Learning to take a compliment

Compliments are hard to manage for a well-adjusted woman, and even at my most confident I’ve never known what to do with them. However, right now, right in the midst of heartbreak and transition, if you give me a compliment I will poke a million holes in it. I will deflect like a boss. Make no mistake — I want the compliment, I just don’t know how to handle it when it arrives.

Example 1:

Them: “You look so beautiful in your photos!”
Me: “The photographer was amazing, and the lighting would have made a block of cheese look like a supermodel. We sure timed that right!”

Example 2: 
Them: “You have a real gift for writing, Danna.”
Me (via text to a friend): “How do I tell the difference between a pity, we-feel-sorry-for-you like, and a real like?”

When I’m wallowing there is not a compliment that I’ll believe, and there is not a nice thing you can say that I will trust entirely. 

(“Let’s face it,” sad me will say to myself, “if I were actually beautiful enough, then this probably wouldn’t be happening. If I were actually talented and funny and smart enough then I probably could have prevented my world from turning upside down.)  

But there is, thank Christ, a time limit on being pathetic. I can enjoy the food and music (sour jujubes and Adelle mostly), but I can’t move in and unpack. 

The antidote to being down in the dumps awash in self-pity, is, unsurprisingly, administered by women.

the gift of company

During my 42 years on this planet I’ve come to realize a universal truth  — the longer you live, the busier you become. I’ve heard life doesn’t even slow in retirement. Life, like skipping rope, just gets harder as you get older. And time for leisure becomes more scarce.

My own calendar is filled with work commitments, family commitments and other obligations, both in-person and virtual. There is never enough food in the fridge, the laundry is never done, and no matter how many times I walk the damn dog those big sad eyes will always be staring at me, begging for just one more trip around the ‘hood. I know I should go to bed earlier, but instead of sleeping I use the ever-shrinking time after the kids go to bed to tidy up, or to answer a couple of emails to get a head start on the next day.

There are always extra things to do. There is never extra time.

This is what life is like for all the women I know, but that hasn’t stopped them from showing up.

Despite the pressure put on these remarkable women to do everything and to be everything to everyone around them, they show up. These women are running businesses and raising families, but they pick up the phone and actually call. They give an hour, sometimes more, and fill up the silence that would otherwise eat me alive. 

They arrive, and they give, and holy shit, what a compliment. 

If I am enough for these women, then I am plenty. And even though you might not be able to hear it, or accept it, you, my friend, are pretty spectacular, too. 

The labels we give ourselves

I have been called a lot of things, and those labels have changed over time. I have always been “daughter,” “granddaughter,” and “sister,” and one of my fondest labels is “friend.” Don’t get me started on the labels that were placed on me in high school, though thankfully I didn’t hang my identity on “band geek.” 

I was “journalist” for many years, which was a label I loved and have yet to remove completely; and of course, I have been “mom” for the past 11 years, which is label that has threaded itself into my DNA. 

For 14 years I was “wife”. It was a label I wore nearly as proudly as “mother.”

But today I am an ex. The prefix is one I actively resisted. This is not a label I longed for, in fact, it is one I actively dodged for more than two years.  

I had no interest in being single, separated, divorced. And yet here I am — two of those things, and probably months away from being the third. 

Today, I am somebody’s “ex”, whereas moments ago I was the same person’s partner. Ex is a label I’ve used a hundred times to refer to other people and their former partners, but when attached to me it feels wrong. I wanted to brush it off like a cobweb that I walked through on my way to take out the garbage; I wanted to cut it off carefully so as not to tear the fabric of my favourite shirt.

In pirate adventures, an x marks the spot where an amazing treasure is hidden, but put an e in front of that x and all you’ve got is a person with baggage and several sad stories to tell. Now that’s me: Teller of sad stories; carrier of baggage.

I’d much prefer being treasure. 

Today, I am an ex, and instead of being “parent”, I am (legally-speaking) a co-parent, which is another label that will no doubt give me a rash. As I get used to wearing these scratchy tags, I busy myself by unpacking in my new home, setting up my new space, and ensuring my children have two of everything so they never feel like guests, or have to live out of suitcases. 

