Archive for the ‘friendships’ category

The realm of the unexpected

April 19, 2014

 

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir National Park, where the European and North American plates are separating at a rate of 1cm per year.

When I was small enough to be stuffed in the back of the car with my brother and toured across the continent, my dad would sing a repertoire of traveling songs. Our favourite was about a man’s first night of marital bliss. The couple are alone in the bedroom, and the woman takes off her eyelashes, which were fake. She takes off her hair, which was a wig. She takes off her false nails, the blush on her cheeks, and her leg, a prosthetic. She removes unexpected parts of her body, everything besides the clothes the man had hoped to see in a puddle on the floor.

I was thinking about this song on the Icelandair flight back to North America from Europe. How appropriate it was that my dad only sung this one during road trips. In Iceland, I went to a geothermal pool in Reykjavik and had to shed my very North American notions of shameful nudity, to strip down in the change room and shower in front of other girls and women – how liberating! (see #4 here) Also in Reykjavik, I shrugged off my tendency toward nothing but mellow music, and, after seeing Sin Fang perform at an art gallery, I went to a heavy metal show at Gamli Gaukurinn – how ear piercing! I loved every minute of it (after shoving tissue in my ears to block the high notes). I learned that heavy metal has a basis in classical music (thanks, Gemma!), and that, as a lake-lover, there are public pools I can handle – the kind with no skin-drying chlorine.

This is what travel is all about: a stripping away of the expected, to step into the realm of the unexpected.

Travel is also about making new connections in a world of endless possibility, beyond the borders of daily life. In a Reykjavik café called Kaffibarinn, Gemma and I met a couple from Bergen, Norway. The man was fascinated when I told him I live in Newfoundland, because he is a journalist and friend of Todd Saunders, the world-renowned architect who designed the five star inn for the Shorefast Foundation on Fogo Island, NL. I was struck by the way the couple talked about art – his painting, her adoration of music, the people they know and the communities they adore. I said goodbye, determined to incorporate more art into my own life back home.

I booked this trip to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat. I wanted to do something special and memorable, and selfishly indulgent for my 40th birthday. The week knocked “special” way out of the park. The workshops were fabulous, with take-away inspiration about immediacy in literary beginnings, story arc, character and voice, and the emotional beat to end on. Every time I turned around there was another writer with a fascinating story to tell. Each and every one of us like a turtle poking our heads out of the shell of self-consciousness we wear, downplaying every small thing we’ve ever accomplished, and giddy to be in the presence of published authors.

home of Halldór Laxness

In the home of Nobel Prize winning author Halldór Laxness.

We met the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who told us with a smile that in his country there are no statues of presidents, but you can find many statues of writers.

The day of my birthday we went on a tour of the Golden Circle (even the weather cooperated with mostly clear skies), and that evening, we enjoyed two author readings by Gerður Kristný and Ragna Sigurðardóttir, and a performance by Lay Low. As we left KEX to head to another bar, the northern lights appeared. Only in non-fiction do things work out this perfectly.

My husband was worried I’d be sad and lonely to be away from my family for my birthday. I admit I did choke up once: during the final Q&A with the authors, when Susan Orlean said, Give yourself a break if you are writing into the void (without deadlines or promise of publication). I decided, if there’s nothing else interesting about me, this is it. The fact that I am committed to my writing, without any concrete goal besides maybe being published, someday. So committed, I take time away from my family and other pleasures to pursue it, to work at it, so committed that I’ve invested in it, in the best ways possible.

When asked her opinion on pursuing an MFA, the very wonderful and inspiring Geraldine Brooks suggested a writer could take the thirty thousand per year she’d spend on an MFA, and travel instead.

I couldn’t agree more.

Inspiration…

October 7, 2012

I discovered the basement of the MUN library the other day and sat amongst stacks of literary magazines. Felt overwhelmed by the volume of words out there. Wondered how I will ever add to them. Should I keep writing, or just set down my pen and read what’s already out there? Then I read this quote in The New Quarterly, in an intro to an excerpt from Jeffery Donaldson’s ten year labour of love called Missing Link: The Evolution of Metaphor and the Metaphor of Evolution…. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function. Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various “codes,” into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.

