Monday, 18 November 2013

Maid, Mother, Magdalene, Crone

I've found myself thinking about the annual spiritual retreat that St. James Anglican holds at Canterbury Hills—I've been fortunate over the years to attend several of these weekends, spent with a community of powerful, wise, supportive women who are equally happy to rub your feet, hold you while you sob, and high-five you when you master a difficult belly-dancing move.

They're Anglicans—in name, anyway—but the spirituality of the group and the opportunities for communion with the Divine (however you define that) that they offer go far, far beyond denomination, dogma, and deity.  

One thing that these women are absolute wonders at is celebrating being female, at all stages of the journey, and they often make reference to the archetypal stages of a woman's life: Maid, Mother, and Crone—especially Crone, as many of the women who attend the retreat are past their child-bearing and rearing years.

Those three archetypes are powerful, universal -- and never fail to leave me feeling a little left out.

Where do I fit? Nowhere.

I'm certainly not a Maiden -- the smile lines around my eyes attest to that. I have a little too much worldly knowledge (and a little too much familiarity with the opposite sex) to ever recapture the blissful ignorance of virginity, and I'm perfectly happy with that.

I'm not a Mother, either, although this is probably where I SHOULD fit. I skirt the boundaries of motherhood sometimes, sort of -- I do have young people in my life whom I cherish dearly. But the real, honest-to-god pleasure and pain of having borne and raised children of my own isn't part of my particular narrative.

I'm also not a Crone -- yet. I have great hopes of being wise enough to not mind being one, either, but I'm not at that stage -- yet. I still rage against the inevitability of aging, and haven't yet gained the peace that will -- hopefully --accompany many more years of experience.

One archetype we explored at the last weekend I was at, though, actually resonated with me -- and that was the Magdalene. This is a riff on the Whore -- the fourth, albeit somewhat less iconic, female archetype. Believe it or not, I found a comforting familiarity in the figure who, in the Roman Catholic tradition, has been identified with prostitutes, wastrels and layabouts.

Rest assured, I don't see myself as a whore (although, to be frank, that role sounds like a lot more fun than any of the other ones). Not exactly.

Progressive views of the Magdalene see her as a symbol of women's agency and vision, someone willing to buck the conventional and sacrifice the traditional values of hearth and family in the search for wisdom and truth. 

Well, alrighty then. I can get with that.

As I've found myself kind of veering off the traditional life path of marriage-kids-house, I've felt a little disconnected from the grander human narrative a little. There aren't a lot of child-free female archetypes -- there are goddesses, sure, but they're a little harder to relate to.

Sheesh, even Game of Thrones has a whole theology partly based on the whole Maid-Mother-Crone trinity.

Fine. I'll be a Magdalene. It feels nice to fit somewhere.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

How I learned to write

I'm officially a writer.

No, really. My business cards have "Senior Writer" as my job title. I do some freelancing, and get to see my name on a byline a couple of times a week. Every penny of income I make now comes from writing.

This is a little amazing to me.

Oh, sure, I still feel like I have to justify myself when the inevitable follow-up question to "What do you do?" is "What have you written?" Somehow, people are never quite satisfied with "I write for Humber College and freelance for" They want novels. They want poetry. They want made-up stuff. So be it. I don't write fiction, at least not right now.

The fact is, though, that I spend the majority of my days writing, researching, and writing some more. So I figure, even without a novel under my belt, I get to call myself a writer now.

I found myself thinking about how I learned to write, and I thought I'd share some of the steps. It is truly amazing what shapes the craft.

I read a lot as a little kid. I read a lot now.

That, probably more than anything, is the reason I'm a decent writer now. Writing and reading are inextricably linked -- and just as you can't learn a language without hearing how it sounds, you can't learn to write if you don't know how good words sound in your head. And just as immersion is the best way to learn a language, so it is with writing. Immerse yourself in other people's words, and your own will be better. I'm a non-fiction gal, myself, and I have an enduring, passionate love affair with the writing in Esquire, especially Tom Junod's stuff. His profile of Fred Rogers is still my favourite article ever.