And when I look up from my busyness, I realize that it is now dark outside and so quiet in this house. I’m spending my first nights alone. I miss the taken-for-granted moments. I miss the every-day silliness at the dinner table, and the serious talks before bed. I have heard from other moms — other exes and co-parents — that I will come to appreciate these quiet moments. That when I wash these labels enough they’ll become soft and comfortable. That when I watch my children thrive, I will relax, and I will be grateful for those tags.

But I’m not there yet. In the quiet moments, these first ones, the labels chafe and are unbearable.

Yes, children are resilient creatures, and I take comfort in this. But when it comes to the resiliency of this mother, this co-parent, and this ex, we will just have to wait and see.   

Building a fantasy quarantine team

I’ve been thinking about my massage therapist a lot these days.

I wonder how he’s doing, and how he’s keeping busy, and I’ll be honest, I’m a little envious of his wife who had the forethought to marry an RMT. Was he an RMT when they met, or did she direct him toward his career path? Either way, I consider her an absolute genius.

I did not pick my partner based on the skills he could bring to a pandemic. I mean, his sense of humour has been a blessing, and he is wicked good at making Excel spreadsheets, but he is not an RMT, or a chiropractor. Neither of us are particularly good teachers, either, as it turns out.

Who makes the team?spreadsheet

Determining my fantasy quarantine team has taken up quite a bit of my imagination over the past several weeks as I itemize specific skills and discount others. Until recently I didn’t realize how handy it would be to be socially isolated with a hair stylist, or an esthetician.

And I would trade all the Excel spreadsheets in the world in order to add a fitness trainer and a nutrition coach to my roster, as all this self-isolated snacking is getting decidedly out of hand.

I also wouldn’t mind adding a bartender and a barista to my team, either.

There is room on my team for a pet groomer. I was eyeing up my husband’s electric moustache trimmer recently and noted that it was the PERFECT size for trimming the fluff around my doodle’s backside, but after a few moments of reflection I opted against it (because I’m a good person, and that would be a mean thing to do).

Mostly, though, I just miss my massage therapist. Being socially isolated with someone of his talents would be wicked handy. My home office is not ergonomic, and this momma has a neck kink like nobody’s business.

Open to trades

What do I have to trade? I’ve got a couple of budding comedians and fashion critics on the block. One of them can tell you just about everything you will ever need to know about Pokemon, and can also relate any aspect of your life to a Garfield comic. The other one will regale you with ego-boosting observations like: “What are you even wearing? Your shirt is super wrinkled and looks weird, but your hair is the worst part.” When he’s not offering up unsolicited comments on your attire, he will just jump out at you with a surprise high kick, or tackle you into a mid-afternoon wrestle-hug, which is another reason I’m on the lookout for an RMT.

Who is on your fantasy quarantine team?

Cleaning with a vengeance

I had just completed my weekly rage-clean when I paused to admire my hard work and also to reflect upon whether this style of cleaning is typical.

Am I the only one who uses anger as detergent?

Certainly, my husband and I both rage clean to different extents. I rage clean the parts of the house that people see. He rage cleans places that are used so infrequently that you forgot they were even part of the house. Like the closet under the stairs that contains our stash of gift bags, loose tissue paper, buckets of unused paint and one red hummingbird feeder. Or he’ll clean the furnace room, or the shed. I’ve even seen him rage clean a fish tank.images

During pandemic season when we’re all cooped up inside, shedding our hair and skin cells, and dirty socks in the same square footage 24-hours a day, seven days a week, I have more opportunity to observe the personal hygiene of my family, and I am frankly appalled, which means there is more rage with which to clean than ever before.

The cycle of rage cleaning

It starts with a clean house; the floors are vacuumed and mopped, the kitchen sparkles, the bathroom mirrors are free of toothpaste and fingerprints. And then little by little it starts to happen.

