On Filling Boxes

My 3-year-old has a little tin he calls his treasure box, and in it he keeps assorted bits and bobs, pennies and string and stones he likes.

This morning, he was trying to fit another, slightly smaller tin inside his treasure tin.

“I can’t do it!” he shouted at me, like this was my fault, like I ought to be able to wave aside the laws of the physical world so he could fit one tin inside another even though it doesn’t fit.

I did solve the problem, however. I gave him a Tupperware container and said, Look, you can put both of them in this box. Aren’t I clever?

He put both tins in the Tupperware container, very pleased. Then he stared at it, thinking. He got up and went to the cupboard and took out our largest Tupperware container and said, “Can I use this?”

I was pleased he bothered to ask, so I said, Sure. He put the small Tupperware container, with its two tins, inside the large Tupperware container. And he looked at it.

The large Tupperware container was so much larger than the other. I guess it looked kind of empty. He went and got a box of tissues and three stuffed cats and put them inside the large Tupperware container, so that it was full.

And looked at it.

He said, “I need a bigger box.”

We just happened to have a large, empty cardboard box that I hadn’t put out with the recycling yet, so I said, You can use that one.

He put the large, full Tupperware container into the big box. He looked at it. He said, “I need to fill this box up.”

He got plastic dinosaurs. He got underwear and socks. He got some books. He got some duplo building blocks. He rushed back and forth, so busy, so serious.

“This is big work,” he told me. “This is the biggest work I have to do.” He panted a bit, to show me how hard he was working, how exhausting this big work was. He filled that box, and he was so happy while he was doing it.

But then it was full. He dragged it around a bit, looked at the contents.

He said hopefully, “Do we have another box?”

He knew we didn’t. I shook my head. That’s the biggest box in the house, I told him.

He suggested emptying out the refrigerator so he could use that. I said that was not a good idea. He looked around, wandering from room to room like a bigger box might materialize if he wished for it hard enough. All his busy joy had evaporated. It wasn’t enough anymore, that big box full of smaller boxes.

I suggested a bike ride. No, he said crossly. I suggested we might dig for worms, which is one of my least favorite activities, but he looked so forlorn. He agreed, head drooping, leaning sadly against me while I helped him put on his shoes.

I know how he feels. It’s like writing a book. It starts with something small but exciting. It expands, ballooning outward as you add characters and backstory and the world develops. You feel terribly busy and preoccupied with it. It feels like Big Work, and it is so satisfying as it grows from a character or a premise to a Story. But eventually it is done and you look at it and you think, hey look, I’m done! Look at this lovely book I made! But somehow it isn’t quite how you thought it would be.

I never really want to be done. Being done is thrilling for a short time, and then it makes me inexplicably sad, and I have to start over with something new as soon as possible. Luckily stories, unlike boxes, are not in limited supply.

And having wrung all the juice I can out of that metaphor, I’m going to go back to writing a book, because this is the Biggest Work I have to do.

 

Why did you write this?

It emerged that he had never read my blog. He said he didn’t know I had a blog. Of course you knew, I said. No, he said, you never told me. Of course I told you! I said. But maybe I really didn’t. Or maybe I did and he forgot. Both possibilities are entirely plausible.

So he read some of it and then looked up at me quizzically and said, Why did you write this?

I’m not sure how to answer that. Does he mean, where did the idea for this particular post come from? Does he mean, who are you writing it for? Does he mean, why would you write this and put it on the internet where anybody can read it?

I don’t know. I don’t know why I wrote it. I just did. I could ask myself the same question about everything I’ve written. Sometimes I do. Why did I write this? But the answer is always the same: I don’t know. I just did.

Or maybe he means, I thought you were writing a book. Maybe he means, it would be nice if you remembered to take out the garbage sometimes instead of writing all this stuff. But now I am making it sound like the question was pointed, when really it was more perplexed, like he’d just found out I was really into crochet and had made a zillion doilies and he just didn’t understand what for.

Well. I am writing a book. I’m writing a new book, in fact. It’s been a long time since I’ve managed to write a new book all the way through. There have been a couple of false starts, but mostly I’ve been revising and rewriting other books, books that already had a beginning and a middle and an end, books I wrote before my second son was born and I stopped sleeping for two years. Rewriting and revising can be done in little chunks. There isn’t (usually) the same need to get into a groove with it. But now I’ve got this whole new world, peopled with new, uh, people (most of ‘em are people, at least)… anyway, the thing is, I need to focus.

So I’m backing away, for a little while, from the blog and facebook and twitter and all these fun places that scatter my focus a bit. I’ll be back when I’ve got a draft out. Thank you for reading along, my lovelies, and if any of these posts made you smile or think yes, that’s just it, that’s how I feel, well then, that’s why I wrote it, that doily was for you.

Plot Twist!

Dear Blog,

I still have the wallet-sized fake photograph of me and my twin sister, Kaci. This was pre-photoshop* but it looks pretty good. Catherine is wearing a fuzzy sweater and holding the cat. Kaci (excuse the spelling…) is wearing a denim skirt and has her arm slung around Catherine. If you look at the full-size photograph, you can see something is off. There is a thin line separating the two girls, where two different photos were cut, put together and re-photographed. But in the wallet-sized photo, you can’t see the seam.

Starting at a new school in grade 8 with only a handful of kids from my elementary school, I was conscious, for the first time in my life, of the chance to be Somebody Different. I can’t say why I decided to be two different people – I must have been reading Sweet Valley High. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Kaci had been sent to a Very Strict Private School, because she was such a bad influence. She was Sweet Valley High’s Jessica to my Elizabeth. I’m sure it speaks volumes that I chose to make myself the boring twin. My new classmates loved the stories about my wild twin. My old friends were in on the joke. Then Kaci and Catherine started swapping schools. It was a total revelation that I could claim to be somebody else and really feel like I was somebody else. I performed my Catherine days dutifully, but I looked forward to being fearless, noisy, gum-cracking Kaci. Everybody liked her better – of course they did! I went to the grade 8 mixer dance as Kaci. A boy told me I was prettier than my sister.

I was thirteen and hadn’t planned for the long term. The charade fell apart by Halloween. Ha ha, just kidding, your new best friend doesn’t exist! Plot twist! I was half-heartedly ostracized for a while, because I was a liar and had done it all “for attention,” that most heinous of crimes among young adolescents. It had started to get exhausting, anyway, and mostly I was relieved to be rid of Kaci. She was just the first step, in my tumultuous teen years – I was already hooked on trying on new skins, pretending to be someone else.

One of the worst things about adolescence is that here you are, brimming with power, energy, physical strength and desire, at your boldest and most ready for adventure, but you are just supposed to go to school. You are supposed to follow this shitty script just when you’re starting to feel like a star. You are supposed to hold yourself back, wait until you’re older.

One of the best things about adolescence is that, most of the time, if you’re lucky, you can shrug off the consequences of your mistakes, start over, remake yourself. That’s not always true, of course. But if you’re going to majorly screw up, there’s no better time of life in which to do so. It’s easier to start over at seventeen than at thirty-seven, in my experience, and people are generally forgiving.

My New Friends told me, “You’re such a princess, you’re so innocent!” I played to the caricature, wide-eyed and corruptible, but I was never sure what I’d done to earn this moniker in the first place, since I was into all the same shit they were. I think it had to do with having two parents and soft edges, or being nice to the cat. I told my New Friends I was grounded when I was going to The Wrong Man’s apartment. The Wrong Man whispered in my ear, “I can see right through you.” I pretended to believe it, because it pleased him to think so and I was all about pleasing him, but I knew that however transparent my fake self might appear, he could never in a million years pick out the real, original girl from this hall of mirrors, this host of girls who looked the same but weren’t.

