CBC Nonfiction Prize Shortlist – “The Long Driveway

This nonfiction piece was shortlisted for the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize. Click here to read “The Long Driveway” on the CBC website and to leave comments there. Thank you so much for reading!

I think, this could be a lovely photograph. A girl walking up a gently curving driveway that disappears into the trees, the end out of sight of the viewer. The sky is cloudy not overcast, the kind of clouds that show up really accentuated in pictures; high contrast. Big flakes of snow flit and flicker across the sky — though they would be motionless in the photo — as the girl breaks trail to the car parked out of sight. As I’m experiencing the moment, I realize I’m seeing it in third person. I’m behind myself, outside myself again. I stop in the middle of the driveway and close my eyes, dig my winter boots into the snow, then turn back to the house and refocus. Back inside myself, I look at the house that kept five of my 17 years. It could keep those years if I could strain the good from the bad and only relinquish the latter.

But why even try? The bad didn’t start there. It started in the before-house, the one on the long road outside of town, a barely developed area with houses on only one side of the street because the other was still wild. The houses had been so far apart my mom had driven us on Halloween to go trick-or-treating, our flimsy costumes tugged over bulky snow suits, climbing in and out, in and out of the minivan. Or what about the year my mom dressed up as a man for Halloween but no one got the joke because she was so convincing — everyone thought it was so sweet that our dad was taking us three kids trick-or-treating. My mom didn’t correct them; I think she didn’t want to embarrass them. It matters a lot to my mom, what other people think.

The bad started in that house, before that Halloween. My mom’s boyfriend’s cold, oddly silken feet touching mine, which were tan and rough from running outside barefoot. I used to like to walk on the gravel driveway without socks or shoes, to see how tough I could be. Pretty tough.

The bad got so much worse than that, but I learned it can’t be talked about. I had tried pushing words through seven-year-old lips, describing his hands between my legs and eyes that never left me unseen. I tried again, with a 12-year-old mouth, a confession I couldn’t remember, a last resort. Words had landed like falling snow on warm cheeks, turning to water and disappearing.

The bad came with us to the new house, a big house with a steep hill down to a lake. In the winters, like this one, the school bus sometimes can’t make it to the house, or any of the other houses on the street, because the roads are so bad. We don’t even trick-or-treat on this road because there aren’t enough neighbours. Instead, we drive 20 minutes into town and go in someone else’s neighbourhood, where the houses are close enough together that we can walk. We have to leave this house to feel joy.

I wasn’t there, of course, when my mom told her boyfriend we were all moving and he couldn’t come with us. She must have, but I wonder if he understands, because he’s helping us move. He smiles often at us, at me. I work to be invisible — I watch him from hidden places, the way I always have. It is important to see where he is, where he’s coming from, what kind of look is on his face. Still, even when I can’t see him, like from the bedroom in the basement that I share with my sister, you can tell how it’s going to be by the way his feet come down. Some days you only hear the creaks, heavy but not important. Other days it’s like his legs are pistons, slamming his wide, flat feet down. Those are the days to conceal yourself, but if you can’t get out of the way, you get out of yourself. Away somewhere, running in the woods, barefoot, keen eyes clocking the mulch-brown piles of pebbled deer poop, an opportunity to see how far I can jump.

Today though, he smiles and it’s strange. He’s never been so nice, taking all the heavy boxes, helping my mom with the bigger furniture. He doesn’t yell at anyone, not even my brother when he drops a corner of the monstrous army-green desk and dents a stair. Even my mom seems confused, on edge. But I think he thinks he’ll get her back still, that she’s not serious. She’s tried to leave before, after all. And maybe he thinks a day of nice will make up for five years of the rest of it. I don’t assume, don’t fully believe she’s done with him, but I hope.

This is my first move as an almost-grown up. The other times, I’d been given little jobs — sweep after the room is empty, or carry the loose, random things that didn’t or couldn’t get boxed. Like the giant rag doll I got at a yard sale for 25 cents that moved with us until she got turned inside out in the washing machine. With stuffing everywhere, I learned how precious things are too fragile to risk loving.

Now I’m hauling all my bags of clothing and my sister’s; boxes of books, dining room chairs. We aren’t good packers. Things aren’t labelled, not all the boxes have flaps to close, we ran out of tape and didn’t bother getting more. There’s a giant truck in the driveway that somehow made it down through the snow. Only my mom’s boyfriend — ex-boyfriend — knows how to drive it. It’s too big for all our stuff and my mom has to constantly tell us, “We aren’t taking that,” or that, no, that’s his. His. I feel bitter, wild, even though I’m glad we don’t have to live with him anymore, and I don’t have to smell the steamy shower air when he’s finished, the smell that carries the things I don’t want to remember, the things this house can keep. I’m angry because my mom was beautiful when they first met, her laughter so loud until he told her it made people stare, and now she is small and scared of dying.

