life

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.  

 

blur-books-close-up-159866.jpg

The Work of Being Happy.

Back in January, I decided this would be the year of self-care.  The year of not setting ambitious goals or striving outrageously to accomplish things.  The year of being a bit kinder to myself.  I was so so tired.  I was tired of feeling disappointed in myself when I didn't achieve superstardom, unlimited wealth, Olympic-level fitness, true love, a family, and professional accolades.  I was tired of feeling like I was struggling to succeed - when really by most people's standards I was doing just fine.  I figured there had to be an easier way to live.  Or, maybe there wasn't, maybe I was/am a perfectionist for life - but at least I could make peace with that way of living, if I spent a year being "ordinary" and still couldn't be happy.  Maybe the struggle would be sweeter if I knew I was happier struggling than going with the flow.  Weird, but that's what I was thinking. 

I did (and did not do) a number of things during this "Year of Dani."  They were, for the most part, seemingly small "no brainer" things to me, really - basic life skills that I had just forgotten to do in my pursuit of "greatness".  

I moved, to a neighbourhood less bustling than Gastown, where I could sleep, and read, and go for walks on tree lined streets.  I started cooking at home and taking my lunch to work.  I didn't audition for shows I didn't want to be in (sounds easy, is actually hard, when you are desperately afraid of being forgotten).  I said no to volunteer opportunities I was presented with if they didn't make my heart sing.  I stayed at home and read books - real books, from the library, with pages, rather then e-books on my Kobo.  

I went for walks, and sometimes I ran. I gardened on my little balcony.  I didn't shop when I was sad or lonely (because shoes make you less lonely!), I wrote it down in my journal, or admitted to someone that I was sad and received a flood of support in return.  I went to yoga, but not obsessively, as I have in the past.  I meditated.  I napped.  And I made one gigantic life decision: I changed jobs, leaving a job I loved and was completely emotionally invested in, to one with a shorter commute and a less frenetic workday pace, where I became responsible for a smaller portfolio of work, that I could leave on my desk at the end of the day rather than carrying home in my heart.  

These lifestyle changes have been accompanied by really hard work in terms of changing my attitude.  In smothering my negative inner voices, in actively choosing a different way to be, every day.  In choosing not to be critical of myself, in taking one day at a time, in choosing love over negativity. In convincing myself I am entitled to be happy, even without the perfect career, the perfect body, the perfect wardrobe, the perfect house, husband, baby.  It's a conversation I have to have with myself every day.  That I am wonderful as I am.  That every day is wonderful exactly as it unfolds.  That I am exactly who I am meant to be, and exactly where I am meant to be.  I write these words to myself on post-its at work, that only I can see.  I set my alarm on my phone for random times of the day, so that when the alarm goes off, I repeat these loving thoughts to myself.  I say them out loud to friends, who respond with resounding celebration when I say "I deserve to be happy."  

Now, as we head into the last months of the year, it feels like all of the very tiny incremental changes that I have been making over the year are crystallizing into one great gigantic big ball of happiness.  It's actually kind of magical.   Work is going well and I am valued for my contributions.  I saved enough money to buy my first home, a quiet place on a street lined with trees that looks out onto the Fraser River, which will be mine in November.  I've lost enough weight (20 lbs, give or take) that I notice, even if no one else does.  I'm singing as much as I want, with the people I want, when I want.  I sleep well.  It's work, absolutely, but the weird thing is, when you put in the work, things feel...effortless.  I can't explain that paradox, but I understand it now.

The other day, my mom said to me, "It's like you've said, 'Oh, sod it.  I am going to try happy.'"  And it's true - in trying to be happy, I've made myself happy.  It is so much work, every single day, but I'm happy.  Imperfect, sometimes frustrated, sometimes lonely - but happy.  I'm choosing happy.  I can't wait to see what miracles unfold as we head into the close of this Year of Dani.

Imperfect, unremarkable, happy me, at this very minute.

7:26 pm.

It feels like it's been a long time since I cried.  Yet this month seems to have been filled with a lot of tears, both of hurt and happiness, but also when the beauty of something has been too much to bear. 

