Paths

I will try to work out the words for this thing I thought. Bear with me.

I was telling my friend about this memoir I’m editing. I started working with the writer last spring, when he had a lot of words that made up individual stories that lacked a unifying theme or a coherent narrative. He’d just written down all his stories, the sort of stories you’d tell an old friend or a new one you happened up beside at the bar. They were full of repetition because in his mind each of them stood alone, so he had to explain things anew each time. He asked me to help him make it into a book.

It was a wonderful challenge. As I read, my mind hopping  from one era of his life to another and back again (because he’d arranged the stories not chronologically but with “the most interesting first, in case people got bored”) I tried to unravel the tangles and find out what happened to him from the beginning to where he is now. And I began to see themes emerging, silver threads gleaming from the page, begging to be picked up and drawn out, explored, rounded.

From where he is, it’s a bunch of stories. My job is to make it a narrative. Because, when you’re in your life, you can’t see the wood for the trees. Of course you can’t. Even at the end of it, looking back, it might take someone else, someone like me, to find your threads and pull on them to make something that feels whole and satisfying. I might be wrong, of course, and need to be set right: I might see threads that aren’t really there, make something out of almost nothing – or I might see things he never even knew about until I bring them up, glittering, a vein of ore that was buried.

It’s so satisfying to begin at the end and have the opportunity to impose an order on things. In my own writing, I have to start from nothing and create something. I might know where the end is going to be, but I don’t know how I’ll get there. I just have to write to find out, which is what I’m doing at the moment – I’m getting towards the end of a first draft that right now is terrible, to my eyes, but once it’s there I can make it better. Before it existed, there was nothing to fix.

And when it’s my life instead of my writing – my parenting life, for example – it’s so hard to see the path when you’re on it. You can look back and discern the road that brought you here, in one straight line or a winding one, but from where I am right now there are a myriad of options, just like with fiction, and I don’t even know where I’m going. Sometimes you don’t even feel like you’re moving; you’re just standing still and trying not to collapse under the weight of all the things the world is throwing at you, like a deluge, a hail of trash and random items falling on your head. One foot in front of another is enough achievement, never mind looking ahead and picking a direction. Who’s steering this thing? Am I supposed to be in control?

So I suppose the moral is that in my writing, I am in control. I can steer along the path both backwards and forwards until I make whatever needs to happen happen, because fiction is tidy and satisfying that way. In my editing, I can take pleasure in helping my client shape his many stories into a single narrative that tells of a life he recognizes as his and yet is in many ways tidier, more like fiction. But in my own life – my real life, unadorned, unedited – all I can do is I can just keep plodding and remember to look up now and then and try to see a little way ahead, pivot a bit, keep paddling.

A leaf-strewn path through woods.
One path, looking back
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Sunrise, sunset

Here’s a thing. I remember when we moved into this house, and the new kitchen cabinets were up (though the countertops hadn’t yet arrived) and I started putting plates and glasses and baking ingredients in cupboards, thinking “I’ll put this here for now but I can change it later when I find something better” and simultaneously knowing that what I did now would probably just stay this way forever because entropy.

I still feel like I could easily change the locations of things – like the flour that I put ridiculously high up because I had a toddler who might get into it, and the cooling racks that get hung up on each other because they’re shoved in on top of the lasagne dish, and … you get the picture. But to my kids, those places for things are sacrosanct. That’s where the item belongs, now and for evermore, and the idea of moving it is as ridiculous as suddenly picking up our house and plonking it at the end of the road instead of here in the curve of the cul de sac.

I know this, because I know how I felt. By the time I was about seven, my mother had been married and living in my father’s house for eight years – just as long as I’ve been in this house. And her life, before me, may as well have happened in the middle ages, as far as I was concerned. When she met up with her friends from the bank, where she worked before she was married, that was ancient history walking around, like zombies. It hailed from another dimension.