We make a trip to the new house. My mom, brother and sister and me. Evan and Christie get to stay there and wait for the truck to arrive and help unpack, but I’m to return with my mom. She loved the house we are leaving, the sharp, rocky incline to the water, the quiet. This house is in town. I won’t ever take a bus again — the high school is a seven-minute walk away. I can come home during lunch when I’m too sad to talk about normal things. There are fewer mosquitos.

The drive back is strange. My mom is thinking so loud I can barely focus. I turn off the radio because otherwise it’s too much noise. I watch my side of the highway, the houses I saw season after season on my bus ride home, changing with weather, renovations, families coming and going. It’s the last time I’ll ever be going back to that house. The old house.

We park at the top of the driveway and walk down, the way we do all winter. There’s a black sled at the top that we bring with us. Most winters, the well won’t supply us with enough water to run the washing machine so we’d bring our clothes to the laundromat in town and stay all day, washing, switching, folding, back into the black garbage bags, into the car, then onto the sled. Sometimes my mom would laugh if the bags fell off the sled and sometimes she would say my long name and get upset because we’d just folded them and now they’d be a mess.

I remind her about the laundry.

“The new house has a washer and dryer,” she tells me. I know this, but I had wanted her to think about the laughter, not the inconvenience. The snow is really coming down.

We drag snow into the foyer with us when we enter again. No one has been taking their shoes off in between trips to the truck, so the linoleum is covered in slush and yuck, right into the living room where there’s carpet. I can’t forget about the new owners, coming into the house they bought and seeing the mess. I ask my mom if we’re supposed to clean it, and she says, “Everyone who moves in winter has to do this.” I think, then that’s just the way it is and I try to forget about it, but then maybe she’s just tired, too tired do the right thing.

He’s still at the house, wrestling things that are awkwardly shaped and taped into the truck. I pretend to be busy in my room, but it’s empty. There’s broken glass on the windowsill, it’s too high for me to clean or even see because it’s a basement window, but I know it’s there. One time I won two awards for writing poetry and a short story about Remembrance Day — they had been framed because everyone was So Proud. With the slingshot my dad had given me, I had shot a battery at the awards propped on the window sill where they waited to be hung. It had shattered the First Place Certificate for Poetry. I’d put a poster over the window, over the awards, over the broken glass. My room in the new house has two windows.

Will I be able to go trick-or-treating, now that we’ll live in town? I realize that no, I’m too old. The light coming in through the bedroom window has a blue-grey tint, touching me and making me otherworldly. Winter light. There will be no more childhood homes for me, no little-kid things like trick-or-treating. I leave it all here, in the yellow room with the broken glass and the blue-tinged fading light.

My mom’s boyfriend says things really loud as he makes the last trip to the truck. I don’t come to say goodbye. I hear him and my mom talking. I know he will take almost all the bad things with him when he leaves, except the ones he left with me, inside my head.

I hear the truck go up the driveway. It’s steep and the snow is a mess but the truck manages and he’s gone. I want to take as long as possible to get back to the new house because he’ll be there too, touching my things and putting them into my new room, proving that he will not be banished after all.

I’m enlisted to do one last sweep inside the house while she does the outside. I say nothing about the broken glass on the windowsill, the coat hangers in the master bedroom closet, or the empty roll of packing tape by the fireplace. They belong to the house now and can never be free. I leave them as offerings, a sacrifice to a space that housed a coldness, a loudness, a secret.

I watch my mom lock the house and wonder what happens with the keys. Do the new owners get them, or will they change the locks? We never locked it when we lived there, but my mom says we’ll have to lock the new house because it’s in town. Inside my head I tell her I’ve never been afraid of what’s outside the house trying to get in; just of what is already inside.

In my photograph moment on the driveway, snow almost to the tops of my boots, my mom walks up behind me. I tell her to take one last look at the house with me. She touches my shoulder as she passes and says, “This snow is really something, isn’t it?”

A Dance With Time (A Dance Without Time)

All the images in this post are ones I screenshot the morning I woke up. I found them, organically, shared across different social media. I saw nothing negative, only hopeful and beautiful things. It reassured me that everything was going to be okay.

I shot up from a dead sleep, the way you see happen in movies but almost never do in real life.

To the dark room, I say aloud, “Did that happen?”

Kai, my sleeping girlfriend, stirs awake, then freezes. I can tell the energy in the room is different than it normally feels in the middle of the night at our bubble friends’ house.

She doesn’t answer, so I add, “With the paramedics?”

