Karen Rivers

Train Jumping

Karen Rivers

My kids watch YouTube videos as though it is their full time job.  

"What are you watching?" I ask my son, who is now twelve, balanced on the tightrope-thin border between childhood and adolescence, teetering teetering teetering.

"This guy doesn't have a home," he explains.  "He's a train jumper."  

I watch the video over my son's shoulder as a lanky man-boy on the screen jumps into an open container on a passing train, going to who knows where.   He grins into the camera.

"That looks... uncomfortable," I say.

My son turns to me, puzzled, laughing.  "It looks amazing," he says.   "Can we buy a camper van?  We should go on a road trip."

The days are long, they say, but the years are short.  

What bullshit, I think, at the same exact instant when I realize that they are right.  The truth of it is in the vibration of the train tracks on the screen.  The call of that.  The way it beckons.

Anyway, ask not for whom the bell tolls.   (They say that, too, the bullshitters, the truth-tellers.) 

There are always two choices, two roads diverging in the yellow woods.   That's what we must teach our children who are leaving leaving leaving, maps unfolding inside their hearts, the road calling calling calling them away.

Always ask "What if?"  

Always ask "Why?"  

Teach them to ask all the questions of themselves.

Teach them to answer all the questions for themselves. 

(Not just so they get an A on their papers.   Not just so they go to a good college.  Anyway, what is a good college?)

Emphasize this:  Take the fork in the road that feels right.  Be water.  Follow the path of least resistance. 

Rivers are beautiful, don't you think?  Especially the sound of them, rushing rushing rushing.

But don't be in such a rush!

You have plenty of time!

Slow down!

You aren't water.

I know what I said, but now I take it back.

I take it all back.

Stop watching YouTube.

We can't get a camper van.

Hush.

Stay.

Please.

Look, just don't take the path that is steep and crumbling, every step a risk, rocks tumbling tumbling tumbling off the sheer edge of the cliff, splashing hard into the roaring river that is flowing flowing flowing so far below you that it no longer looks like a threat, that you can't even see the ferocity of rapids, that it just looks like a simple line, a border between this and that, you and me, the past and the looming looming looming unknown.  
 

HGTV

Karen Rivers

Sometimes I wonder how we all agreed that the thing to do was to have a house, with this many rooms, and that one would have a couch in it -- who agreed on the size and shape of this thing anyway? -- and it would face a fireplace and above the fireplace would be either a mirror or a TV and that decision -- mirror or TV? -- would be a choice that really told your guests who you are.  Look, I like to watch HGTV.  It relaxes me -- I generally run pretty high on the anxiety scale -- but it also makes me want things:  a tiny house in the woods with a view of an ocean. A huge island in the kitchen.  A laundry room that's big enough for cabinets where I can keep an assortment of chemicals that will make my clothes white again.   I mean, OK, I guess that won't fit in a tiny house.  But this is just thinking out loud, so who cares?    

If I get the laundry room, a big good clean one, then I'll want white clothes.  I may as well.  I have lots of space to clean them and hang them to dry.  Actually, why not let someone else do that?  Maybe I could pay a service.   I'll wear my white clothes casually, I suppose to a beach, so now I want a beach, too.   Sleeves and pant-legs rolled.  The pants can't be white.  That wouldn't work.   Let's say the pants are old, comfortable jeans.  I have some of those, although I ripped a straight line across the backside when I fell down the cliff on a hike.  Good thing they weren't white!  I didn't break my leg.  

Anyway, in this image, I also have perfectly highlighted hair and it blows back from my face, which is wrinkly, but not too much, just enough that I look content, you know?  Women of a certain age always look so serene.  Well, in the ads for incontinence products they do, so whatever.  There's always a river and some kind of cruise or a group of fun similarly aged women without a care in the world doing yoga.  Very stretchy, they are.  So let's say we are also stretchy and put some Botox on that list of new wants that are the fault of HGTV.  I also want not to be afraid of needles and toxins in this scenario.  

Let's get back to it.  So after my walk on the windswept beach with my white-clad kids who are mostly smiling, showing off their glowing teeth and good health and overall good natures and cleanliness, our golden retriever who would never actually lurch away from my grip on a walk and try to bite an old man in the kneecap, will bound up to the house ahead of us.  We'll be laughing about something, because we can sure laugh in this fantasy.  Everything is joyous!  There will be a scattering of birdsong.  No one will flip anyone else off and then, say, punch them in the face while crying about the disparity they perceive in overall life fairness.  

In the laundry room, we may as well have a dog shower.   Custom made.  Maybe some kind of Italian tile.  Italians seem to really know their way around tile.  Nice stuff.  The dog will stand in the shower and I'll get all the sand off him before he ruins my floors, which are reclaimed barnwood, but perfectly waxed and polished so they look new but I can feel pretty smug knowing that they are recycled from some kind of old farm in Vermont.  Carbon-footprints don't count in this imagining, OK?   

I'll put the dog in some kind of not-invented-yet dog dryer.  The dog doesn't lose hair.  Let's say he has a rare condition where all his fur stays attached to his body and doesn't clump and roll and run around under the furniture only to blow out as soon as someone you want to impress steps into your house, which can't be that tiny, after all, because it has to accommodate you and your dog and your glowingly healthy children.  

Oh, let's toss a husband into the mix.  Why not?  Only not a regular husband, but one of those ones from movies who is good and kind and really strong and funny.   Maybe, oh, I don't know the Rock.  You got me, it's always the Rock.  Who says I have to lower the bar?  I don't!  He really actually wants to take the kids to school and also to build things with them because he loves being around them, not because he's some kind of messed up predator who is just trying to befriend them so evil can ensue, but because he really genuinely finds them to be the best company on the planet.  Except for me, of course.    

He also loves to cook!  And clean up!  And he actually appreciates that you clean the house or better yet, he pays someone else to clean it so you don't have to, because the tiny house is, after all, now a mansion on an island somewhere beautiful and the neighbours are all lovely and kind and have friendly dogs and happy children and nowhere in any gardens are there weeds.  Weeds just don't grow there.  Why would they?  Weeds are ugly and messy and boy do they ever like to choke the life out of flowers and vegetables.   Sometimes you and the Rock sit out on the patio and sip wine because in this case wine is not a symptom of alcoholism or wishing to erase the shittier parts of your day and/or life, but actually just a pleasant thing to sip in the weedless garden while you read books.   Kitchen Rock Who Loves Kids also loves books.   Of course.  Duh.

Oh, I have another idea, which is that in the living room, there will be a fireplace with a mirror but it will be one of those fireplaces with two sides, so on the other side, there's a family room, which is more rough and tumble, more Pottery Barn than actual designer-ish impressive furniture, and on that couch, the children will sit and watch, say, thirty minutes of TV every day, without eating in there and getting the goddamn crumbs everywhere because we are imagining, why not?  Who pictures crumbs?  Nobody!   No one tells you about the crumbs that get stuck on absolutely every surface, along with the mysterious stickiness that plasters itself over everything you own the very second you have children.  If you don't have kids yet or you're pregnant, I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news.  There are going to be crumbs.  Not on HGTV though, just in real life.  

Anyway, your happy kids who love each other agree on the show and watch it quietly and thoughtfully and then they turn it off when they are done without having hysterics or lying about when they started watching it or just flat-out ignoring you.  This isn't real, so maybe after that they help their dad or stepdad or whatever, you know, the Rock, the nice guy who is in the kitchen, still, right now, they help him clean up and they tell each other jokes.  Jokes!   Really funny ones.  They'll film themselves telling a joke and it will go viral on YouTube and you'll use the money you earn from that to put them through college.   The best college or at least the most fun one where nothing unthinkable happens on the reg.  They aren't going to have terrible, soul-sucking corporate jobs when they grow up, either!  They will save the world or do art or save the world with their art or build bridges or save kittens.  That's an actual job.  I saw it on Facebook.  A team of guys who go around and save kittens from trees!  What a world.  The point is that the kids will go to some kind of school that will spit them out at the end even happier and healthier than when they went in, which is some kind of benchmark because already they are the happiest and healthiest kids alive.

Anyway, from the now-clean kitchen, you can hear your daughter belly-laughing and your son laughs so hard that he gets the hiccups so he pours a glass of filtered, totally safe and fantastic miracle water from the fancy water thing you just bought for the counter.  This is not real money, this is just HGTV, so that's fine, that works.  Good water.  And the kids drink 8 glasses of it a day!  They need to because they are super active.  I mean, look at them.  

The Rock starring as Kitchen Man has just come out of the kitchen and put on some kind of JCrew windbreaker and he's going to take the dog for a run on the beach and the kids can come too and he'll hew for them a kite out of driftwood and seaweed that he's woven together and in the meantime, why don't you go out?  

Why don't you?  

Well, golly.  

That sounds nice.  You could meet a friend for drinks!  People do.  You saw it on that miniseries that starred Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern and some other gorgeous women.   That was a good miniseries.  Pretty.   It was in California, I guess.  Maybe that's where you live, actually.   You wish you could remember what that show was called.  Oh, I know!  Big Little Lies.  I mean, clearly their lives weren't so great, but even just the setting would be enough.  The setting was amazing.  All those cliffs and crashing waves and gorgeous homes.   Anyway, those people always were meeting each other for drinks and in real life people meet for drinks, too.   This is made obvious by the fact that bars and restaurants and pubs exist and don't seem to always go out of business because everyone is too busy to go to them. So you can do that, pulling your front door behind you as you leave in your nice leather shoes and perfectly fitting jeans and some kind of technical cashmere top that makes you look like Cindy Crawford or whoever is hot now that it's not 1989 anymore.  The door locks automatically behind you, gently, like those kitchen cabinets with the soft-close that you see sometimes on kitchen renovation shows.  This front door is like that, soft and solid at the same time.  You don't have to bang it three times, really hard until you actually think what will likely happen is that the door will one day just fall apart into a big pile of Jenga-like blocks of wood and then what will have been the point of slamming it in the first place?  You go down to where your car is parked and it will start.  Your driveway is not cracked and broken, which is a nice feature in a driveway.  The car is not a fancy, expensive thing because you eschew fancy cars in favour of donating money to charities that raise money for cancer or orphans.  Oh, maybe it is a little bit fancy.  I mean, heated seats would be nice and one of those back up camera things.  

You get in and you back up and you don't accidentally back over the neighbour's cat or the kids basketball hoop or anything.   Down on the beach, the sun is setting and it's making a million colours in the sky and it's so gorgeous you literally can't breathe, and silhouetted against that are your joyful kids and the famous actor playing the part of your husband.  It's pretty nice, actually.  And all this from just that one half hour show about how to redesign the flow in your laundry room.  It's nice to know that my imagination is still firing on all cylinders and you know, turning an ad for laundry detergent into this full-blown fantasy existence!  That's healthy, right?   

I'm getting off track, OK, sorry.  I know you want to get to the end at this point.   So let's say that you're breathing again now because you blinked or the sun finished setting or whatever.   Nice moon.  Full.  Glowing like a ribbon of silk on the road, like you're actually inside some kind of poem.  That's your life now, all big white-toothed smiles and free verse.  Anyway, you drive to the restaurant, and you meet your friends and everyone is happy to see you and you are happy to see them and everyone hugs and you order some food that isn't accidentally full of things you're allergic to, because this isn't real, might as well not be allergic to everything, and you eat it and you don't feel guilty about whatever it was because Kitchen Man doesn't care if you gain a pound or eight or even eighty because he sees you as an actual human being and not as a particular body type that you have an obligation to maintain because he went into it under the understanding that you would remain totally unchanged through the years, always the girl he married, even though he's gained a few sitting on the couch watching sports on the TV, which is getting bigger and bigger every time you blink, almost in inverse proportion to the amount of time you have left to live, if you live to be an average age.  By the time you meet your doom, that thing will have obliterated the fireplace, the living room, the couch!  Think about it.  Actually, by then TV will be 3d or 4d or just holograms, running around your now empty living room while you get out of the way so you don't get shot or eaten by zombies or whatever happens on TV.  

Anyway, you'll have a nice time with your girlfriends and boyfriends and everyone you know and have ever met who all love you and want to drop everything to meet you for a drink right now, and then maybe after you'll all get a manicure or a pedicure.  Do you know that in real life, I've never had a manicure or a pedicure?  I'm well past the point of ever doing that.  I just cannot get my head around paying someone else to paint my nails.  It's not that hard to do for yourself.  I mean, it wouldn't be if I ever did it, but mostly I don't bother because I'm pretty busy and I'd rather read a book. 

Like I said, I don't watch a lot of TV, yet I bought into this idea that you have a couch and a fireplace with a TV above it.  Mostly I forget it's there.  The kids watch it constantly.  If I see Kate Hudson talking about compression fit leggings on Disney XD just one more time, I'm going to commit a crime.  I don't know what it would be.  I was going to say something violent, but I'm not a violent person.  Maybe I'll just shoplift an eyeliner or something, but actually, no, I'd feel too anxious and I like to not be anxious, so I'll just pay for it.  So I guess I'll buy an eyeliner and then I'll come home and pour a glass of wine from a box and eat popcorn for dinner and watch HGTV.   The kids are at their dad's.  If they were home, I'd make vegetables or something.   Popcorn actually really gives me a bad stomachache as it turns out.  Who knew?

You know what?  Those holograms might be nice.  I'm looking forward to that invention.   Not if it was CSI or the Living Dead or whatever most people watch, but for Fixer Upper.  Like you could watch in an empty room and Joanne and her golden retriever of a floppy, happy husband will tear down all the walls and make it one big room with a rusty gate on the wall and somehow it will look unbelievably luxurious.  At least there won't be a bunch of laundry on the kitchen counter and a pile of dog vomit on the rug!   That's something.  I think we can all agree to that, and if we have to have a couch and an ottoman and a fireplace -- although actually fireplaces are kind of outdated because of all the wood and flames and smoke and general messiness and hard work that they entail -- and TV all arranged exactly the same way, then so be it.  I can do that.  I think we all can.   We'll just sit on our couches now.  Let's just wait for stuff to happen.  It's going to be good, I think.  It must be.  Otherwise, why did we do all this?   It has to have a point.  Everything does, right?   It all leads to a happy ending.   I believe that.   I really do.  
 

Some scenes involving hair.

Karen Rivers

Yesterday, I cut my mother's hair.  It's as delicate as I remember my daughter's hair being when it was first, finally, long enough for a ponytail.  