Eventually my fake lives and selves collided and some very messy years followed. It seemed such an interesting thing to be doing, making this terrible mess! When it stopped being interesting and became simply ugly, I knew what to do. I studied hard – really ­hard – for the provincial exams. I got a spot at the local university. Then I cut my hair short and went to Scotland.

*

A few years ago, I was talking with some friends about another friend who was having a baby. One of them said, “Everybody is having babies these days! All we talk about is having babies!” We all had babies too, and we all talked about whether or not we would have more babies. I said, “Just wait – in ten years we’ll be talking about who is getting divorced!” I sort of meant it to be a joke, but nobody laughed, and in retrospect I guess it wasn’t very funny. I couldn’t help wondering, then, which among us would still be married in ten years. The statistical odds just sat there silently, nodding in a knowing sort of way. The most plausible plot twists are starting to look kind of grim.

The question used to be, Who should I be? It felt like a choice, but maybe it was a trick. Now we ask ourselves things like What should I make for dinner? and How are we going to pay for all this? And that’s only so long as we are lucky. We know that one day, any day, we could be asking, How can I bear this? or How long have I got? We avoid the shadows, seek out the sun, watch our children grow and hope that they will do better than we have done, because even when life is so full, it feels like so much has been squandered.

Still, the possibility of becoming somebody else is always there, even as we get older and our skin hardens around us and there are bills to be paid. Behind the questions about dinner and money and the right school district, other questions are lurking and some days they press their way outward and refuse to be set aside: Is this it, then? Is this how it’s going to be? Is this who I turned out to be, after all that? Life cocks an eyebrow and says, Isn’t that up to you? Which seems not quite fair. But then, as we love to tell our children, nobody ever said life was fair, though it’s safe to say it’s stranger than fiction.

Yours, a-bit-sick-of-myself-today,

Catherine

 

*I just googled it and in fact photoshop was …released? created? … in 1990, one year after my twin experiment.

 

 

Going north

Dear Blog,

I don’t remember the name of the hotel, or even the name of the street it was on. There was a note for me at the front desk from an American named Brian. It was a friendly note, an I-heard-a-Canadian-was-staying-here note, a let-me-show-you-around note, a come-knock-on-my-door-I’m-in-room-302 note. I should have known better, but I was twenty, I was in Paris by myself, I wanted to meet people and have adventures. So I went and knocked on the door of room 302.

*

Seventeen years later, I’m reading Stuart Little to my four-year-old son, J. All I remember about E.B. White’s first novel is the premise: a mouse born to a human family in New York City, bravely navigating the Great Big World. We get stuck on chapter 7, in which Stuart races a boat at Central Park, because J wants to hear it over and over. I’m surprised, because I don’t think he can possibly be following all the sailing lingo, but apparently it is enough for him that a race is happening, even if he doesn’t understand every sentence. Also, a policeman is knocked into the water, which he finds hysterical. After reading chapter 7 for several nights, we finally move on to chapter 8. Stuart meets the bird Margalo, who tells him, “I come from fields once tall with wheat, from pastures deep in fern and thistle; I come from vales of meadowsweet, and I love to whistle.” J cheers wildly when, in defense of the sleeping Margalo, Stuart shoots the cat Snowbell in the ear with his bow and arrow. I have a feeling we’ll be reading chapter 8 for the next few nights.

*

I don’t know why I assumed that American-Brian-in-room-302 would be a young student backpacker, like me. I hoped that he would be handsome and hilarious and that we’d have a torrid summer fling. But when the door to room 302 swung open, there stood a gangly, unkempt man in his mid-forties with black teeth. He beamed, boomed niceties, and ushered me into his room. Because I was an idiot and did not learn how to be rude until I was 25, I went into his room, wondering if he was going to cut my throat and stuff me under the bed. Instead, he made me dinner, which was canned tuna mixed with canned corn (I ate it, wondering if it was drugged) and told me his Life Story. He had a free room at the hotel while he waited for a settlement in a case he’d brought against the police for beating him up some months ago, but he had previously been “on the streets,” as he put it. He told me he had no problem with work, but he would never take a job, he would never let himself be tied down. He told me he’d started traveling the world at my age, footloose and fancy-free, but while others went home, got jobs, got married, he just kept on going. Once I had adjusted to the reality of Brian not meeting my hopeful expectations of summer-fling material, and once I had concluded he was probably not a murderous psychopath, I found him excellent company. When he asked how long I planned to be in Paris, I told him I’d wanted to stay a month but that it was too expensive and I would have to head somewhere cheaper for my money to last. Brian scoffed. I can show you how to have a good time in Paris without spending a centime beyond what you’re paying for this hotel, he said. Well, but even food… I said, and he cut me off. You don’t need to buy food.

*

Stuart Little comes and goes as he likes, and he never lets his small size deter him from doing things, or the larger size of others intimidate him. The book passes lightly over the odd fact of Stuart being a mouse born to a human family, and J does not question it. For a good laugh, read some of the one-star reviews of the book online. “There is no explanation for why he is a mouse!” But J gets it. Stuart is small and the world is large. Stuart is a little different. In spite of being small and different, Stuart does as he pleases and has wonderful adventures. It is the perfect story for an intrepid, self-absorbed young person, dwarfed by the Wide World.

Then Stuart’s beloved Margalo disappears, frightened away by a murderous cat, and the book changes. Instead of one amusing episode after another, we have a Quest. Stuart leaves his family behind, taking only a hair from his mother’s comb to remember her by, and sets out northward to find the bird he loves. Every night, settling down to read, J asks me anxiously, Does he find Margalo? And every night, I tell him, I really don’t remember, because I don’t. I sort of assume he will find her and they will return to their home in New York City or something. I keep forgetting to check the ending after he goes to bed. I should have guessed how it would turn out, though. One should never look to E.B. White for a pat, happy ending.

*

Brian talks a lot about Josephine, the woman he’s been in love with for twenty years, as long as I’ve been alive. It didn’t work out, but they still love each other, he tells me. She has kids – two of them are his – and she lives in the south of France. She’s still a crazy hippie, he says, laughing warmly, his eyes full of love. I ask him how old his kids are, and he struggles to remember. “That’s terrible, isn’t it?” he says, and I shrug and laugh along with him. I’m not sure if he really can’t remember, or if he doesn’t want to admit that they are my age.

In the evenings, we eat canned corn and tuna in his room and he reads Simenon detective stories to me in French. He sits on the bed. I sit in the chair. He asks if I want to sit on the bed with him, patting the blankets invitingly, but I say no, I’m comfortable. In the mornings, we go to church basements for a free breakfast. The nuns pour porridge into a bowl for me, “pour la jeune fille,” and I wonder if this is horribly immoral. We sit at long tables with the broke and homeless of Paris. Everybody is curious about me, of course. Brian tells my story for me in flawless French. If the people here think it odd or improper that I am a tourist eating free church meals, they don’t say so. They are kind and welcoming and want to hear my impressions of Paris. We fill a bag with bread and cheese and fruit for lunch, and then we walk – to parks, to churches, to cemeteries full of famous graves, to free galleries and free performances, along the Seine, up to Montmartre. Brian is right. I’m falling in love with the Paris he shows me, and I haven’t spent a franc or stepped inside the Louvre.

