Author Archives: pryan

Finding Sundays.

For Rachel

This may not be the best crowd to hear this particular confession, but here goes: I’ve always hated Sundays. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that it’s not that unusual. I’ve whiled away many Monday morning hours around the proverbial water cooler with tired colleagues, commiserating about the familiar dread that often descends on even the brightest Sunday afternoons.

Truth be told, my contempt for Sundays is largely unjustified, because they have never been cruel to me. The Sundays of my childhood are mostly pleasant memories, full of the standard fare of many families: church in the morning, an above-average family dinner, and plenty of napping. These activities were interspersed with long stretches of TV watching, usually with my Dad, trying my best to remember the infield fly rule or to follow the twisty plot of yet another BBC crime drama. Days like this are hardly the stuff of serious complaint. And yet, for much of my life, the colour of Sunday was a thick dark grey, dappled with big splotches of boring beige.

In hindsight, I suspect that attending church might have contributed to my feelings about Sundays. I was raised Roman Catholic, and although we went to church every Sunday, my parents were not overly religious. We were faithful, but not really the type of family that took Jesus home with us. He more or less stayed behind with the hymnals in our regular pew, although I did notice that his full name, complete with middle initial, often figured quite prominently in my Dad’s attempts to fix the rabbit ears on our living room television. I got a sense pretty early on that church was just one of a number things we did every week–the place we went before stopping at the deli for a loaf of light rye, kolbasa and dill pickles. The congregation of my childhood church was characteristically Roman Catholic–not outright unfriendly, but definitely light on hospitality and big on self-restraint. Not a lemon square in sight.

I think my early experience of church was part of the reason why, after a high school years of some fairly intense wrestling with angels under the tutelage of the formidable sisters of St. Joseph, I eventually found myself, like so many others, wandering out into the wilderness. Disillusioned and heartbroken by the corruption and harm caused by the church, I began to back away. I wandered in and out of a few faith communities in my twenties, growing more restless and angry with each exit. Eventually, I resolved to fill up my well with more secular pursuits.

I gave it my best shot. By the time I was forty, I had a decent career and a beautiful marriage. I had lived in both New York City and Vancouver, and my young children had introduced a kind of love in my life that still knocks me off my feet at least a few times a week. I had, by all accounts, arrived. Yet, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that something, or someone, was patiently waiting for me just few miles down the road, gently beckoning for me to come in out of the rain, take off my wet socks, and stay awhile. After a few false starts, a handful of emotional dustups and some unanticipated detours, I eventually spotted a clearing. Together with my young family I began the long walk back towards something that looked remarkably like light. I kept walking until I found myself outside the doors of Transfiguration.

As much as the churchwarden in me would love to say otherwise, it wasn’t immediately love at first sight. We spent a few months lurking in the back pews, trying desperately to strike the perfect balance between friendliness and nonchalance. At some point, my awkward smiles turned into recognizable words at coffee hour, and I began to put names to faces. The rich liturgies and beautiful music began to make their way home with me, and sometimes, the words I heard in both the readings and sermons even spilled over into my work week. Even Mondays. I began to feel the faint stirrings of something important returning inside of me and although I didn’t know quite what it all meant, I knew it was very, very good.

Flash forward two years. My husband had just launched the Transfiguration book club, figuring that we both met the minimum qualifications for this particular ministry. I was already active in children’s ministry, and was toying with the prospect of taking on a more formal leadership role at the church. We had most certainly begun to find a home with these people, in this place. But inside, I was still very much grappling with my particular flavour of Sunday-fuelled anxiety. Sometimes, it was just a feeling of being unsure or uncertain, but at other times, the doubt roared so loudly in my head and heart that I was sure it was only a matter of time before someone figured out that I was merely showing up for the pleasant company and the free childcare. Even though everyone knew my name, I still felt like a visitor, afraid to take the tags off my fancy new Jesus clothes just in case I needed to them back before the return period expired. I was both inside and outside this strange and familiar club. I desperately wanted it to be the place that we would finally land for good, but at the same time, I kept wondering if I was the only one whose most profound encounters with Jesus usually involved biting into a slice of Joanne’s blueberry lemon bundt cake.