I had no idea then that eight years is nothing. That I remember things that happened ten years ago as if they were yesterday. That I know how I felt and what I thought when I got married, a whole fourteen and a half years ago. That I was, in fact, the same person I am now, just with fewer grey hairs and a more impermanent address. I don’t even think of this house as my home forever and ever, I think of it as where we live now. Even though the 12yo vaguely remembers where we lived before here (he had just turned 4 when we moved) I know both kids would be horrified by such heresy. Here is now and now is forever.

There’s nothing quite so surprising as the passage of time. I probably shouldn’t be frustrated when my son repeatedly seems amazed that it’s now past the time when he can get his homework done before nominal “bedtime” because it’s an hour later than it was when I first mentioned that he should definitely start now. I’m just the same, only on a larger scale. I can cope with the minute-to-minute and hour-to-hour, but the decade-to-decade is decidedly shocking.

Clouds over the lake in autumn
Neither sunrise nor sunset, actually

 

Tilt/shift

Nothing very bad has ever happened to me.

I have never been raped or suffered a serious sexual assault. I’ve never been with a guy who didn’t stop when I indicated that we’d reached the point of no passing. I have had two small experiences – once a guy jumped up behind me and copped a feel over my shoulder; another time a man put his hand on my thigh in the bus, one finger edging weirdly close to my crotch.

I was 20 for the first one, in my late 20s for the second. I acted as you might expect – the first time I was scared, I yelled and proceeded quickly to a more populous area, spoke to a supermarket’s security guard, went straight home; the second time, I shifted uncomfortably, not sure if he realised what he was doing, afraid to embarrass him if it was an accident (of course it wasn’t an accident) until finally I shifted drastically enough in my seat that his hand removed itself. I blamed myself the first time: for listening to my walkman, for taking the quieter route, for wearing leggings, for being oblivious. The second time I knew better. I was just a female on a bus. No more, no less.

When something like that – or something else un-good – happens, I have noticed that my worldview tilts. For a while, I see things from the dark side. I expect everything to end badly: every trip to be a harbinger of disaster, every stranger to be a dangerous foe, every phone call to herald terrible news. I cannot see the way out of this tunnel, because it doesn’t feel like a tunnel, it feels like a heavy blanket laid over me. It’s the way I feel if I think too hard about climate change.

Usually, this rights itself after a few days, a week. My world pops back to where it usually is, buoyant, upright. People are mostly good, things mostly turn out ok, I am usually lucky. I am in control of my destiny again.

And then I think how long it would take for my worldview to shift back if something really bad happened to me, and I wonder if it ever would. I think that’s probably, maybe, how depression feels. I think it wouldn’t take much to nudge me over there.

I have immense admiration for survivors. #Ibelieveher

 

Longest road trip ever

Are we nearly there yet?

At the end, I mean. The end of the summer. The time when I can go outside and enjoy breathing real air instead of 99% water vapour. The time when the little darlings skip back into their classrooms of rules and regulations and I get to sit at my kitchen table uninterrupted by demands for toast and peach juice and What Can I Eat and I can put my rusty, summer sodden sponge of a brain to use again. Won’t that be nice?

Or I might just go wild in Starbucks with a large mocha or drive myself to a department store where I can walk around slowly in the cool perfumed air picking things up and putting them down without having to monitor the maniacal whirlings of my offspring in any public area.

I shouldn’t complain because they are now big enough that I have left them both at home and done the grocery shopping on my own several times this summer. It was blissful, until I arrived home to be roundly lambasted for all the vanilla milk and donuts I failed to buy. Apparently now if they come with me they get donuts. I draw the line at bringing donuts home to children who didn’t even get off their bums to accompany their aged P to the supermarket.

But I do complain, because the bigger they get the louder they get, and the farther their limbs stretch when flailing around in small spaces, and the faster they can push a shopping cart into my ankles and the heavier they are when they inadvertently step on my toes. (I remember stepping on my mother’s toes a lot, and my dad getting really annoyed with me on her behalf. I think it must be an adolescent lack of control, less awareness of where your body parts are thing, because Dash has started to do it now, and I am getting my curmuffins, with jam on.)

Call me when it’s September. I’ll just be meditating or something until then.

Two cats asleep in the window
Here are the cats. You’ve missed the cats, haven’t you?

