Stopped on the street

Toronto graffiti

Going for a walk with the dog in the afternoon is usually a safe activity. Quiet. Just me and my dog. We — Gia (little dog) and I — didn’t think anything of the slightly disheveled, grey-haired guy heading toward us. We moved onto the grass boulevard to the right side of the sidewalk to make room for him to walk by.

He stopped just as he passed my left shoulder, turned around and asked, “Do you have a few minutes?”

I turned to face him.

He continued. “Do you have a few minutes to talk? Under the tree, out of the sun..?”

He had a pen and notepad.

I smiled and said “sure” but did not remove my sunglasses. 

In the shade of the tree Gia intuited that we weren’t going anywhere for a while. She circled a spot on the sidewalk a few times and plopped down at my feet and curled up into a tight furball.

I listened as he explained what he was doing. He asked me a few questions and at question three, I removed my sunglasses so that I could make eye contact with him.

Question three was, “what do you do?”

“Writer.”

Just like that it came out. Ahead of thought, ahead of filter and inner critic, the word, the declaration flew out of my mouth, through his pen, into his notebook. Sense of safety evaporating.

I didn’t say that I haven’t written a thing in over a year. The last column was published a year ago this month. Parker died a month later. Haven’t written since then. 

I didn’t say that my writer self is wrestling with all the other parts of my self (not that a self, per se, exists) to see if there’s any more of anything to write or is it just quiet, silent, time. That space and place between now and then where things happen in the inbetween.

But I said writer out loud. I had to qualify it and added that I’m not working right now. Perhaps he understood the coded message, that I am not writing. Not a thing. Not a word. It isn’t writer’s block, or writer’s blockade. It’s simply not writing.

What do I do? Lots of things. I could have answered other things that would have been true and made me sound interesting. Like, oh, I teach. Or I’m studying. But no. Once a word is spoken, it’s out in the world. It can’t be taken back. Out of my mouth came  writer. Like a pirate stepping out blithely from the open mouth of a whale.

What do I do? Writer. I said it. He caught it.

I answered other questions. Gave him my full attention. When all the questions were answered, he checked the spelling of my name, bent down to scratch Gia’s ears, said goodbye and went off to find someone else to interview. I put my sunglasses on and headed off in toward the dog park, contemplating this question asked by the man who stopped me on the street: “what do you do?”

Perhaps my evil alter ego got in the way. There is that DSM-V certified toxic narcissism disorder in my family history, which I thought psychic surgery and duck therapy fixed. Perhaps remnants remain and the right questions posed in the right sequence triggered it?

Perhaps I wanted to project an interesting sort-of-truth because what I do as a woman who’s working life is in transition is too complicated to explain, talk about, even admit to?

And yet…As soon as I opened my mouth, I fell into that trap. Education, parenting, media, our society, our culture. Who I am defined by what I do or don’t do. 

A writer who isn’t writing is like a boat hanging out in its dry dock, a yogi not practising asanas, a musician not picking up her instrument, a photographer not using a camera.

Seems I mindlessly bought into doing as an indication of being something, someone who requires a designation that matters. Seems I poured a lot of meaning into a question that has no value except to give a sort of shorthand, a label. A label to convey something about me linked mental models of whatever a writer does. A label that people believe conveys a cogent snapshot of the person who holds the label, writer.

Gia and I got to the dog park and I let her off lead to run around with her canine crew. I picked the label from my mind and let it go.

What do I do? Enough thank you, and you?

~~

If a reporter asked what you do, how would you answer it?

Posted in Life, Toronto, writing | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

All that I know

Parker and Gia

~~

Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in.

Observe. Notice that pause platform, that attosecond of time between the end of the in-breath and start of the out-breath, that neglected, imperceptible space that’s part of the most basic, automatic and essential functions of the body — breathing.

Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.

~~

Ben’s got curly blonde hair and big blue eyes and is curious about the world and when he smiles he looks like a cherub or a four-year-old angel and proof that you cannot judge by appearance alone because when you get to know him it’s quite apparent that he isn’t an angel. He fights with his older brother. He’s pouty. Crazy exuberant. Moody. And he doesn’t want to go school. Ben is his own person, in his own world. His father yells and yells and yells. His mother does not yell. She is kind and understanding, if not a little exasperated.

