Letter from your PTA president

 

Dearest Fellow Parents:

Hope you’re all having a super fantastic summer! Can you believe the school year is almost upon us again? Only a few more weeks! So exciting, isn’t it? I know we alllll want the best for our littles so let’s just have a quick chat about the coming year – and YOUR volunteer efforts with our PTA. As your returning president (yay me!), I feel it’s my duty to impress upon the entire school community the importance, value and necessity of getting involved. I know you all care about our school as much as I do!

Did the first few lines of this letter make you feel guilty? Good, you’re exactly the person I want to talk to.

Wait. Don’t go. Please keep reading. I promise this is not going in the direction you think it is.

First, let’s take the chipper enthusiasm down a notch (and while we’re at it, I feel the need to point out that the only time I call my kids “littles” is when the word precedes “hellions”).

Second, can we pretend we’re just hanging out in my backyard? Coffee in hand. Salsa stain on my t-shirt. Occasionally yelling at children to stay away from that big hole in the middle of my yard that still isn’t filled back in? Breaking up the mortal combat over the favourite shovel in the sandbox? Cool.

Third, we need to talk. And by “we need to talk” what I really mean is, I have stuff I need to tell you.

Look, I know you, guilty mom in the hallway. You’re the mom who came and lent a hand for 10 minutes and then, with tears in your eyes, gave a quiet apology for needing to take your toddler home. “I feel really bad,” you said. I know you did. I could see it in your face. You looked heartbroken and embarrassed and so very sad. You looked at the other volunteers with toddlers who weren’t leaving and wondered why you couldn’t just juggle it all, too.

I know you, too, guilty mom who is new to the school. You’re the mom who took my handout at the “welcome to kindergarten” event and nodded and said you’d take a closer look at it later, but you probably didn’t. It went in your purse. And then the recycling bin.

I know you, guilty mom on the playground. You’re there every day after school to pick up your kids, but I’ve never seen you at a PTA meeting. You know which moms are on the PTA because you see us at every movie night handing out popcorn, at every 50-50 raffle selling tickets. You see us hanging out in a loose circle on the playground laughing and talking and when I try to talk to you, you don’t really want to make eye contact. What if I ask you to help and you have to say no?

I know you, guilty mom. Guilty mom who is never at school, who is there every day, who has one kid, who has three kids, who works full time, who’s a stay-at-home-mom.

I know you so well.

And I need you to stop feeling guilty.

Do I wish my PTA had more volunteers. Heck yes, I do. It’s a lot of work. It’s endless, actually. And it makes a huge difference to every single kid in our school, the teachers and the administration. We NEED volunteers like we need more funding for our education system. I don’t even care what province, state, country you might be reading this in – chances are good your school could use more volunteers, more money, more staffing, more EVERYTHING.

But … I will never, ever, ever (can I throw a few more evers in here without sounding like I’m 14?) judge you for not being here alongside me.

I know you think I do. I know you think I’m wondering why you don’t help more often, why you don’t come to meetings. Maybe you even think I’m a bit smug, that I think I’m a better mom because of it.

But please trust me: I don’t. I really, really don’t.

You, with the toddler: yep, you’re right. That other mom does volunteer with her kid in tow. Guess what … her kid is not your kid. I had toddlers like yours. Busy from the second they woke till the moment they fell asleep, hands in everything, runners, impossible to keep in one place, moods that could turn on a dime. You and I are sisters. Some people have calm, peaceful kids who patiently sit and read a book while their moms get things done. That’s not your kid. In a few years, your busy toddler will be in a classroom all day and IF you want to help, you’ll be able to. If you want to. Maybe you’ll go home and have a coffee and take a nap. It’s up to you.

You, the new kindergarten mom who took my flyer and then never showed up to any meetings: yep, I was really hopeful you’d be volunteering with us this year. But you might be at work. You might have two jobs. You might work shifts, and sleep during the day. You might be dealing with social anxiety and the idea of coming to a meeting makes you actually hyperventilate (and me telling you that we’re all a bunch of nervous, anxious nerds who feel the same way won’t help, but it’s true.) Maybe your mother-in-law lives with you and she has dementia and you spend your spare time making sure she’s safe. Maybe your marriage is having some challenges and it’s everything you can do to keep yourself together. Maybe life is great but just so goddamn busy. Maybe you have commitments that I can’t even imagine. Maybe you give your spare time to volunteering with Scouts, or your church, or the food bank. Maybe you’re making my neighbourhood and my city better in ways I’ll never know about. Maybe you just don’t want to help with the PTA. That’s cool. You do not have to give me your reason. There doesn’t even have to be a reason.

You, the mom who is at the school every single day but never “volunteers”: look, the work you are already doing, as a mom, is plenty. It’s not just plenty, it’s goddamn overwhelming at times. And that gaggle of moms who know each other and talk to each other? I promise, we’re not snobs. We are not judging you. Chances are good I want to come over and talk to you and I know I look really chatty and outgoing and sociable, but lordie, a new person terrifies me as much as being approached probably terrifies you. I have to steel myself every single time I need to stand up in front of a group of parents and before every PTA-run event because I know it will involve talking to strangers. You have a right to come to school every day to drop off and pick up your children, and do nothing else here, ever.

Here’s the point: I need you to do what works for you. I need you to parent the way it works for you. And volunteer when and if it works for you. And come out to events when you want to. And attend meetings if you can, or never at all. And to not feel you need to explain it, or justify it.

Because you are already doing hard, important work.

Mother Theresa (the actual for-real, straight-up embodiment of selfless, lifelong volunteering) once said: If you want to bring happiness to the whole world, go home and love your family.

You’re already doing that, guilty mom. You do it every single day. When you get up for a crying child at 3 a.m. When you make breakfast in a rush so everyone gets to school on time. When you go to work to earn money and when you stay home. When you pick your kids up at school and when you pick them up at daycare. When you scramble through the change in the bottom of your purse to send your kid with $2 for popcorn day. When you make pot roast on Sunday and when you make hot dogs every single day all summer long. When you have it all together and when everything is held together with one last string of sanity.

