Last week, I gave birth to our first child. She was born with a full head of dark hair and big eyes that are almost grey and she is absolutely magnificent.
As TC and I recover from labour/delivery and adjust to our new responsibilities as parents, I find myself physically and psychologically taxed beyond my capacity to complete a mentally demanding task like writing an actual blog post. I hope that NiftyNotCool will not fall completely by the wayside, because it has been very fulfilling to maintain a writing practice and to have a place to share my opinions and gripes or bring awareness to issues that are important to me, but the magnificent creature who has entered our lives is already proving herself an unpredictable force, and I just can’t say for sure.
Let’s assume I’ll be back once I’ve gotten my bearings, and just enjoy the turning of the world for now.
Easter is nearly upon us. For devout Christians, Easter is the celebration of the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the rest of us who observe this holiday, Easter is a time for decorating/hiding/finding eggs, eating pastel-coloured candy, and toasting the arrival of spring.
Easter is also a time when some folks need reminders that rabbits are living creatures with unique needs. Unless you are committed to their long-term care, rabbits are NOT an appropriate “Easter present” for your children, and they are most certainly NOT disposable. Before bringing a bunny into your home, you need to determine whether you and your family are cut out for the unique responsibilities of rabbit ownership (unless you are planning to eat the rabbit, which is a whole different story, I guess).
A lot of people erroneously make one or more assumptions about owning a rabbit:
That rabbits are happy to hang out in a small cage 24/7
That the responsibilities involved in owning and feeding a rabbit are similar to those of owning a cat
That because rabbits look so fluffy and snuggly and cute, that they will be snuggly and cuddly with humans
That because rabbits can be seen “happily” hopping around in the wild, if it doesn’t work out, it’s fine to just dump your bunny in the park or by the side of the road (it is NOT fine—rabbits live only 1-2 years in the wild, as opposed to 7-10 years in a good home. Dumping your house rabbit into the wilderness condemns them to die of starvation, exposure, or by being mauled to death by coyotes or dogs. Not a very nice thing to do to a living creature just so you could have a cute Easter moment).
As a happy long-term bunny owner myself, I thought it might be prudent to share some information about these most special of household pets, to let prospective rabbit families know what they’re getting into:
Rabbits aren’t very happy in cages.
Rabbits have (comparatively) very large, very muscular hind legs. They are capable of running very fast over distance to escape predators, and also capable of leaping into the air and doing 180-degree turns when they’re happy (these leaping activities are sometimes called “binkying”, though we always called it “the electric bunny dance”) . Is an animal with this kind of locomotive power really meant to spend the entirety of its days enclosed in a tiny hutch? Heck no! Rabbits are smart and clean animals who can be litter-trained and are most content living a free-range lifestyle in your home. That said…
Rabbits can be very destructive.
Rabbits love to chew things. In fact, because rabbits’ teeth continue to grow throughout their lifetime, rabbits need to chew in order to grind them down. Rabbits also have a lot of energy. If not provided with ample chewing opportunities and other recreational activities, rabbits will find ways to entertain themselves, usually at the expense of your home (our rabbit, for example, has eaten a small hole in our drywall). All electrical cords MUST be covered up, and items like books and wicker baskets will generally not survive at floor level. Our rabbit absolutely loves to tear strips from cardboard boxes and paper (and eat them), so we keep a few boxes and lids with scrap paper around the apartment, and haven’t had a problem with him gnawing on things he shouldn’t in a long while.
Our bunny helping us unpack the new stroller.
Also helping me sort through the tissue paper after my baby shower.
Rabbits are social (but only to a point).
While every rabbit is different, parents and children are often disappointed to discover that rabbits are generally not very cuddly pets (compared to a dog or a cat). While they do very well in bonded pairs, and enjoy spending time near their owners (on their own terms), rabbits don’t necessarily engage in interactive play, and they do NOT tend to like being picked up. While it’s true that some rabbits are in fact very cuddly (mine isn’t), attempts to force a rabbit to cuddle if they’re not interested will most likely result in ear-piercing shrieks, getting bludgeoned with those aforementioned strong back feet, and having your rabbit hide from you until they can trust you not to pull that shit again.
Rabbits can also have a heart attack and die if handled too roughly or if they become too frightened, so families with kids who don’t understand the concept of “gentle”, or who are easily bored with a pet that doesn’t seem to “do” anything should probably not get a bunny.
Basically, when it comes to your bunny’s sociability, are rabbits awesome and loving in their own ways? Absolutely! Are they going to put up with your bullshit? Heck no.
Rabbits need special care.