I listen to a lot of music.

Having an ear for music is a lot more important in a writer than you might think. The rhythm of words, the cadence of sentences, and the patterns of language are all more musical than they are verbal. You can have a stunning vocabulary and great ideas, but that won't help if your sentences go THUMP on your reader's ear. Listening to music -- and really listening, and figuring out what you're responding to in your favourite songs -- is vital if you want your text to sing. And don't bother listening to high-brow stuff if that's not your thing. The underpinnings of music are the same whether you're listening to La Boheme or Beastie Boys.

I worked my way through the slush pile at Key Porter.

Reading good writing is important, but reading a shit pile of bad writing is pretty educational, too. A lot of the slush pile was tragic -- seriously tragic, in that some people spent, like, YEARS putting together 1,500-page manuscripts that were simply terrible. I definitely admired the dedication -- I haven't written a 1,500 page novel, after all -- but good god, they would have been better served by learning to write less and better. (One guy actually replied to my rejection letter by commanding me to shred his manuscript so no-one would steal it. I restrained myself from firing back that no one in their right mind would want to claim credit for his bloated, gassy, Tolkien-spinning-in-his-grave pile of hackneyed neo-Medievalisms.)

I worked as a copywriter.

Back when Living Social still had an army of freelancers across North America (we all got laid off at the end of 2012), I spent a year writing one or two alliterative, quippy 150-word ads for them every single weekday. I got paid $20 per ad -- a pittance -- but boy, that regular practice of HAVING to turn out something decent every single day was a fantastic training ground for laying aside any existential angst and just writing. My editor was quick to flag lazy prose and tired cliches, so I learned to make anything -- and I do mean anything -- sound good. I won a couple of copywriting awards from them during my time there, so obviously something was working.

I'm still learning to be a good writer. As I write this, I realize I've completely abandoned my own work -- that is, stuff that isn't written with an audience in mind, stuff that doesn't conform to a series of key messages or tweaked to guarantee a record number of click-throughs. 

Maybe it's time to start. I guess the first blog post in a year is a pretty good beginning.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Three more found Facebook poems

Oh, I can't resist. I've been writing these for a while, but they've been relegated to a far and distant corner of the Facebook galaxy through its many redesigns. I thought I'd show them the light of day again.

How Can an Ice Cream Factory Have a Fire?

It's still snowing.
I'm practicing my grimace, scowl, and unimpressed glower.
Then I'm going to do as little as possible until I can see the point in doing anything.
It's still snowing.
I'm listening to Mob Barley, and thinking of hitting the gym -- but not until my socks match my spandex.
(Why are you laughing?)
It's still snowing.
Anyone who kicks a garden gnome is no friend of mine, so please: watch, think.

It's still snowing.

Fickle Feline, What's in Your Makeup Bag?

Making chicken soup in a fog, I decided to move to Louisiana.
Doctor said I needed a more balanced life.
Dude sleeps with his tongue out;
Discussed Polkaroo as an agenda topic.
How's THAT for electric?

Happy birthday, Super Mario Brothers.
They drew first blood, not me.

Sara Is Wanting to Write a Poem

I was suffering from locked-in syndrome, writing a book with an eyelid
When I had a visit from a prophet appearing as a garden gnome,
A walking fortune cookie dispensing excellent advice.

We're still seeing rabbits in the moon,
Getting carried away in the stream of idiom like a drunk on a subway train.
Mostly mute, injured again, drowning in a sea of puke.

A torn-up front yard is in my future very soon.
I'm letting the Wookie win.

Rookie Mistake (A found Facebook poem)

Congratulations, Lenny, on joining Team Crazy.
We've literally driven to the moon!
(It was a little strange to see children interacting with drunk hoboes...)

There is absolutely no excuse for burning books.
Familiar rhetoric: fear is the path to the dark side.
(Does it smell outside anywhere else, or is it just my neighbourhood?)

