a new month. fresh and clean, with no not very many mistakes in it. in some circles, Halloween candy before 8:30 in the morning is considered a healthy start to your day.

and in the name of health, ladies and gentlemen, toss away your shaving implements and grab yer wallets. the moustaches are coming.

it’s Movember.

and this year, Dave and his office crew of Taskforce Awesome – including Margaret, undeterred by her lack of testosterone – are growing themselves some serious facial hair. for a good cause.

Movember raises money to fight prostate cancer, through research, education, and awareness campaigns.

it also back the porn ‘staches of our 70’s childhoods, friends. done with vigour, it makes the men we know resemble Tom Selleck. or Salvador Dali. which is, um, interesting.

(i have a deep-seated aesthetic discomfort with the mustache. i prefer the spelling moustache because it seems more…campy. but still. it itches. it risks making a man look like a caricature RCMP officer.

mind you, Dave is not blessed with hirsuteness of the lip. he will be lucky to end up looking like a sixteen-year-old RCMP cadet. still.)

i’m hoping for something like this. it has grandeur.

so far Dave has absolutely no pledges. this is partly because i can’t decide whether to support him or Margaret. i appreciate Margaret’s gender-bending in participating. i also do not tend to kiss Margaret terribly often.

if YOU want to support Dave – or Margaret – all nickels are welcome. dollars too. me, i’ll just accept donated kisses from clean lips. and we shall keep you posted on the growth of the glamour ‘stache as the month progresses. ;)

where i’m from, the most beautiful days of the year are fall afternoons.

bright-gold and sunshot, they make glitter out of the crimson of dying leaves and children out of grownups.

i dare you to not scuff your feet along the sidewalks of October here on this sandy red mud rock, wearing clouds of fallen leaves like fluffy slippers. i dare you to stare down a leafpile and – six or sixty – NOT know that your legs are made to leap, to leave the earth behind, however briefly.

i spent a lot of years trying to be somewhere other than here.

but afternoons like this one i can’t remember Paris, or Bangkok, or San Diego. i remember these narrow sidewalks under my sneakers all the fall afternoon walks of my childhood and i am glad i came home.

three months from today i turn forty.

this occurred to me as i made my way across a field this afternoon, by a park where my children play. where i played a thousand years ago in a cabinet of my memory where the light is always an October afternoon, crisp and tart and fleeting like an apple just bitten.

the brown will come, says the beauty. it’s juiciest that way.

i walked a few paces with the thought of my own browning, letting it settle into my skin.

my skin has been feeling forty for awhile now. most of my friends have already turned the corner. i realized, as i kicked at a red leaf skittering across the grass ahead of me, that i can live with forty, and not just because it beats the hell out of the alternative. i think i can own forty. i think i may actually be a far better forty-year-old than i was a twenty-year-old. even if i haven’t entirely grown up. maybe because i know better now what grown up means, to me. what i care about. what i don’t.

i understand, now, that forty has exactly no mathematical relationship to whether you leap in the leaves.

the three months left of my thirties, though? they weigh BIG.

endings come heavy for me. last chances perch on my shoulders, armed with riding crops. i am motivated by a deep and abiding fear of regret, of longing for that which will never come again. so the idea that i have three months left to become the person i will be at forty is, for me, a powerful thing.

Schmutzie was asking today about life lists.

i don’t have one. i did a lot of stuff when i was younger, largely motivated by that abiding fear of regret and longing. a lot of it was reckless and excessive and beautiful. occasionally it was all three at once.

it doesn’t mean there isn’t lots left undone: it’s just not out there, for the most part. (except that marrying David Bowie bit. save the date. i’ll get back to you.)

it’s in ME. and i feel like i’m on the verge.

i didn’t really get it when we moved back here nearly seven years ago. i’d been gone fifteen years, nearly half my life. i came back because i gave up on the perfect elsewhere, but i didn’t know i’d stumble upon all these ghosts of my younger self here, at every corner.

we took the kids to a playground on Saturday, at my elementary schoolyard. an accidental stop, a space i’ve barely thought of in a quarter century or more. i stood there in the expanse of green with my children racing around me and marveled at time and memory, at what survives. i ran my bare hands over metal rungs i once swung from, looked off to the fence where my friends and i huddled over our first cigarettes, all swaggers and coughs. i marvelled how small the equipment had grown. i wrapped my thirty-nine-year-old body around a bar and flipped upside down, to show Oscar – or myself – it could be done.

and all around me, ghosts, of children grown for twenty years. here, i am more tied to who i’ve been than anywhere in the world.

not all umbilica give life. some are simply tethers, ties to station and subject positions that one no longer even sees as choice.

i am from a small place. a good place, but a small place. i left, and travelled, but mostly where the wind blew, and where the jobs were. i grew up simply and completely NOT knowing you could just move to New York, visas and muggers be damned. i was nearly thirty before i met someone with intentions to move there, and i remember gaping at her like she’d just discovered electricity. she was seven years younger than i. we were in a hostel in Amsterdam. we had just left a sex shop. but it was the idea of New York as a viable address that left me agog, fired all the neurons in my brain.

