stuff to be done

there was this line in Heave, maybe twenty-five pages in: Anne of Green Gables does the Big Time.

i read that line and exhaled a great, dramatic sigh and thought, there it is. the adolescent dream of a proper PEI girl.

the protagonist, she’s in London. a girl from the Maritimes, twenty years old and drunk as a sailor. quite profane, also high, and busy passing out in a graveyard. but in London.

when i was a sensitive foolhardy kid dying to be absolutely anywhere else on the planet but here where god and parochialism had planted me, far too big of head for the world i knew but far too small and provincial for anywhere else, i dreamed of London. i had barely been to Moncton, but i read everything about London i could get my grubby paws on. Boy George lived there. David Bowie lived there. actual straight men apparently lived there too, but they were not much on my radar when i was thirteen. i read and i hungered and i dreamed, because my horizons had suddenly outgrown Anne of Green Gables and i had no clue what came next.

had i read Heave at thirteen, i might not have needed to live it all quite so messily. but since i did, reading Heave was like finding a fictional kindred spirit.

not that Heave is meant for thirteen-year-olds, by any means. it ‘s the coming-of-age story of a quirky, singular, imaginative girl-woman, struggling to find her place in the richly cloistered, old-fashioned world of her Maritime hometown…and alternately, in the wide-open anonymous wonderland of danger and self-destruction that a city like London can be when all you have to hold you together is other people’s stories of who you are.  Heave is the story of a deeply-rooted Maritime sense of place and an even more deeply-rooted sense of culture and hierarchy and everybody in their place that anyone who has ties to this part of the world will recognize. Heave is ripe with characters, just like Rachel Lynde and Mrs. Blewitt, and with pathos, just like Matthew dying. except that its heroine, Seraphina, is very much an adult. she has a drinking problem. and a bit of a wedding problem, it turns out. she is Anne of Green Gables coming of age in the Big Time of the confusing late twentieth century, in a darkly rollicking story that is, in the end, a love letter to these small Maritime worlds that shape so much of who we are.

Christy Ann Conlin of Berwick Nova Scotia published Heave in 2002. a bestseller then, it made CBC’s Canada Reads Top 40 this past fall. it’s enjoying its revival quite nicely, thank you, as evidenced by the fact that three separate book clubs in Charlottetown ended up reading it this winter.

if you haven’t read it, you should. if you’re in PEI – or can hie thee hence to our pastoral province in four weeks’ time – then this post is especially for you.

next month, Christy Ann is coming to PEI. she’s doing a writer’s workshop with the PEI Writer’s Guild. she’s doing a reading from her new YA novel Dead Time at UPEI the evening of May 21st, in the illustrious company of her fellow Bluenoser Kate Inglis of sweet|salty and The Dread Crew, beautiful PEI poet Yvette Doucette, and, erm, moi. i’ll be reading from Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, in whose merciful-Jesus-it’s-a-book pages mah words are being published as we speak. i will be the one swooning, like Anne of Green Gables in the Big Time.

but. but.

book clubs make reading go round. so three book clubs were reading Heave. and members of the three clubs – one of them mine – got to talking on Twitter. somebody said, we should all get together! then somebody said, we should invite Christy Ann! then i said, let’s open it up and invite everybody!

social media, you’re fun. or i’m mad. possibly both.

i talked to Random House/Doubleday, Christy Ann’s publisher for Heave, and they kindly agreed to sponsor her trip.

i talked to D.B. Brickhouse, the newly renovated and swanked-up Off Broadway, already one of Charlottetown’s loveliest restaurants, and they generously agreed to offer their warm and lovely loft space, all exposed-beam and brick, for the event.

i talked to the PEI Writers’ Guild, and they sweetly offered up a sponsorship that will buy some nibblies for the evening.

i talked to Christy Ann, and she said she’d love to.

so. Friday, May 20th, at 8pm in the loft of D.B. Brickhouse on Charlottetown’s historic Sydney Street, an evening of good stories and good discussion and good company and probably lots of laughter and irreverence – a #citybookclub for Heave. good wine will also be for sale. all over the age of nineteen are welcomed, open arms.

please come. join us. we want to make it the book club we always wanted to go to.

and…so you can dive into the story of Seraphina Sullivan, late-twentieth century Anne of Green Gables, and get ready for this glorious soiree, we have copies of Heave for giveaway. four of them, to four commenters on this post, who will be randomly selected by my impartial yet helpful offspring this coming weekend.

all you need to do is leave me a quick story. about books, or London, or what place means to you. or whether you think Anne of Green Gables might have ended up with a substance abuse issue had she grown up a hundred years later. or what you’d like to see at a public #citybookclub. or just a nice loud I WANT ONE. whatever. all welcome. locals who can come on May 20th? especially so.