We lie in a park, chatting dozily after lunch – one of the parks where you are allowed on the grass. I’m almost asleep when I feel his hand on my bare back, under my shirt. I move fast, yank my shirt back down. He says, I was going to give you a backrub. I say, No thanks. He doesn’t try again. I’m a little cool to him for the rest of the afternoon, I go off on a walk by myself, but come evening I knock on his door. After ten days, we are set in our routine. He has dinner for me, reads me the next detective story chapter, and doesn’t invite me on the bed.

*

Stuart’s journey takes him to “the loveliest town of all, where the houses were white and high and the elm trees were green and higher than the houses, where the front yards were wide and pleasant and the back yards were bushy and worth finding out about, where the streets sloped down to the stream and the stream flowed quietly under the bridge, where the lawns ended in orchards and the orchards ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures and the pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top toward the wonderful wide sky.” Here, he meets Harriet Ames, a two-inch-tall girl, pretty, sporty and good-natured. She is Just The Girl for Stuart, and for a moment one wonders if he has found a place for himself in this ideal town with this ideal girl and will leave off his impossible quest, his journey without end. But Stuart sabotages his date with Harriet, becoming moody and petulant when the perfect evening doesn’t go quite as he’d planned. She is willing to try again, to give him another chance, but Stuart is too wrapped up in his own disappointment and frustration to bother about Harriet anymore. He carries on, traveling north. Oh Stuart – you don’t know a good thing when you find it. My husband asks J, “Do you think he should have stayed with Harriet?” But J is young, like Stuart. The very suggestion shocks him. No, he says. Stuart can’t stay with Harriet. After all, he has to find Margalo.

*

I ask Brian if he thinks that he and Josephine will get back together one day. He says he has no doubt. They will be old together, toothless and wrinkled, gazing at each other over a bottle of wine. This thing with us, it never changes, he says dreamily, and I don’t ask him, Then what are you doing here?

One evening, we break our routine and meet some of his friends at a bar. They are a bunch of miserable, grey-haired Frenchmen, but I am feeling like quite the seasoned anthropologist, ready to absorb their tales of woe. Brian knocks back a glass of wine and abruptly declares that he’s tired and is going back to the hotel. Startled, I say, Wait, I’ll go with you, but No, no, stay and have fun, he says, and the other guys are clamoring, Stay, we just bought you this drink, stay! Because it is another five years before I learn to be rude, because they bought me a drink and I haven’t touched it yet, I stay, sipping at my beer and quietly panicking. It is dark and I realize I’m not even sure where I am. I don’t have a map. I’ve just been following Brian around, passive and puppyish. Denis sits too close to me, shows me the scars on his wrists from his suicide attempts. I say, I really have to get back. Or what? he asks. I turn into a pumpkin, I say, trying for levity. I bet you’re a beautiful pumpkin, he says.

*

If you look at reviews of Stuart Little on amazon or elsewhere, those who don’t love it complain about the ending. SPOILERS AHEAD if you haven’t read it: Stuart doesn’t find Margalo. He doesn’t go back to his family. He keeps on traveling North, hoping to find her. J is unsettled. I think there’s another book, he says, having learned about sequels. No, I tell him, there isn’t. That’s how it ends. His brow crumples. E.B. White, you piece of shit, I think, even though I love this ending. I suggest writing our own sequel. J enthusiastically agrees. In his sequel to Stuart Little, Stuart turns around. He goes south instead. He finds Margalo. There is a mouse vs. cat battle, and Stuart shoots the Angora cat through the eye with his bow and arrow. Margalo comes back to New York, and when they are seventeen years old, they get married. All the mice and birds in New York come to their wedding, as well as some of the nice cats. I can’t believe he is four years old and, I swear, he is not fed on Disney, yet we are ending with a wedding. Well, there we go. Happily ever after. He falls asleep quickly, satisfied, and the following day he asks me to read him the “sequel” several times.

*

Denis offers to walk me back to the hotel. You don’t want to walk alone in this neighborhood! I am furious that Brian, having been rebuffed, left me with his friends so that they could have a go. We are in a park, climbing a hill. Suddenly I’m dizzy and confused. There’s a great view up here, says Denis. My head is spinning, my heart racing, my mouth dry. I ask Denis, Did you put something in my drink? What did you give me? Nothing, nothing, he says. This is how girls end up dead in the woods. I keep telling myself to run, but I can’t seem to do anything but follow him up the hill. He’s right, the view is sensational, Paris lit up below us. He leans in to kiss me. I beg him to take me back. I promise that he can come up to my room. I let him kiss me, once. I let him hold my hand. I am so scared, so scared. He walks me to the hotel, past the front desk, up the stairs. Outside my door, lurching a little, I tell him: I think I’m going to throw up. He takes a couple of steps back, holding his hands up as if to say, not on me, girly. I get in the room and slam the door on him. He starts pounding on the door, screaming obscenities. I throw up in the sink, because there is no toilet in my room. I yell at him that I’m really sick, I’m throwing up everywhere. He calls me some more names and goes away.

In the morning, I go up to Brian’s room and lay into him for leaving me with his scary friends. I tell him that Denis tried to attack me, tried to force his way into my room, though in retrospect I realize that’s not how it went down. I don’t know if they slipped something in my drink or if I was having a panic attack. I don’t know if Denis was dangerous, or just thought we were on a date and got mad when I freaked out. Brian brushes the whole thing off. He says, you didn’t have to stay if you didn’t want to. He says, why didn’t you have a map, why didn’t you take a taxi? He says, you need to grow up. He says, I’m not your dad, OK? All fair points, and I know I’ve been unforgivably stupid, but I also know that he set me up.

*

Stuart finds himself telling his troubles to a repairman from the telephone company at the side of a long road heading north. The repairman has stories of his own to tell, but Stuart sullenly declares that he doesn’t want to hear them. He is too wrapped up in himself. I may have wanted to hear Brian’s stories – I fancied myself the sort of person who was interested in other people, a good listener – but the less flattering truth is that I was wrapped up in The Story Of Me Befriending A Vagrant In Paris Because I Am Such A Unique And Original Sort Of Girl. When I left, I told him, “I thought you were my friend,” and he shrugged, like I was being ridiculous, which I was. We could have been friends. Conversation was easy, we laughed a lot, I think we genuinely liked each other, but we each had our own idea of what the other might be good for, and neither of us really had friendship in mind.

The repairman doesn’t take offense at Stuart’s rudeness. I suppose he remembers what it is like being young, just setting out on a journey, and how hard it is to see outside oneself. He tells Stuart, “There’s something about north, something that sets it apart from all other directions. A person who is heading north is not making an mistake, in my opinion.” And Stuart replies, “That’s the way I look at it. I rather expect that from now on I shall be traveling north until the end of my days.”

*

I leave the hotel that day. I go to a youth hostel on the left bank, where a bed has opened up, and there I make friends with a group of girls my own age. I still keep in touch with them, but I don’t know what happened to Brian. He must be 60 now. I would like to think that he and Josephine are gazing at each other over a bottle of wine but I somehow doubt it.

