I'm (Still) Here.

SENSITIVITY WARNING: THIS POST ADDRESSES THEMES OF DEPRESSION, ANXIETY, BURNOUT AND SUICIDAL THOUGHTS

It’s been over a year since I posted, and I have to say, it’s been over a year since I’ve felt like myself. It’s been over a year since I’ve done a LOT of things that I consider important, things that I thought gave meaning and colour to my life. The truth is, that since my last post in June 2018, and probably for a very long while before that, if I’m honest, I was dealing with what started as mild, then became pretty-darn-severe depression, escalating anxiety to go along with it, and a nice side of professional burnout to really round out the situation.

It Begins With Burnout

The mental health issues started at work and started as far back as the summer of 2017, several months after I had started in that particular position. I had too much work to do, was working at a feverish pace to churn out huge amounts of work product, and was doing so in an emotionally charged, stressful, often toxic (for me) environment. I don’t want to say much more than that about the specifics of the situation, but it really began there. I expended so much emotional and intellectual energy to get through each workday, that when the day finished, I had no desire to do anything but lie on the bed, talk to Curriecat, maybe stare at a YouTube video or two. I didn’t feel a lot of job security, which meant I never relaxed at the office, was always trying to prove myself, was always working with worries in the back of my head that I had to keep this job, otherwise how would I pay my mortgage? How would I live? I took those laundry lists of worries home with me each night, and ran through them relentlessly.

So the depression really started as intellectual, emotional, and physical fatigue that I just couldn’t seem to recover from. Leaving one job, moving to another, establishing myself at that job, becoming disenchanted then horrified with the realities of that job, then frantically searching for another job, trying to actually engage in the practice of law, which is totally brain-taxing, at the same time that this was going on - well, it was just too much. I was operating at the highest level of stress, uncertainty and anxiety that I possibly could. And it wore me out, in every way possible.

All By Myself

I would tell myself it was temporary. “I’m too tired to go to dance class tonight, but I’ll go next week,” I’d think. When that friend’s birthday party rolled around, and I didn’t feel up for smiling and small talk, I would make an excuse as to why I couldn’t attend. “I’ll catch them another time,” I’d think. When Friday rolled around and I didn’t have plans, I was happy. I could go home, sit in my shower to decompress from the day, then go to bed. I would tell myself these were one-off occasions, as I dragged myself through another day of work, and felt too tired to do anything to improve the situation. One day became another, which became another, until I was quitting dance altogether because the thought of performance was giving me (ME!) anxiety. I was failing to renew my gym membership because I just couldn’t work up the energy to go. I didn’t audition for shows and I left burlesque behind and didn’t hear a peep from anyone in those communities, which made me feel righteously justified about my decision to walk away from them. I was not bothering to call friends or family for help, because, they’re not calling me, why should I go to the effort of calling them? I exited social media, mostly for moral reasons (damn you Zuckerberg) but also because I was tired of entertaining people with funny posts when those people saw nothing of what I felt I was suffering, and never reached out (of course, please know, there are a few good friends who are exceptions to this rule and have stuck with me through all of this, for which I am forever grateful). Life felt extremely hard and I didn’t feel like fighting anymore. And I resented that no one was stepping up to fight for me. I was tired, pissed at how much more difficult my life seemed than other people’s, and really really REALLY angry that I had seemingly done all the right things, my whole life, and ended up in this life, alone with a cat, with this job, with seemingly no way out.

Hello Darkness My Old Friend

Last summer was when it felt like the darkness that had been bubbling really set in, or rather, that I allowed myself to surrender to it. Last summer was when I started thinking thoughts like, “Curriecat’s 12 years old. She’s really the only reason I have to stay alive. When she passes away, I’m not sure what I’m good for. There isn’t really a reason to be around once Curriecat’s gone.” If you’d asked me then, I would have never called that kind of thinking suicidal, because, I wasn’t like, plotting my own death. There were no plans to actually die. These were just thoughts I was thinking, and hey, weren’t they just the truth? Wasn’t I just being honest?

Now, a year and a few months later, I know better. Those kind of thoughts, even questioning the whys of your existence, lead you down a dark path where suddenly you can start thinking very comfortably about how exactly you might make that happen. I never got there, but I know now that even standing at the start of that path was a dangerous place for me to be.

The Lifeline…or Rock Bottom?

Somehow, in the middle of this, last summer and fall, I managed to interview for a number of jobs, which resulted in me having number of opportunities to choose from. that would allow me to exit the work situation I was in. How I got through those interviews, I still don’t know, but I suppose I’m a better actor than I give myself credit for, or, that the people offering me those opportunities saw how desperate I was and were throwing me a lifeline. I thought a new job would fix everything: I just needed to get out of the job I was in, and everything would be fine. I chose the job that was the closest to home, that seemed to have the nicest people to work with, that had the most job security, and put all my mental, physical and emotional-health eggs in that particular basket.

I started at the new job last November, and found that well, yes, despite nice people and a quick walk to work, there were still stresses to be dealt with. There were and are still difficult clients, leadership failures that make my work extra tough, frustrating personalities, high-conflict situations that erupt on a daily basis, so, so, so, so much work to be done, and unreasonable deadlines to be met. Don’t get me wrong - I am still in this new job and it is not that my employer is awful, my team is actually great - it’s just that this is the nature of my field, and the work I do. I was naive to think that I could escape the demands that naturally come with my professional territory. I still believe the move was the right one, professionally, and that for right now, I am where I need to be, professionally. It is not my employer that is the problem, it is the nature of the career I’ve chosen for myself. I also think that, given that I was well into the Depression Zone already, trying to make a move and establish myself in a new position was probably the most batshit crazy thing I could try to do at that time. And, beginning fairly soon after this past Christmas, I started having full blown anxiety attacks on my way to work each day. Shaking, sweating, crying, gasping for air, anxiety attacks.

But, somehow I showed up for work, most days. My hair might barely be brushed, I wouldn’t have any makeup on, I wouldn’t have eaten anything before I got there, but I showed up. The worries about job security and desperate desire to avoid conflict came along with me every day. I continued to become more and more solitary outside of work, and less and less active, but it was starting to feel less like a choice and more like an inevitability. I was no longer interested in the things that I normally loved, like cooking, clothing, makeup, sewing, music, dance and theatre, let alone capable of participating in them. And then, the health menace that always strikes me down when I’m at my absolute lowest showed up.

The Nuclear Option

Ever since I was a kid, my lungs have been a big indicator of my stress level. Breathing problems always seem to show up when I’m at my weakest, emotionally speaking. And since I started my new job this past November, I’ve been down with pneumonia and bronchitis twice. It was after the second bout, this past May, that I really, really, knew that I had dug myself into a hole that I couldn’t get out of. I hated everything about my life. Everything. And I physically felt so sick and tired that I fantasized about being one of those characters in books who disappears to Switzerland to “take the air” or checks into a sanatorium full of nurses in fluttering white hats who would speak to me in hushed tones and wheel me about perfectly manicured grounds in a wheelchair as I recovered from “nervous exhaustion.”

I knew I couldn’t go on as I was, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, what I needed to change, or how to fix anything, nor did I have the energy to fix it. I would spend hours sobbing on the phone to my parents, devastated at where I felt like life had dropped me, desperate for change. I was ready to quit my job, sell my home, move in with my parents, and maybe start life over again. Go to school, retrain for a new career, work in retail, maybe a bookstore, or a clothing shop, because retail was the last job where I could remember being happy. My brother actually invited me to come live in his basement suite while I got my shit together. And I actually considered it.

Still, despite the darkness that was telling me I was good for nothing, that I had nothing of value in my life, that I had no friends, no talent, that I was ugly, and difficult to love, and had nothing to contribute, that I might as well walk away from it all and try again, there was a small voice of reason that somehow prevailed. “If I’m going to hit the nuclear button on my life,” I thought, “I had better make sure I’m in my right mind before I do it.”

