Best Book Club (Lent Read #4)

Lily King’s The English Teacher has strong Olive Kitteridge vibes.

I’m deep into Lily King’s backlist. Now that my back is better, I’m not reading and quite the rate I was when I spent the day in bed. We are in a lovely routine right now with every one working on school the first half of the day while I’m writing. Lily King’s books are gorgeous and exactly the books I need to remind me why I love reading and writing so much.

One of the highlights of every day is still talking to my Nana. I’d recently sent her a picture of my new little office, beside my bookshelves in front of a sunny window. Her reaction was “how many books do you have!?” and she said she loved seeing that picture because it made her realize how I’m still the same kid she used to take to the library and the bookstore and we’d spend hours picking out the perfect thing to read next.

Our conversation took off and we talked about how, like so many woman my age, read Flowers in the Attic too soon. She told me she secretly read it while I was which I didn’t know and made us laugh. We talked about Judy Blume and how Blubber had made me cry because I hated how much the main character was teased. We talked about how it couldn’t be possible that Are you There God, It’s Me Margaret? is now more than 50 years old and that we want to read it again.

We talked about the gaps in our reading that we want to fill. Agatha Christie and more Jane Austen. She wants to read Jane Eyre. She told me that when she worked at the Whitby Public Library, despite the author being from Whitby, it took years for staff to order Dixon’s Hardy Boys or Keene’s Nancy Drew series because they were so badly written. Nana had to fight for finally get them on the shelves.

She told me – and I loved this – that when she moved to the new library – the library that is now the Whitby library – they had their first Young Adult display. She turns 94 next week and I’m going to buy her Gabrielle Moss’ Paperback Crush, as is described on the front as “the totally radical history of ’80s and ’90s teen fiction. I love my copy and it’ll be great to go through the pages and titles together during over calls and see which covers and authors she remembers. What stories they bring up.

We talked last night about how she was always tripping over me during my Harriet the Spy phase (which I like to think has never ended) and how she always knew by a certain joyful laugh that I was reading Anastasia Krupnik. We talked about my love of stories that took place in boarding schools and how my aunt in England would send my the Enid Byton Malory Towers series. How I would bawl over Jean Little’s sad stories of other kids with CP. It was the perfect sort of conversation you have when everything falls away and you’re flying, same feeling I get when I’m writing. It makes me so happy to be reminded that I have been so very lucky to have this consistent goodness in my life, books and writing, since I was so small. And that I get to share it all with her.

Lent Reads #3

Oh this book! This writer! I have her entire backlist on hold at the library. I am probably late to this party but I don’t care. This is the kind of reading I love.

I read Writers and Lovers when it came out last year and it was easily on my favourite of 2020. This one is so different – except for the love triangle – but also so, so good. I know, my book reviewing skills are rusty which is odd because this is a blog supposedly about things I read. I don’t care. Onward.

I’m trying to read as many books as possible during Lent. I took Instagram off my phone to read and write more. I miss it already but I’ll stick with the plan. I’ll start to read my fourth book today – New Book Day as well call is here, the day you are lucky enough to finish a book and start another. Such a good day.

I love books, like Euphoria, about women and science. I loved Ann Patchet’s State of Wonder (of which Euphoria is very reminiscent) and Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted. I loved Melissa Barbeau’s The Luminous Sea and Lauren Groff’s The Monster of Templeton and Chemistry by Weike Wang. The lives fighting to maintain their identify, their passion for their work often in danger of being sacrificed for the other part of their lives, loves, family. It’s the passion for their work that I love reading about, their tenacity, and why it’s so important to cling to – as if don’t already know.

**Added – The Signature of All Things buy Elizabeth Gilbert. I will forever love moss because of this book.

I’m Going to Write a Post

OK. I’m going to write a post that I’ve wanted to write for months. I am writing now in my new space while the sun at my window cheers me on. You might not love it.

I read another quote about mothers and how impossible the past year has been for us. So true. This morning I read this quote, from Betsey Stevenson, an economist at U of Michigan.

“People talk about how moms can lift a car off their children, but even though you can do it, it doesn’t mean you didn’t do damage to your body when lifting the car. 2020 was like lifting a car off your kid; 2021 is going to be ‘How are those women able to heal?'”

This is where I hear myself saying OK in John Oliver’s voice. It’s also forcing me to take a very deep breath. In no way am what I am to write discrediting anything that mothers have been through this year. In no way! Of course not. It’s been beyond the worst. Again, of course.