tell your friends. see you there.


evening stroll by o&poecormier
evening stroll, a photo by o&poecormier on Flickr.

in the spring light i want to promise that we will pack ourselves up every evening and step out the door.

i want to promise that we will watch the tulips come up and the grass return to the park down the street and i will remember what it feels like to swing my arms as i skip down the sidewalk trying to miss the cracks.

i want to promise. i want to turn my face up to the promise as if it were the bright sun, strong enough to hold my trust.

there are a hundred reasons i shouldn’t, i know. there are taxes, and insurance, and cheques to write and playground mud to wash away and a dishwasher to unload. and papers and posts and plans, all waiting, barely tethered. they sit on me like stones. there are worry dolls crafted of anxieties and inadequacies and the collective foibles that shape the silhouette of this small family: the deeper burdens of our particular humanness. one child hates the transition of leaving the house. the other has no fear…a categorical danger anytime she’s not strapped down. their father cannot seem to learn to keep track of his wallet, his keys. i cannot seem to learn how to keep track of both my hands at once: when i clear the table of butter knives, i am a threat to all around me. we seem a motley crew, better suited to piratehood or a monastic life or an episode of Hoarders than this daily grind of rushing from the house to the car seats, bags all packed. to do it again in the evening? madness, i whisper at myself, and curl in again on my couch. the sun hurts your eyes, i console the whisperer.

but in the fading light of after-supper, when we are four together, just moving, i forget all that. i forget that the Emperor has no clothes, that the grownups aren’t coming, that we are it and probably insufficient to the job of these small, fine, vulnerable souls. i forget. for a minute we just are and the one who hated leaving the house begins to hop and skip and i feel the muscle memory in my bones and i twitch and know we will make it to spring, again, one more time.

and so i promise. even if i lie, i promise.

i am not still.

i cannot quiet the hamster mind that spins on its wheel. i do not know how. i never knew how. at some point there stops being anyone to blame for that but me.

neither am i in motion.

i used to walk and that counted for something, the body engaged enough to suspend the hamster, swing him around like a partner in a square dance. but it has been cold, nasty, slippery. where would i go? i think i am too busy.

i do not sweat but i pine for it a little, like i pine for the meditative stillness. my imagination oversells me and then i will not try, because my body is only a shell and i find everything physical disappointing the first twenty times. dualism. i do not believe the wall i crash into. at least the crash never disappoints.

i have developed carpal tunnel syndrome. no wonder. i forget myself, shoulders hunched up around my ears, arms akimbo on the laptop like a little troll. i notice only when the cat inserts herself between me and my screen and when i raise a hand to bat her away i realize i cannot feel her indignant nip of protest. my body is that which is demanded of. i ward it all off by disappearing into the opposite of mindfulness, even if i think i live in my mind. even if i don’t believe the mind/body divide.

unravel that, Zen masters.

i do not like driving anymore. in the turn on the roundabout when the truck pulls up in your blind spot and you realize your hand has slipped on the wheel and everything lurches and you cannot feel for a second too long whether your fingers have hold of the goddam thing or no? i do not like that.

but i like the acupuncture that comes with the carpal tunnel. the little pulse of energy, the quiet waiting. i inhabit myself, because i am afraid to move.

acupuncture i liked the first time. i was nervous: i’d been in Asia less than two weeks. i understood little. i was afraid of taking too much clothing off and appearing a flagrant exhibitionist. not that i don’t like the idea of being a flagrant exhibitionist, but i prefer most of my fantasies unenacted. the doctor – in Korea, the acupuncturists were all called doctor – had warm hands and his fingers on my spine were firm and probing, little pads of heat. i found it strangely sensual. nothing was required of me.

when we played doctor as kids, i always wanted to be the patient.

the needles slid in that first time and he left me curled over myself, fetal, in a clean white room with a clean white sheet draped over me. i waited, with no sense of anticipated time. he returned, asked me questions i didn’t understand. i smiled blankly. he smiled too. he removed the needles, then showed me a hypodermic. he injected something into my back. my legs went queasy and it occurred to me that i was thousands of miles from home in a city of 4 million people very few of whom knew i existed. it occurred to me that possibly this had all been a very bad idea.

it occurred me that since i couldn’t walk away at the moment, i might as well keep breathing. so i was still. and maybe my mind unfolded like a flower: i do not remember. i remember just that i lay there immobile and amused enough to be mostly unafraid and i drifted and i felt present and mindful to the fact of my vulnerable being, a speck on the vast white cotton sheet of the world.

he came back again and i was gratified to discover i could move my legs and then i tried to pay the receptionists ten times the amount they charged because i hadn’t quite mastered numbers yet and i didn’t want to appear cheap.