My daughter has spent the summer with wind blowing through her hair:  roller coasters and a swamp boat, speed boats and kite-flying gales.  The brush tore through knots and matting.   There was a leaf, a twig, some fluff.   We dyed it purple:  two shades, two boxes of dye.   Her pillow is magenta in the morning.  When she sweats, rivulets of lavender run down her cheeks.  

I let my daughter cut my hair.  As she cut, my head became lighter.   I sat up taller.   I fell in love with the sound of sharp scissors cutting away what doesn't need to be there.  

When I was six, my mother put my waist length hair into a braid and chopped it off.   A feeling that I'll never forget:  The way the comb abruptly ran out of hair to comb, somewhere above my shoulders.  The way my hair seemed alive, swinging around my face.

How quickly we are all changing, all the time, even when we are trying to stay still.   

Maybe if I learned to love it, instead of always leaning so hard on the brakes, it would be the difference between careening down a hill, terrified, out-of-control, and the feeling of being on a bike, the wind in your hair, your hands not touching the brakes on purpose, so fast that you're flying, you're free, and it's nothing but gravity that's even keeping you here, in this life, right here and now, every second your hair growing fractionally more, the changes happening in spite of you,  as unstoppable as wind and time.

The Island.

Karen Rivers

I spent almost a month at the island.   The island has never changed.   Maybe it will never change, I don't know.  I hope it doesn't.  The island is nothing more than what it is, a mass of sandstone risen from the sea.   There are trees and paths through the trees and blackberries and beaches.   There are a handful of cabins.   There are old abandoned logging roads.  There are fallen trees.  There are standing trees.  There are cedar trees so old that my whole family can't span them with our arms, hands held, wrapped around their trunks. 

When I'm on the island, everything falls away.   There are no stores, so one can't buy anything even if one wanted to, and the thing is that you don't.   How could you want anything when all this exists?   You eat breakfast and clean up.  Without technology, everything takes longer and feels more purposeful.   The pace is slow.   You go for a walk.   Every day, you take the same photos because every day, you are struck by the same beautiful things:   the way the maple leaves capture all the light before it hits the valley floor.   The fungus growing from the fallen tree.  The tree that came crashing down beside you on the same walk, last year, and didn't kill you.   The shadow of the distant deer as he spots the dogs and runs, the deadfall crackling under his hooves.   

In the afternoon, maybe you go to the sandy beach and swim, but first the act of making lunch with limited supplies.  You make do.   Making do is something you don't do much at home because at home there are grocery stores everywhere and delivery services and so much to spend money on.   At the island, you pick blackberries and eat them off the bush.   You sit in the shade and work while you watch the kids swing on rope swings, first one, then the other, back and forth up and down the trail from one to the next.   There isn't anything else.  There is no TV and no internet and no reason to do anything else than swing from this tree and that tree and there isn't anything else they'd rather do anyway.

Oh, build a fort.  There are no building supply stores, so walk from log-pile to log-pile on the beach and pry free half-rotten driftwood because that is good enough because it is all there is, anyway.  You use a handsaw to cut the wood and rusty nails you found in a bucket under the cabin to hammer it together and it's perfect.  It's a palace.  It's the grandest thing ever built, in spite of the fact that it's still only a floor.   

Your expectations are different, that's all.   The whole family rushes to the hillside to see an eagle, fighting a raven in the sky.   We sit on the hill and wait for whales.   There are a lot of mice this year -- you put your hand under the barbecue to turn off the flame and it lands on a tail, leathery and alive.

There weren't any whales this summer.  I hope it's not a sign.

When I got home, the September issues of fashion magazines that I don't remember subscribing to are crammed into the mailbox, as fat as the old Sears catalogue.  I flip through one in the first bath I've taken for over a month -- no plumbing at the cabin means no showering -- and I see five different versions of $500 pale pink tennis shoes that are not designed for playing tennis and I see that my skirt should be below my knee this year and the boots are the same, but slightly different, and I see that I am doing my brows wrong and the thing one must do to their hair is a $500 colour process and everything is $500 and I want to throw the magazine but then I read my horoscope and it says that international fame is coming my way at the end of September, so maybe I'll hang on to it.

I don't want pale pink sneakers.

I don't want to want pale pink sneakers.

I want to take my shoes off and feel the warm sandstone under my feet, the wind coming at me from the northwest, blowing my unfashionable hair away from my makeup-free face.   I want to look up at the sky and see an eagle gliding home.   I want to hear the sound of the whale before I see it, the loud exhalation that says everything is the same and nothing needs to change because what matters is what is real, and what is real is a sandstone island, risen from the sea, populated by the ancestors of the people who have been there since the beginning, since long before pink sneakers, since the dawn of mankind.  

 

Life.

Karen Rivers

I can't remember the last time I had a day off.  A proper one.  A day with nothing to fill it, empty hours stretching languorously through the daylight hours and on into the dark.  A day when I've thought, "I'm so bored."  

Every night, I fall asleep dreaming about words and unfolding plots, interlaced with real life, which is to say the kids and what they need and deserve and want and love and hate and why they won't stop fighting and if they'll ever clean their rooms and if the dog will stop launching himself like Cujo at passers by and how I'm back at work at the University soon and deadlines and vacation and all of that.   

It's the characters who keep me sane.   That's true.  I'm telling you because I just realized it.  

Every morning, I wake up and wish that I'd properly cleaned the house the previous day, stumbling down the stairs and into the kitchen to make yet more coffee in the pot that's only passably maintained.  I love my life, but there's just so MUCH of it and it's all in need of a deep clean.   I haven't had my hair cut in two years, at least.  I don't spend much time thinking about if I like how it looks or not, I just twist it up on my head and pin it in place with a pen or a chopstick and put off dealing with it for another day.  

I'm always saying, "Tomorrow."  

Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.  

Maybe tomorrow, I'll crawl into the crawlspace and concrete over the part where water rises up out of the ground and seeps into the stored bedding for beds we no longer own and bags of outgrown clothes and shoes and toys.  

Maybe tomorrow, I'll help my son convert the shed to a workshop and we'll get someone to put in the window that we picked up for free from the bottom of someone's driveway and maybe tomorrow, we'll swim in the pool and light the propane fire and roast a marshmallow and savour the summer.  You know, the possibility of Northern Lights glimmering through the warm summer night exists and we should be watching for it, waiting, holding our breath, because sometimes we get so busy, we forget to just stop being so busy and to go for a long walk in the woods, looking up and down and sideways.  The way the sun shines on the green of the maple leaves is everything.   The stoic way the trees grow slowly up towards the light.

Tomorrow, I will go for a real hike, with no destination and no hurrying, just one step in front of the other, deeper and deeper into the woods.

I'm writing it down because it's life, or it's my life right now.  It's how it is, every day a scrambling to the finish line trying to fit in as many events as possible, like some kind of demented party game where at the end you win only the satisfaction of knowing you did it, you didn't think you could, and you did.   Don't get me wrong, it's worth it. 

I'm afraid of boredom.  So it's good that I don't have time for that.  Not now.  Maybe not ever.

Oh, there's a fish, a birthday-party goody-bag fish -- who gives PETS at a party? -- who needs badly to be cleaned.  I have to remember the fish.  I'm typing this blog post, a post about nothing, a tallying of busy-ness, and the fish can barely see me through the green tank, which will take five minutes to actually clean but going to a website and buying him new gravel seems like a better use of time.  Remember when we had to drive to a store to buy things like that?   I miss those days.   We had a department store that oddly (in hindsight) had a pet aisle where you could buy actual pets -- birds and fish and hamsters.   What must it have been like to be an animal who lived in a cage in a department store, waiting for someone to suddenly decide that along with socks and laundry detergent and a new hat, they also needed a guinea pig?

The birds chirp with delight when I sit down next to them to write, at least I assume it's delight because I like the idea that they are delighted, when really they are probably saying, "Look, lady, just clean the cage, OK?"  I'd like to offer a blanket apology to all the pets.  I love you all.  Is love enough?  It would be if they were human.  I need to order more bird seed and some spare time that I can spend letting the birds spread their wings, flying frantically around the living room, their birdy little hearts pounding with excitement and fear.

There's a garden.  I've eaten three tomatoes that I grew myself but the kids won't eat the strawberries in case there are spiders.  Don't forget to be afraid of spiders because they lurk everywhere, something I didn't realize before I had kids.  Being vigilant for spiders is a part-time job, too.

Last week, I spent a valuable day pulling the waist high weeds from the yard and made a mountain of weeds for the haulers to haul away but when I got back from a writing event, but now I am back and so many have grown back that I need to do it again before they come.  But where can I fit that in?  

The weeding, the endless weeding!  I'm going to look back on my forties (and fifties, I'm guessing) as the weeding years.   Here's something that might surprise you.  It surprised me when I realized it the other day.  The thing is that I love weeding.   Or, more accurately, I love the gratification I feel when I have a hard job and I manage to somehow do it, sweat pouring down my face, and the clock ticking off the hours that I'm not working but probably should be, all the while, the characters in my head, scrambling for a foothold.   That's how it is, to write, to be always writing, and it's amazing.  It's wonderful.  I can't recommend it enough.  Your kitchen won't be clean enough.  Your whole house, actually, will accumulate a filmy layer of dusty neglect, but who can bring themselves to care?  

Not me.  

My hair is too long.   The weeds are encroaching.   The crawlspace is leaking.   And every day, I step over a puddle on my front steps which seems to have no plausible source.   But I'm writing.   There is a woman with a tattoo on her arm sitting at a kitchen table.  She's very beautiful and she is afraid.  The tattoo has faded to grey and she has a child.  

A really unusual child.   They are all unusual, aren't they?    

I'm going to clean my son's room and while I clean, I'm going to be listening to that child and waiting for the story to unfold, one word at a time, one sentence unfurling into a paragraph into a chapter into a whole thing, the thing that I meant to tell all along.  

You don't have to write every day.

Karen Rivers

I was looking at photos someone took of the Northern Lights and it occurred to me that beyond the fact that they are beautiful, the Northern Lights look exactly like a particularly green version of an ocular migraine.  Maybe if I could begin to see ocular migraines as beautiful, I wouldn't be convinced each time I have one that I'm actually -- this time, for real -- having a stroke.   Is it possible that the distance between calm and terror is just a tiny readjustment of thinking?  

No one looks at the Northern Lights and says, "This is really making me anxious."  At least, I don't think they do.   

No one looks at their ocular migraine aura and says, "This is breathtaking!" either.

We were watching Survivor last night and the host introduced one of the players as "the woman who got up from the couch".   My son looked at me and said, "Mum, you should do that!   She got off the couch, so you can, too."  

"Who me?" I said.  I mean, I got defensive.   Anyone would. I don't have a desk!  I'm working on the couch, not just sitting!  I never just sit!   I don't have time!  

"Still," he said.  "You could do it, Mum."

I realized he wasn't criticizing me, but throwing me a vote of confidence.   Sometimes you miss love when you're looking for reasons to hate yourself, that's the thing.  I'm too old to be on Survivor though.  Plus, I'm allergic to fish so would probably die somewhere around episode 2.  "The first time in Survivor history!" the host would say.  "This is a historic moment!"  

All of our historic moments lately have been moments when we, as a world, have cringed in unison.   I'm not sure what that says about the course of humanity.   I wonder if, before they went extinct, the dinosaurs were ever just embarrassed to be a part of it all, or worse, heartbroken.   

I've been so busy.  

I AM so busy.  

I overscheduled, overestimated my own abilities, over-everythinged all the things that I can't quite get done on time, except somehow I do, every time.  I haven't had my haircut in years.   I've turned down all manner of social things to the point where I rarely have the opportunity to decline invitations any more as they aren't coming.  And oh, I've been missing the great swathes of time I used to spend walking and thinking, which, as it turns out, are crucial to getting the work done.  

Irony is still my favourite and my best.   

Someone on the Internet wrote a clickbait article about how if you want to write a book, you have to write every day or you may as well quit.   The truth is that if I don't spend a lot of time walking and thinking, I can't write a book, every day or otherwise.   The writer of that article is giving us all something to feel a thrill of superiority toward, which I suppose is a nice thing for clickbait to do.   I choose to feel sorry for him because that makes me feel even better, but the truth is, mostly I feel confused.  Why does he think that what works for him will work for everyone?

Here's what sometimes works for me:  Stopping the work to sit in the garden and take photographs of bees.  I wonder if I should sell that idea to The Daily Beast.  How well do they pay?  I could make the time.  I'm the master of creating time out of thin air, my hands waving around, my eyes closed, conjuring magic.   The Internet is nothing if not a lovely stew made from all the things we thought about while we were not getting our work done.

Anyway, what a ridiculous idea!  To write every day.  (Or else!)  I can't write every day, even though I have been.   That doesn't make sense, but what does?  

The person who wrote that article though!  He's like a song that's stuck in my head now.  It's right there, churning.   Write every day!  OR ELSE.  Someone knows him.  Someone loves him.   Someone probably thinks he would do well on Survivor.  But still, what a smug person!  So smugly telling other writers that he is special and knows better and no one else gets it or understands him and his greatness.  Oh dear.   Poor man.  He's trying to make us all quit.   Maybe he thinks that improves his chances of survival in a field where no one survives.  The thing is, your book doesn't have to be "better than" the competition.  Your book simply has to be good and true and resonant.  If no good books cross the transom, the publishers will all quit.  They'll begin taking long walks in the woods themselves, noticing things they never saw before, like the way if you look down on the path, you'll see multiple rocks shaped like hearts.  They'll realize that you can always hear birds, thousands of them, all chirping a different tune.

Also -- I seem to still have more to say about this clickbait, sorry, I thought I was done -- he seems to have a lot of anger, manifesting in hating all other writers for being better looking.   Better looking!   "That's absurd," I said, when I read it, shaking my head and laughing, but also feeling better about myself.  It was a compliment, if you think about it.  I love other writers, especially the women.  (The women tend towards being less smug, not that all men are smug, but certainly the smug tend to be male.)  We're all the same person, all of us writers, really, a borderless entity pulsing with words and felt feelings and ideas and endings and observations and compulsions and love and self-loathing.  We're usually outsiders who spend a lot of time alone, indoors or out, noticing the details.   

God, it's so miserable today, the weather.