It was in this liminal and tender space that I first encountered Rachel Held Evans. I had followed her blog for awhile and had pre-ordered Searching for Sunday to read as a possible book club contender. From the moment I opened it, I felt, like so many others, that she had gone out and hired an editor for the express purpose of writing a letter directly to me. Her wise and funny words leapt out at me from every page, making it possible for me to finally name aloud my growing love for a broken yet beautiful and resilient church, and for a God that was slowly making all things new in my life, whether I liked it or not. Page by page, chapter by chapter, Rachel whispered steady and careful assurances to me that it was okay to show up each week unsure and not ready, craving lemon squares over bread and wine, and carrying, as she would describe it, my heavy doubt like a fifth member of my family. Rachel, along with a few other people who were starting to etch marks on my heart, was a part of small but faithful crew who were teaching me that it was possible, perhaps even essential, to live comfortably in the contradictions and complexities of my faith without needing to resolve them. It was Rachel who assured me that I could still be smart and funny and cynical and a warrior for justice (even if only in my head) and still love the Lord my God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all strength and with all my mind.

Rachel helped me find my way back to Sundays. She also helped me know with certainty that it was perfectly okay to have weeks where all I can manage to do is wrap a heavy grey blanket named Sunday around me and weep for this broken world and this broken church, and then curl up and watch a baseball game with my son (who, as it happens, never has any trouble remembering the infield fly rule). Rachel taught me that even when the game, and the weeping, goes into extra innings, God is always waiting for me, gently beckoning me in from the rain, telling me to take off my wet socks and stay awhile.

I’m giving thanks for Rachel today. Though we ever met, I miss her very much.

May God hold her family in his strong and gentle hands.

The Art of Work.

My dad, Wilfred James Ryan, representing Local 2858 at a Steelworkers of America convention in Atlantic City, NJ, circa 1979.

In a series of six degrees of Kevin Bacon connections, I am meeting up with a curator from the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) later today to talk about my Dad, who worked as an anodizer at the Alcan aluminum plant that has now been transformed into MOCA.

Seems fitting that I spent the better part of yesterday, May Day, sorting through my various photos and journals to spark my memories of his working life. This is a picture from him at a union convention in Atlantic city. His face reveals so much about who he was; equal parts tough and kind, armed with well honed sense of justice and compassion, and zero tolerance for bullshit.  He was also funny as hell.

I miss him so much still, but grateful for the chance to scatter some light into the ways he worked tirelessly to make difficult things a bit easier for his family, and for his co-workers. I cant wait to share some of his story.  More to come.

The Write Stuff.

It began, innocently enough, with two fountain pens.

A trusted colleague, whom I’ve come to love for his rare blend of quirky kindness and razor sharp wit, knocked on my office door one quiet morning.

He handed me a small bag. Inside were two Platinum Preppy fountain pens, one red, one blue.  I was touched by his thoughtfulness. Only a week before, I’d admired his pen on our bus ride home. He waited patiently as I spun the curved plastic between my fingers and made squiggly circles in his tiny notebook that he carried in the same pocket as his pen. We spent the ride talking about nibs, feathering. bleeding, and paper, me nodding in quiet approval all the while not having a first clue about most of it. I left knowing one thing with certainty:  fountain pens brought my friend joy.  Not the Marie Kondo thank-your-puffy-shirt-for-the-memories variety, but kind that leaves your heart wide, yet safe. The feeling of knowing that no one can take the sky from you.

He left my office and I slowly pulled the blue one out of the bag.  I placed the cartridge carefully into the feed, and screwed the barrel back in place.  I waited in silence for the ink to fill the nib and took my first tentative scribbles on a neon green post-it.  Smiling to myself, I placed the pen on my favourite orange note-book and went back to work.