But. And here I’ll first take another deep breath. By the time the first NYT articles about the hell mothers were going through began circulating everywhere on social media, I had never felt so alone. Because if I’m being honest, what mothers were experiencing starting last March, I had been going through for years. Alone. With zero validation, or support, or a voice other than some posts here and on instagram that – if I’m honest – were always the posts that got the fewest amount of likes.

Mothers of children with special needs have lived quietly and alone, giving up jobs and social lives for a long time. But when I ever tried to speak out, I know people saw me as a whiner, ugh, what now? Before the pandemic, my son – as most know – was hit with the worst anxiety I could imagine, and fast, like he’d been skipping across a street and then hit by a speeding truck. Five years later, we are all still recovering from just that trauma, the whiplash. Life changed for him and for us overnight, literally.

We lost friends, I had to go on sick leave, eventually giving up a job I loved and had worked long and hard to get. As the mom, my job had to be the one we let go because it paid so much less than my husbands’ – sounds familiar, right? The writing projects I’d been working on went up in smoke. There was never a minute to myself and honestly, it was a two parent job, Scott worked from home whenever he could. There were no New York Times articles to fuel me, no bread tutorials, no time for netflix or neighbourhood self-distanced bbqs. No fun takeout or picnics, my son wouldn’t eat. No hikes in the sunny woods because he couldn’t leave the house, still can’t lots of days. There was no time for self-care or any thoughts of what I might need to heal let alone just be well. We didn’t leave the house for months except for doctor’s appointments, we missed our families, there was no school although we tried, every single day. Schools threw their hands up in the air early on and suggested homeschooling which wasn’t an option for us. We were lonely.

So, of course, everyone is suffering this year – of course. And I sincerely hope my readers know me well enough by now and don’t think I’m minimizing that. We still know how lucky we are, our troubles are still so much less that others – money isn’t a huge worry and we know how to advocate for our children, and we do. And we’re happy people, I think that’s one reason why others are able to push us away. Oh, they’re fine. But when this is over, the effects will go on for who knows how long. But getting back to normal – the afterwards – doesn’t look that different for us and I’m afraid we’ll be left behind again.

I’ve been biting my tongue not to write this and the reason the quote above finally propelled me to do so was these thoughts of after covid. My son it doing much better than 5 years ago, no question, life is different and we do takeouts and treats and all the good things. We will go on holidays again and see family. But we don’t know about school an we constantly are needing to adjust what we thought our future might look like. I have more time to write now but I’m years behind where I wish I was – I feel often like I’ll never catch up and am seen as just a wannabe. I have to idea when I’ll be able to go back to work/write full-time. And it’s fine, this isn’t about me complaining. I’m not, I’m good.

But I’ve been alone, and I’m sure there are so many other mothers of kids who have been doing some sort of hybrid online/in class mess for years before this hit. Mothers who were already struggling so much with no end in sight. And hopefully now that online school is a thing, it might be easier to help kids learn from home through the board. Who knows.

This isn’t a complaint or a cry for for help. Just another voice telling another side of the story.

New Space

When my back goes out, my body gives up completely for a few days and I read in bed. Its only happened to this extent twice, and there’s nothing worse. Since the last time this happened, last March, we bought a tv to put in our room. It’s ridiculously big but we thought it would let the kids spread out a bit when the pandemic hit and we were right, so no regrets. But I never use it when I’m by myself. Scott and I watch some things after the kids go to bed but they stay up so late now that we barely make it through a episode of John Oliver.

In the evenings, the four of us watch tv together, right now we are finishing Superstore. Because I couldn’t get downstairs to where we usually sit (the room I’m in now) with the dog and the fireplace, we all piled on the bed and one chair to watch. My boys are all very big now, it is more than cozy.

But when I spent most of the day in bed last week barely able to roll over, I didn’t use it. I read. In a few days I finished The Centaur’s Wife and devoured Kerry Clare’s Waiting for a Star to Fall (so good!) and at least it let me feel like I wasn’t wasting my time.

As the hours went by and I could start to sit up I had my laptop and was able to write. But what always happens when I’m just starting to feel better is my mind gets way ahead of me and makes crazy plans. This year, besides my bedroom, I’ve had no space for myself to work. I’ve been sharing couches and the kitchen table with working kids, the downstairs office has become Scott’s. So I started trying to come up with how I could set up my own space without spending much, if any, money.

Scott got on board right away and I decided all I needed was a tray table, an old chair we already had and this perfect corner in our downstairs room with my books and a window. We ordered one and he went out to pick it up. For a few days it sat beside our bed and played it’s role as an actual tray table, holding meals and hot drinks and books. Such a tiny thing, free actually, paid for with Canadian Tire points, that keep my from feeling sorry for myself. Always have something to look forward too.