Even as I'm writing this, rain is hitting hard against the window, pushing the hanging strawberry plants around with a sort of unexpected violence.  Last night, there was thunder and lightning.  It crackled through the night sky and into my dreams, which were terrible ones about unspeakable things that made me fear death, because what if death is nothing but nightmares on a loop, showing you who you really were?

My son is right now running endless laps around a track, his lungs no doubt aching, rain dripping from his hair.  He's probably cold or hot or both but definitely uncomfortable.  He hates running.  Let's say he's not genetically predisposed to being good at it.   The apple fell near the tree of me, for certain.  Track meets make me anxious, as lightheaded as I felt that time an owl flew directly into my face in the woods.  It's adrenalin, I think.  Mine works in an odd way.  I sometimes get weak when strength would seem preferable or more obvious.  

"I can't stay!" I told him.  "I have to write!"   

This is writing.  I'm feeling guilty though.  In one minute, I'm going to find my keys and head back up there, to cheer him on.

You know, just as I was feeling satisfied with the metaphorical appropriateness of the terrible weather, the sun came out.  It's shining on the screen now with such intensity, I have to tilt the laptop to be able to see.  I'm not where I should be.  Am I ever?   I'm on the couch.  I'm here writing this, and not the book that I'm meant to be writing.  I could be surviving.  I should be at the track meet.   I could be winning something, somewhere, somehow.   A million dollars.  A book contract.   Love.

This is a post about writing every day or not at all.   This is a long walk in the gusting wind, the gentle flickering of a migraine aura sliding in slow-motion across my field of vision, an owl disappearing into the branches of a raindrop-bejewelled tree.   This is my voice yelling, "Go!  Go!  You can do it!  Keep going!", rising above the sound of the crowd, as loud and strong as anything has ever been.

Red light, green light.

Karen Rivers

I'd been hearing banging in the walls again, the sound of scurrying.  Rats, obviously, I thought.  I was filled with dread and angst and a kind of fury towards this house and its easy accessibility for wildlife.  I kept thinking of the scene in Ratatouille when the old lady starts shooting her gun at the ceiling and thousands of rats poured out and I was glad I didn't have a gun because I like my ceilings where they are, separating me from falling pine needles and bird droppings.  

I sat and worked and listened to the thumps and got increasingly worried.  Could I afford to pay an exterminator again?  Did I want to?  Maybe I should just sell and move!  But nowhere is exempt from rats.  My exterminator told me once that the worst place for rats in town was also the most coveted neighbourhood, one of those places where all the wives are willowy and do pilates and all the men have good jobs and nice cars and their children wear crisp white shirts that always look clean and no one is ever sad on the outside.

I lived in that place once and maybe people thought that about me.  I never did Pilates but I did have the requisite Hunter gumboots and long hair.  Inside the house, there existed the darkest place I've ever been.  I was reading to my son one day, and a rat tail suddenly appeared from under his closet door and flicked back and forth before disappearing.  I'm just saying, I should know better:  Things aren't always how they appear.   There are rats in the attics there.  Far more than you'd guess, based on house prices and appearances.

Anyway, I couldn't stand it anymore, not knowing if the rats were gathering forces outside, having their babies in my weed bucket, drowning in the murky winter water in the kids' pool.  I stayed quiet.  I listened.  Finally, I followed the sounds to my front door.  I opened the door, and there, in my son's outgrown helmet (which is still hanging there, as though his head might one day shrink again enough to wear it), was a nest of baby birds.  Each time the mother came and went with food or more nest-filler, the helmet thumped against the wall.  

The birds and their funny nest are a miracle.  They are a thing that makes us exclaim when we come home each time, "Oh, look!"  Each time I look at it, I'm in disbelief.  I mean, I'm happy it's not rats, but more than that I'm happy the birds made this their home.  It's like validation:  Your house is a safe place for us.   I know that sounds ridiculous.  But we didn't have birds nesting at the old house, that's for certain.  

My kids' therapists try to teach them to manage their anxiety by using red light green light thinking, which is to do with not automatically assuming the worst.   I like to think of it as rat/bird thinking.  Why do we always assume rats?   I'm trying to relearn how to do this, so I can model it better for them and so I can just be better, in general.  I'm trying to always assume birds, even when it doesn't make sense.   Especially when it doesn't.

The daffodils that I planted turned out to be miniature.  I've never seen tiny daffodils before.   Daffodils are my favourite.  I planted three hundred bulbs.  The bulbs were regularly sized.  They're pushing up all over the front border, in between the weeds, which are also sprouting.   I think of November and all those hours I spent burying them in the cold ground on my hands and knees.   Every spring I regretted not doing it, so I made myself do it, even though it seemed awfully optimistic.   

Scattered among the tiny daffodils are a few regularly sized ones.  They look like giants, wise elders, bent at an angle over the tiny perfection of their miniature replicas.  

Anyway, everything is a miracle when you think of those baby birds in a bike helmet, don't you think?

Here comes the rain again.

Karen Rivers

Last night, the rain fell so hard against the skylights that I woke up again and again and again.  I had practical concerns:  As an adult on a limited budget, I can't afford to fix whatever it is that causes the crawlspace to flood when it rains.   I contemplated how much rain the crawlspace could withstand before it simply sighed and allowed the water to fill it.  The rain showered down harder and harder and then so hard that the skylight itself looked like the front window of the car when I enter the carwash.  It's been a long time since I cleaned my car.  These two co-occurring thoughts unlocked the floodgates and the entire reservoir of my worries (how long will the car last? when will I clean out the crawlspace? should I somehow get something fixed?  when was the last time I cleaned the bathroom?) flooded the room, sweeping away two children, who were camping out due to nightmares, and two dogs, who can't sleep unless they are literally on top of me.  

Fortunately, we all survived.  (We know how to swim.)

We keep surviving.

Which is amazing considering how all of us, in turn, wake up at night and realize that everything is impossible, leaving us tired and upset enough in the morning to shout things like, "I can't and won't go to school today or ever again, you dummy!"

This morning, after taking the recalcitrant youths to school, I went for a muddy walk through the forest, remembering how an ancient maple tree once toppled over right next to where I was walking due to a rainfall which had drenched the ground.   There were worms lying everywhere, gleefully, all over the muddy ruts and grooves made by the water pouring down the mountain in the rains (and, subsequently, into my crawlspace).   I couldn't imagine where the birds were.  Why were they not feasting?  The worms stretched out languorously in the mud.    As it's impossible to tell if a worm is awake or asleep due to their lack of eyes, I assumed they were asleep, blissfully resting on the rivulets of streaming rain, dreaming of only what they already have: Wet earth, the good luck to avoid being stepped on by people and dogs, a nice place to stretch out and rest.  

No trees fell on me or even near me today, although I did see one that had crashed across the path.  It was a fir and it looked freshly broken.  I tried to count the rings but it had the bad instinct to break very crookedly and roughly in a way that made it impossible to count.  I will say that it looked like a young tree.  There was no explanation for why it broke, mid-trunk, and fell to the ground except that maybe it was just depressed about the rain.  I should have known or helped but my list of things-I-am-responsible-for is already too long.   It would be better if trees could leave a note, in this scenario, something that says, "It wasn't your fault."  I felt badly about the tree, but something about the worms made me feel hopeful and happy.   The hopeful happiness made me feel excited about everything.  And by everything, I mean, "the books I am working on and submitting and revising."  A lot of my everythings are books.  

When I got home, I could see more and more daffodils pushing their way through the soil -- I could swear even more than when I'd left the house -- and I came inside and had some hot chocolate and did some work and wrote this down.  I feel glad that I wrote it down.  It's easy to think, "Oh, I'll write about the worms when I get home" and then not do it, choosing instead to click around on Facebook for ideas about where to put the litterbox to minimize the smell in your home before remembering you don't own a cat.   I'm glad I wrote about the rain and the sleeplessness and the worms and the daffodils because the thing with life is that it goes by so alarmingly quickly.  Ask anyone.  No one ever says, "Actually, it seems to be taking forever to get to the end."  My daughter keeps saying amazingly insightful things, which I think about blogging and then I don't, and then they're gone.  I forget them.  I hate forgetting them.

Let's not forget the worms and the broken tree.  Let's pay attention to the details.  Let's write them all down.   

Be careful on the trail.  Don't step on the worms. 

 

Possibilities.

Karen Rivers

Lately, I've been thinking about moving.  

I won't move, of course.  

My parents are here and if I were too far from them, I'd make myself sick worrying about the things they are going through over which I have no control.  I do that here, too, but if I were further away, it would be worse.   Being unable to move makes moving all the more appealing.  

I click through galleries of photos of houses for sale.  Houses on acres of land.   Houses perched on ocean-facing cliffs.  Houses nestled into clusters of trees.  Houses I could actually afford to buy.  Houses that would afford me the unthinkable luxury of not panicking every month when the mortgage comes due.   Houses that would allow us to breathe, to wander, to even occasionally travel, all while protecting us from the elements, forming the box around us in which we could live a different life.  

I'm addicted to looking.  I've always loved possibilities.   

Which isn't to say I don't love my house and my hometown.  I do.  It's such a ridiculous privilege to live here in the shade of the ancient trees.  I love my life, even with the crushing financial pressures and my children's anxiety and my own ceaseless worries and the way my dog has started coughing at night and how even though the snow is still not entirely melted, the weeds are already pushing through everywhere.  

But I feel like somewhere, something is ticking forward towards something else.  

A new destiny.  

I emptied the winter rain from the kids' swimming pool last week.  This felt like a huge accomplishment.  All winter, I watched it filling with rain that rapidly turned brown and murky, stained by fir needles and oak leaves.  I pictured drowned rats, dead birds, who knows what unknown horrors.  The actual draining of the pool revealed nothing except -- mysteriously -- a peeled orange amidst the thousand pinecones.    There's a metaphor in that, almost certainly. 

I haven't been blogging because it's seemed impossible to blog lately.  There is too much happening that is too implausible, yet is real.   And the truth is that I don't know what to say about it that hasn't been said more eloquently by someone else.  

I just keep saying, "I can't believe this is happening."  

I can't believe this is happening.  

But it is happening and I am so lucky to live here in Canada, awash with privilege.  Even through all my worry and panic, I have to remember that.  I have to remind myself.  

So lucky.  It's all such a crapshoot, a roll of the dice.  I'm grateful.   I don't want to sound ungrateful.  Not ever.  

The unimaginable has happened.  

But there is good:  the surge of people doing the right thing is heartening, inspiring, amazing.   America is not Donald Trump.

America is the resistance.  

The resistance is the peeled orange, the beautiful surprise in the mess. 

And I'm still writing and I'm still walking and I'm still living in my too-expensive-for-me falling-over rat-visited house and nothing has changed here, except the kids got taller and the dogs got older and it's probably time for something to change for the better, don't you think?

 Something magnificent is about to happen.  It must be.

I believe.  

Think small.

Karen Rivers

The dog is sitting on the back of the white armchair, facing out the window.  He is always waiting for something to happen.  Please note that only an hour ago, he threw up under the couch and tried to bite me when I pulled him out by his tail.  

The things that might happen include the mailman or a change in the weather.   Neither of these things are particularly interesting, but he's interested.  While he sits there, his ears pricked forward, I imagine that his heart is beating just a little bit faster, thinking, "The mailman!  The mailman!  A GUST OF WIND!"  

I don't have the heart to tell him that it's Saturday and raining and nothing beyond that is going to happen.

I'm sitting on the couch.  I'm writing. I want to finish this thing today, tomorrow, next week, soon.   The idea of finishing is there, it's the bulk of the middling that's the trouble, which means sitting here and contemplating everything about why I'm doing this and for whom.  Panicking in small waves, when the paralysis of not knowing how to get to the end allows it.

The Christmas tree is looking increasingly like a large amount of work waiting to happen.   The kids are away.  When the kids aren't in it, the house seems filthier.  Somehow when they are home, the filth is disguised by their moods, craft projects and Astrosmash.  I should clean it but I'm writing, or doing the thing that goes hand-in-hand with writing, which is not writing.

I should take down the Christmas tree.  

I haven't written on this blog since October. Nothing has happened.  

That's a lie:  Plenty has happened.   Enough has happened that I haven't been getting the work done in a way that is joyful.  I prefer it when it's joyful, obviously.  The joy is in the doing.   It's the not doing, but worrying about doing, that's the trouble.  Because other things are happening that are hard, it filters over into the writing and makes it harder to form the words you need your fingers to type.  

Picture yourself having to carry something heavy up a mountain in the wind and snow and rain.  And that something heavy is a Volkswagen beetle which is rusty.  And every time you take a step, another part falls off that you have to pick up and somehow re-attach enough such that when you get to the top you have a complete car that someone may admire and even want to buy.  (You must be the optimistic sort who assumes that if you just GET it there, everything will be OK.)  The point is to get a car to the top of the mountain, let's say.  

Imagine that as you're walking, you're thinking, "Why on earth am I carrying a VW to the top of this mountain in these conditions?  This is ridiculous! And possibly unfair! Everyone else is having fun, in big smiling huddles that they will photograph for social media!  Why am I climbing a mountain with this terrible rusty car?"  But somehow, for some reason, you keep walking anyway even though you're getting cuts all over the place from the jagged metal bits and possibly need a tetanus shot.  (Well, the reason is because it's your job but it's also your passion.  Every time you get to the top and put down the heap of car-like material you run right back down again and begin carrying another car.  Maybe it's a sickness.  Who can say.)  

It takes a lot longer than you think, every single time, to get a CAR to a MOUNTAINTOP.  Well, duh.  If it were easy, everyone would do it.   You do it because you're mad, as the English would say, or at least people who read a lot of British fiction.  

The journey may or may not be worth it at the end.  EVERY journey is not worth it.  That's one of those things like, "You can be anything you want to be!" that people like to believe but is wholly untrue.  (I, for example, will never be a ballerina or an astronaut.)

It's possible, when you get to the top, that the whole stupid wreck will crumble to dust and the freezing, harsh wind will blow it away and you'll be left standing there, blinking, probably having a heart attack or dying from exhaustion and dehydration.  (Drink more water, for goodness sake.)   At the top of the mountain, a whole crowd of authors with brand new BMWs and Land Rovers will be casually chatting and hugging each other.  You don't even recognize some of the cars, they are so expensive and beautiful.  They roar off, one by one, bestsellers, prize winners, lauded, celebrated.   The authors huddle, smiling, for a gorgeous photo.   Tra la la.  They won't even look sweaty or dishevelled because they know what they're doing and you don't.   Wipe the rust dust off your hands and act natural.   Or rub it on your face and blend in with the background trees and dirt.   One of those things.