i never went back. had sex been so good the first time perhaps i’d have become a nun.

but now it is me cramped up over my umbilical screen, me lugging children across ice-covered parking lots, me plucking my shirt from the slurping mouth of the needy, kneading cat.

and my body protests. or finally i hear it. but i do not speak its language, never have. i have spent almost forty years inside a body i ignore, and it will not be ignored anymore. i suspect i could do better. i suspect there is another way to live with myself. i will take a kettlebell clinic tomorrow, just to try. but i do not get it. i do not understand what i am grasping towards. not understanding is the thing that scares me most, and so i hesitate.

i want to be still. i want to be in motion. i want to be a speck on a vast white sheet.

how? i ask you. how?

have any of you dealt with carpal tunnel? or kicked it to the curb? how? i have this fear that suddenly this window of connection on the world will close, because my hands will not cooperate.

have any of you figured out a way to float like a tiny speck and be still and be engaged without actually liking the idea of oh, say, exercise? or activity? i have a block here, and i own it. but i do not know how to shove it off my disembodied back.

teach me, sensei. halp.


kisses by o&poecormier
kisses a photo by o&poecormier on Flickr.

he leaves again today. i’ll take him to the airport.

i may even go in, buy myself a diner coffee from the little restaurant, kiss him goodbye. i like airports, even tiny ones with single gates for Arrivals and Departures.

i like the idea that i could be going anywhere. the idea beats the actual flight. sometimes it beats the trip.

the kids and i will pick him up together Wednesday evening. we will join the throng at the single Arrivals gate, and inevitably run into someone we know and chat while the passengers stream in from the cold on the tarmac. he will see us, and hug us, and maybe we will take Oscar’s picture on the giant plastic cow that greets all flights to PEI. i don’t know if we quite trust Posey on the cow yet. maybe we do.

and we will go home and small arms will cling around his neck and a chorus of two small loud voices will vie rabidly for his ears. but it will be no big deal.

in their world, it’s not the leaving that matters, it’s the coming home.

i am learning from them.
when i was a kid, the airport was the saddest place i ever went.

my mother and i did not fly. my father flew. in and out, once a year, from the far-away Arctic. i waited the whole calendar round for him. i had no stepfather, no surrogate relationship even with my grandfather until i was much older and he was a widower.

my parents’ divorce was simply a fact of my life. my father’s absence, though, was a hole. i needed him, or someone to be him.

he drove a motorcycle. one spring, when i was about nine, i saw a man on a bike blast past me on my walk home from school. and i thought, i KNOW that bike, that back, that leather jacket! i was sure, entirely sure, that my father had come home three months early. to surprise me. i told my mother i had seen him.

when he did not show, she was gentle with me. i was shamed, to have been seen so naked in my wanting.

but most Julys, he came. wife and children in tow, and he would show up on the bike and my mother would let him strap the helmet to my head and we would go, to a cottage or campground, sometimes for days at a time.

and then they would leave. and at the airport would come the unravelling.

had Tennessee Williams written parts for dour fifty-something women who never quite got over the fact of their eldest sons’ having buggered off on a wife and child, my grandmother Hilda would’ve been an elegant casting choice.

she wrinkled young, and i remember her mouth being mostly turned down. she was not a demonstrative person, though never unkind. i loved her, even if it does not sound it. words were hard for her, and they are hard to find to talk about her. the last years we all went to the airport together, she and my grandfather and i, she was fighting the battle that took her life the year i was 16.

but the crying started long before the cancer.

every year, we drove them to the airport. it was an Event, a car trip with my grandparents, anything with my father, six or seven of us piled into two tons of Detroit steel on a summer evening. i always forgot to be sad until we got there.

and then we would linger around the boarding gate, the gaggle of us, until my grandmother began sobbing.

i’ve never liked to let anyone cry alone. my lip would quiver and the idea of eleven and a half months without my father would stretch out ahead of me and i would feel small and abandoned and frightened he’d never come back.

maybe she did too. or maybe she felt her failure, somehow, every time he flew as far as he could get and still be in the same country. maybe she had some history of goodbyes i never knew about. but this was a woman who’d married my grandfather at eighteen, in the middle of the second World War. he was a spy. she sent him off over and over again, to untold risk. i asked him once, a couple of years ago, if she cried when he left. he said no.

i didn’t dare ask about my father and the airport, then.

she’d have died to have been caught giggling in church, and yet there we’d huddle, in the middle of that tiny airport where you always know somebody, our small domestic tragedies laid open on the tile floor.

it must’ve been a comical scene, in a way. she would resolutely discuss the weather – the summer window they’d had on the island and the Arctic winter ahead of them; cold, she would testify, imaginatively – until the very last moment. and then when it came time to hug them and let them board, some dam would loose and the weeping would overtake her and then me until we stood in the middle of the airport, she and i crying the ugly cry, my father crushed between us, probably mortified.