Say It Out Loud

I went to my family doctor, who I had avoided for over a year, even through my bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis (I would visit walk-in clinics and ERs only when I absolutely had to) because I had already given up on my health - and, truth be told, when I hesitantly had told her, two years ago, that I thought I was too anxious and needed some support she told me to “suck it up” (I love my doctor, please don’t judge her for this, she is a fierce warrior mama of a physician who sees me as the strong person who I usually am and she genuinely felt at that time that I could get through it on my own). I told her the thoughts I’d been thinking. I told her how I had stopped performing, stopped working out. All of it. She took one look at me and said, “Danielle…you’re not you. You’re not here.” She was right. I wasn’t there.

So. I said it out loud. She said it out loud. I was clinically depressed. I had severe anxiety, which was being exacerbated by my professional life. I was malnourished, because most days I couldn’t bring myself to eat, or if I did, I ate crap. We made a deal that I would see her every two weeks, and if I didn’t show up for that appointment she was going to charge me anyway, just to make sure I showed up. She gave me weekly homework. The first homework was to pay for a meal delivery service so that I would actually eat. “It’s not a splurge,” she said. “This is your health.” The second homework task was to start on iron and vitamins. And the third was to be cast in a play and be onstage by the fall. I had the summer to get my shit together, and then I needed to get onstage (you see why I love my doctor?! That third homework item was entirely her idea).

And she started me on meds. Yep, better living through pharmaceuticals. “You need a little get up and go,” she said, and prescribed an anti-depressant, as well as anxiety meds that I could take to avoid the weekly morning anxiety attack, along with some treatments for my poor battle-scarred lungs. The “little get up and go” was IMMEDIATE. Within two days I had more energy than I had had in months, more focus at work, more ability to get tasks done at home and on the weekends (which had long ago been reserved for sleeping all day). I actually felt manic compared to how I had been feeling, when I saw how much I was accomplishing as opposed to even a week before.

Steps Forward

I won’t lie and say I am cured. I won’t lie and say everything is fine now, that I took some meds and it made everything better. I won’t lie and say that I’m not still thinking about whether I need to change everything about my life, from my job, to how many belongings I have, to the city I live in. I won’t lie and say my job isn’t extremely stressful, not just for me but my whole team. But I will say that every day that I am able to get up, go to work, see a friend, do something caring for someone else, or whip through a to-do list in mere hours when it would have taken me a month before, I celebrate. I feel a huge sense of accomplishment. The need to evacuate my life doesn’t feel as immediate; rather, something to consider carefully, with the luxury of time.

Prescription drugs have not made everything OK. My doctor ramped up the dosage of some of my daily meds in the first weeks after I saw her so much that I suffered horrendous side effects - I was so nauseous that I couldn’t drive my own car without throwing up and had to be put on the nausea medication they give to chemo patients. One of my meds induces hot flashes so I always feel sweaty and gross, and I no longer bother to straighten my hair, because one hot flash and it’s instantly curly thanks to sweat (ew). This particular side effect is the one I hate the most, because I hate fulfilling that stereotype of the sweaty fat person. I like to be well put together, I like to take care with my makeup, and sweating it all off several times a day, sucks. I still expend my energy supply too easily and have “crash” days that I need to spend sleeping.

The Benefits of a Health Crisis

Sometimes hitting your own personal rock bottom in terms of your physical and mental health and speaking your truth about it, leads to interesting results.

My parents, who I admit I felt had always pressured me to be the best and to succeed and to overachieve, and who I felt valued my economic security and achievement more than my emotional health, proved that their thinking was unequivocally the opposite. “We’re on Team Dani,” my mother said to me on the phone one night. “Whatever is going to make you happy, we are going to support. If that means selling up, going back to school, and working in a bookstore, you should do it.” The pressure I’ve felt for 39 years to be, and to do, and to have, so many things that they approved, suddenly melted away and I just felt loved and supported. On my birthday, I was having a conversation with my mom where I half-jokingly said, “You know, despite evidence to the contrary, I do try to do things that make you happy.” She replied, “Live your life well - that’s the only thing that will make me happy.” And for the first time, I actually believed her.

I started being honest, with at least my few close friends (some of whom are also my family members) about the fact that I wasn’t OK. And I found that…they didn’t seem to like me any less. It was OK that I was pretty much a mess in every way that I could be. They still listened to me muse about different programs I might like to apply for, as I waxed poetic about moving to Victoria, or selling all my stuff and getting a tiny house, and they remain wholly supportive of whatever it is I decide to do. I also recently connected with several dearly loved, close friends from Pearson College at our 20 year reunion last week, where I also tried to talk openly about what I’ve been going through, and these people who have known me since I was 17 showed a compassion and insight I am so lucky to still have after all these years, and they reminded me of who I am and who I have always been.

And, I’m so excited to say, I completed my third homework assignment from my doctor, and will be getting onstage this fall, my first foray into the Vancouver theatre community since I performed in the Threepenny Opera in the fall of 2017, and over a year since my last participation in the Lawyer Show, in May 2018. As soon as I can share details I will, but I will be working with a creative team I have really wanted to work with for awhile, and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity.

Naming the Elephant

One of the reasons this blog has been so neglected is because, I felt like I couldn’t say any of the things I just did without repercussion or judgment. But they were the only things I wanted to say, the things I needed to say to explain myself, about what’s driven me and destroyed me over the past few years. I was afraid if I opened my mouth (or my blog), the words would come tumbling out.

But I have a desire to tell stories again and to share my adventures again, and I had to free myself to do that. I had to let down my guard, accept whatever judgment or consequences might come my way for speaking this out loud, in order to allow the rest of the stories inside of me to come out, too.

So I hope this isn’t my last blog post for a year. I hope that now that this not-so-secret secret is out I can live truthfully and authentically, whether that means working through more lows or celebrating new highs. So, I’m still here. And if you still are, thank you for reading.

Finding Home Between The Pages

I don't know, it must be a mid-life crisis, but over the past year or so I've become increasingly homesick.  For Victoria, yes, but more specifically for the blue-grey house I grew up in on Winchester Road, surrounded by Garry oaks.  For life with my family, who drove me crazy (and who I drove crazy) but who ensured I was never alone, for better or for worse. 

Of course, you can never go home again. Winchester Road was sold a decade ago, and is now covered in cheery pale green siding, its orchard of trees ruthlessly culled.  My brother has his own family, who I love dearly.  My parents would be appalled to have their almost-38-year-old daughter and her special needs cat move in, I'm sure.  Nor would I enjoy it.  So, life goes on, but I have to find ways to combat the homesickness, by looking for home elsewhere.  It's not always easy, living in alone in a city I didn't grow up in.

One of the places where I can go home again, is the library.  It's a different library, mind.  The bustling Richmond Brighouse Library, surrounded by the Minoru sports complex, housed with the Richmond Museum and the Media Lab, is nothing like the quiet Nellie McClung branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library that I visited at least weekly for the first 24 years of my life, where I spent hours doing homework after school.  But it's close enough to do the trick.  It smells the same.  The hushed busyness is the same.  And of course, the books are there, which will always, always be home. 

Yesterday was a lonely day, for no particular reason.  I had spent all day Saturday surrounded by friends.  Perhaps it was the contrast between that Saturday activity and the solitude of Sunday morning that made me feel sad. I got up late in the morning, spent some time sewing, but felt too listless to attack the list of chores I had scrawled out for myself on a note and left on my kitchen counter the night before.  I got in the car, and without really realizing where I was doing, ended up at the library.

I wandered around aimlessly for a few minutes, picking up and putting down books, not sure what I was looking for.  I (ahem) paid my overdue fines.  After not being immediately inspired by the choices before me, I went to one of the library catalogue computers and stood there for a moment, considering what to search for.   As I stood there, a little girl who looked too little to even reach the computer, let alone use it, came and stood at the computer beside me.  She had a colourful yellow plastic bookbag strung over her shoulder, with a nametag stuck in one corner.  "Serena," it read, in thick red marker.  Her black straight hair was pulled back from her forehead with a pink plastic band that matched her pink and white striped t-shirt.   I briefly looked at her as she grabbed the mouse and began to move it determinedly around the screen.  She was small for her age, but probably 8 or 9 years old and stood on tiptoe to reach the desk.  She was small, but old enough not to break the computer, anyway.  I turned back to my own search.