Either way, take a long slow breath and allow yourself to feel euphoric.  You made it to the top of the mountain!  And that's sometimes enough.   There are beautiful patterns in the sky made by the clouds.  Everything smells good, except probably you, but that's another thing altogether.  Try to just appreciate that cluster of wildflowers and they way people are congratulating each other and hugging.   Hug someone.  Pretend you don't notice when they brush your rust dust off their clean clothing.  

Up close, even rust is beautiful.  Look closely.  

By the way, the website is getting a huge makeover in January.  I will update it with all the VWs that I dragged to the top, all year, one after the other.  (It's amazing that after a good editing, a buff and polish, coat of paint, complete engine rebuild in some cases, their rusty beginnings may be less noticeable.)

(I don't know.)  

(I don't even know why this is about cars.  It's just what happened when I started typing.  I started thinking about cars and mountains.)

The new website will be pretty but the content will be largely the same, except with more books added.  If your website is your face on the internet, do you ever get tired of looking at it?   DO you look at it?   I go whole days without looking in the mirror.  It's easier to do than you might think.   I go months without looking at the website.   It's similar.  But, of course, it's different.  

I like how humans assume that when the calendar year flips over, there is an opportunity for 365 days of joy JUST AROUND THE CORNER.  Who knew we were such optimists!   Each previous 365 day chunk has proven otherwise, but we still keep hoping.  Isn't that the most beautiful thing?

Here's to a good chunk:  shiny,  new, light, and easy to carry.  If you're lucky, you won't even have to carry it!  You could drive it.   Why would anyone carry a car?   Just get behind the wheel and steer it up the rocky cliffs, watching carefully for wildlife.  After all, they were here first.  They're at home.   You're just visiting, for now, forever, for a while anyway.   Don't run them over.  That's bad karma.

I wish you all the happiest of years, the best of books, the warmest love, the lightest loads to carry, and much beauty and serenity.   

Serenity Now!  Let that be our motto.   Or Live Long and Prosper.  Your choice.    And good luck with those Volkswagens.

The Zoo, The Wild, Time.

Karen Rivers

Every night as I'm falling asleep, I have a half-formed idea about zoos.   The crux is that humans have voluntarily signed up for captivity.   We lock ourselves into our houses, each nearly identical to that of our neighbours, and we perform for a public using social media and our words.  This is how we earn our food and pay for our keep.

We don't venture out into the wild.   It's not safe out there, we believe.  It's better in here, with Netflix and wine, soothers against reality.

I listened to a podcast about a man who lived as a badger for two weeks, snuffling in the dirt blindly for food.   I went for a hike in my woods and thought about how familiar all the trails are to me now, four years in here, how each one is as unique as the whorl of a fingerprint.  I couldn't walk them blind though. 

I didn't lie when I said it was half-formed, but there are certainly more of us in captivity than in the wild, which is also true of other animals teetering on the brink of extinction.  I'm thinking of red wolves, in particular.  There are a lot of them in zoos.  The ones in the wild have been reintroduced.  Born in a cage, they must be padding around in the valleys now, eyes wide and alert, wondering where the boundary lies and who will feed them next.   

We aren't going extinct.  We can't stop making more of us, drunk on someone's basement couch when we're young enough to know better or soberly when we're too old to stop the yearning from overtaking us.  

I love the way babies are, the weight of them in my arms.  

I don't want another baby, it's not that.  I just want to get out of captivity, like those red wolves, who were born howling at the zoo light, mistaking it for a low-hanging moon.

When they see a real moon, what must they think?

This web-site is half-broken and needs updating.  I want you to know that I know that, I just haven't done it.  

In my bullet journal, I have written: Fix website.   I write neatly, with a fine black felt-tipped pen.  I like the sound of it on the paper, the way I draw a dot before each entry.  I imagine checking it off with a red pen, also felt tipped, the satisfying swoop of that.  

I have also listed the following, which remain unchecked.  (The red pen gets little use.):  Finish book;  finish other book; weed garden;  find someone to weed garden; deal with the kids' pool;  service the car; teach boy the times tables; deal with girl's anxiety; win lottery.  I wrote "win lottery" just now, stopping typing this post to do so, because I didn't read The Secret but I suspect it said something about visualizing what you want in order to make it true.  

Hang on.

I just crossed out "win lottery".  In its place, I wrote, "sell movie rights or next book for seven figures" because I'd like my windfall to be a result of an effort that extends beyond choosing six numbers correctly. Then it would feel earned, even though there is a randomness to the math that says that hard work plus time = success.  

Oh, just wait a sec.

I put "win lottery" back on the list, because who am I to be so particular about luck and good fortune?  

When I win the lottery, I'm going to buy a big piece of land on an island.  

The land will have open spaces and trees and its own bay.  In this way, I will own the tide, and by extension, also time.  

On this huge space, I will build a tiny house.  I've designed it in my mind.  It won't be so ludicrously tiny that I'm crawling around on ladders to get to bed, but rather it will be too small to house all the things that currently keep me in captivity.  Because my house will be small, it also won't bankrupt me.  Also, the inside will seem less appealing than the outdoors and so I will spend all of my time outside.   I will not be vitamin B deprived any longer, for a start.

When the moon rises over my bay, I will know exactly how to howl at it.  I expect that in return, it will tell me how to correct for all my regrets.  

In this scenario, I will homeschool the kids.  In this scenario, they will also like it.  

One can do whatever one wants when everything is hypothetical.  

We will destroy all of our clocks, carving them out of our appliances, deleting them from our phones.   It's the clocks that keep us captive; it's humanity's decision to measure time that closed our cage doors.  That, and the way we are on our knees, worshipping them.  We are thanking them for keeping us safe from what might have destroyed us in the wild we've forgotten knowing, before time, before money, before we signed on for any of this.  

 

shopping carts.

Karen Rivers

Lately, I've been overwhelmed by how much of everything that there is (except for time, never enough of that).   I go online to buy a thing, a thing I've talked myself into needing, and then the site pushes suggestions at me, and I think, oh, yes, that's true, that would be nice if my lashes were longer and my brows were browner and my skin was fresher and my hair was smoother and I look in my basket at $125 worth of things I didn't want or need and I delete it all and I go outside and I try to remember about breathing and how that works and how I need to do it more slowly and then I calm down.   I think of all the things I've put in internet shopping baskets and I want to cry for my bank account, for myself, for a world where the water is both rising (the oceans) and receding (everywhere else) and the weather is broken and people are being killed at the Macy's make up counter and people are being killed because they're not white and people are being killed because everyone has a right to have a gun -- it says so in the constitution, amirite? -- and people are being killed everywhere, all the time, and Donald Trump might be president so it must be the Apocalypse and I'm over here self-soothing by putting things in my internet shopping basket, click-and-point, click-and-point, let's make it all OK, and really, yes, if I had fewer wrinkles things would be looking up.

Only I made a decision -- a conscious, actual decision -- to buy less this year.  Not nothing, just less.  Less and less and less.  I want to become smaller and smaller and smaller.  I watch Tiny House Hunters with envy.  My own house is pretty small.  But the mortgage isn't.  To be free of that!  A loft bed!  Well, I have one of those now in a regularly sized house that is full of things I've put in internet shopping carts.   In August, I live in a tent, every year the same, me and the kids and camping beds and sleeping bags, and I love how there is so much more time when you have so much less.  It's a trade, don't you see?  I see it so clearly, sharp focus, the obviousness of it.   The less you have, the more time you get.  What a wonderful world.   Those tiny houses are getting so fancy now.  I'd build mine in a forest somewhere.  No lawn care required.   Trees everywhere.   Like now, but less.  Fewer things in the cupboards.  Why do I have so many baking pans?  No one who never hosts dinner parties needs to own 20 plates.

I abandon baskets recklessly.

I picture myself running through real stores, throwing all the things -- so many things! -- into actual shopping carts, the world is a Target, careening down the aisles, things falling in my wake and then somehow escaping, the basket tipped, wheels spinning, me outside, running and running and everything around me getting greener and wilder.  I heard on the radio the other day that the smell of soil is proven to elevate the mood of people.  Then I listened while a man described the weeks when he decided to live as a badger, blind, and snuffling through the dirt.  He must have been the happiest man in the world, I think, albeit probably awkward at dinner parties.  I don't like dinner parties, as a rule.  Eating in front of other people seems so uncomfortable to me, like showering with an audience.  Is that really how you rinse your hair?  

I probably sound unhinged.  

I'm writing a book about a friendship.  I don't know how much I know about friendships, at the end of the day.  I love my friends but I'm probably not very good at being one.  I hoard time to spend it alone, badger-like.  They say that two hours of silence every day is -- important?  imperative? I've forgotten which word it was.  Facebook is very informative, good at telling me what I want to be true.  I like silence.  When the kids aren't here, I turn everything off.  Sometimes the birds fill up the spaces with their noise and I try to explain, "Look," I say. "They're only gone for one night, pipe down in there."

I had a best friend, growing up, all the way through to my mid-twenties.  One of those intense friendships.  We were in each other's pockets.  We were in each other's heads.  Sometimes, the lines between us blurred.  We did it on purpose but then it got bigger than us somehow.  We were too close and not close enough.   Toxic, my therapist said later.  But was it, I wonder, or was that just how I told the story?  We were intertwined like ivy, growing over and around each other until where one stopped and the other started was irrelevant.  And now we're not anything.  We haven't spoken in years.   "Why aren't you still friends?" my kids ask.  They need to know everything.  The truth is, I can't remember.  "Oh," I tell them. "There was a thing."  There must have been a thing.  I can't quite put my finger on what it was.  It seems impossible that we could simply have chosen to stop.   I'm writing about that friendship, but it's not about that friendship, but it is about that friendship, too.  It's about intensity and blurred lines.  It's in its fifth major revision.  I think, all along, I was meant to write about that friendship but I also haven't wanted to do that.  It's obviously fiction.  You'll see.  Anyway, I've been circling it, remembering things, remembering what it was like to have someone who is an extension of you, a stretch of your arm, a shadow, a cliche, a vine that's both embracing you and strangling you at the same time. 

Is there a guidebook for all of this?  For friendship and shopping?  I know how to do the other things, how to breathe, how to be outside, how to write a book, how to sit still with myself and be fine, be OK.  But friendship and shopping, those things are harder than they first appear on the surface. Don't get me started about love.   It would be possible to buy everything by mistake, to find yourself amongst so many things that individually look so imperative, but when listed together, all remind you of how advertising works so well on you.  What if we've all been sold a bill of goods?  Snake oil for everyone, my friends! 

I've been looking at photos from my past, old friends old loves old homes old holidays.  I can do that.  I'm not saying I don't cry when I do it.  Bittersweet, all of it, a life accumulating behind me, and I'm a leaf on the river floating through it all.  I can't find a lot of the photos although I know they exist.  I lost ten years to an ex.  We had two photo albums, as though the entire time we were planning to separate sooner or later, but somehow he got both copies.  I don't know what happened to my teens.  Selfies weren't a thing, but there must be pictures.  Even now, I have very little evidence that I was here.  Maybe that's why I write so much down.  Maybe that's what this is:  I was here.  Look at me.   Ask any writer.  That's definitely part of it.

I have an image in my head of all of us, anyway, as just leaves in the river, clumping up together sometimes, other times on our own, sometimes carrying other critters, mostly not though, mostly it's just us in the water and I suppose eventually, we bump up against the end of it, the end of the river.  We'll think about our trees, sure, and how we miss what we had then, but how this is also an adventure.  Isn't it interesting?  At the same time as really having very little to do with us.  We don't have much say over the wind or the current.   Maybe the end is the place where the river flows into the ocean, or maybe the river beyond the bend has dried up and it just stops, peters out in a dry river bed somewhere, the earth cracked, the fish dead and us finally blown around, or soggy and composting.  Composting sounds macabre, I know.  I don't mean it in the sense that you think I do.  I mean, as leaves.  Becoming something both less and more than ourselves.  Analyze it if you want.   Does anyone read blogs anymore?  What does it all mean?

Someone once commented that they thought my blog was just an echo chamber of my "low level depression" and I laughed out loud when I read it because it was such a gentle reprimand.  Me, with my low-level depression!  How dare I!  I mean, go big or go home, I suppose.  The thing is that I'm not depressed.  I have a certain love for melancholy, but I'm content, in the big picture.  I love my life.  I like being in it, a part of it.  I understand at the age that I am now about how it all clicks together in spite of our best efforts.  My life is all the things I love the most: my kids, my dogs, books and words and trees, always trees.  The maples are my favourite right now with their enormous bright leaves that are starting to lose their green, framing a sky that's fading from thick blue to a thinner autumnal grey.  I go out into the woods and I walk and I walk and I try to notice things and the way they are and the way they change and cycle and exist and exist and exist.

But there are always shopping carts, full and teetering, decisions about when to click and when to run.  I'm just a human being.  Maybe it's an echo chamber of my humanity or just, like I often say, a little flex of the writing muscle, a way of spilling words onto the page that aren't part of something bigger at all, they're just themselves, just this one snapshot of what I left in the shopping cart:  a tube of mascara, two bottles of shampoo, an eyeshadow palette, a foundation designed to make me blend in, to blur me into the background, so I look OK, I look fine, I look like part of the landscape, just one more leaf the same as all the others in the river, the sun glinting off the ripples in the moving current, dazzling diamonds of light all around us, moving us towards what we can only hope is the sea.   Think about it:  the sea!   All those possibilities, all that space, and so much time, an expanse of time, all the time in the world that we need so that we can be, we can just be.

how to write a book, redux.

Karen Rivers

Step One:

Allow dust to settle everywhere in your house.  

Accumulate items you don't want and have no space to store.

Let the weeds choke out your garden.

 

Wait.

 

Step Two:

Ask yourself:  How do you write a book?

Think about the enormity of writing a book.

Allow yourself to feel overwhelmed, dust settling into your pores, your hair growing in disarray.

Sit.

When you're tired of sitting, go for a walk.

Walk to a bookstore.

Look at all the books on the shelf.

Feel overwhelmed by all the books, which are probably really good, written by people who know how to write books.  

Find the contact information for as many of the authors as possible. 

Email to ask them, "How do you write a book?"

 

Step Three:

Sign up for a class about writing books.

Wait for the professor to tell you exactly how to write a book.  

