish of age, in the woods.


Adam & Eve-style leaves, though figs are rare around these parts and they were more likely maples or elms or something. i don’t specifically remember the leaves, because i was busy staring agog at the images of my grandmother and her husband and Lottie and her apparent first husband – or so my mother said, as both the men predeceased my arrival around these parts – naked as the day they were born. except for leaves.

there was something profoundly innocent about the photos. something playful. there was a little note from Lottie, though i have no memory of what it said. only that i laughed, and my mother laughed, and we stared at each other bewildered, and laughed some more. there it is. you never know everything about a person. ever.

Lottie has since gone to Jesus. i think – and hope – my mother still has the photos somewhere.

and lest i am leading you down the false primrose path, here…there are NO NAKED PHOTOS of Dave & i wearing leaves, here. there never will be. YOU’RE WELCOME.

but. if you look, understand. these photos here, my contemporaries…they are not for you. these are for fifty years hence. maybe i will be here still, old and crabbed and jabbing bony fingers into the throats of my unfortunate young relatives and acquaintances, rasping lookie here, dearie! see these here lines! these were ME, once upon a time. you see? 

do you see that i was HERE, dearie?

that is what these are for. would that everyone had a Kate to make such a record.

first, she sat me by a window and i stared across the street at the house i once lived in with my mother and my grandmother and there were smiles but they were kinda soft and nice and a little self-conscious and so she can show you those, later, herself, along with some sassy ones. those are for now, for avatars and reality, not for fifty years from now.

we went upstairs to the old school desk my father’s younger sister dragged home one day forty-odd years ago, the desk i’ve admired in my grandfather’s basement pretty much ever since. mine now.

this is the photo that tells you what i think i look like.

this is the photo of me trying to balance elegantly on the desk, which is made for butts smaller than mine and is not bolted down. i was tipping.

this one struck me because the only other time i have seen this look on my face in a photo is in one of the two that exist of me holding Finn. i do not know what to make of it. i stare back, looking for clues.

she said, do you want to do something sexy? something boudoir? and i laughed uncomfortably and said Jesus no and i then i gave her my sexay face.

then she said well how about you wear something flowy? and i said i don’t own anything flowy and we looked in the closet but that was a dead bust until she saw Dave’s corduroy coat with the elbow patches and my inner drag king raised his eyebrow and i said, i could maybe do something sexy in a tie. a tie is sexy. flowy and lingerie? not my sexy.

so she put my on my new dining room table in my underwear and a tanktop and a tie and Dave’s coat. in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. in full view of all the new neighbours. and i felt like an art exhibit. it may have been the tie.

then she said, lie down. and i did.

she said, take off the jacket. and i did.

those shots came out looking like no version of myself i’ve ever seen, even in my mind’s eye. and they will make me believe until the day i die that i once – at FORTY, no less, and most especially satisfyingly for all that – looked very much like my own idea of sexy. and pulled it off.

i will not post them, only because…they can’t be unposted. they’re not naked. i’m wearing a tank top. and grannie panties. and a tie.

they are no more Me than the photos of my grandmother with the leaf were Her. still. they’re kinda beautiful.

when i’m gone, Kate can play Lottie and share them with whoever remains. i hope they laugh.

then i put my jeans back on, and my slippers, and she caught me far more naked in the eyes than any picture of my unshaven legs could make me.

maybe this final one of me alone is my favourite. if the top shot is how i want to see myself, this next is more as i actually see. my inner world, made visible. my slippers. my old jeans, the banker’s chair, the curtains i hung myself, this old radiator. all in the living room where my grandmother lived. the bracelet.

the TIE. that makes it dress-up.

the next morning, before she rode off into the sunrise, Kate took pics of the kids, and Dave, and all of us. there are a few stunners, moments to be framed. my favourites, though, are the outtakes: the real. the dinosaur trying to eat his sister. the mom face, saying now Josephine. sit DOWN. Dave’s tired, wry eyes. the sweater i’d been wearing for two days.

these are the rest of my life, the other roles, the pieces that make the secret self of slippers and ties feel rounded and…more.

these are the images, the memories, the ideas of me that will make those people fifty years from now laugh, startled.

i am both, here, at forty. this is my record.



i watched the clock turn to midnight last night after everyone was asleep and i petted the cat and i thought, there it is.