That visit was almost three years ago. The two Platinum Preppies have expanded to a healthy collection of pens of various colours and price points, and I can now hold my own in conversations about the merits of medium and fine point nibs, and all things feeds and cartridges. One might even say I’ve been converted. And, although there is nothing quite like the feeling of a newly inked pen taking its rightful place at the top of a fresh new page, or the watching the swirl of smooth lines as they connect the dots in my bullet journal, I think my love of fountain pens is more about sentiment than instrument.  For this, I offer no apologies. With my work laptop often feeling like an extension of my fingers, rediscovering the simple joy of writing a thank you note has been an important balm to loneliness. What’s more: I rarely make a weekend grocery list without thinking of my friend, whose small act of kindness is still making a mark on my life, often in shades of deep magenta or crisp forest green.

We all need to find our own strategies for countering scarcity with joy, and for creating secure and beautiful lines of connection to ourselves and to those we care about. And sometimes, if we are really lucky, the answers are right at our fingertips.

Snow Pants.

It was mid-afternoon when the snow started falling.  

I’d listened to the forecast on and off throughout my work-from-home day, mentally calculating the precise time I would shut down the computer and pick up the Girl to avoid the worst of the storm. Shortly after two o’clock, part way through watching the dullest webinar in the History of the World, I was seized by a terrifying thought: THE BOY DOES NOT HAVE HIS SNOW PANTS.

To be clear, the Boy had not worn snow pants to school in over a year. Not wearing snow pants was part of the new global order since his transition to middle school last September. Yet, as I watched the snow begin to drift and heard the wind begin its purposeful howl, I quickly decided that the snow pant problem needed to be rectified. I closed my laptop and raced to the front closet.

I bundled up in as many layers as I could find, mentally calculating my odds of making it to the school before the dismissal bell. I stepped out into the bracing cold to begin the twenty-minutes-in-good-weather trek, snow pants in hand. By the time I reached the end of my street, the wind had picked up significantly, and my glasses had tiny ice chips forming on the inside of my lenses. I forged on, steadily crunching through the now accumulating snow.

Turning the final corner, the school finally in sight, I stopped to wipe down my glasses. I watched in silence as a handful of spindly boys made their way out of the front doors and jostled each other down the icy steps.  I felt a sudden twinge of unease upon observing that not one of the boys was wearing snow pants.

A few more kids spilled out from side door, coats open, boots unlaced. Not a single pair of snow pants in sight. I felt a slow dread start to assemble in my gut, and the full horror of what I was about to do began to take shape silently in my head. I was fifteen yards away from walking into my eleven year old’s school to BRING HIM HIS SNOW PANTS

I stood frozen, carefully weighing my options. After toying briefly with burying myself head-deep in the snow, I opted to take my chances, figuring I could beg forgiveness later. After a few excruciatingly cold minutes, I saw his blue and orange toque appear at the side door.  I had already braced myself for the awkward greeting, and was completely prepared to lie through my teeth about “being on my way home” and how I just happened to have his snow pants in my hand. (Wot?  I’m a mom. Stranger things have happened).  I stood stiffly as he made his way down the steps, and through the falling snow, I could see his expression shift gently as we made eye contact. 

He approached slowly, swinging his backpack gently behind him.

“S’up mom,” he said softly.

“Hi hon.  I.. um, well…I just thought you might want these,” I said.

The snow pants dangled pitifully at my side, looking like milk-drenched mini-wheats. I stared down at the snow, blinking back what I was sure would be half frozen tears. He stared for a moment, waving casually to two red haired boys as they scurried past us on the sidewalk. By now my dull dread was a full blown stomach ache, and I was desperate to find a way to salvage the remains of what I was sure was now officially the Worst Day of his Life.

I started to stammer out an apology, but he gently interrupted me. “Thanks, mum.  I think I’m good without them, but it’s pretty cool you came.”

We walked home together through the quiet, drifting snow.

Sometimes, it’s our kids who take the best care of us.


Soul Food.

Soul Food

On any given Thursday night around 5:30 pm, I send a text to my better half.

“Home in 20.  I’ll get dinner sorted.”

Often, he responds with gentle protests: “But you’ve had such a busy week! And we still have that lentil/kale/virtuous grain thing you made on Sunday for lunches and haven’t touched yet!”

And yes, in case you’re wondering, he’s an all-around way better person than me; his calm ­­­and steady countenance a balm for my itchy angst and chronic must do-itis.