Though rabbits can be litter trained, they aren’t just cats with longer ears and shorter tails. For starters, their diet involves a lot more than just a dish of water and a bowl of pet food on the floor each morning. A truly healthy diet for a house rabbit requires unlimited timothy hay (NOT alfalfa), fresh water (changed daily!), and fresh (not rotten) greens (it’s important to check online first before giving vegetables to your bunny since not all veggies are good for them; some, like carrots, are only okay in small amounts, and some are more or less poison). Our rabbit also has some timothy hay pellets each morning (he loves them so much that when he gets them he makes a “mooing” sound) but these need to be limited to keep his digestive system top notch. Failure to properly attend to your rabbit’s diet (or allowing them to manipulate you with their cuteness into giving them sweet things that are bad for them) can result in diarrhea or gastrointestinal stasis, both of which can be very painful and very fatal for bunnies.
Did you know that bunnies shed their fur several times a year? Their fur is very soft, and very fine, and will pretty much get EVERYWHERE. We try to brush our bunny when we notice he’s having a shed, but we still find little white clouds of fur in every nook and cranny of our home. Diligent sweeping/vacuuming is required.
Also, did you know that just like our nails, rabbits’ nails will just keep growing and growing? This isn’t as big an issue in the wild where rabbits can grind their nails down by digging (and only have a fraction of the lifespan of a house rabbit anyways), but house rabbits need their nails trimmed every few weeks. Since bunnies tend to hate being picked up, this can be a Process for all involved.
Not all veterinarians are trained and experienced in rabbit care. The physiology of a rabbit is VERY different from a cat or a dog (for example, they cannot vomit so it’s really important their gut stays healthy), and a run-of-the-mill cat & dog vet will probably do your bunny more harm than good. If you’re going to own a rabbit, you’re going to need to find a veterinarian that specializes in rabbit care (we really like the vets at Arbutus West Animal Clinic in Vancouver). Obviously the hope is that your rabbit will be mostly healthy, but having a good vet to deal with any emergencies or infections that may arise is critical. It’s also important that you have your rabbit spayed/neutered—rabbits have evolved to be VERY fertile. Even if your rabbit lives solo, with so much cellular reproduction going on in their gonads, house bunnies are very susceptible to cancers of the reproductive organs. In fact, “fixing” your bunny can double their lifespan (and also prevent them from getting super territorial and peeing on all your stuff).
Find the bunny! (Note that we don’t keep any books on bottom shelves).
The uniqueness of rabbit-care aside, our bunny has actually been a rather easy-going pet (much easier in a lot of ways than a dog, and his litter is much less stinky than a cat’s). He’s provided TC with nearly ten years of amusement and companionship, and has an adorably curmudgeonly personality. Now that he is in the autumn of his years, our bunny does need a little more TLC (and trips to the vet) than he used to, but on the whole seems to continue to enjoy a very good quality of life with his human associates, a life that, while small, is very rewarding to us.
To sum up, rabbits are definitely not suitable as Easter décor, but with care and attention, these creatures can provide your household with 7-10 (or more!) years of entertainment and adorableness. For our part, our bunny is the underlying heartbeat of our home, always there on his little adventures, independent and much-loved, and is certainly no mere Easter-time prop.
When my old office reorganized and I lost my job last fall, I (perhaps naively) assumed I’d have little trouble finding a new position at my former institution or elsewhere. I’m smart, experienced, and professional, and I tend to leave a good impression wherever I have worked. However, five months and six (mostly very positive) interviews later, it has become clear to me that I will not be returning to work before giving birth to my first child (note: my previous employer did NOT know that I was pregnant when my position was eliminated; I suspect the plans for the departmental re-organization were likely in motion before I even conceived). This means that I have spent the past few months, and will be spending the next year or so, doing what is economically considered to be “nothing”.
At first, I really was doing more or less nothing, laid low by bouts of nausea, insomnia, and general resentment over the fact that all my best-laid plans for how to financially support my future child had been altered, and my career put on indefinite pause through no fault of my own. After a few weeks of this, however, the clouds lifted (both figuratively and literally; despite the snow, Vancouver also had some lovely sunny weather in early December—very cold, very Christmassy). I started to sleep better, eat better (once I could keep my usual staple foods down again) and just generally enjoy a slower, more relaxed pace of life (easy to do while still receiving severance pay). I would have liked to return to work before having a baby, but as this has not been in the cards, I have surprised myself by feeling actually optimistic about the whole thing. (Note: I am aware my “optimistic” situation [like receiving five months of severance] is somewhat privileged compared to many others for whom a termination could have threatened eviction, repossession of a vehicle, or other devastating financial consequences).
There have certainly been disappointments (like doing quite well in a job competition but just not managing to clinch it) and dark clouds in my sunny days. One of the hardest things for me to deal with has been the change in my economic status in the household. My husband is self-employed. When he started freelancing, I brought home more money than him. As his career took off and I decided to take a part-time position (70% of full-time, albeit on a better salary scale), the contributions we made to our shared family income began to even out, with TC making considerably more than me some months, depending on the jobs that came his way. Regardless of our comparative incomes, though, what I always felt I brought to the table was stability—I brought the guaranteed paycheque, the extended health and dental benefits, the MSP subsidy and the pension. As TC’s career advanced and the projects he worked on gained more professional recognition, I was content to hold steady in a job I loved doing that gave me career satisfaction, work-life balance, and perks that worked for us.