12:00am, January 24th.

Lordy, lordy, look who’s forty.

forty is the number that has no clear connection to the girl who never quite wanted to grow up and become a woman. yet still, here we are. i have become. i am.

forty was the last age visible from youth, the last outpost of relevancy, of recognizability. Beyond Here There Be Dragons. had you asked me when i was seventeen, the year my mother turned forty, i’d likely have dismissed the whole vulgar contingency with a wave of my hand. forty? ha. i don’t care if i live that long.

youth is stupid. or at least brutally myopic. and we are not so linear as we look, at seventeen.

youth is harder than middle-age. the old people have apparently been hoarding this little secret, keeping it all to themselves. you wake up, and you’re forty, and you still feel not so different from twenty-two except you have some sense of where your life is going and how to get there and you actually think you can do it and you’ve finally learned to maybe value what you think and it is forty years in the desert gone and you are free.

i want to stand on hilltops or fall to my knees and thank unearned fortune and whatever blind luck got thrown in the bag that i have landed here, safe thus far.

i took photos of my hands, turning forty years old.

they are dry, in this January light. they are rough and practical and need their cuticles attended to, and the years are starting to show up and dance and sing show tunes all over them. i see my skeleton clear and clawed, beneath the skin. i see my mother’s hands, and those of my daughter.

the old guitar callouses are almost gone, now: my thirties ate them. they brought a fleshy puff above the ring finger on the left hand, instead. it came with pregnancy. it does not seem to plan to leave.

the rings under the fleshy puff – the engagement ring, the wedding and anniversary bands – belonged to one of my grandmothers. i have worn them twelve years now. next week, i will bring them home to the house she lived in as a newlywed. i will paint walls that once were hers with these hands and i will smile at the dust that somehow binds us there, together.

the bracelet on my wrist is new, yet a relic. my other grandmother’s button collection: two tins of bright plastic buttons, saved nearly twenty-four years. we found them this past spring when my grandfather died. my cousin had a set strung for each of the daughters and granddaughters, and mine are red, my favourite colour. they jingle. they bring me joy.

these hands have touched skin and keyboards and the walls inside my head. mostly gently. not always gently. they’ve wiped asses and washed dishes and typed poetry and dried tears and sketched out rooms and worlds and the words “i love you” on the backs of tiny children trying to sleep. they’ve done cartwheels, even last summer.

you cannot see those things, but they are there, as much a part of them as bones.

we are paper-thin, my friends. we slide and float, finding our way. we gather dust. it makes us richer, thicker. we get crumpled. we roll. we leave ourselves behind all over the place. we accumulate and shed and we begin to belong to all the bounty we carry along with us.

maybe someday my hands will turn eighty years old. maybe tomorrow they will be dust. if i knew, would it make a difference in what i do with them today?

i think maybe i’d still be here in the middle of my birthday, struggling to spit out words, to mark something i can barely name.

forty is a gift.

it feels wrong and indecorous, to get to think about aging. and cake.

i am distracted with thoughts of Susan.

our friendship fits the analogy. paper-thin, yet rich.  i only met her once.

last spring, she took me to the Library of Congress, a pilgrimage. the charming old tour guide straight from Central Casting asked the group of seniors and high school students and…well…us…if anyone was, oh, twenty-eight. and he looked straight at us most gentlemanly-like, and the both of us tittered like a bad episode of The Golden Girls, and i said no, thirty-nine. and she said, no, thirty-seven.

today i am forty. and she is in hospice far away.