oh, i said to her, nodding like i met New York-bound people all the time. and then i understood that try as i might and go where i would, i’d never outrun myself or where i came from.

i am from a family in which fatalism is a positive coping mechanism. one should not let one’s aims get too high above one’s means, and one should make the most of what one has. i believe the latter to my core. i have only just begun to see the trap in the former.

i grew up waiting to be tapped on the shoulder. to be sprung from the limitations of means and capacity to imagine bigger aims: that is acceptable. that is not getting above your station. that is properly demure, not arrogant or boastful or silly or laughable. i grew up believing the world was mostly meritocracy.

i grew up not knowing how to set goals, or plan longterm, or strategize to understand and utilize the systems by which choices are constrained in our culture.

i grew up thinking if i were good enough, a fairy godmother would come along. probably take me to New York or London or Kathmandu. make me a writer. or a thinker. or something.

and i grew up thinking if the fairy godmother didn’t come, that was that. it wasn’t in me.

i seem to have grown old and foolish enough to believe i was wrong. i have three months left until i am forty, and i am done waiting.

not for New York, or London, or Kathmandu, so much. not right now. their fall afternoons can’t be better than here.

but i’m writing, and sending stuff out, for the first time in my life. academic stuff. semi-literary stuff. still not the brand book idea i had an agent for a year ago and choked because i was too shy to push. that will have to come after my dissertation, so go the rules of my funding. but still. i somehow, simply, didn’t think i could. i clicked ‘send’ this afternoon and i laughed and thought, shit, that wasn’t so hard.

there will be rejection. that used to terrify me. i don’t think it does so much, anymore. i have three months to get used to it. and i will eat up all advice – unless you’re suggesting The Secret – with gratitude.

my thirties have been the hardest and best decade of my life. they brought me birth and death, took me further from home than i’d ever imagined and brought me back. i want to end them able to look the little ghost of myself at the playground in the eye and say, i did okay by you, kid. i grew up into somebody not afraid to try, and fail.

that’s who i want to be when i’m forty. i have three months.



Toronto. Blissdom Canada, year 2.

i had fun. saw some of my favourite people, had interesting conversations, danced, got kissed by a yam puppet, and sat on a panel with Nora Young of CBC Radio’s Spark. i can die happy.

i also realized that social media is slipping through our fingers.

tonight, the night after the morning after the morning after, what i miss is the people. the sitting up late, perched on staircases or outside in the blue air, talking. connecting. cementing tentative bonds of recognition.

that’s what conferences are for: the connecting.

i like to think that’s what social media is for, too. (i mean, not ONLY that. i haven’t been asleep since 2006. i like the word brand, may gawd strike me down).

but after Blissdom this year, for the first time, i have real misgivings about the future of social media.

i think we mighta sold the farm, Virginia. and we didn’t even notice.

once upon a time, long long ago before anyone had invented the term SEO, there were days when social media was mostly about peers. finding ’em. creating relationships.

online platforms were a means of finding others and their ideas, of network-building, and sharing. the connections grew rhizomatically, like weeds, node threading to node without formal goal or overarching strategy. it was a bit of a jungle.

there were always metrics: ways to judge one’s Return On Investment for the time put in. eyeballs on one’s work always mattered, and some identities were bigger than others. so were their networks, and their reputations.

(this world was not a monolith by any means, Virginia: different communities and corners of what was then mostly called “the blogosphere” had their own etiquette, their own implicit rules around reciprocality.)

but it was mostly a world of what’s called produsage: the people who created stuff and shared it were also the consumers of other people’s stuff. that’s what the connections served.

it was more or less a peer-to-peer environment. connections were about interest, even when the people forging the relationship had platforms of different scale. yes, there was cultivation of fame for its own sake, and fawning over major profiles: all the things that metrics encourage. there were ugly things there, too, and inane things, and lots that probably made no difference to the state of the world in general. it was very human. but for all its flaws, it was full of potential.

it was a network model of being in the world, rather than a top-down organizational model. it was emergent rather than planned, and distributed rather than owned by any one entity.

this was, of course, probably rather bewildering to the entities used to owning things.

social media did some pretty crazy things for those of us out there participating. it flattened hierarchies by enabling and encouraging person-to-person connection and actual engagement. it foregrounded individual voices and relationships. and it represented a new way of relating to what had always been untouchable sacred cows: institutions, corporations. it gave us – often more theoretically than in everyday encounters – an agency we had not previously tended to consider possible.

an emergent model, of course, doesn’t provide very good salaries. this is where we get back to Blissdom, Virginia.

since about 2008, there’s been a strong push in social media to monetize, to leverage the platforms and networks users build for a share of advertising and sponsorship dollars. for many, especially for women, this has been an incredible opportunity to work outside the traditional institutional structures of 9-5, as freelancers and entrepreneurs. and especially for women whose social media content relates to domesticity, there’s been an incredible response from traditional mainstream brands with a vested interest in the domestic market.