First, maybe there are just a few crumbs under the kitchen table, which you sweep up because at the beginning you think you’ll be able to stay on top of it. Then there’s the single sock in the middle of the family room; beside it on the table is a partially empty water glass, and before you know it a plastic cup joins it. And then you turn your head and there’s a hoodie just lying in the middle of the floor with a granola wrapper beside it. You shout. Things get picked up, but never everything, and never in a timely fashion.

Then you walk into the bathroom, and what was clean yesterday is now covered in beard trimmings and when you look down all you see are pieces of your own long brown hair on the floor; look up, and you’ll likely even find it up there attached to the ceiling. What is the hair sticking to? Nobody knows.

You Lysol wipe the counter, but those wipes are hard to come by in a pandemic. And you think about vacuuming but to vacuum you have to pick up the 700 Nerf darts and 35 dog toys that are currently scattered around the house. It all seems impossible, so you just pour yourself a glass of wine because it’s 3 pm on a Wednesday, and you head outside because at least it’s clean out there, or sort of clean, because that’s where the dirt lives, and you’re basically just visiting the dirt at its own house, which is calming.

Eventually, however, you have to come back inside because that’s where the food is. Then you decide to make dinner, but to make dinner you have to find some counter space.

They break you

And that’s when it happens. You snap. It’s taken days to get here, but your family has finally broken you, and if you don’t rage you’ll cry, and dammit, you are NOT going to be bested by these little jerks that you birthed, so you slam the cupboard doors, toss plates into the dishwasher (thanking Jesus that you bought the ugly Corelle because it’s the only thing that stands up to a rage clean), and these sounds give notice: Everybody better pitch in or get the hell outta the way, because you have lost your ever loving mind, and the rage clean has begun.

16681986_601420956729865_4856545844268361857_nThe music is loud, but the house that was filled with animals, people and noise moments ago is now empty. Children who wouldn’t leave you alone long enough to take a 20-minute teleconference have all but disappeared into the mist. They have read the mood and scattered to the winds, giving you free reign to curse them loudly while they’re out of earshot. “They are SO GROSS! How are they so DISGUSTING! They are worse than ANIMALS! GAH!”

The heart rate monitor on your smart watch is pumping, because your rage burns calories; your rage gets shit done. Your rage is ALIVE!

But it’s for the greater good

Eventually it fizzles though, and you look around and realize that your house is clean again. You’ve ordered take out. The sound of the washing machine going through its final spin cycle is a lullaby. The vacuum hose gets wound up and tucked away in the closet, the floors are now dry, so the chairs come down from on top of the kitchen table. The gangsta rap that Alexa had pumped moments ago is suddenly Jack Johnson. You can hear the birds sing outside, and when your family returns from their sudden field trip to the driveway to play basketball you greet them with a smile and a “please hang up your hoodie.”

And that’s how it begins, for me, anyway.

The guilt of pandemic parenting

The guilt of parenting during a pandemic is heavier than any weighted blanket available on Amazon, and unlike a weighted blanket which is designed to reduce anxiety and improve sleep, it ratchets it up, and gives your brain more to consider as you lay awake, completely aware of how badly you’re failing at just about everything you’re doing right now.

Where I live, we’re in Week 3 of pandemic parenting, meaning while mom and dad work full time from home, we’re also providing full-time care to our children, which includes some educational instruction.

(I’d like to pause here and acknowledge that our pandemic situation is privileged. Privilege, in this case, looks like general good health, two parents, two pay cheques (for now), food in the fridge, an ample (but not excessive) amount of toilet paper, a bit of a backyard, and more sunny days than rainy ones. There’s even an uncertified therapy dog who is happy to absorb all of the angst and fear that comes from being locked up with your loved ones for days on end.)

I always wanted children, but I also knew that stay-at-home parenting was not my jam. I love grown-ups, and swearing, and solving grown-up problems. I love leaving behind my dirty laundry and mismatched socks in favour of a quiet office that I share with a five-year old orchid that blooms semi-annually. I love the sound of the office HVAC system, and I love my other office mate, a tiny blue space heater that only sees use in summer because the HVAC system lives in Opposite Land. I love going to work, I love being at work, and I love coming home from work to see faces I would die for — faces that I’ve missed so much and thought about so many times during the day. I love the car ride home from daycare because I get to hear all of their ridiculous stories. I love sharing adventures and kid gossip at the dinner table. I love weekends because it means I can stay home with my people because I miss them so much.