He’s almost always right. It usually has been a busy week and by this point in it, I’m often spent; possibly even cranky beyond recognition. If it’s September or October, well, multiply that feeling by six hundred. Yet even after two decades of together, he sometimes forgets that we all have our own strategies for coping with overwhelm, and for moving ourselves from what can often be a debilitating mindset of scarcity to one of abundance, even if only in the contours of hearts. For me, the strategy is usually pretty simple: I make dinner.

Fear not, friends, for I have not lost my feminist marbles. While I struggle as much as other women with the relentless pressures of balancing motherhood, a busy full- job and a host of other commitments, grand illusions of a perfectly managed household have never really been my thing. My house is reasonably clean, but that is mainly because we are far too lazy to buy stuff and we both find the prospect of home decorating to be paralyzing. My kids are mostly presentable, and on a good week, there might even be an extra fluffy towel or two lying in wait in the bathroom–because really, who can resist a fluffy towel?–but that’s basically the extent of what I can manage on the Domestic Goddess front. My partner, the aforementioned way better person than me, takes care of almost everything else.

But what goes on in my kitchen, and more specifically, what goes on in my oven, my slow cooker, or even my microwave, is an entirely different story. The kitchen, and most chores that are connected to food in our lives—meal planning, list making, fridge cleaning, cupboard organizing—they almost always fall to me. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In her gorgeous book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor asks the question that I have found myself returning to with increasing frequency this past year.  She asks: what is saving your life right now? Here, I think she means for us to consider all the things, experiences and our relationships that elevate our perspective, that feed our creativity and our sense of purpose, and offer us an ounce of coherence and wholeness in a world that often feels bound and determined to break us down. My family and friends always figure prominently in my answers to this question, but so does making dinner.

I find every step single satisfying: hunting down recipes, making lists and taking mental inventories of the local shops that are most likely to have enoki mushrooms, za’tar, or some other random ingredient in the mouth-watering Ottolenghi recipe that I have decided MUST be on my plate that night. Invariably, I track down the illusive ingredient at the specialty market, where I will of course also spend $16 on a bag of gourmet cheese breadsticks because you only live once and also because, well, did I mention they are cheese breadsticks?

At home, the ritual continues. I unpack the bags and carefully lay out the ingredients on my freshly wiped counter. I select the perfect culinary soundtrack, which I will listen to for exactly six and half minutes before my daughter appears in the kitchen to request the Shawn Mendez song that makes me want to stab my eyes out with a fork. I gently retrieve the rippled white serving bowls that my oldest friend gave to us when we bought our first house, and I always think of her fondly as I lay them down in wait.

Slowly, the symphony begins. It opens with the slow and measured strokes of rinsing and drying and moves to the staccato rhythm of chopping, dicing and slicing, interrupted only by the satisfying sweep of the knife’s edge across my cutting board. Measuring, pouring, peeling, grating, stirring, salting, tasting, I slowly begin to lose myself to the effort, moving further away from the day’s busy thoughts and concerns, and closer to rest. With every movement, I move deeper into connection with myself, and into the memories of the hands that once cooked for me. I see my Dad’s hands sweeping flour across the aluminum pizza sheets –made with his own hands—and picture my mom’s wedding band sitting in the turtle shaped cup at the corner of the sink as she scours the burnt pan. By the time my cast iron pan offers up to me its familiar sizzle and splatter, I am home.

As strange as this may sound, this is my favourite of prayer.

I lay the plates down, and I become aware of how my heart feels like it’s been recalibrated. As I listen to the cut and thrust of dinner debates and increasingly alarming variations of the “Would You Rather” game, I feel a swell of quiet gratitude that, a mere two hours before, seemed entirely impossible. I try to sit in its wake for just a bit longer before I start to gather up the dishes and conjure up plans for leftovers.

We all have our own ways of praying, or just reconnecting to ourselves and to what matters to us. My way just happens to routinely involve a lemon roasted chicken, a side of garlic rapini, and a glass of bold Malbec.

Somehow, I think God would approve.

