Families, or what would we write about without them?

26 05 2015

stick-figure-family-stickers-12Saw a mini-van today with a partial stick-figure family on the back – just the dad and the son. The mom and another child had obviously been peeled off (in a fit of pique? In sorrow? In rage?). So I wondered. What happened to the other figures (there might even have been a dog there, or a cat)? What happened to the family? Was it a divorce, one kid each arrangement, or was it a terrible tragedy? Did the dad murder the other two and then rip off the stick figures so no one would wonder (ineffectively)? Does the mom have a car with the other two figures stuck on?

So many authors write about their dysfunctional families. It’s tempting. Fits right in with the “write what you know” dictum, especially given that we really have no idea how other families live. I used to try to imagine how my friends lived at home, but unless you were there 24/7, you could never be sure they weren’t putting on an act for you. They always seemed quieter than my family…

As a parent, you are learning all the time. You make mistakes. You try again. You fight with your kids, your partner. You break up. People stop speaking to one another. They start again. I used to think it was all good as long as there were some feelings – when I did home visiting, that saddest children were the ones who were neglected – no one cared about them. At least if their parent was yelling at them, they noticed they were there, I figured.

In my head, I’m the sort of parent who would peel off the stickers on the back of the car in a fit of pique. How I long for the Jewish tradition of rending clothing while shouting “I have no son!” It would be so cathartic, but my Roman Catholic upbringing means I get to sit around instead, feeling awful when my kids ignore me or treat me badly because somewhere in my guilty heart, I know I must have done something, sometime, to deserve such treatment. Or if something bad happens with friends or complete strangers, I know that it must’ve been because of something I did. In a way, it’s nice to always have an explanation.

So I get hurt, and then my brain gets busy. How could I use this pain in a story? How can I take the feelings and put them to good use, as so many other authors have done?

God knows I have enough meat for several novels. The question is, do I make them mysteries and kill off all those I want to hurt back (mwah hah hah), or do I make everything turn out all right in the end? Maybe I should have aliens from another planet intercede. Or maybe something in-between?

All I know is that despite the slings and arrows, I’m grateful. If everyone were sweet as pie, why, I’d have nothing interesting to say.

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(But sometimes, sometimes, that might be nice.)

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What is love these days anyways?

16 11 2014

Lately I’ve been wondering.
I’m so lucky.I am surrounded by dear friends who I adore and who seem to like me. I don’t think I’ve offended any strangers lately, except for that guy who wanted my parking space. I have children who care about me.

But I lack love, that romantic upsurge of joy and affection we expect when we see our partner. I mean, I have that upsurge when I see my dear friends, when I get a phone call from afar, when my sons fit me into their wild schedules, when I get an email from a far away family member. But I long for romance. And, quite frankly, someone to curl about me at night and be too hot so I have to peel off the blankets but still sleep, touching each other somehow. I miss that. I miss having someone about to sigh at when my computer goes wrangy or I have to run out for milk or have to climb various stepladders. Someone to laugh with at the end of the day, someone to be with me against life’s challenges.

It seems to be out of style. Or maybe I’ve repelled it by turning down opportunities. I am only now beginning to understand the very real damage done to me in my youth that makes me push words away, seek proof, feel doubt, distrust. I’m doing the work to get over that.

Now, though, that I am yearning for romance, it is elusive, hard to find. People want part of a relationship, not all of it. They don’t want to be tied down, have expectations. Fair enough, I feel a bit that way, too. Adapting to change is hard. Especially as you get older. Others have been hurt, too, and have their own walls to pull down. So they dance away.

But I can’t help but think friendship and romance and love all require some sort of commitment. Time, primarily. The people I adore, I do so because they want to hang out. We spend time together. I can call on them if I need to, and vice versa.

Where is that with my romantic interests? Guarded, bounded, suspicious.
It’s too bad, really. A touch is all I need. And some time. And maybe an occasional bunch of flowers or a surprise book in the mail… I don’t need much to fall head over heels. But I need a bit.

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“Read it and weep. I always do.”

3 04 2014

Ah, Romancing the Stone, one of my all time favourite cheesy romantic movies, both for the Danny DeVito chase scene, and for the author’s retort to her friend, who accuses her of being a hopeless romantic.
“No,” she says, “not hopeless. A hopeful romantic.”
Yep, I know how that goes. That whole hopeful romantic thing.
Wishing things would mystically turn out, whether romantic things or other life scenarios, hoping for magic instead of dipping my head into the gritty realities of life.
But often, looking about, I see stories that make me weep when I read them, my own or someone else’s.
Sometimes, my life feels a bit like the movie. Somehow I end up on the wrong bus, heading into the jungle instead of where I should be going, being followed by sinister agents, or covered with mud. I place my faith where I shouldn’t, adventure where I would more wisely leave things to the authorities.
In my travels, unlike in the movies, I can see others around me who have much more difficult lives, less romance, adventures I wouldn’t choose, and I marvel at their strength when I feel like I struggle with the small challenges I experience.
I wish for a movie happy ending for everyone, one where the music swells and everyone ends up in the arms of their lovers or being cuddled by their wise parents and grandparents or winning the race or hearing their music or art being praised. It’s that Pollyanna/romantic part of me.
I hope she never leaves.
But sometimes she could use a hug.