Post-referendum brain dump. Tl;dr: Ireland trusts women

When I went to San Francisco for my J1-visa summer in 1994, I would explain to people how backward Ireland was. “There’s no divorce, even, and certainly no abortion,” I would say.

The issue of gay rights wasn’t remotely on my radar, I confess, so I didn’t even know that gay sex had only been legalised in Ireland the year before, and nobody was thinking about gay marriage back then. It wasn’t relevant to me that contraception had been hard to come by before 1985, because by the time I wanted it, it was there, so I didn’t talk about that either.

Divorce was introduced after a 1995 referendum, gay marriage was legalised in 2015, the first country in the world to do so by national plebiscite, and as of yesterday, the Irish government is finally free to legislate for abortion, so that Irish women can have bodily autonomy even while pregnant. It doesn’t sound like a big thing to ask for. It has been so long coming, and so hard won.

It is such a big thing.

I could tell you about Ann Lovett, and the X case and the C case and the brain-dead pregnant woman and Savita, but you can Google them for yourselves. Those women paved the way, sometimes paying with their lives, for yesterday’s historic, overwhelming, patriarchy-smashing referendum result.

The women who campaigned, who canvassed, who (to quote my FB status, if you don’t mind the repetition) had difficult conversations, shared past experiences, put stickers on their houses and cars, wore badges and sweaters, contributed funds and time and emotional labour, had to endure the No campaign’s horrible posters and lies, wrote impassioned blog posts, and explained things to their small children in the right terms, so that the women and girls of Ireland can look forward to a brighter future where their bodies are more their own than ever before – this is thanks in no small part to their efforts. I am so proud of my friends who did all that and more.

I don’t have a vote in Ireland any more, because you have to be a resident as well as a citizen to vote in a referendum. Only diplomats get postal votes, unlike America. So many people are entitled to an Irish passport, but Irish laws only affect you if you live there, so it’s reasonable. But I’ve been thinking about this all week, I was on edge on Thursday, luckily distracted out of the house on Friday, and delighted with the time difference that let me see the exit polls before dinnertime yesterday.

The exit polls were good. Voting in Ireland is by paper ballot (yes, we are still backwards in some ways; also there’s a saga about voting machines and a lot of money wasted that you don’t want me to go into here) and the counting didn’t start till this (Saturday) morning, but the upside of such a small country is that the exit polls can cover every constituency and are expected to be accurate to within +/- 1.5%. The exit polls predicted a sweeping victory for the yes side – much more than would be affected by a piddling 1.5%. Some people still refused to believe it until everything was counted today.

This is how it looked when everything was counted:

Source: Irish Times online

That’s pretty decisive. It was the biggest voter turnout ever, and every constituency but one returned a yes result. Ireland has finally decided to trust women to make decisions regarding our own bodies. This is monumental. It’s tragic that it’s taken so long.

A special mention has to go to the In Her Shoes facebook page, which has been sharing the harrowing stories of Irish women who travelled for abortions over the past few months. I think those stories swayed a lot of voters – they showed that there but for the grace of accident go any of us who have a uterus. I personally have never been in the position of seeking an abortion, but not because I’m a better person than anyone else, or more careful or less promiscuous. I’m just luckier than women whose contraception failed, for whom the morning-after pill didn’t work, who were raped, molested, abused, who had pregnancies with fatal fetal anomalies, who were trapped in intolerable relationships, who were too young, who couldn’t tell, who couldn’t afford to travel to England, who couldn’t take the time off or find the childcare, whose pills were seized by customs, who bled in pain in taxis and aeroplanes and bathrooms and bedrooms because they were afraid to seek medical advice after a procedure that they weren’t allowed to talk about. Way luckier.

Finally, Ireland is going to stop making women with rotten luck suffer more for it.

Thank you, Ireland.

 

A short history of me and the Internet, with digressions

In my postgrad year, when I did a fairly pointless business course mostly because my best friend suggested it, I got my first email account. My friend and I would sit two chairs apart in the library and send each other emails addressed to Gorilla Features and Borscht-for-Brains and giggle at our wit. I took an Information Studies elective in which I did a project on newspapers on the Internet. The papers were just starting to get an internet presence, generally by having a PDF of their pages online. It was all very basic, is what I’m saying. I think we used Word 2.0 back then.