I always wanted children, but I also knew that teaching was not my jam. My mother is a teacher, my sister, too. I watch both and shake my head. Where they excel, I would flounder. Judging by my parenting style, if you put me in charge of a class full of 7-year-olds I would take turns bribing them with Dino-Sours and threatening to cancel Christmas. Adults, with their manners and passive-aggressive side-eyes, don’t scare me, but children are wise and cunning. Eventually they’d figure out that my threats are as empty as the bag of Dino-Sours that I inhaled in the cloak room. At which point I’d probably just run behind a plant and hide because 1. children are terrifying, 2. I have zero teaching tools and no desire to acquire them, and 3. unlike my sister and my mother, I lack the ultimate secret weapon: A teacher voice.

I always loved the routine provided by school, daycare and work, and the thrill I got from stacking all those perfect little glass jars so they balanced so perfectly and shone so beautifully that even the stiffest wind couldn’t knock them over. And yet here we are, in the midst of a pandemic, my glass jars of routine and sanity shattered on the driveway, and I am stuck in my house, working full time, parenting full time, and teaching, too.

I’ve got to say, I’m not a huge fan.

Screen Shot 2020-04-03 at 7.39.19 AMPandemic parenting means that I never get to miss my children, and they never get to miss each other. They are always here, always in my business and in each other’s. They wrestle constantly, stopping only when someone gets a bloody nose or a knee to the nuts, and when I suggest a directed drawing, some Reflex Math, or a visit to the Cincinnati Zoo (online, obviously), I’m met with a deep sigh and a “no thanks, I already know about hippos.”

Knees to the nuts it is, then.

And despite how much I joke about my lack of parenting skills, I always secretly thought I was pretty good at it. Until yesterday.

During my oldest child’s first Zoom videoconference with his class he opened up: “I miss everyone so much. I only ever get to talk to my little brother who argues all the time, or my mom and dad, and they’re always working.”

I overheard his comment while up in my office. Working.

And that, dear friends, is what parenting in a pandemic feels like — a heavy, weighted blanket of guilt — guilt that is bottomless and causes breathlessness even as I write it down.

 

Hey teacher, how about you pick the teams?

In honour of Pink Shirt Day how about we do something completely radical?

For one single day let’s cancel gym class, unilaterally — in every city, everywhere.

Or, maybe we could do something slightly less dramatic. Maybe we could implement a few minor changes. For starters, how about we end the time-honoured tradition of forcing children to line up while their peers select them for a team; a process that inevitably ends up with one child being the last selected, over and over again until he or she can finally opt out of gym as an elective in Grade 11.

Because really, what is this selection process if not socially acceptable bullying? Sure, it was how things worked in the 1980s when I was in elementary school, but that was before we wore pink shirts and used cute acronyms to describe ideal behaviour.

The fact is kids want to win. And while they may wish to be “Safe, Outstanding, Accountable, and Respectful (SOAR),” when you throw them into the Hunger Games Arena (or gymnasium) and tell them to pick their dodgeball team, they’re going to do the exact same thing we did when we were 10 and pick the kids who can throw hard and run fast. And the rest of the kids are going to stand in an ever-shrinking line with their cheeks burning just waiting for this humiliation to end.

I’ve written before about being a parent to child of many skills and talents, most of which are cerebral rather than physical. I adore my thoughtful, artistic son, the one who happily climbs trees and folds paper airplanes; the one who, if given a choice between a visit to the dentist and a stint on a soccer team, would choose his teeth every time.

But he must participate in gym, and generally he’s fine with it, though he cares little about whether he wins or loses. On this day, however, he cared. On this day he came home from school and told me of a day that “started off great, and then got worse.”

It was Tuesday. Gym day. His class was to play dodgeball, and two children were selected to choose teams.

“I was chosen first, which never happens,” he said, making me sigh.

But then his team started doing poorly, and another boy on his team took the loss seriously.

