My Reading Mind

I want reading back. I want back the focus and joy I found in books, that was with me for the majority of my life, until recently.

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” – Harper Lee

I can blame parenthood, sure. Aren’t our kids to blame for all of our woes? Weight gain, stress, sleeplessness. The offspring make good little scapegoats. #Mommybrain

Absolutely, I began to read less after the birth of Bean. There just weren’t enough alone-hours in the day to plow through many novels. But what I’m talking about is something more insidious than just feeling crunched for time.

There’s something about the way we all consume media these days that leaves little energy or focus for weighty tomes or long-form journalism. All the words are flying at us in jazzy little packages, all the time, and we tend to scroll past anything excessively wordy. Hell, every time I draft a post, the WordPress editor tells me to “improve readability” by making my sentences shorter. 20 words or less, please.

Tell the truth. How many times, of late, have you started reading an informative article about climate change, realized how long it would take to get through it, and then clicked away to read a Buzzfeed post entitled, “27 Totally Random Facts About 2000s Pop Culture Things That’ll Make You Do A Double Take.”

Up until a few years ago, I read a bit of a book every single night before I went to sleep. Daytime hours, too, would find me, in my preferred reading position, lying down on a comfy surface, arm crooked around my book. Somehow, over time, this habit shrivelled. The sad, painful truth is that my lifelong reading habits have been ground away by Netflix binges and Facebook updates.

The thing is, I have read a lot of books in my time. So I can still come off to others as a reader, perhaps even as well-read. The reality is that I now struggle to get through the one book a month that is required for my book club meetings.

I want my reading brain back. I want to stop consuming words, like Oliver Jeffers‘ Incredible Book-Eating Boy, and read actual, physical books. Printed on paper.

The Incredible Book-Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers.

At the end of November, I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Neil Pasricha. He was there to discuss the ideas in his new book, but my main takeaway were his thoughts on reading and the importance of books. He wrote a fantastic article for Harvard Business Review about how to read more, and now, rather than reading only a few books a year, he manages to read one hundred books a year.

In 2019, I joined the Goodreads Reading Challenge. I set a modest goal for myself of 24 books. For those of you who are weak in the math department, that’s two books a month. Here’s how I did:

Pathetic 2019 reading results

I read a little over one book a month, so I didn’t exactly crush that goal.

For the 2020 Reading Challenge, I’ve set myself a goal of 36 books. Three a month!

In order to get there though, I need to change a few things about how I operate. I’m going to take some of Neil’s advice, and make reading more central in my house.

Here are some other things I’m doing:

  • I took a social media fast while on holiday for a week. I’m now being very particular about when I look at social media and for how long. Hours in the week freed up!
  • I bought a teeny book-lamp so that I can read at night without disturbing the husband
  • I’m getting an old-fashioned newspaper delivered on the weekend. More text, fewer screens.

Other suggestions? How’s your reading brain doing?

Kitty Power

A few years back, I promised my son that we would get a cat, because, “everyone else” had a pet, except for us.

And then, no further action was taken. Together, the Bean and I often looked at cat profiles on rescue sites, and wondered if Fluffysocks or Martin were the cats for us. Despite saying that we would get a cat, I couldn’t take action on it, because, frankly, I just couldn’t imagine another thing that needed ME to keep it fed and alive.

On occasion, someone would ask us if we owned a pet, and my son would answer with eternal optimism, “No, but we’re getting a cat soon.” And I would feel guilty and write the item “Get Cat” on my current To-Do List.

Then in November, I spotted a litter of kittens that needed homes on a local rescue site. I sent an email, and within a couple of hours was on the phone with the woman who was fostering the cats. She told me she had named all of the kittens after chocolate bars.

And that’s how Snickers and Mr. Big entered our lives.

Snickers is a snuggly, black-and-white tuxedo. Mr. Big is the ginger with the personality to match. These brothers have kept us on our toes since the day they arrived, providing endless amusement with their shenanigans.

Okay, there have been some stressful moments, as when I caught Big playing with a button battery, and when I found myself Googling “plants toxic to cats.” And discovered that most of our plants are indeed, toxic to cats.