In a few seconds, the little girl grabbed my elbow.  "But, how do I do a search for a book that I want?"  I looked down at her, surprised.  Did she think I worked there?  I looked around to see if there were any staff members nearby, or if she had mistaken me for someone she'd spoken to earlier.  There were no one.  I looked at the man at the computer on the other side of Serena, to see if he might be her dad.  He studiously ignored us, so he either wasn't her dad, or wasn't interested in helping.  

"You want to search for a book?" I asked stupidly. 

"Yeah," she said.  

"OK, umm, well, let's see, you've got to go up to the top there, to that space beside the orange button, and type what you want - what book are you looking for?"

"Wings of Fire," she said.  

"OK, so, let's type in 'Wings of Fire' and see what comes up."  We typed, then we clicked, and waited expectantly in silence for the search results to return.  The leisurely pace of the library's catalogue was too much for Serena.  She clicked the mouse impatiently over and over again.  I gently took the mouse out of her hand.

"The library computers are slow," I said.  "Let's just wait and see what happens."

"I need the sixth one," she said as we waited.  "I've read the other ones."

The search results finally arrived, showing dozens of entries for Wings of Fire, a fantasy series by Tui Sutherland.  Serena looked blankly at the search results.   I scrolled for her.

"OK," I said, "So we've got book 5 -"

"I've got that one," said Serena.

"Book 4..."

"Got it."

"Book 10..."

She said nothing, looking overwhelmed.  She clutched the straps of her book bag and looked at me, saying nothing.

"So - do you know where you got the last book from Wings of Fire?  What part of the library?"

"I think - over there."  She pointed vaguely in the direction of the YA section.

"OK, let's go over there, then," I said, picking up my own pile of books and tucking them under my arm.  "Do you know that they file books by author here?"  She gave me her blank stare again. 

"So if we find the Fantasy section, we can look for "Sutherland" and find all the books by Tui Sutherland in one place," I explained.  Serena still looked at me, her face inscrutable, but I started across the library floor, and she followed me.

"I wasn't sure where to look," she said, "Because I don't know if Tui Sutherland is a boy or a girl."  She smiled up at me, for the first time.

"That's a good question!" I said.  "I don't know either!  Maybe we can look on the back of one of the books when we find one." (We did - Tui is a she).  

We scoured the fantasy shelves until we found "Sutherland", and there they were - dozens and dozens of copies of the various Wings of Fire novels.  "So, there they are," I said, gesturing at the shelves.  Serena broke into a wide grin and immediately focused on the task at hand, busily sorting through the volumes.  "Thanks," she said absently, as I started to walk away somewhat sheepishly.  "You're welcome," I said.

I waited in line to check out my books with a smile on my face, and drove home with the feeling of loneliness that had weighed me down in the morning having abated.   I spent the evening with my nose in a book, and didn't feel lonely at all.  Once again the library had given me just what I needed.    My homesickness was successfully diverted by remembering what made me feel at home: a little bit of community, a chance to be of service to someone, and a story - one to write, and one to read.  

In Defence of the Comfort Read.

Books have always defined me.   When I was a kid, the local library had to set a limit on the number of books I was allowed to check out at one time.   The limit was set by one incredulous librarian who had never encountered me before, and arbitrarily set the limit of books I could take out to 34.   I remember her even more incredulous look when I was back in just over two weeks, all 34 read and ready to be returned.  A good vacation was one where I could get through at least a book a day.   I often walked home from school with a book in front of my face.   When I started having problems sleeping at a very young age, my mother always told me that it was OK to stay awake, as long as I stayed in my bed, and so I would often read through the night.  Beloved books were often re-read, countless times.  

And I read anything and everything, even if I didn't understand it.  I read Jane Eyre in Grade Three.  At that age,  I thought it was purely a horror novel due to the scary room Jane's aunt locks her in, the terrible atmosphere at Lowood School, and the crazy wife locked in the attic - only subsequent re-reads as an adult allowed me to see the powerful romance between Jane and Rochester as the driving force of that novel. Anything by L.M. Montgomery was a particular favourite of mine, although I much preferred the aspiring writer, Emily Starr, to Anne Shirley.  I read every popular murder mystery and thriller my parents read:  Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, Sidney Sheldon, Nelson De Mille.  Nothing was off-limits from their bookshelves.  If you asked me what my favourite book was at age 11, I would have told you it was Gone With the Wind, and meant it.  As I entered my "teen" years, I added romances: Jackie Collins, Danielle Steel, The Judiths (Krantz and McNaught) and the very disturbing catalogue of V.C. Andrews to my repertoire.  At the relatively late age of 15, I discovered Jane Austen and life has never been the same. 

Given the prominence of books in my life, there was never any question that I would study literature.   All through my English degree, I spent my off-hours working in an antique bookstore.  I was never not talking about, thinking about, or reading, books.  Books are what I know best of all.  I still don't know what possessed me to leave the English department after completing my undergraduate degree, to push off to the very unknown world of law (well, I do know what possessed me, and it wasn't a very good reason - but that's another post for another time),  because I loved studying English.   The language of literature - of novels, poetry, drama - was, and is, one that I speak fluently.   I know, inherently, in my soul, the magic of language.  

However, somewhere during and after my studies, both undergraduate and postgraduate, and during this past decade of building my law career, my relationship with books subtly changed.  Not only was I reading so much for work that I had little time to read for pleasure, but, I became a huge snob about it.   As a member of the esteemed Faculty of English, I couldn't read Danielle Steel, for goodness sake, and these books went out the door to be surreptitiously dumped in the nearest charity drop-off bin.  For a good chunk of time, I only read biographies and non-fiction, and could only stomach a novel if it was "acclaimed" - if it wasn't on an awards long or short list,  or mentioned breathlessly on CBC Radio as a must-read, I wouldn't touch it.  I would privately sneer at Sophie Kinsella or JoJo Moyes books that well-meaning loved ones had bought me as gifts.  How I chose what I read was less about whether I thought I would enjoy it, and more about whether I thought I was *supposed* to enjoy it, whether it was something my professors would read, or, worse, what it said about me as a person to have that book on my shelf.  My pleasure reading intake tapered dramatically, as my GoodReads list of books read helpfully, and publicly, illustrates.

This fall, I started looking at the online books offered by my library.  I loved that I didn't have to try and schedule a library visit to find books to read.  I could browse the catalogue and download something to my iPad whenever the mood struck.   Before I went home to Victoria for the holidays, I downloaded a book by an author I'd never heard of, Jenny Colgan, that I thought looked like fun.  It didn't look like it was going to win any awards, but it didn't have a cotton-candy pink cover with a high heel on it, either. Because it was free, downloaded on a whim (and, OK, I admit, it could be read in secret on my iPad) my usual concerns about whether it was "literary" or "noteworthy" didn't seem as pressing. 

The book was called The Bookshop on the Corner.  The premise involves a heroine who has been made redundant at her job at a local library in Birmingham in the UK, so she buys a bus that she turns into a travelling bookstore, and moves to a tiny village in Scotland, where she of course finds love with a hunky farmer and her bookstore is a dazzling success.   I found Colgan's writing witty, charming and romantic without being saccharine.  I devoured it in a night, relegated to the air mattress in the den at my brother's house.  I instantly wanted to read more.   Up next: her series (yes, there was more than one!) about a London woman who is fired from her job in marketing and starts a successful cupcake bakery (and of course finds love with the local banker who gave her her small business loan).  Then it was onto the series about the London lawyer who leaves behind her job in a corporate firm to return home to her Scottish Isles home to run a bakeshop with her cheese-making brother, and the series about the woman whose design business with her boyfriend goes bankrupt, so she moves to Cornwall to start a bakery and live in a lighthouse with a pet puffin (and has a romance with the local beekeeper).  In about a three week period, I read every rom-com novel Jenny Colgan had ever written, and tweeted her to ask when her next book was coming out.  I also took to Indigo and Amazon to do the "If you liked Jenny Colgan, you'll love X/People also search for" searches, to find authors who might write similar kind of stuff.  At my local used bookstore (which also serves coffee, because THEY KNOW), I asked for Jenny Colgan books, and was directed to Jill Mansell, Emily Giffin, and Cecila Ahern. I dove into some YA greats, and re-read childhood favourites I've had on my shelf forever.  Since January, I have enthusiastically, unashamedly, had my nose in a book 24/7, and I love it.