At the time, I wondered about his kids. What would it be like to have this man as your father? Now, I wonder about his mother. I never thought to ask him about her. I pass men on the streets all the time, staggering, ruined men whose bodies are failing them, whose brain chemistry has betrayed them, or whose open roads led to one dead end after another until they landed here. I think of my own soft-cheeked boys and I wonder about their mothers. It gets harder to see the difference, as one gets older, between being tied down and being anchored. We all yearn for freedom, but we all need a safe harbor, too. Maybe they had no mothers, or maybe their mothers were terrible and cruel and that is why they are here, but that’s too easy, and anyway, they are everywhere, these men, all over the Green in front of the library, in the plaza outside the food coop. There must be legions of mothers out there who may or may not have known how to be mothers, who may or may not know what has become of their dear little soft-cheeked boys, who couldn’t help them. It gets colder as you go north, too.

*

 J knows how a story is supposed to end. A great battle. A wedding. There may be a journey, but in the end, you go home. E.B. White would no doubt spin in his grave if he could see J’s sequel.

I like E.B. White’s ending, myself. The happiest moments of my life have been in transit, depending on how you define happiness, I guess. At some point, you have to choose a life for yourself, close some doors, or at least, there are consequences for not choosing. That doesn’t make it easy. My own choices feel so accidental, even the well-considered ones. It seems random and strange to have washed up on this particular shore, and the longer I stand still, the less I look around and really notice things.

In the Sahara desert late at night, nothing but dunes and stars around our little camp, I asked our teenage guides where I should go to the bathroom. OK, it was a dumb question. They fell around laughing, pointed to the horizon, and shouted Libya! I wandered into the dark, so far that I could hardly hear their voices, the light of the fire hidden behind a dune, and I scared myself thinking What if I just keep walking? It seemed like it would be so easy to just disappear, out there.

Trying to find Rose Spit in Haida Gwaii, where we intended to camp, my best friend and I found ourselves on a wooded path where the moss on the trees was so heavy it broke the branches, and the moss on the ground was like a thick blanket, and he said, We’ll never get home, we’ll just have to lie down here, pull the moss up to our chins and die. It seemed so funny at the time because of course we were young immortals, and so far we’d always found our way home.

Our car broke down on the Karakoram highway between Kashgar and Karakul Lake and I sat on the hill, useless but happy, watching the driver tinker with the engine, watching the man I would later marry photographing the long, long road. I felt that anything could happen, anything at all. Maybe we would never arrive anywhere. Maybe the changing scenery would be enough to live on forever.

And before all of that, Brian and I climbed the steps leading up the hill towards Sacre Coeur. There is a poster on a wall for a circus of some kind, with a picture of a tiny giraffe in the palm of a person’s hand. We examine the poster, trying to figure out if this is something we can attend for free. Brian says wonderingly, Do you think they really have a giraffe that small? I give him an are-you-kidding-me look, and it’s like sunshine breaking through cloud when he guffaws. We laugh so hard we have to sit down on the steps, nearly weeping.

It seems unlikely that Stuart Little could ever find Margalo, but you never know. Surely it broke his mother’s heart, the way he left without a word, and maybe he’ll never go home, maybe he’ll really just keep on going North forever. It’s not a happy ending, but I don’t think it’s a sad one, either. The very best we can hope, for ourselves, for our children, for anyone, is that we are heading in the right direction.

Yours, writing-E.B.-White-fan-fiction-with-a-four-year-old,

Catherine

Catherine Egan is a Stupid Bitch

Dear Blog,

I did a lot of back-and-forthing on what to call this blog post. I kept trying to come up with good alternatives to Catherine Egan is a Stupid Bitch, but in the end, there was no avoiding the obvious title. I admit, it makes me a little nervous. I’m not sure who reads this stuff. Could be anyone. It’s an ugly sentence, as well as an uncomfortable one, and though I enjoy cursing I don’t like the word “bitch” and really never use it. Still, I figured all the reasons for coming up with a different title boiled down to cowardice, so I typed it into the title line. Looking at it, half-wanting to laugh but also feeling uncomfortable and anxious about who will see it takes me right back to eighth grade. Plus ça change, etcetera. It’s not far from how I felt when I sat down at my desk in grade eight French class one morning and saw that somebodyhad penned this sentence across my desk in small, neat capital letters: CATHERINE EGAN IS A STUPID BITCH.

Horrified, I tried to rub it off with my thumb, but the ink barely smeared. Who would write such a thing? Who had seen it? It came to me, as I failed to rub it off, that surely it was no accident, me finding this on my desk. I was meant to see it, of course – it had been written for me. I looked around and caught a boy I’ll call M watching me. He looked away quickly, no expression on his face, but I remembered that he sat in this same desk in another class we shared. Clearly, he’d noticed that we shared the desk too, which surprised me a bit, because I didn’t think he noticed me at all. I’d known him since kindergarten but in all our years of school we’d barely spoken. He’d been a noisy little boy who hung out with other noisy little boys, and now all these little boys were much bigger but still just as noisy. We moved along parallel tracks, never intersecting.

If I’d been a different kind of girl in eighth grade, I might have confronted him. I was annoyed that he’d caught me trying to rub it off, but more surprised than upset that he apparently disliked me. As far as I knew, nobody had ever disliked me. People either liked me or they were indifferent. I was a very inoffensive personality. Soon enough, I would give all kinds of people plenty of reasons to think ill of me, but I had just turned thirteen and I still flew under the radar most of the time. I dressed boringly and inexpensively. I was on the plain side of pretty. I did not do anything particularly well or particularly badly. I got average grades. I was nice. I was practically invisible. I had no real interaction with M at all. And yet, here it was, on the desktop. Catherine Egan is a Stupid Bitch.

I was less concerned with M’s motives than I was worried about who else sat in this desk, who had seen it, what they would think. Written down, the sentence seemed to have power. Since I couldn’t rub it off with my thumb and didn’t want M to see me expending further effort on it, I added a question mark after the word BITCH, then put two little boxes underneath, next to the words YES and NO. I was tempted to check NO, but decided to leave it.

I thought my response was charming and light-hearted. I didn’t tell my friends about it, but I couldn’t put it out of my mind either. I was back in the same classroom after lunch, but at another desk. M was in my French class desk. I did not let myself so much as glance in his direction. I passed notes with a friend, braided the hair of the girl in front of me, and spent the fifty minutes acting like a girl who could not care less what some dumb boy might have written on her desk. But I felt like I’d eaten rocks for lunch.

After school, I ran straight back to the classroom to check the desk. He had checked the YES box, and added FUCK U. At least, I assumed it was him. Maybe it was somebody else. That was an unsettling thought, and I wished I’d never added the checkboxes. Feeling sick, I got wet paper towels from the bathroom and wiped the desk until there was just a smear left.

For weeks, I approached that desk with trepidation, wondering if he would write something else, if the incident might yet turn into all-out desktop warfare. I considered leaving a message for him on the desk. I wrote “why are you so mean?” once but rubbed it out immediately. It sounded weak, pathetic. I thought about penning our initials in a heart, but worried he wouldn’t get the sarcasm. He never wrote anything else on the desk, and eventually I stopped thinking about it. We kept on ignoring each other, as if nothing had happened, as if we hadn’t known each other forever.

*

Two years later, on a Friday night, I was down at the beach with a friend. Friday nights were epic back then. I could barely sit through classes on Friday. I often didn’t. The weekend felt like an oasis after our long journey through the desert of the school week. We came to Friday night parched and desperate for adventure. It was May, and still chilly after dark, but we went out as close to naked as was legal, our young faces unskillfully caked with make-up, because we figured this was sexy and we hadn’t learned yet that a) we looked ridiculous and b) looking the way we did was dangerous. For now, it felt like power, the way even grown men would look at us, stop to talk to us, call us beautiful. Give us a couple more years to figure out how this works: the game of attraction, the many ways of losing at it, what is at stake. We were not really innocent, or even all that inexperienced, but none of our experiences had added up to wisdom yet, and nothing so far had truly prepared us for the risks inherent in being a young woman in the world.