Listen for specific instructions because once you know them, you will be able to write a book.  

Books are cookies, right?  One cup of flour, one cup of sugar.  Eggs.  Don't measure the chocolate chips, just dump them all in.

The professor will talk about creating obstacles for your character to overcome.  

Realize you don't know how to create a character.  Think about raising your hand but then don't do it because you don't want to admit you haven't got a clue.  You have, after all, already written nineteen books.

On the critique you fill out for the course, state that you still don't know how to write a book.

Request a refund.

 

Step Four: 

Start receiving emails back from authors.  

They all say the same thing:  "I have no idea.  Best of luck to you."

Go back to the bookstore.

Stand in the centre aisle and weep.

Buy twelve books, using your grocery budget.  

Go home and read all the books.

 

Step Five:

Think about cleaning your house.  Surely if your house is clean, you'll be able to sit down and simply write a book.

How hard can it be?

But JK Rowling said her house was messy for seven years while she wrote Harry Potter.

Look around your house and feel proud that you've taken this step of allowing your house to get messy.

Read Harry Potter again.

Give up on everything.

 

Step Six:

Discuss on social media that writing books is hard.   Try not to sound like you're whining.  You chose this.  You wanted to write books.  

So write one.  

But first, tweet this:  "Writing a book is hard."   Count your likes.  Accumulate retweets.  A lot of them are from authors you love.  They all agree!  It's hard.

It's too hard.

Watch six straight hours of Top Chef.

 

Step Seven:

Go for long walks.  Longer every day.  

Try not to ever be IN your dusty, decrepit house full of things you should be getting rid of but aren't because you are busy writing a book.   

Avoid the following:  Opening your laptop.  Your agent's phone calls. People who might ask, "How's the book coming along?"  

Try to walk in forests as far away from crowds as possible.

Avoid cougars.  

 

Step Eight:

Come to terms with the fact that writing a book is both ridiculous and impossible.  Experience a period of mourning for the characters you had thought would populate your book and the things they would have done.  Begin to wonder what they would have done if this had happened or that.   Imagine it.  Picture one specific scene so vividly that you become unclear if it really happened (to you?  to someone you know?  in a dream?  in a movie?).   Focus on the table cloth.  

Because you can't stop thinking about the way the table started to shake and the cloth shimmied back and forth and the bowl of apples spilled and the way your character ran to the window to see what was happening, type it out.   It's not a book, so it doesn't matter, it's just a scene that you're writing because of the table cloth, the way it wasn't ironed and should have been, and that one apple bouncing onto the floor and the way after it happened, the light poured in and illuminated it because the blind fell down.  

Just that one scene.

Once you've done that, eat a cookie.  (Make them first.  Remember:  ALL the chocolate chips.)

While you're eating the cookie, think about what your character would do once she assessed what had happened.  Think about who the other people would be who burst into the room and say, "What have you done?" Even though she didn't do anything.

It wasn't her.

Think about that.

Type one more scene.

Go for a walk.  (Take some cookies.)

While you're walking, let another scene unfold in your head like a movie.  There are no stakes now because you aren't writing a book.   Stop in the shade of a tree and type the scene awkwardly into your phone, like you're texting yourself.  

You just have to resolve this one thing about why everyone always assumes she's done something, even when it's clearly something that's nothing to do with her.  

When you get home, make a cup of tea.  Add quite a bit of sugar.   Read on Facebook about how sugar is basically poisonous.  Give that a thumbs up while you sip your delicious sweet tea and finish the cookies.  While you're on Facebook, mention in your status that you've quit writing books and how that's really very liberating.  Ask for job leads.  State that you never knew how to write a book and all the books you've written were flukes and you're OK with that.

Open your laptop to create a new resume.   Get bored with typing up your spotty work history and instead write down the bit about how your character is in love with someone she shouldn't love.  No one should love him.  Look, he's a terrible person.  He murdered the waitress.  Your character doesn't know this, and considering all that's happened, she doesn't ask questions.  

Write the bit about the waitress and what happened to her.  Much more fun than trying to figure out who to use as a reference on your resume.  

Make the scenes overlap a little.  You aren't writing, you understand, you're just piecing a few things together.  You just want to think about how this could be believable, how it could be someone's truth.

See this man-character through the waitress's eyes and through your character's eyes.  

Think about how everyone is two people.

Actually, your character is also complicated.  Think of the ways in which she is also complicated.

Don't forget the waitress was also not one-dimensional.

If you were still writing books, you'd want to do something with that, but you're not, you're just doing this one thing that isn't a book, so it's OK if it's not perfect.  It's just daydreaming.

Daydreaming that you happen to be typing because typing helps you to think.

Listen to some podcasts.  

Paint your toenails.

Open the freezer and think about cleaning it out, then close it again.  

Have another cup of tea.

Call your mum and tell her you quit writing.   "How's the book coming along?" she'll say.  Hang up on your mum.

Sit down with your laptop.  

Google jobs in your city.

Take a bath and think about how you should probably move.

Search Craigslist for apartments in New York.

Write just a little bit more about your character, the waitress, and the man, as well as the man's son and the waitress' best friend and how she's connected to your character.  Think about braiding and how all stories are just braids of people.   Tweet something about that.   Receive no hearts or retweets.  Delete it.  Think about how everything you think about is sort of embarrassing and why you should never use social media.

Retreat to your keyboard.  

Budget for a move.

Buy some lottery tickets.

The thing is that you can almost see what happened.  Have the man tell your character about the waitress.

Have your character make a decision.

After all, so many people died.  The waitress may have died anyway, when the thing happened that happened.  

Introduce your character to the waitress' daughter. 

It's all just imaginary. These people aren't real and you aren't writing a book.   

You are just typing and thinking.

You are just imagining and braiding.

Have another cookie.  (Make some more first.  Eat half the dough.)

Everything is going to be OK. 

I promise.

girl power.

Karen Rivers

I want to write a middle grade book set in a different time, on a different planet, but with human characters.  Human characters who have been formed out of thin air, influenced by nothing, with no pattern of history informing their power and response.  A place where society doesn't yet exist and never has.   I want to set this book on an even playing field, where the difference between boys and girls is anatomical and not societal.   In this book, I want to explore what happens to the girls.   I want to see what they could do, if things were different than they are, I mean.  

Here is a scene from real life:

My daughter is in skating camp.   Figure skating is dominated by girls.  Her class is mostly girls, the older kids who train at an overlapping time are girls.  There are, however, a handful of boys.  One little girl in her class -- a tiny blonde who just turned 7 -- announces to the room that she has a boyfriend now.  Her boyfriend is twelve.   "Don't even talk to me if he comes into the room," she instructs my daughter.  "You look like a boy and he'd be very angry if he saw me talking to a boy."  

My daughter is confused.  The math is wrong.  This boy is older than her older brother, the girl two years younger than she is.  "He's WAY too old for her," she worries, later.  "It's not right.  I don't look like a boy.  Do I?" 

The boy comes into the room and presents the little girl with a heart he made for her birthday.   So maybe it is true, this almost-teen is the boyfriend of this little child?  I don't know.  Maybe it isn't.  Maybe no one knows what the truth is, not even the players.  The girl shoots a look at the other girls.  They obey.  They are all struck mute until he leaves.   The little girl preens.  "He'd kill me if he saw me with another boy," she repeats, proudly.  "So thanks."

My daughter doesn't know what to make of it.  She doesn't know what to do with it.  She tells me the story six different ways, looking for me to say something, to tell her how to understand.

"She's playing," I tell my daughter.  "She's pretending."   This game, if it is a game, confuses me, too.  What kind of game is it, really?  

The little girl skates out onto the ice and executes her moves perfectly.  She's a good skater.  She makes sure they all understand that.  "I'm the best skater here," she tells the others.  They nod, agreeing.  "None of you are as good as me," she says, emphatically, making sure it is understood.  No one argues.  "You all look like boys."  They flinch, as a group, but accept her truth as their own.

"You don't look like a boy," I tell my daughter.  "You look like yourself. It's a ridiculous thing to say!  She's just trying to make you feel less-than for some reason!  I don't know why.  But don't let her get into your head.  Ignore her." 

"For my birthday," the child says, "My parents are taking me to Disneyland.  We leave right after this.   I'll be back tomorrow.  It's just for the night."  

Everyone believes her.  

I laugh, when my daughter tells me.  "That isn't even possible!" I say.  "She's joking.  She's teasing you."

"When we left," my daughter says, "The coach said, 'Have a great time at Disneyland!'  So it's true, or he wouldn't have said that! She's going.  It's real."

She seethes with jealousy.  Disneyland for dinner!  A boyfriend who cares so much that he'll MURDER her if she speaks to another boy!  And she can skate!   How unfair is life, anyway?

Disneyland is easily five hours away, factoring in the drive to the airport, the wait at customs, the flight, the shuttle to the hotel.   Six, maybe.   No one goes just for one night.  But my daughter believes.   She believes Disneyland.   She believes she looks like a boy.  She believes the abusive, controlling boyfriend.

"No," I tell my daughter.  "Disneyland is impossible.  And the boyfriend thing, that can't be true.  But even if it were, that's not love.  That's not what love looks like.  That's not something to envy.  I promise.  That's terrible, if it's true, that he threatens her.  It is so not OK."

"He made her a heart though,"  she says.  "He gave her a heart, so he must love her.  It's real."

"It's not real!" I insist, hoping I'm right.  "Anyway, expect something better than that for yourself.  Please don't expect that another person can make rules for you, like 'Don't talk to other people.'  That's just wrong.  Do you see that?"

My daughter shrugs.  She's too little still to put much thought into relationships with boys, real relationships, not just crushes.   She says, "Do I really look like a boy?  Why am I so ugly?"   Then she bursts into tears.

"You're beautiful," I say, but she isn't listening anymore.

Maybe in the book that I write, all the characters will be blind.  

Not only would they not be able to see what other people look like, they wouldn't know what they themselves looked like.  Only by being blind would the power of a random arrangement of facial features be rendered powerless;  the shape of a body not the first thing that we notice about other people.  

Imagine how that would be.

To get out of bed in the morning and to not spend an hour improving our appearance to make ourselves acceptable to the world!

I've been going to the grocery store sometimes in my gardening clothes, unshowered.  I'm particularly swamped lately, emotionally spent.  I just ... don't care.  Sometimes I don't shave my legs.  I am taking on the world like a man, or at least like most men who I know, who -- if they need a lawnmower part from Home Depot, just go get it.  They don't have a shower and change out of their work clothes.  They don't put on some mascara, add a layer of lipgloss, blow dry their hair.   

It's harder than you'd think to make myself do it.  I've learned my lessons well.  I know better -- I truly do -- than to go out without my face on.   

This is what happens when I go out of the house, unkempt:

Nothing different than when I spend an hour getting ready.  

Not one thing.  

Surprise!  

 

Here is another scene from real life:

I am at the mall with my daughter, who is eight.  She keeps up a steady stream of conversation and I drift in and out of it, while collecting the things on our shopping list.   

She says something and I stop walking, my hands full of batteries and vitamins, on my way to the register.

"What did you say?" I ask.

"____ hates her grandmother," she says.  "Because her grandma called the police when her stepdad spanked her and her mom really hard."

"What?" I said.  "Her stepdad hit her?  And her mom?  That's terrible, sweetheart. I would have called the police, too.   Her grandma did the right thing."

My daughter is suddenly uncertain, near tears.  Has she said too much?   Is someone in trouble?  "You don't understand!" she says, panicky breathing.  "He didn't hit them!  He just spanked them!  Spanking is OK!"

"Spanking is hitting," I say.  "Hitting is not OK."  

I put the batteries and vitamins down and my daughter and I sit down on the cold tile floor.  I hold her hand.  She's upset.   I think of all the things that I should say.  I don't know which one to put first.   I wish there were someone else here to tell me exactly how to approach this.   I do the best I can:  "I'm sorry for your friend," I say.  "I'm glad her grandma called the police.  That must have been very scary for her."

"It was just spanking!" my daughter repeats, near tears.  "It's not something bad!"

I feel dizzy.  The lights of the store spin.  I take a big breath.  "It IS something bad," I tell her.  "I'm sorry, but it is something bad.  No one gets to hit you, not when you're a kid and not when you're an adult.  Not ever.  Do you understand?" 

"Mum," she says.  "You promised you'd buy those vitamins!  I don't want to sit here!   I shouldn't have told you!"

"It's OK," I say.  "It's OK."  

I buy the vitamins. 

I the car, I try again.   "It's never OK," I say.  "It's not love.  That's not what love is.  It's not hitting."

"SPANKING," she says again, and puts her headphones on, blocking me out.

If I wrote that book, I don't think it would do well.  There would be something about it that wouldn't ring true.   

I sit down on the couch and watch a show with my kids, a show they love.  In the show, the girls are dumb and pretty and speak in breathy voices.   The boys are smart.   The boys make the decisions.   The boys treat the girls like pretty prizes.  The girls want to be won.  

I make them switch to something different.  

The other show is pretty much the same show, with a different name.  

Flip:  pretty girl, long hair, lots of makeup, dumb.

Flip:  pretty girl, long hair, lots of makeup, dumb.

Flip:  pretty girl, long hair, lots of makeup, dumb.

Flip. 

Flip.

Flip.

I turn the TV off.  

I turn the TV off.

I turn the TV off.

For now, it's all I can do.  It's all I know how to do, to make it stop.  

I wanted a better ending than this for this post.  I'm reaching for it.  I'm looking everywhere.  But I can't find it.  I can't see how to wrap this one up right.  

ordinary days.

Karen Rivers

The words come slowly sometimes, when the come at all.  

 

Words like me best when I'm away from the keyboard, but thinking about typing.  

 

That's how it works, out in the woods, the hum of bees in the thistles beside the path, the dog's leash tangled behind my knees, some sort of crisis involving the kids and a rotten tree stump.  "Oh," I think,  "There you are."  I rub the words in my mind like they are wishing stones found on a beach.  

 

I make wishes.  "I wish things were better," I think.   



"MUM," the kids shout.  "THERE HAS BEEN AN UNFAIRNESS."  

 

"Who told you anything was fair?" I tell them.  They look at me, rolling their eyes, tall and lean and flushed with the wrongfulness of what the other has said, fists curled at their sides.  

 

"But he said and I said and she said and we said and then I..." 

 

"Oh, calm down," I tell them.