just as social media was making the personal branded, it made brands personal. they were shifting their broadcast model strategies, we heard, and connecting, and changing.

great. financial opportunity AND agency to forge new paths. i gave a nod of thanks to the car company that drove me around gratis, and to the razor company – was it razors? or orange juice? – for the free manicure.

then i noticed that there seemed to be a whole swath of conversation that had nothing to do with what i do, both from brands and other attendees.

i was okay with that, at first. not everybody wants to be a personal blogger, or – mercy – an academic one. i like money. i can’t fault anyone for wanting to make some.

but it appeared that for a lot of people at the conference, the PURPOSE of social media is to enable individuals to connect with brands. for the purpose of furthering the brands themselves. end story. a path into the machine.

the first – and maybe second – generation of bloggers and social media personalities who worked to forge partnerships with brands and as entrepreneurs tended to do so from a base in peer-to-peer relationships. connections. voices.

some have had incredible business savvy and success, but most have been inclined to promote and preserve some of the values of both independence – from traditional power structures – and interdependence – on each other – that are hallmarks of social media. and traditional power structures have had to treat them accordingly.

there’s a shift occurring, a sea change in discourse. i heard it in the lunch lineups, over cocktail trays, in the tense conversation after the film screening. a significant proportion of conference attendees spoke about their social media goals entirely in terms of connecting with brands. not even primarily as brands themselves – in a sort of peer-to-peer relationship – but as consumers of opportunity, looking to become part of the major institutional system of major media and corporations.

forget agency and voices and relationships. if you are using your network solely to sell the message of a corporate entity, what you are doing is NOT social media, no matter your platform. what you’re doing is at best a marketing job, and more likely something akin to Amway.

i even heard it when i sat on the stage with Tessa Sproule, who is lovely and savvy and Director of Interactive Media at the CBC, but who largely appears to see social media as a way of engaging consumers with her brand.

this is not a two-way street. this is consolidation of power to the old familiar models, in which one can be employer or employed, but not really a whole lot else. the dream of a distributed, collaborative society of creator-consumers?

time to wake up, i think, my friends.

social media is, in too many fields, becoming simply a nice interactive tool by which the traditional corps and powers-that-be gain more eyeballs. they’re not so nervous, anymore. because increasingly people join social media NOT to connect but as a path to a piece of the pie: they’re there not to be public but to gain enough platform to be sponsored or spokespersons or stars, for the traditional monopolized industries.

what do we do about it?

i don’t think we take the pitchforks out. this isn’t about blaming or Othering the new generation. they want jobs. i’ve had jobs. that’s a glass house few of us can stand in.

but we need to ask ourselves what our role IS – and can be – in a social media environment becoming crowded with marketers, not creator-consumers.

we need to understand the potentiality of social media and what it offers us. for me, at least, that’s this space, and the theoryblog – rooms of my own. community. network resources via Twitter and G+ and even Facebook that interact and offer and share with me daily, on topics and perspectives that don’t have a market value.

that a cultural shift like social media has major forces aligned in their own interests against it probably shouldn’t be a surprise. maybe i’ve just been down too deep in the echo chamber to hear it coming. but i do think it’s important to start this conversation, among all of us who want to do more with our online spaces and voices and networks – all of which are very much an integrated part of our so-called REAL lives – than be part of a better bottom line for major brands.

what do you see as the future of social media? of blogging conferences? have we sold the farm?

give me hope, Virginia. connect. hold me.



we pulled up the garden in shirtsleeves this weekend, somewhere in the middle of multiple pumpkin pies. it was warm, crazy warm for Thanksgiving. after two days of hail, and winter jacket weather, it felt like Wonderland.

i ate the last peas of summer, warm green time-travellers hidden in withered, weathered shells. a few last tomatoes clung to the vines we ripped out: they ripen on our kitchen sill. the long and winding rope of the squash plant we tried to leave intact: its prickly, flowered length had just begun to yield. one tiny gourd, the only one of the season. that our benign neglect brings forth vegetables at all still amazes me, but this was not a banner year.

i almost missed the gourd entirely. Dave pointed it out: pear-shaped, green. we thought we might leave the little thing to grow a bit, yet. then a hasty tug.


it is on the windowsill, with the green tomatoes. it is too small to put out on the deck with the gourds and pumpkins we procured at a more successful grower’s this weekend: small as a chestnut, it would be gone in a gust of wind.

i do not know why i care. it’s a gourd. can anyone speak to the purpose of gourds? but it was there, and now it is here.

the small, failed things always get me.

i am all elbows these days. overwhelmed, gulping, i push out space for myself like a skater, gouging those who get too close. i feel cornered by time, by demands. i wing everybody close.

overwhelmed, i say, and the small voice comes out like a shout, an attack with expletives.

