Be conspicuous

Infrequently, I purchase children’s picture books.

After getting rather overwhelmed by a huge selection of vintage postcards, photos and other discarded paper ephemera in a used bookstore in Victoria last weekend, I retreated to the children’s section. I found Veronica.

Veronica is a hippo whose literary birth in 1961 acquainted young readers with a heroine who leaves a muddy riverbank where she is overheard to sigh, “No one notices me here. I don’t even know myself.” She decides to begin walking, and keeps going until she finds a place where she can be different.

When she reaches the city, she immediately feels “gloriously conspicuous.”

When I become excited about something I am reading, I lose the ability to read it at all. The words begin to fly past my eyes until they are blurred together on the page and it’s all I can do to pick out a handful of vocabulary until I hit the end and catch my breath. This phenomena is equally likely to occur with job postings, letters from friends, research articles, poetry, long form text messages…

So now I’m racing through the pages and picking up speed: “wrong way,” “in the way,” “tired,” “you can’t,” “so conspicuous,” “helped herself,” “hide quickly,” “I want to go home,” “happy.”

I appreciated this reminder to seek out environments that will make you feel different, even if it’s hard. Probably especially if it’s hard. And that it’s ok to go home again when you’re ready. My interest was also piqued by the idea that you can’t know yourself until you are situated in a context in which you are unique, different, conspicuous.

There is depth to these concepts worth dwelling on, but I confess my immediate inspiration was to fulfill a secret ambition to follow a proud family tradition of hat-wearing (no one bedecks a noggin like my grandparents, or my parents circa 1999). I had spotted a hat shop en route to the book store, and soon after purchasing Veronica’s story, led my love to its door wherein a black wool fedora was acquired in good order.

I feel gloriously conspicuous in my smart chapeau, especially when paired with a recently acquired red and green vintage Pendleton swing coat. It may sound shallow, and perhaps no one is looking at all, but these comparatively bold outerwear choices are doing more than you know for my weary spirit, which lately has felt too small, too tired, too overwhelmed to dare draw attention to me. Especially en route to and from work each day.

If you’re interested to read about Veronica for yourself, I recommend you look up a copy of the book, titled simply “Veronica.” Roger Duvoisin, the back flap tells me, wrote this book and 40 others, and illustrated it (the pictures are delightful), as well as the covers of several New Yorker magazines, and 100 more stories by other authors. He passed away in 1980.

And should you find yourself in Victoria, I can also recommend Sorensen’s at Fort Street for used books (and discarded paper objets of all kinds); and Roberta’s Hats on Government Street.

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Something substantial

I missed my September posting goal. Doubling down in October, and as penance, the first one is a stream of consciousness style entry from my journal earlier this month. Here goes.

Write something of substance! You started this particular journal in May 2009, and without creating an Excel spreadsheet, I can say with confidence that more than 90% of the entries are about boys and relationships.

I imagine a love of my life with whom to share my life (and yes, right now I have the right man for the job – but the record shows I’m not good at these predictions so I’ll try harder to one-day-at-a-time now).

That being said, at the end of my life, I feel there should be a hundred things I would better have them say in my eulogy than just “she loved and was loved by this man.” Though please say that too, if such a man proved to exist in the end, and was worthy, and if there’s time. But use the first lines to recount a story about me. Make it specific. Good story-telling is specific before it is broad and widely applicable. And then it returns to specificity.

Tell a story about a time I was stubborn or kind, or better still if you can think of a time I was both. Please let the eulogy be given by someone who knew me well that I respected and loved. But not by a parent or anyone else that would wish I’d outlive them (by which I mean, please let me outlive my parents because I couldn’t bear to cause them that much sadness).

Let the eulogist do a good job of public speaking. Let the crowd (if there is a crowd) be on their side. Maybe it’s a daughter, or VL is she lives longer (She very likely will. Despite her claim that in the event of a fire, she would throw herself on the flames. She was joking).