Despite the extra work and the demise of my leather furniture, these kitties have brought some much-needed fun and cuteness into the house, at a time that we were beginning to feel that things couldn’t get much worse.

Yes, I’m now a crazy cat-lady who shows pictures of my kittens to random people on the street. If you want to see more pics, these tech-savvy dudes have started their own Instagram account.

Follow them @snickersandmisterbig

When the Helicopter Crashes

I had a concussion once, as a small child.

At that time, we lived on a dead-end street, in a small town in New York. The kids of Concord Avenue all played together, that last generation of 70s and 80s kids who got to do stuff without constant adult supervision.

We meandered through secret backyard paths and built forts amongst rhododendron bushes. We knew the names of the neighbourhood dogs: Sugarfoot, Snowball. We went to the playground at the end of our street, alone, the littler ones supervised by the not-much-older ones.

One day, someone had the brilliant idea to attach a metal wagon to the back of a bike with a length of rope, and take turns pulling each other in it.

I remember sitting in the back of the wagon, probably the smallest child there, as one of the older kids, Alex, pedalled like a spin-class junkie, with me yelling “Faster!” while the wagon fish-tailed. I remember gripping the metal sides of the red wagon, and then the moment of horrified anticipation as the left-side wheels tipped up once, then twice, then completely, spilling me out headfirst onto the road.

The moment of impact is gone from memory, head hitting concrete and the left side of my body leaving layers of epidermis behind. I do remember the screams of the other kids, rushing off to my house to tell my mother. I’m sure my brother helped me hobble home, though I don’t remember that either.

I do remember sobbing as bits of road grit were washed away and bandages applied. I don’t remember vomiting or driving to the hospital, but those things happened.

I do remember being in emerg. Alarming images float up, of staff wrestling a man, wild and flailing, whom I learned a long time later was drunk, according to my mother.

There is the face of a brisk nurse who made me cry by briskly ripping of all of my Band-Aids, as my mother protested.

“Ma’am, I have to inspect the wounds,” she said. My mother didn’t explain to me for many years why a nurse might have to inspect a child’s wounds in the ER.

And lastly, I remember the reflection of my small face in some kind of mirror above me as I lay still to have my head X-rayed. There were no long-term consequences of that accident. It became one of my childhood stories, an amusing one. Kids, you know!

Last Monday I found myself in the ER with my Lark. The day had dawned grim for me, a day in which I couldn’t shift my mood from cranky to light.

I made plans to meet friends at one of our local parks. Lark and I were on our own, with the other half of our family 15,000 km away in Australia.

We’ll get out of the house, I thought. The day will get better.

But, when the time came to go, Lark, who is mostly pretty agreeable, suddenly refused to agree. With an epic stubbornness, she flatly refused to come to the park. She didn’t want to go to that park, she only wanted to go to a different park, one that I don’t enjoy much. (I once wrote about how disappointing this particular park was to me when renovated, here.)

I cajoled, bribed, and threatened, but she wouldn’t budge. So, with me in a bit of a sulk, we set off for her parkette of choice, and I texted our friends that we weren’t coming.

As soon as we got there, Lark immediately began climbing around on top of the climbing structure. This is something that all of the older kids do there, because this newer piece of playground equipment was designed to be “safe” and therefore is only two feet from the ground.

The climber of discontent.

Please come down from up there, I said sternly. Not once, not twice, but several times.

Now, over the years, I have flown my parenting helicopter with extreme precision. I’ve been ready to swoop in and rescue. I don’t say this because I’m proud of it, it’s just a fact that I’ve had a very hard time watching my oldest, Bean, get hurt, because he has already suffered enough. So I’ve been watchful, ready, on high-alert.

That day though, my helicopter crashed. I was tired and in a bad mood and irritated that Lark wouldn’t stop clambering around where she wasn’t supposed to be.

As I stood only a foot away from her, I watched her climb up, lose her balance, catch at something on the way down, and then slam down on her face on the steps of the climber.

Horrified, I scooped her up while she wailed. Bruises appeared on her temple.

A mum friend from the area was nearby to help. She had an ice pack and relevant head-injury advice. I mumbled that I wished I’d been just a step closer to catch her. She said something along the lines of, If you were always there to catch her, she would never learn the consequences of her actions.