“Yeah,” she says, getting into a sitting position as well. “That happened.”

The three of us: Kai, our friend Nancy, and I sat around the living room, compulsively refreshing our phones to witness what should have been a landslide in the US election become a neck-in-neck tie with no declaration of victory in sight. I hadn’t had any intention of watching the results so closely, thinking the new old white guy would for sure beat the old old white guy, but we got wrapped up in the drama despite ourselves.

We all called it a night fairly early, and Kai and I went upstairs into the room we always stay in while we visit Nancy and Jay, who is away hunting. Kai and I talked for a bit in bed, as we usually do, and I worked on my nighttime routine: take my medications and supplements, write in my daily pain journal, and tonight, start my new regimen of FECO, or Full Extract Cannabis Oil.

I have had FECO before, having finished half the protocol in September; I had to stop as I didn’t have the money to complete the 60 grams. Then, my loved ones started a crowdfunding campaign for me, in part so I could continue with the FECO treatment. I’d had the complete protocol mailed to me, which consists of 60 1-gram syringes of the tar-like, very concentrated cannabis oil (also called Rick Simpson Oil or Phoenix Tears). It’s popular among cancer patients like myself for its promising results on tumour growth and also its ability to ease nausea, promote appetite, and help with sleep.

When I’d stopped before, I was up to taking a full gram, so I decided to jump in again, thinking I’d likely still have some in my system. I also take a much lower concentration of THC to help with pain as needed and never had any psychoactive effects from that. I didn’t take an entire gram, but certainly didn’t start at the ‘grain of rice’ that is recommended.

Kai went to sleep, but I wasn’t able to. My sleep is poor on a good day, so I was anticipating a long night of trying to meditate myself to sleep. I made two notes in my text app, which isn’t unusual. The first was an idea for my column for the Doppler, and the second was inspiration for an innovative housing plan. I worked on that for a bit and then tried to get back to sleep, cuddling into Kai.

I realized I was freezing, so pressed in closer to my human furnace.

If I only told you my side of what happened next, it would include a gravitational well, the brightest light you can imagine, the sound of a million women laughing, a trillion lives re-experienced (and as many deaths), and the kindest, most loving energy I have ever known. Also, the answer to why we are alive, and what happens after we die. It would be a terrifying, confusing, impossible story.

Luckily, two people I trust and care deeply about have shared their perspective of this experience, so while I know what I experienced internally, I also have their insight as to the sequence of events, and many things I thought I was thinking but was indeed saying or doing.

So while I’m writing this as close to linearly as I can, I maintain that time is completely meaningless, and I’m only settled back here in my life is because I was too scared to decide to die, and because I saw amazing things here in this time and space that could still be done, and be done by me.

I woke Kai up with all my pressing into her – I started to see that my mind wasn’t in its normal state when I was looking at the alarm clock and thinking, how do people possibly forget? Forget that every inhalation is like dying and waiting to start life over again, over and over with every single breath? Oh my god, how do we forget? It was beginning to feel like nothing would ever be the same again.

Sleep was impossible because my brain was trapped in the dark, in the cold with pain and suffering.

Kai tried to reassure me, but I was in that place between understanding that something was really different and thinking if I could only sleep, I’d be fine. I’d been stoned on RSO countless times, and I usually just lie down and sleep it off. Only one time did it actually impact my functioning – I had to stop halfway through starting a load of laundry to go to bed because the washing machine was just too much to comprehend.

This time was quickly surpassing that.

I had another psychedelic trip in my early twenties, so a part of me understood what was happening, but another part was convinced this time was the real time, the time I would die. I would take in too much information and my mind would literally explode. It was after that experience that I completely changed my life, learned boundaries and communication, came out as a lesbian, began to believe in myself and my writing… but that all came later. Immediately after that trip, I fell into a massive depression, unable to reconcile the things I thought to be true with what the magic mushrooms ‘revealed’ to me. So as my trip heightened this time, I was afraid what would happen to me afterwards.

But before long, I no longer cared or believed that anything bad was possible at all, or that I was a person that things could happen to.

I remember much of what follows, but not how it begins.

Kai reports that I sat up in bed, much like at the end of the night. Only this time, I say, at the top of my voice: “We all need to wake up RIGHT NOW!”

Nancy says what actually awoke her was my pained, haunting yowls. From that point, Kai says there were as many as ten cycles of me losing it: beginning with a giggle, that would escalate into me throwing my arms around as widespread as they could go, and spinning around on the bed, with no concern for the very real limits of the mattress. Kai and Nancy tell me, and my bruised body confirms, that I would throw myself off the sides or end of the bed onto the floor, full force.

Eventually, I would calm down and could be coaxed back to bed. But, Kai says, it would start again with a giggle, and before long I’d be flinging myself around the room in a frantic twirl.