We were at the beach because we’d heard that if you dropped acid and let sand run between your fingers, it would look like your fingers were crumbling away. Turns out it’s true. My friend thought it was funny but it freaked me right out. The mountains across the bay had gone blue as a painting even though it was dark, and I thought I could hear every single grain of sand rasping up and down the beach as the waves came in and pulled back out, great curls of silver-black rolling forever towards us and forever away. I wanted to get away from the water and the sand and my disappearing fingers. I pulled my friend up the beach, towards the parking lot, and a boy called something to us from a parked jeep. They were high school kids, like us, which made them seem harmless. I don’t remember how many of them there were, but it seemed like too many for the jeep. They were passing around a bong made out of an empty coke bottle, and one of them said excitedly, “Hey, I know those girls!”

It was M, of course. I heard myself squealing hello like we were great buddies and I was happy to see him. He asked if we wanted to hang out with them, so we climbed into the jeep. I was squeezed between M and another boy. We talked loudly, without quite making eye contact. We told them we were tripping, and they flashed their lighters around to make us scream. I was seeing fire everywhere.

At some point, I said to M: “Remember what you wrote on my desk in grade eight?” He gave me a blurry look, like he really didn’t remember at all, and then he started laughing at something one of his buddies said. I wanted to ask him, Did you mean it? Did you really hate me? Or were you just curious to see what I would do, how I’d react? Was it an experiment in being a jerk? Did you want to know how it would feel? Were you sorry, or was it funny? But I didn’t ask those things. Some people really did hate me now, but not M, not tonight, and anyway, surely I was no longer the kind of girl to care.

We went downtown, crossing the bridge. The whole city seemed to be dripping with lights, every doorway spilling out the sound of revelry. The boys were going to an arcade. My friend and I got all cooler-than-thou on them, declared we were going clubbing. Suddenly we were all sneering at each other. You won’t get into a club! You guys look twelve years old! —  Says the guy playing video games on a Friday night! We have fake IDs, loser! We left the boys at the arcade and cuddled together, shivering, on a bus stop bench. We didn’t really have fake IDs. We waited a long time, the city a cartoonish carnival whirling around us, before we realized the buses had stopped running. It was a long walk back to my house, but we were young, we were invincible, and there were warm beds and pajamas waiting for us back in that other life, where my mother would make us pancakes for breakfast and we would be children again, for a while.

*

On Monday, I passed M in the hall. Maybe there was a nod, a vague smile. Maybe he said “hey” while I waggled my fingers. No more than that. We went back to amicably ignoring each other, the way we’d done almost all our lives. I never saw him again after graduation. We were at school together for 13 years, and all I remember about him are a few hazy snippets of being high in the same jeep, and that nasty note on my desk, greeting me like a slap. He wasn’t habitually a jerk, I don’t think. But then, I never really knew him at all.

Yours, writing-on-my-own-desk-now,

Catherine

An Open Letter To Alec Baldwin

We were standing in a garden
And I had a machine that made silence
It just sucked up the whole opinionated din…
–Ani DiFranco, From “Garden Of Simple”

 Dear Alec Baldwin,

I read your piece in New York Magazine announcing your retirement from Public Life with great interest. I can’t help having some opinions about you – about your work, your rage, your letter, your not-so-private life – but those opinions are irrelevant and certainly not the point here. The point, if I have one (and part of the point is that I probably don’t), is about the noise that surrounds us and the noise we make. That’s what I was thinking about, mostly, when I read your letter. All this noise.

A while back, my whole twitter feed exploded with contempt for Jonathan Franzen, who doesn’t think much of twitter. Jonathan Franzen thinks we all make too much noise. Jonathan Franzen likes to think deeply, because it helps him to write Serious Literary Fiction, and he does not like yakking and bragging. My twitter feed was of the opinion that Jonathan Franzen is a great big clueless snob, which might be true. There are worse things to be, but my twitter feed was not interested in those things. There were some very funny remarks made about Jonathan Franzen. The whole thing had a party-ish feel to it, this making fun of Jonathan Franzen. Being a Great Writer doesn’t get you off the hook on twitter, and neither does being a Great Actor. For the record, my twitter feed has had nothing to say about you at all, there being less to say, perhaps, about a famous man at the end of his rope using hateful language (again), but it still seemed relevant, the Jonathan Franzen thing.

He was (partly) wrong, after all, and it is terribly satisfying when somebody is wrong. There was this piece in the Huffington post recently, in which the author said that JK Rowling should stop publishing her books because she is crowding out less famous writers. She also mentioned that she found it a bit sad that adults were wasting their time reading children’s fiction. I follow a lot of children’s authors on twitter, and so there was a Big Response. I read the article – I couldn’t help it! And as I read it, I found myself, almost against my will, tearing it down in my head – effortlessly, like a reflex – because it was such a dumb and trollish article. The comment section was, as you can imagine, vitriolic. Twitter was annoyed and did a lot of snorting and eye-rolling. And surely, surely that was the point of the article, its entire raison d’être. It was just noise, meant to garner angry clicks, spark some outrage, feed the scorn-junkie in all of us so we could have a grand time yelling about it, making some more noise. And we did, Alec, we did. We had a grand old time. But I did think Jonathan Franzen would not have approved.

You might not know this about me, Alec, but I have been keeping a blog for over a year now. I was trying it out and I found I liked it. I’ve always enjoyed blathering on about whatever half-baked thoughts I’ve got drifting through my head at any given time. Just ask my friends! I am known to be a great bore, but I will laugh at all your jokes, which makes me not entirely disagreeable company. I find myself drifting occasionally into an oversaturated genre called mommy-blogging, and these posts are always by far the most popular. I have mixed feelings about it. I enjoy it and I keep on doing it, but every time I hit “post,” that line from the Ani Difranco song “Garden of Simple” floats through my head – the bit about “the whole opinionated din.”

I’ve been thinking about this because I don’t feel the same discomfort about having a book published. Jonathan Franzen would agree with you, Alec, that the world doesn’t need my books. Still, when I put one out there, I am proud of what I’ve done. I feel I have dropped my own carefully polished penny in a great vault of treasure. It may not be worth much, the book itself, but it still belongs in that vault, or that is what I feel. When I am writing a book, I feel productive, creative, I feel loving, strange as that sounds. I feel like, by making a book, I am giving something to the world that I made with love, no matter that the world doesn’t much care. The making and the giving are immensely satisfying.

I don’t feel that way about blogging. And I should be very clear here that I am talking only about my own books and my own blog, I’m not attributing value to books vs. blogs in general. When I blog, I am having fun, but I also feel noisy. But if nobody reads the blog, am I really being noisy? If a tree falls in the forest, etcetera etcetera. Isn’t it just a lonely silence I can’t fully erase, bobbing around out there like a message in a bottle? And if people do read it, and they enjoy it, and they write me messages about it, then is it just noise, or is it – la di da <tapdances> – entertainment? I mean, I’m not making you read this, Alec, sitting in your fancy NYC penthouse (is it a penthouse? surely it must be), bent over the glare of your laptop screen, wondering if you’ll ever have the life you wanted. I don’t know why I feel as I do. Maybe I am doing it wrong. Maybe, like you, I should Retire From Public Life. Maybe, instead of contributing to the “opinionated din,” the really valuable contribution would be making that silence machine.