The early Christians carpooled, but I can dance any way I want to.
Ate a corn dog, deep-fried pickles and funnel cake.
I am now well-stocked with yummy tea, and ready to face the world.
Who made 40 mustaches on sticks? THIS GIRL.
Off to a night of shenanigans.

(Taken from my friends' Facebook status updates over the last few days, re-ordered, and presented as poetry.)

Monday, 18 June 2012

A (long) letter to my inner critic

My dear inner critic,

You sound so much like me sometimesit’s hard to tell where you leave off and where I begin. You have my voice, you look a little like me – and yet you’re not me.

I know you pretty well, though. You’re petrified of doing the wrong thing, of saying the wrong thing, of writing the wrong thing. You’re more content to live in fantasies (and what lovely fantasies they are—you really are very imaginative) rather than deal with reality and all its complexity and potential for failure.

You know me equally wellat least, you know my faults. You know that I’m prone to getting excited at the beginning of a project, then running out of steam halfway through.

You know that I get overwhelmed with details. You know that conflict makes me feel hot, and sick, and desperate to escape. You know that my enthusiasms wax and wane easily, that I’m easily diverted, that I’m pulled away from what really matters by all manner of shiny things and in-the-moment distractions. 

You have a definite gift for visualizing worst-case scenarios—financial ruin, relationship breakdown, loneliness, abandonment, rejection. You think that by sharing these visions with me, I’ll be more likely to avoid the path that might bring me within disaster’s muddy-bordered territory.

Don’t climb, because you might fall. Don’t be honest, because people might not like what you have to say (no one likes a critic). Don’t abandon tangible security in favour of some woolly concept like authenticity (authenticity doesn’t pay the hydro bill). Don’t gamble the pretty good for a slim-to-none chance at the wonderful (why would you risk failure?). Don’t try unless you’re sure you’re going to succeed.

You tell me that ambition is a recipe for stress. You tell me that I don’t have the attention span to sustain a long writing project, to maintain the discipline necessary to write, and write, and write, then write some more, never knowing whether I’m going to succeed. 

You tell me that I’ll feel worse about myself if I try and fail than if I never tried in the first place.

I make you sound malevolent, and evil—like you’re a jealous step-sister who doesn’t want me to succeed, who wants to keep me in my place, who doesn’t want me getting too big for my britches.

I know you well enough, though, to know that’s not true. I know you’re not bad.

I get it.

You’re trying to keep me safe. You’re trying to help me stay on an even keel, surrounded by friends and family who love me. You’re trying to give me a calm, contented life, with a steady paycheque, because you don’t want me to be stressed out. You don’t want me to be unhappy. You want me to be safe and stable. You don’t want me to gamble. 

You have my best interests at heart, and I appreciate that. I appreciate your caution, your care, your tethering influence when I’m liable to go floating off somewhere. Thank you for loving me enough to worry as much as you do—for loving me enough to want to protect me from all harm, from all negativity, from every bad feeling that’s out there.

No, you’re not bad—but you are misguided.

You, my dear friend, are so very scared. You have so much fear, and so little faith.

In fact, not only do you not have any faith, but your fear is so great that you actually lack objectivity. You think you’re being smart, and rational, but you’re not. Your fear is preventing you not just from seeing things the way they could be, it’s stopping you from seeing things the way they are. You think that I shouldn’t try and be a writer because I probably won’t succeed, but if we look at my accomplishments rationally (there’s that word again) that may not be a wholly accurate assessment.

I’ve won awards. I’ve gotten praise. I’ve got the concrete skills. In fact, I make a living as a writer now—I’m just not writing what I’d like to write.

Fear is a very poor basis for decision making, my friend. It makes us see things that aren’t there, and it makes us blind to the things that are actually real.

And really, what’s the worst that can happen?

Am I going to die because my first, second, third novels don’t get published? No. Failure isn’t fatal.

Are my friends going to abandon me because I try, and never make it? No. If anything, they’ll probably show me how incredible they all can be. I’ve seen it before, and I have every reason to believe that it will happen again.