If you want to come help me, I’ll be happy to see you.

But I already know that you’re making the world a better place. You’re loving your family.

The rest is gravy.  

 

 

Fat bitch (and other bad words)

I’m not going to lie: I’m kind of bored of talking about bodies. I’m bored of debating who is allowed to wear a bathing suit and where and when, and asking myself if I’m bikini-ready (I’m not bikini-ready). I’m bored of reading online posts about body positivity that are followed by endless comment sections of cruelty and ignorance. I’m bored of picking up magazines that sell me empowerment on one page and then sell me a thousand products on every other page to make me better, thinner, prettier, sexier (within approved non-trampy limits, of course) and more worthy than I am right now. I’m bored of explaining, over and over again, that it doesn’t matter how a woman dresses or adorns her body, no one gets to assume it’s an invitation to demean, mock, or hurt her.

Bored is, perhaps, not exactly the right word. Exhausted, maybe? Angry, too. Disappointed. Frustrated that here we are in 2017, with no flying cars and I would still be better off if I was thinner, and/or had a penis. I’m tired. Tired of trying to exist in a world that would really prefer I didn’t, at least in my current imperfect, chubby female form.

Let’s be clear: I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m big, yes, but not so big that people are often intentionally cruel to me (dismissive, at times certainly, or “helpful” with their advice on what I ought to do differently to “fix” myself) but I’m rarely treated as poorly as many big folks are with outright scorn, taunting or abuse. I’m also solidly middle-class, have no visible disabilities, I’m cisgendered, heterosexual, and I look like I’m probably 100% western European (I’m not, but looking this white and blonde is a pretty huge hallway pass as we all know.) The only way my life could be more privileged is if I was wealthy and a man. In other words, I’m aware that my experience is modulated and made easier by virtue of my position in the world – a black, queer woman with the very same body shape as mine would undoubtedly experience far more discrimination and just plain rudeness than I will ever know.

It’s also a bonus in my corner that I actually enjoy all those “girly” things that the world wants me to: I love dressing up, wearing high heels, and I could spend an hour looking at makeup at Sephora and still not be able to decide exactly which shade of lipstick is just right. I like push-up bras and shaving my legs. I like reading Vanity Fair for the political articles AND the fashion spreads, and I believe there is really no such thing as too many earrings, shoes or purses. You get the picture.

I accidentally fit the mold the world has for me. (We could easily have a debate at this point over whether or not my girly inclinations are a product of my in-born personality or my culture and environment, but that’s a bigger tangent than we have time for today and the end point is still this: I like the way I am. I enjoy being the person I am. I do not feel that my role has been foisted upon me, or that I am forced to falsely stick to a female narrative that is not authentic. So, nature or nurture? Moot point, to some degree, though an interesting question all the same.)

But if I had short hair, or dressed in a “masculine” manner, or hated carrying a purse, or refused to shave my arm pits AND I was ALSO chubby, would the world be as kind to me? I think we all the know answer to that.

The point I’m making here is that most of the time, I am afforded a great deal of respect despite my body by virtue of all the other ways that privilege expresses itself in my life – which is to say, in almost all ways.

But I’m not immune to it. I still live in this world, am still pushed and pulled by the culture that I exist inside of, am still influenced by all the ways I am told every day that I’m not quite right. I can recall with horrifying clarity every comment that has been made about my body – from a boy in my junior high school calling me a battleship with his arms held wide, to a close friend who once advised me that perhaps the solution to an unrequited crush was simply that I ought to lose weight (as though I did not already spend most of my life at that point with highly disordered eating patterns aimed at that one primary goal.) I remember being told, in a sympathetic tone – as though to protect me from hurt – that certainly the man I was sleeping with at one point in my early 20s was taking advantage of me and didn’t really like me – because I was too fat for any other answer to be rational (I was maybe a size 14 at the time, at most.) When I was pregnant, a well-meaning but clueless member of the extended family took to calling me the House, because I was “as big as a house.”

I could go on, all day long. Couldn’t we all?

And perhaps I am fair game to criticism. I opened the door myself, after all: I’ve been writing about my body for years, in newspapers and books and blogs and magazines. I’ve told strangers about its size and shape and the food that goes into it and the workouts it does and the sexuality inside of it and the way it has informed my personality and how grateful I am for its strength and imperfection and how good it feels to finally take a breath and just … be … friends … with it. And before that, I was always the first with a joke, a comment, an invitation to observe on my body as though it were a thing separate from me.

But …. I’m rambling on, aren’t I? And if I’m so bored of talking about this, why am I?

A few weeks ago, I came up to an intersection just as the light turned yellow. There should have been time for me to go through long before it turned red, but a pedestrian stepped out into the crosswalk way too early, forcing me to hit the brakes. As a result, the nose of my car blocked a portion of the crossing. With another car tight behind me, I couldn’t back up.

The group of pedestrians eyed me from the curb as they waited for the walk sign. I felt bad, knowing they’d need to scoot around the front of my car, but it was that or hit the jaywalker – and I think I made the right call there.

When the walk light flashed, two 30-something men stepped off the sidewalk first and made a wide berth around the front of my car. I made eye contact, shrugged a little, and mouthed “sorry” to indicate that I knew I was in their way.

They were well-dressed. Clean. Tidy hair cuts. Good looking. I assumed (ironically, based on appearances) that a modest level of politeness and civility would force a nod in my direction. At worst, they would just ignore me.

Instead, one of them waved in the direction of my car and its offending position in the crosswalk and said, loudly and scornfully: “Fat bitch.”

Fat bitch. Oh lord. The oldest, quickest, laziest, way to put a fat girl in her place. It’s insanely effective. When I was younger, a comment like this would inspire only stunned silence and embarrassment, along with a jack-rabbit heart rate and a bright red face.

But I’m not so young anymore. And not so scared of rude men.

In the millisecond after “fat bitch” echoed out, I knew I could ignore it, or I could engage. Ignoring it was so tempting. This bullshit is boring, right? I’m over it, right? I’m too old to get phased, right? It’s just some douchebag jerk who will never change, so what’s the point, right?