All that has, quite simply, changed. Now that my severance has run out, it is solely TC’s income (and hopefully 50 weeks or so of EI maternity/parental benefits) that our little family will rely on. This is a bit of a bitter pill to swallow for a person who has spent the better part of the past 12 years mostly taking care of herself (albeit not without some occasional much-appreciated assistance from parents and grandparents along the way). I’ve always depended on TC emotionally, but I haven’t always depended on him financially.
Of course, I do KNOW that carrying (and soon, caring for) an infant has value, even if I’m not pulling in a paycheque. I know that my efforts over the past few months to take care of our home and prepare for the baby so that TC can have more time to focus and meet his deadlines have been appreciated, even if there is no dollar sign attached to these activities (not that TC hasn’t been helping out around the apartment as well, it’s just that I have more time to). And I know that my husband loves and respects me, and doesn’t think me useless or unproductive just because I no longer have a job.
But I’m just not used to not having a professional identity and an economic value, even in my marriage. I guess I forgot that marrying someone isn’t just promising to take care of them, it’s agreeing to BE taken care of, and it’s really not that strange. When I think about it, many of the couples I know (both from my parents’ generation and mine) have spent significant portions of their relationships in economic situations where one partner doesn’t work or works less than the other. Life throws curve-balls (getting fired, a sick family member, a move to a new city where only one of the partners has secured a job) and different needs (for childcare or health or mental/emotional well-being) must be met. This is totally normal and I accept it in the abstract. I know that these kinds of arrangements don’t mean that the non-working partner isn’t contributing to their relationship. It’s just that these contributions aren’t measurable the way a bank balance is, and I’m not used to being so…intangible.
Since graduating from high school, the world at large has conditioned me to believe that my worth, in great part, relies on not being a financial burden to others, on independence, and on being able to “pay my own way”. Now that this is no longer possible for me (at least for now), I need a new paradigm for self-examination. Which isn’t, I suppose, a bad thing. Just a new one.
Sometimes I AM super useful around the house. Other times…not so much. 😛
I know that with Trump’s election, a long list of beloved celebrity deaths, and with refugee crises and atrocities abroad weighing on our hearts, many of us are glad to see the end of 2016.
In many ways, I can’t blame you. 2016, like many years, wasn’t exactly a bucket of rainbows for me. Rainy weather ruined my plans for a skiing “stay-cation” this February. My creative writing has taken a major back seat. I saw a lot more of doctors’ offices and medical labs than I would have liked. Brexit happened. So did terrorist attacks. Trudeau lied about his commitment to the environment (approving the Kinder Morgan expansion with neither social license nor scientific support), and Trump lied and bullied his way into the U.S. presidency. Post-truth is now a thing. The gleeful rise of racism, bigotry, and violence echoes a horrifying past most of us don’t care to revisit. Climate change is altering our weather patterns right before our eyes and no one seems to care. The cherry on the top for me, personally, was when my department reorganized this fall and I lost a job that I was good at, and which I enjoyed and found both personally and professionally fulfilling.
For other people, 2016 was much, much, worse. People lost loved ones. People lost their homes, or their health. People have been hurt, violated, let down in the worst ways. People in conflict areas like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen have been unimaginably traumatized and of course they aren’t the only ones. Obviously, for many of the humans on this planet, 2016 was a terrible year.
But for many of us (and by “many of us” I mean the kind of privileged westerner whose complaints about 2016 might appear in my Twitter or Facebook feeds), 2016 was really not that bad. For one thing, every single year since humans have been keeping track has seen its share of bloodshed, loss, and horror. We have survived through dark times, and we will again. Secondly, 2016 also brought a lot of good.
My nephew was born this year(!!!). A graduate project I undertook this spring proved challenging in ways I didn’t expect but ultimately pushed me to confront parts of myself that were long-buried, and to create something powerful and affecting. My family and friends are, by and large, doing well. Being unemployed has allowed me to spend more time with my husband and to appreciate what an incredibly giving and hardworking person he is. I’ve had some beautiful personal triumphs and countless little joys—lazy mornings, sunny walks, good books, good food, good company (plus a downstairs neighbour who is a professional jazz pianist and unintentionally filling my home with good music as I type this). And I KNOW that a lot of people calling 2016 “the Worst” would have similar private blessings, if they really thought about it.