we are all so goddam vulnerable to the stories we end up in.

i did not know until i was older and spent more time in airports that public scenes of inconsolable devastation are more rare than my family experience led me to expect.

i did not know until i had my own children that it is okay and normal and healthy to love and need and trust fully that someone will come home to you.

that it is not the leaving that matters.

when i stand at the airport today, i will look around for the ghost of us, those ten or twelve or fourteen summer leavetakings of my childhood. i will smile kindly at my grandmother, in her tears and her sadness and her incapacity. at my younger father in his abdication and his absence.

then i will whisper fuck you, Hilda. i leave this behind.

and i will wave goodbye to Dave and look forward to him coming home.

we nearly bought land yesterday.

late Saturday night and we play the what-if game of MLS, of possible worlds. our dreams are tame, these days.

he wants land, insurance against a food supply falsely propped up. i want water, the tracks of sandy feet on summer grass.

seventy-three acres, near a picturesque harbour. twenty-five minutes from our house, just off the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. old trees. in the photos, the cottage takes my breath away. a loft, panelled in wood. tongue-in-groove. a wood stove.

we send a midnight message to the real estate agent. too good to be true, i whisper as we fall asleep.

the agent writes back Sunday morning. you can walk in, he explains. it’s been abandoned, vandalized. the owners live far away. they don’t want to fix it.

for that cottage, on that much land, in that location, the only way we’ll ever lay our hands on it.

snow to our waists as we hike in. there is an apple tree off the wraparound deck. abandoned three years, maybe four, it is no more than ten years old.

it was somebody’s dream cottage. left unboarded, the door has blown in and snow sweeps across the hardwood floor. the bay window is green with mold, its wood frame sagging. insulation is scattered across the floor. someone has tagged a wall in periwinkle paint. an animal – perhaps a human animal – has taken a dump on the floor of the upstairs bathroom.

i stand in the loft, under a ceiling of perfect pine planks, watching warily for raccoons, and i realize. MY dream cottage.

but not to beggar ourselves for. too much pig in a poke. the land a strip too hard to parcel and sell, under restrictions for eleven years. it does not make sense, and i know it.

too good to be true. but i am tongue-tied to explain what it is that makes me so terribly sad.
we go home and he builds a snow fort in the yard, with tunnels for the kids. we have supper outside. he makes stew, roasts the coffee beans himself. in the fading winter light, with a mouth full of turnip, he is sweaty and laughing, as happy as i have seen him in years.

this is not how we live, not really. he takes tiny steps towards self-sufficiency. i watch, appreciative but disbelieving. because tomorrow we will wake up and grind our way out the door leaving dishes for the dishwasher. we will be low on butter and catfood. the parking violation will need to be paid. these will be my jobs, and they swallow all the hope i have of a truly different life.

i complain about the STUFF, all the goddam stuff we accumulate in spite of ourselves. if we had a summer cottage, it would be more grass to mow, another fridge to clean.
late Sunday night and we watch the old Fahrenheit 451 – the one from the 60s, with Julie Christie – and the end comes and i am in tears.

not for the books, not because either world portrayed is the one i want to live in. not even because the story seems so prescient in these crazy, angry times and i wonder where our satirists are and if there is hope yet for this fractured culture that seems to have dissolved into a shouting match.

i cry because at the end of the movie the Book People – the ones who have fled – huddle in railcars on the fringes of society, and i realize i have no vision anymore of that kind of escape from the rules of property and propriety that govern us.

i cry for the waste of the little cottage, hand-built, all that wood left to rot.

we could not fix it ourselves. we would be fools, by the rules of the game as it is played. it is not a Good Investment.

but it sits there abandoned when twenty hands together could make it livable. a different kind of life. that gap between me and imagination of real difference is where the tears come from.

we live in a world where property is sacred. where dreams are bourgeois and tame. i have grown tame. i no longer know my way out of the lab rat maze that is my culture, my role as mother, daughter.

we were far more suited to be hippies together, he and i, than domesticated middle-class partners. i rail at him to shut the cupboards while he dreams of planting vegetables, building with his hands.

he might survive, in a squat in the woods, in a snowfort, in some different vision of our lives. i am the one who split from the program.

but when i sit there late at night staring into the void between my choices and my sense of what makes sense, he takes my hand.

and i am less lonely, and a little less tamed.

he starts a new job, today. or at least a new position, with a right official title: Manager, Web Communications & Innovations, UPEI.

a “real” job, my mother would say. she and i, who’ve both worked all our lives, have never quite had one.