it is not right, and it is not fair, and i do not understand and i have lived long enough to know i never will.

there are a thousand people out there sending love. her oldest and dearest friend Marty shares her with us, posting high school pictures and wedding pictures: fleshing out the story of Susan before she was Whymommy. and my heart says rage, rage, but Susan is doing that just beautifully herself, with grace and courage and all i seem to be able to do is sit here and stare at my hands and wish they were holding hers and yet they cannot and it is not my place and all this roils around in the sidecar of my brain and what keeps clunking out is this one small thought.

we are not so linear as we look.

and so i hold Susan in my hands, with hope and love. i hold all the generosity and dignity and kindness she has brought into my life, all the dust of words and friendship that has rubbed between us these five years. all that crumpling and bounty in the small of this dry hand, between one grandmother’s rings and one grandmother’s buttons.

and i think how blessed and grateful a thing, to be forty today.

seven years ago tonight i landed – in the middle of a snowstorm – back in PEI.

for good, it seems, or for the long run, though i could not have predicted that, back then. back then, i wasn’t used to staying in the same country more than a few months. i own condiments now far longer than i used to own furniture.

(should you ever doubt that time marches on with merciless mundanity, check your condiments. if you have none older than your children, you are truly living carpe diem.)

our last apartment in Korea had a chilly tile and concrete hallway that opened to the winter air: no security door in that building. it was 5am and dark and cold and the trusty little 1993 Kia Pride that had cost $300 was just about to be given up for scrap and it groaned and shook as Dave pumped the gas. i had three suitcases: five years of a life stuffed down to so damn little.

it never seems possible that you can be leaving a place forever. i remember staring wide-eyed out the window at the waking city: the shuttered shops with their tin grates, the pots of drying red peppers by the roadside. the hustle of the bus station even before dawn; the pungent smells of kimchi and deng jang paste and bad imported coffee. all so present and familiar, then. now, a dream half-remembered.

i landed here at midnight more than thirty hours later, in a snowstorm. home. i was coming home. my mother met me at the airport, even though it was late and the roads were slippy, as we Islanders say. she gathered me in her arms like a child.

i was laughing, beyond tired, beyond happy. i was twelve weeks pregnant with Finn. i’d slid his ultrasound picture between the pages of my passport; shown it to the flight attendants between Tokyo and Toronto. i slipped it out to show my mother at the airport: her first sight of her first grandchild. i breathed deep, relieved. safe. and i stared wide-eyed at my sleeping hometown as the cab drove us home in the snowy dark, my heart all hopeful in my throat.

everywhere is a dream half-remembered, when you are not there.

i wrote once about what seven years can mean, how our cells regenerate and leave us utterly new. except the cells of the children we carry, who remain, somehow.

sometimes it feels as if nothing of that girl who stepped off a plane that night seven years ago could be left within this body. i am more tired now, more cynical, more lumpy and stretched, as if i were silly putty and time were like gravity.

but i know her.

i know her soft little camel cloche hat, bought to look like a grownup coming home: it still sits in my closet, seldom worn since that first winter.

i know the child she carries…or i know him as well as anyone. he is an enigma still, seven years later, and it has been long enough for me to know he always will be. i know he will die, in her arms, in mine, a few months after she steps off the airplane. i know that he will be the dividing line between she and i; that the shocking ephemerality of his small face will take worlds with it that she will never see again.

but. when i think of her stepping off that plane onto the tarmac seven years ago, i no longer want to shout at her to turn around, to run like hell. i wince, but i do not flail.

i know the smile on her face, the one that looks forward expectantly in spite of whatever else came before. i feel it rising again to my own.

it scares me, this relentless hope. but there is no other direction.

next week i turn forty. i shake my head at the number, not in denial or even disbelief…just…surprise. that it can be. everything surprises me these days. these seven years most of all.

in fifteen days, we move. this house that we brought our babies home to, all but the one, will be in the past. and a piece of my own past, in its strange way, will be our present. our future.