That is truth, right there. Although, it can be so hard to watch our children make mistakes, and be injured.

If I hadn’t fallen out of the wagon, I wouldn’t have learned that it’s probably not a good idea to ride in a vehicle attached to a bike by a bit of rope.

Lark has now learned that you shouldn’t climb on top of things that you have neither a firm grip on nor sturdy footing below.

She stopped crying and I carried her home. On the couch, she fell asleep and was difficult to wake. She woke and barfed. So, with a big sigh, we headed off to Sick Kids. We stayed in emerg. for about 6 hours. Doctors looked at her, we talked about imaging. She threw up again. She slept again.

And then she woke up. She picked up her markers and began colouring and making demands for food. She ate many snacks and chatted with a volunteer who I flagged down to help. She got out of bed and literally skipped down the hall. So we went home, and that’s the end of the story.

Kids, you know?

Love is Love: A Story in Three Parts – III

Part III

A few months ago, there was a night, like most nights, when I lay in bed with my four-year-old, Lark, snuggling her as she prepared to drift off to sleep. All parents know these moments, that fill you with such a fierce, protective, animal joy. Whispering, sharing dreamtime thoughts. As I tried to get her to settle down, I was fending off licks because she was also pretending to be a kitten.

At times my daughter seems to have the magic power of divining my thoughts. As we lay together in the darkness, I was brooding about Jess, the young woman who had been abandoned by her family when she was at her most needy and vulnerable. Just the day before, I had watched Episode 5 of Queer Eye. (see my previous post)

Out of the blue, my Lark piped up, voice small and disconsolate, “Mum, I would be very very sad if you gave me away.”

“I would never, ever give you away my sweet baby,” I said. “You are my beautiful child and I will love you forever.”

We were quiet for a moment. I was thinking of the long, hard struggle I’d gone through just to have this sky-rocket child in my life. About what a supreme gift it feels like to be her mother.

“Will you love me forever, even when I’m a grown-up?” she asked.

“Of course,” I said. “Even when you’re a grown-up. You will always be my baby.”

“Good,” she said. “Because I never want to leave you and I want to live with you forever in your house.”

I’ve been around this parenting block a few times, so I know that small children believe with utter conviction that they’ll want to live with their parents for the rest of their lives, even when they’re adults. I don’t want to disabuse my darlings of this notion, but I suspect that by the time they are 18, they’ll be ready to fly the coop.

“That’s fine. Of course you can live with us,” I told her with a kiss, but she had turned back into a kitten again and kept trying to lick me. 

After escaping and leaving her to sleep, I felt thoughtful, her little question, Will you love me forever, even when I’m a grown-up? replaying over and over in a loop.

That is what the human condition boils down to. Will I always be loved? I want to be loved and accepted. First, we seek to be sure of that love and acceptance from our family members, and then when we are older, we cast the net wider, and seek it from friends and partners. And if at some point, we lose that love and that safety, we lose our sense of self in the world.

If you ask any parent, they will tell you that their biggest fear is losing their children. I live with the unfortunate and realistic fear that both of my children will get brain tumours, but I’ve somehow had to come to grips with the possibility of that loss, and live our life with as much grace as I can muster with daily, hourly, minutely gratitude that it is MY privilege to be their mother in this life. 

Part of my gratitude towards them is acceptance. I work to accept them for who they are, with their likes and dislikes, which may not always align with my own. I accept them for their strengths and for their flaws. And I always let them know that FIRSTLY they are loved, and that when we hit roadblocks, we’ll find a way to overcome and muddle through together. 

And when I fuck up, which I do, often, I ask for their forgiveness, so they can see me owning my mistakes and moving on.

So I will love them when they make poor choices, like an ill-considered hair colour or gawd-awful tattoo. And I’ll champion them when they make good choices that lead to their success and happiness. And I’ll love them when they are acting awful and being completely self-absorbed, which they do, and they will, because they’re humans.

Love, compassion, gratitude and acceptance first. And the rest will fall into place.


Love is Love: A Story in Three Parts – II

Part II

Karamo. Tan. Jonathan. Bobby. Antoni.