More often than not Ben is down on his knees, in the dirt, looking at bugs and arguing with his parents, fighting with his brother and making up stories. He recently discovered sidewalk chalk. Now, we have chalk glyphs of creatures that Ben has dreamed up in a line  halfway down the street. They are quite inventive and appealing. After it rains we get new drawings. I’ve taken pictures of his complete body of work (to date) that I plan to catalogue and keep for when he gets famous. I can say I knew him way back when.

~~

Gia and I were coming back from the park.

Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Notice the attosecond, that pause between breaths. Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out. 

There’s a whole series of chalk glyphs on the street between Ben’s house and my house.

“Hey Ben, whatchya doin?”

“Where’s your big dog..?

I look to Ben’s mother. She knows. She sees the water in my eyes. I look away a second to mentally shake my head, prepare it, attending deeply to my breath. When I look back at her, she nods.

I will my voice to evenness, letting grief be where it wants to be in my heart, in my body as I crouch down beside Ben to explain where Parker is.

“Parker’s not here Ben. He died.”

Ben keeps drawing on the sidewalk with his stick of yellow chalk. I stand up and look at his mother. I notice that her eyes are watery too. She liked Parker. All of the neighbours liked Parker. Even people who didn’t like dogs liked Parker.

Breathing in, I’m aware I’m breathing in…attosecond…breathing out, I’m aware I’m breathing out. 

No response from Ben, but it seems as if his little lean body has tightened slightly. He is drawing.

He doesn’t raise his head as his mother says, “Parker’s gone to doggy heaven, Ben.”

It seems as if Ben’s mother and I are waiting for him to say something, words of universal wisdom or kid logic or some cute kid thing because that’s what kids do when adults share parts of the human condition with them.

Silence. Ben’s mother giving me a sympathetic smile, Ben still crouched down on the sidewalk, drawing. Gia sitting by my right foot, attentive, wary of Ben. I’m listening, hearing, aching. Breathing with awareness, feeling my feet in my shoes, my shoes on the ground. Noticing with awareness the hole in my life, in my house, in my heart, in my world that was once filled by a big black poodle.

“My mummy killed him,” said Ben in his out-loud voice.

Her eyes widen. “Ben!!”

Perhaps I can offer a simple explanation. “No, Ben. Parker was really sick. Remember how we talked about that? Nobody killed him. Honest.”

He does raise his head.

“Oh,” he says and stands up, holding his stick of chalk. “There’s your big dog and your little dog.”

I look at his drawing. Big Parker. Little Gia.

Except for the tails and the eyes and the missing ears and the shape of the bodies and the legs and the faces and noses it is an exact likeness of something about my dogs as expressed by a four-year old and because it is an exact likeness of something about my dogs, my eyes water again. Is Parker in doggy heaven? It takes a moment before I can say anything.

“Thank you, Ben. It’s a beautiful drawing of Parker and Gia.”

Gia, hearing her name, stands and looks up at me, wagging her tail. My heart is in my throat.

Ben nods, furrows his brows and crouches down again to draw something else on the sidewalk.

“Time to go,” says his mother.

Ben doesn’t argue. Doesn’t ask for more time or explain what he wants to do next or why he can’t go home right now. He stands up, sticks his hand inside his mother’s hand, looks at Gia then at me and silently walks away.

Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Attosecond pause. Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.

Posted in dogs, Life, Mindfulness, pets | Tagged , , , , , ,

Bad drivers

bad-driving~~

Some scientists have recently made headway in creating an invisibility cloak similar to the one used by Harry Potter. It’s all very complicated, involving things that scientists get involved in like light refraction and microwaves and super-thin bits of solid material that become flexible when measured in micrometers. While the labs are working away under deadlines and budget constraints to create invisibility, I’ve found an easier way. It’s quite simple really. Let me share how you can do it and please excuse some of the less-than-polite language.

First, dress as you normally would for the daytime. Then head out for a walk to a store a couple of blocks away and when you reach the lights at the corner, wait patiently for the light to change. Wait specifically for the bottom light to turn green — the green light that says, hey pedestrian, it’s safe for you to cross because the cars are on a red light and they are required to stop for you. Check twice to be certain that the light is green and when you are certain, step off the curb and begin to walk across to the other side of the street. When you are two feet from the curb that you’ve just stepped off of (and this is important) do not be surprised when someone in a red SUV thingy comes barreling along, not noticing the red light or your green light. Don’t be surprised when the driver doesn’t stop the vehicle as it gets closer to you and when, out of concern about being smushed to the ground you stop, and the driver drives past you, oblivious to you and your look of shock and nearly knocks you down. That’s when you know you have become invisible.