i want to sit down on the ice and draw a circle around myself, and say stop. let me catch my breath. let me watch and take it in, all this bounty, these things i should have been more thankful for today. please. let me stop.

sometimes i feel like a collection of small, failed things i do not know how to leave behind.

we make ourselves out of a thousand half-baked parts, cobbled out of context. some serve us well. some are woefully inadequate, and always will be.

they have histories, these things, invisible vines that tie us up, that choke us. and we protect them, elbows up, with the same strange tenderness as the small living things that do not reach their potential.

i failed at Thanksgiving this year.

yes, there were turkeys, two of them, and family and friends, and pie. an abundance. but abundance comes with work. with accommodation. with stress. and it is the last that dogs me: i wasn’t even responsible for either turkey, yet i found the sum total of it all too much. when we sat down to give thanks at the end of it all, i choked.

i wanted to say, i am thankful it’s mostly done. please do the goddam dishes. i didn’t. i *think* i said i was glad that everyone was there. i hope i did, because i was. i said something lame about the weather, too. but i felt like a small, failed thing by the time we made it to that table.

the math of stress that i learned in my youth – jobs to be done = exponential multiplication of pressure and panic until all to-dos are erased from equation – has hidden sums that i need to untangle. i do not know where to begin.

i understand them as a part of who i am, a part of the way the world is. and so the petty jobs add to petty jobs until the time available feels divided into shards. my elbows go up, to protect what space and time i can. overwhelmed, i squeak, and the mouse roars.

i do not want to be the sum of small, failed things, forever in their thrall.

but they are what i give thanks for, this morning after Thanksgiving.

because i may think i do not know where to begin, but they point the way. you cannot change in yourself what you cannot see.

i see the stress today, small and lumpy, kind of ugly. it hides in a tangle of late summer vines of historicity, never fully grown. whatever energy or purpose it was started for is stunted, now.

i look at it, and try to own how it grew. i tug, attempt to disentangle vine from vine.

this will be my winter gardening. a daily job. i want eventually to pluck these small, failed things, one by one, tenderly. i want to set them on my windowsill; reminders, but no longer part of the living organism.

until then, i have the gourd. i hope it lasts. i need to see it.

and in spring i will try again to grow something that thrives and feeds, and does not choke.




we dressed up and went downtown the other day. on a Sunday afternoon, like we were fancy people without small children and a brand-new washer full of gasoline fumes at home.

a date. a 1:30pm to 6pm date, but it ended with dinner, so a date nonetheless, at least by our low standards. at 4:45 pm, it feels like one should order the senior’s menu pot roast instead of the aged steak and red wine, but one steals time where one can.

the steak was not as rare as it could have been. over small puddles of blood, i put to him the two hardest questions EVER.

the first, i’ve asked before. the second, i should’ve.

we went downtown for the Island Literary Awards. i won the category of Creative Non-fiction, for a piece on the women in my family. and because i won, i got to read. i’ve had the good fortune to get to read my work three or four times in the past year, and i feel like i’m getting the hang of it. but i have never, til yesterday, read publicly about my mother in front of my mother. so i was nervous. and the piece of writing had to be hugely truncated in order to fit the time slot, so i was more nervous. and then i sang – OUT LOUD – a line from an old gospel-country song. onstage. ahem. so i was very close to wetting myself. i was not struck down by lightning, which i thought merciful. but my knees were still knocking when we got to the restaurant.

i politely arranged my silverware. then i looked him in the eye.

did it suck? i asked, carefully disentangling my identity from the performance about to be dissected. did i suck? does not invite anything but cheap reassurance.

and he met my gaze and gave me a full, fair, blow-by-blow analysis of what i did well and how it seemed to come off and how i might do it better, which he’s done for each of the public readings i’ve done over the past year. even though the first two were forced and raw and kind of awkward. it’s not that i didn’t sort of know, and wasn’t proud of myself for doing them anyway. but he told me how to get better, each time. and i have.

i think that’s what a partner is for.

we look to the world for reflections of ourselves. am i doing it right? do i make sense? is this how i find my way?

what we get back is a mirror ball, dazzling and dizzying, a thousand blurry visions of ourselves.

some loom larger than they should: you’re too fat. you’re the pretty one. you’ll never make anything of yourself. these reflections can hold us in thrall, while we stare, confused, into their void, frozen in the glare and wondering if we’re really IN there at all.

others we fail to see altogether. they might offer a new vision, a better path, a chance to alter old habits that we stumble on. but we ignore them and cling to the picture of ourselves that we recognize.

it is hard work to bring a thousand points of light into focus all at once.  a second, trusted pair of eyes can diffract your own composite picture of yourself, offering you possibilities you wouldn’t catch on your own.

i didn’t know i knew any of this, though. not until i felt the next question tripping out of my mouth.

what do you want out of a partnership? i asked, point blank.

he looked at me, surprised. i dunno, he said. more or less. not without thought.