I am enjoying reading again, in a way I haven't in years, and it's because I'm reading things I enjoy, rather than things I think I ought to enjoy.  I've discovered a whole Twitterverse of other people, including both authors and readers, who enjoy this type of writing, and I enthusiastically bookmark recommendations from favourites.  In March, the author Jasmine Guillory (whose book The Wedding Date, a romcom about a couple who meet cute in an elevator in San Francisco is delightful - and if you don't believe me, Roxane Gay did the blurb) asked Twitter for recommendations for "soothing books" and I have been methodically working my way through the list of romances, mysteries and YA novels that other people subsequently recommended.  I am yet to be disappointed.  Reading is a comfort again, in a way that is hasn't been in a long, long, time.  

I am using the words "comfort" and "comfort reads" deliberately to describe these books I am now in love with.  I only want to categorize a book based on the feeling it gives me, rather than on a preconceived notion of who the audience of the book should be.  Using the sneeringly misogynist term "chicklit," or the oft-used "trashy romance", really means making pre-judgments on an entire genre's worth by limiting its audience.  To dismiss YA novels as only for children means to miss out on some wonderful stories that adults could learn a thing or two from.  To say that rom-com or mystery or YA books are not literary, or well-written, is ignorant and untrue.  There is some masterful writing done in these genres.   There is also terrible writing done in these genres, but there is terrible writing done in Canlit or more high-brow fiction - I know because I've slogged through a lot of it. 

What these "comfort read" books do for me, which my previous reading habits did not, is to invite me to escape a little from my real life.  I've always fantasized about quitting law, to start a decorating business, or a clothing boutique, to become a novelist or run my own bookshop, and in reading these books, I can live that life, just for a few hours.  It always turns out happily in the end, there's no worry about paying car payments and mortgages, and there's always love.   The prose isn't too challenging, nor is the plot hard to follow, so I can turn my exhausted brain off for an hour or two after a long day at work and just enjoy the story.  Why this had any less merit to my former self than a Giller Prize nominated novel, I don't know. 

I'm not trying to say that I no longer enjoy more literary, prize-winning novels.  I still can, and do, read these.  I've been slowly making my way through the latest Giller Prize shortlist, and this year's Canada Reads nominees.   But I also know when a book is too challenging for my current state of being, and I also don't feel bad putting down a book that I'm finding it difficult to get through, to turn to something I might enjoy a little more. 

This rediscovered love of comfort reads makes me wonder how we determine the literary merit of a book to begin with. I know my English student self would say that it's about the craft that has gone into the work (although that somehow implies there's no craft in rom-com or YA, which is patently false). That it's about hearing stories that urgently need to be told, that might not have happy endings but that hold up a mirror to society and make us question ourselves.  But my late thirties, world-weary lawyer self would reply that right now I can't contemplate re-reading The Handmaid's Tale without having a panic attack about how close it is to real life, that I am all too aware of the horrors of society to need it spelled out in the latest post-apocalyptic bestseller.  That reading a book about a woman baking bread while chatting to her pet puffin named Neil seems like it would be relaxing, something to be done perhaps while having a glass of wine (or whisky).   

Maybe to have merit a book just needs to make you feel...something.  And right now, what I want to feel is happy, so I welcome the comfort read with arms (and eyes) wide open.  There will be no more book snobbery from me.   My comfort reads will  take up equal space next to the Pulitzer and Man Booker Prize winners, and I will read them with the covers out, loud and proud.  

 

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Easy Like Sunday Morning.

Sunday mornings are, hands down, my favourite time of the week.  I get up when I want to get up.  I listen to the Sunday Report on CBC Radio.  And I usually meander into town to visit one of my favourite places, the Gluten Free Epicurean.   Trying to live dairy free and gluten free means treats (well, compliant treats anyway) are hard to find, but GFE always has many (too many).  It's a small cozy space, with just a few tables and chairs, thrift store finds painted white, with a few succulent plants and colourful mismatched china used to add some colour.  Despite being in the centre of Hipster Vancouver, it's cheerful and unpretentious, and there are often families with young children sitting around the tables when I arrive.  I like to sit down for breakfast and write, and leisurely pick at breakfast, occasionally looking up from my page to watch the cars speed by on Kingsway.  I have no set time that I have to arrive, and no set time to leave.  I could sit here all day if I wanted to.

The theme of this year seems to be re-learning lessons - feeling like I have made progress on something, only to backslide and feel like I need to climb all over again.   Balancing work and home life, for example.  Putting my health first, for another.   This week, I am feeling the all-too-familiar strain of feeling over scheduled.   

In the next nine days, in addition to the mundane ad mandatory calendar-fillers such as work and doctors' appointments, I have two burlesque shows, five rehearsals, a crafting party to finish costumes for one of the burlesque shows, a work video to learn choreography for (add another two rehearsals to the calendar) record vocals for, and film (in a day-long shoot), a friend's Christmas concert to attend, and two holiday get-togethers with people I care about.  These activities are, in theory, meant to be fun, but today seem like chores, and I feel resentful that they are taking "time away" from things.  What those "things are", though?  I don't know.  I'm an artist.  I want to perform.  So, shouldn't rehearsals and performances and costume meetings seem like fun?  Shouldn't get-togethers with friends seem like fun, especially since I was the one that organized them?

The answer is yes, of course they should seem like fun.  The fact that they aren't is raising a whole lot of questions in my always-busy-anyway mind.   Do I not like burlesque?  Is that why I don't want to do it?  If I'm not excited to hang out with friends, why is that?   It would be easy to understand if the things that are "taking away" from my happiness right now were just plain old unpleasant or exhausting activities.  If there was some obvious alternative passion that I was nurturing that I was being distracted from.   For instance, "Damn you burlesque, what I really want to be doing is working on my Jane Austen re-enactment Regency-inspired costumes!" or "I really wish I could be at home finishing that 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle right about now."   But, art?  And friends?  Those are things that I am (or at least, have been for the past 37 years) passionate about.  

A few possible answers are beginning to bubble in my brain.  One is that, perhaps burlesque isn't pushing the right buttons for me artistically.   I originally began learning about and performing this art form mostly to prove that I could - to myself and to others who don't necessarily picture a size 16, just-over-5-feet, almost-middle-aged woman when they think of the word "showgirl."  Maybe, now that I've proven I can do it, I'm not getting as much out of it?  Maybe I'm only doing it because it's important to my idea of myself, or the self that I like to show to other people, maybe I like saying I do burlesque more than I like doing burlesque.    Another issue is that the DIY culture of burlesque in Vancouver expects performers to not only devise their own performances, but their own costumes, which requires a level of sewing/crafting literacy that I just do not have.  Certainly that has been a huge stressor for me.   Maybe while I like the performance aspect, this "putting it together" aspect, which I know is a huge source of entertainment and interest for a lot of performers - almost more than the performance itself - is more trouble than it's worth for me.  

The friend issue is more complicated.  Of course I love having friends, and enjoy being social and going out (although I enjoy it a lot less than people think, given my outgoing exterior - but that's another post for another time).  So why the anger and frustration around that piece?

A Love Letter.

Dear Body,

I often feel like I am alone in life, but even when no one else was here for me, you've been here.  Through thick and thin, literally and figuratively.  And instead of always treating you with the love and kindness you deserve for such loyalty, at times I've been a terrible partner.  I've ignored you, starved you, neglected you, and even punished you, for things that have never been your fault.  I've been so critical of you, despite the amazing things you do for me every day.

I'm sorry that I've often put you last.  I'm sorry that I've treated you with indifference at best, and cruelty at worst.  I'm sorry that I've made you feel that nothing you do is ever good enough.  I'm sorry that I've tried to hide you, or apologize for you, agreed with the bullies who have hated you, and I'm sorry that I've blamed you.  I've blamed you for things that have gone wrong, for things I don't have, and for things I am too scared to be.  I blamed you, I still blame you, and I shouldn't.  You're working your ass off, and it's not your fault.  I'll try to do better.  