If these names are not familiar to you, I kindly suggest that you rush off to Netflix and binge-watch the first 3 seasons of Queer Eye. I’ll wait.

Back? Let’s just enjoy this for a moment.

The Fab Five

Like pretty much everyone, I guess, I’ve been a bit obsessed with Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot over this past year. I’ve always loved a good makeover show for that promise of transformation: Your style was dismal and your house was tragic, but now we’ve fixed all the things!!

And Queer Eye hits the mark, every time, not just on those superficial things like fashion, design, and guacamole, but it actually manages to dig deep into what drives people and what’s damaged them too. The people on the show have suffered serious losses, and genuinely need help to find their way forward. And often these transformations take place not in urban areas, but in small-town USA, where the Fab Five are uniting formerly un-united areas of America in the era of Trump’s special brand of hatred.

Sure, there are times when the show is a bit too perfect and on the nose. We know when Karamo gets serious that it’s time to reach for the Kleenex. We’ve been conditioned, we know.

Everyone cries when Karamo hugs them. There’s just no getting around it.

For me, though, there was one episode of Season 3 that stood out: Episode 5. I didn’t just cry; I wept, big, copious tears.

The star of this episode is Jess. She’s a young, black, lesbian woman who was disowned by her adoptive parents at the age of 16 after she was outed by someone at school. At 23, she was struggling to find her way in the world, alone, without the guidance and support and love she might have expected from her family.

Early in the episode, she says, “I was hoping that despite all the stuff I heard as a young girl at church, they would realize, ‘Hey, that’s my kid, so of course I’m going to love them.'”

While I watched, immediately the thought of Joe (See previous post) and that conversation from all of those years ago popped into my head. Do people STILL really disown their kids for coming out? In 2019? The sad answer to that is yes.

Tragedy befalls all humans. We have no choice in the matter. We lose people in so many ways, to illness, age, horrific accident. But to CHOOSE this tragedy is something I can’t wrap my head around. To choose to never see your beloved child again, to make them homeless and family-less in one fell swoop: it’s a huge act of cowardice. When the truth is, that we have choice in whether or not we question the precepts of a religion.

In the course of my deep dive into everything Karamo and Queer Eye, I came across this conversation:

This is Karamo Brown and author Tara Westover of Educated fame discussing family, love and change. This is a good watch. As you may know, Tara was raised by survivalist Mormons in rural Idaho, and was never sent to school. Despite growing up in a family with extremely radical views, she went on to study at Cambridge, though in the process of gaining an education, became estranged from her family, as they couldn’t accept the ways in which her perspective of the world have shifted.

She tells Karamo:

When I went to Cambridge I had appalling views about gay people. I did. I’d grown up with them, it was what I’d been told, and I went to Cambridge and I was spewing these things, and someone took an entire night and argued with me about it. If someone hadn’t talked to me, seen me as a human being, a complete person, and said, ‘I don’t know why you think this awful thing, but I think you’re more than that,’ I never would’ve changed my mind.

And Karamo’s response:

Connecting with other people, taking a moment to empathetically listen to them, to challenge them to grow is what we can do, to share our stories and to make sure that we find common ground.

All of those years ago when I met Joe, I didn’t have the right tools to try to shift his perspective, as Tara’s friend did for her. I hope though, that now, as an adult, when I try to educate my kids about the world, I’ll teach them to keep questioning, not just others but themselves as well. Holding a rigid space for your own beliefs doesn’t permit empathy for other humans and their experiences.

At the end of the day, it’s all about love. We want love, we want support, we want empathy.

Karamo Brown

Naturally, I was curious about what happened to Jess after appearing on the show. A lot, as it happens. Some very kind people started a GoFundMe to send her back to college, which now has collected over $90,000.

Her Instagram is amazing. She looks beautiful and is having lots of adventures. She had this to say on one of her posts: “I am just so grateful for you all. Thank you for letting me into your hearts and accepting me with warm arms. Thank you for showing your children my story. I am happy to start that discussion. I am happy to let my struggle be the catalyst for change and acceptance. That’s why i did it.”

I’m wishing everyone in the LGBTQ+ community in Toronto a happy and safe Pride Weekend!