i’m going to call him “Guv’nor.” or just “Sir.” i think the hat makes him look extra respectable.

i flew home from Korea six years ago today. we were wanderers, itinerants, de-coupled from any of the systems that make this culture run. we had no place in the order of things, no niche. he was a bad boy sort, a 3 am philosopher trying to leave the cigarettes in the dust. my mother asked him point-blank how he planned to support me. i told her i had no need to be supported.

i was wrong. i didn’t know. but he’s held me up, through my rage and sorrow when Finn died. through the sleeplessness of two babies with colic. through this through-the-looking-glass adventure into academia, which owns me and strains me and makes me feel small and brittle too many busy mornings. we have scrambled, these six years, to establish some kind of a place here: to belong, to become embedded in the structure of the place. to see whether we could succeed.

it’s him who’s done it. six years in, and we are finally and for sure no longer staving off another junket as expat English teachers.

and i sigh with relief, and gratitude. because i needed to know it was possible: that even if the American dream is pretty much a sham, and no success ever means security, that sometimes, still, the good guys do okay.

even if my mother still thinks of him as ‘the bad boy.’

what does it mean to you to be ‘supported’?

i made it.

the fall unfolded and i unravelled and i began to think i couldn’t do it. i started to fantasize a deus ex machina, some magical absolution which would excuse me from having to continue the round-the-clock, seven-days-weekly slog through assignments and research reports and statistics and paid work, all with deadlines squeezing into the last two weeks of November and the first two weeks of December. it was more than i thought i could finish, no matter how i ground my queer shoulder into the wheel.

but…with a bang and a thump and barely a whimper at the end, i seem to be here. all done, at least til January. and done with my required quantitative research class and the glories of chi-square testing and all those crazy math symbols that made me feel i’d slipped through the looking glass back into the bewildering hell of algebra. finito. sayonara. hallelujah.

i got an 89%, thank you very much. which, if i were crafty, i’d engrave on a fucking tiara and wear on my head.

cue exhale. i am done. feel free to keep buying me drinks until i believe it.

buy Dave a drink while you’re at it. he held us all mostly together at the seams.

i learned a lot this fall.

i learned a lot that wasn’t being taught, a lot that i found traumatic in the processing.

but i also learned some of the language of quantitative research, which came in handy this past week when i found myself at an Annual Scientific Meeting in our nation’s lovely capital, listening to climate change scientists and Inuit and (ahem) BP and Imperial Oil carry on a rather multi-faceted discussion of the future of Canada’s north. every time they said “standard deviation” i nodded very sagely.

i learned that 13 years working in universities still didn’t teach me much about academia. at the conference i talked with a few women my own age who hold post-doctorates at different universities across the country. one of them said, “i feel punished for having had kids, like i have to work twice as hard to prove myself, be more available than everybody else.” and i pinched myself really hard but i still didn’t wake up. because this availability thing – while i did not feel pushed or punished in any specific relation to my maternal status – was the thing that ate me up more than anything this fall. the idea that the ravenous maw that made shameless, wholesale demands on my time and agency regarding time was the thing that i found hardest to swallow. i didn’t expect to work a mere 9-5, because i’ve lived online long enough that working and writing and connecting at night, most nights, is what i expect from my days…but i did, naively, expect that nobody any longer expected other people to act like superhumans. silly old me.

mostly i learned a great deal about how i cope with crushing pressure.

i don’t.

at least…my strategies lack finesse. or make a Dr. Phil episode sound like mental health.

Strategy #1: i prayed for the rapture. i didn’t particularly mind if Jesus left me behind, so long as the ensuing fire and brimstone distracted from my unfinished deadlines.

Strategy #2: i panicked. regularly. at least weekly, i had to talk myself down from chewing through my own leg to escape the trap i’d waltzed blindly into. if i were actually a wild animal, i’d have bled out months ago.

Strategy #3: i cried. copiously. sometimes IN class.

Strategy #4: i kept going on sheer blind hate alone.

hate sounds harsh. i don’t hate anyone i worked with, or for, or near. but only hate can describe that perverse fierce energy that kicks in only when your goal is reduced to a negative, to NOT failing.

it was hate that got me through, so perhaps, in the end, it isn’t such a bad coping strategy. but continuing because you’re too invested to walk away and you want to prove yourself against someone else’s measure? is not exactly an intrinsic values compass. and when i look at my life, i’m not sure what i have if i don’t have an intrinsic values compass.

so i hope this win was not a pyrrhic victory, one that heralds me slipping away into defending what i went into education to try to break down.

for tonight, it is enough that i am done.

because i have one fuckload of Christmas catching up on to do. pass the fruitcake.

first day.