One Damn Word, and a pile of Skittles.

skittles-924835_1920

As we walked to school, I struggled to find something new or important to say that would help crack through the layers of disappointment and anger.  I had done a decent job convincing myself that it was really about containing and contextualizing the election results for my kids. Both of them had amazing insight and questions leading up to this election, and I wanted to strike the right balance between cultivating their interest in world affairs, and making sure they could still eat a banana popsicle or jump around in the neighbour’s trampoline without worrying about the fall of civilization as we know it. But deep inside, I knew it wasn’t actually the kids who needed the words this morning. As my preacher friend often reminds me, his best sermons are the ones in which he is preaching to himself.  This morning, I needed someone to say just One Damn Word that could make me feel better about waking up in a province fuelled by rage and righteousness, about going to work on a campus that is more polarized and grim than anything I’ve experienced in 18 years, or about carrying on in a world where depression and anxiety routinely take from us the beautiful souls that help to scatter light in our own darkness. Just One Damn Word was all I really needed this morning.

I had already decided last night to take a much needed day at home, so I spent the morning in a fit of what I hoped would be therapeutic housecleaning, scrubbing away at the mental grit that’s been accumulating steadily for the last few weeks. But somewhere between picking up the eight thousandth piece of lego and scraping the remnants of watermelon-flavoured Skittles off my daughter’s bookshelf, I began to cry. At first, I thought it was your garden-variety “burn it all fucking down” angry cry, but sitting here now on my swing on this gorgeous early summer evening, many hours and three cups of tea away from those heaving, heavy sobs, I know it was more than that. It was mainly, perhaps even entirely, about the slow but searing pain of Letting Go. Letting go of constantly wishing and fighting for things to be different.  Letting go of the idea that if I just send one more email, organize one more union meeting, do one more facebook post, or check off one more thing on my never-ending to-do list, that it will magically feel like the world is back where it needs to be. It was about letting go of my beautiful, smart and tender boy who no longer needs me to walk him to school (but thankfully lets me anyway), or letting go of my girl who can now stand on a stage by herself, and calmly and forcefully speak her truth into a microphone and then eat five bags of popcorn. It was also about having to let go of the pleasant illusion that we can somehow prevent our children, and ourselves, from having mornings just like this one. Mornings that feel so heavy, anger-inducing and just so, so, hard. After awhile, I stopped crying and made my way back to the scrubbing. And though I didn’t feel great, I did feel better. I felt better enough to text one of my best friends and invite her over to soothe our election-induced hangover with some leftover Indian food. She had other plans, but the small act of reaching out to her helped to ground me slowly back into myself.  She likely doesn’t know it, but she helped turn this day back into something manageable just by being on the other side of that text.

As I continued scrubbing, I started thinking about a discussion we had at a church meeting a few weeks ago. We are knee-deep in installing a new heating system, and it was my job to explain to the congregation how the new system would “maximize efficiency, ensure longevity, and offer the greatest capacity for backup and support in the event of system failure.”  I think that maybe that’s really the most important thing we can offer to one another: backup and support in the event of system failure. Despite my deeply ingrained impulse to want to fix everything for those I care about, most people–including the littlest ones in my life–don’t usually need fixing. What they do need is: unconditional love, support, acceptance, and someone to look out for them, or even to just stand by, when all their normal systems are failing.

I still haven’t found the right words for today. But I did find some words —these very ones that are fighting their way through my fingers to land on this screen, in the faint hope that they  help someone else feel that it’s more than okay to sit down next to their own pile of dried out Skittles and have a big ugly cry about the state of everything. I might suggest that even if you didn’t find yourself crying in a pile of three week old candy, you should invite someone over for leftovers. Cuz there’s a good chance they need might really need it today.

“I’ll have the pink hair with broccoli, and a side of angst.”

The wet snow looked like buttery popcorn as we stepped out of the salon.  She pulled up her hood, her eyes fixed on the wet ground, walking slowly behind me. For awhile, I said nothing. Then, more sharply than I intended, I looked back and said, “Let me guess. You hate it.”