the move itself – the chaos, the packing – have me properly panicked.

the transition, though? it is already in motion. i am watching wide-eyed through the window, trying to carve on my brain the sight of Posey clumping up the stairs here, the sound of Oscar leaning back on his stool in the yellow kitchen and drumming with hands.

soon, it will be a dream, half-remembered.

they say, wryly, that a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience. so it is with a second shot at homecoming.

i know it can all go to hell, in a second. and still. i gather myself, the old little cloche hat in a box, and go. like stepping off a plane into another January night; my heart all hopeful in my throat.

wish us luck. (and send moving tips, if you have any. we’ve never moved with condiments, let alone children).



so 2011, you’ve been a good year.

a very good year, really.

if i were a Sinatra, ripe with mellifluous tones and suave Rat Pack suits, this would be the “very good year” of song and story. screw seventeen. high school graduation and cheap alcool are only so much to croon about; thirty-nine was actually interesting.

(i’m no Sinatra, of course. 2011 was kind of extraordinary, by my standards, but learning how to sing isn’t on my list of achievements for the year. maybe later.)

still, a lot of what i might have hoped for if i’d actually had my act together enough to articulate specific hopes for the year IS on that list. i’m kinda blinky-eyed in the face of this unaccustomed reversal of fortune.

generally, my standards for a good year are pretty simple: have i been fed and clothed and sheltered? have i learned? have i had my family and/or friends around me?

Boney M is one of my Christmas playlist standards: has been since childhood. one year, in college, my poor roommate misheard the lyrics to Feliz Navidad . the rest of us caught her at the residence floor Christmas party bopping around in reindeer antlers singing – at the top of her lungs – “at least no one died.”

yeh, that. i wanna wish you a Merry Christmas, indeed. at least no one died.

clearly, that roommate wasn’t a whole lotta help with Spanish homework. but when the rest of us recovered from spitting up our eggnog, we adopted the line. it’s been with me ever since, lo these twenty-odd holiday seasons, as i’ve looked back on the old years trailing out behind. a good year? any year i could answer “at least no one died,” i figured i had it okay.

this year, i lost one of my tall trees in my grandfather’s passing. the song stuck in my throat the first time i lifted my voice; i caught myself. then i thought, no. he was 91. i am nearly 40. i had the strange, stark privilege of being with him as he went. and hell, he thought the song was funny as hell. so i sang it loud and with joy this last month, my eyes just a little bit crinkled and wet.

it was a damn good year, like none i’ve ever really known. shit worked this year: all the long seasons of quiet hoping and trying suddenly seemed to reap positive reinforcement all at once. federal funding for my research, Voice of the Year at BlogHer, a local literary award, published in Salon. i even cracked the Babble list. i went to cool conferences and started a new blog and discovered that i can be a social media researcher and a writer and a professional educator, maybe all in one. maybe.

or at least i can try. i can see my way clear to try.

because there was still a lot of shit in 2011 that didn’t work: submissions rejected, inquiries ignored. hopes dashed. but for the first time in my life, those did not shame me, or scare me off. i just picked up the hopes, looked around for lessons, and kept going. it felt…good. real. par for the course.

the kids are healthy: cleared of asthma and the serious kind of heart murmur, respectively. we haven’t been to the ER with them once all year. they like their teachers. they mostly like each other.

and we do too, their father and i, even ten years and a half-finished documentation project into things. he still makes me feel less lonely, just by being in the world.

and we just bought the house my grandmother lived in when she married. her Art Deco wedding china is going home, people. and so am i.