Because the truth is, there are a lot of things about you that I really love.   Your beautiful voice that lets me sing, feels like the reason I exist.  You love to dance, even if you look silly.  I think your short little legs and tiny feet are pretty cute.  Your nose is adorable, and your ass is well, bootylicious is the only word I can really use.   And you are so, so strong.  I love when people at the gym are surprised at how much weight you can carry, or how heavy a kettle bell you can swing.  You climb mountains, run races, snowboard, swim in lakes - you've never faced a challenge you didn't meet head on.   You always ignore the noise and get the job done, even when I haven't helped you do it. 

It's Thanksgiving today, and it's important that you know how grateful I am for you.  I need you to know that I really want to work things out with you.  You don't need to be "fixed," you aren't holding me back; in fact, you've been the one carrying me forward, step by step, day after day.  Thank you.  

I know I'm too critical of you.  I want you to know that I'm going to work on celebrating your successes rather than punishing you for my failures, or what I see as your shortcomings. Please be patient with me as it's going to take a lot of work for me to get there, and I'm going to make mistakes along the way.  Please know that I think you're amazing, even when I can't show it.

Love, 

Me

How the Stuff Happens (A Lesson In My Brain)

For people who do not comprehend exactly *why* it has been so hard for me to implement the Shopping Ban consistently, or why exactly the Stuff seems to be so needed, here is a little insight into how my brain works.  I'm not saying this isn't flawed thinking -  but it's presented here for insight on how the Stuff happens.  This illustration of my sometimes-awful thought processes should explain why this is Shopping Ban is a difficult exercise for me, for better or worse.   And hopefully reassure someone reading this, who might think similarly, that they are not alone.

For the past few weeks, part of my brain (Brain Part 1) has been saying this to me: "We need new sandals for when we're camping and swimming.  Our flip flops always fall off, so we need new sandals.  Remember how much it hurt when we had to struggle across barnacled rocks at Porteau Cove?  And then when we were in the water our flip flops came right off and floated away and we had to go chasing them.  Maybe we should get some Tevas since they're all the rage again.  Those would be cool.   And they're trendy so people will think we are trendy!  We always feel good when people compliment us!  Then our feet will not be hurt when we walk across rocky beaches,  we can swim without worrying about our flip flops floating away, and people will think we are super cool and then they want to be friends with us or maybe think we're cute.  We may be the most unattractive person on the beach but we can have the coolest shoes.  If we have the coolest shoes, people might not notice all the other things that are wrong with us, like how we love being alone and don't suffer fools gladly and are impatient and feel insecure and shy around people but still want to be the centre of attention and come on too strong when we just want to be a part of things and belong.  Maybe people won't notice our frizzy hair and wrinkly skin and peeling nose and horrible chubby arms and just see our cool shoes.  Maybe strangers maybe won't comment on our size, for once (because that always seems to happen.  Why does that always happen? Why do people say that stuff to strangers?!). Yeah, that's the ticket.  Get the Tevas. "

So Brain Part 1 says: convenience, comfort, coolness - and added bonus armour protection against hurtful people judging us or figuring out how awful we really are? This isn't a want, it's a need!  Green light, people!  This is the deal of the century!  $65 for inner peace!

But part of my brain hasn't completely forgotten the Shopping Ban.  So then Brain Part 2 wades in and goes:  "OK, 1, but - don't we have water shoes?  Remember that time we went to Mexico with our friends?  We bought water shoes for that fun day we went exploring in the jungle and the cenotes.  We should just wear those in the water.  No need to go buy the Tevas."

Brain Part 1 replies, "Yeah, but the Tevas are COOL.  There's nothing COOL about water shoes. People might think we're uncool and we are DEFINITELY COOL, right? We need people to think we're cool.  And also? Our bathing suit this year is a super cute pink and navy bikini with PINEAPPLES on it and cool parrots.  Those water shoes are black and red.  They so don't match.  People will notice they don't match and then they will notice all the other not-so-perfect-and-in-fact- terrible-unloveable things about us too.  DANGER! DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!"

The super cute parrots-and-pineapples bikini.  Not a hint of red or black to be seen.

The super cute parrots-and-pineapples bikini.  Not a hint of red or black to be seen.

Brain 2 replies: THEY DON'T MATCH? ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? We're going to the beach with people we love, we get to go swimming which is our favourite thing ever, and you're telling me that the fact that our shoes don't match might ruin any fun we have today?

Brain 1:  Yeah.  And I will genuinely feel uncomfortable and like something is not right if our beach shoes don't match our suit. We have a reputation to uphold.  We are stylish, we are always put together.  We have the best outfits.  Then people can't call us slobby, or ugly, or fat, or bossy or unlikeable.  Because we're stylish and cool.  

Brain 2:  *heavy sigh*

---

So.  That's usually how this would go, and Brain 1 would win, and we'd go buy the Tevas, and feel good again, until the next thing came up that we needed.

This weekend, I let Brain 2 do some of the heavy lifting.  

I was going to the beach with two of my favourite people. Yes. This was true.  The shoe dilemma was still bothering me.  This was also true.  It didn't matter that I was hanging out with the two people who would judge me least for my shoes.  I couldn't stand that the shoes didn't match. But I just let myself sit with the discomfort.  Brain 1 was screaming, but I tuned 1 out as much as I could.   

And when I didn't give in to 1, what I found was, Brain 2 got creative.  Brain 2 was looking for something, anything, to shut Brain 1 up.  

Brain 1 (anxious and uncomfortable and mad all at the same time and just unhappy): WWWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAIL let's just stay home where everything is OK always.  WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAIL.

Brain 2 (looking frantically for anything to shut Brain 1 up): Shut up shut up shut up.  OH HEY LOOK, 1!  Look what I found! Our boat shoes!  They are pink! And green!  And perfectly match our suit!

Brain 1 (sniffling):  Oh, yeah.  Those are cute.  I forgot we had those.

The boat shoes.  That perfectly match our suit.

The boat shoes.  That perfectly match our suit.

So, 2 found a solution.  It took some time, and some battling.  And, part of my brain which you haven't met here but I promise actually exists, Brain 3, which is super practical and smart and stubborn and logical, brought both sets of shoes to the beach just in case.  3 resolutely put on those damn water shoes and frolicked in the ocean and said fuck it, we're at the beach with the girls, who gives a shit, and had a grand old time.  And no one noticed that the water shoes didn't match our suit.  2 was happy to have stuck to the Shopping Ban.  And Brain 1, while not completely satisfied, felt comfortable enough to have fun and enjoy the day.

Red and black shoes quickly became so sandy that you couldn't tell what colour they were.  

Red and black shoes quickly became so sandy that you couldn't tell what colour they were.  

So, that battle, between Brain 1 and Brain 2 and Brain 3 and any gosh darn other voices that are there in my head (I wish it was more like a soap-opera multiple personality disorder but it's not - they're all me), is what goes on, every day, all day.  Sometimes, the Stuff happens because 1 is a whiny little insecure child that just needs to be comforted and knows no other way, and 2, 3 and whoever else can't figure out another way to give that comfort, so they give in, because it's easy.  

But this is what the Shopping Ban was all about.  It's about doing the not-easy thing, and about finding other ways to feel joy and comfort and confidence and acceptance.   

But dammit, does it get loud inside my head sometimes.  

Half Way Through the Shopping Ban. Or, How I Utterly Failed at the Shopping Ban.

So, I lasted until the end of February.  

Up until then, I'd been really focused on the three "goals" of the Year of Enough, which are:

  1. I've had enough -  I want to contribute to positive change in our world. 
  2. I have enough -  I need to learn to be mindful with how I spend my money and in my consumption of things.
  3. I am enough - I don't need stuff, or accomplishments, more money, or less weight, to be a worthy, lovable, person.

I really focused on my goals.  I volunteered my time with the Canadian Cross-Border Legal Coalition, and hung out at the airport providing pro bono advice to people affected by Trump's Muslim ban.  I went to marches.  I joined the Conservative political party just so I could have a say in their leadership contest and help thwart racist politicians like Kellie Leitch becoming their leader and potentially Trump 2.0.  I realized how tired I was from shows and started saying no to auditions, something I haven't done since 2010 because I've been so terrified of being forgotten or losing my right to identify as an artist.  I went on a lovely holiday to Maui and resisted the urge to shop.    I felt like I was really living my goals.