She looked up, and seeing my expression, she turned her eyes towards the cars, splashing noisily alongside us. “Well, um, it’s just that–“

I interrupted her with a exhausted sigh and glanced down distractedly at my phone, signalling my annoyance.  We walked along in silence for the next few minutes.

As we walked, I could feel the familiar anxiety rising in my chest. I  was desperately trying to summon up the mother who could easily put aside her own irritation at having set aside an important work project to pick up her daughter early for the haircut she  begged for just that morning.  I wanted so badly to be able to reach back and take her hand, tell her that it was totally alright if she didn’t love the 25 dollar (!) haircut, that it would grow back in no time at all, and that we’d wash the pink sparkles out as soon as we got home.  Because that’s what Good and Loving Mothers do, right?

Only, I didn’t do or say that. I lifted one eye from my phone and said, angrily, “You know, for once, would it kill you to just pretend that you like it?”

“Ok” she said tentatively. In that moment I could almost see, between the kernels of popcorn snow now falling heavily between us, the angst swell up inside her tiny body. She took off her hood, and I watched her attempt a nervous skip as she caught up with me, as if to say, “Look at me and my new haircut — isn’t it TOTALLY AWESOME!”

We arrived back at the school and got in the parked car, neither of us mentioning the haircut. She tried to engage me with the usual sordid tales of Grade 2 that I normally can’t resist,  but I found myself responding with only curt “uh huhs” and perfunctory smiles.  In the rear view mirror, I could see the tender edges of nervousness creeping into her face, and eventually, she sat back in her seat, stopping her story mid-tale.  And yet still, I said nothing.  By this time her brother had arrived and, sensing the tension between us, offered an uncharacteristically earnest “how was your day?’ as we pulled away from the school.  “Fine,” we both muttered sharply, at exactly the same time–prompting the boy to offer an instinctive, barely audible “jinx zipper spots!”  (don’t ask — kids are just weird).

When we got home,  she marched up to her room, where she stayed long enough for me to unload a well-curated list of “all the things I do for her” on my partner, who nodded sympathetically here and there as he cut up the broccoli for dinner. And then, without a word, he carefully set the table, poured me a glass of wine, and asked if it was time for a hug.  I immediately bristled, thoroughly annoyed at the gall of him in suggesting that all my Very Serious and Important Complaints could be somehow reduced to a hug.  But a second later I nodded, my body gently sinking back into my chair. Summoning up my very best version of my defeat meets exhaustion-induced neediness face,  I waited. He kept chopping.

Hello?” I said, exasperated. “I thought you were going to give me a hug,”

Without looking up, he said calmly, ” I didn’t say that. I asked you if it was time for a hug. I didn’t mean from me.”

I walked up the stairs and knocked gently on her door. Before I could say a word, she burst from her bed, wetting my shirt with her hot tears, telling me how much she really loved the pink parts, but was worried that the snow would ruin it. “I just wanted to get home quickly and look at it in my mirror before showing my friends at school.” As the shame of what I had put her through on the way home swept over me, I started bawling too. We lay on her bed for awhile, staring at the ceiling and blowing our noses until her Dad finally called us down for dinner.

Parenting breaks your heart into a million pieces, a thousand times a day.

PS. The broccoli was really good.

 

Re-organization

York University Libraries is about to embark on a major reorganization. Today, I interviewed for one of six new positions that have been created as part of the new structure. The position is for a Director of the Content Development and Analysis Department.  I’m excited about the reorganization, and (hopefully) moving into a new role.

In case you are interested, here are my presentation notes , my presentation slides and my bookmark!.

Charlottesville.

We were packing the car when the news of Charlottesville was breaking, heading off on the camping trip that we now refer to as our Annual Screen Sabbath (because evidently, it now takes a five-day provincial park permit and a weak cell signal to pry us from our devices, but that’s a sad story for another day). The timing was good: my low level but ever-present anxiety and frustration at the state of all things that began on that fateful Tuesday night last November had taken a toll, and I had been wrestling with the tight edges of fatigue and disheartenment for several weeks. Low on patience and empathy for things I normally valued, I hoped that a few days under the stars, my phone turned off and my beach reads lined up, was just the remedy.