But I couldn’t ignore it. I couldn’t ignore the frustration that still, always, forever, my body and its shape permits people to speak to me a way they might not to others. I couldn’t ignore that his words made me feel ashamed and small – like everything else good and decent and positive about me had disappeared – and then enraged that I allowed myself to feel ashamed and small. I couldn’t ignore all the times some entitled jerk – or a well-meaning friend, even another woman – had belittled me intentionally or accidentally with careless, callous words. I don’t want to make a mountain of a molehill but this molehill – this particular fat-bitch molehill – pissed me off. It pissed me off enough to not, this time, be quiet.

So I waved at him, and smiled, and yelled out my open window: “NO, THANK YOU, I DON’T WANT TO HAVE SEX WITH YOU!”

He faltered, a visible hesitation in his stride. His friend barked out a laugh.

“What did you –“

I cut him off this time.

“THANK YOU!” I yelled, grinning and waving. “NO SEX, BUT THANK YOU!”

He was well past my car now, but he slowed, and turned around to look at me. The sudden flare of rage in his face made me realize I might have pushed it too far.

I had done the unthinkable, the unpardonable, the most dangerous thing: I had embarrassed a man when he was trying to embarrass me. I had put him in his place, when he was trying to put me in mine. I had not lowered my head when his words clearly told me I ought to.

For a fraction of a second, I cowered. I almost let the smile fall, almost turned away. My heart was racing and I was praying the light would change so I could just speed off. But I stared back. Smiling. Unmoving. I like to imagine there was a glint in my eye, something steely and determined but that’s probably too poetic for an event that lasted no longer than a handful of seconds.

His buddy yanked at his jacket sleeve, as though to say “leave it, let’s go.”

Instead, he paused, pointed at me and yelled – in the grand tradition of assholes everywhere: “STUPID CUNT.”

Before we go any further, let me just say I know this word is loathed by most women. I actually don’t hate this word; at times, I really quite like it. This word – like slut, or bitch, or even fat – has a power behind it, most often used negatively. But it’s not in itself a bad word, and in the right hands, in the right moment, in the right context, it can be powerful in its own way.

But this man did not mean it in a powerful way. He meant it to be degrading and to make me as tiny as possible: to diminish me down to one body part. One stupid body part, at that.

I smiled at him. I smiled at him as calmly and beautifully and peacefully as one can possibly smile.

And I yelled back: CUNTS AREN’T STUPID! THEY’RE FUCKING MAGICAL!

I wish with all my heart I could take credit for these words, but I can’t. Last year, I read about a woman’s experience with a group of cyclists on a narrow farm road, in which one of them yelled “stupid cunt” at her as she drove past. Later, seeing them in the next small town up the road, she approached them to talk about it, and to call out the man who had shouted at her for seemingly no reason. The interaction ended with her walking back to her car and then, over her shoulder, yelling this phrase. I was so inspired by her bravery in facing them down that I told myself the next time some creep called out “stupid cunt” I would blaze forth with this same reply: THEY’RE FUCKING MAGICAL. Fabulous, isn’t it? Because it’s true. They are magical. So I’d saved it in the mental pocket reserved for comebacks and there it had sat until this moment.

CUNTS AREN’T STUPID! THEY’RE FUCKING MAGICAL!

The man in the crosswalk glared at me like he wished I was dead. A fat bitch, stupid cunt, daring to yell back at him? About the magic of vaginas, of all things? It seemed just then that anything could happen, that he might hit my car, hit me, lose it entirely – but after a few endless eternal seconds, he turned and stalked off.

The light changed and I drove away.

I would like to say I drove away empowered, but I didn’t.

I drove away sad, and shaking, scared by the hint of violence and by the look in his face, by the sudden breach of conflict in an otherwise calm and normal day. I drove away thinking what a small incident this was compared to the acts of aggression and violence perpetrated against “the other” every day. About how people live this way, attacked, ALL THE TIME, every hour, every day, because of how they look, or how they dress, or how big they are, or who they are holding hands with when they walk down the street, or the colour of their skin.

And I couldn’t help but wonder how the entire episode might have played out if I had been thinner, prettier, younger? Would he have circled the nose of my car and used it as an opportunity to hit on me instead? Would he have simply forgiven me my vehicular transgression and carried on with a smile and nod? Would the moment have reinforced my notion that the world was fundamentally good and kind because it was good and kind to me? What if, on the other hand, I had been another skin colour, or had been wearing a head scarf, or had been fatter? Would he have tolerated me even well enough to limit it to just those few words had I been less privileged and less powerful?

I’m bored of talking about bodies. Of talking about how our bodies permit us – or limit us – to exist in the world in particular ways. I’m bored of asking myself if I have permission to wear a certain dress or to behave a certain way. Because we shouldn’t still be talking about it. Because we should be past it now. We should be past “fat bitch” and “stupid cunt.” We should be past telling people what to wear and how to cover up and what they are allowed to do and not do because of the size of their hips. We should be past all of these things because there’s so many other bigger battles that need fighting in this world.

But we’re not past it.

So I guess I keep talking about it, after all. Whatever else I am, I’m not quiet. Not anymore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pay your rent, use the Force, and do good

My son asked me recently what activism meant. He’s almost ten, and this might sound like a big thing for a little kid to ask, but his questions run the gamut from mature to infantile (this morning he asked what ‘flatulence’ meant, even though he already knows the answer, just so he could hear me explain it. Let’s just say this apple didn’t fall far from the paternal tree, cough, cough.)

The challenge, when one of these big questions gets asked, is how to best explain something so that it is accurate but still resonates with a child. I usually rely on parallels that he will recognize easily, drawn from his own world – let me assure you, almost any modern-day concept, conflict, country, leader, or issue can be explained with a sentence that starts: “Ok, you know in Star Wars …”

Seriously.

Rogue One, it turned out, was a great way to explain activism, though he did get a little sidetracked while trying to figure out how the Force works into it.