But then, the "stuff" started to creep back in.   The Ban disappeared, without me even consciously knowing it had disappeared. It's taken me forever to write about this,  because I'm still not really sure why it happened, but it became important to me to say that the Ban has, for the past several months, been a failure. 

I had a big life change in the beginning of February when I changed jobs.  I went from an office where I didn't feel understood or appreciated, where there was little socializing, to my dream job, in terms of the work, people and culture.  My job went from being a place that I went for 7.5 hours a day to being the centre of my life, in a very positive way.  I suddenly felt more supported and happy in my professional life than I ever had before.  I'd found my "forever" job.   

You'd think being so happy would make it easier to stick to my goals, but it hasn't made it easier.  Every day I have wonderful people tell me that I'm OK.  That I'm more than OK, I'm pretty great, and a valued member of the team.   I feel like I belong.  I feel accepted.  So suddenly the need to change hasn't seemed so urgent.  Maybe that's a positive.  It probably is.   But it's also caused me to get lazy with my goals.

That initial feeling of joy and belonging is how the Stuff first happened:  I shopped in celebration.  I was happy, joyful, even, in my new role, and shopping is a way that I celebrate.  So, that seemed OK by me.   Treating myself to a new outfit to celebrate a new beginning felt fine.  I was liked, so I liked myself, so I deserved the Stuff.   The reasons for the Stuff had changed: it was less about making myself feel better about myself, my life, or the world, and more to treat myself, show myself "love", to reflect the love and acceptance I was feeling in my life. 

But the Stuff has started creeping in not just for positive, encouraging reasons.   It's a convoluted explanation, but stay with me. 

While this career move has been a joyous one, it's created some change in my life that has caused some stress that I think I'm only really starting to process.   IMPORTANT IMPORTANT NOTE: This stress is almost entirely self-inflicted.  It's not that my new bosses are suddenly insisting on certain things that are stressing me out.  They have high but reasonable expectations, and don't ask me to do anything that they don't do themselves.   And more than that, they genuinely care about me and my well being.  It's just that I, as usual, want to throw myself in and do a good job, make them happy, and go above and beyond, so everything feels very high stakes, very do-or-die. As a result, there are changes that I have made to meet expectations - my own, or perceived expectations, which are maybe not the healthiest choices for me.

For instance, I used to work from home quite a bit (and least one day a week, since 2011), and go home for lunch every day.  Being able to go home for a healthy lunch but also do a little meal prep for a healthy dinner, and maybe tidy up around my house (as tidiness and order are a big part of my mental wellness), was great. Working from home one day a week allowed me to throw on loads of laundry while I worked on my laptop.  At my new job, I'm in the office full time, 5 days a week.  While my most recent previous gig was usually finished by 4:30 or 5 at the latest, I'm staying much later at work now, and working through lunch, which is quite a common practice in my new office.  So the time I had every day to do some of the mundane things I need to do to help me feel calm and healthy, is gone.  It is really only a small increase in working hours, but its impact currently feels huge.  I'm often working through the hours I would normally go to my TRX gym, for instance.  Or, something will happen at work and I'll stick around and miss the class I reserved.  As it's a small gym, you get charged if you miss a class you reserved, so rather than getting charged for classes I wasn't making, I just...stopped reserving.  After a busy day surrounded by people in our open plan office, this introvert is often exhausted, and the thought of going home to meal plan and cook Whole30 meals is the last thing I want to do, so I go home and eat what's easy.  It also means that weeknight socializing is almost impossible for me, because I'm just too tired.  Weekends feel more for sleep and recovering from the business of my week than going out, or putting my house in order.  Suddenly a lot of the healthy habits I've been working on for the past few years, in terms of doing the things I know I need to do in order to feel love for myself, seem very far away. 

To say that I am aware of the fact that I am not seeing friends as much, that my training regime has been thrown off, that my house isn't as tidy as I need, that I don't have as much time or energy to meal plan, is an understatement.  I carry around this awful feeling of failure about it, while at the same time still feeling the joy, satisfaction and excitement that I do about my job. The conflict between those two feelings is so, so uncomfortable. And rather than deal with it, because the effort seems overwhelming and I am still concentrating all of my energy on my new job, I need to medicate it, numb the discomfort.  I medicate with...the Stuff.  Shopping once again is the replacement for the workout.  It's a reassurance that I'm OK, even if I know I don't feel OK.

So, that's not the greatest thing.  And like I say - it's self-inflicted.  Which makes it actually feel worse, because there's nothing a perfectionist-in-recovery hates more than knowing that the not-so-great situation they find themselves in is entirely their own fault.  That they fucked up.  Because then you PUNISH YOURSELF MORE.    

That's why writing about what I've failed at and how it's made me feel is important for me, although it's excruciating.  I need to say I failed and not have the world collapse.  So. yeah.  I failed at the Shopping Ban.  In order for me to not fail at Goal #3 ("I Am Enough"), I have to be OK with having failed at the Shopping Ban.   I have to be OK with admitting my failure, picking myself back up, dusting myself off, and trying again.  Half of the year has gone by, but that means I have half of the year to centre, re-focus, and try to do better.  My goals haven't changed.   But my attitude needs an adjustment.

 

Shopping Ban Check-In: Gravy Boats and Other Delights

I'm 18 days into my year-long shopping ban and so far, no slip ups.  For fun, I have started keeping a list of all the things I even briefly think about buying, and sometimes I'll post the sillier ones to Facebook.  On New Year's Day I hosted a dinner for friends, and a myriad of "when will I ever use this"-type items suddenly seemed to be essential: a gravy boat.  A round tablecloth for my round dining table (my previous tables have all been squares, and so are my existing linens).  An electric carving knife for the turkey.  My iPhone, now 4 years old,  has more-than-occasional tantrums, and I desperately want a new one.

The funny way the world works, is that when you publicly post that you want things, even jokingly and with self-deprecation, as I did, your friends and family suddenly want to give them to you.  My mother brought me three round tablecloths. My aunt found me not one, but two gravy boats.  My mother had another iPhone lying around, which she had unlocked for me so I can transfer my SIM card into it and once again enjoy shut-down free texting.  "But that's not the point, Dani," you may say.  "The point wasn't to get more stuff!"  But I feel like these little gifts and giveaways are still in the spirit of the Shopping Ban.  I didn't ask anyone specifically for the things, they were offered to me.  Nothing new was purchased, either by me as the recipient, or by the generous aunt and mother who offered them.  Let's call it a microscopic version of the sharing economy. To me, what was important was that I didn't spend money, didn't buy new stuff, or support the manufacturing of more things.   Still, I'm not going to get into the habit of asking people to give me the things I feel are lacking in my life: an important part of this exercise is to be comfortable with what I have.  However, I still feel like I learned something, through the arrival of these gifts.  Ask, and you receive.  Even if it's a gravy boat.  Imagine learning that lesson on a grander scale:  If I can ask the universe for a gravy boat, and get it, what else can I ask for?  If you're taking orders, Infinite Cosmos, I ask for creative fulfillment, satisfying friendships, unconditional love. Oh, and a puppy.

While I always assumed my shopping triggers were negative feelings or events, it turns out, happy times can be a shopping trigger, too.  This past weekend I went to Doe Bay for a yoga retreat, one of my favourite places and my favourite activities in my year.  I found I suddenly needed, badly, a certain kind of yoga top that turns into a blanket.  I used to have one, I don't anymore, and dammit, I needed this in order to be able to do yoga on this retreat!   I found out last Tuesday that I am nominated for an Ovation Award this year, for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, for my work in Shine.  My immediate thought was that I simply had to have a new dress in order to attend the awards ceremony.  

I went on my yoga retreat, without a yoga top/blanket hybrid, and I think I did fine.  I am planning to wear a dress that I've only worn once to the Ovations, and maybe do something nice with my hair.  When I visited my favourite bookstore while I was on retreat, I carried a few items around with me, then took a picture of them and put them back.  The mental gymnastics I was doing in my head to justify the purchases were exhausting, and frankly took the joy out of the intended purchases anyway.   So, I'm not suddenly a changed person.  I still want stuff.  But I am finding great satisfaction in listening to those wants carefully, then turning back to my own things, to see what I have that will satisfy that need.  So far, there's always something that can.  It's just a matter of slowing down and taking stock.  I'm learning.  