Nobody lie or embellish to make me sound anything more or less than I am. I prefer stories that are honest.

Use your lapse into generality to give some advice. If you’d like advice from me, just tell everyone to be accountable, leave room for doubt, and be kind. Or something better if I happen to say it between now and then.

Then be specific again. Tell another story about me. Or about me and you together. Try to give everyone something to laugh about.

Nothing religious please. It’s poppycock to me, and often dangerous nonsense.

Have good snacks for everyone. No woody carrots and ranch dip.

Was this of substance?

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Berlin in the Rain

Two weeks of backpacking – the indignant fear that your travel companion is resentful and sick to death of you made both girls resentful and sick to death of each other. They parted ways in Berlin.

On their last night together, the sky gave up a downpour. The girl in blue suede shoes navigated them to a bar that her ex-boyfriend, whom she imagined herself still in love with, had long ago recommended. They missed it once before finally locating the closed establishment. Shivering in sopping wet blue suede, she peered in through the darkened window and willed in vain for the lights to come on and the door to be unlocked. Not for the first time in the last 90 minutes, she complained of the need to pee.

Vexed up to here by her companion’s relentless poetic waxing about the army officer from Mitte, and with impatient sympathy for a full bladder, the girl in the fringed crop top curtly indicated that she might as well squat in the darkened doorway.

“Pee on the doorstep?”
“The pavement is wet anyways and there’s no one around.”

Carefully, so as not to further spoil my shoes, I squat next to the door and relieve my bladder.

Then, laughing wickedly, we take off running down the street, and eventually make our way to an establishment with the lights on. At Mein Haus Am See, we drink mojitos and I take note of the blue stains on my feet. I confess to my fringed companion, “I know this trip has tested our friendship but I’m really glad we did it together.” The bar is quite noisy but I am met with silence. Early in the morning, she packs her fringed top and returns to Poland.

Their friendship is fractured to this day, but once thoroughly dried, the blue suede shoes are as good as new.

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A Whole Foods Smoothie

I saw a man selling magazines. I did not want to buy a magazine, of course, but I thought to smile at him and acknowledge him at his work on the sidewalk with a tip of my head in his direction.

The look of surprise that came over his face shook me. I thought that look evinced how rare it must be for the people both hurrying and sauntering past to spare a glance towards him. His expression suggested to me that in the brief moment we made eye contact, he was possessed by a painful combination of surprise that I should smile at him, the sense of obligation to try and sell a magazine to a customer, and hopelessness at the knowledge that I surely would not make a purchase. I swear I saw him wrestle with himself, and I thought I recognized the self-flagellation of an obligation that feels impossible.

If that is indeed what he was thinking then he was not wrong, because I did follow my feet onwards to the end of the block and around the corner. But what he could not know is that my stomach was suddenly in my throat and I was ashamed of myself. In an instant I was trying to rationalize my inaction. I don’t know who he is or what he’s about or how he will behave towards me if I approach him. I’m a young woman by myself. And more pragmatically, the magazine cover said it cost $10. $10 for a magazine I don’t even want!

I paused after I passed through the sliding doors of Whole Foods. I had stepped out of the office to take a break between tasks and walked here out of habit. I briefly considered buying a smoothie as a mid-afternoon treat, even though I wasn’t hungry. In case you’re unaware, a Whole Foods smoothie with added protein powder costs $10.

$10 for a smoothie I don’t even want.

I started back towards the doors.

A co-worker saw me turning and waved to me. “Feel like taking a walk to Tim Horton’s?” he said. I am ashamed to say I went with him, in the opposite direction down the street from the man I had just made up my mind to retrace steps towards.

I don’t know how those magazine selling businesses work, but I am almost positive it’s not about selling magazines. It’s about giving someone the chance to prove they’re reliable and trustworthy. That they will show up for their shifts, be courteous to their employer and act professionally towards their customers. To secure a reference so that one might apply for another job. I would not be surprised if $10/magazine is the breakeven cost needed to run the program. The thought crossed my mind that he must not sell many magazines in the course of his work week.