I feel things.  

Sometimes too many things.

But I am feeling them, without fear.

It feels raw, and I feel like I should flinch to avoid being hurt.  I need to find some resilience.  Or find some peace in that fragility.

It is dusk, and I am sitting alone and content, the last vestiges of sunlight pouring in from all sides.  The doors are wide open, and Currie is perched on the deck outside, staring intently at me as I write.

"What are you doing?" I ask her, when I look up to see her yellow-green eyes fixed on me.  She meows a reply, then yawns, stretches, and steps back inside, and past me.  

We are happy here, in this moment. 

There is still so much hurt.  And sadness.  And loneliness.  But it is accompanied by a visiting peace, and a growing awareness of moments of joy.  And grief in the moments that have passed without it.

This is Sunday.

I can't tell you how sweet life is in my new home.  I thought myself a hardcore urbanite: I loved the grit and colour of Gastown, the mix of upscale, industrial, hipster and downtrodden that made up my neighbourhood of the last five and a half years.  And then I found my little oasis in the middle of not-so-glamorous Marpole, and suddenly none of the cool coffee shops, bakeries, clothing stores or bars that surrounded me mattered anymore.

So it's true - most of the restaurants and cafes that surround my new home are...not great, or else not designed to be that welcome to Canadians of the whitey-whitebread persuasion such as myself, with all-Mandarin or all-Cantonese menus and staff that don't really speak English (that being said, I have ventured into a few anyway and found a number of gems).  But I have a wonderful dining room that has light that streams in from the east, and with another window that opens up onto views of trees and mountains to the north, so it's not a hardship to eat at home.

Yes, it's a fact that the only speciality food store near my new home is Safeway.  But I have a kitchen that I delight to spend time in, and since I moved in January I have spent many happy hours cooking away on my new stovetop.  True, I haven't visited a "hot" restaurant in...well, months really, but I have re-discovered my cookbook collection and found some new recipe blogs that I adore.  There's no good coffee, true - you can't count the Starbucks at 64th and Granville - but I have a perfectly good machine to brew my own, not to mention a well-loved Bialetti stovetop espresso maker that Edy and I purchased in Rome years ago.  

I worried when I moved out of Gastown that the new neighbourhood and the lifestyle (or lack thereof) that it presented would not be "cool" or "exciting" enough for me.  Instead, I've found that I nest more - I've looked inward rather than outward to develop a home life.  I'm happy to spend a quiet Sunday at home, as I'm not exhausted from waiting for the bar underneath me to close at 4 a.m. in order to get some sleep.   I don't mind waking up to hear lawnmowers and birds singing (OK, I like the birds more than the lawnmowers, it's true).  I love being able to hear the rain on my roof.

Cornmeal-Raspberry Pancakes, homebrewed coffee, the Georgia Straight on the table and Michael Enright on the radio.  The new Sunday.

So, yes.  It's been a good move for me.  A very good one. When I started looking, desperately, in November, I was trying to escape a situation that I think my body and my heart knew were no longer healthy for me - that I needed peace, and refuge, no matter what my trend-loving, hipster-admiring brain told me about living in Gastown.  I felt like I was in flight from terrible anxiety and unrest. So I'm content that today my day will consist of throwing some meals together for the week to come, brushing Curriecat's coat out on one of our two balconies, sitting in my living room and staring at the rooftops, cherry blossoms and mountains that make up my view, perhaps going for a walk in Fraser River Park, and then heading to Granville Island for a rehearsal.

Maybe I'm mellowing, I don't know. Would it be nice to have someone here to mellow with?  Sure.  But if this is what 34-almost-35 looks like, I think I'm OK with that.

Authentic Dani.

As part of the personal journey I'm on that started with this

post

, I'm taking

Brene Brown

's online course that accompanies her book,

The Gifts of Imperfection.

  Each week a reading assignment is provided along with an art project of some kind.  

This week, the topic is authenticity.  Brene says authenticity is something we can all consciously practice - she calls it "

the daily practice of letting go of who we think we're supposed to be and embracing who we really are

."  That really resonated with me after the day I had today.   