I wanted to say “No, no, you’re missing the point. Jyn is an activist. She sees something that is wrong, and she finds a way to work against it. That’s activism. There’s no magic involved.”

jyn

But I realized, as we debated it back and forth, that there is a Force in activism. It’s the passion that one person ignites in another: it’s a Force that’s contagious. You don’t need to be born with it. It moves through you, to others. It makes you less afraid to do the right thing. To step in. To figure out what’s important and protect it.

Activism, here on planet earth, is the power of knowing you can create change, just as the Force is the power of knowing you can create change. Writing letters to your local representatives … or lifting X-Wings out of swamps and distracting Storm Troopers. Same thing, different planets, right?

Alice Walker famously said that activism is the rent she pays for living on this planet. It’s one of the most simple and elegant ways I’ve ever seen of noting that activism is not just a choice, but a responsibility.

Truth be told, I don’t actually believe that activism – in the traditional assumed definition – is or should be everyone’s rent. As someone who considers herself an activist, to at least a modest degree on various issues, it feels like a heresy to say this – but it’s true.

In the last year, I’ve had countless friends express a sense of shame over their lack of participation in the political process, or their limited knowledge of world events, or their sense of being “overwhelmed” by the world around them. As our lives become increasingly connected through social media, and political opinion becomes ever more divisive across the globe, we are acutely aware who among our circle of friends and family is, and isn’t, “involved.”

I can’t lie: I do think it’s important – yes, critical even – to understand Who’s Who and What’s What in the world around us. I think it’s foolhardy to say you don’t care or to intentionally and willfully refuse to educate yourself.

But some people are called to activism – in the traditional definition of the word – as a reflection of their values, their beliefs, or their politics.

And some people are called to other things – other compassionate or passionate or revolutionary ways of making the planet a better place.

I know people who travel to the poorest places on the planet to provide medical care to people suffering in the most awful ways; I know people who spend their nights at animal shelters, loving furry creatures who have been abandoned and abused; I know someone who made a nine-month home inside their own body for a baby that was not theirs, so that others who could not conceive might be parents; I know people who stand up in front of crowds and read aloud their stories of sexual assault and – in being brave enough to do so – change, by inches, the way our culture looks at sexual assault.

I also know people who do hard but necessary jobs, for very little pay – jobs that benefit all of us in quiet and invisible ways. I know people who work to maintain traditions taught to them by great-grandmothers: knowledge of herbal medicine or traditional dances or special stitches used in quilting or how to put up beets in the fall, so that someday our great-grandchildren will still know these things. I know people who make beautiful things, jewelry, and art, and poetry, and share it with the world. I know people who spend their days teaching children how to print their names and do subtraction and, most of all, to be kind and gentle with each other.

No one would call nursing or storytelling or surrogacy or teaching a type of “activism” but they are, to me. They should be, to all of us. There are a great many things to take care of in our world, a great many things to save, a great many things that need their own sort of activists.

In the end, this is what I told my son: activism is your way of saying that you care about something, and you’re willing to work hard to make that something happen. To protect. To care. To change things for the better.

This is the rent you pay to live on this planet. This is you, finding the Force, and altering the world around you. Find your place, use the magic inside you, and make change – letter-writing optional.

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t want to make a fuss …

(This is very long, and includes a lot of detail. I wrote it because so many people over the last year – women my age, especially – have asked me to tell them, exactly, step by step, what happened. And how. And why. And when. And what it felt like. And what the symptoms were. And so on and so on. Here is what I know: I spent a lot of time convincing myself that I was fine. And apologizing for wasting other people’s time. And not wanting to impact anyone else in any way. And had I carried on in that manner for much longer, this might have turned out very differently. If there’s a moral to the story, it’s to not ignore strange things. So, all that to say: here’s the full story of my funny, strange heart.) 

A year ago (a year ago, yesterday, if I’m being precise), I casually jogged down the hallway at Las Vegas airport to pick up a bottle of water and a magazine at a shop near our departure gate. I noticed my lungs felt weird – heavy and uncomfortable.

I chalked it up to all the smoke in Sin City (not to mention the partying) and figured it would go away after a few days home. But it didn’t.

Every time I’d go to the gym, or go out walking or jogging, my lungs felt uncomfortable. Eventually I decided it wasn’t my lungs at all, but clearly side effects from silent reflux … maybe all those pina coladas in Vegas had messed up my tummy? So I ate extra carefully – no sugar, no high acid foods – and I took Tums and over-the-counter acid medication, and drank gallons of water.

But it still didn’t go away. In fact, it got worse. It was giving me back pain through my shoulders – also a side effect of silent reflux, I learned on google.

It made working out particularly challenging. One day, I dropped the kids off at school and drove myself over to Barnet Marine Park in Burnaby. I walked for about 10 minutes, then started to jog … after maybe just a minute at the faster speed, I had to stop. My lungs hurt. My shoulders hurt. My arms hurt, right down to the fingers. My neck and jaw hurt. No sharp pain, just aching, the way I imagine arthritis might ache.

Every time I started to jog again, it would return. So I kept stopping. And it would go away. And then I’d start again. Over and over. But I didn’t tell myself I was stopping. I told myself I was “pausing to enjoy the scenery.”

I’m not kidding when I say I “paused to enjoy the scenery” about six times that day. It’s a pretty beautiful place, but let’s be honest, no one pauses six times in a 45 minute walk/jog to look at the mountains over and over.

The conscious part of my brain was calm as could be, but some little part of my subconscious was shouting at me: why are you out here ALONE. This is not normal. This is NOT normal. But by the time I got home, nothing was amiss.

I mentioned it to my hubby. Go to the doctor, please, he said. I mentioned it to my friend and workout buddy. Go to the doctor NOW, please, she said. I mostly didn’t mention it to anyone else. Because it was JUST acid reflux. I needed more Tums. It’d be fine.

By my 40th birthday, the first week in March, it didn’t require a minute of jogging to get uncomfortable. A brisk walk from the car to the door with a load of groceries required a “pause to enjoy the scenery.”