As for the world at large, Canada’s own Chris Hadfield (former commander of the International Space Station), took it upon himself this morning to tweet about some of the great things that have happened in 2016:
[Obviously I have not verified each item of Hadfield’s list but I’m sure if you Google any one of these achievements you’ll find some information about them. I screen-captured a few of my favourites but if you want to see the full list you can check out Chris Hadfield’s Twitter feed at twitter.com/Cmdr_Hadfield].
I’m tired of hearing about how “people suck” or how “2016 was the worst” or about how “human beings are the worst”. 2016 was NOT a flaming trash heap and neither are the people on this planet. There is bad, and there is good. There are families grieving a death right now and there are families welcoming a new baby. There are racists and misogynists and neo-Nazis and terrorists, but there are also strong and proud minority communities, activists and allies, resisters, water protectors, and White Helmets. There are inconsiderate assholes almost everywhere you look but there are also volunteers in hospital auxiliaries and non-profits and shelters and old folks’ homes and libraries and community centres. There is ignorance but there is also education. There are people inventing weapons and the next piece of consumer garbage, destined for the landfill, but there are also people discovering cures for diseases and looking for new ways to help our planet. There is death and change but also life and growth, destruction but also creation.
2016 is just a year in the calendar, just one trip around the sun. We can’t change what has happened in it, but we can change our attitudes, and I for one prefer to greet 2017 with hope, and maybe a little humility.
When the bombs rain down, the Syrian Civil Defence rushes in. In a place where public services no longer function these unarmed volunteers risk their lives to help anyone in need – regardless of their religion or politics. Known as the White Helmets these volunteer rescue workers operate in the most dangerous place on earth.
Once again, in the spirit of giving (and in the spirit of trying to be a human being), I write about an organization that most definitely deserves our support. As the most recently negotiated ceasefire in Syria has failed, and the international community has failed, and we have failed utterly in our responsibility to our fellow human and have watched, from a distance, once again, as innocent people die in Aleppo, we are, I hope, ashamed. We are also, very likely, feeling impotent.
The time to have helped, of course, was years ago, as we watched Assad cross one line (using military force against civilians), then another (using chemical weapons against civilians), with hardly a peep from our western world leaders because, hey, we didn’t want to piss off Russia. Or perhaps long before that, before the West began its ceaseless meddling that seems only to pile up the bodies in the Middle East and leaves us tut-tutting and wondering why people in hot countries can’t seem to solve “their” problems.
But anyhow, here we are, in the undesirable present. And now people are sending their good-bye messages from Aleppo**. They asked for help, they didn’t get it, and for most of them, there is nothing we can do now except remember them and feel ashamed.
But there are some people who aren’t “on the other side of the world” from it all. They don’t care about the politics, they don’t care about religion. They are willing to put their lives on the line to help human beings, any human beings. They walk with their eyes wide open into nightmares. They risk being killed, and sometimes are killed, or injured. They have saved over 73 500 lives. They are neutral; they are unarmed; they are volunteers. They are the Syrian Civil Defense (the “White Helmets”, http://www.whitehelmets.org/en), and they deserve everything.
Please give whatever you can, knowing there is no amount of money that should make us feel better for what we have been complicit in. But give anyway. Give generously, even if you can only spare a little. Help someone else be braver than we have been, and to do good where we did not.
**I’m including one of these messages (taken from a longer message by Abdulkafi Alhamdo and shared by Al Jazeera) because it moved me. There are many many more. [Please note this video hasnothing to do with the White Helmets, who are politically neutral, but Mr. Alhamdo’s words helped me to see the urgency of the situation so I thought it may be important here.]
As we head into the holiday season, as the days (in the northern hemisphere) get shorter and colder and the planet (due to recent current events perhaps) starts to look a little darker and a little scarier than it did before, many of us may find ourselves wondering how we can possibly make a little difference, do a little good, and put a little light back into the world.
And so, based on some of the news stories and issues that have captivated me this fall (and in general), I give you a small winter 2016 list of charities and other good places to give:
Refugees (UN Refugee Agency)
While I am very happy that some 25 000 or so Syrian refugees have been settled in Canada over the past year, the fact remains that there are still tens of millions of refugees, displaced persons, and stateless persons around the world. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), refugees remain uprooted for an average of 17 years. They don’t go away once we stop thinking about them. And they do need help.
You may have seen images of Aleppo, or Yemen—the little orphans covered in concrete dust, the starving civilians (literally starving to death) caught in a nightmare that has nothing to do with them. While ultimately we hope that each and every one of these people will find a save haven and a place to call home, in the meantime they desperately need food, shelter, water, and medical care.
The UNHCR assisted 49.8 million people last year, and if you want to help support refugees, I recommend visiting www.unhcr.ca to learn more and/or to donate.