you’d think maybe we might have had this little talk ten years ago, in the heady throes of first blush. we were both fresh out of failed marriages, and each respectively clear on what we didn’t want. we even knew what we sought and got from each other, in the personal, specific “this is why you and i work” way. and we had the good sense not to move in with each other for another coupla years and sully that with dirty socks.

but it never occurred to me to ask what he wanted from the idea of a relationship, over the long term. it never occurred to me to ask myself. if i thought about the longterm at all, i figured Dave on a front porch in fifty years’ time might at least be lively company.  but i think i totally skipped the middle years.

like, about thirty of them.

we have both, apparently, been stumbling along without a map. we do our best to reflect each other, to keep the trust open, to keep the eternal grind of house and bills and broken appliances more or less under control. to be present to the kids. to have some fun.

when i started #thehomeproject, i think, i was looking for a way to SEE him better, and to see us in the midst of all this flurry. i don’t know that i’ve found it. i feel like i’m still stumbling. not unhappily. but i’m curious.

we’re taking input. do you have a guidebook? a map? a sense of what you want from your partnership that goes beyond love or companionship or a second pair of hands to put kids to bed at night? what does it mean, do you think, to be somebody’s somebody?

what do YOU want out of a partnership? (or a marriage, if you make a distinction?) what does it mean, to be two?

(if i don’t quite get it, maybe it’s not a surprise. my sense of two was formed as the child of a single parent, the only child of an only child. the most powerful reflector and diffractor of my sense of myself in my childhood was the woman i called my grandmother. it was her i read about on Sunday. it felt good to do her proud.

here’s a little excerpt – bear with the first few bizarre seconds – from the part of the story about Hallowe’en, 1984. i was twelve. we lived with her, then. she helped me find my way through the most blinding of those thousand points of light that hit at that age, and it was her, i think, who taught me to trust my reflection in another pair of eyes.)

sometimes i miss grief.

(a ridiculous thing to say, really. it is the speech act equivalent of wrapping oneself in tinfoil and swinging from a rooftop TV antennae in a lightning storm. HIT ME AGAIN, it dares.

it lies. or if you understand it as a wish for things to be anything but otherwise, it lies. it is one of the unspeakables, damned to misunderstanding because we are taught to receive messages as if they were swaggering suitors with one thing on their minds.

i do not want to be misunderstood. because it is not true: i would hunker down in the sewer to avoid the lightning bolt. we all would, if we ever saw it coming. keep all our precious ones safe, keep our own heads above the mire of rawness and panicky incomprehensibility and the Somebody-sized hole that sucks our breath and pulls us under.)

and yet.

if you know someone grappling with grief, know this. the cruellest trick is that to heal, one must become doubly bereft.

when somebody dies, you lose them. same when something precious, like a relationship or a dream or goal, comes crashing to the ground. but in the place of that which was loved, you make a trade.

you get grief. it’s the shittiest deal in the world, but it’s something. grief sits in the hole left behind, a living thing, a conduit for some of the love and pain and anger that come with loss.

then time does its thing. pain starts to look a little more like resilience. and if you are actually healing, the grief grows thinner at its centre, stretching out like taffy until it is no longer a thing unto itself, but an absence. what is left is mostly just the damage of the accommodations of having carried pain for so long, the twists and scars that pucker around the hole, the way you’ve grown used to holding yourself off-kilter.

one day you catch sight of your hunchback in a passing storefront window and you stare.

you are looking for the touchstone at the core of it all, because the grief and the lost thing have long since become one.

but that one day, it is gone. the last touchstone, the sharp corner of longing. you are still scarred, hunched, puckered. but there is no grief to touch. the wind blows through the hole.

eventually you come face to face with the fact that this is what “gone” means: all death leaves behind, in the end, is the living.

my children know they had a brother, born before them. they know his name. Oscar understands that Finn died. Posey is still working from the operational assumption that death is a very special thing that happened to Grandpa Cliff last spring, and that somehow Finn – who may possibly also be a star in the sky – is trying to elbow in on Cliff’s territory. this makes me laugh, in the very best way.

we don’t talk about Finn a lot. Oscar asked to see his memory box a few weeks back, the small green ribbon-tied memento collection from the hospital, with its footprints and its hair clipping and the impossibly tiny hat that once smelled like his newborn head. i had not dug it out in well more than a year, not in Posey’s memory. she chortled over the diaper, too small for most of her dolls. i traced my fingers over the small gilt imprints of my son’s feet.

for years, the sensory assault of the NICU lurked, in Technicolour and Surround-Sound, in the lizard core of my amygdala. i would be walking down the street, and a jackhammer a block away would jar me into a cascade of unprocessed memory, the bang bang bang of the ventilator and it would hit me that that was the sound he heard most and was he frightened and did it drown out my voice and did he hurt and i was not even there when they punched the tube through his chest and my gut would wrench and my mind careen until i would find myself stockstill on the sidewalk with tears streaming down my face. three, four years later.

this is how trauma works.