About a year later I got my proper job, with computers and internet access. There was no such thing as a firewall, but then there was no such thing as Facebook either. You could still waste plenty of company time faffing about on the web. A helpful co-worker put together an intranet site for our department that contained a few fun outside links: one was to a thing called a forum. I took a look and was hooked by all these smart people talking about things I didn’t understand and/or was fascinated by, in ways that were witty and clever and new to me.

I lurked on forums and discussion boards with funny names that had nothing to do with their content. I read Wing Chun and Glark and Damn Hell Ass Kings and Tomato Nation. I watched Buffy and Angel and read the recaps the next day at Television Without Pity. I vaguely thought about starting a blog, because it sounded exciting, like a very small and private sort of exhibitionism, like when I’d do cartwheels in the deserted streets at night.

I learned how to be civil on the Internet from the older and wiser posters on those forums. I learned how to be a feminist and how to apologise and just listen when I’d said something stupid. I mostly just watched and learned. I discovered a whole new dialect of Internet-speak, full of memes before we knew what memes were, and running jokes and inside references and blah blah blah fishcakes.

I was reading when one of the people on the boards couldn’t find her boyfriend because he’d been in one of the twin towers on 9/11/2001. This was real life, real people, thousands of miles away, connecting to each other with words on all our screens, sending love, and tears, and an odd, new sort of truth.

I moved to America. The urge to write down all the strangeness of emigrating to a life that’s simultaneously like and not like my old life got the better of me and I started a blog at Diaryland. It had a green background and no photos. It was anonymous, of course.

I read fitness blogs, though I was not fit. I read weightloss blogs, though I wasn’t losing weight. I read baby blogs though I wasn’t pregnant. They all had a good story arc, they kept me coming back. I read Amy‘s blog and Linda‘s blog and Heather‘s blog and others that I haven’t kept up with. I came back again and again to the writers whose words drew me in, who made me laugh and cry with their honesty and their bravery and their lives full of drama. I found Jessica and Leah and Kristin and their lives and their loves and their pregnancies and their cute, cute babies kept me coming back for more because they put their words together so well.

I blogged, in fits and starts. I moved to Blogger and eventually to WordPress. I blogged about the strangeness of living somewhere new. I blogged about being pregnant, having a newborn, breastfeeding, sleepless nights, babies who don’t like food, getting pregnant again, all of it again and again and again. People read my words. I found a community. I even went to BlogHer one year and met a whole lot of people in real life. Facebook happened and the lines between friends I’ve met and friends I haven’t met yet became more blurred.

I found a community of bloggers at home in Ireland, where blogging seemed to be just taking off, though it was changing too, with sponsored posts and competitions and freebies and a whole industry. A few of us ran a site called Parent.ie for a while and I wrote furiously there until it came to an end. The Irish bloggers connected me to home in a new way – now I didn’t just have old friends in Ireland, I had new friends in Ireland too.

But my children persisted in growing. The sleepless nights and the breastfeeding posts went on for a long time, replaced eventually by posts about selective eaters, vision therapy, dyslexia, defiance, birthday cakes, muffins, snow days, homework, baseball, cats, the seasons one after another and over again … you name it, I’ve blogged it. More than once. I started writing other things, in other places, with my real name on them. I started looking beyond what was right in front of me.

I think it’s coming time to call a halt. I think the urge to overshare is finally leaving me. I don’t need to win another Finalist badge. I think I could mothball the blog without regret. I could bundle it up, like a debs dress I might take out and try on from time to time, not to get rid of it but just to put it away as part of my past, because it’s done its job and it’s time to move on. My children’s stories are not mine to tell any more, the Internet is a different place, a little less safe, a little darker now; and my own story… well, I’ll do something else with that, turn it into something more interesting instead. It’s still a work in progress.

I’m not saying this is the end. I’m just saying it might be on the way. A change might be coming.