First, I should say by way of disclaimer, it was a wonderful day, filled with family and the opportunity to practice my art by performing onstage.   My parents were here to see my show, and we went for brunch.  My nephew Cal was born on Tuesday, and as new grandparents, my Mom and Dad are obviously excited.  My aunts and uncles are excited.  Our friends are excited.  Our acquaintances are excited.  It seems that darling Cal (and he really is darling - I'm not allowed to post pictures yet or OH, I WOULD) is the main topic of conversation and enthusiasm in our family circle and in our extended circle of friends.  It's very hard for me to not imply and internalize a message from that: the message that it's good to be settled, it's good to have kids.  It's very hard for me to not feel like "less-than" because I do not have these things.  It's very hard not to think there's something wrong with the way I'm living when it feels so different from that of my brother, my cousins, my parents' friends' kids, the ones I grew up with, who were my contemporaries.

So this idea to be authentic - to be who I really am and

let go of who I think I'm supposed to be

- felt really powerful to me today.  I think I'm supposed to be somebody's wife.  I think I'm supposed to be somebody's mom.  I think I'm supposed to own a house by now.  Weigh less.  Feel more balanced, calm.  The fact that I'm not, or that I don't,  really does make me feel like I am not a whole person, a lot of the time.  I feel like these are badges of honour that I'm missing - visible signs, that LOOK! SOMEBODY LOVES ME, or I HAVE STUFF - and that the absence of these symbols means something about my worth as a person.

I know it's insane.  It's just how I feel.  And so the idea that I should try to let go of those feelings - the idea that those feelings are WRONG - and that (to link back to Brene's initial lesson) I'm imperfect but still ENOUGH - well, that message was received today, somehow. It might not stick, but it's there today, which is a big deal.  

The art journaling exercise today was to find a photo of myself that reflects who I really am - to wade through old photos to find images that provide emotional resonance for me (rather than photos where I think I look good or cool).  That was a tough exercise, because I self-censor so much - there just aren't photos of me that exist if I don't think I look pretty, or less fat, or cool.  Anything where I think I look weird, goofy, chubby, stupid - those pictures just don't exist.

I won't tell you which of these photos won the contest as revealing my authentic self, but these are the photos that made the shortlist, for what it's worth.  These are photos that remind me of times in my life where I have felt truly myself, felt permission to be exactly who I am, nothing more, nothing less.

(A

pologies Dad for the hungover (?) sleepy Pops picture - and RIP Blue Pierre Cardin Bathrobe, 1979 - 1994

.)

Again, apologies Cathy - but we were

both

making silly faces...

Letting Go of Perfect.

My name is Danielle, and I'm a perfectionist.

I feel like for those who know me well, this statement is not a surprise.   It is a surprise to me.  I dislike enough things about myself to believe that everyone reading this will scoff, "You're clearly not a perfectionist - look at you!"  

Well - yes.  Look at me.  I am looking at me.  And that voice that criticizes myself, that dark corner of my heart that despises so many things about myself? That's the perfectionist.   It's the perfectionist who loudly declares how RIDICULOUS I am, that everyone can SEE that, what a JOKE.  The perfectionist does not see the lawyer, scholar, singer, writer, actress, world traveller, volunteer, devoted kitty-mama and friend.  The perfectionist sees a loud, ugly, fat, obnoxious loner who doesn't own a house, doesn't have a husband, doesn't have kids, is too old to continue auditioning for musical theatre, and isn't as good a lawyer as she pretends to be.  That perfectionist voice is the last one I hear before I go to bed.  It's the first one I hear when I wake up in the morning.    

I've been chasing perfect for a long time.  For every A I got, there was an A+ to be had.  For every degree I got, there was another one I had to reach for (I'd still be going if the money hadn't run out).  For every law firm I got a job at, there was another, BIGGER law firm to get a job at.  For every show I got to perform in, there was another one that I really needed to be in.   When I've got a night to myself at home, I beat myself up about not going out.  If the house isn't perfectly tidy and doesn't look like a magazine, no one can come over, and I can't relax and read a book.  If people come for dinner, that better be the most perfect, Martha Stewart-inspired party you've ever seen.   I've falsely confused perfection with being loved, and being loveable, even to myself. 