I ached. My entire upper body would start aching. But: my heart was not racing. My blood pressure was not elevated. I wasn’t dizzy. I had no sharp pain. No headache.

I was just uncomfortable. So uncomfortable. My friend, Kathy, kept asking if it was better. I’d sort of answer in circles, implying I’d chatted with the doc (I had, sort of, at the tail end of a conversation about one of the kids, but I made it sound more thorough than that.)

Then, a week after my birthday, in the gym on a Saturday morning with Kathy, I “paused to enjoy the scenery” several times. I’d get off the treadmill, go out into the hall, and a minute later, feeling fine, I’d get back on. I’d lift a few weights, then go get a drink at the fountain, and stand there waiting for it to ease – then I’d go back in and lift more weights. Kathy just watched. Frowning.

By the time we were done, SHE was done. After weeks of quietly prodding and bugging me, she wasn’t messing around anymore: you need to get this checked out. TODAY.

Then she told me a scary story about a young woman who had a heart attack. She laid it on thick. The story involved young children. I don’t want to scare you, she said. But she did want to. And it worked.

I was spooked.

By the time I’d driven home, I felt fine again. When I felt fine, it was so easy to forget how bad it had been just a moment before. I came in, mentioned to my hubby that I was going to call in to the weekend drop-in clinic at my doctor’s office. He said please, yes, do that. Or find another clinic. Today. Don’t leave it.

I said, well, I can’t find another clinic, it’s Saturday and the middle of the day and nowhere else will be still taking patients.

Anyway, the kiddo had a Scout event to go to, and I was leaving in a few minutes to get him there. So if my doctor’s clinic wasn’t open, I’d just be out of luck till Monday, I said with a shrug.

Or you go to the ER, said my hubby.

I rolled my eyes. I didn’t need the ER.

I got lucky when I called my family doctor’s office – yes, their Saturday clinic was open, no my doctor wasn’t there but another doctor was … but they were very quiet, no patients, and only open for a short time longer, maybe an hour or two. Maybe less, even.

I said: I’m coming right now.

But first, I rounded up my son, and drove him to his Scouts event. It was important to him. He’d been looking forward to it, and I wasn’t going to cancel out on getting him there.

The whole time I was driving, I kept thinking: this is silly. I’m fine. I don’t feel a thing!

By the time I got there, I had mostly convinced myself it was foolish to go to the drop-in after. But then I walked him from the parking lot to where the group was meeting. Maybe 300 yards.

I was aching. Everywhere. Right away. At a strolling pace.

By the time I got back to the car, I was starting to get a little scared. I got to the clinic, was ushered right in, and rambled out the whole story to a doctor I’d never met before.

I made sure to pepper my tale with lots of warnings: I’m sorry I’m wasting medical time. I know it’s probably nothing. I don’t want to be that ‘hysterical lady’ but it does seem to be getting worse. I know lots of people go to the ER thinking they’re having a heart attack and it’s just acid indigestion so that’s probably all it is.

I listed my family history, my own health history, my previous weight gain, my recent weight loss, how often I walked or swam, the years I had smoked.

He looked at me, took my vitals, scanned my recent test results (high normal but still “normal range” cholesterol, good blood sugars, slightly low iron as a result of previous post-childbirth anemia.) My blood pressure was fine. My heart rate was fine.

What’s your level of pain right now? he asked.

Well, I’m just sitting here, so … zero.

I think, he said, that this is not your heart. Your blood work is good. Your vitals are good. You’re 40 … no, I think this is your lungs. Pleurisy. Your lungs are inflamed, and when you breathe harder, like when you jog or workout, they’re rubbing against your chest wall. That’s what’s causing the ache.

BUT …

(And let’s just pause here and say thank you god for doctors who say “but”…)

BUT he said, I can’t rule it out. I don’t have the equipment here to rule out that it ISN’T your heart. And you’ve got some wicked family history.

He turned to his computer, wrote some stuff onto a digital prescription pad, and printed it out. He folded it up and held it out to me.

Do not go home, he said. You’re going to go right to the closest hospital. You’re going to give them this at registration. I’ve made a note for them on it.

I took the paper, and drove to the hospital. When I parked the car, I didn’t realize that sometime the next day, our friend Dan would be driving it home for me, and it would be weeks before I drove again. Blissfully ignorant, I just parked it, and sauntered in.

I went to the counter with my CareCard and explained the basics. Again, I apologized. For wasting ER time. For being silly. It’s probably nothing.

She asked: does your chest hurt?

Yes, it does (I had just walked from parking lot to waiting room, after all.)

Arms?

Yes.

How far down?

To my fingertips. Like arthritis. It aches.

Your jaw? Face?

Yes, all through my jaw. Aching.

Are you out of breath? No.

Are you dizzy? No.

Are you nauseous? No.

Are you having sharp pain? No. It aches. It just ACHES so much. But it’s easing now, while I sit here. Actually it’s almost gone.

Then I handed her the paper from my doctor.

Five minutes later, I was on a bed, with EKG running, IV already in, blood pressure cuff running on three-minute repeats, and multiple vials of blood already taken and off to the lab.

My curtain-walled “room” was FULL. At least three staff at any given moment were circling the bed, and at times as many six.

They asked me a million questions. If you smoke, and don’t need me to make you feel worse, you might want to skip this part, but the thing they were most interested in wasn’t what I weighed, or how early my dad died but: when did you start smoking, how long did you smoke, how much did you smoke a day, did you always smoke that much in a day or did it change over time, when was the last time you smoked. Every person who came, asked me about smoking. I’d started smoking when I was 14. I’d smoked till I was 21, quit a few years, and started again. At 27, I quit for “good” .. and didn’t have another smoke again for more than a decade. I hadn’t thought I’d ever smoke again … but then in my late 30s, I had one while camping. Then a few weeks later, while I was out with friends. One or two here and there had turned into “social smoking” … and I did it way more than I should have. Now I had to confess it all, this awful history of smoking.

I’m sorry. That was all I wanted to say: I’m sorry.