but when i touched the place where his feet once were, a few weeks back, in the green box, i found no lurking tide of memory. i touched the imprints of his feet and my brain went looking for the corresponding memory of those small toes on my skin. and yes, i recalled the toes, and i smiled wryly, the wonder of him and the chasm both acknowledged, but i did not feel it. my fingers did not tingle. i was not transported six years back. it was only memory.

those moments of being transported grow thin, rare. maybe they will come no more. i have other toes here to touch and tend to; my life is crowded and busy and good. i do not want to grieve. oh god, no.

but i want to feel.

i miss the grieving for its vividness, its, its trompe l’oeil effect of making present what is irretrievably gone. i look for Finn, now, and find…only me.

in the healing, the last of what’s been lost slips away.

and yet.

i found something the other day. our washer broke and for the second time in less than three years, we bought a new one, to the tune of much embittered cursing (mine). the delivery men came. and when they hauled away the offending appliance and i confronted the sludge beneath, i found it.

Dave’s ring.

i bought it for him for his 31st birthday. the year Finn died. it was seven months later. i was already pregnant with Oscar.

we do not have wedding rings, he and i. i wear my grandmother’s tiny 1938 Art Deco diamond, and her bands.

he lost it more than a year ago, at the gym, we thought. Dave has a history of precious things littered out behind him, lost. this was not grave. i was sad, but without recrimination. i have lost rings, too, and things far more important.

but when i found it, Friday, wedged between pine boards and tarnished, i felt.

six years washed away and i remembered my own shyness, handing it to Dave in its blue velvet box; how i stumbled over the words of hope and endurance that i meant for the ring to carry until i finally shoved the card at him with my eyes wide and blinking back tears.

it had only one name engraved inside it, then. it now has three.

and there’s the thing.

time is a shit. it’s a shit for physicists, refusing to go both ways even when it ought to, and it’s a shit for philosophers and it’s a particular shit for those who mourn. there’s no getting around it. you cannot go back, to undo the sorrow time brings. you cannot go forward – into the proverbial healing of all wounds – without bearing the day-to-day grinding work of living with pain and through pain. and when you finally get through, to that place of acceptance or resilience or whatever your personal post-traumatic Nirvana might be, you cannot go back even to visit the intensity of loss, and so you are carried ever away on the tide of time from that which you loved and grieved.

but. as you are carried forward, scarred and puckered but still breathing, time keeps on changing the game. when i bought that ring, six years ago, resilience and acceptance and healing were words i barely dared hope about, dangling way out at the edge of our horizons. fake it til you make it, i figured. the ring was a promise to try.

we made it, i think, by any standards that i understand. there’s been more letting go in the journey than i’d have comprehended, six years back. sometimes the numbness of that hole where the wind blows throw, it saddens me.

if i could play with time, i would hold in one hand the intensity of presence that grief once gave me with the intense, resilient present in the other. each would find the other accessible.

i never had that, not really.

but when i held Dave’s ring again, the other day, and saw Finn’s name, and Oscar’s and Posey’s, all together, for a second i did.



i used to travel.

a long time ago, Dave brought to my attention the handy fact that anyone who uses the words “used to” to describe an activity is rarely actually engaged in that activity anymore, only hanging onto it. a piece of identity.

i cringe a bit when i say “i used to.” when i take something up, i take it UP. i internalize it, wrap myself around it. this explains how i have managed to carry the same bright, fervid torch for David Bowie lo these many years: it’s my hobby. it’s a fundamental part of how i understand myself.

of course, i can’t just go altering how i understand myself willy-nilly, all the time. Dave starts three new things every week. i like to try a new activity every decade or so. i am part Ent, i suspect. i am not given to hastiness.

but i am given to wanderlust. or i was.

(at the end of The Lord of the Rings saga, the hobbit Frodo returns home to The Shire from his adventures as the bearer of the ring, but he cannot stay. he is too changed, and he leaves Middle Earth with Gandalf and the Elves to sail on to the Undying Lands. Frodo’s faithful Sam, the gardener, unwounded by the elven blade and the ring itself, settles down in The Shire and raises babies with his cute hobbit wife. this is ripe with metaphor, people.)

i had the wanderlust from the time i was a teenager, though it was probably mostly a contagious case of the Anywhere But Heres. i used to map travel, splayed out on the living room carpet with a highlighter and a fold-out map from a hand-me-down copy of National Geographic, imagining the places i’d go.

i was nearly thirty before i got to indulge it.

i’d nibbled at it earlier. i took the train across Canada the autumn i was twenty-two: spent my last $300 on the ticket, slept in the smoking car for a week, watched the stars over the Rocky Mountains, and got a job telemarketing in Vancouver the day we arrived. but passports and flights outside the country were beyond my reach, then. i spent a year in Vancouver, two teaching in the Arctic, headed back east to Halifax and a graduate degree. until friends blazed paths to expat teaching and it occurred to me that Scotland and Prague could be considered “on the way” to Korea if one was particularly creative with one’s geography and flight routes.