First Nations Rights and the Environment (Standing Rock)
You may have heard that water protectors in North Dakota (led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe whose land and rights are being violated) have been protesting peacefully against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens not only Native American land, sacred spaces, and drinking water, but the also drinking water of some 18 million people who depend on the Missouri River being potable and oil-free. The police response to this peaceful activism has been brutal: attack dogs, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, water cannons in below-freezing temperatures, asking local hardware stores to refuse to sell supplies to the water protectors—it’s pretty f*cking low. As winter sets in the fight is still far from over.
To learn more about what is happening in Standing Rock or to make a donation to support the efforts of the water protectors, please visit standwithstandingrock.net.
[If you’d like to have this issue explained quickly and satirically by a yuppie spiritual guru/comedian, you may enjoy the video below.]
People Who Are Sick (Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières [MSF])
Though the Ebola Crisis has since faded from the headlines, the fact is that MSF were the heavy lifters in saving lives and combating the spread of the disease. While the western world mostly hoped that the virus “wouldn’t make it over here,” the healthcare practitioners at MSF risked their own health and lives to help others. MSF’s resources were severely depleted by this major crisis, and yet they are continuing to respond to other medical crises around the world. A thousand thousand thanks (and maybe some donations, if you feel so inclined) go out to this incredible organization: www.msf.ca.
Children Living in Poverty (Lumos Foundation)
I must admit, I first discovered this foundation while watching YouTube videos about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. J.K. Rowling (author of Fantastic Beasts and the Harry Potter series) sits down with actor Eddie Redmayne (star of Fantastic Beasts) for an illuminating discussion about the foundation that is dear to her heart:
In a nutshell, Lumos supports community-based care for children in developing countries, helping families raise their children at home rather than feeling forced to give their children up to institutions in order to ensure they will have the food, education, or medical care they require. Research has shown many institutions and orphanages to be corrupt—forcing families to give up otherwise wanted children, subjecting children to cruel and inhumane conditions, trafficking children into the sex trade, or pocketing the “per-child” money received from aid organizations or the government (the saddest thing is this money often comes from well-meaning donors in the “developed” world). Even when these institutions are carefully managed and well run, studies have shown that children who grow up in institutions instead of in families are severely disadvantaged—children need the love and care of their families (or family-type settings) in order to develop into healthy adults.
If you wish to learn more about Lumos or donate to initiatives that keep needy children with their families, please visit wearelumos.org. If nothing else, if you want to help children please make sure to choose the organizations you donate to carefully, and never donate money to (or volunteer at) orphanages or other institutions that take otherwise wanted children away from the families that love them.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. Any giving you do thoughtfully and with generosity (whether you give a little or give a lot, whether you give money, time, or anything else you have to give) is a wonderful thing. But if you did want some ideas, I hope I have inspired you. Happy December, and happy giving!
Happy new year, Nifty readers, and welcome to the year 2016!
Like many of you, I’ve been reflecting on the year that has just passed and wondering what resolutions, if any, I should attempt to keep over the next 365 days (it’s a leap year so there are still 365 days left after today–bonus day! Yippee!). My resolutions, if I were to make any, would be fairly similar to the resolutions I had last year, and the year before (be kind, write more, keep my apartment tidy and organized). They’re good goals to try for and I’ll probably just keep working at them but to be honest I’m not sure about this whole “New Year’s Resolution” thing anymore.
January 1 is just an arbitrary day–it isn’t even the start of the new year for every religion, or every culture. It’s just a marker, one 24-hour point on the 940 million-km elliptical trail that is our 365.25-day journey around the sun. Just one point, out of an infinitesimal number of possible points. Any day on that orbit could be important, and any tiny millisecond could have more significance than days or months or even years of living so far.
It’s great to start your new life, or new good habit, or new hobby, on January 1 if that’s the day you decide to do it. But every other day is just as good, and any day can be an important one, a milestone day. Any day can be a day by which you count out your life. For example, I can count a particular facet of my life from the day I met my husband, or from our first date, or the day we moved in together, or from the day we got engaged, or the day we were married. I can count different journeys in my life from the day I began at my current job, or the day I started my masters degree. I can pull back further, and count from the day I moved to BC, or the day I was finally free of a particularly toxic relationship for good, or the day I began university, or the day I met my best friend. I can count from the day of my birth if I want to–or any other day.
Behold 2016–every day’s potentially a great one!
What I’m saying is that any and every day is a perfect day to start your new life, or to leave behind something that is hurting you, or to try something you’ve never tried before. Any and every day could be the day that something wonderful happens–that some new person or opportunity enters your life. You don’t need to wait for January 1 to become sober, you don’t need to wait for Valentine’s Day to tell your partner you love them. You don’t need to wait for the end of the week, end of the month, end of the semester, etc. to try that new thing or to get back to that great hobby you really enjoy.