So what does anything have to do with anything?

A lot. A whole lot.

 

Emergency Contact Numbers

February 28, 2012

I’ve made several attempts at writing this blog post over the last week and I’ve failed over and over again to finish it. It’s a really tough one for me because I’m not so much celebrating an anniversary, as holding my breath and waiting for it to pass.

We arrived in St. John’s a year ago. I hardly remember the lovely rental home we lived in for the first four and a half months. I realize now that there were things I could have done differently that might have made it seem like a less traumatic experience. I’m going to share some of these things here only in the hope that someone else going through a relocation might read about my experience, and learn something to make their own even a little bit easier. You see, this is the reason I started this blog in the first place. When we set out to move to Thompson, I found so little on the internet about relocation. Sure, there’s companies advertising how they can help make your move easier — Let us do your packing! Believe me, the packing is not the issue. The emotional baggage you’ll wear for the rest of your life is.

I got a cell phone when we moved rather than a land line, because I knew we’d be moving again once our house in Thompson sold, and I thought one phone with a number I wouldn’t have to change would make more sense. Besides, I wanted to be reachable should my daughter’s school ever need to get in contact with me. I am not a paranoid parent. But I remember feeling paranoid that my daughter wouldn’t be able to reach me in the event of an emergency.

I also remember crying every time I had to fill out a form — for the kids’ schools, or for the couple activities I signed them up for — where there’s a space to put an emergency contact number. I didn’t have an emergency contact. Well, I did, I was grateful I could put my husband’s boss’s wife as a contact. But that was like a surrogate. I didn’t have any personal contacts here. No family. No friends.

I let the cell phone be an excuse to not reach out to my own friends in other provinces. I should have been calling my girlfriends, I should have been expressing my loneliness, my joys and successes and adventures. Instead, I allowed myself to sink into a foreign kind of isolation. I shunned some of the mom’s groups I could have joined because I was tired, and wanted any extra energy I had leftover from caring for my children, for my writing.

I remember feeling like I had to be a hero, I had to be settled and fine with everything, able to handle all aspects of life for me and the kids, so that my husband could hit the ground running with his new job. I remember watching grandparents taking their children’s children to school, and wanting to ask them to adopt me and my kids. Please, take us in. Please, be our family. I need an extended family.

I have a family. My own parents have been so amazing, they came out to help me here several times. My in-laws were here to help us unpack at our new house in July. One of my best friends came out with her son to spend Thanksgiving with us, and I got to see two other friends who were in St. John’s in the fall. I remember thinking, during each visit, I should be so grateful for this. I remember how alone I felt whenever I said goodbye.

Goodbyes have been a theme for me lately, and I hate them. They get harder and harder all the time. I want to set fire to goodbyes. I want hellos that last and last.

I was talking to one of my husband’s colleagues recently who told me that, following a series of relocations for work, he once had to make the choice between his job and his marriage. He made the wise decision to give up his job, and keep his marriage. Finding another job was not difficult. Nothing is more important than family, he told me.

I’ve met several other women who have followed their husband’s careers, from places farther than other provinces in Canada — England, Korea, India. One told me recently that, although it’s hard to be away from home and extended family, and to have her husband travelling a lot for work, that at least there’s a culture of that here. Back in England where she was living, she said it was awkward for her kids whose friends’ fathers would pick them up from school, while their own dad was away. Here, the family blends in more, and they still make it work to live sometimes apart, and to just enjoy the time they have together. It’s not that simple, I’m sure, but those are the parameters you have to work with sometimes.

Most of this last year, for me, has been all about newness. Exciting as that is, I’ve craved normality, unsure of what that means, but at the same time, knowing I will find it, given time. Time I haven’t had, given two moves in one year, and three provinces in the last two years. My husband and I recently found a wedge between us that grew out of this relocation. We’re whittling it down. And I think one thing I’m learning about marriage — never before having faced anything that required real effort between us, but this last year, understandably, especially with a new baby who kept us up through the night those first several numbing months of this move — is that when you try to take anything just for yourself, that’s when you are hurtful. I disappeared into my writing, he into his job. We’ve both been able to focus on the kids, but not on each other.