“He told me that I was the reason we were losing. And then I heard him tell his friend that he couldn’t believe I had been chosen first out of all the kids in the class. AND HE KNEW I COULD HEAR HIM!”

“What did you do,” I asked him.

“I turned to them and said, ‘hey, guys, I’m RIGHT HERE!’ And then they turned to me and said, ‘whatever.'”

What I heard from the story was that my son had been chosen first, and that another child was jealous. My son was steamed, and addressed it in the moment. The moment passed, they went back to class, and completed their day, but not without my son learning a harsh new lesson.

I’m not concerned about this child of mine. He is smart enough and has enough great friends that it doesn’t matter if he plays soccer or hockey, if he’s on the winning team or the losing team, or if gets picked first or picked last. Each day he comes home to a place where he is safe, he is loved, and if he ever feels like he can’t fight his own battles, he knows his home team will spring into action.

But I am concerned about gym class, especially for the kids who might not bounce back so easily. I bet if you did some research you’d discover school-aged bullying happens in a few key venues: The playground, online, and in gym class. We can’t cancel the internet, though it’d be nice to kill the comment section for a day. The kids need fresh air, so we can’t cancel recess. And as much as I personally would have liked to kibosh gym class to avoid the torture that was volleyball, I understand that kids need this, too.

However, in the 30-plus years since I was in elementary school, plenty has changed. Our kids are learning in entirely new ways and using new technologies. Cursive writing is dead, and report cards don’t even have grades anymore. Yet by all accounts gym class has stayed the same. Sure, physical activity is necessary. Sure, dodgeball may end up teaching more relevant skills than, say algebra, so I get we can’t cancel it. But in honour of Pink Shirt Day, maybe the bright lights among us can do something to make gym class slightly less cruel.

Maybe today on Pink Shirt Day the teacher can pick the teams.

 

 

 

 

Resolving to be a bit lazier

I could resolve to learn a new language and to play the piano, and when those two things are well in hand, I could take a stab at calligraphy and finally start to take meditating seriously.

And of course, there is all the blogging that I want to do and haven’t. And let’s not forget the parts of parenting that I should probably invest my time in. I’m pretty decent at being a mom. I think if my kids had to grade my parenting the way I am asked to evaluate my professors after each course I complete, I’d probably come out with a solid B. Maybe a B-minus.

I should spend more time reading with them, especially with my littlest, who at only seven is convinced that he’s “not a good reader,” and is “better at other things,” which breaks my heart because I know that criticisms are like concrete, whereas compliments float away like puffs of air.

I need to get back into meal planning and grocery shopping with intention! Now that I think of it, it would be responsible of me to cut down on the frequency of my visits to the liquor store, also.

I want to read more books that move me, and watch television that I get excited about. I want to phone more people more often and actually hear their voices. I want to visit my grandfather at least twice. I want to take more and better photos, and acquire more stamps for my passport.

I want to do more things and have fewer of them.

But more than all this, more than any of this, I want to just be kinder with myself, and give myself permission to do none of these things occasionally. Over the past three days without coursework or real work, I’ve had moments of absolute laziness. I’ve read books that do nothing but pass time, and consumed coffee while it’s still hot. I’ve scrolled through social media, liking and chiming in. I’ve let the laundry sit in the washing machine and rest for ages in the dryer. I’ve slopped Mr. Noodles into bowls for my children, and they’ve gobbled it up without complaint. I’ve cocooned myself in sweatpants, slippers and an oversized t-shirt with a hilariously ironic “Bodybuilding.com” emblazoned across the front.

There has been fresh air, but no frenzy. There has been activity, but no impatience. But it takes practice, this laziness. There have been moments in the quiet shuffle that I’ve looked up and felt guilty. Guilty for not doing more, better, constantly. I’ve glanced at the washing machine and felt a pang, and have reached for the vacuum only to remind myself that sometimes we need days filled with nothing. Like a factory reset.

Tomorrow, the tree comes down and the vacuum cleaner gets picked up. Tomorrow the clothes come out of the dryer, and soon after we head back to work, to school and to schedules.