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Moving on

29 03 2014

Just listening to Stan Carew on Weekend Mornings – he plays the best music and woke me this morning with a rousing fiddle tune by Natalie McMaster. I’m feeling my toes tap under the covers as I sluggishly awaken.
But the song spoke to me.
Lately I’ve heard from a quite a few people who are by choice or not in a position where they are living in a hellish situation. Family dynamics, unhappy marriages, awkward locations, bad jobs. It seems so many are trapped, struggling against ties, but unwilling to take the risk, unwilling to bear the swirls of awfulness that come from change. We’ve all been there at some time….
There’s a part of me that still feels badly about the dissolution of my marriage. I was brought up to believe that marriage was a lifetime promise. But sometimes the contract is in fact broken, and then sometimes it is the right thing to leave, rather than stay and let the poison of our anger or hurt eat away at everyone in the family. Or so I tell myself. I don’t know.
Life is short. Should we make ourselves unhappy for all of it? Or should we move on, so that we are capable and have the resources to be joyful, bring joy to others? I’m not saying to cast aside things casually, but if we tried our hardest and it doesn’t work, what good are we doing breaking ourselves against the rocks?
See, the thing is, where we are at may seem like absolute hell. But, like standing in a prairie rainstorm, two or three steps to one side or the other may bring us into the sun again. Change doesn’t have to be dramatic, in fact, we are such small bugs in that prairie rainstorm, a tiny change may well be enough. A willingness to speak up, to try something a different way, to reach out or push away…
But we also have to be willing to draw our line in the dirt and say ” this far and no further.” And if we are still miserable, we can turn, and move on.

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Valentine’s Schmalentine’s

13 02 2014

Yep. Here we go again. Another of those dreaded Feb 14ths tomorrow. Outside my window the rain is lashing about like some sky god is having a heartbreak. A sky god who also has an anger management problem and an unfortunate case of wind, that is.

I’m sure everywhere all over the internet tomorrow people will be posting smarmy love notes to their various significant others, so I thought I’d get a lead on it all so I can stay off the net tomorrow. I don’t like smarm. I’m not a romantic kind, and no one is sending me overpriced flowers tomorrow and expecting a romantic evening in return.

(Good thing too as I still haven’t put together my story for the New York midnight short story contest and it’s due in Saturday at midnight.
If only I could stop watching the Olympic luge and focus. I mean, what is so compelling about people sliding down a tube? And yet, full days have passed….)

In any case, I do have a few people I’m fond of – not Valentines exactly, but people I think of when this day comes along, people I feel an irrational urge to buy a heart-shaped box of chocolates for, if only to have an excuse to share.

-My kids, of course. I loves them. I love, too, my younger sons’ partners, wonderful women both. I’m so glad my boys have them in their lives.
-My ex, somewhat surprisingly – we had 25 years together and though I know he’s remarried and happy and I’m glad of both, I still have a fond corner of my heart for the old lug. I hope his wife lets him have some chocolate for the big day – she’s much more careful of his health than I ever was.
-My women best chums, and you know who you are – you build me up and support me and make me feel significant even when I’ve done nothing all day but feed the cat.
-My guy friends, too. All of you, from my far away and long agos to the nearer bys and more recent. Whether or not things worked out with us, you’ve all taught me a lot. I treasure your friendships more than you’ll ever know.
-Another guy. Just sayin’

Love you all, in a variety of ways, most of them appropriate.

And then there’s Hallmark and Walmart, sources of cheap sentiment and better still cheap chocolates this weekend, none of which I can have this year, unfortunately, as I am trying to regain a vaguely sylphlike figure or at least less weary knees. Still, the cheap choccies will make others feel good and a bit sticky, and I am grateful for that.

And a big Valentine’s call out for this place where I live, where, despite weather from upset gods, I get to breathe sea air and chat with famous authors (who are friendly and nice and not snooty at all) and where people are generally glad to share an elevator with you. It’s a grand place, this Nova Scotia.

Even with the rain. To be followed by snow, and more rain, and over it all a howling wind that’ll rip your lips right off of you.





How will I know?