2011, i’m dazzled and grateful and a little wary, because clearly the other shoe is about to drop and chances are good it’s made of cement.

everybody else seems happy to kick you to the curb, 2011. me, i think you’re the purdiest thing i can remember.

and yet all this positivity scares the shit outta me.

i’m a late bloomer in terms of this whole concept of “things going well.” yeh, i’ve had luck in the course of my days on this earth, but my particular talents and circumstances have never especially organized themselves into a coherent pattern that looks like what our culture likes to think of as an upswing, before.

my career arc has been…diverse. my choices haven’t emphasized stability or growth. and the blessings and joys of my parenthood have been punctuated by all that slipped through my fingers.

so this whole “things are going my way” rag? is highly unfamiliar.

it stands to reason, then, that – just as things really begin to look as if i’m gathering steam in my fortieth year, hitting my stride – that the world will end.

2012 is End Times, apparently. so sayeth the ancient Mayans. and their Wikipedia entry. goody.

and i figure i kinda win either way. maybe my luck holds and the coming year is happy and glorious and fulfilling and full of opportunity. in which case my unfamiliar streak of success becomes a little more familiar, and i slowly train myself to stop expecting an abyss to open up at any moment.

or, you know, an abyss opens up. and then i have the surprisingly satisfying comfort of being right, which is almost as nice as achieving cool things you set your mind to. maybe not quite. and annihilation would kinda take all the fun out of “at least no one died,” probably forever.

so i’ll keep working on positive thinking. and perhaps…as i look ahead to 2012, i need to very literally take a page from the late great Woody Guthrie, who had some lean years and some lucky ones himself. his New Year’s Resolutions for 1942  were posted today on Boing Boing.

i’m thinking #3 – Wash Teeth If Any – is the attitude i need to bring with me into the new year, whatever it may bring.

don’t let yer head get big, there, Bonnie lass. just brush. don’t fret about tomorrow, neither, and the possible impending end of The Long Count according to Mesoamerica. just brush what you got. don’t even count them chickens or assume there’ll be teeth tomorrow: live for today.

Wash Teeth If Any.

Love Everybody.

Wake Up and Fight.

thanks 2011, for being so good to me. for giving me the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be where the grass is green for a bit. i’m grateful. i’m hopeful for the coming year.

i’m not gonna forget the abyss is there, always there. i’m just not going to assume i’m falling when i might, maybe be flying.

either way, i’ll have washed teeth, i promise.

Happy New Year, my friends. i know 2012 owes some of you some serious makeup kisses after what 2011 wreaked. i hope it puts out. i hope we all find each other a year from now, non-annihilated and with shining smiles, singing “at least no one died.”



“There is no escape. You can’t be a vagabond and an artist and still be a solid citizen,
a wholesome, upstanding man.
You say yes to the sunlight and pure fantasies,
so you have to say yes to the filth and the nausea
Everything is within you, gold and mud, happiness and pain,

the laughter of childhood and the apprehension of death.
Say yes to everything, shirk nothing.
Don’t try to lie to yourself. You are not a solid citizen.”

-Hermann Hesse

i told myself i never wanted to be a solid citizen.

maybe everybody does that, when they are seventeen or twenty-three: or did, at least, before our culture started rolling out young Alex P. Keatons raised on the Disney Channel, with life goals and imaginations vanilla-bland and based on the accruement of millions. maybe it’s easier to idealize artistry when one is young: at that age the filth and the nausea belong to the most interesting people, none of them yet worn frayed and incoherent by decades of abuse.

the young make good outlaws: they can sleep it off.

but for every outlaw heart there is always a before.

that year i was eleven and twelve and we moved to the neighbourhood of solid citizens where all the girls i went to school with lived, i wanted to be a solid citizen too. i had the manners, the grades; my mother saved up for suede moon boots for the first day of school. i studied my role, went onstage everyday bewildered but keen. i relegated my dolls and my poems to the back of the closet, secret shames. i stumbled down the byzantine corridors of seventh-grade cabals, learning how power is played. i was a victim, then a mean girl: those seemed to be the parts available to solid citizens.

i liked myself in neither.