I don’t have any sort of magic formula for relocation. And each move is different, just like each person, as I tell my kids all the time, each of us is unique, like snowflakes. Couples are all unique, too. But I do know that keeping your partner in focus has got to be one of the only ways to survive it all together. We’re taking a trip together, just the two of us, next month, and although I’m a bit nervous to leave the kids for a week (but again, extremely grateful my parents are going to be able to be here with them), I know this trip is like a key to our survival.

There are a couple other things we’re working on now, like finding childcare for the kids so I can look for a job. I’m also trying to get into a writing course at the university. We’re also making dinner dates with other families, and more plans for things to do together as a family, more hiking, short road trips, fun meals together. My husband has been turning off his phone, even for a few hours on the weekends. He’s discovered that when something is really truly important, a person will call. The constant emails are…..very difficult to manage. I respect so much the fact that he has realized that if he doesn’t manage them, they will manage not only him, but his family.

I have to take responsibility for my own happiness, and not wallow in loneliness. I have to reach out in my new community and grab hold of the things that will make life feel more like living, and less like something to just get through. As my one friend said to me recently, no one else is going to do that for me. It’s been a heartbreaking year. But there have been some wonderful things that have happened, too. And if it is all about focus, I will carry all the positivity and everything gained from this experience, into my future. I will hope that anything I’ve thought I’d lost along the way, can be retrieved, built on.

At this point, one year after arriving in St. John’s, I have several emergency contact numbers. And counting. Perhaps I do have something to celebrate, after all.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Lights

November 25, 2011

The other day I made one of those careless parenting decisions that backfired in an explosive way. When my four-year-old son insisted on “helping” to fill the van with gas, I succumbed.

His father started this with him (during those first few months following our latest move, when the boy was terrified of being left alone in the vehicle). I’ve allowed this before too, back when the baby was little enough to sleep in his car seat. I would hover over my little man, making sure he had the nozzle properly inserted into the mouth of the gas tank. This time, the baby, now twelve months old and much too impatient to wait quietly while his big brother did something fascinating, began to scream. I stuck my head inside the van to distract him. My normally very coordinated four-year-old decided for some reason to slide the nozzle out while still squeezing the lever, causing the gas to explode all over himself in a river of the strong-smelling liquid.

This was all taking place on a day in mid-November, which is a freak-out time of year if ever there was one. You know how it goes, Christmas is approaching, the anxiety of all the extra work to do leading up to the holidays is closing in. The first colds and flus of the season are sweeping through families whose time is already taut with activities, appointments, Christmas card lists and wish lists, fundraising and all those seasonal events we are obliged to attend.

That night, with the gasoline smell permeating the entire house even after putting the clothes through the wash four times, I was on my way to Brownies with my daughter where I’ve volunteered as a leader. As usual, I couldn’t find our inside shoes, or the binder I’m supposed to have with me at all times for these meetings, or the cookie money I’d collected. I succumbed for a second instance in one day, this time to my frustration. “I will NOT do Christmas cards this year, I will NOT go to your stupid party, and no one better expect me to do any decorating or baking this year!” I yelled all this at my husband, but it bounced off his back as he turned away from me, no doubt rolling his eyes as he did so.

I got home later that evening to find my husband putting up a string of lights in our kitchen. He told me quickly that if they look silly, he could take them down. My nose twitching, I went into the laundry room. I got those gassy clothes out of the wash and took them outside to hang them on the line. When I came back in, the lights twinkled at me.

I stayed up late that night, writing madly. The Christmas lights sparkled. Outside, it began to snow.

Over the next few days, I finished a story I’ve been working on for years. I sent it to another new friend I’ve met here in St. John’s, a very talented poet with whom I’ve been sharing work back and forth. He encouraged me to submit my story to a contest. I also completed a non-fiction piece, and submitted that one to CBC Radio’s Winter Tale competition.

