Month: September 2014

Words mean things – a mini-manifesto

This may sound incredibly basic, but it’s important to keep in mind – especially when you’re asking someone (or have been asked) to stop using a word, and to recognize its meaning and effect.

Words mean things.

“It doesn’t mean that to ME”, “but I didn’t mean it like that!”, or “that wasn’t my intention” aren’t great responses to a reminder that words mean things. Why is that, you may ask?

1-Words have meanings, but these meanings aren’t stable.

The meaning of a word changes according to social and cultural context. Since the 13th century, this one word meant (very literally) a bundle of sticks; Today, it’s used as an insult towards gay men. Meanings change with time and context, and sometimes we don’t always keep up.

We may use a word that seems neutral or harmless according to what we knew about it, but its meaning can change right under our feet. When it’s brought to our attention, then WHOA – we learn something. But once we know more about the word, we can’t go back to using a literal or limited meaning and claim ignorance to its impact.

2-If you want to mean what you say, say what you mean.

If you’re still using a word despite its broader meaning, you’re messing with your message. If you’re asked to stop using a word because its meaning is harmful, perhaps this is actually a grammatical opportunity. No, you may not have that common, comfortable word to fall back on to describe that thing you’re describing, but now you get to collect some new words.

If new words elude you, maybe try saying exactly what you mean, even with a few more words at first. You may come up with a better understanding of what it is you’re really trying to say.

For example, in using a slang synonym for weak, what are you really saying? Maybe you’re saying that according to your standards of coping, another person is not coping well. Are you talking about their actions, or your own values and judgements? Is there another word you could use in service of your point? Think about what you mean, and eventually you’ll become more concise, discerning, and clear.

3-With best intentions, words can still hurt. Using hurtful words casually normalizes hurting with words.

I know someone who uses “queer” as a synonym for “strange”. We’ve talked about how this can also be a derogatory term (or a reclaimed term, depending on the tone of voice and on who is uttering the word) – but it no longer ONLY means strange. If she says, “Oh, that’s queer!” with a particular inflection (even if she just means “strange”), her speech echoes homophobic culture. Whatever her intention, she is normalizing the use of discriminatory words outside of their new context.

Intention doesn’t negate effect, and speaking words that have been identified as harmful – anywhere on the spectrum of harmful – feeds into cultural beliefs that these things don’t matter. If we only count BIG HURT words as hurtful, then we’re condoning little hurts (aka microaggressions). These can easily turn into big hurts – the kind made up of a thousand tiny daily scratches.

Words means things.

Reflecting on and talking about words that may not seem overtly discriminatory (to us) is a great start. If we can’t talk about words that may be hurtful in a (relatively) minor way, we don’t stand a chance with the big ones. And we all deserve better – not only better communication, but more kindness from and towards each other.

 

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My cuss-loving self-care training wheels

CHILL THE FUCK OUT is a task, an appointment on my calendar from 6-10 pm tonight. It’s a stern warning to myself that I set early in the week, knowing I’d be stretching my physical, mental, and emotional limits for 3 consecutive days, and then expecting to return to a steady, regular pace immediately after. It’s relaxing. It’s self-care. It feels like it should be easy.

This is work though, real work, chilling the fuck out. Trying not to work is work. Taming my mind is work, after it’s been bargaining with me all week, juggling this schedule, trying to sneak a bit more transcribing or interview prep or house cleaning into CHILL THE FUCK OUT time. Convincing myself that I need this, I deserve this, that this is part of a healthy balance – that’s all work too, and working is what I’m trying to NOT do.

So I lay in my hammock in the backyard and read a magazine until the sun set. I wrote a bit, just my own thoughts, with no ambition attached. I packed up the hammock and came inside, unsure of how to chill the fuck out next, with two more hours to fill chilling the fuck out in some way before I could pull my only consistent move in chilling the fuck out and put myself right to sleep.