I wanted to tell them I was sorry. Sorry for knowing better, and doing it anyway. Sorry for not being more careful. Sorry for losing weight but not having lost enough. Sorry for not being more scared before now. Something was wrong, maybe, and maybe it was my heart and maybe, probably, it was my fault. I felt so foolish.

What’s your pain level? they kept asking.

Well, I’m just lying here, it’s zero. I have no pain. I feel totally fine. I’m sorry, maybe it’s nothing.

And for a while, as we checked and tested everything, it seemed like maybe it WAS nothing:

The chest x-ray was fine (no pleurisy or pneumonia or bronchitis.)

The EKG was fine.

The blood pressure was fine.

Resting heart rate was fine, better than fine, actually – it was great.

Except for my descriptions of how I FELT, everything was fine. So we waited on blood work. The blood work will show us if there’s a problem, they said.

I surfed on my phone. I messaged friends. I called my husband and explained that the doctor was pretty sure it was nothing but he’d sent me over to ER to get a few tests. I made it sound like it was nothing. I laughed, and chatted. He had tickets to take the kiddo to his first ever Canucks game. I knew he’d be too anxious to go, if he knew what was happening. I said “yeah, it’s a long wait here, so I’ll get my mom to come over and she can stay with Emily so you guys can go ahead.”

Ok, he said, sounds good. I’m glad you’re getting things double-checked, hopefully they’ll be fast, he added. I’m sure it’s nothing but better safe than sorry.

Yes. I’m sure, too.

I heard the doctor, a young woman around my age, discussing my file with the nurse.

Blood work back?

It just came back, said the nurse. It’s pristine.

(Pristine, I thought. That’s good then, right?)

Let’s do it again, the doctor said.

I would learn later that this second draw came back clear too.

The doctor, who knew only that my EGK, BP, heart rate, etc were all FINE and that I was describing my symptoms as “fine NOW but previously really not fine,” had the blood drawn and tested a third time. To be sure. It was clear two times already … but …

(Again, can we pause here to say thank you again for doctors who say “but” … )

She came back an hour later:

You have triponin in your blood. It means your heart is in distress. If you were having a heart attack the number might be 40 or 50. Yours is about 0.27 … but it’s there. There is no reason for it to be there EXCEPT if your heart is in distress. You’re going to be transferred to the coronary ward at Royal Columbian Hospital. The ambulance is coming now. They will probably do an angiogram.

I called my husband. “No biggie but they need to run another test. Delta Hospital is too small, so they want me to go over to New West.”

Notice “they want me to go over” – as though I was driving myself … as though it wasn’t a big deal. Later, wishing him a fun night at the game, I said well, they need to keep me overnight, it’s the weekend and I can’t get the angio yet … but everything looks fine. I was such a good actress, he had no idea I was in a ward with people having open heart surgeries, on IV, with nurses hovering. It wasn’t until the next morning that I properly explained. Why make a fuss, right?

I spent the next couple days at RCH waiting for an angiogram. The ward there receives emergency cases from all over the province, people who are in urgent, critical need. I wasn’t critical. I wasn’t even in pain. I wasn’t even, frankly, uncomfortable, unless you count the unpleasantness of hospital gowns and lumpy beds. So I waited, and waited, and waited. I texted with friends and people came to visit and I read a trashy romance novel. I joked about how it was like having a spa holiday and someone else was at my house doing laundry in my absence. Anything to not let on that maybe this was terrifying.

Finally, a couple days later, my turn came. I lay in the pre-op area for ages, chatting with the nurse, making fun of the weird operating socks I had to put on (they only offer ONE colour!! Beige!) Then it was go time, and I was wheeled in to a dark room with a lot of equipment. The staff were all in gowns, plastic masks in front of their faces.

The anesthetist asked if I wanted to be awake, in “twilight” – mostly asleep, to help with nerves – or all the way out. My blood pressure increases in medical settings, and it was amping up, so there was no “zero anasthetic” option.

I said: please, the lightest you can give me, just enough to keep the BP down if you MUST but I want to see everything. I need to know what’s happening.

They prepped my wrist, and explained the process. A catheter would go in just below the bend at my wrist, up my artery, around my shoulder, and into my heart. It would push a special dye into the valves. That part would feel funny, they explained. Don’t panic when it happens.

I asked questions. I’m good at asking questions, especially if the questions distance me from the reality of something unpleasant I’m about to do. I asked a lot of questions during my c-sections, too, and every time my children have been in the hospital. I ask and ask. And they explained everything step by step, while they sterilized my arm, and got everything ready.

When I was done asking questions, I made small talk. The staff kept working as we chatted about this and that. I made a joke. Somebody laughed at it, loudly, and cursed … then gasped and apologized profusely for cursing. Someone else cracked a joke about the patient (me) suing for unprofessional behaviour. I said: hey, guys, don’t worry … the OB played Nickelback during my last c-section, and I didn’t sue THAT guy, so I think we’re safe.

Everyone roared.

It was fun, if a “your life is probably about to change forever moment” can be fun.

And then, it was time. They pierced my wrist (I can see the dark spot still today), I could feel it (a little, only) up my arm, around my shoulder, and when they said ‘ok, you’ll feel this now’ I had the strange sensation of warm water being poured over my chest, and for a few seconds I couldn’t quite breathe, like all the air had been pushed out of my lungs.

It was the dye, filling up my heart, forcing my blood out of the way. I panicked for a moment. But they’d told me not to, so I kept it inside, and waited for it to pass.

The cardiologist looked straight ahead, at a screen, while my arm – pinned down, sterile, still wired up – lay next to him.

Ok, he said. We’re in. Let’s see. Right side, looks totally clear.

Well, I thought to myself, that’s a relief. But if it’s not my heart, then what’s wrong. I thought this would tell us what was wrong, and we could fix it. What if there’s nothing wrong, and it’s just a mystery and I just can’t do anything for the rest of my life without being uncomfortable …

Going into the left now, he said …

And then, a chorus, from the room:

Oh!

Tsk!

Yep…

And from the doctor: There it is.

All at the same time, everyone in the room saw it on the screen. From my angle, it was just fuzz.