My kids were playing outside in the snow the day I finally retrieved my son’s clothes off the line. They smelled fresh as fresh could be, not a trace of the gasoline odour left. My son asked, “Mommy, what’s on your Christmas list?” At the same time, my daughter announced she wanted to go in and do some baking with me. We all went in and plugged in the lights. As my children and I worked together, the mess in the kitchen grew. I embraced the magic of the lights, even began to mentally prepare my Christmas card list. I discovered my answer to my son’s question.

One House, Two House; Old House, New House

October 4, 2011

One of the fiction stories I remember writing in elementary school was a tale about a haunted house. The gist of it was something like this: through a series of spooky events someone discovers their home is haunted, and the entire family ends up trapped within its walls for generations. I’m sure my young brain conjured some fascinating images for that story. I do know that I pictured the house as a dark, three-storey structure, standing alone in the centre of a wide, grassy field. I think I titled it something very original like, The Haunted House.

I no longer believe in haunted houses. But I do believe in being haunted by decisions I’ve made years ago that spring back to me in the present like a sling-shot in time. As well, by more recent decisions that I see as having a domino affect on my life, long into the future. And I do believe I will forever be haunted by the choices I make on behalf of my children. It’s terrifying enough holding your own fate in the palm of your hand, never mind the fate of three other lives.

So my husband and I have moved into the fourth house we’ve owned together. It is our first-born’s sixth residence; our second-born’s fourth; and the baby’s third (the kids’ homes include a couple of rentals along the way).

If I’ve learned anything after four house-hunts, it’s this: if you go into it expecting perfection, you’ll never, ever be satisfied. So here’s my personal rules for success (keeping in mind that rules are easily broken, and “success” is a moving target):

1. Area is most important. When my husband and I moved to Sudbury, Ontario, a location four hours north of the sprawling city of Toronto, he wanted a quiet place on the lake, and I, the one who would be “stuck” at home with kids until I could find another job,  wanted a neighbourhood where I could meet other young families and walk to a library. I guess you could say I, with both those desires satisfied, won. We made friends spitting distance from our backyard with whom we could party, avoiding hefty babysitter costs. I was able to walk the kids to library storytime, and eventually, once I found work, to their respective daycares. A place on the lake would have been nice, but…..we had many great camping spots nearby instead.

2. Room for the kids to play outdoors is imperative. I cannot stress enough the fact that kids need outdoor play as surely as they require proper nutrition (so do adults, we’re just better at self-medicating to try to ignore this fact….something that will be the demise of us all one of these centuries, I’m afraid). If my family managed to get outside daily in Northern Manitoba, I’ll be damned if I’ll let the winds of the Atlantic force us to stay indoors most of the time here in St. John’s. This time around we found a house in the city, with a flat backyard (a rarity in this hilly part of the world), and we bought a terrific play structure on kijiji that we set up even before the moving truck arrived.  I am proud to say that the kids – ours, and many others in the neighbourhood – log many hours on that playset.

3. Once your family gets to a certain size, space is an important luxury. After living in a three-bedroom rental with the baby tucked into a corner of our room (which did not work out at all, as he was waking three or four times each night, a terrible habit that stopped once we moved the other two into a shared room, and the baby into his own space), we decided four bedrooms was mandatory (but very difficult to find).

The house we chose is like a mansion after the apartment we lived in downtown. But we have no garage. I can hardly begin to describe how painful this is. And, as flat as the backyard is, the front makes up for it by consisting of a steep drop off a short treed platform to the sidewalk and then the road, and a series of haphazard steps from the front door to the driveway. I have come close to chucking the stroller down that drop-ff in frustration many a time.

So no, it’s not perfect. Sacrifices have been made in order to satisfy the above points. But we do enjoy the area. Even better, we have great neighbours (we’ve always been lucky with neighbours!), and kids for our kids to play with. I guess you could say, we choose lifestyle over…..structure.

The other night I was lapping up some culture at a presentation by Jane Urquhart, who was speaking at Memorial University as part of their Pratt Lectures. Urquhart’s topic was, Inner Lives: Fiction and the Visual Imagination, and she emphasized that the inclusion of architecture is essential to bringing fiction to life. I can’t help but think how appropriate that topic is for my reality, the adult portion which could be titled: The Many Houses of Carrie’s Life. I could split it into chapters according to preference, first being the Thompson, Manitoba house. I could meander into a tale about how unlikely it was that in a place I never ever wanted to move to, we found our perfect abode.