And in some ways, it wasI got some much-needed sleep, restored my suffering reputation as the household queen of Dutch Blitz, and on one crisp morning, sat in my favourite canvas chair watching a half-crazed chipmunk scamper back and forth across our site for so long that my daughter actually got concerned: “Mommy…are you, like, okay?

But, by day two, I was aware of the silence being oppressive, a slow burn in the deep woods, lying in wait. It wasn’t just because it had been a really long time since my phone and I had spent this much quality time apart (that turned out to be far less painful than I anticipated), or that the beach reads I hastily selected from the drug store turned out to be, well, the kind of books that one hastily selects from the drug store. It was more that my internal message to “take a break from the heavy stuff” just wasn’t working. I kept telling myself that our vacation was not the time to ruminate endlessly about Charlottesville, the Orange Man, or the many, many ways in which our world felt broken. If only for a few short days, I wanted to take my lead from my children and bury my head, or at least my toes, in the cool, wet sand. It would, I reasoned, all be waiting for me when I got home.

Halfway through the trip, I was listening to my kids playing in their tent while I prepared dinner. We’ve been rationing our screen time lately, and the new routines have sparked a welcome resurgence of creative role play. So, I wasn’t surprised to hear my daughter giving her older brother explicit instructions for the next scene in their impromptu performance. I was drifting in and out of listening, but I stopped chopping my onion long enough to absorb the plot essentials: my daughter was playing the President, and she had just issued her first executive order to move all the stuffies to one side of the air mattress. “It’s time”, she said blithely, “to build the wall.”

For a moment, I could barely breathe. I briefly considered interrupting them to explain why this wasn’t really the stuff of play, but I forced myself to keep listening so I could make sense of how much she actually understood about what it all meant. (As it turns out, the wall’s singular purpose in this particular administration was to protect the White House’s supply of macaroni and cheese). Still, it was striking to realize that my attempts to shelter them from the divisive and frightening rhetoric of the last year hadn’t been as successful as I imagined. It’s not that we hadn’t engaged the issues at all; we’ve certainly had many conversations about Trump’s election. My son has a decent grasp of our major concerns, and I’ve watched him wrestle thoughtfully with how notions of inclusion and exclusion play out in his own world. They’ve both asked us good questions, and we’ve done our best to answer them honestly without burdening them with excessive fear or anxiety.  But standing outside their tent that night, I was struck anew by the realization they were citizens of the world in their own right, and that no amount of rationing their screen time, careful re-direction or family dialogue could protect them entirely from having to contend with darkness in places where they’ve only ever known light. I think it was the start of accepting that my job was no longer to try to hide it all from them, but to find ways to take their not-so tiny hands, and start walking through it with them.

Later that night, my husband and I finally dispensed with the illusion of getting away from it all and had a good long talk about Charlottesville, Trump and our fears, but also about how to stand with awareness alongside our children without losing our sense of hope, or our sense of humour. We didn’t come up with any clear answers but the exploration made us both feel a bit better, and left us with a renewed determination to find ways to work at things meaningfully, even if only in the small reaches of our daily lives. I’m still unsure about what this all really looks like, but I do know that the uncertainty feels better than despair or complacency.

On the close of my 45th birthday, I am sure of a few things. I am sure that whether you understand fascists mobilizing in Charlottesville to be an overture for something far more ugly, or see it as a critical breaking point in this vile and dangerous Presidency, there is no longer enough sand in the world in which to bury ourselves. I’m sure that while it’s tempting to insist that there is nothing to be done on this side of the border short of waiting and watching in horror, and maybe hugging our loved ones a bit more tightly, it’s frankly just not enough. I’m sure that you don’t necessarily need an official title, a pulpit or a even a blog to start naming hate where and when you see it, even when it feels terrifying. I’m sure that if you are, like me, a white, straight, able-bodied woman living a largely middle class existence in one of the safest countries in the world, there’s probably a ton of stuff you could be doing in the wake of Charlottesville, but that sometimes the most important thing to do is just shut the hell up and listen to people of colour so that you understand what is needed. Finally, I’m sure that it is only when we begin to truthfully acknowledge and talk about our own complicitness in the systems and structures that perpetuate the racism that defined Charlottesville, that we can even begin to imagine an alternative. If nothing else, it’s a decent place to start.