I am the proud owner of not one, but two gravy boats.  One is plenty, two is...err...nevermind.

I am the proud owner of not one, but two gravy boats.  One is plenty, two is...err...nevermind.

Project Enough: The Shopping Ban Rules

As  one part of the Year of Enough, I'm choosing to focus on mindful consumption.  I am not throwing away all my stuff and becoming a minimalist - I like my stuff too much for that.  I love stuff.  So much.  But I want to enjoy and appreciate the stuff that I have, rather than adding to my growing pile of possessions.  It's a soothing, numbing thing for me, to shop.  I love finding deals.  I am the queen of bargains.  I am an expert thrifter.  Despite these mad shopping skills, the amount of stuff I buy? Well, it ultimately makes me feel bad, to be spending money that could be saved for something else, to think of the environmental impact that my, and everyone else's stuff has, to think of the people who have much, much less than I do.  Aren't there more useful things I can do with my time than shop?  Don't I aspire to more than to simply have stuff?  Clothes are my joy, a way to self express.  Books are my lifeline.  I enjoy having a pretty home.  But surely, I'm at the "enough" point now, with what I have?  I've gone past "stuff that makes me happy," almost past "stuff that makes me feel kind of OK."  Surely, I do not need to more stuff to my stuff to feel complete.  And yet, it feels like a never-ending cycle.  Buy stuff, feel good, then start to feel bad, buy more stuff, feel good, then start to feel bad, buy more stuff...I don't know when it stops.  It's time to take away that crutch,  which isn't serving me anyway, and do the emotional work that I need to do to self-soothe, and really be aware of what my consumption means, for me, and for the world I live in.  To that end, it's time to introduce the rules of the Shopping Ban:

  1. Clothing Purchases: no clothes, accessories or shoes will be bought.  The exceptions are athletic wear, tights and underwear which need (need being the operative word) to be replaced because they are worn out, have holes, or are too gross from overuse.  Costume/performancewear needs will also be considered on a case-by-case basis.  I have also lost quite a bit of weight over the past year and am down 2 clothing sizes.  If I lose more sizes, I may need to buy more clothes, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. There will have to be rules set in that situation as well:  consignment of perfectly good too-big items, for example, before I can purchase new,.
  2. Housewares and Books:  no housewares, books or other decorator-y tchotckes.  The exceptions are pieces of essential household equipment that have broken, cannot be repaired, and for which I have no suitable replacement.  Example: my red teapot breaks - I still have 4 others in other colours - no need to replace the broken teapot.  No books (I love the library anyway), and no magazines, with the exception of my all-time fave, Vanity Fair, because this isn't about self-denial, it's about mindfulness: when I asked myself what one magazine I would choose over all others, Vanity Fair won by a mile.  I chose to subscribe for a year, which is approximately 1/2 the cost of buying each issue on the newsstand.
  3. Makeup and Toiletries:  no makeup or toiletries except to replace finished items for which there is no suitable replacement.  For instance, oops, I'm out of my favourite Kat Von D lipstick, Cathedral.  But I do have a full tube of MAC Twig, which, well, they're close enough in colour.  No need to re-up on Kat Von D until Twig is done.  Same with my eleventy-seven different shades of red lipstick.  WHO NEEDS ELEVENTY-SEVEN DIFFERENT SHADES OF RED, I ask you?  Here are some of the reds I currently possess:  NARS Cruella, MAC Red Rock, Besame Red, Besame Noir Red, Besame Red Velvet, Benefit Matthew Williamson Limited Edition Red Gloss,  Kat Von D Vampira - those are the ones I can name OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD.  Just for fun, here's some more. Purples?  Got 'em.  MAC Rebel, MAC Men Love Mystery.  Pinks?  Don't be silly:  MAC Twig, MAC Girl About Town, Clinique All Heart, Smashbox Posy Pink...Whew.  sorry about that lipstick tangent. I just really like makeup.
  4. Coffee:  No solo designer coffee runs.  Coffee with friends as part of a social outing, totally OK.  But no more "I'll just pop by Starbucks on my way to work."  I have a Nespresso, a Keurig, a Bialetti AND a French Press.  And a really really cute Kate Spade travel mug.  There is no earthly reason why I shouldn't manage to make coffee myself on my way out the door in the morning.  

Acceptable Purchases:  In addition to the exceptions listed above, there are some purchases which will be acceptable during the year.  

  1. Nails: I get my nails done once a month.  I like the way my fingers look with nails, which I can't grow myself (I like biting them too much), so acrylics it is. 
  2. Hair:  I will get my hair cut and coloured at regular intervals, but no crazy experimental colours which I have done to be uber trendy in the past - just enough to cover the greys which are infuriatingly showing up with more regularity

In case you were wondering, I am totally terrified that I am going to fail at this.  That within a week I'll be surfing the online sales or planning a new spring wardrobe.  That I'll make a sneaky trip to the mall to pick up just one thing.   I am trying to prepare myself for this by avoiding temptation - I used the service unroll.me to unsubscribe from all the retailers' newsletters that hit my inbox every morning.  I am contemplating unsubscribing from all the cool plus-size fashion bloggers I follow on Instagram and Twitter, but I am hoping I can use these folks for inspiration rather than seeing each post as a directive to Go Forth and Shop.  We'll see how that goes.

I also have created an inventory of my stuff, to remind myself just how many options I actually have, from a clothing perspective, and reinforce the message that I do not need more.  I used Google Spreadsheets, and created a tab for each category of clothing: Shoes, Tops, Bottoms, Dresses, Skirts - and within each tab items are broken down even more by sub-category: Pencil Skirts, Full Skirts, Long Dresses, Sweatshirts, etc.  I also created a Pinterest Board of all the clothes I have from my favorite fashion site, Eloquii, where I buy 90% of my clothes.  This is a nice visual reminder of everything that's in my closet, so if I'm stuck for inspiration I can just take a quick look at my board for an idea.   I've also inventoried textiles and furniture on my Google Spreadsheet, and will be tackling makeup, books and housewares next.  My insurers will love me!

So, those are the rules of the ban.  And the ban is...for all of 2017.   Bring on the inevitable tears, tantrums and frustrations.  I'm excited and scared to see what happens next.

2017: The Year of Enough

My cousin Sarah and I often talk about what our annual "themes" will be for the coming year.  The idea is to set some goals related to that theme, that we can hold each other accountable for as the year progresses.  In one of our first years, we set a goal related to hours of exercise and number of kilometres clocked.  One year I focused on learning to love myself a little more.  Another year I focused on saying "yes" to things less often, to leave time to relax and recharge. 

I've been thinking hard about what 2017's theme will be.  I'll admit, it's been hard to be optimistic enough to even set a goal.  Maybe that's the seasonal depression talking, but boy, 2016 has been a dumpster fire of a year from my standpoint here on good  ol' planet Earth:  Trump.  Brexit.  The rise of the Alt-right.  Devastation in Aleppo.  Standing Rock.  Kinder-Morgan.  Zika.   Philando Castile's death live-streamed on Facebook.  An ongoing fentanyl crisis in our own backyard.   Terrorist attacks in too many places to name.  The earth warming up an alarming rate.  Freakin' David Bowie.   It's hard not to peer into the future of 2017 and see more of the same darkness.  It's hard not to feel helpless in the face of the challenges that we know are in store for us.

Enough is enough.  I am appalled at the direction this world is going, but I do not want to go down without a fight.  I want to take action.  I no longer want to feel numb to the injustices that happen down the street, or across the world.  So that's how I started thinking about 2017, as the Year of Action.  The problem was, where to start?  How do I change, and also help bring about change?  I'm just one insignificant person - how do I make a difference?  For me, one of the things I have realized I can do is understand how privileged I am,  at the opportunities I am afforded, and also learn to be content with what I have. 

I have always had two soothing or numbing behaviours in the face of fear, stress or pain:  food, and shopping.   One thing I am so grateful for this year is that I found the Whole 30 and eliminated most garbage food from my life.  I replaced junk food with exercise and good eating habits, became healthier, and lost a good amount of weight in the process.  That's an ongoing journey, one that will take time, but it's become a part of my life.  So, coping unhealthy mechanism number one, gone.