there are only six of us in the class, four new Ph.D students and two M.Ed students finishing up their final course requirements. we are there to study quantitative research methods. the words are unfamiliar, dust in my mouth.

i am early, all nerves and butterflies and shiny eagerness, momentarily eight instead of thirty-eight. i laugh at my fool self.

i have worked on this campus on and off for five years, in this building for most of that time. it should all be familiar. but normally i stride in all gussied up, in heels and grown-up clothes, a professional with the class list clutched in one paw and a coffee in the other, the next hour or two mostly choreographed in my head.

this time, i have marked the shift as best i can…on my body. i know nothing of the dance to come the next three hours except the barest structure: syllabus, introductions, vague visions of formulas. i am afraid of formulas. and so, stripped of my status as the knower, the director of the dance, i have girded my loins in comfort food’s apparel equivalent: a faded denim shirt. with tights. and new boots, flat and comfy. big socks. identity as performance; my philosophy made flesh. or at least cloth and leather.

thank you, o fickly revolving vagaries of fashion, for bringing me straight on back to my undergrad days. yes, the army boots have been exchanged for Blundstones, because if one is going to spend hundreds of dollars on a single book written in bizarre statistical formulas, one might as well splurge on boots, too. ahem. but i know myself in these clothes. this is my student uniform.

and yet, i am lying to myself. i cannot go back to that old skin.

it’s not that i was all passive and receptive, the mythic blank slate waiting for wisdom.

sure, i played that part sometimes, even to myself. i was a good student in the early days, a little shit through most of junior high, then a high-achieving if somewhat poorly-attending high school and undergraduate student.

but the passivity was conditional; the only mark by which i knew how to signal my acceptance and acquiescence to the system that ordered my days and my existence. School was deeply and profoundly a player in how i valued and understood myself, all through my formative years.

When i was a kid, i watched closely in classes, reading both the textbooks and the relationships unfolding in front of me. i was curious and eager to belong, and tried desperately to think of interesting things to say in class. but if ever the classroom or program circumstances in which i found myself smelled like power and structure for their own sakes, my sense of well-being and belonging would shrivel and i’d recoil as if a door had closed. no place for me here, i would whisper, and my middle-finger would rise, of its own ornery accord. i’d be outed.

oppositional. saucy. not working to her full potential.

those report cards were stark contrasts to my Lisa Simpson status quo. i realize now they should have read, “This student is challenging my power position in the classroom. This is uncomfortable for us both.

ask my middle school math teacher. ask my classmates the year i stayed on in my little college town for a one year post-B.A. Bachelor of Education program.

one of them confessed to me that spring, just before graduation, that they called me The Bad Ass of the Class. i think i grinned, all bravado. but it was the loneliest year of my life, those bewildering days when i discovered i did love teaching, but might hate teachers. or at least Teachers’ College, with its smug and cheery conviviality, its simplifying presentation of a world i was sure was complicated. we never once talked about power.

i did not know how to name the absence. i just knew i had never before so singularly failed to fit in. and somewhere early on i had understood that on a gut level, and closed myself off, unreachable. i was protecting myself from the person that system existed to create; from becoming a teacher on terms that alienated and troubled me, that left out all that i thought was important.

but i did not know how to say any of that. and so i went through the motions at the back of the class, appeared passive and contemptuous, a rebel without a cause.

i thought i was there to belong. i thought the problem was me.

the incredible thing about going back to school when you are 107 older than twenty-two is that you simultaneously morph into two people at once. the opinionated adult with a confident voice, who understands that belonging is a far broader thing than any one classroom experience could possibly shape, and the younger version of yourself, miraculously resurrected the moment you fold yourself into a desk and open a binder.

you can see it, actually, your entire hard-won sense of self and authority wilts like a pansy and slithers down your leg. it pools wetly on the floor. you wonder if others can see it. you wonder if they will judge you. you wonder if you will look stupid. you wonder if you will belong.

you wonder why the professor is staring at you and then you realize she has asked your name.

you go to use the voice that you were so sure would carry you proudly through insightful explorations of meaning, and you discover that you sound like Minnie Mouse. you feel painfully exposed. you also feel stupid for feeling painfully exposed. you are an adult, dammit. ouch.

the quantitative professor then asks about your background with statistics.

you consider simply diving into the pool of your own ego on the floor and hoping to drown, then and there.

you try humour, instead. i can’t count, you quip. you notice the professor looks unsurprised but vaguely depressed by your confession. you find this strangely heartening. perhaps there will be others like you.

you give your head a shake. you swallow, straighten your shoulders. you will not play the simple role of insider OR outsider, not this time around.

it’s true that you can’t go back to the old skin of your once-upon-a-student self, the one who gave over most of her power to the teacher and then sulked at the back of the class if it was misused. but not because that skin EVER goes away. it will be there until you are, literally, 107, always a tidy fit, ever making you look and feel smaller and almost-comfortably invisible and pleasing.