Rather than resolve to get better at everything this year, I’ll resolve to become kinder to myself, and to give myself permission to do less more often. We don’t have to get smarter, cook better, learn Spanish, have an exciting social life and a rich marriage all at the same time, each and every day.

So here is to 2020. May it be full of exciting adventures, stunning sunsets, laughter and a little bit of laziness.

 

 

High anxiety parenting

The therapist leaned in, looked me in the eyes and asked:

“Who can you trust completely?”

“Myself,” I answered without thinking.

“And what can you trust yourself to do?”

“Anything,” I said. “Anything I have to.”

“So relax, Danna,” she said, leaning back into her chair. “Relax into life.”

As if it’s just that easy.

While never clinically diagnosed with anxiety, I feel it humming through my veins. As a kid I was in and out of doctors offices complaining of constant tummy aches, and I terrified my parents by refusing to eat. Who can eat when there’s so much to worry about?

Come to think of it, maybe I’m not anxious. Maybe I’m just a melodramatic worrier with an overactive imagination.

I developed little tricks that seemed to help. There were mantras I’d repeat to myself nightly before falling asleep: “Everything is going to be OK tomorrow; you are not going to die,” I’d whisper into my pillow. I had a bear that slept with me every night. His name was Bear and he had a red bowtie. I don’t know why I speak of him in past tense, because he is currently in my room.

There was a cherry tree in the front yard and when I climbed it the tummy aches would go away. It quickly became known as the Magic Tree, and a place of escape when nothing else worked.

In my 20s there were a few trips to the ER for what felt like heart attacks. A couple of Ativan later, and I was able to get through planning a wedding.

Now I’m a grown up, and a worst-case scenario parent who can no longer just run outside and climb a tree. In need of more mature solutions, I sought out professional advice.

So I go to therapy. I also exercise a lot. I’ve tried to meditate, but I usually just end up making a grocery list in my head.

For me, anxiety is like a toxic security blanket. It’s killing me, but also makes me feel normal, comfortable, and super productive. When I’m not anxious, I get anxious, as if there’s something lurking around the corner that I haven’t wised up to yet. I’ll wander the house, randomly feeling my children’s foreheads for fever, checking the calendar to make sure I’m not missing a dentist appointment. I’ll call my parents and ask after their health.

But anxiety, I’ve learned, is about perfection and control. If I’m in control of a situation, then I don’t have to worry about it. And if I can see it coming (or imagine it in advance) then I can prepare for it, making me a worst-case scenario parent.

Anxiety is helping me get ready so that I can be really GREAT when disaster strikes.

However, according to my therapist, we can control about five to 10 per cent of the events that take place in our lives. As much as we’d like to, we can’t control other people, or the choices they make. I can’t even control the temperature in my office at work. And worry isn’t magical — if I can think of a terrible situation and speak it out loud, that doesn’t prevent it from happening. Jinxing, as it turns out, isn’t a weapon against chaos.

“Who can you trust?”

It was such a simple question, with such a profound internal response.

I can trust myself. And that’s enough. That’s pretty great, actually.

I’ve watched people I love handed their own worst-case-scenarios; death or diagnosis dropped into their laps out of nowhere. They didn’t see it coming, and if they had, would it have made bearing the weight of it any easier?

It was terrible. But they handled it. They are still handling it. And while they’ll never be the same, they will be OK.

Life has shit in it, and despite how active my imagination, I won’t see it coming. There’s no bracing for it.

But when it does hit — and it will — I’ll handle it, because that’s what I do.

When we have children, our worries shift from internal to external and there seems no end to them. What if something happens to my kids? What if they’re hurt, or worse? What if they become ill, or worse? What if they’re struggling and I don’t notice?

There’s no number of miles I can run, no tree high enough to climb my way out of these anxiety-producing thoughts that keep me awake, steal my life, and make me look fucking old.

And so I’m working my way to trusting myself — trusting that when the worst of the garbage arrives to stink up my sweet life, I’ll handle it. It will suck, but I’ll be OK.

And I’ll finally be able to relax into life.