There WHAT is? I don’t know if I asked out loud or just in my head.

Blockage. Left circumflex artery. Low. It’s 99 per cent blocked. Everything else is great. You have the heart of a 25-year-old. Except this.

Why? Why in one spot? I asked.

He answered: If I knew that, I’d be a very rich man laying on a beach somewhere. We don’t know. A blockage can start building up on a spot of damage. You could have had a virus when you were 16 that left some damage and it’s been slowly building ever since. It could have happened during your pregnancies. Once the arterial wall is damaged, the plaque catches on to the damage, rather than passing by.

I started to cry.

I was told, later by the nurse, that the interventional cardiologist performing the angiogram is normally a quiet fellow, doesn’t say much. An expert at what he does, but not really the chatty type. He was, in my memory, Indo-Canadian, with a beard, maybe 40. He had very kind eyes.

He put his hand on my side and squeezed a little, to get my attention. When I looked at him, his eyes were piercing.

Listen to me, he said.

I nod.

I’m going to fix this. I’m going to fix it right now. It’s going to take me less than a minute. And then it will be done. And your job is to make sure it doesn’t have a chance to come back. Ok?

I nod again. I stop crying. I swallow everything I’m afraid of, every apology I might make for wasting everyone’s time. I nod.

Yes please, I said.

And then he fixed it. My eyes were too blurry with tears to really see what was happening, but everyone was very, very quiet then. No one moved. He ran his hands over the equipment, his eyes on the screen, and the wire that was running up inside my arm, around my shoulder, into my heart, slowly moved into position – though I couldn’t feel it.

He put the stent (which looks like the spring in a ball point pen but much much smaller) into place, and then put a balloon inside of that, to push it outward. It pushed the blockage aside, and opened the artery. The stent stayed where it was, widened to the width of the artery, clinging to the walls.

More questions:

Won’t a blockage build up on the stent? No, it’s called a drug-eluting stent, it’s covered in a drug like chemo, to kill any cells that attach to it.

What about the plaque that the stent has pushed aside? It’s still THERE, isn’t it? It is for now, but over a few weeks or months it’ll be reabsorbed by the body, as waste, and it’ll be gone.

So this metal thing will be inside my heart forever? Yes, more or less, but after a while it will mesh with you, it’ll just be part of your body really.

They pulled the wire out. They cuffed my wrist in a high-pressure band, to keep my artery from going geyser-city. Every hour for the rest of the day, they ease the pressure on it but for most of the day it was so tight, my fingers were numb.

And then, like magic, I was better. The final diagnosis, from my primary cardiologist: the blockage had caused progressively worsening angina, hence the ache in my chest, back, arms and jaw. But I was lucky: no heart attack, no permanent damage.

I went home a few days later. Spa time at the hospital was over, and there was laundry to do, and lunches to make, and walks (without pauses to enjoy the scenery) to go on.

I feel like the luckiest person who ever lived: I have the heart of a 25-year-old, adorned with a piece of shiny jewelry in the shape of a very small spring. My heart (and I) bounced back after all.

What comes after

I used to believe that aging would come easy to me. The great advantage, I would tell myself, of not having been a great beauty at 20 is that I wouldn’t grieve the loss of youth’s advantages when 40 or 50 or 60 arrived. How can you miss being the girl that turns heads when you didn’t turn heads to begin with? How can you mourn over your lost beauty when it didn’t exist in the first place?

You can’t, I reasoned. So much easier, I decided. Moreover (I continued to assure myself), won’t it be great to know that one’s accomplishments were earned on merit, not the advantage that comes with good looks? To always know that one’s relationships are based on something deeper than mere physical attraction?

That’s not to say that I believe gorgeous, successful women become successful because they are gorgeous or are loved only for their looks. And beyond that, I know that being a gorgeous woman is no guarantee of a life of ease and joy. Many of my “cute” friends were sexualized at an earlier age than I was, drawing attention from older men who hid predatory behaviour behind “passion.”

Dating would be a challenge in general for attractive women. I’m positive that no one, ever, has desired me only because I made good arm candy – and there’s something reassuring about that. Wondering if people like you or like the way you look must be akin to walking through a field dotted with quicksand, never knowing what is solid and what will drop away from under you. And, lord knows, tragic events befall us all equally, with no rhyme or reason.

But the research (and common sense) is pretty clear on this: things come a little easier to those who fit a prescribed standard of beauty. We are hardwired to interpret attractive individuals as more trustworthy and honest, as smarter and of higher moral character. That’s not just my interpretation based on 40 years living as a less-than-perfect female – that’s what science tells us. (Believe it or not, research indicates that even parents will show a subconscious preference for a better looking child.)

On the whole, being good looking sets you on a particular track: one that runs a little straighter, on average, with a few less bumps along the way. That would be, I always believed, a hard thing to give up as age crept in and evened out the playing field. After years of fighting with one hand tied behind my back, this age thing would put me on equal footing.

And not having to “give up” something I’d never had would make the process of getting older so much easier to navigate. No chasing my youth with endless anti-wrinkle creams or botox injections. I would understand in my wise, hard-earned way that the things of substance do not change as our bodies get older. I would be serene. I would be calm. I would ride into my own sunset, head high and happy.

Yet here I am, nearly closing out my 40th year, and suddenly I’m standing in front of the mirror, eyes squinted while I inspect my reflection for signs of aging. Grey hairs? Wrinkles? I’m not even sure what I’m looking for, but there I am all the same, evaluating. I catch myself doing this and think: “What’s all this about then? What happened to wise and calm and serene?”

I have begun to suspect that what I’m feeling is not the loss of my youth, but the wholly new and therefore strange and unsettling sensation of being progressively less and less observed.

As a woman, I have been standing more or less at centre stage since about 10, open to intense scrutiny on my body, my appearance, my choices, and my sexuality. I am, like all women in our culture, so accustomed to this I don’t even realize it is happening most of the time, or how much it defines or limits my behaviour. And now, as I creep towards 41 and begin to enter this nebulous mid-life phase, I’m shifting away from that centre.