Am I going to end up a toothless old woman on a street corner, wrapped in tinfoil and screaming warnings about alien death rays because I didn’t become a published author? Unlikely. If anything, not writing is worse for my mental health than trying and not getting anywhere.

You see?

I know you can’t really trust the hopeful visions that I have – trust and fear rarely walk hand-in-hand – but I’ll tell you what I see, just in case.

I imagine long hours of hard work made delicious and sweet by those times where the words flow, where the story tells itself, where the characters speak and act on their own, without any prodding from me.

I imagine the palpable joy of my fingers clicking on the keyboard.

And finally, I imagine the cool, steady-eyed assurance that comes from knowing that I’m doing 
what I’m meant to be doing – using, not squandering, the gifts I have. 

My dear, imaginative, caring friend, take a seat. I’ve got a comfy chair for you. A cup of tea. A really, really good book. A purring cat. A dark, dreary day outside, perfect for curling up.

Please, make yourself comfortable. Living scared is awfully tiring, and it’s time you took a break.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Thoughts on not having kids

"Biology is the least of what makes someone a mother." --Oprah Winfrey

Oh amen, Oprah.

See, I don't have kids. Not only that, but it's unlikely that I'm ever going to have kids. Oh, sure, it's biologically possible, and should be for another few years, anywaybut unless my life circumstances take a strange and bizarre turn, I'm probably not going to be needing any baby showers.

And like so much of my life these days, I feel completely out-of-step.

I know women for whom becoming a mom just isn't open to debate--women who, if they were in my shoes, would be either deeply grieving an irreconcilably empty life or fiercely trying to remedy the situation by any means necessary.

I know women for whom motherhood is the most incredible, wonderful, fulfilling thing they've ever done--a pile of hard work, certainly, but something that manages to define them as women in ways that career, hobbies, and other types of relationships never could. Yes, they're tired a lot, and yes, they miss the freedom to curl up with a book or in a bath without interruption--but they're deeply, deeply happy, and wouldn't have it any other way. 

And finally, I know women for whom motherhood is definitely a mixed bag--who are doing their best, but feel intense guilt at the ambivalence they sometimes feel towards their kids, who feel like they're never quite enough, never quite measuring up, never quite as thrilled with the whole parenthood thing as they thought they would be. 

This is the kind of mom I'm worried I'd be, all the time.

Being a mom always seemed to me more inevitable than desirable--it was just something you did, like going to school and getting a job and buying a house. Parenthood was something on the road towards becoming a real grown-up, something akin to managing mortgage payments and making RRSP contributions--something that marked your place in adult society, as a fully-fledged human being. 

And while I never would have written, at age six, "I want to be a mommy when I grow up," I probably would have followed that path myself, not really stopping to think consciously about my choice, just keeping in step with most of the people around me, because that's what people do--except life didn't quite turn out that way. 

Now that I'm not exactly on the happy edge of fertility--almost two years beyond that magical low-risk age of 35--I actually have to sit down and think about what having or not having kids means to me. (And don't think I don't know it takes two people to make a baby--in this post, though, I'm going to stick to the only person's thoughts I'm sure of: mine.)

A year ago I was firmly convinced I didn't want children. I was coming out of an enormous personal transition, enjoying a relatively independent lifestyle, and couldn't possibly conceive of upsetting my hard-fought solo applecart. I relished my solitude, revelled in my freedom, luxuriated in my liberty. I hated the idea of having a child, then resenting him or her for destroying a life I'd worked so hard to build, that I truly loved.

I still feel that way. But...


I still don't get goo-goo over other people's babies. Don't get me wrong--I like kids, a lot, and they seem to like me. But I don't feel any sort of uterine throb when I see a mom and her child.

I wonder, though, whether I'm missing out on some very essential human experience--whether I'm missing out on an intensity of love that just doesn't exist in any other human relationship. If our purpose on earth is to love, and love, and love some more--and I believe it is--shouldn't we be seeking out love in all its incredible forms? 