So here I am! I’m here now (feeling so much better) and it’s perfect. Bingo sleeps on the couch beside me, the light and snow are in front of me, and I’m anchored on my side by so many of my favourite words and stories.

So I’m feeling pretty lucky, and to top things off, we have pizza leftovers for lunch.

Check and Check

I have not completed enough things this year and I’m okay with that. I did complete this puzzle, with help, over the weekend. So that is something.

I did not finish all of my wonderful Valentine’s takeout from last night (we celebrated a night late) and I’m glad for that because nothing makes a snowy Monday better than leftover gnocchi with shrimp, prosciutto in a lemon cream sauce.

I did not finished all of January’s yoga challenge. I was so close, but on the last week I stretched too high for a cobra and my back pinged and I’m still paying for it.

I did finish reading many romance novels over the past weeks. I have not finished watching Bridgerton.

We have almost finished watching all of Superstore. It has been a delight to look forward to a few episodes each night all together. Things to look forward are always good.

For now, I have finished feeling sad and down and just basically awful. The first half of February was indeed as awful as I’d imagined it might be but these past few days have been better. Hearts and snow and gnocchi help.

I have finished yet another reading slump that I was in after finishing the romances. I am reading and very much enjoy Amanda Leduc’s The Centaur’s Wife. Such a perfect book to dive into on snowy, quiet days.

I have not finished writing a novel, not even close. Still working on it though.

I have not finished worrying about so many things, but maybe I have stopped feeling I have to fix everything for everyone.

I have not stopped buying more books than I can possibly read. I have not finished putting too many holds on books at the library.

I am not finished with this blog, despite how rarely I’ve been here lately.

I am finished with my bad back and this pandemic but what are we going to do.

Because, I am not finished loving the birds at my feeders. Seeing my dog race out into the snow each morning. Being grateful to Scott for fixing our dryer and all the gazillion amazing things he does, like making us hot chocolate to drink in bed together every night. The way my kids, even though they are teenagers, wake up still looky sleepy and remind me of when they were toddlers with sleepy eyes and rosy cheeks. The walks we take in our creek behind our house. Knowing despite everything, I have managed to keep writing and even get published this year.

All the Pretty Things

I took Instagram off of my phone before Christmas. I still check it on my laptop, but the need to scroll constantly is gone. But it also means I haven’t posted anything in 9 weeks, and last night for the first time, I missed it.

There hasn’t been much to post about in these weeks but because I wasn’t posting I also wasn’t taking many pictures and the thought of missing many lovely moments makes me sad. And a lot has makes me sad lately, it’s been a rough few weeks. But we all know that.

But I’m thinking of the moments I missed posting, recording, thinking about, being grateful for. Those missed opportunities to have a moment of joy in the way the sun hits my tea cup or the way the romance novel I was reading (I’ve been reading so many!) matches my blanket. Moments to steal my mind away from school and worries of other things. Moments that could have caught my breath and given me a second of joy.

Heal

Yesterday was the first day I’ve been out all week. My back has been giving me grief and although that allows me to watch too many episodes of Schitt’s Creek (my son would argue there is no such thing) and admire our bedroom’s newly washed windows, I do get restless. So yesterday we went for a drive to see the leaves.

I gave up on being a grouch over who’s wearing or not wearing a mask long ago, or at least I’ve really tried. But when we drove into the park yesterday and saw a large family celebration (with no masks), we just felt sad. Still Scott and I put on our masks and the kids stayed in the car because they would rather steal my phone and replace the screen picture with an image of a very buff Jesus (honestly, don’t ask). We took five minutes to ourselves and tried to find the tree we’d sat under more than twenty years ago where Scott had brought up the idea of us getting married for the first time. A perfect moment for sure with no kids and no back pain.

We drove through pretty Waterloo, the leaves so amazing this year. We got ice cream. We felt sad again when we drove past the mall and it’s absurdly full parking lot, not sure what was more disturbing, that it was so packed during a pandemic or just that it was so busy on such a gorgeous day. We talked about how much we miss our family and friends.

I’ve being doing really well lately at not focusing on numbers. I’ve been losing my phone on purpose in order to read more (although I’m in a bit of a slump and haven’t read a fantastic book in awhile). While I rest my body and my back, my mind is busy figuring out how to make the best of the long winter we are staring down. It needs to rest too.