27 01 2014

images-14Oh, sometimes I hate being a grownup.

See, when you’re a kid, you can spend hours gazing off into the distance and dreaming romantic dreams of life with your dreamboat, think about hours spent together, laughing as you walk along some mountain trail or canoeing down some whitewater river together. I remember spending hours and hours just envisioning a kiss. His hand would come around the back of my head, we’d gaze meaningfully into each other’s eyes, and we’d touch lips, gently, warmly together. No tongues. Thrilling!

When you get a little older, you can whisk up some dreams of families and homes with picket fences and Christmases together and warmth and cuddles. You think about joint trips to the hardware store, hanging lighting, renovating a house, camping, toasting marshmallows. Tongues might be involved. And other parts.

And then you get to an advanced age and realize the chances of whitewater rafting with your love approximate zero since neither of you wants to risk the injuries. Families are done, grandchildren dance offstage, waiting for entrance and attention. Cuddling is great provided it isn’t every night since, after all, a good sleep is sometimes better than sex and requires less energy. And legs kick and nasal passages snore and the elegance of sleeping together lacks something when one of you is hot flashing and the other is sucking in the walls a la Yosemite Sam. Hardware stores lose their appeal when you decide neither of you should get up a ladder. Camping? Ugh. Getting up to find a toilet in the dark and bugs and damp? Never. Love is in the simple things: the newspaper, the cup of coffee in bed, the back rub at the end of a long day.

And still, if you are dating, you find yourself reverting to the kid you once were. Does he like me? Does she think I’m handsome? Will he still like me tomorrow? Will we have anything in common? Should I call him? Should I write to her? Am I being too clingy/demanding/honest/deceptive? What about that errant nose hair? You’d think we’d have this down by now.

Is the effort all worth it?

Somehow, after years of being in loving relationships, I still don’t know how to judge them, if my feelings are real or false, if they are being straight with me or leading me on.

I don’t really care. Life’s too short for endless analysis. I want to feel while I can feel. Sing while I can sing. And dance the dance while my feet still know the steps. And if I end up alone at the end of the party, well, there are always the joys of solitude.

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Mourning for Christmas

18 12 2013

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Ho oh ho! Celebrate! It’s the big day next week! Let’s laugh and play…
Not so easy for those who have lost someone this year, or recently, or who have someone like my dad, who passed away on Christmas Eve, this making every year an ache of longing for him and his cruel/funny approach to the holiday. My uncle the priest said at my dad’s funeral, “he was a fairly good Catholic”, which caused my mother, his sister, to fly into a rage.
Oh families are fun. I miss the strum und drang sometimes…

I just read a review in the New York Review of Booksof Julian Barnes new book, Levels of Life, which might be a helpful gift for those like me who deal with loss over the holidays. He writes about his grief at the loss of his wife, but never directly. In several stories, he lets us know the depth of his grief obliquely. The quote that struck me the most, and reminded me of the time my daughter turned away from me in anguish, never to speak to me again, was this one. He was asked how he felt after his wife died (stupid question, often asked). His reply, recalling a ballooning accident he’s mentioned in the book:

So how do you feel? As if you had dropped from a height of several hundred feet, conscious all the time, have landed feet first in a rose bed with an impact that has driven you in up to your knees, and whose shock has caused your internal organs to rupture and burst forth from your body.

I don’t think you can get a better description of overwhelming grief than that…

It’s one thing when a person dies. The grief, while acute, softens over time. I miss my father every day, but I miss him as he was when he was 60. He’d be 87 now, give or take. Would he be the same? I get to remember him as he was, a man interested in the world, passionate about his interests, talented, funny, always fascinating. But I’m selfishly glad I didn’t have to see him diminish over time, become not himself.

My daughter is another issue. I grieve her in my heart every day she doesn’t speak to me. She has transitioned to be my son and I’ve been excluded. I want to support him as he becomes himself, but I am not permitted to. It is untold cruelty to me. Initially I blamed myself, felt I must have done something wrong. I questioned every interaction I could remember with my firstborn. Overall, I know I wasn’t perfect, but I think in general I was average as a parent. Most parents don’t have to cope with this level of abandonment.
Now I’m merely heart-broken, and every holiday makes it worse. I still feel that knee deep in the ground, internal organ spilling feeling whenever he crosses my mind.

Someone once told me a very true thing – the only thing you can control in life is your reaction to the events that surround you. I’ve tried to react in helpful ways, spoken out and supported trans causes, dealt with those involved, cut myself off from those my son accuses. And yet…

I asked my ex for my son’s phone number. Just to leave a message, try to cross the breach. He has chosen to ignore this request. Probably on my son’s direction. It breaks my heart. And fills me with rage.

How do I react to silence?








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