 

We walk more and there are blackberries and the weather keeps trying to be hot and we keep trying to swim in the ocean, which is filled more and more with jellyfish that look like ice cubes, which is suitable because it's cold enough for that, and it shouldn't be and rain drums on the tarp over the tent and we fall asleep to the sound of wind in the trees, blowing autumn steadily closer.  

It's summer.  

 

Last time I blogged (terrible verb, I know), it was February.   Time slips away.  I eat handfuls of cashew nuts.  I drink glass after glass of water.   I go for long walks.   I think about salad.

 

Terrible things happen.


There is a plague.

 

What do we do?  Do we run?  We have to stop it.

 

We have to stop this.

 

It's shootings here and over there.  It's systemic racism.   It's mysogyny.   It's rape culture.  It's bigotry.  It's terryfing, that's what it is.   Everything is becoming a blip on social media.  But it's more than that.  

 

This is who we are now.  

 

It's unbelievable.

 

Why is this happening?  the kids say, about this or that.

 

I don't know, I say.  

 

It's a man driving a truck into a crowd.  

 

It's a caricature of Evil taking the reins of America.   

 

It's because he said and I said and then he did and I did and she said and so I hit her and so I shot him and so I ran them over with a truck and destroyed them and us and you and her and him, too, for good measure. 

 

 


We have so much.


We have everything.

 

But everything is an illusion.

 

 

Here's what we really have:  

 

Nothing.


Here is what is plaguing me:  worry.   Loosely categorized in the following areas:  The world.   America.  My dad's health.  My parents, aging.  My kids, fighting.  Money, or lack of it.  The dishwasher leaking all over the wood floor.   The way the landscapers didn't lay landscape cloth under the gravel path and every day there is more green poking through, the occasional bright bobbing yellow of a dandelion's mane.    

 

Here's what we do:

 

We play Pokemon Go.  

 

Outside, perched on benches with lures on them, we listen to crowds of not-quite-adults laughing and mock-fighting and huddling together to find the dragon.  

 

We breathe in the pot they are smoking.  "I think I'm high," my kid says.  "You're not," I tell him.   But we move, just the same.  The air is just too thick, that's all.

 

It can be hard to breathe.

 

We catch monkey-cats and strangely shaped fish and we feel like we are winning and the kids say, "Just hold my phone for a second" and then they are gone and running, like regular kids, like 1970s kids, like all kids, ever, who are outside and at the top of a hill that demands to be run down.   The Pokemon is just a way of getting them there.   The Pokemon and ice cream cones, melting fast in the hot sun, the water park with it's endless cold spraying, the way the ocean curls up against the beach and their toes.


I try not to worry about the raw sewage.  

 

 

My daughter swims like a dolphin, head first, her back arching in a perfect-C, away from shore, looking for the boundary.

 

The dogs are getting older, too.

I have some books that I'm writing, three at once, four if you count the nascent idea that's percolating back behind the others.  

 

Maybe the only words I have are already spoken for.  They are for the books.  

 

So I talk less.  I text less. 


Real words come more slowly than fictional ones.  

 

I have a feeling something is about to matter.  I open my mail slowly.   Once a day.  Less.   

 

Reality keeps trickling in at the edges of things, the news, the guns, the ignorance, the hate, the EFF THIS and EFF THAT and EFF YOU shouted behind us as we capture the FireHorse, the way the water at the beach is unsafe, the way everything is always lapsing towards chaos, like it always is, like it always has been.  A door slams on my son's finger.   A phone is dropped and it cracks.  The dog coughs at night.  Sirens scream in gaggles like geese down the street.

 

The tomatoes get red on their growing vines.   Peas burst from their pods.  

 

I forget to water or I water too much.  The dog digs up the cilantro.   

 

My daughter, in photos, is often caught looking away from the camera, looking out into the world, her arms raised in either victory or a greeting, I'm not sure which.  A power pose.   The book says that women should use power poses to be taken seriously.  The world takes my daughter seriously.   The world considers my daughter.  The sea holds her up.   The sky turns its most beautiful face towards her.   The lights of the city shine in her direction.

 

Remember this, I want to tell her, when you ruled the world.   

 

Things will change one day.  

 

Things always change.  

 

Take me, for example.  Just when I think, well, then, this is OK, this is my life, I'm Ok with this variety of ordinary, something happens, a ripple that precedes a tidal wave.   It's dangerous to think you recognize normal.

 

How does anyone sleep? 

 

"Oh, take an Ativan," my mum says.  

 

In Turkey, some men storm through the doors of the government offices, their faces obscured by masks, guns held high in their hands.   Crowds watch the fireworks that celebrate France, bodies pushed together, faces upturned to the sky.   In America, a black man gets pulled over because his tail light is burned out and the next week, it's his funeral, attended by CNN.

 

You never expect the truck is coming at you, that's the thing.  

 

It's only when you hear the first gunshot that you realize it's not an ordinary day, blue and bottomless, bees buzzing in the clover, the news happening to other people.  

 

The thing is that there's always someone, somewhere, who has a right to a gun.   There's always someone, somewhere, who is going to use it one day, to do what it is designed to do, to take away the thing you thought you had, fleetingly, a life, an ordinary life, your arms lifted up to embrace all your possible futures.

Superbowl Sunday

Karen Rivers

People are watching a football game specifically for the ads.  "How can we get more eyeballs on us?" the advertisers asked.  Then they answered their own question.  

"We won't be fooled!" people said.  But then they were gleefully fooled.  

Oh, let the images wash over you.   Watch them while you're eating snacks that only barely bear a resemblance to food while watching advertisements for the same snacks.  All of it will kill you.  Eventually.  Well, life is a one way trip.  

I just find it strange, all the people who don't like football, watching for the commercials.   Probably it isn't any more strange that I'm on my couch, thinking about how the advertisers won.  

"You've got us," I want to say.  I will walk towards the head offices, waving a white flag, scattering money at the feet of the food-like snack gods.  

I bought snacks today, too.  So you see, I'm a hypocrite just like everyone else.  We all want to be good people, but sometimes we just want some salty, crunchy food.  

I don't have cable so I won't see the game or the ads.  I don't like ads.  I don't like football unless I can be there, in the stands, with all that enthusiasm lifting me higher than I'm usually willing to go for a sport that has been implicated in the concussed lives of so many fine young men and less fine young men, also.   Let's consider the number of abusive jerks who number amongst football's players, that's what I mean by "less fine".  Granted, it's a small percentage.  That we know of, at least.  

Abusive jerks.  That doesn't sound strong enough, does it?  For men who beat their wives.  How about "monsters". 

Well, that makes me think about the Ghomeshi trial.  There is no poetry in this.  I was thinking about poetry earlier, the beautiful economy of language that poets have.  If I were an economist, I'd choose to be a language one. If I were a poet, I'd call myself that:  a language economist.  Real economists strip the poetry away to reveal the ugly underbelly of the financial impeti that really drive everything.  (Is impeti the plural of impetus?)  There is very little money in poetry or poetry in money.  I read something yesterday that a year after winning the lottery and a year after becoming a parapalegic, there was very little difference in a person's happiness.  Let that one simmer.  Really mull it over.  Statistics don't lie.   

Ghomeshi's lawyer is a woman who seems determined to take all other women and push them, in slow motion, in front of the train of misogyny that rolls through courtrooms on a daily basis.  But what were you wearing?  Did you or did you not hug him when you left?   Did you or did you not think, "Well, maybe it's what I deserved"? Were you not attracted to him?  Why did you go to his house if that wasn't the case?    

Being a woman in this society, today, in 2016, means that what you wear and what you drink and how you react to trauma will be used to judge your relative worth, which by the way, is quite low.  You will be found lacking.  Maybe we should teach our children this truth so they don't have to find out the hard, ugly way that we have all discovered in our own time due to circumstance.  But we can't do that to the kids.  Let them believe it's otherwise until they have to stop.  Please, may they never have to stop.

Please.

Ghomeshi is on the CBC.  Was on the CBC.  The CBC is the friendly old man of the Canadian airwaves.  But Jian made it young and fresh.  He sexed it up.  You know they talked like that when deciding to never discipline him for how he was "handsy" with female staffers, how the turnover was so high, the number of complaints.  They knew.   Everyone knew.  It wasn't even a secret, not really.  

Everyone wants to sell something.  The CBC wanted to sell sexy.  Well, they sure missed, didn't they?  Hindsight is 20/20 and all that.

"He'll never work again!"   Come on now, of course he will.   He'll be the Shock Jock of the Canadian airwaves.  Or, more likely, the American ones.  He'll rise up.  They always do, wielding their scorn and their teddy bears and the women get quieter and quieter.  I'm so proud of those women who decided not to be quiet.  I want to go to each of them and say, "Thank you."  They're doing it for all of us, you know.   Figuratively.  One day, it might be possible that after being raped, we -- as women -- can go to the authorities and say, "I was raped" and they will react and respond appropriately and we won't be made to feel like, fine, yes, you were victimized, but what was your role in that exactly?  How did you invite it? 

Maybe we're getting quiet because something is happening over here, maybe we're regrouping.  Maybe you should worry.  

Or maybe we're just tired.  We're tired of not being asked the right questions and then being judged for giving the wrong answers.  I speak for myself.

On a related note, I was listening to a podcast.  Dear Sugar.  I'm a fan of Cheryl Strayed.  But this podcast.  Good lord, it was terrible.  It was terrible the way that Cheryl, on behalf of women, let a particularly obnoxious "scientist" tell her the way things were -- she insisted on calling him a scientist even though he was technically an economist -- even while he couched it by saying, "This part is just my opinion, not statistics."  

Men like hot women, he declared.

"Oh dear," she said, and cringe-laughed and agreed.  Of course, of course.  

If you're not hot, the man went on to advise (I'm paraphrasing here), you should basically take what you should get.  Or you'll be alone.    

(Oh, should you?  And anyway, isn't "hot" subjective?)  

Also, he added, women like rich men.  

Oh, I see.  Yes.   Well, of course you believe that, sir.  Because it allows you to believe that you've settled for a not-hot woman because you're not rich, but I will tell you this:  If I were the one he'd settled for, I'd be feeling gleeful right now that my recourse would be to simply get up and walk away.  "Goodbye," I would say.  "Good luck with settling for the next one who is as good as you can get, given that you're simply middle-class and not as wealthy as you wish you were."  By "good" in that context, I mean "hot".  He was clear that was the only decider for men, you see.  No one cares how smart you are, my dear.  Funny?  Interesting?   That's all just smoke and mirrors.   Put on a bikini and some makeup, let's see if you're worthy. 

We all see it through our own lens, don't we?   I wish more people would say, "The thing with coupling up is that often we pick the wrong people and spend years clawing our way out or we pick no one and we worry we are missing something and no one wants to say that actually the happiest people are the ones who picked themselves."  

I tell my daughter, "Choose the one who makes you laugh."  All the other stuff goes away, or you can work with it, but if you're with someone who can't make you laugh, there's just too much empty space for sadness and anger.  Trust me.  Anyway, little girls are still being molded by society to be future brides.  A princess for a day!  Weddings are an economic stimulis.  The business of getting married and getting divorced drives industry.  Divorce lawyers advertise on prime time.  Those lawyers are doing OK. They're rich.  Divorced themselves and now richer than ever based on the disillusionment of others, they can choose from a pool of hotter women, I suppose.  

How cynical do we want to get with this?  I want to take all the cynicism and peel it away, but it's my protective outer coating, so I can't.   It's part of me.  

I hope Ghomeshi is convicted.  I hope the women who came forward are loved and respected.  I hope our daughters aren't raised to be blamed for what men do to them.   I wish that those particular football players (who are rich) would stop beating their wives and girlfriends (who are hot).  I wish snack food was nutritious.   I wish poetry was the key economic driver behind love. 

Well, enjoy the game!       

Mixing metaphors with reality to make a mess.

Karen Rivers

It's easier to talk about everything using metaphors, let's agree to that at the outset.   It doesn't matter if you mix them.  Mixed metaphors are fine here.  Who is judging?  No one reads personal blogs anymore, we've already established that!  Heart laid bare.  Fine.  Boring.  Whatevs.  Buzzfeed is more compelling.  It's funny!  Everyone likes funny things.  And lists.  Who doesn't like a list?  Hearts are so nineties or something.  Everyone has a heart of their own.  We all bare them sometimes.  Other times we bear them.   I mean, what's the choice there?   You can't operate a vehicle without one, or anything else for that matter.


Here's something true:  There is a particular stretch of highway that I sometimes have to drive that terrifies me.  People drive this stretch of highway all the time and nothing happens.  Their car hurtles around the corners, firmly between the lines (when you can see them, when they aren't obscured by snow and ice).  The fact of the highway and the way it is carved into the mountain and the steep drops off both sides doesn't seem to bother them. They're listening to their Sirius satellite radio while texting surreptitiously on the phone on their lap and drinking a coffee and thinking about the game last night and whether or not the dog should go to the vet about that cough and trying to remember that guy's name from highschool who always wore the pink shirt with the collar up.  And all the while, their car does what it should and they get from Point A to Point B without thinking about it.  They're lucky, right?   

What I do is this:  The night before I have to drive on the highway, I lie in bed awake and I imagine all the ways it could go wrong.  Every single one.  And there are a lot:  The various spots where the car, skidding out of control, might go off the road.  The way my seatbelt might or might not save me.  The way the back of a passing semi might start to skid, pushing me into the emptiness of the space beyond the guard rail.   I imagine the most terrible things, twisted metal and broken glass and of course blood and sirens and going to the light or not.  I try on all the ideas for size, and in doing so, I save myself from them. 

Everyone knows this works because nothing happens the way you imagine it will.  So if you imagine it all going wrong, then it won't.   It's a Universal Law.   Isn't it?

 

 

This is the part where it turns into a metaphor.  I feel the need to point that out.  I won't say what it's a metaphor for because everyone already knows and I don't want to embarrass all of us by overexplaining.  

 

So say relationships are road trips.  Oh, I said I wasn't going to say what it was and then I did.  Well, scripts are made to be rewritten.  Editing in real time is fine.  It's allowed.  It's my blog, anyway, and I make the rules.  


Relationships are hard, says Captain Obvious, who is in charge of saying the thing that everyone already knows.   