And then the word Heal comes to me and everything settled. That’s what this time is. Calm. Quiet. Light, is what I imagine for the winter. We’ve had a lot of heaviness over the years – long before Covid – and maybe this winter, this time, we can rest and just heal. Maybe that’s what we’ve already been doing. School isn’t going terribly, it’s moving along. I’ve had a piece of writing published. Our dog couldn’t be happier. We had new bird feedings and so many birds! Scott makes me zucchini fritters and happy videos for his students. We have so much to be thankful for.

Heal. This is my word for this year and next, I’m not waiting until Jan 1 because what’s the point when I need it now. It allows me to let go of worries that I wasn’t doing enough for my family and guilt that I shouldn’t be enjoying this time when the world is in chaos. We’re going to slow down, appreciate this time and use it to get stronger so we can in turn do more to help others.

Heal.

What Would Ann Do?

I am a bartender, a hairdresser, a priest.

I have all the stories, but they’re sealed, and although so very much my own, I can’t tell them. Not yet, anyway.

The stories I have I need to write, they are too much too keep inside and need to be processed. Writing non-fiction feels better these days then fiction. My grandfather, before he died, used to tell me I had to write because I had so many stories to tell. I thought he meant made- up ones, now I’m not so sure.

But my stories aren’t just mine and many are hard and sad and personal. They belong to my sons and my family with me right in the middle. This is just thinking out loud after a long week and it’s only Tuesday and I’m not even thinking of world news and insanity that is the president. I am thinking of so many stories about my mother and the reasons she never shows up in my writing. I don’t know how to do it, write them down and put them away for now I suppose.

Maybe Ann Patchett would loan me her title, ‘This is The Story of a Happy Marriage’ if my stories were ever collected. Heck, I even have one about her I’m not sure how to share and it’s so, so good! I can’t find the quote, but she once wrote that she writes because she can’t carry the heavy stories around and writing (non-fiction) is her way of figuring them out to make things lighter.

Lightening may be a good first step.

*Pink Fish Pick! A book that goes so well with my thoughts and this post would be the book I’m reading now, “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson. It reminds me of so many of my favourites; Elizabeth Strout, Kent Haruf. Perfect for fall and I’ve been meaning to read this series for years. And yes, Ann P may have posted a video lately reminding me of them.

My Shaking

The story goes that when I was born, the umbilical cord got caught around my neck cutting off oxygen for just enough seconds so that by the time I was three, I couldn’t hold a pencil or tie my shoes with my very shaky hands. I don’t remember when I started having a specialist at Sick Kids which in the 80s never amounted to far too many blood tests and the same exercises every six months – try to walk in a straight line without tipping over, hold your hands arms out straight and let’s watch you shake (I’d hold my muscles so tight so I wouldn’t) and let’s check your reaction time when I drag my car key up along the bottom of your foot. All followed by, yup, you have cerebral palsy and we’ll keep seeing you until you’re 16.

I don’t remember who first called it My Shaking, probably me? I dealt with it in two ways. First, denial. By the time I was in second grade my teacher said I would have to learn to type in order to be able to get through school. I simply couldn’t write, it was illegible not to mention painful but I still fought to be able to do it – to stay at my desk and not walk up the row to the huge, architect’s desk that had been made just for me, with a yolk to push my scrawny body and chair into, up close enough to be able to type on the brown and beige Smith Corona that was bigger than my bowl cut framed head. I’d flick the switch and it hummed and glowed like a mothership returning to its home planet. It was a massive gift and changed my life, all thanks to Easter Seals, but at the time, I wanted none of it. What would Ramona Quimby think and when would kids stop calling me Shake ‘n Bake?

The second way I deal with my shaking was (is) through humour. From an early age I would work my way through an array of jokes to distract from the soup I was spilling or when I couldn’t keep my colouring inside the lines or couldn’t zip up the front of my winter coat. I’d scoff at how I’d never be a brain surgeon or a watch repair person! Even yesterday I told my kids I should get hired to give Covid test, imagine how effective I would be! They laugh, my husband teasing, but I still remember the pitying looks I’d get from classmates and friend’s parents when I’d make jokes, “Oh Sarah, don’t say that, it’s awful.” I’ve always just wanted to shake, joke and move on.

The summer before grade 3 I had to learn to type, it was impossible for me to physically keep up and my skinny arms would be killing me at the end of each day from trying. My Nana sat with me every morning and taught me to type the way the other kids learned piano. For hours, propped up on pillows to be able to reach the typewriter keys, I practiced exercises and it didn’t take long before I could type a few words without looking, both hands on the keys, slow and steady the quick brown fox went.