I behaved with terrible unthinking privilege that afternoon. I’m also ashamed to say that I hesitated to confess this in writing. To make it worse, I have deliberately not looked up more complete information on how the magazine selling programs work because I do not want to feel even more self-loathing when I read about the good work accomplished through this enterprise.

I know why I went to Tim Horton’s instead of back towards the man. It crossed my mind that it would be embarrassing for both of us to know that I walked past and then doubled-back again. I thought my co-worker would think it was strange. I was scared the magazine articles would make me feel even worse. It was easier not to.

I have not seen the man, or anyone else, selling magazines on that sidewalk since. Usually it’s taken over by fundraisers for Plan Canada. By writing it down tonight, I hope that my own words will uphold me to a higher standard next time.

Who are you?

The book, “Awake and Dreaming” by Kit Pearson tells the story of a girl who wishes on a new moon for her perfect life, and wakes the next morning to discover that she is suddenly living it. All the people around her act as if it’s been that way all along, but she still remembers the terrible reality she was living in before. At first she is utterly confused and worried. But after some time, she settles into her new circumstances and is indescribably happy. One morning she wakes up to find she is back in her real and unhappy life.

Two months ago, I recounted the plot of this story to my partner to explain what it feels like to be with him. Except, of course, I haven’t awoken to my old reality.

One day, not so very long ago, Stephen became part of my life. It feels so right and we fit so naturally together that I find myself behaving in a way that suggests he has been there all along. At the same time, I remember my life before him. Unlike Kit Pearson’s heroine, I was happy and had everything to be grateful for. Nonetheless, the moments that constitute my days now seem more fantastic than real by comparison. It is more plausible to me that a writer’s ghost has performed an accidental magic to transport me into a fairy tale than the idea that a perfect storm of everything I hoped love would feel like is embodied in another human being.

And yet his coffee mug sits next to mine by the sink.

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Found a Peanut

Last night I took an over-the-counter antihistamine to guard against the effects of an evening spent in the company of two dogs. And then I foolishly had a large glass of wine with dinner. The effect was akin to a prolonged intravenous dose of antihistamines and within a couple of hours, I was slumped against my boyfriend’s shoulder, fast asleep on the couch. The lingering cloudy mind that accompanied me this morning stirred a strange melancholy for past emergency room visits.

I have spent nights in emergency room hospital beds, drugged into a stupor to save my life. Accidentally, I eat something which triggers an anaphylactic reaction. My body thinks we are under attack and begins to shut down in an attempt to defend us. It cannot listen to the mind that we could be ok if we would only please just treat that peanut like a strawberry. I am alerted to the impending lockdown by a tingling sensation on my mouth, or more recently, a horrible pain in the pit of my stomach.

The emotional response envelops me, suspended on the tips of raised hairs on my arms and the back of my neck.

First there is a calm, singular focus. All sound blurs into background noise and my thoughts establish a laser like precision. I must confirm that I am having an allergic reaction. I stride with purpose to whomever prepared or served my food and ask them if there were nuts in the dish. When they respond yes, I make arrangements to locate and travel to the nearest hospital. I try to avoid the drama of an ambulance because I think I have time. Momentarily indifferent to the burden of responsibility I am placing upon them, I have co-opted boyfriends, friends, and cab drivers into the mission of driving me to the hospital.

Shortly into the car ride, the illusion of calm, because it was always an illusion, begins to evaporate and is replaced by panic. As the last shreds of calm dissipate into the ether, I might instruct my driver how to administer an Epi-pen. And then I will become very quiet because I am thinking only about whether or not I am still breathing.

Eventually the rising panic manifests as tears. By the time I reach the front desk of the emergency room, I am nearly hysterical and if I am trying to explain the situation in a foreign country, it is possible that they will have no idea what I am talking about at all.

The emergency room staff will take over now, but I will continue to panic if they do not immediately begin an IV administering antihistamines. But eventually they will do this.