You might look for an explanation in the immediate environment as to why that driver didn’t see you, but you won’t find an answer. You could think things that border on cultural, religious and gender discrimination, but nothing you think would be true. You could get angry, thinking things that are beyond rude; something like how an (ostensibly) sentient human being is little more than a living, breathing mindless asshole of the first, second and third orders, an ugly-mug kissin’ cousin to crocodiles, komodo dragons and alligators, who probably has really bad breath and smells like some mixture between a skunk and a diaper and who deserves to be visited by the ghosts of the past, present and future and peed on by a pack of feral chihuahuas.

You could think those things and they’d all be wrong and so the only conclusion that holds water is the conclusion I reached, that even though you showed up for this moment of your life, at this particular time being mindful, accepting the suffering of life, the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows, being present, being aware and devoid of illusion, accepting the interdependencies, and the illusion of duality, your non existent self very nearly did disappear, not because you understood the non existent self and finally, fully grokked its meaning. No siree, you became invisible because someone — a driver — did not, could not, would not see you because seeing you would mean slowing down and stopping and making room for, giving space to and being considerate of someone else and for some people, specially some people who are drivers, that’s just not on when they’re behind the wheel. Which is not to say there aren’t crazy pedestrians, because there are but that’s a subject to talk about another time. At any rate, now is the time to take a breath and accept that every situation is a teacher, even situations with asshole drivers.

Now some people might say that me being rendered invisible is because of karma. <Furrowing eyebrows> I cannot say. Let’s talk about that some other time, shall we?What I can say is that being invisible won’t help me to change the world in any substantive way because let’s face it, no one’s come up with an acceptable business case for changing the world and you know what that means, don’t you? It means that the only hope for change hinges on solving the following equation:

(small, unanticipated events) x (the uncertainty principle) x (ideological ignorance and arrogance) divided by (the number people who refuse to learn from personal, tribal, political and economic patterns of human history) x  (the net amount of quantum time travel between here and there and then and now) – (the residual influence of Freud in the West) + (the seismic shock of the European and Asian as they watch Honey Boo Boo) = the number of artefacts that Warehouse 13 must deliver to each world leader and power-brokering special interest group to get everyone and every institution and every fundamentalist belief to move from the -isms and -ists and the -ologies that they’ve been glued to for centuries. It’s a tough equation but no worries. Even though math is not my first language, I’m close to solving the equation. My hunch is that the answer is 3 and if I’m right, it is yet another speck of proof that Douglas Adams was onto something. I’ll publish my answer on tumblr.com once I confirm the results.

Meanwhile, after a deeply engaged consultation with the process which coalesces (notionally) into what the world sees as the consolidated me (a confuffuling concept designed to shock the conceptual mind but you get the idea) and a retreat to contemplate next steps, I now know what I am going to do with my invisibility. I am going to change the world on bad driver at a time. Here’s how: I’m going to haunt bad drivers, gently at first and if that doesn’t work, well, I’ll just have to fill ‘em up with life lessons that they won’t soon forget. In my invisibleness, with all the equanimity, patience, compassion and loving-kindness my all-too human self can muster, I will whisper to the mindless drivers to remind them to pay attention and if that does not work, well, then I will grrrrrr loudly as I pluck them from their seats and plop them in a busy intersection in the path of other bad drivers and see how they like the feeling.

Posted in Life, Mindfulness | Tagged , , ,

Real life stories

At the Distillery district, Toronto

At the Distillery district, Toronto

In between a few snowstorms, cooking and caring for a terminally ill dog, home renovations, searching for new running shoes, maintaining a social life (to wit: the tragically romantic night of Valentine’s Day spent in a vast room with hundreds of people, including children-type people, to see Lemony Snicket) and hunting down the precise hip movements of an ancient dance rumoured to appease the Snow gods, a dance passed down from our teeny tiny furry Gwondanian ancestors to the ancient Greek woman across the street, I spend time listening to people as they tell me about their days and what they encounter. I also read a lot.

I like to collect factual, truthful stories about real people in real life doing real things because truth is stranger than any confected fiction. Everyone knows that. Look inside anyone’s head and see the thoughts and memories and regrets and fears and wishes and fantasies and nightmares pinging back and forth. Now, you might not accept that what I’m saying is true; however, strictly speaking, acceptance is not required for a universal truth is it? You might not know that truth is stranger than fiction but I do. And I have proof: other people’s true, real life stories.