I don’t feel like chilling the fuck out in the bath. I could chill the fuck out with Netflix but they don’t like the numbers on my corrupted, cancelled credit card, so that option is out. I could chill the fuck out with the dishes or the vacuuming or maybe just pick up some shoes, slowly, in a really relaxed way – in jumps brain NOPE! That is NOT the definition of chilling the fuck out.

There’s an upside to being so hard on myself. If I’m determined to chill the fuck out, my brain will take that as a Direct Order to do nothing but chill the fuck out and anything else will Not Be Allowed. But then there’s the Procrastination Clause, sneaky like a mouse, tripping up every rule every single time. It led me here, and lo and behold, my fingers are skipping over the keyboard and I can’t tell if I’m chilling the fuck out or avoiding chilling the fuck out because I really am not sure that I know how to chill the fuck out anymore.

My brain is a constant stream of what’s next, of impending tasks broken down into steps. I look around and see a list growing in my head, laundry, dishes, catboxes, sweeping, that mail pile NOPE says brain, these thoughts are counter to chilling the fuck out so STOP IT.

Sometimes, my co-worker told me earlier this week, when your stress level is so high, self-care doesn’t look like walking away to chill; It looks like chipping away at that list so you can bring your stress down. In that moment, she was right, and I chipped the fuck out of that list and it helped me stay steady.

But now my inability to chill the fuck out is giving me chill the fuck out anxiety. I know that later, tomorrow even, when I’m back at a steady pace, all I’ll want is that elusive, blocked off CHILL THE FUCK OUT time. I’ll know that I had some and I squandered it, and I won’t know when I’ll get it back again. I will have chill the fuck out regret, chill the fuck out wastage guilt.

I’m already nervous anticipating the future regret I will have for my actions (or lack of non-actions) in this very moment. This is the economics of scarcity, aka how the fear of never being able to chill the fuck out again is keeping me from being able to chill the fuck out. But I NEED to chill the fuck out. It’s self-care.

Let’s be clear: self-care is a skill, and it’s one that I’ve heard a lot of chatter about but have only seen enacted in unobtainable upper-middle-class ways in upper-middle-class lives. I even thought that I was doing it, maybe, sometimes, but outside of so-called self-care time I was still really stubborn and hard on myself. But that was just ME, the way I was.

Me, the way I was, is unsustainable. Even if I keep believing that I can be a work-harder-horse, my body is telling me otherwise. I can keep this pace up in short bursts but I can’t do 12-15 hour days back to back for weeks on end. And it’s not that I didn’t know this before, I simply refused to listen or believe it. How could I be working too hard when the bills still weren’t paid, and the house was still a mess?

I obviously wasn’t working hard enough – that was the real problem. There would be time for self-care when I got that elusive balance, when I got ahead of the question of how to make it all work and still have room to live a little more kindly.

I don’t have the answer yet, and I no longer believe that there is one final way to make it work. Balance isn’t a stagnant point that you hit and then settle into, the magical centre where no winds will ever blow you off course.

It’s more like a bike with training wheels, sometimes leaning to the left a little until you feel that shitty plastic circle touching the earth and realizing you need to shift over a bit. Maybe you adjust your position on the seat, and then you’re leaning on the training wheel on the right. You shift again, maybe ride on two wheels for a block, but even when the training wheels are off, you never stay completely upright. You lean into a curve, you learn how to sway a bit from left to right without falling over and smashing your face on the ground.

I’ve smashed my face on the ground a few times now. It’s time to practice balance, even if it feels artificial, imposed, scheduled, rote, mundane. Even if it comes in all caps. CHILL THE FUCK OUT. 6-10 pm. A direct order from the self-care department of my brain, the one with its cuss-loving training wheels freshly wired back on.

Tonight, those four words feel more terrifying than a blank page waiting to be filled. I know, on an intellectual level, that I need to relax in order to sustain myself. I need it to live, like breathing, which I think my body is pretty good at most of the time. But then when I’m deeply involved in something, I forget to breathe. I realize in a moment that I’m holding my breath. AGAIN.

The computer informs me that it’s running on reserve power. All of this over-thinking has left me drained as well. I think I’ve stumbled on a new chill the fuck out trick – wear myself out until I have no energy for anything else. Maybe a bath would be nice.