So let's say you decide to go on this relationship.  I mean, this roadtrip.  You start with two people.  You both agree to get into the car.  You both have a lot of things to pack in the trunk.  Big bags and little ones.   Some have been locked pretty tightly.   Others don't really matter, but you still have to bring them because they are part of you.  Some of them are newly and badly filled.   Too messy, too much in one container.   In each bag are both of your histories.  His bags look pretty well organized.  Exceptionally clean, on the outside anyway.  He only has a few.  You have a lot.   But more bags doesn't necessarily mean more complications, you know?   Captain Obvious knows, but then again, he knows everything.  He already knows how this one ends.  You probably do, too. 

 

You're a bit ashamed of the way your bags look.   You tried to clean them up, but there's dog hair stuck to them.  You can never get all the hair off.  It's annoying, but what can you do?  You pick the hairs off one by one, but there always seems to be another one.  (That's another metaphor buried within the first metaphor.  You really have to want to decode this to make sense of it.  I'm sorry about that, but not really.)  

 

You put your mismatched set of junky past next to his more pristine, seemingly cleaner set. You're a bit worried about what he must be thinking about the lint situation, putting those dog hairs into his clean car.  Get the crumbs off your bags, you slob!  It's fine, he says.  Your bags are fine.  You know he's lying but it's the beginning of the trip, you both lie a little, maybe.  You stand beside the car and look at it, you and this other person.  Then in quiet agreement, you each take one small extra box and tuck it gently in with all the other stuff.  (In hindsight, you'll wish you packed that last thing in a better box.  He did, you find out later.  His had more padding, more built-in safety features.  You should have used some kind of fireproof safe!  But you didn't.)  You smile at each other.   It's going to be OK, you think, when you see the way he smiles.  It's not everything, but it's something.   You both get into the car.   You buckle up.  You're not dumb enough to drive without doing that, at least.

Say it's a convertible.  Why not?  Say it's a nice day, the sun is shining.  There isn't any ice.  Why would there be ice?  Say it's the summer or just that it's winter and global warming is making it prettier than it really is.  There's a song on the radio that you both like, for different reasons.   Music echoes history and history is a pretty personal thing.  Neither of you are good singers but it's a beautiful day, like I said, and the wind is going to grab your off-keyness and throw it behind the car so fast, it will be like it never happened.  You sing.  

The night before you left on this particular road trip, you didn't lie awake and imagine accidents and lost limbs and blood and broken glass.  You had a good sleep.   Your dreams were light.  You woke up feeling happy.   The place you are going together, you're excited about.   You got ahead of yourself, it's true.  Why not?  Sometimes you're just happy.   You both did it, you just went different ways with it.  That happens.  

You went ahead and pictured skis swishing on perfect powder, the shower of snow like diamonds glittering against the blue sky, the sharp clear air you'd breathe.  You used to be scared of skiing, actually, but you aren't anymore.  You're feeling safe.  You know it's going to be fine, fun, perfect.  Idealized.  Why not?  Other people do things like this.  You can be one of the others now.   You can choose that.    

You're so focussed on the destination itself that you're forgetting the stretch of highway that's between you and the place you're going.  (Idiot, says Captain Obvious, chortling.)  This other person seems like a good driver.  You absolutely trust him.  Not driving alone makes you feel lighter and happier and the sun is gorgeous and the sky and there's a bird flying by and it's some kind of swan or a sign like that, and everything is good, even the metaphors.  The song changes, you mutually decide it sucks, and change over to a different one.  Neither of you have heard it before, so you can't sing along, but it carries you anyway.  Buoys you up.   The road slips away under the tires and you're really comfortable.  You're good.  You say something funny and he laughs and you laugh and you like the way his eyes crinkle when he laughs and you think there is nowhere that you'd rather be than in this car with this person and even though this is a terrifying stretch of road, you've almost forgotten that it is, that's how things are.  

(I didn't say it wasn't a long metaphor.  If you've stopped reading, that's fine, too.  It won't change the outcome that you forgot to worry about.  It's going to happen anyway.   Things do, whether you've pictured them or not.)  

When the song ends, you're suddenly a little uneasy about feeling comfortable and the next song that comes on, you're suddenly too nervous to sing along with. You've forgotten how to sing.  What if he hates your singing voice?  What if he hates this song?  What if you do?  Have you thought about whether or not you even like it?  What makes you decide to like a thing or not like a thing?   Have you thought about that?  At all?   It's a good thing it isn't icy, you think, suddenly remembering to be terrified of the road. The sky is blue still and the sun is out.  Think about the skiing, you tell yourself.  Think about the hotel and the food and the way you feel when you smile at each other, relieved that you're finally safe.  Think about that.  But you're breathing too fast now.  It's too late.  You're suddenly scared.  

 

And then, of course, before you can even articulate what might happen, there's the patch of ice.  There it is. It's already happening.  You were barely even on the scary road!  You'd just set out!  But the ice is under the wheels.  He does the wrong thing.  Well, you think it's the wrong thing, of course you do, because you know the aftermath.  He saw the ice before you did.  He'd already imagined it while you were thinking about how great everything was going to be.  He was already steering the car into the skid or away from it, whichever one you aren't supposed to do.  And then there's the guard rail, splitting things open, the trunk is dumping all your boxes and bags all over, mixing them up, your histories mingling and creating a path behind your spinning skidding car and everything ugly is everywhere and those two small boxes, finally coming free are being flattened under the wheels of your own car, the fun convertible, which is now skidding on the mess you've made, first one and then the other, those boxes are small, you don't see it at first, how it happened, you're just so surprised.

 

What happened, you keep thinking.  What happened?

 

But you're not dead.  It's fine.  I don't want to spoil the story, but you're both still standing, outside the car now, on the road.  You're shaking.  Well, it was scary.  It was close.  But you're alive.  No one is bleeding.

 

You're OK.   That's a lie, says Captain Obvious, who always shows up at times like these.  You're both crying. You'd put your hearts in those boxes.  Why did you do that?  Why did you pack those damned things?  It was just a quick trip, it wasn't forever.  It was too soon, of course.  Both of you are guilty.  You'd both forgotten, for different reasons, how to prepare for trips like this one.   You never should have done that, either of you.   But you did.  You did that.  You didn't protect your hearts nearly well enough.  What were you thinking?  

 

You morons, crows Captain O., who lives for moments like this one.

 

You look at each other, shocked.  Do you even know each other at all?   What happened?   

 

Then from around the bend, you hear the sirens.  They're coming for you.  They'll wrap you in blankets and the right things to say and they'll try to put your hearts back the way they were, but they'll be different.  They'll be bruised.  

 

Your eyes will meet, in the back of an ambulance.  I'm sorry, your eyes will say to each other over and over and over again.  It was just that we forgot to pack properly.  We weren't ready.  We got ahead of ourselves.  I'm sorry.  And I'm sorry.  

 

It won't matter how sorry, because it will hurt just as much.   Impact does that.  

 

Anyway, another thing is, you don't know how to ski.  You thought you'd learn fast enough to catch up, that it would be easy, but things aren't easy, not for you, not with the way you do them.  Nervously.  Awkwardly.  You made a mistake by getting into the car without remembering that the road was really the worst, even when it looked safe, it just isn't.  It never is.  

 

Some crows land on the road and start pecking at the crumbs on an exploded suitcase where your past looks particularly grisly.  Crows are such merciless scavengers.  Take it all, you tell the crow.  I don't want it.  I never did.  I just wanted to go on this one trip without any bags.   We could have bought new stuff on the way.   We could have started over.  We shouldn't have brought anything.  We should have left our hearts in our chests where they're the safest, trapped as they are behind muscle and bone.   

The ambulance will take you to separate hospitals.  You don't know how the story ends.  You just know that this time, that patch of ice... You should have known it was there, but you didn't.  You weren't looking.  You always have to be looking, even when it's not your turn to drive.  Never take your eyes off the road.  If you'd seen it, if the sun had shone a certain way and it had glinted, you could have changed all this.   Well, you can't beat yourself up about it.  Next time, you think, you'll get better luggage.  Matching, clean, no crumbs or doghairs, packed pristinely.   You'll try to pack so much better and have so much less stuff -- Kon Mari that crap --  so that even if the car gets bumped, it won't spill everywhere, making a patch of oil on the highway, an accident you can't prevent from happening, a chain-reaction that you can't control.  

You miss him already. You miss the place you thought you were going, the way it didn't matter that you sang off-key, the way you felt when you forgot to worry about the conditions.  Not worrying is liberating, even though it's stupid.  

Well, says Captain Obvious, leaning back in the guest chair, eating some leftover pie.  You never know.   And he's right, you don't.  The ice is either there, or it isn't, hidden in the shadow of some kind of beautiful bird that distracted you, just for a moment, when you should have been paying better attention.  But you're happy it happened, after all.  You loved the freedom of not having to scrutinize every danger.  You loved seeing the way the bird's wings pushed the air down beautifully, perfectly, the way the bird rose up easily into the sun, not worrying about you and what you were thinking, the way that birds don't. Not like people.  Certainly not like us, too heavy with everything to even leave the ground in the first place, unless our car is pushed by something we didn't see coming, past the guard rails, into the great unknown.       

2016: Beginning.

Karen Rivers

I keep opening this page.  Do I have something to say?  What if there are only so many words?  Could you run out?  Could I?   

It's a new year, so let's take stock:  the kids are taller, the dogs are older, the bird died, my finger broke, the Christmas ornaments are packed up but still on the front porch.  I remembered to pay for the insurance.  I should go to the dentist.  What more is there to say?   Think of everything as a bullet journal.   Make a dot for everything you need to do, didn't do, shouldn't do, or should.  I picture a line of dots, extending to the horizon.   At the horizon, I'd place a mountain.  A sunrise or a sunset.  Everyone needs something beautiful at the end of their line of dots.  

They say that blogging is dead and maybe it is.  Even the word "blog" feels awkward and lumpy, like something we thought was stylish a long time ago that's really gone now, never to return.   Like shoulder pads or polyester as a clothing fabric, or -- shudder -- a combination.   There's writing for an audience and then there's just writing, trying to remember how to make that happen.  Dropping the words onto the screen and feeling reassured, that's writing, even if it is a blog, that shoulder pad of real writing.  Just writing for the sake of writing, it's like knitting.  It feels good to look at a finished row or page, your imagination turning into something tangible.   My finger might be broken, but look! This is a paragraph.  I typed it.  My finger is a stiff hook.  My son has the flu.  Everything looks like a song lyric if you say it in a short enough sentence. My daughter has been writing songs.  One says, "Stop being so judgemental, start being more reverential."  "That's a big word," I say, "do you know what that means?"  "I spelled it wrong," she says, "I meant 'Start being more relevant.'"  "I'll try," I say.   

This year, on the docket:  an adult book, a YA, a middle-grade.   When are there enough books?  A letter from a friend's daughter says, "This is your best book.  This book will make you rich."   Do books make anyone rich?  JK Rowling is swimming laps in her pool full of money.   She's done well with the adult books, too.  But what's the real difference when you write them, between a book for kids and one for adults?  Everyone asks.  Like they assume that there is a different set of rules for one than for the other.  I always feel confused by the question.   It's all just getting the words out of your fingers.   Letting the characters fall out of the place where you made them.  Picture vines.  They are hidden behind the vines.  You cut the vines.  You force them out.  You make them tell what they need to tell.  Beyond that, isn't the difference only the age of the protaganist?   I answer the question on a staticy line.   My voice distorts.  They don't understand.   I don't know the difference between writing a kids book and writing an adult book, I say.   The audience! I add.  Maybe it's just the audience.  Children are much more emotionally mature than they are given credit for.  Although the audience for kids' books is largely made up of adults.  Why do we need there to be a huge distinction in the rules?  Writing it, I don't feel a difference.  Maybe it's just that the adult book can move more slowly because adults have more patience for multiple pages describing a clearing where leaves are composting and a deer wanders by, chewing something.  The adult reader wants to know how the leaves smell heavy with mulch, how the variegated shades of brown and orange look in the low hanging sun.  How do deer scratch when they are itchy?  Hooves must make that awkward.  A kids' book would go right to the itch.  Adults shake their heads impatiently.  No one cares how a deer scratches!  

My dogs have been keeping me awake at night, scratching.   They don't have fleas.  Put it on the bullet list:  Take the dogs to the vet.   Delete the entire scene about the deer.   No one has time for that.  It doesn't move the story forward.  Go for a walk.  Move yourself forward.  Watch an actual deer walking across a real clearing.  He doesn't scratch.  Maybe deer don't get itchy.   Hold on to the dogs.  It was the dog's leash that broke my finger in the first place.   Well, I don't blame the dog.  Not really.

I've been feeling happy.  I think things are good.  I look tentatively around my life, into all the categories and everything looks OK.   I feel optimistic.  Let's take that and run with it.   Let's do that in 2016:  be optimistic.   Let's stop being so judgemental, start being more reverential.   That's all there is really, isn't there?   Our own inner lives flow by just under the surface of everything we say or do, the people we meet, the faces we love.  It's the river that flows under the sidewalk of visible things that matters.  That's what we have to look after.  The river matters most of all.   Everyone can see the concrete.   We don't need to talk about it so much.  All the talk about the things on the surface is exhausting.


Happy New Year!  May your words come easily and your rivers flow smoothly, whatever that means to you, whatever you think I mean by that.   



 

Happy International Day of the Girl. But...

Karen Rivers

Today is International Day Of The Girl.  Let's celebrate.   Where shall we start?   

Let's start with why I've been feeling angry lately.  

It's as good a place as any. 

I was reading a cringe-worthy interview with Jonathan Franzen yesterday, which I won't link to because he says what he says exactly so that we will pass his words around and keep his name fresh on our tongues.  I don't want his name on my tongue because while he doesn't consider women to be valid, as writers or as humans, we also make up the bulk of his readers, the highest percentage of people who are taking our hard-earned money and placing it in his outstretched hand.   "I only really consider men to be competition," he says, scornfully, and I feel the tidal wave of rage, rising.   (Can you imagine a world in which men are sidelined and women walk around, confident in everything about themselves, laughing at the cute inadequacies of men?   No.  Of course, you can't.)  Franzen demands attention, he never apologizes, and he got to where he is thanks mostly to the women who buy his books and to Oprah, on whose back he originally stood to proclaim himself above us all.  

 

Let's take Oprah.  Why not?  She's done well, no one will argue.  She is a powerful, successful woman.  She has a voice and she uses it, yet her magazine is financed almost entirely by advertisers who are selling women ways to look prettier.  It is your job to look prettier.  It is our role to look prettier.  We want to look prettier!  Smoother!  Younger!  Thinner!   