After drugs are administered, a temporary calm is re-established as I fall into the deepest sleep. But it is swiftly erased if hospital staff suggest discharging me after only a few hours. They almost never listen to me when I explain that sometimes I have a relapse reaction several hours later, which has happened twice at ages 15 and 23.

I will not be properly calm again until I have slept through a night and survived.

All of this is frightening and terrible. But I have a strange thing to confess. There’s something about it that I seem to enjoy. Not while it’s happening, but in hindsight.

I’m not sure precisely what it is about this experience that I sometimes find myself appreciating. Is it the adrenaline rush of a so-called near-death experience? Is it being the centre of attention? Is it the validation that in fact I didn’t make up the need to be so cautious all the time about what I eat? Is it a story that I can tell that makes strangers wide-eyed and boyfriends hold me close protectively? Is it the respite from daily anxiety about things I should be doing?

At least one thing is clear. Nearly everything I do to respond to my allergic reaction is wrong. I have never administered a Epi-pen, and I rarely call an ambulance. But I don’t do this because I have a death wish. I do this because I am genuinely uncertain about whether or not I’m having an allergic reaction. My reaction is slow. The mouth tingling phase can last for a couple of hours before it becomes hives all over my body. And I don’t know how long it takes after that for my throat to actually close because I always make it to an emergency room by then. I have experienced situations where I thought I was having an allergic reaction, but after several hours, the mouth tingling disappeared and it turns out there was nothing wrong in the first place. On two occasions I have rushed myself to the emergency room unnecessarily. So my first step is always trying to confirm whether or not I have actually ingested nuts. I do not know whether or not this is the right thing to do. My desire to avoid causing a scene should be inconsequential, and in fact is ironic since by roping others into the role of ambulance driver, I most certainly create unnecessary drama for them.

I can’t promise that I will react any better the next time a nut-shaped alien makes contact. But I can commit to practicing stabbing expired Epi-pens into oranges. I was probably 7 the last time I tried this, and became so hysterical at the thought of having to do that to myself that I fled from both needles and oranges by hiding under the kitchen table, sobbing uncontrollably. My poor mother.

My best friend’s little sister has the same allergy, and has coolly administered her own life-saving injection on more than one occasion. After hearing these stories, she went from being someone’s little sister to attaining god-like status in my mind.

My baby niece recently tested positive for a peanut allergy. They will follow up with a blood test to confirm, but this news spotlights the inadequacy of how I react to these situations. I am especially terrified that my irrational response has normalized that behaviour to my family, and they may think they have time to drive my baby niece to the hospital without the Epi-pen, without the ambulance. I don’t know how fast her anaphylaxis will be in that situation, but that’s the point. None of us will know. The responsibility of setting a better example for her hardens my resolve to be more like VL’s sister.

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Beauty Sleep

I have only a few minutes before bedtime. But let me tell you about what my day will consist of tomorrow.

I will wake up and fight the urge to go back to sleep. Rousing myself lately has been hard, and I don’t know whether to blame my linen duvet cover, daylight savings time, the fact that I’ve run out of turmeric tincture, or the rain.

When I eventually exit the sheets, I will examine my skin and my hair in the mirror, probably for longer than I should. Depending on the state of things, I will decide whether a shower, body shower, or mere face washing is required.

I will wash the dishes I neglected this evening, while coffee is brewing, and heat up steel cut oats with quinoa in the microwave. To this I will add coconut milk and strawberries. I will eat them in my living room while I inspect the weather through the window, and note forlornly that the bird shit on the exterior glass has not been shifted by the rain yet. I will leave the newly dirtied dishes in the sink.

I will try to get dressed quickly but I will change my mind several times. In a disingenuous concession to tidiness, I will place the unchosen clothes on the bed instead of the floor.

I will travel to work via bus, and chide myself for not biking. Again.

The morning will pass rather quickly, but I’ll be hungry for lunch at least an hour before noon.