Remember what harassment feels like?

I had forgotten what it felt like to be harassed. Honestly, it’s been awhile.

The sun was shining. I was walking home after dropping my children off at school. Ready for work, I was mentally adding items to my to-do list and wondering what I’d already forgotten.

I sensed a vehicle approaching from behind, but only paid attention as it began to slow, which was odd as it was nowhere near the intersection.

A dark blue Dodge with a lawnmower in the box pulled up alongside. Smiling, the driver leaned out and said something. I couldn’t hear him over the sound of the truck’s exhaust, so I stopped and turned; assuming he was lost, I smiled, ready to point the way.

He raised his voice: “You’re like an angel. You’re so beautiful,” he shouted, before laughing, reaching over and high-fiving the guy beside him on the passenger seat. He put the truck back into gear and drove off, not before giving me wink and a wave. I think he thought he had made my day. 

There I stood, dumbstruck, wondering what the hell had just happened. 

There was a time, back in my teens, twenties and early thirties, that I was always on the lookout for this type of situation, but always failed to see it coming. Now in my 40s, I’ve become complacent. I haven’t been harassed in, like, forever. One man leering out his truck window, however, and it flooded back. I know this feeling. Every single woman I know, and every woman I don’t, knows this feeling. 

It’s dread, combined with embarrassment, anxiety, fear, anger and helplessness. 

I remember the first time I felt this way. I was 13, it was halloween and I was dressed as a cheerleader. My mom, who taught elementary school during the week and Sunday school on the weekend, put the costume together for me to ensure it wasn’t too scandalous. The skirt was short, but with the tights I wore, she said it was OK. She stitched a letter on my sweater, and bought me pompoms, which I adored. My long brown hair was held up in a high ponytail by a thick red ribbon, and I’m sure that ponytail was swinging back and forth as I walked home from school.

The truck pulled up beside me and there were three young men inside seated together on the bench. I remember exactly where I was. There was no sidewalk on this part of my route. I was walking on an unpaved shoulder with the road on one side and a wooded ravine on the other. I remember thinking that I could turn around and run the other way and that they might not be able to catch up to me if they had to throw the truck in reverse.

My heart still pounds thinking about it, and about what might have happened but didn’t. They commented on my cute costume, laughed, and whistled as they drove away. It was my own fault, I thought. I should have worn pants. I should have waited and walked home with a friend. I wouldn’t make that mistake again. I’m an idiot. There was nothing to be afraid of. I should take it as a compliment. At least they weren’t insulting me. Or wait, maybe they were just making fun of me?

My best friend had a similar experience, but the man in the car was alone when he reached out his window with a quarter in his hand and said: “Give me a call when you turn 16.” She turned and fled. She was out of breath when she called me. She lived in a rural area and walked the same path home from the bus each day. There was no shortcut. We both wondered whether she should tell her mom. We both worried that maybe he’d come back. We both decided that she should just take it as a compliment. We were 13.

After a while, you get used to it. You get used to that feeling as you walk past a group of men and they stop talking, mumble to one another and then laugh. You get used to the feeling of people looking at you, leering. We cross streets, we walk in pairs, we look straight ahead and walk really, really fast.

I worked in a department store in my early 20s. If I had a dollar for every man who told me to smile, or who asked what I was up to after work, or who wondered what a pretty girl like me was doing working in a place like this, I wouldn’t have had to take out a student loan.

This is why we have ladies only gyms, and why we pretend to be on the phone when we use public transit. A male relative once observed that women drivers always stare straight ahead at stop lights: “Why is that,” he asked me, sincerely. 

I explained that we stare straight ahead because we can see you looking. If we make eye contact, or smile, you might think we’re interested. Sometimes you follow us. The scenery is not worth the risk.

Eventually, the catcalls stop, though. Eventually, we slow down, take out our earbuds, and remove the keys from between our knuckles. 

So we forget. And we think maybe times have changed. Maybe girls don’t have to put up with street harassment anymore. Maybe men have gotten better. 

And then this happens. I’m a grown ass woman walking in my middle-class suburban neighbourhood on a sunny Monday morning, but to a man in a truck, I was object on display — I was something he felt entitled to comment on.