My daughter takes my powder brush and rubs it on her cheek.  "Do I look pretty?" she says.  "Prettier now?"

My daughter is 8.  She likes dinosaurs and sports and building tall towers using magnetic blocks.   She wants to be an artist when she grows up, or an archaeologist.  Or both.  

I spent too much money at Sephora last month, it's true.   I have a tendency towards rosacea, a condition I spend more time thinking about than I'd like to.

Cobble all those sentences together to find a truth that I'd rather not see.

Here's a fact:   What I look like matters for my job.  It matters for every woman's job.  Even as writers, laboring away in our pyjamas at home all day, it counts.  Our photos always accompany our work.  Our photos ask the world, "Am I pretty enough? Am I worthy?"

I've been trying to think of a way to write about how it's so different for a man to write a novel than for a woman to write a novel.  This is what I've come up with:  A man writes a novel and it explodes onto the litererary scene.  A woman writes a novel that quietly develops an audience.

A woman writes a novel.  She does it the same way that a man does.  She sits down at a keyboard and types.  She sits down at a desk and writes.  She thinks and plans and deletes and rewrites and revises.   She is fastidious, intelligent, hard-working.  She does her research.   She makes her novel sing: her characters resonate, her story transcends.  The novel does not know if the writer is a man or a woman, it is simply in the process of becoming a book.  

It emerges into the world, blinking, waiting, not knowing what to expect next.   

 

The designer puts a woman on the cover of the woman's book.  The woman is beautiful and standing in the wind and she is silhouetted in front of sky or sea or trees or shadows it doesn't really matter what.  The font is wispy.  A more intense woman's book might zoom in on her lips or her eyes, the font may be heavier, rougher, more serious.   Well, it's what sells.  The woman's book is marketed to women because men buy women's books infrequently.  "That's for girls!" their inner boy says, recoiling.   Well, really, women are the largest percentage of book buyers.  So why is it a problem?  It's a market reality.   Settle down.  It's how it works.  Women write books, women buy books, women supporting women, isn't that positive?  

But the book is made to look like every other women's book, much like we are meant to want to look like every other woman:  smooth skin, shiny long hair, a slender (but curvy) body.    

On the front of the man's book in bold font: his name, the title of his book, nothing extraneous. Something about the size of that font indicates the seriousness of the novel you are holding in your hand.  The novel looks strong, important, intelligent.  This novel is not about what it looks like, it is about what it contains, yet it IS also about what it looks like.  It looks manly.  It looks like it has tenure.  It is grey around the temples.   Wise.   Sexy.  The novel has been working out at the gym, five days a week after spending 8 solid hours writing, reading dialogue out loud in a soundproofed office.  The novel is not occupied with things like making dinner for the family or cleaning the bathroom floor because the novel is serious and cannot be interrupted by such trivialities.  Trivialities are pink and are, after all, a woman's work.  How fortunate.   Trivialities can be very intrusive. 

On the front of the woman's book, someone adds a butterfly.  Some whimsy.  A scattered bunch of blooms.

Not all publishers.   Not all men.   Not all covers.  (Thank God.)

But.

Book covers, on average, tend to be the childhood bedrooms of the authors:   The boy's room is blue or even (daringly) black, sparsely furnished, a few posters of things he loves and is passionate about; his shelves are full of models that he built or mechanical items in various states of being taken apart.   The girl's room is pink, perfectly presented, tidy and clean, sparkling with rainbows and unicorns and photos of herself and her friends taken at just the right angles so that she looks perfect, or as perfect as she can (but she has years to keep trying!)  On her shelf, dolls made to look like her, dressed perfectly, cutely, adorably.   Her dresser is where her makeup is, the layers of the mask she will learn how to apply, to look pretty, to be pretty, to matter, to be seen.  

My daughter is on her way to buy a dinosaur poster at the school book fair,  her money clutched in her hand.  She stops and comes back to where I am standing.  "Most girls are buying the puppy-in-a-teacup poster," she whispers.  "I should buy that one.  Dinosaurs are probably for boys, right?"   

"Wrong," I say.   

She buys the dinosaur poster but her hesitation is why I'm so sad.  

A man produces a book and it is assumed to have literarary merit.  A woman produces a book and it is assumed to be a "beach read".  

Not by everyone.

But. 

I write largely for middle grade and young adult readers.   Maybe the space is different.   Maybe it isn't.  

"Is it a boy book or a girl book?" well-intentioned people ask before buying.

"It's a human book," I say, trying not to wince.   

But I won't lie:  Earlier in my career, I thought it was necessary to differentiate and I'm ashamed of that.  

A woman writes a novel under a man's name.  Everyone knows it is a woman but the name on the cover is a man's and the book receives more reviews and is taken more seriously than had she used her own name.  Here is a woman, presenting as a man, so we will consider this man-named woman-written book.   There is no photo of the author on the cover.   Not even on the inside back flap.   What she looks like is irrelevant now that she is presenting as a man, even though we know she is a woman.     

Look at all the books out there today, written under an author's initials, which omit the author photo.   We are voluntarily un-gendering ourselves to be more palatable to our audience.  Here's a secret:  I'm no exception.   A book without an audience does not pay the mortgage, no matter how extraordinary it might be.

Let's put it this way, it's something I'm considering for my next adult book, if by "considering", I mean "have already decided to do."  And I promise you this:  I will fight tooth and nail against having a woman in a beautiful dress silhouetted against the moonlit beach on the cover.   

But.

Here is a story that I've probably told before:   I am at a writer's event.  The event is for booksellers.  I am a woman who writes books.  I am talking to a bookseller about books and writing.  "Do you do events at your store?"  I ask.  "I'd love to participate, if you do."   

"No," says the bookseller.  "Not so much anymore."  

A male writer approaches us.  The bookseller to whom I'd been speaking turns to him so quickly that I am almost knocked over.  "We'd love to have you for an event," the bookseller says.   "We can't wait to show you our new space."

A man reading this might dismiss me as "bitter".  Jonathan Franzen would.  Well, he wouldn't read it.  What women have to say is largely irrelevant to him.   I am a woman.  I have things to say.   Do you know who is listening?  

Other women. 

I am not, in fact, bitter.  I recognize many ways in which I have been very lucky with my book covers, my publishers and my audience.   I am still here.  I am still writing.   I am still selling.   I am still lucky.  I am very happy to be doing what I'm doing, and with the people I am doing it for.  

Really, there is no difference between me (a female writer) and another writer who happens to be male.  

But...

"Happy International Day of The Girl!" I say to my daughter who is wrapped in a pink blanket on the couch, playing a Jurassic Park game on her phone.  I painted her room pink when we moved to this house.  I can no longer remember why I did that. 

I'm sorry, I want to tell her.  I didn't understand until now what it's like, what we've done.   But listen, this is important.  You are more than pink.  You are all the colours you want to be.  You are serious and blue and your name and your title should be written in huge steel words on a concrete background because you are here and you matter and you ARE the competition and you are valid and you are so much more than beauty and you are so much more than they will ever let you be, and I'm sorry for that, for everything, for all the pink everywhere and for the way that International Girls' Day sparkles with rainbow-writing on a glittery backdrop, your silhouette framed in a pretty white dress blowing against your body in front of a beach-blue sky.  




 


 

some entirely separate thoughts about the same thing.

Karen Rivers

My daughter's arm has the exact girth of the circle I can make with my thumb and middle finger.  While she is at school, I hold my hand up and look at the size of that circle.  It's so small.  She's so small.  I forget sometimes.  She seems so grown up, in contrast to what she once was.  It's all a Fleetwood Mac song because I'm getting older, too.   And it's autumn again and outside the blue sky looks closer to white as though it knows what's coming.   Well, we all know what's coming, or we think we do, which is really the same thing.   

 

All year, I've thought I was forty-six.  It turns out that I'm only forty-five.  That's a bit like finding a $20 bill in the pocket of your last-year's coat.   Free money!  You can spend it however you want.  I'm going to spend the year on myself, doing something.   I don't know what.  Honestly, whenever someone says, "You should do something for yourself!", my brain immediately pictures a mani/pedi.  I've never had one.  I hate it when people touch my feet and the casual intimacy of someone painting my fingernails would send me into intense panic so I continue to have plain nails, and will always wince when people say that thing they say about "having some me time!".   

There are very few times when I feel like an adult.  One of these times is when I peel vegetables into the sink.  The feel of the loose peels against my skin as I scoop them when I'm done for the compost -- I can't explain it -- but that handful of peels makes me into my mother and her mother and all the mothers before them.  

My children still don't like to go to bed.  They have never once, not even one single time, gone to bed simply and easily at bed time and they are older than you probably think.  I'm not exaggerating when I say it's never happened.  It has literally never happened.  What I like best about this story is that I'm always convinced that tonight will be different, tonight they will probably just lie down and go to sleep and I will be free to be an adult, whatever that entails, maybe it means reading on the couch or peeling vegetables with reckless abandon or writing a blog post without being shouted at.  I have hope, which is ridiculous, because the situation is hopeless.  My son is almost as tall as me.  Soon, he'll be six feet tall, shouting, "MUM" from his bed because he's just had an idea about a remote-control helicopter.  "Are you sick?"  I call back. "Are you bleeding?  Are you on fire?"  "No," he yells.  "Then GO TO SLEEP," I say.  Again.  Again again again again again.

Tonight, post kid-bed-time, I planned to sit and edit photos and maybe drink a beer or eat an ice cream sandwich, or ideally both, with my feet up.  I'd been thinking all afternoon about how the great part about being an adult is that you can have BOTH a beer and an ice cream and that's a perfectly valid choice you can make, one which I don't exercise regularly enough.  But again and again my son emerged from the bedroom, over and over.  I truly felt like I was going crazy, like I won't ever again have the opportunity to edit photos with my feet up over a beer and some ice cream and why can he not understand this?  I feel like at this point, I shook my fist at the heavens.   I don't know if I really did or if I just narrated that in, in my head.

"I thought you'd understand," my son said, plaintively.  

"Go to bed," I said, "NOW."

I know that they will grow up and eventually leave and (theoretically) put themselves to bed and I'll have nothing but minutes that are empty chambers echoing the "mum mum mum mum MUM" calls that ricochet around in the hall long past lights-out, long past the time when any child should be awake on a school night.  When that happens, I know that I will think, "This is boring, this editing and beer and ice cream, I miss them."  I already miss them.  I miss them right now and they are still awake, waiting for their opportunity to call me again so I'll have to stop typing and try to be patient and say, "Yes, but you must go to sleep now or else tomorrow you'll be so tired, I'll be so tired, even the dog will be so tired."  And they say, "Yes, fine, but what should we dream about?"  Then I'll write them a dream.   Another one and another.  They need choice now.  It's getting harder as they get older.  I should compile a book.  Every night, they can just pull out three pages.   This probably doesn't make sense because I keep getting interrupted.   The dogs sleep through the whole thing now.  The smallest dog sneaks under the couch when my voice becomes raised though. 

What I'm saying is that if your kids go to bed when you say, "Bed time!" and you're allowed to remain cheerful and not have to shout, "I'll take your laptop away for six months if you don't go to sleep right this minute!" and they let you get away with a hug and a kiss and a story then you did something right.  The important thing.  The best thing.  You did that.  Yay you!   I don't know what it was. If you know, can you tell me?  Maybe I can do it now, whatever baby-training did the trick.  I wrack my brain but come up with nothing.  What did I forget to do?  "MUM," one of them called just now, with perfect sit-com timing.   

Last night, there was a supermoon red eclipse that either did or did not mean it's the end of the world or the second coming of Christ or something else that no one's guessed correctly yet.  From my living room window, where I see hundreds of beautiful moonrises, the moon looked small and pale, like an elderly frail moon was going to be playing the part of the moon for tonight's performance of the SUPERMOON RED ECLIPSE.  I felt sorry for it but I was also irritated because it was impossible to photograph and anyway the battery in my camera died and my daughter had a flashlight that strobed and my son was cold, outside in his pyjamas.  I checked social media to make sure everyone was seeing what I was seeing and were equally disappointed that the moon was out sick and the stand-in would be performing (badly) tonight, and it turned out everyone else was actually seeing a life-changing SUPERMOON RED ECLIPSE.   It still makes no sense to me that someone two streets over was having a capital-E Experience and I was just frustrated because the kids, in the dark, began to fight.  

I'm sure all of that is a metaphor for something.  Tonight, the moon was spectacular.  I bet that hardly anyone looked at it though.  They looked at it last night and probably there's something they'd rather be watching on Netflix.   Everything is a metaphor.  I've been feeling very judgemental lately.   I don't like that about myself.  I think the problem was that there was so much hype about the Supermoon Red Eclipse that there was no way it was going to measure up, sort of like THE TITANIC and all those other films I never saw because I assumed they couldn't possibly be as good as "everyone" said they were.  

I've been writing a novel that's (peripherally) about time.  Try this:  Define 'time' to someone who doesn't know anything about the concept already.  

It's harder than you think.  Believe me.  There are a lot of theories about time.  They all can only be theories, ever.  It's not like one will rise to the top and be "right" because it's all theory.  Time itself is theoretical.   The whole thing about time is that I feel like I only understand the very very very very edge of it, like I'm trying to hold on to understanding all these theories, but I barely can because my grasp of what it is, what it means, is so small.  

If you want to feel completely awed, I suggest you start reading about how it's theoretically possible that an infinite number of versions of yourself exist simultaneously.  This also has to do with time.  In such an alternate universe, an infinite number of versions of my kids are NOT going to sleep when they should, and an infinite number of mes are thinking about mani/pedis and carrot peelings.


 

I hope my kids forget about how truly unbelievably frustrating bed time was for their entire childhood.  I hope they delete that memory, along with that time I made them eat that kiwi fruit or forgot that school let out early and they had to wait in the hall.  I hope all they remember are the summers: the long stretches of ocean and jumping into it, whales in the distance blowing their songs across the strait, hiking up the hot dusty roads, the way the blackberries taste best straight from the bush.   I hope they remember hot chocolate and riding bikes to the corner store for ice cream, climbing the mountain behind the house and finding hidden treasures in the woods.  I hope I did something right, something worth remembering, something that makes the mistakes seem smaller and fainter than the rest of everything, a pale stand-in for the only things that ever really mattered at the end of the day.