you can’t go back because it doesn’t feel good enough anymore, just to feel safe. to belong.

you chose to be here, this time round. you want something, for yourself, beyond whatever the person at the front of the class may want. you are an adult. even if you sound like Minnie Mouse and you can’t count and you’re dressed like an aging undergraduate.

the difference is everything.

i walked out of the hospital today feeling almost – though not quite – as surreal as i had when i stumbled in two days ago.

almost as surreal, because no matter how flattering, 38 year old women do not normally stay in the pediatrics ward, in rooms festooned with Cinderella stickers and Mickey mouse. the pediatric nurses all waved a kind goodbye as i tried not to wobble on my way to the door. i rubbed my head. four or five days of serious fever and two hospital visits all kind of blurred together, and i counted the days as we wandered through the corridors: Thursday. September 2nd. i nodded internally, steady now. i love September: the crisp air, the boots, the socks, the sweaters, the new pens. okay.

we walked out of the hospital into the hottest day we’ve seen here all summer.

and then, oh right, there’s a hurricane coming? funny, nobody talks about that on pediatrics. it was all just how much did you pee? and here’s your tray of chicken fingers and fries dear…uh…ma’am. you know. small talk. of course, i was in isolation. maybe all the kiddies in the playroom were chattin’ it up about the weather non-stop.

i rubbed my head again, Rumplestiltskin who seemed to have slumbered in the wireless-free confinement of my little quarantine room for long seasons. or simply woken up in another latitude entirely, one where hurricanes are actually expected to make landfall. see, i live in Canada. we have cold. that’s OUR extreme weather. the rest of you get all the scary shit.

can a spinal tap make latitudes shift?

for a moment, that thought spiraled out like a kite on a breeze, and i wondered if that golden liquid treasure that runs down all our backbones is actually what centres us in the time and place we happen to belong to; if spinal taps are not the portal to time travel, to instant tropical vacations.

then my brain clamped down on itself like an iron door.

you are to make sense, it said sternly. not making sense has been absolutely NO FUN.

when i was fourteen, you know, i missed my first week of high school. so none of this should really have been a surprise.

i had been shopping with my best friend Jill with money earned at a little summer babysitting job and i had these strange hiccups that wouldn’t go away and i kept embarrassing her, hiccuping my way around the fancy store until she finally turned around like a little pouf-banged martinet and said, STOP! exactly the way i speak to Posey now when she insists on hitter her elder brother and i remember raising my eyebrow at her like WTF? it’s the HICCUPS, i CAN’T stop, that’s the POINT and then turning a cold shoulder so she would not know i felt betrayed.

but when i got into the dressing room with those awful 1986 high-waisted monstrosities of jeans i was dying to spend hard-earned money on, i noticed my belly was sore and bloated and tender, and i couldn’t button anything where i thought i ought to button anything. and so that was when i left Jill there and walked home carrying new pants i hoped would fit better in the morning, thrilling to the terror and uncertainty of the brave new world of high school waiting right there on the other side of this awkward, not-quite-as-i’d-hoped-for day.

i hadn’t seen nothing.

by six pm my belly was sore enough that i mentioned it to my mom. by seven she was worried. by eight we were at the hospital. by ten pm i was in an ER room with a nice young doctor explaining that my appendix needed to come out.

i remember nodding at him, most obligingly, and suggesting that anytime after about the second week of October would be good for me. we’d be getting into midterms by then. i wouldn’t mind the rest.

no, he’d said, most soothingly, in chorus with my mother. tonight, dear. it needs to come out tonight.

i had stared at the two of them, blinking, twice betrayed in the course of a single day. then, indignant. were they stupid? i had HIGH SCHOOL tomorrow, i reminded them. i start grade ten at Colonel Gray, i chirped, patiently, as if to children.

not tomorrow, sweetheart, i remember my mother saying, with extraordinary gentleness. and then the student nurse who couldn’t start an IV to save her life came in to torture me for awhile and that was that; out like a light.

in the end, it was okay. i limped back into school the following week and saw old friends and met new friends and my life took a new shape not so different from the old and until a couple of days ago i had long since forgotten that i’d even spent those first few days in the hospital and not at school.

this week, i remembered, all too vividly. i started high school a week late. and i will do the same with my Ph.D.

and in the process of being late for school this go ’round, i may have learned – or remembered? – one of the most important things the world has to teach me, Ph.D or no Ph.D. now, i need desperately to rest. but i will tell you the rest of the story.

tomorrow. or as soon as the headache is gone?

it ought to be easy.