However, for us, the outside is often drastically more important than the inner walls of our home. The Thompson one was a modest-sized house, but had the biggest backyard. It even backed onto green space in a place where we didn’t worry about crime or property damage (the worst that happened there was, you’d find squatters from the nearby reserves in the forest, who would sometimes leave behind thrift store finds like jackets and chairs, ooohhhh, terrifying!).

I think I’ve been somewhat sobered by this move. We’re faced with the highest energy costs we’ve ever known. We have one more little life to hold in the palm of our hands (and what a delightful little life it is!). Already, we look back on last winter and breath a sigh of relief that we survived it. We’ve finally closed off our moving claims, been compensated for the things that got broken or lost. My husband has a veritable gang of guys he goes mountain biking with and, although he only got his bike out of storage two months ago, I think he’s used it more this year than the last several years combined. I am giddy as a school girl over the amount of literary events and supportive network of writers here in this city.

Best of all, we are making connections that are, at last, feeling permanent and meaningful.

The human condition in virtual reality

August 24, 2011

I was recently put back in touch, through Facebook, with people I knew a very long time ago. I daresay, many lifetimes ago, for the time I speak of was prior to kids, prior to marriage. Sharing brief updates with one another through FB messaging made me think of the value – or lack thereof – of the new world we live in, this lifetime of social media.

I love hearing about people I’ve known in the past. Having moved around a lot, making and loosing friends year to year, province to province, town to town, I appreciate the technology that allows me to catch  up with old ties. It’s inspiring to know that a former co-worker has been promoted, followed their dreams, found happiness in their career and especially in their life, or that an old acquaintance is doing well.

This week, news I learned through this medium was anything but uplifting. There was, in fact, too much sad news from Canada in the last few days, from the loss of a politician beloved by many in this country, who passed at the too young age of 61, to a plane crash up north in our Arctic.

I recognized the name of one of the crew members in the crash instantly. I honestly thought, at first, that it couldn’t be the same guy I tree planted with, one of my crew members my memorable first year in the bush. I thought, there’s got to be more than one man in this world with that name. Through facebook, I learned the worst. Holy hell, he’s the same age as my husband, who also knew him, and he’s left his wife a widow with three small children.

This is not my loss. I haven’t been in touch with him in ten years. But I’m haunted by this too sad story, and the fact that the last time we hung out, we were in Whistler, BC, and that’s when I met his then girlfriend, now widow.

Can the virtual world help me send my condolences to his family, and the families of the other eleven people who perished on that flight in Resolute? At the very least, I will use this technology to get an address to send something to the family. But what good is a cheque or a card or flowers, when nothing can make up for the loss?

Before reading the news this week, I was reflecting on the fact that social media is a most superficial form of connecting. No matter how many personal pictures, regular status updates or sharing of internet interests a person has on their homepage, we can never truly know each other without real face time. That’s what makes me most sad about geographical distances that separate me from loved ones. But I’m learning of more and more situations where the reality of life means people must be apart for survival – apparently there are many Newfoundlanders who knew people on that flight as well, for some of them travel there for work.

So the technology can fill in the gaps left by temporary distance. The other night, my parents watched my kids in the backyard on Skype, saw for their first time their four-year-old grandson pumping on the swing, something my son just learned a few weeks ago. My nine-month-old is now used to this form of communication, for where he once cried to see their faces on my laptop, now he smiles and points and grunts at them, much to their glee.

So is it valuable? You bet. I wouldn’t want to not know about people I’ve known and cared about, no matter if the news is sad or happy, or to share moments between my kids and their grandparents, even if it is only virtual. Does it change the human condition? Nope. We still share, suffer, feel, as deeply with it, as without.

May your families and friends be safe in this weekend’s coming storms. May next week’s news not be so sad. Either way, I’ll be online, watching.

Women need a wife

July 9, 2011

It’s finally set. Our moving date, that is. After nearly five months of being displaced, we will be moving into our new house next week.