To be honest, I debated posting this, worried that readers would tell me to be flattered, and to take it as a compliment. Perhaps the trolls would suggest that the driver must have been blind, or that I’m just too sensitive, and that our society is too politically correct, and why can’t women just lighten up and take a joke?

But I’ve been deflecting, walking quickly, making jokes, and saying “thank you,” to unsolicited comments about my body and my appearance my whole life, and it’s made me feel small, and stupid. It guts me to think of girls who are still made to feel this way as they walk home from school, work out, or try to do their jobs, and who are told to “just say thank you.” 

This has never been flattery; it has always been harassment, designed to make us feel small, and remind us that we are here for your pleasure.  

We are not. 

 

 

The day the school burned down

What is it about an elementary school that grabs at our hearts? When you think about it, it’s really just a place where cinderblock meets vinyl floors, and where the walls (not the windows) tell you the season. Autumn leaves are replaced by jack-o-lanterns before the poppies bloom only to be replaced by snowmen (and women).

There are a lot of irritating things about elementary schools. Like parking, and the drop-off zones in which one parent always decides to stop and get out and mess up the whole system; like the lost and found bin that fills up the first week of school and gets progressively smellier over time.

And then there’s our little community school, composed of a maze of interconnected classrooms in which one could easily get turned around. Our school was built in the early 1970s and was trendy back then. An open concept school, it followed the principle that children would learn more effectively in open, creative spaces. They would learn at their own pace, and let their interests lead them. Teachers would work together alongside the students, and would learn from each other. It sure sounded like a great idea, but open = noisy and distracting, and before long the walls went back up, and our little school became super confusing, a maze of interconnected classrooms without hallways.

My old elementary school had high-tech machines that beat up chalkboard erasers. This school has Smart Boards and Chrome Books.

But there is still carpet time; children still sit criss-cross applesauce, hands in their laps. There are still stars on reading charts and cubbies with little shoes in them. There are still swing sets and hockey nets and a little room in the office that you sit in when your tummy aches.

Or at least there was, before it burned to the ground last week.

Driving by the other night on my way to a parent meeting to find out where my children would spend the next two years while their school is rebuilt, I stopped by our school and cried for a bit. Its roof had caved in, and it sat, crooked in the rain, like a hodgepodge of scattered blocks destroyed by an angry toddler.

I didn’t expect the sight would make me cry. Everyone got out safely. Nobody was injured. The building will rise again even better than before.

Everything will be OK.

But everything will be different, and so much has been lost. The fire even took away the smell of crayons, new shoes, old shoes, leftover lunches and library books.

My old school, Fraserview Elementary, still stands. Today if I wanted to, I could wander its perimeter, sit on a swing, or look through the window of what was once Mrs. Taylor’s Grade 3 class.

Today, 36 years after I began kindergarten I can close my eyes and see Mrs. Greenwood’s classroom perfectly, and remember her face as if no time had passed. If I needed to use the bathroom, I’d know exactly where to go, and I can picture the playground perfectly, as though I’d chipped my front tooth on the monkey bars yesterday.

I can smell the glazed donuts on hot lunch day, and I remember faking injury in warm weather so the secretary would give me ice, which I’d eat and enjoy like it was the best dessert I’d ever tasted.

This was where I learned to read, learned to write, and learned all the words to Oh Canada! This was where I danced in front of the whole school to Pump Up The Jam, and when I’m drinking, I can still remember the moves.

So this is why I cried sitting in front of our school and watching it through the windshield wipers. It’s not the building, it’s the memories. It’s the teachers, and the friends. When you’re in it, when you are there, you have no idea that it’s all sinking in, that you’re becoming part of its history and that it is becoming part of your own.

My children will make new memories, but they’ll never forget the day that their school burned down.

***
Parkcrest Elementary in Kamloops, British Columbia, was destroyed by fire on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. The Parkcrest Parent Advisory Council is actively raising funds to replace many of the teaching materials lost in the fire. Please consider joining us, and help us meet our goal.