by the time a few years passed, i had found another compass. i had friends, some very dear, but my real world lived in books, in Elsewhere, in the mythology i made of Bowie and Iggy Pop and Dylan and all those models of debauched exceptionality.

i left home at seventeen, and it was easy to make myself one of Hesse’s vagabonds. i had no other life to step ready-made inside. i went hither and yon, tried everything once. saying yes to everything was my way of trying to find a door that would open and admit me.

yet i have never really believed that any doors would, not the doors of solid citizenry, of stable lives and sky’s the limit.

it is okay. i am good at being an outsider. i no longer like to remember that i was not born this way, blowing smoke from the womb.


but there is this house.

it’s low, cottage-shaped, shingled green, sage green. with yellow shutters. when i dream it reverts to the yellow paint and burgundy trim of my childhood.

it was the last house we trick or treated at this Hallowe’en. we approached the grand arch of the porch, kangaroo and dragon in tow, and i saw the sign on the lawn and one of those little swooning sighs escaped me, soft as dough, guileless.

my grandmother lived here, you know.

Dave glanced across the street. of course. across the street is the house my grandmother was born in, the other yellow house, the family home, the one i have dragged him by a hundred times since we first moved back here. nearly seven years. seven? can it be?

when we moved here, i thought i was bringing him to my hometown.

but it is this corner that is my hometown, really: the last trace of roots that go beyond me into the earth and history of the city. every summer and after-school, i walked these leafy sidewalks to my Nannie’s, to the old yellow house she’d been born in. this was the place that stayed the same: the family home, no matter where we lived. i know the way the light falls at this corner, every season and every time of day.

on this corner, my grandmother lived in three separate houses over a nearly ninety-year span.

my great-grandfather built here in 1901, already a rotund middle-aged businessman on his second marriage. the neighbours across the street – who were then the only neighbours – gave the happy couple a vase that had, so the story went, been given them on their own wedding some decades before. one hundred and ten years later, that vase lives beside my bed.

the neighbours’ son, a little older than my grandmother, built a house kitty-corner to his parents that was the mirror-image of my grandmothers. then he built an Arts & Crafts-style cottage next door to his parents. then they died, presumably, and he moved back to the home he’d grown up in.

so when my grandmother married in 1938, well into her 30s, she left her family home and she and husband moved across the street, renting the cottage from the neighbours’ son.

The Bungalow, they called it. my grandmother had a piano, there.

it is a pretty house, modest from the street and quaint. it looks like no other house in this city. a story and a half, with a concrete basement painted fifties rust-red. hardwood and all the horizontal lines of the Craftsman cottages.

my grandmother’s friends Doris and Mabel lived in The Bungalow when i was a kid. the neighbourhood was all old ladies in those days, the men vanished or barely visible: a land of milk and cookies. i pretty much had the run of the corner. Doris and Mabel had me over sometimes, when it was after-school and my grandmother had appointments she couldn’t take me to. they had a goldfish pond in the backyard.

Doris and my grandmother lived, respectively, in various houses clustered around that corner for nearly ninety years: i have a photo of the two of them, four years old, at a tea party the year Anne of Green Gables was published. the photo sits near the vase upstairs. i have been carting around the last remnants of this neighbourhood all my vagabond years.

here, on this corner, i do not need to be an outsider. on this corner, i am nine decades of a family history. it is whittled down, now, to my mother and i, my children, a few photo albums and a Freemason’s kid leather apron and a family Bible. in the context of this corner, all my baggage? just belonging.

i have flown around the world three times. there is no other corner of the world to which i have claim or pedigree.

the corner is my before. but it has been out of reach for nearly twenty years.

it was Dave’s idea, not mine. we should see it, he said. just a viewing. ha.

it is different than i remembered in my mind’s eye: same bones, but opened up, brightened. it had me at hello.

we can’t, i thought. but it appears we have.

we bought it this afternoon.

it doesn’t make me a solid citizen, no. i hope not. but the idea of going home to that corner maybe slides me a little closer to that balance between Hesse’s “laughter of childhood and the apprehension of death” than i ever expected to be again.

we closed on the house we currently live in the day that Finn was born: it has been a good home, but tinged always with that apprehension, that accident of circumstance, that wound. if we can all four of us move safely into the new place in February? grace, says me. new beginnings. full circle homeward.

