Category Archives: Relationships

After drowning, a throat-clearing

I lost my voice. For four years.

Actually, I lost a lot of things between my last post and this one. A husband, to divorce. A neighbour, to suicide. A boss, to reorganization. A mom, to dementia. But I gained a lot in between too: a new job; a new home; a new partner. Oh, and the ability to swim! (But that’s another post.)

Since childhood I have maintained that I don’t really know what I think about anything important until I write it down. The act of writing has always been–or, rather, had always been–my way forward in life. Get it down on the page and all would, eventually, be revealed.

But something happened in the summer of 2013 after my then-husband made the choice to leave our 32-year marriage. The fragile cord that connects my cranium to my keyboard was brutally severed. Suddenly the Technicolor movie of my life was rendered black-and-white.

I could not write.

So I lost 10 pounds and embraced yoga and learned to swim and bought a new journal.

But I could not write.

So I learned to meditate. I offered up prayers in churches across Ireland and Mexico and India. I scolded myself for not trying harder, and for trying too hard. I drank a little more gin than was perhaps entirely good for me. I discovered who my 3 a.m friends were. I fell in love.

And still, I could not write.

And then just as I was starting to make peace with the idea that it was gone for good–that the long-held ability to know myself by scribbling on a page was lost forever–it broke the black surface of my depression, sucked down a long lungful of clean air and declared itself still viable.

I don’t know anything about anything any more.

So let’s do this thing. Again.







Better than we know ourselves

“Because the truth is, we never know for sure about ourselves. Who we’ll sleep with if given the opportunity, who we’ll betray in the right circumstance, whose faith and love we will reward with our own….Which is why we have spouses and children and parents and colleagues and friends, because someone has to know us better than we know ourselves. We need them to tell us. We need them to say, “I know you, Al. You’re not the kind of man who.”

-from Straight Man, by Richard Russo

I have worked at a university for more than a decade and have come to see the dark humour in Henry Kissinger’s alleged observation that the reason university politics are so vicious is because the stakes are so small.

It’s a funny little world, not unlike the small island I lived on for more than 20 years, with its own etiquette and intrigues.

And whenever I start to take it too seriously, I find it therapeutic to dip into a novel by, say, David Lodge, or  Jane Smiley, or most recently, Richard Russo — that is, authors who can be relied upon to gently and humorously skewer the very academies that employ them.

Anyway, Russo’s 1997 book, Straight Man, about an English professor’s mid-life reckoning in the middle of a university down-sizing, was this month’s tonic.

(It was in fact recommended to me by my president, who has a terrific sense of humour about the ivory tower and its inmates.)

It’s a terribly funny book, which the quote above might not suggest.

But it’s not Russo’s smart-alecky (and sometimes downright snide) commentary on blustering and blister-less academics that lingers, but rather this small tribute to friendship, compassion, and forgiveness.

In the story, a colleague and sometime enemy of the narrator, Hank, has struck Hank’s dog and desperately seeks reassurance from the English prof that he knows it was not intentional.

Hank absolves his colleague in the passage above, defaulting to a technique he uses with his creative writing students to help them develop their written characters more fully: he is not the kind of man who.

The distraught colleague is not the kind of man who would hit a dog on purpose and then sit around and wait patiently for the owner to return.

I like Russo’s — or rather, Hank’s — notion that our true natures, so opaque to us, are so clearly revealed by the tiniest of our actions to those who orbit around us.

I like the idea that we can and must rely on and trust our nearest and dearest to alert us to our essential selves — for better or for worse.

It’s an interesting thought experiment.

Try it.

Think about someone who has recently pleased you — or pissed you off. Your boss. Your spouse. Your neighbour. Your child.

What do you understand about them better than they understand about themselves?

And what might they be able to tell you about yourself that would be truer than you might ever care to know or admit?

You’re the kind of person who.

You’re not the kind of person who.

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Tears, beers or babies

When it comes to online relationships, it’s too easy to confuse the fact that you once chatted with someone in the other bathroom stall at a conference with actual friendship.

So I have devised a simple formula to determine whether I can reasonably accept your friend request on Facebook or LinkedIn or whatever.

Tears, beers or babies. Simple as that.

If we haven’t cried over marriage or mortality together; if we haven’t hoisted one (too many) high at some unpretentious local; if we haven’t laughed or boasted or worried together about the fruit of our respective loins…well then, I’m probably not that into you.

But hey, be honest: without a couple of encounters based on any of the above scenarios, you’re probably not that smitten with me either.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m totally game to make new friends. In fact, I never want to stop making new friends.

But let’s do each other a favour and get to know each other a little better IRL before we start swearing blood oaths online, ok?

If you want to get started, I favour a craft-brewed IPA…;-)


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Bring back the black armband

Several times as a child I heard the story of how my father had returned from military service to discover that his mother had died and been buried in his absence.

This story fascinated me on so many levels.

At a time when I was just beginning to understand that families were complicated, and that not all children loved their parents equally–or vice versa–the hard facts of this story spoke volumes about my dad’s difficult relationship with his own father.

That my grandfather had waited, in an age of telegrams and trans-Atlantic telephone cables, until my father stepped ashore in England to tell him that his beloved mother had died just a few days before and was now in the ground…well, I understood that there was something very wrong and probably eternally damaging about that scenario.

Beyond that, there was always the mention of the black armband my father wore for months after his mother passed.

I had only ever seen such things in books and movies, and found the notion of betraying one’s grief and loss as oddly embarrassing. Thank goodness, I thought as a youngster, that we didn’t have to do that any more.

But now I am grown up.

And I am starting to lose my family in bits and pieces.

And I wish I had a black armband to tell the world, “I am bereaved and sad and a little emotionally unstable right now. Cut me some slack, will you? You’ll understand soon enough, if you don’t already.”

There have been several deaths in my life this year, beginning with the loss of my dear dad-in-law, Bob, last November 28th. I am just emerging from the deep first-year funk of grief.

I now understand why the Jewish tradition teaches that you shouldn’t make any big changes in the first 12 months after a death in the family. You aren’t in your right mind.

I’m feeling like I’m back to my right mind now.

I am ready again to socialize and can trust myself (more or less; see the Raffi post) not to burst into tears at the sight of Bob’s old camera sitting on the table, or my Aunt Donna’s elegant script adorning a birthday card.

But for the past several months, it would have been nice to have had the shield of a black armband. Something that served as an early warning system for unassuming friends and colleagues. Something that screamed: Caution! 

I say: let’s bring back the black armband, the badge of broken hearts.

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