Having an aspiration or seeking happiness or becoming a better person is not about January 1. It’s about every single day you ever have for the rest of your life, whether you have a lot of days left or a comparative few. Any day could be the start of something amazing, and if you find that you have not kept to your resolutions as you would have liked, any day is a perfect day to start trying again.
At the risk of sounding very, very odd indeed, I must confess there is a cupboard at my office that is my “favourite” because of the way it smells. It is a wooden cupboard that contains office supplies–pens, pencils, markers, paper–in neatly organized piles and packages. Now, I consider almost any neatly organized cupboard to be a thing of beauty, but the reason I love this particular cupboard so much is because it smells like Back to School.
Does “Back to School” have a smell? Yes, it most certainly does. It smells like pine wood, pink erasers, and writing utensils that have not yet been used. It can also smell like fresh Hilroy notebooks, the clean plastic interior of a new pencil box, or that cool autumnal snap that floats in strands on the lingering summer air. Oh yes, Back to School has a smell, and it is one of my favourites.
My birthday is in the spring, and the year I finally turned five years old I was appalled to learn I would still be going to preschool until the end of June. For ages (it seems to me) I had asked my parents, “When will I go to kindergarten? When do I get to go to kindergarten?” and they had told me, “When you’re five.” Well, I was five now so what the heck was my dad doing dropping me off at the Good Shepherd Anglican Church for another day of preschool in the basement with the babies? Apparently, my parents had not told me the whole truth. Yes, I was going to go to kindergarten when I was five but not until the fall. What a rip.
That’s me! (not pictured: yellow Sesame Street lunchbox)
When the magic day finally arrived and I posed for a photo on the front steps with my new red backpack, only two things could dampen my enthusiasm: the first was that my mother, in the wisdom she had gained through her experience teaching small children, had chosen to dress me in nice new jeans instead of a dress or a skirt which I thought would have been more appropriate for such an important occasion but maybe not so easy to play in. The other was that my new lunchbox (an object I had craved, that to me conferred the same kind of authority and gravitas as a leather briefcase) was YELLOW and had SESAME STREET on it instead of being pink and having the Muppet Babies, like my older sister’s lunchbox. [For some reason, I was so sore about this that when a grade 12 boy on my bus kindly said to me later in the year, “Hey, Sesame Street, cool!” I thought he was making fun of me so I huffed, “Go away!” while burying myself in the corner of the bus seat.] Minor setbacks aside, my first school bus ride (three of us sharing a seat!) was everything I could have hoped for.
In kindergarten, we learned how to tie our shoes (not me though, my dad had to show me a cheat because that one-eared rabbit was having a lot of trouble finding his second ear in that loopy hole; I still cheat to this day) and what sounds the letters make and not to push people or scream indoors and all sorts of important things like that, but the first new thing I remember learning in kindergarten was that there were years. Everyday our teacher, Mrs. Hamilton, would say something like “the date today is September _ _ , nineteen-ninety-one.” And I would think, “I KNOW it’s September, you fool, I’ve been waiting for this since May, but what the heck is this nineteen-ninety-one business?”
Years. YEARS. This September will be my 24th since that first month in kindergarten, and once again I am going back to school (this time for the second year of my masters degree). In elementary school (and let’s face it, even junior high and high school) I could not contain my excitement. When the back-to-school flyers came in the mail I would spread them out and practically weep over the beautiful coloured pens and binders advertised in the pages. Every year meant at least one “back to school” outfit. Every year meant maybe THIS year I’d be top of the honour roll (never happened due to lack of Math and Phys Ed skills), maybe THIS year I’d be popular, or finally grow boobs, or have a boyfriend, or whatever. The night before my first day of grade seven (which is the first year of high school in Saskatchewan) I couldn’t sleep–I had too much adrenaline coursing through my veins, and too many soaring expectations (I did not have another sleepless night like this again until the night before my wedding last year). Every school year brought the promise of learning things and doing things and seeing my friends and having fun.
And every school year brought some disappointment. Now that I’m an adult, I’m not entirely sure why I found so many of my classes to be so tedious (at this stage in my life I’d jump at the chance to spend each and every day receiving a free education with no worries about paying for food or housing), or why I cared about the opinions of people who weren’t my friends, or why I would have wanted a scrawny, khaki-wearing, squeaky-voiced junior high boyfriend had the opportunity for having one presented itself to me. But did care about those things, SO BADLY, and so of course, being the strange, sensitive, hyperactive young grasshopper I was, whose wild expectations far exceeded the realities of both her location and her talents, I would find myself disappointed. I wanted to return to school each year a superstar, and instead, I’d return as just another normal kid.
BUT. Every summer brought the promise of change, and every summer would bring the quiet excited whispers on the cooling breeze: This year will be different. This year will be different. I couldn’t help myself. I loved to dream.