i wake up and remember that i am in no rush. i remain prone a little longer, half-adrift, one eye pried open to smile at the small child thisclose to my face. today is the first day of the rest of my life, i intone, under my breath. morning dragon fumes escape my mouth, like bandits fleeing a crime. they knock small child over. small child rights self, peers back into the unholy vortex from whence the evil came, and chirps at me up, mommy! go get me some milk, mommy!

small children are resilient in the face of their goals.

i, on the other hand, am having a helluva time weathering the dragon’s breath of change.

i finished my full-time job on Friday. there was dinner and wine. kind things were written in cards. and i thought, good. phew. now onward ho.

i got a research grant and an academic paper and presentation accepted all in the same week, a coupla weeks back. then BlogHer’s Voice of the Week, and news that a social media consultancy gig came through: a surfeit of good things. this week, i present to a writers’ conference about blogs and social platforms, then stand up in the hallowed local Public Library and read. my own stuff. like a writer.

in the blink of an eye, i am all the things i ever wanted to be.

Monday i woke up and snuggled the kids and went back to sleep for an hour. i leapt from the bed to the shower and hustled myself downtown for a coffee shop meeting. an Arctic educational research contract that centres around a documentary film and me conducting social media research and writing papers; good gorgeous interesting stuff. i stayed parked at the coffee shop with my laptop for half the day, walked home, hung out some laundry, read 101 Disgusting Facts about the Human Body to a rapt Oscar and a whirlwind Josephine, played trucks for awhile, then drove out to the beautiful north shore of PEI to have dinner with a group of writers and a literary agent. which involved the best creme brulee i have ever had the pleasure of getting to know, and also some lovely people.

where, you ask, is the problem?

the problem is today. today, i looked at myself in the mirror and the dragon breathed and i cowered.

because i’m on the verge of all these new, intimidating things. they are things that will challenge and push me, force me to juggle three different kinds of writing and exploration all at the same time. they are things that will eat my days with deadlines and yet give me the opportunity to spend my days doing things i love. they are things that will pay poorly, for now; things that trade on the relentlessness of reputational economy and promise a longterm payoff, or two, if i am good. if i can keep up. suddenly, there are no more sick days.

today, i did not know how to value that. today, i feel like a pretender.

in my high school yearbook, amidst the poufy perms and the ghastly high-waisted jeans that scarred the self-images of most of us unfortunate enough to come of age during that era abandoned by all the gods of good taste, you will find my awkward and contrived graduation photo, the one that didn’t look like me even then. big of hair and cheek and beady of eye, i beam saccharinely down on posterity. somewhere next to the photo, by my name or the Simon & Garfunkel quote selected by my youthful hippie self, you will find that i was voted Most Artistic by my graduating class.

i was thrilled by that, for the record. it was amazing – in fact, startling and affirming – to be seen as i saw myself.

i didn’t say so then. i wish i had. i’d spent hundreds of hours doodling away all through my childhood. i did not know that i had worked for the skills i possessed, did not know they were even useful skills. i did not think of what i did as art. but for that one moment, i dared. then i gave my head a shake and called myself a pretender. who was i to think of myself as an artist?

i wish i’d known how to own that gift, attach goals to it, value it.

i did not. and so i put away childish things and i went off to college and i never drew again.

i have been collecting links and stories for awhile now on writing and publishing in the age of social media. a dying trade, they mostly proclaim, and this heartens me. i’m good with decline. it takes the pressure off.

i am afraid to fail.

i have been juggling a full-time job with parenting and blogging and launching some kind of academic credentials so long i no longer remember what it’s like to just…stop. to have nothing i need to write, no deadlines, no stories burgeoning, ideas slipping through my fingers. and it’s only about to ramp up.

every time i stared that fact in the face today, i cursed myself. who do you think you are i hissed privately to think of yourself as a writer? who are YOU to try to play academic?

the writing taunts me. it stretches before me, Sisyphean, slow and sticky, forever unfinished. i have spent a year in a constantly interruptable job and live with two preschoolers. between all that and Twitter, my frayed brain has the attention span of a gnat.

but this time, with this opportunity, i want to value the work i’ve put into these skills i’ve developed. i want to stop being afraid. i want to be resilient in the face of my goals.

after all, my children have the attention span of gnats, too, and they’re not hiding their wants and dreams and lights under a bushel.

so Thursday night i will stand up and read my own words in public. and i will plug away at the synthesis and research and the grant writing of grad student life and i will try to find balance and i will hope against hope that maybe i can make a reasonable life out of these things i love to do when they aren’t scaring the shit outta me.

and i will keep going. because i don’t want to find myself in twenty years time saying, one time? i did all this cool writing and research stuff and then i didn’t know what to do with it or how to value it so i just…stopped.

i don’t want to say that ever again.

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