Sunday, July 29, 2012

Surrounded by Beautiful Things

I have a dear friend, a person I have fondly nicknamed W-kins. I have the opportunity to visit W-kins a couple of times each year, as she lives in a large city that I pass through regularly. (She, on the other hand, rarely visits me, as I have spent the last twenty years living in small cities and towns that are not on the beaten path to anywhere.)

W-kins is very hospitable. When she finds out that I am coming through, she invites me stay at her place, feeds me well, and provides ample coffee and red wine. For years she kept a room with a futon bed in it that she called "my" bedroom, as I was pretty well the only person invited to stay with her in the city. (W-kins, however has a summer home on the ocean, where she entertains friends and family every summer weekend. She is the kind of person who always gathers wonderful people around her.) Each time we see each other, whether after months of separation or a year or more, it is like we have never been apart. The conversation picks up where it left off, about professional challenges, our kids, food, travel, world events, or transitions in our lives.

When I have the chance to connect with W-kins, I always marvel at her urban lifestyle. Years ago, when she was starting out in her career and housing was still affordable, she purchased a small two-bedroom bungalow on a good-sized lot on the edge of one of the most upscale neighbourhoods in Canada. She settled in, just blocks from her childhood home, and within easy walking distance of parks, shopping and the community centre, renovated the house, and raised her family there. The city has grown up around her little oasis, and she is firmly anchored and integrated into the community.

W-kins has surrounded herself with beautiful things. Although she is not an artist, she has an artistic sensibility, and her home is filled with paintings, flowers, fabrics, blown glass, and indigenous carvings. Her family eats (organically and sustainably) from handmade pottery, and she has collections of jewelry and scarves made by local artists. The image above is a mash-up showing some of the fabrics lying about on my last visit there. The one below plays with one of the many ocean-related pieces of art in her home.

The downside of the urban setting for W-kins is that she has to commute to work, and that takes her up to an hour each way, depending on the time of day. Her method of dealing with it, however, is mind-boggling to a workaholic like me. When her son was born, she cut her hours to halftime, and essentially, has never gone back to the office full-time. As she is self-employed she can be flexible about her hours, and also is able to do much of the writing, telephone calls, and email from home. But she does not live to work. Living comes first, and work fits in around the edges, just as much as is necessary.

She is extremely successful in her profession, proving that one does not have to work day and night to be a high achiever. Life and work in balance, living in a home surrounded by beautiful things.....I can learn from that.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

On Becoming a Grandparent

I was ready to become a grandmother.

It is a strange thing. You go along through life and at first you are not ready for grandparenthood. For one thing, your kids are not ready to be parents (you think). You look at them and they are barely out of teenagehood, just starting to make their way in the world. Maybe they are finishing a degree, or living the party lifestyle, or just getting started in that first career job - the one that doesn't involve serving for minimum wage pay. In any case, they are way, way too young (in your eyes).

For another thing, you yourself are way too young. You're in the prime of life. You don't have a grandmotherly look about you at all: picture a plump woman in a brown print house dress, cat's eye glasses, and steel grey hair in a bun. That is definitely not you. For gosh sakes, you're still playing soccer with the twenty-somethings!

Then, almost unnoticeably, something starts to change. You drop out of soccer and take up more sedate forms of exercise, like walking. You admit that the middle-aged gut is here to stay, and dress to accommodate a more rotund shape, if not exactly in flowered house dresses. (The fact that you actually can use words like "house dress," "trousers," "slacks," and "rubbers" to describe items of clothing is a serious hint.) You start thinking of winding down your career, and about the possibilities that retirement might hold. You go out and buy a great big house, much too big for just two people, so that there will be lots of room for the grandchildren to come to stay.

Yes, I was ready. I was ecstatic when my daughter announced that she was pregnant. Then our joy was doubled a couple of months later when my step daughter also was expecting.

What I wasn't ready for was reliving the whole birth-giving process over again. As my daughter went through the stages of pregnancy, I participated vicariously, through telephone conversations and digital photos that she sent. I looked at baby stuff online. I wandered through the baby section of the department store, grinning from ear to ear.

However, as the due date neared, my anxiety level rose. *She* was ready for it. My daughter had followed every step to have a healthy normal pregnancy, had read widely, and had found an excellent midwife. But as the date neared, my memories, which had remained mercifully fuzzy since my own birthing experiences, suddenly returned. My daughter went into labour, confident, ready, and wonderfully cared for by her capable husband and midwife. Meanwhile, I was hundreds of miles away, fretting and useless as an old boot. What could I say that would be in any way helpful? My difficult birthing experiences that I now recalled vividly were not her experiences. My advice was not appropriate or needed. I felt so helpless on the the other end of the phone, wanting to be at her side, yet knowing that she was going through this profound experience together with her life partner, the baby's father. This was right. This was good. It just was not a part of grandmotherhood that I had anticipated or prepared for.

I now have had the joy of holding my newborn grandson in my arms. I have had the chance to help out as my daughter recovers from a not so easy birthing experience. It is not the same as being a mother. I am so thrilled to be a grandma, and I am looking forward to each stage in the process.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Being the Wrong Size in a One-Size-Fits-All World

I am a lucky person. I have a wonderful family, an interesting job, and many dear friends. I am healthy, and I do not have disabilities that slow me down (aside from being as blind as a bat without my glasses, and having somewhat arthritic knees - but I simply ignore that problem most of the time). However, I am the wrong size.

I always have been the wrong size. I am much shorter than average. When I started grade one, the teacher brought in a kindergarten desk for me and my feet still didn't touch the floor. Going through life as a short person means that nothing in the built environment fits me. My kitchen counter is too high for me to beat cake batter or knead bread, and I can only use the bottom shelf of the kitchen cupboards. When I sit at the dining room table, only my toe tips touch the floor, and I cannot sit upright with my back against the seat back.