Training wheel touch down. Only one hour of this interminable relaxing left; It’s time to get back on schedule.

All the pieces, all the time

Even when I can break projects down into manageable chunks, or work on them at a reasonable pace, I still have moments when I feel like I’m being pulled in a million directions at once. I wish for that elusive singular focus, to comes home every day to that one thing that drives me.

When I was a kid, there was a question that adults always loved to ask: What do you want to be when you grow up?

From 8-12, I might have said “Writer”, or “Baseball Player”. And then it turned into “Musician”, “Rock Star”, “Cook”, and I tried those things in real life and they were cool, but I didn’t have any grand imperative to keep going, to take them all the way. I didn’t envision a title, a career, a final place that I could set as a destination where I could stop and say “I’ve arrived”.

I had a friend who said she wanted to be a marine biologist. It confounded me. Where did she get that from? Is it because she liked dolphins, and that was a title for a person who did dolphin things? She held the same answer for years, and I wondered where her conviction came from, her aim so steady and true.

Running into another friend just after high school, I offered that same tired query, and he replied “Thoracic surgeon”. I nodded in slight confusion, then looked it up when I got home. I was perplexed. Not just surgeon – he had a specialty nailed down already. The specificity of it boggled my mind.

Perhaps I overestimated the commitment behind these pronouncements. Perhaps everyone else who had a clear answer on hand had just that – an answer on hand for that redundant question, knowing that answering properly is part of what’s expected of young folks. They should aspire to be something, or to want to be something, even if the adults know it’s impossible.

The adults will nod, like they’ve had some insight into young person’s brain, or at least have some reassurance that this one has a plan. They will be something. They’re not just going to keep dying their hair and playing in punk bands and fucking shit up, though that was legitimately my plan for a while. (I suppose I’ve just refined my aims slightly. Still dying the hair, still playing music loudly, still fucking shit up, but on more of a discursive level.)

I’d prefer to think that most people are also secretly confused and fumbling through this world while somehow presenting a tidy and polished exterior. I’d prefer that over a suspicion that’s been shadowing my whole life, that Other People have that thing called Knowing What To Do With Their Lives and I’m totally missing it.

So I line up my rainbow-fill array of interests like a package of pencil crayons in their pristine beginning-of-the-school-year completeness, and pack them into my backpack. This is the assemblage of things that are me, that are always with me, that are always overfull, zippers straining, scraps of paper and half-inked pens spilling out of the edges. How can I carry just one notebook, just one novel, just one magazine? I want it all, all the time.

Every night, I dump my backpack onto the couch and sift through all the stuff. I gaze longingly at a tiny minimalist purse hanging among a dozen tote bags, the elusive dream of paring down, of needing less, of carrying just one small piece at a time.

Who am I kidding. That’s never been my style.

This post was voted into the top three this week, and I’m pleased to be in such excellent company. Check out the other posts at www.yeahwrite.me and join in the fun!

Baby bear, all grown up

This is a kind of redirect, toot-your-own-horn sort of post, a placemarker to say “I wrote something, but not here…”

My personal essay about sewing with my mom, and the ways our lives have moved closer, further apart, and then closer again, about creativity and survival, about frogs and bears and wizards (I’m glad I didn’t have to choose the tags for that one) is up over at xoJane, and I’m pretty pleased about it.

Mama bear doesn’t do internet, so she may be the last one to read it, but we did have a fun time collecting pictures of little old costumed me to go with the piece.

(And up there? That’s me in a bear costume that my mom made.)

Let’s Celebrate!

On Saturday morning, I took a cue from a roving balloon that temporarily moored itself in the patch of unclaimed garden between my front yard and the nieghbour’s.

“Let’s Celebrate!”, it said, bobbing gently atop its long orange tail. It swirled and danced in the wind, hopping over the sidewalk, and then diving onto the grass and flopping about like a beached fish.

“Let’s Celebrate!” bumbled over into the space that is more certainly my yard, and edged towards the stairs. Perhaps it was seeking home, a place to rest, or a gathering that would echo its far-flung origins.