i left in the fall of 2000. i came home in January of 2005.

some wiser people used that period in their lives to, um, start careers. i plan to go live with them when i am old. i will tell stories from my lost years of indigence in return for small plates of catfood.

je ne regrette rien.

i don’t travel anymore, the way i used to. sure, we went to California for the first time this summer, and i’ll be all gussied up to speak at Blissdom Canada in The Big Smoke of Toronto come October, but conference travel is by its very nature bounded. it has a goal and a set destination. it is purposeful, and social, and for me, a lot of fun. but it is no more like the open-ended wandering that marked my late twenties and early thirties than babysitting is like having a colicky kid of your very own at three a.m., four months in a row.

this past year, i had the incredible privilege of revisiting one of my stories from those wanderlust days as part of a book: my work was included in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, a charming anthology being thrown lots of cool launch parties i can’t attend in glamourous far-away cities. sniff.

(yes, you should buy this for everyone on your Christmas list. absolutely. think of it as investing in the catfood stockpile.)

as the book makes the review rounds, those of us published in it were asked to answer a few questions about travel, and our relationships with travel. as i picked the questions that spoke to me, and tried to answer, a Mack truck of longing ran straight over me. the wanderlust flooded.

it told me i could not LIVE my settled life and needed to hightail it for the Undying Lands at first notice.

unfortunately, as you may have suspected, this is not Middle Earth. there are no Undying Lands for the weary soul momentarily overwhelmed by the drudgery and familiarity of The Shire. well, boo.

still. i think i can live out my Sam Gamgee days in peace.

truth is, travel, for me, was a constant cacophony: new smells, new sounds, new ways of seeing. history everywhere, if you look. i loved that about it. and i didn’t.

i didn’t handle it very well sometimes. i don’t like fish, which pops up in the most unexpected – and supposedly vegetarian – places, especially in Asia. i didn’t always like being an outsider. i don’t like being dealt with in an authoritarian manner. Dave still brings up that time i shouted at the customs officer as evidence of poor judgement on my part. what did you expect me to do? i counter, and then wonder if i’m not better off safe at home.

it’s hard to imagine going again. we have spent six+ years weaving ourselves financially and professionally and community-wise into this rooted life. the roots are good and growing strong. Dave spent the summer hacking out a patch of forest for a cabin for next year. we live a different kind of cacophony now.

i still don’t handle it very well sometimes. i don’t like the constant multiple demands on my attention. i don’t like mess. Dave looks at me funny when i shout about the fact that Oscar’s bus to kindergarten wants to pick him up SEVENTY MINUTES before the start of school even though we live an eight-minute drive away. what do you expect me to do? i counter, and then wonder if everyone wouldn’t be better off with me safe in Outer Mongolia.

sometimes far, far away sounds magical.

but wherever you go, there you are. ;)

the truth is, this is simply not that time in my life. i hope it comes again, and i will hold the space for it in my sense of myself. i even have vague hopes of vagabonding with the kids in five or six years time…taking a year or two as a family and committing to a joint work experience somewhere very different from this little corner of the world. but for now, i am mostly content to keep watering and weeding these roots here in The Shire my pastoral homeland.

(i’d happily eat catfood for a weekend in Paris, though. just sayin’.)

 what about you? where would YOU go, if you could pick up and go anywhere? what would be different about there?

…a few excerpts from my responses to the author interviews for BWTW2011. there are some exceptional writers in this collection: i’m looking forward to seeing the composite of answers that emerge. will share.

  1. What’s one place that has moved you or changed you in a significant way?

The Canadian Arctic. It was the first place in which I ever felt truly Other, and in which I came face to face with the legacies of colonialism and cultural history that permeate travel. I stayed a long time, and it taught me a lot about humility and relativism and my own privilege, and the folly of ever believing you fully understand what it is to be in another’s skin. The expanse of space there, the vulnerability of realizing that if you were to walk out into it you could go a thousand miles before ever meeting another human, is breathtaking. The North taught me that we are all different, and all inter-reliant, at the same time.

  1. In what ways does writing inform your relationship with travel? Do you keep a journal? Conduct interviews? Write on location?

Over the last few years, especially since I began blogging, my journal-writing has dwindled. I still have a big, black-bound artist’s sketchbook: the writing inside is still all-caps print, the aesthetic signature I developed for myself back in the days when I still considered my handwriting a part of my identity. But the current sketchbook – number thirteen or so in a long lineage – only sees the light of day these days when I travel. Especially alone. I love to travel alone, to play flaneur in an unfamiliar city. But writing is what keeps traveling alone from being lonely, for me. My journal is my companion when I’m stuck in an airport, or want to take up a table by myself in a pub without looking like I’ve been stood up. Writing is conversational: it allows me to dig in and reflect on what I’ve been seeing and how that changes what I’ve seen before. But these days I need to work harder to create that mental space, because the world and conversation and feedback are so easily at all of our fingertips…


you bounce, of course.