Would I be a happier person if I had kids?

Would I be a better person if I had kids? 

I don't know--but the fact that I may not get a chance to find out is a little scary.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The cheapskate's guide to exercising

I'm desperately trying to resist the birthday cake that's in the office kitchen right now, so I thought I'd distract myself by writing a post about exercising.

Those of you who know me know I'm an occasional runner, hiker, biker, and roller skater. I've done one Warrior Dash, one beginner triathlon, and one 5km race in the past three years, and I'm aiming to do at least one 10km run this year, simply to have a goal to work towards.

I'm a terrible cheapskate when it comes to working out. I've never belonged to a gym, I don't do any equipment-heavy (read: expensive) sports, and I skimp on all gear except a decent pair of running shoes, cold-weather running pants, and a jiggle-free sports bra. (Seriously, one of those is worth the $50 I pay...)

This isn't just an economic decision, although that's part of it.

For me, exercising is a lifestyle choice, a habit, a technique to keep me sane and healthy—not an opportunity for conspicuous consumption. That's not to say that if you belong to a gym and go regularly, you're wrong—it's just too many people think that's the only way to get fit, and that's just not true.

Exercise doesn't have to be a huge investment, either of time or money—and, in fact, treating it that way is probably a deterrent to ever getting started.

Ideally, although it may be uncomfortable at times, exercise, whatever form it takes, will leave you feeling joyful, strong, and even-keeled—and won't deplete your bank account.

Here's how I make it work for me:
  • I keep it simple. My workouts require little gear beyond the aforementioned shoes, sports bra, t-shirt, and shorts. I have cold-weather pants and a windbreaker for the winter. And I have free weights at home. If I felt really ambitious, I could add a stability ball, but I haven't really felt the burning need to so far.
  • I choose to be outside, for the most part, interacting with my community. I huff my way up and down the hills in my neighbourhood (yes, even in the winter). I hike the Bruce Trail. This is far more soul-filling than putting in time on a treadmill in a loud gym—and that  keeps me going back out for more.
  • I figure out what motivates me. Judging from the number of people who don't use their gym memberships, an expensive gym isn't enough motivation to keep most people slogging through exercise's inevitable discomfort. For me, immediate rewards like new music, a new route to explore, and the promise of a post-run bubble bath or back rub are pretty good at getting me out. Watching the scale (and the mirror!) is a powerful motivator as well. To be fair, when I was at university I liked going to the (free) campus gym for the people-watching—but that appeal isn't enough to get me to pay.
  • I figure out what's stopping me. I found that I was skimping on my runs if I got home late, or only had a limited window of time—so on the days when I don't have enough time to do a 45-minute run, I climb the stairs in my building for 15 minutes. (Believe me, 15 minutes is plenty.) If I have another 15 minutes I'll follow up the stair climbing with some weights. A friend of mine who lives in a house runs up and down her stairs if it's too cold to go out.
  • I do fun stuff, as well as hard slogs. Roller skating, hiking with friends, biking with my dad—these things offset the more goal-oriented (and, let's face it, sometimes agonizing) running and stair climbing.
  • I make fitness functional. I don't have a car, so this is easy: I walk to the grocery store, and carry my groceries home. I walk to the library. I walk to the Farmers' Market. Hell, I walk to the bus stop! I consciously chose my current living location precisely because it was walking distance to almost everything.
  • I don't have a TV. Seriously. And I don't miss it one bit. It's far, far too easy for me to lose an entire evening parked in front of the tube—and without it, I get bored enough to get out and move. 
  • I surround myself with like-minded folks. I belong to an awesome group on Facebook, and we encourage each other to exercise, even though we don't manage to get together as often as we'd like. My best friend does karate (how's THAT for inspiring?). I catch up with other friends over a hike or bike ride.
OK, the birthday cake temptation has passed. (And I have nothing against birthday cake, but I want my splurges to COUNT—so I try not to eat junky stuff simply because it's placed in front of me.)

What about you? How do you get up the motivation to get off the couch?