Imagine turning that on, in New York City. Or in cyberspace.

The truth is that, outside of fiction, I have nothing to say – you may have noticed that by now, Alec – but I still enjoy the noise I make. I’m trying to figure out what to do with that. And I’m trying to figure out what to do with the buzz of indignation, the irresistible put-downs, the judgment, the lure of feeling snarkily superior that seems to leak into my internet use no matter how I try to avoid it. I love the internet for how it connects me to people I want to be connected to, and for how it gives me access to people who have seriously (or hilariously) got Something To Say. I want to hear them! But I’m struggling with how to carve out the positive and meaningful spaces I want, without all that other stuff flooding in. Maybe I am the problem. I read your letter, Alec, and I sort of felt like I am better than you, even though you are a Great Talent, because I’m not a huge narcissist with anger issues. It wasn’t how I wanted to feel. I worry sometimes that I don’t know how to really listen.

Here is the thing, Alec: I feel like I know you, and my gut tells me that you should not leave New York City. I think you would miss it terribly. I think it is the right city, the only city, for you, and I think that no matter where you go, everything will still piss you off. If I had a machine that made silence, I would offer it to you for a while. You could point it at the crowd – the one in your head or the one outside your apartment or the one on the internet. You’d flick a switch and everything would go quiet. You’d see their lips move, but no sound would come out, and eventually they’d give up, drift away, pointless now they are soundless. Maybe everything inside would go quiet as well, without all the noise on the outside. Maybe you’d be able to hear your own thoughts happening slowly, or maybe you wouldn’t have to think at all. You could walk down the silent street, where people nod hello but say nothing. The cars would hush by and the sky would smile down, empty and blue. You could get a cup of coffee and read the paper in peace.

Pointlessly, noisily yours,

Catherine

…But in the garden of simple
Where all of us are nameless
You were never anything but beautiful to me
And, you know, they never really owned you
You just carried them around
And then one day you put ‘em down
And found your hands were free…

 

On Being Told (a lot) To Cherish This Time

Oh, cleaning and scrubbing will wait till tomorrow,
But children grow up, as I’ve learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down, cobwebs. Dust, go to sleep.
I’m rocking my baby. Babies don’t keep.
(from Song For A Fifth Child, by Ruth Hulbert Hamilton)

Dear Blog,

We’ve all been there. The moment in the mobbed grocery store when the cart is nearly full and you stop your toddler from pilfering raisins from the bulk bin, “we have to buy them first,” and he looks at you like this is the greatest, cruelest injustice he has ever faced, opens his mouth in a tremendous wail, and collapses bonelessly to the floor. So you are trying to wrestle him into the cart, and because you are a fucking pro, you get both of those windmilling legs into the leg-holes, and then the other kid, who now has a suspicious sugary dusting around his mouth that can probably be traced to another bulk bin, loudly declares that he needs to pee. So you pull the wailing, boneless thief back out of the cart, and he kicks you in the chest in the process, and the other one screams with sudden, terrible urgency REALLY I HAVE TO GO NOW I HAVE TO GO RIGHT NOW NOW NOW. You abandon the cart and grab his hand, the other kid under your arm like a howling parcel, and you slalom-run through the crowds to the bathroom. He makes it partway but his underpants are wet enough to warrant a change. So you help him change his undies with one hand while basically pinning the other kid to the wall with your other hand to keep him from playing with the toilet, and the older one, content now, randomly wants you to explain how the postal system works, and why airplanes have two engines, and why the biggest stars have individual names but the biggest trees don’t, and the little one is screaming the whole time “RAISIIIIIIINS!” You let them wash their hands for as long as they want because that calms them down, then you mop up the soap and water they’ve splashed everywhere with handfuls of paper towels, feeling guilty because The Environment. You take a deep breath. You hold one cold, damp hand in each of yours and pull them out into the store to go look for the cart, desperately hoping it will be where you left it. And that is the moment when somebody, usually an older women whose children are grown up, swoops in and tells you, “Cherish this time while they are little, my dear! It goes by so fast!” and you paste a fake smile on your face while thinking to yourself, Not fucking fast enough.

“Cherish this time!” People say this kind of thing to parents of small children All The Time, and somehow it’s never at a cherish-worthy moment. Just enjoy them. Don’t sweat the small stuff. As if the days aren’t made up of small stuff that needs to be sweated. They mean well, but they have forgotten what it’s like, and they don’t realize that they are just feeding the guilt monster its very favorite food. I get it, of course. They are speaking from a place of longing, even regret. No mother of grown kids, no granny who stops us in the street with shining eyes, really thinks we ought to prioritize, say, making puzzles with our kids (while cherishing every moment, of course) over practical matters like making dinner. You can’t eat a puzzle, as we have all learned from Curious George. What they are talking about is shifting our perspective. They are talking about gratitude and being in the moment. They are talking about not having a shitty attitude. In the meantime, we are cleaning up shit. This is the real balancing act: variations on Cherishing This Time vs. Oh-god-this-is-so-gross.

I am halfway out of the trenches. My older son is four and a half and my younger son is almost three, and the grocery store scenario above is more than a year old. When we are at home, I ignore my kids a lot. I hear myself, throughout the day, saying “not now,” and “I’m busy” and “maybe later.” Sometimes I am ignoring them because I am writing, which I take fairly seriously. Sometimes I am ignoring them just because I’m kind of a jerk, which I take slightly less seriously. Sometimes I am ignoring them because I have to do the dishes, or put away the laundry, or make their breakfast / lunch / dinner /snack, and these are things that need to get done whether I take them seriously or not.

For all the ignoring I do, there are still hours for playing outside, where I will applaud the millionth leap from the snow mountain and try to keep them from eating dirty ice. We eat every meal together, we read together and chat and tell stories and build nests to cuddle in, and sometimes I am bored out of my mind and sometimes I think I will burst from love, and sometimes I feel both of those things at the same time, which is weird and disconcerting, but in any case, I don’t feel like my kids are deprived of my attention. Denying it sometimes is fine, I am confident of that. The stickier question, for me, is how to feel about my own feelings. Is it awful to wish the day was over? What does it mean if I sometimes think I love my kids most when they are asleep? Is it OK to not cherish this time, sometimes?

The problem with “cherish this time” and “it goes by so fast” is that it doesn’t help to hear it. We know. This love is bigger and brighter than anything that came before. This love has made me both more and less than what I was. There are plenty of times, snuggling them close and kissing their squashy cheeks, listening to their little voices struggling to articulate their big thoughts, when I wish we could hold on to this time forever, and I am painfully aware of how fleeting it is. But then there are the other times, when I am just trying to get through it.

It is not helpful to feel like I ought to be cherishing this time when I am sleep-deprived and hungry and worn down to a nub of who I’d like to be, when the dishes are piled on the counter at home and my arms ache already from these big bags of groceries. The sun is going down, it’s been a long day, I just want to get home and start dinner, but the kids want to splash in the giant puddle of melting snow outside the grocery store. It’s time to go, I say, unconvincingly, and they shout BUT THIS IS SO FUN! They run to fetch slabs of ice from the side of the road, toss these into the puddle and smash them to bits, cheering gleefully, and the groceries are really heavy but the ground is wet, there is nowhere to put them down, why didn’t I bring a backpack?