I have much to say about the house hunt, the house choice, and the efforts thus far to work towards settling into the house (including bashing down walls, tearing out flowered wallpaper, and repairing a door after being broken into). But first, bear with me, because I’m gonna go all chicken soup for the soul for a moment.

Great vistas are like true friendships; they inspire me to be a better person.

As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve had quite the friend drought since moving from Manitoba to Newfoundland. But the tides are changing and I’ve started to meet new people. Most importantly, other moms. One in particular who went out on a limb and reached out to me, after discovering my blog. Boy oh boy am I ever glad she did! I can’t promise where the friendship will go (onwards and upwards, I hope!), but for now, having someone here I can call on is truly magical.

I’ve learned a lot about friendship in the last several years. It’s a different beast now compared with what it was in childhood. Back then, backstabbing was as much a part of socializing as was playing (remember those hurtful days of being excluded from a game or a birthday party?). As an adult, as mentioned here by my new friend, courting new friendships is like dating. I know myself better now than I did before, which is the first step in reaching out to others, and it doesn’t take long to realize what (or who) will work, and what (or who) won’t in a friendship.

I don’t like to think of myself as discriminatory, but I’ll admit, there is one thing in particular I look for in a friend these days; motherhood status.

I have a man in my life, and while I have other male acquaintances who are great, I must admit that between my husband and my two sons, I have all the testosterone I need. What I need besides, is a wife.

I bestowed this title on a good friend of mine in Thompson before I left. It was like being torn away from my wife, having to move away from her. She (and it wasn’t only one close friend there, but a network of great girls I wish I could have enjoyed daily life with longer) and I could trade off kids at a moment’s notice, whip up dinners to enjoy together or for each other (okay, it was her making dinner for me, adamant I wasn’t allowed to say thank you or it wasn’t a gift), enjoy coffees, walks, wine, sick and sleepless night stories, and laugh it all off as shared experience.

Another way to put it: something I read, can’t remember where, that stated how there’s no monetary value you can put on stay at home mothers (or fathers, for that matter), but that they (we) are the ones creating communities. Forming playgroups to get our kids socializing. Soliciting governments for parks, sidewalks, community centres, libraries. Volunteering when possible, taxiing children to school, sports and arts events. Filling in the gaps left by the rest of the world immersed in the workforce.

Men need wives for support, companionship, for partnership through life’s journey. I declare that women need wives, too, not in an erotic way, but in a partnership way. Call it stalling feminism if you like, but I find that our roles as men and women are still quite defined. I’m okay with that – my husband wields the hammer, I wield the calendar of family events. My husband needs his boys (best friends) to let loose with once in a while, and I need my girls to do the same. Each in our own way. It all works if we don’t fight it. Admittedly, the lines are often blurry, and I love that about modern families – sometimes not one mom and one dad, or sometimes it’s the man who is chatty, the woman who fixes things around the house. That’s life in all it’s varied, glorious colours and combinations.

True friendship, for me, is more to the point now than it was in childhood. I choose friends, now, not based on what they wear, or whether or not I’ll be invited to their birthday party. I choose people who make me feel good about myself.

And here’s the most important guideline I follow in choosing a friend, mother or not: I choose friends who make me want to be a better person. Friends who inspire me to work harder, learn more, take better care of myself, so that I’ll be there longer for all the people I love and care about.

There’s also something mysterious about girlfriends at this point in my existence. I don’t know if she brushes her teeth right after dinner, or before she goes to bed. If she wears socks under the covers. If she kisses her children in the same order each night. These are secrets no longer sacred in my married life. I know everything and then some about my husband. There’s a great comfort in that (and in the fact that some of those habits do change with time, and we’ll grow and learn to adapt to them together). But the mystery about a new friend, a mom with whom I start several conversations yet finish none, constantly interrupted as we inevitably are by children needing a tissue, or acknowledgment of a somersault completed, or a boo boo kissed; that mystery remains. It hangs in the air between us, waiting for the next playdate. It keeps me smiling into the night, wondering if I’ll ever know the tangible answers to the questions about a person I somehow already and innately trust completely.