“Let’s Celebrate!” was untethered and curious, unbounded by conceptions of lawn and sidewalk and street.  I thought of the terror that could ensue as a child tried to recapture this wandering party, or of a car swerving to avoid it. Perhaps this was too much celebration for a quiet street.

I wedged the long orange tail between two fence boards, leaving some leeway for the the nodding balloon’s face to play in the breeze. It picked up speed and raced from side to side on its newly shortened tether, an inverted pendulum swinging in protest of its assigned post. But it was held lightly, I didn’t expect it to stay, and I had a date to keep.

*  *  *

The Food Truck Wars at Manyfest were more of a short-lived battle. Both sides of the street were bumper-to-bumper for half a block, but each one offered much more than a meal. My chosen truck would either win or lose according to my palate and/or mood; The Walleye Wagon was only up against itself, and then I was full.

We saw friends, friends of friends, family, family friends, strolling up and down the truck-lined street and nibbling their chosen bites curbside. Some to nod and smile at, some to pass along the verdict handed down upon our respective meals. We found my brother on his bike, wearing the same boots as me but in a different colour, carrying his camera. I shared that my fish and chips was more chips than fish, but the fish was tender, crispy, and quickly devoured. The chips defeated me. He was on a bike lock mission, unimpressed by the street festival, already moving on.

The walleye settled into my stomach while we wandered through the artisan’s market. Another block full of tables and tents and shiny things, makers proud of their wares and hoping for a sale. My backpack grew heavier as I collected candles scented with rose, vanilla, and root beer (still gripping my empty Dr Pepper can, I was an easy mark).

And then we stumbled onto Giant Jenga.

There is no point in resisting its lure – if I see Giant Jenga, I play Giant Jenga. I become Giant Jenga. I draw an imaginary cone of concentration around Giant Jenga and the drama of life is reduced to a carefully balanced tower of wooden bricks. It must grow at all costs. It must grow and not topple (though we know it will always topple, we play to prolong the inevitable).

Some passers-by offered a play-by-play and seemed to be drawn in momentarily, but they were quickly pulled off towards the idea of the next spectacle with the precise Canadian 30-second attention span my busker friend had calculated. We weren’t performing, though. We were engaged in an exacting sport, a carefully calculated competition, a collaboration in suspense and measured risk.

“I can’t believe it’s barely swaying in that wind!”
“Oh no, What am I going to do here?”
“I don’t knoooooow…”
“Right, take the easy one from the top!”
“Hmmmmm.”

I crouched at the side of the tower, squinting, watching for light slipping through the cracks, a sign that there was room to move. Block by giant block, it rose, it swayed. It was over four feet tall, maybe four and a half. The bottom third became a skeleton; the peak was a solid mass.

The end could come at any minute, or there could be no end. There was only now. Sun, wind, smiling people out on the street. Slow, gentle movement. Relax. Focus. Celebrate each small addition, each moment stolen from game over and added to what’s next.

I tapped a corner brick in tandem with the wind’s gust. The whole structure collapsed into my arms, and I laughed and let the pieces fall to the ground.

We rebuilt the tower for the next set of players and parted ways.

*  *  *

Stopping for a coffee on the way home, I stumbled on the Sherbrook Street Fest. I took the last empty table, a solitary island in the middle of the street, castaway from the sociable huddle shopside, on the sidewalk. I didn’t mind the spot. I enjoy the feeling of being alone in a crowd, though the best kind of alone is found in a sizeable crowd. Being alone in a scattered array of strangers feels more like a stray dog, looking into every face for possible friendship.

My pen lurked above my notebook with no real intention of making contact as I stared off into the middle distance, half watching people, half watching the flutter of the cheery banners strung up across the street. Another friend crossed my sightlines, said hello, and moved on, carrying a small book from the local anarchist library.