My perfectionism doesn't come out of some extreme self-love, a desire to strive for the best because I'm worth it.  I know this because the flip side of my perfectionism is shame. I strive for perfection to outrun the shame, but because I can never achieve that perfection, I spend much more time mired in the quicksand of shame than celebrating my successes.   For everything that I  have "failed" at, whether that was true failure or just failing to meet my own ridiculous standards, I feel a deep, deep shame and dislike for myself.  My weight yo-yo's are the perfect example of that.  Gained a pound?  Well, I'd better give up then, because I failed.  Pass the cookies, it's all over.  I'll punish myself by eating another one.  And maybe another.   The vicious cycle continues.  I hate myself for not being perfect, so I eat another metaphorical cookie, I become further away from perfect, I hate myself some more.  Dating, too.  I've put up with horrible treatment from horrible people that I would never introduce to my worst enemy, because I think that's what I deserve, because I'm so horribly flawed.  I have not dared to let myself love people who I think I do not measure up to.

Criticism, even from people who have no business being critical, or whose opinions we should not care about, becomes deeply wounding to perfectionists like me, because we attach a sense of shame and blame to having "failed" to measure up to some real or imagined standard.  

I don't know where this idea that I had to be perfect came from. I do not blame my parents for some deep dark wrong they did to me as a child.  I was a difficult kid - I hear those stories a lot - but they also loved me so hard it hurt.  And yet somewhere along the way, I heard and internalized the message that to be loved by myself and others, I need to be perfect.  I love other people whole-heartedly, flaws and all, but myself, no.  

Perfectionism is an insidious thing.  It means that when I accomplish, I must accomplish more.  It means when I fail, I feel a shame so deep I feel embarrassed to be around others, and would gladly avoid myself if possibly could (that's not a suicidal thought, mind you, just a desire to not be me).    

But lately, I have started to ask myself, what is the end goal of my being perfect?  What's at the end of the rainbow, that unattainable goal that I keep striving for?   Where am I killing myself to get to?  What is it that is so worth being so terribly hard on myself every step along the way to obtain?

It's love.  Being loved.

I'm not talking just romantic love (although that's always nice).  I feel loved by my friends, and my family.  I have felt loved by romantic partners.  But the key ingredient that's missing is loving myself.  Not only do I keep thinking I need to be perfect so someone else will love me - I need to be perfect so I can love myself.   

And that's the tragedy of it.  I will never be perfect.  And unless I seriously start thinking about how I think and feel, and changing some of these damaging thoughts and behaviours, I'll never love myself.  And that's a really, really sad place to be.  

So I'm letting go of perfect.  I have to.

I have zero idea how to do this. Honestly, I don't.  I have no idea how you put aside something that you feel in the very core of your being and choose to feel something else.  We as a society cannot explain what makes us fall in love with other people, how the hell can we explain or teach how to fall in love with ourselves?  So I know this is going to be a long, long, difficult, sad, frustrating process full of demons and discomfort and roadblocks. I don't know where the road even starts, but I know that much.  I also know that I am so very very tired of aiming for perfect, and failing miserably, and feeling such shame at my own existence.  There is so much beauty in the world, and it is so, so sad that I don't let myself be part of it.  

It's a big thing for me to be this honest on my blog.  I have always limited myself to humorous, witty posts about "perfect" moments in my life - world travel, cooking adventures, theatrical endeavours, and other accomplishments that make me appear very together, a real whole person living a fabulous life.  I have a lot of fear around putting these words out into the world, admitting that Oz the Magnificent is nothing but a facade.  But I also feel like I have to give voice to some of the things I'm struggling with, so that I can benefit from the wisdom and understanding of the people in my life who have maybe been in the same place.  Or the people who are already able to be their own best friends, who can teach me the tricks of the trade.   I'm committed to living with the discomfort.  There's really no other choice.

I'm letting go of perfect, and settling for loved.  Let the journey commence.