(our friend is buying it. Finn’s trees will be with someone we love. that makes my heart quiet.)

this is our new home: the new crib. The Bungalow, where my grandmother lived. part of me still doesn’t believe it. but i am saying yes.



the day started innocently enough.

a few minutes before seven, in the warm bed. oblivion. then a small beaming face barreling in from the darkness, arms laden with stuffed animals. behind him, the pitter patter of smaller feet, a smaller face, a smaller armload of companions. a bed party.

presents opened. a giant coffee mug with skull and crossbones: pirate pottery for a full-grown birthday boy. i smiled blearily at the man floundering under the loud and cheerful tornado of our children.

happy birthday, you.

then, the first mistake. i got out of bed.

i went downstairs to make him coffee for his new mug. a man who roasts his own coffee and gets a giant coffee mug specially selected by his offspring as his main birthday present should have coffee on the morning of his birthday. especially in November, on the first day of snow.

i pulled the grinder forward from its nest at the back of the counter. i cleaned the French press, placed it on an angle at the ready. then i remembered the bacon.

for me, remembering the bacon is always a mistake.

(the last time i cooked bacon, i was about eleven. it was Mother’s Day and i was up early looking to make my mama some breakfast in bed. i remembered some bacon at the back of the fridge: i may have nibbled some slightly raw strips while i cooked. then when i traipsed triumphally to my mother’s bedside, plate in hand, she looked at me in surprise and asked, where’d you buy the bacon? turned out she’d last bought bacon at Christmas. EW.  i’d remembered a relic. so yeh, bacon. bad luck.)

oh hindsight.

morning light was just beginning to brighten the windows, and i turned from the counter, feeling ridiculously pleased with myself for being all morning-person-like, up making bacon and coffee. i grabbed a frying pan from the rack overhead, turned on the burner, opened the fridge. i was admiring the smooth arc of my own movements when i noted a still smoother arc out the corner of my eye. cat. leaping onto the counter.

where the glass French press sat perched precariously against the…



the French press made its own rather elegant arc as it sailed towards the floor. my body moved instinctively in towards it, then out again as the SMASH shot shards into the air and sent the cat sailing off the counter in a yowling arc far more impressive than any of the others.

and there i stood, in slippers, in a pile of glass, when Dave came downstairs.

happy birthday, i squeaked to the coffee-lover as i swept up the remains of his coffee press.

now, it may be the maturity that comes with birthdays, or it may just be the way he was brought up, but Dave was unfazed. he cocked his head, taking in the situation. then, like Winston Churchill’s proverbial optimist, seeing opportunity in every difficulty, he dug through the cupboard to find a funky dripper doodad he’d bought and forgotten to try. hey look! he said, enthusiastically. this part even works on thermoses!

by the time i had the floor safe and the bacon successfully burnt – mistake #3 – there was coffee in the carafe AND in the thermos. then he then went to the store and bought himself the biggest Bodum i have ever laid eyes on.

i decided at this point to cut my losses and forget about trying to bake him a cake. rather, i went downtown to the tiny little German cafe where i told sympathetic German baker my story about the coffee and the French press and the bacon and he took pity upon me and sold me an entire fresh German vanilla roll, made mostly of whipping cream.

and i thought, this is perfect.

in contrast to other years, especially, absolutely perfect.

so there. happy birthday, Dave. you’re a fine example of how to handle the smaller tragedies of life. next year, for your birthday, i may skip the bacon, but i’ll see if i can’t break something else that you’ve been hankering to replace.

i hope it’s not your funky pirate mug.


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