On Magic. And Disney Dreams.

We went to Walt Disney World. If you know us at all, this in itself is pretty surprising. But what’s even more surprising is this: we liked it.  A lot.

Some things were as I expected: at times we were miserably hot, exhausted and overstimulated, and ready to tell Mickey exactly where he could stuff his ears. But more often than not, we found ourselves knee-deep in something we don’t get nearly enough of in our regular lives: the full experience of each other, and of silencing our inner critics just long enough to take in the view.

Let me be very clear: I am not normally a “make lemonade from lemons” person, and I have been known to taste sour before sweet on the best of days. But for me, the real Magic of Disney was the way it relentlessly begged me to shelve my hard-won analysis of all life’s injustices and woes for just a little while, and take a good, long, break. For neurotic types like me who struggle with doing ALL THE THINGS and a sometimes burdensome sense of responsibility, this was a beautiful gift, even if it did come packaged in gaudy decor, pervasive, if slightly laboured, good cheer, and oddly terrifying over-sized dalmations.

The Magic surfaced for me in unexpected ways. I was almost embarrassed to find myself tearing up as Belle sobbed over the dying Beast, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the bubble gum pink ball gowns as they twirled effortlessly across the stage. Meanwhile, the seven year old–presumably more of the target audience for such things–fidgeted with her MagicBand throughout the entire performance, stopping only periodically to ask when there would be more french fries. But I will never forget the look on her face when, while relaxing by the pool that night, I handed her a five dollar bill and told her to go and get any drink she wanted. And pay for it ALL BY HERSELF. After clarifying that this directive included orange pop, she nearly tripped over her own excitement running off on what she would later call her Very Important Mission.

There were other moments.. Waiting in line for Big Thunder Mountain wth the Boy, I sensed his trepidation as he listened to the nervous laughter of riders pulling into the loading area. At first I tried to engage him, thinking that talking through his fear would help. It took a few shoulder shrugs for me to realize that this was not at all what he needed.  I think all that mattered, and would be (hopefully) be remembered years from now, was that his mom was with him on that ride. Did I mention we went three more times?

We ordered cheese pizza at midnight. We bought tacky t-shirts, and then some of us bought a few more. We hugged Pluto, and fist bumped a Storm Trooper. We watched as the Boy let down his guard and was charmed anew by a bear named Winnie. We sat by awkwardly, as the Girl, having decided that sitting with us was boring, took it upon herself to adopt a new family on every bus trip to and from the parks.  She made friends with people from all over the States, scored a seat on a mobility scooter with an 86 year old who had tackled every roller coaster in the Magic Kingdom that day, and even learned a magic trick or two. I tolerated a grown man talking like a pirate (and quite badly at that) for almost an entire afternoon, and felt only mild irritation at his insistence on checking off everything last thing on his personal Must See List. I gazed at palm trees, and ate my weight in baked chicken and green beans, and held on for the ride.  It was all so ridiculous, and yet so uttterly, unbelievably, irresistable.

On the return flight, I watched the Girl take out her notebook and write down the list of things she had done in Florida. Interestingly, almost none of them had to do with princesses, pirates or anything you could find in the gift shops. Still, I can’t help but think that those princesses and pirates were a big part of what helped her parents to remember that being seven (and a half) isn’t at all like being forty four, or twenty, or even sixteen. I like to think that over the din of the throbbing crowds, beyond the zillion gift shops and the constant pull of more and more stuff, I could hear them whispering to me some things I could probably stand to hear a bit more often. They were telling me that sometimes, if only for a few moments, or even a few days, it’s really ok to Let it Go, to buy the sugary drink, to tolerate the roughhousing (and yes,  even the pirate talk) just a little bit longer, and to remember that most of the time, they’re just doing their very best to be seven and almost ten in a world that’s designed mostly for grown ups.

I think that might be the best kind of Magic.