And then this lady comes out of the store and beams at my kids. I know what’s coming. I brace myself. The lady looks at me, and I try not to look like I hate my life, because in spite of how I am feeling right now, I know that I am lucky, that I am ridiculously lucky to live here, to be safe and well, with healthy, laughing children. I know it can all change in a heartbeat. The possibilities for loss wake me up in the night. It is obscene to complain, but gratitude can coexist with feeling like crap, and never feeling like crap is a tall order, even in the luckiest life. The lady approaches and I ready my fake smile, because she’s going to tell me how fast it all goes, and I am going to nod like this means anything to me right now, or she is going to tell me to cherish this time, and I am going to try and pretend I am cherishing it rather than wishing to be home.

But instead she says, “Your children are so beautiful.”

I say thank you. She carries on, and I keep standing there with the groceries, hungry and cold and tired, watching them splashing and crowing and smashing ice, and I think, Yeah. They really are.

Yours, with love, gratitude, and a pretty shitty attitude,

Catherine

 

The Secret Door, The Sudden View, The First Page of a Great Book

Dear Blog,

Readers and writers have been talking up Erin Bow all over the internet for quite some time now. I am always late to the Everyone-Is-Reading-X parties, but one evening last month I put down a book that I wasn’t enjoying at all and thought, bah, not going to finish this, and I picked up Plain Kate instead.

When I was ten years old, my family moved to Oxford, England, for a year, and we rented an apartment in a beautiful old house. At our entrance, there was a piano against a door that looked like a closet or something, and then the stairs that led up to the rest of the flat. One lazy afternoon, my younger brother and I thought to squeeze behind the piano and check that closet. It turned out, of course, that it wasn’t a closet. Crumbling stone steps led down to a cellar. We explored with flashlights the passageways under the house, full of broken old pottery. It was like stumbling into another world: this ancient, secret place that had been there all along, and we hadn’t thought to look. It felt like something out of a book. The secret door. That moment when the thing you expect is not what you find at all.

I remember that day so well, and that feeling: our boredom and irritation falling away as we stared down into the dark, my brother and I shoulder to shoulder, the tense whisper – Get a flashlight! We’re going down! – and it felt like our whole lives were about to change. It’s a feeling that since has been replicated a number of times by the first page of an extraordinary book. When I opened Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, I got that same breathless tightening in the chest, that same sense of stumbling onto something entirely beyond what I’d been expecting. Like hiking a misty, twisty, wooded path in the mountains, and suddenly there is a break in the trees, the fog lifts, the view opens up and you can see for miles, the whole world laid out before you, and you want to weep with how lovely it is. Like how I imagine it would feel for pirates stepping into a cave and seeing at last the treasure they’ve spent their whole life searching for, lying there in a great gleaming heap before them.

On page seven of Plain Kate, I cried. I’m not a big crier-over-books. Two books made me cry in 2013: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Erin Bow gave me an early start on weeping this year. I’m not sure if I was crying for the character, even, or simply for the spare and lovely writing about her grief as, in those first gorgeous pages, she loses everything. As I read, I thought about how skilled you have to be with words to pull of this marriage of compassion and ruthlessness. There are brilliant, beautiful writers whose books shine with empathy, and there are a good many cruel geniuses too, who seem to write with a knife, murderously or surgically, depending on the story. I can be won over by either of these gifts, but both together is a rare and wonderful thing. When trying to think of writers whose work requires both a hot heart and a cold eye, I think first of Alice Munro. Erin Bow has that double gift too.

I finished the book and went to check out her blog. Was I surprised to find out that she is a poet? No! I was not surprised to find out that she is a poet! Obviously, if you read her prose, you can tell that she is a poet. She has published two collections under the name Erin Noteboom. The day that I checked her blog, there was a poem at the top called The Common Swift (see below), and I had that same feeling of wondrous discovery all over again: the pirate treasure, the secret basement, the dizzying view.

It is exciting discovering somebody this good. So if you haven’t already, go forth and discover her. And read the poem below, if you need more convincing, and also if you don’t.

Yours, proselytizingly,

Catherine

The Common Swift – by Erin Bow

Consider in its turn the common swift.
There is new evidence that over the dark dunes
of the Sahara, a swift will stay aloft
two hundred days.
Scientists are puzzled, not over how, but why.
Consider the work, they note, of sleeping in flight:
The alertness demanded,
the tacks and turns it takes
To ride the wind. Even a gliding bird would expend
a small but constant effort.
For such cost, there must be benefit.
That is the equation of science, which is only
half a twist from love. Consider in its turn
a marriage, surely no less common
Or marvelous
than swifts. Surely no less a nest
built in the air.

A Winter’s Tale: Then and Now

Dear Blog,

I spent the autumn of 2005 in Beijing, not entirely happy about it. I’d left behind enchanting Kyoto for love. My boyfriend was studying Mandarin and applying for graduate programs in the US. I was teaching English at Berlitz, trying to finish a novel that I was just beginning to sense was an unpublishable disaster, and missing everything about Japan. I didn’t have high hopes for the year, but all that changed following this conversation with my boss, V.

V: Do you remember when we talked about you going to work on an oil rig?
Me: Um… no.
V: Yes, yes, we talked about it last week! I’ve got a contract for you!
Me: I don’t remember that conversation. I’m an English teacher…
V: Well, they want a woman.
Me: … What?
V: Have a look at the contract and see what you think. But I need an answer by Friday.
Me: It’s Thursday.
V: *hands me contract and sails out*

Several weeks later, I was on a helicopter that looked to be held together with duct tape, bound for the FPSO Ming Zhu, an oil processing ship in the middle of the Bohai Bay. My job was to give English lessons to the one hundred plus Chinese employees, from supervisors to deck crew, in order to facilitate communication between them and the handful of British and American operations managers off-shore. The foremen and supervisors were keen students, as they needed a good grasp of English to move up in the company (a British-US oil company that shall remain nameless). The deck crew saw English class as an opportunity to come inside, sit down, and drink coffee, and so they were fairly keen too. I worried a bit about being the Only Woman out there, but the guys were, to a man, for the entirety of my contract off-shore, absolutely lovely to me and entirely respectful. We all worked on rotation off-shore. In my case, that meant that I was working 6 months out of the year for twice as much money as I’d been making before. I’d work four weeks, and then I’d have four weeks off (and a bundle of cash) to go traipsing around China with my boyfriend. Things were looking up.

In December the sea was rough, the ship pitching about so that I often had to chase my whiteboard-on-wheels across the classroom (much to the delight of my students) and it was frigid outdoors. Not that I had much occasion to go outdoors. Twice a week, though, I taught classes over on the WHP (Well-Head Platform – the drilling rig itself), and getting there was no small feat.

At 5:30 a.m. I was out on deck, in the pitch dark and the snow, bundled absurdly into what was called a “survival suit” – a giant rubber outfit that I could barely waddle around in but which would apparently keep me alive for an extra five minutes should I happen to fall into the freezing water. The Safety Officer strapped me into a contraption inexplicably called “The Frog.” This was a pyramid-shaped thing with three seats and a big hook on top. A crane lifted it from the huge processing ship and lowered it down to the deck of the transfer boat.

The Safety Officer pulled the straps tight across my gigantic rubber body, brushed the snow off my helmet in a rather motherly way, and waved my T-card (indicating my presence or absence from the ship) in my face. “You must give this to the frogman when you leave the FPSO!” OK, I nodded, thinking, the frogman? Although it sounded like a comic-book villain, this apparently referred to the bosun, standing by and beaming. “The frogman will give it to you when you get back and you must put it back at your muster station!” OK, I nodded again. And then he said my favorite sentence that has ever been uttered to me, with an intensity that made it sound almost like a threat: “When you get back, THE FROGMAN WILL BE WAITING FOR YOU!” (Da-da-DUMMMM!)