And you know what? Each year was different, of course, though not in the ways I usually expected, and each year was also the same. There were fun days and boring days and hard days and easy days and days where I would write angrily in my journal that nobody liked me and my skin was disgusting and days I could have leaped up a mountainside I was so happy. My friendships were so strong then and my dreams were too–untethered, touchable, breathable. They felt like when you close your eyes in the morning and the sunlight warms your lids. They smelled like frost and iron stair railings. They buzzed like empty hallways buzz, when all the other kids have gone home and you’re waiting for drama practice to start or for your teacher-dad to finish whatever he’s doing so you can get a ride home with him instead of taking the bus, and you feel alone but also courageous and full of promise.
Education (not just the act of learning but the physical institutions and accoutrements that accompany it) has been one of the most influential forces in my life. Although I’m a little wistful that my long, quiet summer is almost over, I’m not very surprised that I decided to keep going to school, or to find myself back here once again, quietly humming, This year, this year.
Lately I am beginning to feel like the older I get, the more people die.
Which of course is not true. More people are not dying than when I was younger (the most recent statistics I have read show that average life expectancy is actually going up across the globe). The difference is that as I grow older I become more aware of the deaths that happen around me and more aware of my own mortality. I am also more likely to experience the death of someone I know personally, and to watch friends and families be impacted by deaths.
When I was in kindergarten, Dr. Seuss died. It was reported on the radio during breakfast and either my mom or my dad repeated the information. I remember knowing that Dr. Seuss had died. Before the end of my kindergarten year, my paternal grandfather had also passed away. And that was my experience of death as a child: Dr. Seuss and Grandpa Fred (along with Duke the dog and Ashes the cat). I now know that death was as present then as it is today–the 90’s had their share of horrors, from the Yugoslav wars to the Rwandan Genocide. And I had no real concept of any of it.
It’s not because my parents tried to hide death from us, not at all. The radio was always tuned in to the CBC in the morning, and had I listened I would have heard about murders, disasters, wars, and accidents–they weren’t kept from me. And I distinctly remember being nine years old and asking my dad a question which resulted in him referencing Rwanda to explain to me what genocide was, but I don’t remember the question or why the answer would have required explaining the concept of genocide. I do remember hearing my dad say “Hutu” and “Tutsi” and thinking he was just making up words to use in an imaginary example. I was much, much older (possibly an adult) before I realized my dad was talking about Rwanda, and that everything he was trying to explain to me had happened only a year or so before this conversation had taken place.
And yet even then death was not far from my consciousness, always a step or two behind me. The year I was nine was the year my family lived in Riga (Latvia), the first time I could ever really remember living in a big city. My family began to think I was a slow walker because I was always lagging behind everyone on the way to school, but I’m actually very fast. I walked behind my family because I wanted to see all of them; wanted to make sure nothing would happen to them. Nine is the year I began to have nightmares about someone in my family dying, and twenty years later this fear, while more controlled, is just as present. Perhaps the maturity I gained through the culture shock of our year abroad (actually a great thing for kids I think) had more subtle, and less fun, consequences. Perhaps as I opened my eyes to the new and incredible things around me, I also opened them to the possibility of danger and tragedy. Perhaps as my concept of my nine-year-old self developed, I also developed a concept of my relation to the people around me, the people I love, and what it might be to lose them.
Like most people, I am afraid to die. For a long time, I told myself I was afraid because I was afraid of how much my death would hurt the people who love me (which is still something I feel and fear). I didn’t really think about being afraid for myself, even joking with my best friend in high school that when we turned 100 we should buy a convertible and drive it off a cliff like Thelma and Louise, because, y’know, that seemed like a cool way to go and we’ve all gotta go sometime.
Yes, we do all have to go sometime, and the older I get, and the more I see, and hear, and read, the more I realize that grappling with this fact is the hardest and bravest struggle many of us ever face. I understand that death must exist in order for life to exist–but I don’t want to do it. I am afraid of being aware in the moment, and afraid of being afraid. There is no way to prevent it, whether it happens sixty seconds or sixty years from now, it will happen. The moment I was born, the moment I opened up my lungs and accepted my first breath of life, I was signed up for death. No refunds. No backsies. No changing my mind.
This is a psychologically tormenting thought, capable of crushing any thinking person under its weight. In this context, it is no surprise that religion has such a strong hold on those who believe. Sure, there are contradictions and hypocrisies galore and squiffy parts about stoning adulteresses and owning slaves, but when I feel the breath of mortality on the back of my neck, I can begin to understand why reasonable people would be willing to brush all of their doubts aside for the chance to hear “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” and truly believe that one day, one trembling and glorious day, there will be an end to death.