Whether I have been found lacking all these years is secondary. The key is this: for part of our lives we will be in the spotlight, and then we will be shuffled off, exiting stage left where we may watch from the wings, until eventually we’re chucked out the back stage door into an empty alley. Our usefulness as observed objects lessens as we age, regardless of whether or not we were successful at fitting the mold.

Comedian Amy Schumer and a handful of her older celebrity contemporaries made fun of this concept in the Last Fuckable Day skit, a video in which the women toast one another for having hit the age where they will no longer be cast as romantic leads but as mothers, grandmothers, friends – though their male counterparts in Hollywood will go on having fantastic on-screen sex with women half their age well into their 60s, 70s or beyond. The video went viral in part because it was dead-on accurate and hilarious. It revelled in saying the things we’re not supposed to say: that our value is time-limited, because our usefulness as viewable lust-worthy objects diminishes as we age.

Here’s the really important part though: the women in the video – though skewering the double standard and mocking the entire framework through which Hollywood and our culture view women in general – were actually celebrating their “last fuckable day.” They toast each other with champagne and mark the day as a wonderful turning point. Yes, it was comedy – but pointed, intentional comedy, and this sense of celebration is something distinct from the satire.

At 40, I’m not exiting stage left just yet, but I can see it there, the darkened stairs off in the shadows – that part of a woman’s life beyond which she is no longer on stage for the pleasure, enjoyment or, more often, critique, of the audience. My own last fuckable day (according to the culture, not to me – hell, I’ve got buckets of fuckable days left, thank you very much) is right around the corner, if it hasn’t passed already.

I can’t help but wonder if this strange unease I feel when looking in the mirror is not a sudden fear of crow’s feet and random greys, but perhaps the wholly new sensation of knowing that I am the only one looking. When we no longer wonder if we are pleasing to others, if we no longer feel the expectations of those who observe us, we are suddenly forced to realize that the only opinion that matters is our own – and maybe that is more daunting, simply because it’s unfamiliar. How do you begin to please yourself when you’ve spent a lifetime knowing you are meant to please others?

I think, somehow – like a magical rising tide – I’ve begun to do this already, without realizing it. These last few years, I’ve let my hair down (literally) – I stopped worrying if my hair was “tidy” and under control, and gave up years of ponytails and buns in exchange for “whatever it looks like when I roll out of bed.” I’ve found myself suddenly wearing huge earrings, and bright colours, short sleeves and short skirts – things I eschewed for years (so much for believing I was above the demands of my “audience” as a young and independent woman. The change would suggest that I’ve been dressing for the stage all along.)

And now I find myself wondering: what if I too raised a glass, toasted myself and celebrated? What if I embraced the freedom that comes from watching at the wings, rather than being in the spotlight? What if the view from over here is better, and just beyond that stage door is an alley with some fresh air, and interesting experiences and no audience at all.

What if real life begins when you exit, stage left?  What if, backstage, it’s what comes after the spotlight that matters most?

 

Ambassador, unfiltered

Sometimes I think I’d be a better ambassador for motherhood if I was a better liar. That way, when you ask me what to expect when baby arrives, I’d say sweet and gentle things like “Oh, my, you won’t believe how desperately you love them,” instead of blunt, scary things like “You will sweat a lot, and breastfeeding sucks.”

It’s not that I don’t truly believe that motherhood has an infinite number of amazing things in store for you: it’s true, without any doubt, that this baby will change your life in incredible ways. It’s true that your heart will burst when you look at their little cupid’s-bow lips and when their eyes focus in on your face with a stare that seems both new and ageless. And it’s true that, if required, and without any hesitation, you will absolutely put your body between theirs and a moving vehicle. And it’s also true – so very true – that you will love so deeply and intensely and magically that you won’t believe there was a world before they existed.

This is all true, elemental and profound; it’s a link you will share with the mothers around you, and the mothers before you, and the mothers yet to be. And I could say all that, when you ask what this motherhood thing is like. I could. Perhaps I should. But it’s always seemed to me just a little more helpful to share some of the other side of the coin, the dark side of the moon. Like the fact that post-partum depression is a real thing that can turn your life upside down. And that sometimes, once in a while, you will probably ask yourself – in secret, in the tiniest voice inside the darkest corner of your mind – if maybe, just possibly, this was a bad idea. And though you love this child with all that depth and intensity and magic, there will be a night when you will be so tired, and they will be so restless, that you will burst from your bed in an utter rage and think to yourself, as you attend to your child, “this, this, this is how babies get shaken.” And just thinking this – though you lift them with care, take them close to your body, feed them, hum to them – will make you so sad and guilty and forlorn because you’d really believed, for some reason, that you would be endlessly patient and loving and selfless, and this strange fear and anger and exhaustion inside of you is just so foreign and strange.

Maybe that’s why I say the hard true things first, when you ask me, and the lovely true things second. Because what none of us sees at first is that we actually are endlessly patient and loving and selfless – but in the most human of ways. It doesn’t look the way we think it should, this love, this thing of being a mother. It’s too messy for that. It’s too hard and good and thrilling and scary, all at once.

The truth is, I’m not so sure anymore that I would want it any other way. And maybe, telling you all that, makes me an ambassador for motherhood – real, true, unfiltered motherhood – after all.

A precious weight

(This post originally appeared on Skirt Quarterly. The introduction is re-printed here, follow the link below for the full original post.) 

I’ve heard people say they find female relationships taxing. That there is always a degree of competition or passive-aggressive tension simmering below the surface. It would be disingenuous to say I’ve never felt the push and pull, the shifting of insecurities and uncertainties through backhanded compliments or leading questions, the one-upmanship of comparison that can erupt unexpectedly. In truth, such things happen between people of any combination of genders—but somehow we notice it more when it’s us girls, and call it evidence for the impossibility of true, deep friendship between women. “Too much drama,” people say, rolling their eyes. This cliché of the “frenemy” has represented such a small fraction of my interactions with other women over my life that I find the concept incongruous at best, damaging at worst.

Read the rest on Skirt Quarterly online.