He backed up, waved, the crane lurched, and I was dangling in the black sky over the FPSO Ming Zhu, snowflakes spinning around me. Down I went, onto the deck of the transfer boat, where some other rubber-suited crew members helped me out of the frog, which went sailing upwards again. The transfer boat was a small vessel that crashed and lurched on the great waves. The crew suggested I might want to go inside, but I was sure I would get seasick if I did, and besides which, I was transfixed by the sight of the drilling platform.

It took about fifteen or twenty minutes to cross from the ship to the rig, depending on how rough the sea was. I remember that approaching the rig in the dark winter sea that first time, it struck me as one of the loveliest sights of my life. Ugly by day, in the dark it glittered with lights in a whirlwind of snowflakes, towering on great legs above the black, surging water. Giant icicles many times larger than a man hung from its lower platforms in fierce, jagged formations, lashed by foaming waves. It was like some kind of sci-fi fairyland, icy and twinkling and terrible, magical.

The rig had fewer men on it, and there was a charming sense of scrappy camaraderie among them. They were all terribly concerned about me and how I was faring off-shore for the first time, wondering if I was going to (metaphorically) jump ship now that I saw the reality. I admitted that my ears got cold on the transfer but that otherwise I had no complaints about my life off-shore. When it was time for me to go back in the evening, I found attached to my helmet a thick leather cap with ear-flaps, and a note that read: “Dear Miss Kat, Keep your ears warm! From the boys on the WHP.”

I waited on the heli-deck while the crane operator waved to me and brought the frog up from the transfer boat. I was lowered down, wearing my fetching new cap, and we went bouncing back over the waves, leaving the twinkling rig behind us for the larger, rocking FPSO Ming Zhu. I was full of the thrill of being out of my element, wide awake with brand new experiences. When I got back, the Frogman was waiting for me.

***

Winter now is dripping snowsuits hanging by the door, assembling pairs of mittens, hot chocolate, shoveling the car out and then shoveling it out again, my artistic failures bemoaned by my children because I cannot make a snow-fox that looks like a fox, my voice shrill and unfamiliar yelling: “No snow in the face! No snow in the face!”

The truth is, I love winter with my kids because they love it and happiness now means something different than it used to. I am anchored by love and obligation. For most of the guys I taught off-shore all those years ago, it was a hard job, not a good story, and they did it for the money. I did it for the money too, but still, my not belonging (and the temporary nature of the gig) made it something else for me, not just a job but an adventure. I think of that year alternating off-shore rotations and travel as a kind of last hurrah, before I moved to the US, got married, tried to start a vegetable garden, had children. I think of it, maybe a bit sadly, as the end of my youth and freedom. Back then I didn’t belong to anybody. I could tell my boyfriend I was going to work on an oil rig and he could laugh and then say, “seriously?” and it was all OK, because I could do whatever I wanted.

I used to feel like all I wanted was adventure: the new, the strange, the unexpected. If you think of the hours of your life as a kind of currency you trade in for experiences, then travel and living abroad have always given me the best bang for my metaphorical buck. Now, all the tired old routines, all the been-there-done-that-old-hat I fled for unfamiliar places and odd (to me) situations, all that is new again with my kids. Vicariously, at least, the simplest things become great adventures. Like getting a Christmas tree – a tree in the house, strung with lights and tinsel and decorations! The two-year-old stands before it, marveling: “It’s so beautiful,” he whispers, again and again. “It’s so beautiful.” They catch snow on their tongues, crowing at their whole world buried in white, changed utterly, the trees encased in ice that rains down, tinkling, with every gust of wind. We read a Little Golden Book version of the Christmas story, and my space-obsessed four-year-old wants to know: “OK but where is heaven? Is it in the solar system? Is it in the milky way galaxy? How big is it? Are angels real or is this just a story? Mom, is this true?” and I have no answers that suit either of us. The look of blissful concentration they get once I’ve peeled them out of their wet things and they are warm and dry and drinking hot chocolate. Everything is new. Nothing is old hat, for them, not yet. Their enthusiasm, their wonder and delight, even their fears: this is the antidote to the anesthetizing grip of habit and routine.

The difference, maybe, is that I’m no longer at the center of my own story. I’m in the background now: arranging wet boots on a towel, mopping the slush off the floor, pouring the hot chocolate. I send the sled roaring down the hill and watch them fall off at the bottom, a tangle of booted feet and snowy scarves, shouting with laughter. My joy isn’t in the thrill of the descent anymore, but the sound of their laughter. That might be sappy, or kind of pathetic, but either way, it’s the new truth. I would be lying if I said I never missed going at my own speed, starring in my own story, doing my own thing. I miss it all the time. But I was going at my own speed, starring in my own story, doing my own thing, for years and years, and at some point none of it was any good because it all got buried in the totally irrational longing for children. So here we are. I go slipping and sliding down after them, the two-year-old starting to get agitated because he can’t get up in his puffy snowsuit, the four-year-old already shouting, “Again!” I help the little one to his feet, and we all pull the sled back up to the top of the hill.

Yours, nostalgic-but-OK-with-it,

Catherine

The Last Days of Tian Di, in 3 sonnets

Dear Blog,

Last week I went to the OLA Superconference in Toronto, which was fun and fascinating. I was taking part in the CANSCAIP book launch, and because I have no idea how to pitch my books, I tried to sum them up in sonnet form. I know how you love a sonnet, blog, so here they are:

Book 1: Shade & Sorceress

You see them coming from the sky – these things
Shining above the clouds – how could you know
That you are seeing, in the morning glow,
Your childhood’s end descend on golden wings.
Here’s what you know: You are not what they say
This destiny does not belong to you
Here’s what you’ll learn: when you’ve got things to do
Not even destiny can bar your way.
The secrets peel away and leave behind
A sliver of the bare and shivering truth
You cross two worlds armed with a dragon’s tooth
Into the realm your awful foe designed.
So what are you? Whatever else, it’s plain
That you will never be a child again.

Book 2: The Unmaking

You think by now you have it figured out:
Whom you can trust and who is on your side,
The good and evil thing, the sharp divide
Between your separate selves. You cast about
For help in learning both roles: how to be
The Sorceress you think the world needs
And how to be a girl. Though each impedes
The other, you still think you can be free.
Then she comes back like a storm and in her wake
She leaves a ruin of all you thought was true
Her swift revenge, her monstrous will – this you
Must comprehend in order to unmake.
You’ll find that as both girl and Sorceress
You’re more than what you thought, and also less

Book 3: Fog, Bone, Ash & Star (to be published September 2014 – this is a sonnet-preview!)

In the bright palm of the deluder’s hand
You watch the world end, you watch them die
And time rolls on without you. In this lie
You dwell a while, until you understand:
You may not be the hero after all
Your heart may not be right, but it is true
You can’t unchoose your choices, can’t undo
The things you’ve done for love, while duty’s call
You barely heard. Now this: your ruinous quest
will shake the worlds and lead you back to her,
your dearest foe. And as the Ancients stir
you’ll find the truth, and face your final test.
Chasing the awful drumbeat of your heart
Your dearest wish may tear the worlds apart.

Yours, in iambic pentameter,

Catherine