My amorphous agnosticism (coupled with my good luck so far) has allowed me, for many years, to avoid thinking very hard about what happens after we die. When asked, I would sometimes tell people that I liked to believe that people who died went to wherever they needed to go or became whatever they needed to be that would provide the most comfort for their loved ones. That is, if you believe Grandpa is in Heaven, he’s in Heaven. If you believe your lost partner dwells in your heart, they are in your heart. If you believe your mother has become part of the stars and moon and the sun that warms your face, she is twinkling and shining and giving you light all your days. It is a very comforting thought, and a thought that is easy to have when you’re talking about other people, and other people’s losses. But what could ever comfort me?
As I grow older my fuzzy agnosticism is replaced by skepticism, stripping me of my ability to cling to metaphysical comforts, to the talismans I’ve created for myself to ward off bad luck and sorrow. I could almost be an atheist except my sense of skepticism is so strong that as much as I am now having difficulty believing there is meaning in the universe beyond what intelligent beings create for themselves while they are alive, I am also too skeptical to believe that I know with certainty that there is nothing after death. If I can no longer take comfort in the belief in a pleasant after-life scenario, I wish I could take comfort in the idea that this life is all there is, like comedian and humanist Stephen Fry, who narrates a kind but terrifying animated video “What should we think about death?” on behalf of the British Humanist Association:
In the spring of 2011, an incredible Vancouver blogger named Derek K. Miller died. I never knew him, but I did follow him on Twitter and admired his bravery and bluntness as cancer took his life. On his blog, I read about the realities of his illness, about his “living wake” (a huge party where his friends could celebrate his life while he was still there to enjoy it). One day, which surprised me even though it shouldn’t have, I saw his last post. It was written in the past tense. It said, “I’m dead” because now he was, and his family and friends had honoured his request to post his final message after his death. In this post Mr. Miller talks about meeting his wife, having his kids, experiencing life. Derek Miller’s last post may be the most beautiful (and heartbreaking) thing I have ever read.
And also the scariest and bravest. Because Miller acknowledges in this post that he is gone. He didn’t believe he was going to a better place–he didn’t believe he was going to any place. Though he knew his words would still be there, Miller was emphatic that he would not be. People sometimes like to say with a chuckle that no one’s an atheist in their final hours. But Derek K. Miller, like the British philosopher David Hume, seems to have been able to face the inevitability and immediacy of death without holding the hand of any god. And, Miller wrote upon his death, “The world, indeed the whole universe, is a beautiful, astonishing, wondrous place.”
Perhaps this is not a grace that comes easily. In fact, I am sure that it is not. And so I continue the struggle to find meaning in this world, a justification for continuing to take the risks required to truly use the life I have instead of hiding out in a bomb shelter armored in bubble wrap in a futile attempt to stave off the inevitable. To know in the core of my being that the world is beautiful and full of love and yet to have no regrets about having to leave it would be, in my eyes, a crowning way to end a life well-lived. To be able to say, as Steve Jobs did, “Oh wow.”
[But I’m only 28. So I’d be very content, if possible, to wait to have my “Oh wow” moment until I’m a very wrinkly very old lady.]
The sad day has finally arrived–the day on which I finally admit to myself, and confess to you, my much-appreciated readers, that weekly blog posts are no longer sustainable. Between work, my masters program, theatre with the Troika Collective, work on my own creative projects, bathroom renovations, headaches, and trying to actually spend some quality time with my husband now and again, I just can’t guarantee I will always be able to write this blog the way I want to. I’ve never wanted to simply “produce content”, and if I don’t have the time to really engage in the world enough to have something to write about, that’s all I’ll be doing. I’m already embarrassed by some of the navel-gazing, nothing-ish posts I’ve churned out during busy times in the past and I owe you, and this blog, and myself, better than that.
Being a creature who loves form and structure, and wanting everything to be clean cut, I do wish I’d been able to hold out for my next bloggerversary (or even my half-way marker, which would have been at the end of May) to make this change. I wish I wasn’t just throwing up my hands in the middle of any old week and saying, “Okay, that’s it, I’m too busy, I can’t do it this way anymore” on February 27, of all days, a day that means nothing in terms of anniversaries or counting my achievements in a neat and tidy way. My aesthetic sensibilities are chafing as I write and I would almost rather quit the blog altogether, except that when I floated this idea by one of my most loyal fans (i.e., my mother) she said no, and told me to try switching to biweekly posts instead. Seeing as how my mom hasn’t steered me wrong yet, I’m giving it a try.
So you won’t be hearing from me as often anymore. And I’m sorry. I feel like I’ve failed to come through on a promise but please believe me when I say it really truly needs to be this way (and that’s not to say if I’m ever feeling especially inspired I won’t write on an off-week just for fun). Though I don’t always know who’s reading my posts, or how often, please know I am always flattered by and grateful for it, and this is actually breaking my little blogging heart.
So please stand by. I hope it just gets better from here.
[UPDATE: Upon publishing this post, WordPress informed me that it was my 230th post. So I guess I DO get a nice, clean-cut benchmark for weekly posting after all.]