Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Numbers, Who Needs 'Em

It’s tax season, which means piles of paper with numbers on them, on various horizontal surfaces.

One measure of abundance and joy

And January is also a time for end-of-year reflection and beginning-of-the-year inspiration energy. 

"It's February," you say, and I say, "Okay, yes, I see what you mean." January's possibilities might have evaporated by now, this February. But have others appeared? Also: as I am trying to remember, what even is pandemic time?

Regardless, the juxtaposition of the two energies (numbers and inspiration) is weird—helpful in some ways, not so much in others.

Here’s the thing about numbers: they measure some things really well. Money coming in and going out, for example. The number of words written, the number of pitches/pieces/novels/poems/whatever you wrote.

But they don’t measure everything. 

We all know about smart goals: specific/measurable, or is it meaningful?/attainable/r-something/t-something. (I "did my own research,"  meaning, "I googled." R is for relevant, T is for time-based--perhaps it's not surprising that these concepts, in this pandemic world, are the ones I forgot.)

So sure, you can attach numbers to goals.

But numbers don’t measure other things. Like inspiration and dreams. Satisfaction. Success. Good feelings, or bad ones, for that matter. 

No matter how many stars someone assigned to the experience of reading your book. And no matter how often someone says, "On a scale from 1 to 10, how much pain are you in?"

What level does your daughter read at? Number. How much does she enjoy reading? Not a number.

I don't mind dealing with the numbers. In answer to the question in the title of this post, we all need numbers. Including (especially?) me, in spite (or because) of my tendency to the dreamier side of life. I can see their importance, even as I recognize their limitations. 

As I total income and expenses, words accumulated, readers and sales and reviews, acceptances and rejections, I keep in mind this non-numerical measure: how much do I love the life I'm living? 

A lot, turns out, even with pandemic/civil unrest/long winter nights/unrelenting February frigid temps/difficulty feeling I have something relevant or valuable to say. 

A lot. A very important, if non-numerical measure. A lot.  

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Lots of Threads: The Unravelling, by Donna Besel

Content warning: The Unravelling is a powerful book. It deals with sexual and physical abuse, incest, and emotional trauma, and may be disturbing to readers. I also mention those subjects in my brief discussion of the book, below, which may also be disturbing. 

“Violation is violation is violation.”

“What did I want? To tell and be believed; to see remorse and change. Was this realistic?”

The Unravelling, by Winnipeg writer Donna Besel, is courageous, insightful, eye-opening, consequential, sobering—this list could continue. Donna writes in stark prose, often poetic, about her family’s experience of reporting the sexual abuse her father perpetrated on her sisters and herself.

Her story has so much to offer, not the least of which is the unrelenting presence of abuse in the lives of its victims. Attorneys go home, neighbours exchange gossip then change the subject, family alliances shift and shatter, but always, ALWAYS, the memory of the abuse is there for those who experienced it. Even—or perhaps especially—for those who “just want to put it in the past.”

It must have been tempting to lapse into denial or politeness to maintain relationships with family members who wanted to pretend it never happened or wasn’t so bad. Instead, Donna chose to directly face the legacy of the abuse, getting through it using physical activity, journaling, writing, therapy, active and thoughtful parenting, and connections with groups of friends. 

She walked a difficult path, and I hope it’s been ultimately fulfilling for her. Certainly, her openness about the wrenching dailiness of confronting the years of violation and gaslighting can help other victims know they’re not alone if they can’t “just get over it.”

Here’s a passage about halfway through the book, when she’s sitting by a lake at a retreat. 

The water’s surface remained unbroken. Without the refraction of waves, I could look into its depths; stones rubbed smooth by waves sat on the lake bottom, waiting for me to examine them. The ice had already candled, breaking up slowly, hissing and popping as pieces dropped into the lake. The morning light blazed through the ice, imparting a turquoise glow. The groaning mass moved slowly, eaten by sun and water. I stared into the water and the pile of ice transformed into a metaphor. Quietly, slowly, it was changing.

Another insight from this book: how toothless the legal (not justice) system can be. It took three years, endless advocacy from Donna on her own behalf and on the behalf of other victims, and steadfast courage in the face of conflicting demands to bring her father into a thrown-together court setting. And still, up until the sentencing and beyond, the system catered to him and his “needs,” without adequately hearing from the victims or the greater community, where he also routinely groped women and exposed himself.

Among the many other parts of the book I admire is the laser focus on the victims and their families, especially their choices in the face of acknowledged (and unacknowledged) abuse. There’s little background on the abuser—and why should there be? As Donna points out, either abusing children is okay, or it isn’t. Asking “why?” is less helpful than asking “how can we stop them,” and then doing that.

Something I hadn’t thought about is how people would respond to the knowledge of the abuse once the family began to discuss it. Like some people Donna mentions, I would have thought, “If she wants me to know, she’ll tell me. If she wants to talk about it, she’ll bring it up.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me that this leaves the burden—an emotional burden with heavy, physical consequences—on her.

I’d tell one friend, hoping I’d be spared the energy it took to tell the other. … Barb said that people believed it was malicious to tell. I explained to her how it felt like I had been carrying a huge bag of stones all my life. Now, every person I told got a rock. If they accepted it, they could choose what they wanted to do with it—throw it at the offender, or throw it away. It made my load lighter.