Which brings me to the shopping.  It's no secret I like nice things.  I love clothes, love dressing up, love making my home beautiful.  I'm a girly girl and a secret wannabe homemaker.  I collect books, retro housewares, pretty shiny things.  This year, when I took away food as a crutch, I found I was turning more and more to shopping as a cure for whatever uncomfortable emotion I was feeling.  If I felt it, it meant I deserved a new dress.  Or a new lipstick.  Or that new book.  If I didn't feel it - the confidence, the happiness, the love, that also meant I needed the new dress.   If I just got this one thing, I'd be perfect.  I'd be lovable.  I'd be happy.  I'd be worthy.   Most of the time, it worked.  The buying of the things worked.  Until one day, it didn't.

You see, I've become aware of the gross disconnect between my social conscience, which is increasingly loud in its concern for others, for our environment, and for building a world that is sustainable for us now and for our kids in the future, and my consumption of...well, stuff.    I live in a house of nice things.  I have a closet full of beautiful things to put on every day.  Why do I keep needing more?  And what do these things really add up to, in terms of a life well lived?  Will I be remembered, and do I want to be remembered, for having the cutest outfit, and the prettiest house, or for my actions, and the things I put out into the world?   When will I have enough?

So, the theme has become clear.  It's the Year of Enough:

  1. I've had enough -  I want to contribute to positive change in our world. 
  2. I have enough -  I need to learn to be mindful with how I spend my money and in my consumption of things.
  3. I am enough - I don't need stuff, or accomplishments, more money, or less weight, to be a worthy, lovable, person.  This one is my ongoing battle, against perfectionism, feelings of insecurity, of being different, incomplete somehow. Who I am and the good I do is enough.  

I have my theme.  In terms of concrete actions, there are a few things I am committing to:

  1. Community Work:  I'm going to make an active effort to offer more volunteer hours this year.  I've sat on boards for the past several years, and offered pro bono legal advice on an ad hoc basis when people really needed it.  I've contributed financially to charities.  I'll continue to do that, but I want to commit to actually offering myself to be of service to more organizations, in different ways, in 2017.  
  2. Shopping Ban:  Here's the big one guys.  I can't even believe I am saying this, but - I am committing to a Shopping Ban, in order to learn how to be more mindful with my money, and with my consumption.  I don't intend on giving away my possessions and becoming a minimalist - I like stuff too much for that - but I want to learn how to use and appreciate the stuff I've already got.  I'll be posting my Shopping Ban rules later, for more accountability, but this is gonna be a big one.  Big ups to Cait Flanders whose website, and Mindfulness Budget Journal, are a huge inspiration and resource for this endeavor. I don't know how long it'll last, if I will set a goal of three - six months or try to stick it out the whole year, but it's got to be a long enough challenge to do some real change to my current spending habits.
  3. Work on Me:  thetrial of learning to feel more worthy as a person continues.  I'm committing to devoting more time to my well-being, and not leaving this as the last priority on my to-do list.  I'm committing to building free time into my schedule, rather than filling my schedule to the brim with other commitments so that I don't have to sit with this stuff and work through it.  I'm building in the "me" time.

So, there's my 2017 for you.  It's the Year of Enough.  What does 2017 mean for you?

 

Sad Reality: Racism Is Everywhere. Including Here.

I got off Skytrain in Richmond on Friday night around 9 pm and walked to my bus stop to go home. At the stop was a very fit man in gym gear, in his early 30s, about 6 feet tall, who was calmly but firmly saying to two Indo-Canadian teenage girls, "What language are you speaking?" "Where are you from? You should go back there." "I'm from Canada and I speak English." "I was born here, you weren't, you need to speak English." "I can't understand what language you are speaking." The g...irls were silently staring at their phones. There were other people at the bus stop who were all looking at the ground and pretending they couldn't hear him. When the girls wouldn't respond, the man would loudly shout "HEY!" to get their attention, and start his diatribe again. He was completely focused on them. Other than "Hey," he never raised his voice. It was chilling.

After five minutes of watching this disgusting behaviour I yelled at him. "HEY! Leave them alone." Everyone looked up. Racist guy - who was scary because of how calm and direct he was - lasered in on me. "But I don't know what language they're even speaking!" I replied, "You don't need to know, they're not talking to you, now stop it." One of the girls said, "Yeah dude, we're not talking to you." Racist guy stared at me for a minute, then came and stood directly behind me, too close for comfort. He stood there while I texted transit police. He stood there while a man came out from beneath the bus shelter and deliberately stood beside me, while talking on his cell phone in Chinese, occasionally making eye contact with me to make sure I was OK. Racist guy did not like this either, and announced to the whole bus stop that he "didn't like any of these languages," and walked away. The girls got on a bus safely.

This guy was not your typical transit crazy. He may have been drunk, but not *that* drunk. He knew what he was saying and liked saying it. And that scares me to death.

Transit police came and took my statement. They told me I was brave but shouldn't have engaged him. I don't know how I can do anything *but* engage people who spew hate in front of me. Trump and his ilk have given these people permission to come out of the shadows and I am determined to put them back in the darkness, forever.

I posted this update on my Facebook and it went viral.  It's been shared hundreds of times in just under a week. I didn't post it to get kudos for shouting at the scary guy. I posted it so there can be no more smugness that "at least we live in Canada," no more pretending that racism doesn't exist here. BE VIGILANT.  We must be better than this. 

Be Here Now.

Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of my life and wonder how I got here.  It can happen driving down a Richmond street where I realize I recognize nothing, or waking up in my own room and seeing it as if for the first time. I will suddenly feel disoriented and disconnected from everything around me.   I'll look around and marvel at how alien everything feels to me, like I'm an astronaut, or a deep sea diver, floating, an observer in an unfamiliar landscape.  In that same instant, I feel the distance I've travelled, from a bedroom in a blue house on a cul-de-sac in the shadow of a small tree-covered mountain, to now, and wonder how on earth I find the path to turn around to go back.  

 

 

 

"What am I doing here?"  I will whisper to myself.  To ease the panic I can feel growing, I say reassuring things to ground me to this spot and this moment with some sort of logic or tie that my heart understands.  "You were born here, a few blocks away.  Your dad was born here.  Your grandmother lived down the road.  Your parents' first house was five minutes away."  It helps.  Sometimes I go to my aunt's house, a short drive through a tunnel. because it's the same house that it always was: so many things are different, but its sameness reminds me that the things and places that have disappeared were real.  They happened.   They existed. I didn't dream them and wake up just this second to my actual reality.  

 

It's not that this reality is bad, lord no.  It feels sweeter now, and more consistently sweet, than it has in a long time.  This afternoon I sat happily in my own library, surrounded by books, my beloved cat in my lap, and listened to the rain fall on the trees outside.  I tried to read, but looked up constantly to survey this home that I have bought and made, all on my own.  The feeling of calm and of pride was so great it almost made me cry.   But I so often these days find myself not quite being able to connect the dots, from Home to Here.

 

If I had to guess, I'd say this sense of disorientation is part of growing older, when your story becomes so long that you can't easily connect the first chapters to the middle.  Or, it's part of having wandered for the better part of 15 years and made a place for myself in multiple cities, continents, workplaces, friendships.  Maybe it's part of having travelled so much of this journey solo.  It makes me understand why people who have long ago left their hometowns sell up, move back, and settle down, send their kids to the schools they went to, reconnect with childhood friends.  It has to do with wanting to feel a sense of belonging to a place, a time, a community, a past self.  

 

This alienness also makes me realize that this life I'm leading now, as unfamiliar as it may seem in this instant, is the only life I have to lead.  I'm not going to "finish", or graduate, and return home to some past life.  Those echoes of the past are really just that - a recollection, an intangible, unreachable suggestion.  There is only one direction: forward. This realization makes me mournful and nostalgic and energized and driven and empowered, all at the same time.  Time to get up. get on with it, make something happen.   There are no ties that bind, so anything, anywhere, is possible.

 

I'm not sure what the remedy to this feeling of unfamiliarity can be, other than to live exactly this moment, now, here, and nowhere else.  To not dwell too long on times past, or on the time that is running (or running out), and simply live this chosen second, this mindful minute, in peace, with purpose, and most importantly, with gratitude.