When I drive a car, in order to reach the pedals, I have to pull the seat all the way forward so that my chest is less than the recommended 10 inches from the steering wheel. The neck rest in its lowest position is at the back of my head, which forces my head forward uncomfortably. If child seat restraint guidelines had been in effect when I was a child, I would have had to sit in a baby car-seat until I was 9 years old, as that is the age at which I finally reached 40 pounds. As it was, my parents' car did not even have seat-belts, and we children bounced around the back seat like Mexican jumping beans.

Then there is the matter of clothing. As a young woman, I would have fit size 1, if that size had been available in rural Canada, but it was not. (My daughters, growing up three decades later, were able to take advantage of sizes 1-4, however.) My options at age 18 were to wear girls' size 14 (which was too wide and the wrong shape, not to mention age-inappropriate), to buy size 7/8 and have the items altered, or to live in jeans and T-shirts. I chose the latter option. Throughout my life, I have always worn bras that do not fit right, as my correct size is not commercially available. As I have grown older, I have also grown wider, throwing a new wrinkle into size selection when shopping for clothing. Mercifully, many department stores now have a "petite" section, although the styling often seems targeted to the 70 plus demographic. (I do not do frills or pastel flower prints.) I won't even tell you about my troubles with ski boots.

I often muse about why it is still so hard being the wrong size, and why we still have a one-size-fits-all world. In the last decade the western world has transitioned from the industrial age to the digital age, which has profoundly reshaped our modes of communication and our social practices. However, commerce and the retail industries have not kept up. There is no reason to still be stamping out one-size automobiles on Henry Ford's conveyer belts, or filling the racks with women's clothes in sizes 8, 10, and 12, and not much else. We have one-of-a-kind birthday parties, designer cuisine, individualized learning styles, and unique patterns of Internet usage. Why can't we also have computer-assisted made-to-measure clothing, and modular car interiors that can be dialed in to fit the owner? Why not indeed?

Being too short is annoying sometimes, but really it is relatively small on the scale of life's problems. I can modify my environment (e.g., keep a stool in the kitchen; put a footrest under my computer desk), or I can adapt my own behaviors (e.g., curl up on large couches and chairs rather than leaving my feet to dangle). However, some human characteristics are not so easy to adjust, such as being the "wrong" weight, ethnicity, or sexuality. A one-size-fits-all world is not very comfortable for a lot of people.

I am still waiting for the notions of post-modernity to shake up clannish attitudes, exclusivity in social affiliations, and daily unexamined assumptions. I am waiting for the marvelous potentials of the digital age to start to permeate our hierarchical, almost medieval social structures. And yes, it also would be nice to be able to buy a bra that fit.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why I Don't Write About Writing Anymore

The other day, I read a short piece posted on Write Anything written by a writer friend of mine, Jen Brubacher, about her greatest difficulty as a writer. She talks about the never-ending digital stream of "overwhelming writer-related negativity," and how it makes her angry and distracts her from writing. Her strategy for dealing with this is to limit herself to accessing the Internet (writing and publishing related websites, blogs, Twitter, etc.) only after writing. Jen is a disciplined and focused writer, and I am confident that she will remain productive and committed to her craft despite the bumps in the road.

Like Jen, I find that the online frenzy of writing about writing, and writing about publishing, agents, and the implications of the digital publishing revolution, can be overwhelming and "over the top." Rather than helping me to feel informed, it saps my confidence and desire to write. Unlike Jen, I have kind of given up and dropped out, at least from some aspects of writerdom and participation in writing communities. Yet, I am a writer in identity and action; there's no doubt about that.

When I was a small child, I had a list of three things that I wanted to be when I grew up: artist, writer, and queen. (I also had a list of three things that I did not want to be: teacher, nurse, and secretary.) Now in late middle age, I can say that I have managed to become all of the things on my career wishlist to a certain extent. I was an exhibiting artist for a few years. I write and am a writer, as I will describe below. And I am currently in a senior management position, which in many ways encompasses all of the unpleasant aspects of being a queen with few of the perquisites. (In spite of myself, I also achieved the three careers on my anti-list: I have taught for many years; I worked in primary health care prior to that, although not exactly as a nurse; and I more or less have served as my own secretary despite having refused to learn to type.)

Why do I call myself a writer? Well, the material evidence shows me to be a writer. I have authored or co-authored three published books and 50-70 published articles (the exact number depends on what you count). My publications span four different genres, including academic/scholarly works, technical reports and manuals, poetry, and journalism. I also write in genres in which I have not yet formally published (e.g., long fiction, curriculum materials, children's picture books), or that don't count as published/publishable (e.g., blogs, plans and proposals, emails, job descriptions, etc.).

Although I have spent my life writing, I feel as though I have to defend my right to call myself a writer. I have not published a novel, therefore I am not a "real" writer. That is the meat of the nut. That is why my confidence in my writerly identity is shaky.  

Where did I get the idea that only creative fiction, novels and short stories, constitute "writing"? Or, for that matter, when did being a writer become something to aspire to? When I was a kid, I was the only person I knew who wanted to be a writer when I grew up. It wasn't something that one would proudly announce, either, like wanting to be a teacher or scientist. Yet now it seems that there are thousands or hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people describing themselves as writers, or wanting to be writers, and angst all over the Internet.

Hmm. We're back to Jen's point. Too much hand-wringing about writing. I rarely write about writing anymore. But I will keep writing, in one genre or another, just as if I were a real writer, because... I am a real writer.