Today, if I knew someone was handling something difficult, I’d try to check in with the person to see what their preference is.

This book says so much. That so many losses simply can never be redeemed. That "justice" doesn't bring "closure" (and what even is closure, really, except being told yet again that "you should be over it" "why can't you get over it" "get over it, already"). And that people around us are carrying with them more than we know. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Dropping A Line

We’re upgrading our internet service, and to do this, a crew had to come out to drop a line. 

When I told my sister that she looked dubious and said, “What does that mean, ‘drop a line'?“ (I get it; that’s phrase sounds like something that might happen in a bathroom, a bed, or a party.)

Reflections and reality. Not a February photo.

I was excited to describe it. It was so interesting to watch!

The crew had a literal cable—the “line,” I’m guessing—that they had to physically connect in the real world.

The line runs from the outside of our house to “our” hydro pole (we can see it from the front porch so that makes it “ours”?) and connects to other things on the pole. Then the line then runs to the next pole, and another one or two, and eventually the line connects to the poles along the street at the end of our driveway.

Those poles and their lines somewhere connect to towers, which connect to other stuff. Somewhere, there’s an electrical source, a telephone connection, light, and other things that are all vaguely magic to me.

As you can see, I know very little about some important things. Which is why it’s so interesting!

And I guess, but I am only guessing, that the “drop” refers to one of two things: a conceptual map, on which the cable “drops” a level on the map, from the line at the street to the line to our house, OR the fact that the line is at a lower physical altitude where it connects to the house than it is at the top of the pole.

Again: don’t know!

And while I’m at it: Why is the line “dropped,” when the phrase “run a line” is also available and is altitude-neutral? Don’t know!

Two vans of guys and equipment spent all afternoon at the tops and bottoms of poles in our vicinity and down at the street. They stomped various paths in snow.

I watched and did other stuff (updating spreadsheets and shuffling papers) and watched some more. 

All the while, I thought about the people whose work is with tangible things in the world. They stock grocery shelves, they treat sick and broken bodies, they drive machines that move bricks, they hammer and build. 

I remembered the first book I ever worked on, back on a now-defunct publishing company—how exciting to see it, after months of trying out the best presentation of the concepts and seeing words on the screen. A book! Paper and glue and soy ink, and I got to hold it in my hands. 

That "holding of the book" never got old. Every time the first box of a new title came in, the editorial staff gathered in the break room to look at them and applaud each other. One of the biggest moments in my life was holding a book with my name on its spine and my mother's photo on the cover. 

But mostly, now, my "work" is at a screen, moving pixels that look like words. Sometimes I shuffle papers and make phone calls.

And maybe that’s why I find this other type of activity so interesting. It’s more tangible. Not necessarily more honourable or “better”—or “worse” or “beneath me.” Just different.

Upgrading our internet is more complicated than somebody in an office somewhere turning a dial or flipping a switch.

Dropping a line is not an idea. It’s not sharing information to change a mind. It’s not telling a story to entertain someone. It's a thing that requires movement through space.

Like much of the work in the pandemic. For which I remain grateful.

That’s pretty cool. All of it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

What I'm Taking Into February of 2022

Treats and fun things to do. I make a list and pick from it. Does it feel fake, to rely on a list instead of some sense of joyful spontaneity? Sometimes. Is it worth it? Yes. Because sometimes it’s hard to remember, in a glum moment, what might cheer me up. What’s fun, when nothing sounds like fun. So the list is helpful.

What’s on the list? Fun things to make in the kitchen (like the turkey breast roast we had in December or the banana bread loaves that might appear this afternoon). Ways to bring the outdoors indoors intentionally (not like tracking snow in) and beautifully (also not like tracking snow in, and harder in the winter than other seasons). Specifically, growing a bulb or buying flowers or a potted hyacinth. Also: specific movies (seasonal or nostalgic) to watch. Using special mugs for my morning coffee. Small things, but mighty.

Until they're growing outdoors, I can grow some indoors.
Or, you know, try.

Music. For the past several years I’ve fallen out of the habit of listening to music during the day. I tend toward podcasts when I’m walking, and my work is such that music with words sometimes isn't a good choice. But at the Christmas holidays, I always remember music. And this year I’ve carried that through January (I yearned for classical music and Eva Cassidy) and into February (music I used to work to—soundtracks, mostly).

Scroll-Breakers. As in, a list of more-valuable (not necessarily fun) activities than scrolling. Again, why the list helps: often I’m scrolling because nothing else sounds like fun, or even worth doing. And sometimes--sometimes--remembering that I’ve wanted to wipe the years of grime off the staircase railing can get me to put the phone down and pick up a rag. Which I might not remember without the list. 

Rest. Sleep. Exercise. Rest. Generally, take it easier (and miraculously, I’m doing as much as I was, WHICH IS NOT THE POINT). Be kind, starting with myself.

Selectivity. Specifically, greater selectivity in attention to the news. My local health unit changed their COVID reporting and that made it easier. Resting has also helped me worry less about parts of the world I can’t control (the many sides, sad and otherwise, of aging monarchs; bad behaviour in Eurasia). Also: I'm doing a better job of choosing books, from a copious supply (and library), that suit my mood. Some books lighten it, some tickle it, some support it, some challenge it. Choosing is helpful.

What are you taking into February? I'll raise my delightful coffee mug in a toast to our collective happiness.