A mayoral candidate was talking to the CBC to my left, showing off her love for the city and this neighbourhood, this festival, the young entrepreneurs building the area up. “This is the spirit of Winnipeg!”, she exclaimed, and then behind her was my brother again, walking next to his bike. We’re like homing pigeons, he and I, tuned to the same social trajectory, drawn about the city as if we were pulled by the same magnet.

He was less impressed by the scenes than I’d been, and called it Nothingfest. “Everyone shows up, and there’s nothing!” he joked. But his spirits were soon lifted by the sight of a dog that looked like it was made of a mop, a man with a parrot on his shoulder, and a younger version of my old dog, Shadow. More animals, or less people – what was the magic ratio? I spotted a FREE HUGS sign being held above the crowd, but little Shadow saw no point in asking and just jumped in, giving me a big kiss on the lips.

*  *  *

I came home and found a waving blue face reminding me of the day’s mission. “Let’s Celebrate!” it asked again, but I had, and moved on to the back stoop.

I heard its constant protest from the front fence, inflated silver crinkling and bouncing against fence boards. Perhaps it would be happier among the peas and beans in the garden, I thought, so I brought it back with me and wove it into the chicken wire. Even in the still breeze, it continued its dance, nodding out a silent eulogy for the party it thought it was missing.

How we move

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Driving was never part of our everyday routine when I was a kid. My mom kept a series of beat-up old cars that were insured in the summer so we could get out of town, but otherwise we walked, we biked, we sometimes took a bus.

My mom was broke and practical, but also an environmentalist. Driving was not to be taken lightly – it came at a cost, and had to have a purpose.

The van came into our lives when I was 15, for my mom’s courier job. It also opened up our world.

I learned to drive in that electric blue Ford Aerostar, and took on part of mom’s courier route. I dutifully noted the odometer reading anytime it was parked, to keep the meticulous records of how much the van was work-driven and how much it was pleasure-driven.

Within weeks I knew the dimensions of that steel box as I knew my own body.

I learned how to arrange the packages around the wheels, how to stack them to avoid the path of the rearview, how to back into tight spots and leave room for at least one door to open.

If I drove exactly 62 km/hr down Portage at the end of our run, I’d hit all the green lights. On the home stretch, the windows went up, the A/C went on, and Mom and I would smoke her hand-rolled cigarettes. We watched the other commuters’ incredulity as our little blue race-van sped past, looking like it was being hot-boxed for rush hour.

Anytime we hit the road in that van, I would take pictures of its blunt nose pointing out of campsites as if it was another member of our family.

We took care of the van, and we patted the dashboard lovingly when it got us through a sticky spot. It was like a large, semi-animate beast, but it was more than a pet.  It moved us.

We’d drive out for ice cream on hot summer nights and Mojo, my little tabby, would sit happily on the dashboard.

We drove up into Northern Manitoba, camping out of the van and leaving it to stand guard in the parking lot as we turned to our feet to carry us as far into the backcountry as possible.

After 10 years of hard driving, the van was wearing out. The list of repairs was far longer than its potential lifespan, and they were getting more expensive as fellow Aerostars bit the dust.

Mom bought a little silver Echo, and we became reckless with the van.

Move as much as you can, but know that you could get stuck anywhere. Drive it, but don’t count on it.

We hauled a huge sander and wedged sheets of drywall into the back, ignoring the scrapes on the interior.

Then it died, and sat in my back lane as an oversized mailbox. When I wasn’t home to receive my grandma’s old organ, it was most helpfully delivered to the back lane and sheltered from the rain by a rusting blue roof. It was a tool and grocery drop-off.

I inherited my mom’s pragmatism, but I also felt for the van. I didn’t want to see it hauled away for scrap. It helped us move out of a government subsidized apartment into our own houses, and took us out of those houses to lakes and wide prairie skies.

But I also wanted to build a fence that would extend my tiny yard and garden onto the van’s parking spot. It was time to move on.

Thanks for all the love from the Yeah Write community, for voting me into second place, for the kiwi, and for all your comments.  Hope to see you again next week and beyond!

If you’re not sure what I’m on about here, check out Yeah Write, and check out last week’s winner as well as all of the other wonderful posts.