you always bounce, legs like Tigger and a spirit to match. but when we are forty feet off the floor and you are hanging partway out the viewing window cut into the cinderblocks of this old gym, i get nervous. my hand seeks purchase on your wiggling person: i grip the back of your Elmo panties as if they were a harness. my tightrope walker.

we are watching Oscar. your birthday coincided with the opening day of gymnastics, this year. you and i went to the kindergym. you climbed nimbly and walked the balance beam all on your own, and you sat on your mat this year, which surprised me most. on the rings you let me flip you upside and over and you laughed like sparkles and shouted AGAIN!

but Oscar, he is in the Big Gym with the big trampoline and the big beams and bars and we are in the gallery and you want DOWN. NOW.

i want to go THERE, Mama! you lean as far as the Elmo panties clutched in my deathgrip will allow and point down, at the marvels spread below us, the little groups of gymnasts hopping and swinging.

i smile. you will, love. next year, when you’re bigger.

that was the wrong thing to say.

i feel your outrage before i see and hear it. your body, sprung to bounce, tightens for the explosion. your face turns to me, wounded, plaintive, offended to your core.

i am the most bovine and unfair creature you have ever encountered.


you puff up like an indignant turkey and glare at me, daring me to contradict this Fact. as you should, really. your impending Bigger-ness has been impressed upon you for weeks now. you are proud of your Big. you look to me for reassurance that you are Doing It Right.

i have betrayed your faith in this bounteous inevitable.

the force with which you feel things always stuns me. someday this child will curse me, i think, a beat too late every time. then you forgive just as quickly, wholeheartedly, and i am again your sun and stars. i bask, and i pull back to breathe, all at once.

it will not be long, now. three years ago, on the day you were born, three seemed remarkably far in the distance for all of us. Oscar was just past two. toddlers and babies were all i knew. close, immediate, intimate. so needy. so sweet-smelling. and i thought i will get the hang of this eventually, find a balance, find ENOUGH of me for both of you.

suddenly he is in kindergarten, striding and stretching away from me into the world of cool and peers and independence, and you are hot on his tail and i look around me at this hectic maul where i cannot even pee by myself and i feel it slip like sand and i see, oh. there is no balance. there is too much. then not enough. you will bounce away, leap by leap and i will blink and find myself clutching a pair of ancient Elmo panties and waving, thinking how the hell did this happen?

it is as it should be.

yet…i see now why people have third, or fourth, or seventh babies. the promise of one more shot at balance. the realization that all those little old biddies were right, and it really does go So Fast. one more chance to do it better, because not one of us will ever get it perfect.

you are my last baby, Josephine.

i bend down to meet you, eye to eye. you ARE bigger, i say, and i beam at you. you’re SO bigger. but all those kids are four or five, sweetheart. when you are four, you can go to the big gym. you are three. Three. TODAY!

the chirp in my voice does not convince you, and your eyes well up. you are embarrassed. you were so sure.

next year, i promise. next year. but you don’t need to rush to be four, honey. three is GOOD. three is the bounciest, best thing in the world, okay? believe me. and don’t lean out the window like that.

i feel your small hand snake around my thigh. you lean in, and we stand together and watch the big kids below, my hand in your hair. the whole while i hear you whisper BIGGER, BIGGER, BIGGER under your breath. the eternal prayer of the younger child.

i pull you close to me and i try not to whisper, take your time.

happy birthday, my Big Girl, my love.

end of summer by o&poecormier
(photo courtesy of the lovely & talented @BethPJohnston)

a bonfire on the beach on the last night of summer. by next summer, we will have a cottage here. we hope.

for now, sandy feet and salt and smoke in our clothes on an unseasonally warm September night. small bodies racing down the shore into the sunset.

tomorrow, school. tomorrow. already.
what brought your summer to a close?

the year Star Wars was released, i was five years old. i’d never been to a movie, even a Disney fairytale: my mom would take me me to Candleshoe in the theatre later that year, but at the time i had no clue i was missing anything.

i started first grade that September, innocent of The Force and of Jedi and robots. within weeks, the scales had fallen from my eyes: EVERYone, it seemed, had plastic figurines with long legs and strange costumes. some were golden; one had cinnamon buns for hair. i didn’t realize it all stemmed from a film. i thought there was a game called Star Boards that everyone knew but me.

Oscar is five. he starts school next week. he has owned a Star Wars tshirt for a year or so, now; he is the proud inheritor of his father’s plastic 1977 figurines. but yesterday, he took a leap i didn’t take until i was twenty-five: he watched Star Wars. with his dad. and popcorn. rite of passage.

(he is now convinced he is Han Solo. i seem to have been relegated to the role of R2D2. he is also convinced he can make his sister quiet using The Force. good luck, young Jedi, sez me.)

i think it’s mostly those of us born before VCRs that can remember our first movies, because we were OLD by the time we got taken to one. do you remember yours? do you remember the first time you saw Star Wars?

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