Tomorrow is special because I will attend an event in the afternoon where I will listen to several panels of speakers, discussing topics which are interesting to me. The last of these panels includes colleagues with whom I collaborated on a project, and they are presenting our work. Due to a complicated series of events, I have mixed feelings about this presentation, and haven’t yet decided whether I hope they will do well, or poorly.

I will leave the event and go directly to a cafe where a tall man with blue eyes will undoubtedly be waiting for me, because I am habitually late, while he is unfailingly punctual.

He will drive me home at the end of the evening. I will remember that I can’t invite him in because there are clothes on the bed, dishes in the sink, and bird shit on the living room window. He will leave his car, still running, in the middle of the street, and walk me to my door. He will kiss me goodnight and if I open my eyes during said kiss, I will see that he is smiling.

As you can see, it is terribly important that I look well tomorrow.

Good night.

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Remember the Compliments

She is kind.
A friend who told a friend.

I’m glad I met you. You’re just super.
A new friend I admire and my grandfather comforting me.

I like the way you run your show. You are great just the way you are.
My best friend and a boy who chose another girl.

I never think you’re too much. You showed me how to use my imagination.
A complicated friend and a childhood friend.

Never stop telling me your stories. You bring people together.
A boy I once loved and a friend with a big heart.

I never worry about you. You are radiant.
My pragmatic grandmother and a boy who fell for me.

I admire how you live your life. If you wrote a book, I would buy it.
My mother explaining things to me and a classmate I’d just met.

When I first met you I thought, what a complicated girl. I wanted to know you better.
A roommate who became a friend.

 

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Wake Up Slowly

Sleep naked.

Wake in the darkness of your still room and be unsure what time it is.

Lie quietly for a little while before turning on the lamp next to your bed. Find out the time and choose not to go back to sleep.

Retrieve your book from where you left it splayed open on the nightstand yesterday evening.

Read for awhile.

Stir from your nest to drape a robe on your shoulders, but leave it untied and admire the bird’s eye view of your naked form.

Examine your face in the bathroom mirror and notice the ways in which sleeping has changed you.

Take your morning dosage of an elixir of turmeric and other herbs.

Quietly set the coffee pot to working.

Return to the lamp-lit corner of your bed and take up your book again.

Remember the coffee. Go back for it.

Sip your coffee while reading. When you have finished at least half a cup, it’s time to open the curtains and lift the blinds.

Survey your room with it’s flotsam and jetsam of clothes and bags, and a lone curling iron washed up on the floor. Notice how sleepy they look in this grey light.

Bring your attention back to your book.

If you have finished your coffee now, revisit the kitchen to pour another mug.

Layer a cardigan over your open robe.

If you are awake now, I suggest breakfast.

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Rules to Love By

I’ve become very generous with both solicited and unsolicited advice in the last year or two. Here are a few things I can tell you for free.

  1. You can’t change your partner. Do not be in a relationship where either of you has told the other: I will stay with you as long as you work on changing the following things. Only be with someone you can accept just as they are, even with all the things they do that you might dislike or disagree with.
  2. People never stop changing. The box in your mind where you keep people is too small to contain the infinite potential they have to grow and evolve. The same goes for your own potential to grow and evolve. Try to remember this at the same time as bearing the first point in mind – both are true.
  3. You don’t need to rationalize the way you feel. If you find yourself trying to convince your partner (or yourself) of the reasons why your feelings are valid and legitimate, simply stop. Your emotional needs are just as legitimate as a sore neck, an itchy back, a growling tummy, and tired feet. Honour that.
  4. Do for yourself what you wish your partner, real or imagined, would do for you.
  5. Be honest and unafraid to articulate what you are willing to give to others. Do not be in a relationship with someone who won’t be honest about what they are willing to give to you.
  6. There are no hard and fast rules about what your relationship should look like. You and your partner get to decide that together. The important thing is that you both agree on what that is, and get what you need from each other.

I’m working on all of this too.

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