For example, I heard a story of a less ancient, widowed Greek woman. She’s 80 years old and until fairly recently, has not locked the doors of her house for a minute of the 56 years that she’s lived in it. Her house is across from one of Toronto’s many subway stops and around a corner near a local hospital’s outpatient methadone clinic. Lots of people pass by her house. Business people and drug addicts. Students, soccer players and shift workers. Some good, some not so good. Some in their right mind. Others, not-so-right in their mind.

One morning she comes out of her kitchen to find a wild-haired, grungy guy in her hallway who doesn’t belong there. He grabs her and starts to haul her upstairs. She tells him she has a terrible contagious disease so he changes his mind and pushes her through the hallway, into the kitchen and makes her go down stairs to the basement where he locks her in. She smashes a window in her basement and calls out for help. The neighbour to the left of her house happens to be in his backyard with his teenaged son. He hears her, walks over, bends down to the window to hear what she has to say and moves rather quickly to call the police who arrive faster than you can spell Rumpelstiltskin and Scheherazade backwards while chewing gum, rubbing your tummy counter-clockwise, standing on one foot. The police arrive to find wild-haired, grungy guy in the kitchen in front of an open refrigerator stuffing his face with food. They arrest him on the spot.

The 80-year-old woman has turned 81 and keeps her doors locked at all times. The wild-haired grungy guy is in a federal prison, where he is serving a five-year sentence for home invasion.

You might think it’s a bad, sad and scary story. And in some ways it is. Who wants to find some random, confused drug addict standing in their hallway? You might also think it’s a story full of clichés. It’s that too. Fast-thinking elderly woman vs. drugged up, messy, grungy white guy, who may or may not have had a second thought about harming the old girl. Neighbours helping neighbours. Police doing what they do, justice system doing what it does. All real life. Humans being human. Systems being systems. Clichés, every one of them. Or wishful thinking.

Still, it’s a true story. I listened to it while I was on the massage table, blissing out to the sounds of waves and seagulls as gentle electrical currents pulsed through the acupuncture pins stuck in the back of my hip. When I floated home, I locked the back door and filed the story in the back of my mind. I was about to ponder some other stories when real life called and it sounded a lot like a dog asking to go out to eat snow.

Posted in Life, writing | Tagged , , ,

Love in all its forms

found on tumblr.com

It’s snowing. It’s snowing on Valentine’s Day. Whoever said that Toronto averages about 303 days of sunshine forgot to mention that averages are, for the most part, non-existent: average is an in-between number, an imaginary friend designed specifically for adults and policy makers who need imaginary friends and imaginary average citizens. But I digress: back to Valentine’s Day.

Roses are emblematic of love. Red for passion, white for purity, yellow for friendship. Roses in bunches, or more exotic flowers: wild ginger, or bird of paradise perhaps? No. No cut flowers, thanks. They die and have to be thrown out, not to mention slav(ish) labour and environmentally unhealthy growing conditions.

Amazing dark chocolate is always welcome. On the other hand, maybe a little something for Valentine’s that’s atypical with fewer calories, and less fat, less sugar? You see, a few weeks ago I called my (not in a possessive way) valentine to say, “Love, I hope you don’t mind but I just found out about this. I tried calling you but you weren’t available and I am quite keen to go so I went ahead and registered and got two tickets to see Lemony Snicket. Would you like to go?…” and then added somewhat sheepishly that it was on Valentine’s Day.

I waited and waited for what seemed like forever but was really only a second or two.

“Sounds interesting. Sure. By the way, who’s Lemony Snicket?”

“A writer.”

If we go, it’ll be the fourth time. Listening to authors.

My writing’s been slow lately. And because it’s been slow, I have surrounded myself with more books and have grown curious about authors of books, wanting to hear more directly from them, outside of biographies and radio interviews. It’s been somewhat enlightening listening to authors.

Over the airwaves, I felt a smile. I sniffed love. “Okay.”

Mixing loves on Valentine’s Day. Writing. Writers. Words. Love. Learning. Humanity.

We’ll sit close and hold hands and listen and later, sipping a wee bit of something we brought back from Poitiers, France, we’ll have a meandering, fascinating conversation about it all that is in no way average.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

found on tumblr.com

found on tumblr.com

Posted in Life | Tagged , , | 2 Comments