I used the typewriter and the architect’s desk for three years, hating it everyday because it wasn’t safe and fun like my days practicing with Nana had been. When I had to type in class, I would walk from my seat at the back of the room (probably I’d asked to be seated that far away from the electronic beast) and the class would groan. I would pull out the fluorescent orange seat with SARAH written in bold Sharpie on the back and flick the switch meaning the teacher had to speak louder. Spelling dictations were impossible, I would type and blink back tears while kids yelled at me to shut up.

It was around grade four that one thing, the best thing, clicked. I was getting faster, I hated it but was smart enough by then to know there was no option. I had a desktop computer at home and spent hours each night writing my own stories. A novel about a goldfish, a short story about an old woman being evicted from her apartment that my mom actually sent to the Toronto Star. A local newspaper wrote a story about me, an eight year old who was fulfilling her dream of writing thanks to the help of Easter Seals. They were absolutely right. My hands could never have kept up with my stories, my thoughts, and these ideas pushed me daily to keep at it, typing faster and faster to keep up with the girls I was writing about. Girls mostly like me, but always without a shake.

I moved to a word processor in grade 6 and then to a laptop in high school and carried it around with me from room to room, locking it up in a classroom at the end of each day. My grade nine typing teacher agreed from the first week that since I was already typing more than 100 words a minute that he’d give me 100% in the course and made a joke of it to the class. I don’t remember being embarrassed. My love of writing and increased speed of typing made for longer than wanted essays the teachers had to mark and exams that ended up being double or triple in length. When I got to university, I was the only one typing in classes (I’m that old) and I’d have to explain my situation to each prof.

Outside of school, I never thought much about it. My family decided early on I wouldn’t be able to drive, but I can and I do, having finally gotten my license with two babies in the backseat. I’ve always had friends to carry my meal tray and now a loving husband to carry my tea, dice the onions, move my game piece around the board and rub my arms for me at the end of a long day when my neck and left arm aches.

These days, as I reach middle age, the pain is worse. What used to be chronic neck pain is now pain in my back that I experience most days. I can’t deny the connection any longer. After so many decades of ignoring and joking away my CP, these days it’s right up in my face.

I never owned my CP or being disabled because it never seemed ‘bad enough’. People usually just think I’m nervous or cold when they catch my hands and arms twitching. As a kid I’d pour over Jean Little novels about kids with ‘real’ disabilities and sob feeling such shame for ever feeling sorry for myself. My hands shook, big deal, on good days I could just imagine it away and for decades I pretty much did.

In a gorgeous essay, Amanda Leduc, who identifies as a disabled writer, speaks to my feelings. She writes,

“When I call myself disabled, I am saying that the disability community is wide and bright and beautiful, and welcoming of all, and that we become stronger with every person who joins us. I call myself disabled so that others with disabilities across a wide spectrum might one day feel comfortable doing the same. “

And for me things are starting to shift.

I still feel like I shouldn’t make a big deal out of this, maybe it’s easier? That my shaking is so small compared to everything in the world, but then on days when I can barely get out of bed because of the pain, the toll my shaking has taken on my body my entire life I know I need to accept it (honour it?) rather than keep fighting it. I’m not sure what that means, but it probably stars with writing this blog to figure it out.

My jokes are really good though, I don’t think I’ll quit those just yet. 

Refresh

At the moment I’ve chosen to write instead of refresh. Refresh is definitely the wrong word for it, for the endless scrolling because I know the numbers come for the day come out in ten minutes. And I know I could be do something so much better for myself.

I could be writing, working on my story or my novel. I could go back to reading Jessica Westhead’s stories from her collection Things Not to Do. I could bug the three other people in my house who are all working on school work, either as students and one as the teacher. I could play with my dog. I could make another cup of coffee and sit on my deck. I could start reading a new novel. Or go for a walk. Or take a shower. Or bake a cake.

The numbers are going up, Waterloo is not doing too great. We’re pulling back on some of the things we’ve been doing, and that makes us sad and frustrated when we drive through town and see so many groups of young people, here now for university, not wearing masks.

But we’re ok. We’ve got a routine, we’re enjoying the cooler weather. Rory bakes us treats that are half cookie on top and a brownie on the bottom. The kids don’t love school but they’re moving through the days at home with optimism and I’m so proud of them. Scott wore a bear head in a video to keep his university students happy. I’m going to make Julia Turshen’s meatloaf tonight and keep watching Schitt’s Creek.

PS – I did check the case numbers before I finished this post and they’re high, but nothing around me in this moment has changed.