Nancy told me: “I could hear Kai attempting to calm you so waited a moment with the assumption you were in the middle of a night terror. But the howling continued mixed with Kai’s comfort. The giggle part started later and would then descend; arms waving almost dancing to horror again. It may have been the word NO, but if so, it came out noooooooooo in a most haunting and fearful manner as one might cry out on learning something terrible and not as a command.”

From my perspective, I was dying. I remember at one point, stretching my arm, shoulder and neck against the bed-frame hard enough that I broke the bed, only to me, every point of contact was like a million pixels bursting and cascading to the ground. I was breaking into shards of light.

It felt like what a seizure looks like, and I have seen many. My back arched, my head flung back, my fingers stretched and reaching. I saw, not stars, but frantically snapping synapses like a fireworks display, only each explosion was connected to and ushered in the next, explosively growing.

I thought that I would die, that this was death. There wasn’t a question of accepting it or being okay. At that point, I didn’t think there was any choice left in the matter.

But I did pull back from that, and shortly after, the ambulance was called.

From my perspective, the entire event took… millennia. I relived my life, from early years to present day, trillions of times, at varying speeds. Each breath I took began at my birth and ended at the current moment, just preceding death. If I could only just inhale all the way, I would be released from my life to the incomprehensible beauty of what’s next.

At one point, I felt that I was falling backwards into, or being held up by, the utter blackness of the vacuum of space. Every time I ‘fell’, I’d catch my breath and a burst of light came from my form (which was not human shaped, but more like a ribbon of rainbow light). And whenever I inhaled, more light held me up until I wasn’t falling, but dancing in the darkness as I lit it up with the light and joy of the connections I made with people while alive. As the lights flared, I saw the story behind them, a time I had connected in loving truth to another person. I fell, golden and glittering, through the billions of stories of other people, their laughter, the times I’ve helped and been helped.

It’s like if you measured being alive on a spectrum. Having an orgasm is in the middle. Obviously torture and suffering is on the ‘bad dark scary cold lonely loud’ end of the spectrum, but death itself is on the bright warm big loving peaceful side. And when I inhaled, it almost felt like the way you catch your breath before an orgasm – but over and over and every time it happened, I fell farther, was more supported, and the golden sparks got bigger and brighter. I had to let go, but it was scary because at first it felt like a broken arm or having all your hair pulled. But then I would let go, fall through the golden laughter, and be upheld. It was a good pain, like pulling a brush through the last knots in your hair.

Unlike other bad trips I had, there were no villains and no demons. I was afraid only when I thought I was dying, or when I thought I could never return to this window of time.

The spinning I was doing makes sense to me, though I thought it had all happened inside my head. I would by lying on the bed, my eyes flitting from one item in the room to the next: from the lantern on the shelf, to the blue wall decor, to the rug, to Kai, to Nancy, to the dog, and back, spinning faster and faster. Inside my head, I’m coming to terms with the meaning of life, and it’s joyous, so I’m laughing but out-of-control. Even spin is another round of this life, bringing me closer to truth somehow.

At one point, when I’m really stuck in the life-review, I look at Kai, and the clarity, the absolute infinitesimal detail of her, and every item in the room, it was too much for my brain to take in. Everything reminded me of some other place, some other person, countless other people, always approaching recognition but never arriving. In Kai’s face, I saw the faces of hundreds of people I knew, people who had loved me. I even saw myself throughout the ages, most strongly myself as a teenager. I also suspected there were faces of those I have not yet loved, but will.

It was beyond safe; it was as though my higher self had created Kai exactly for that moment, to ease my transfer into another world. And suddenly, I felt ready.

The next moments felt like they took a lifetime. I observed everything in the room from the point of view of every atom in the room. I saw everything, things at a scale or time-frame I couldn’t possibly see or understand.

Every breath I took was now preparing me to face the final challenge of being ‘alive’. I had to breathe so deeply, so consistently, that my breath would transcend my human form and become light, the light then destroying all form and revealing me as a new star.

My fingertips stretched outward because wherever I touched, I could see the imaginary walls that contain us, and on the other side of what we think of as ‘everything’ IS everything. When I touched it, sparks of light pierced the veil, and I could see that infinity is just us collapsing into stars, experiencing for eternity the good thoughts and feelings of the people who love us, and it’s enough. It doesn’t seem like it could possibly be enough to last forever, but it is.

When I looked into Kai’s eyes, which I’m told was quite intense but did not last several millennia for her as it had for me, I saw pure light shining through from the other side, as if people ourselves are gateways or channels of universal love, containing it or translating it. I kept looking between her, Nancy, and the dog, and thinking, everything that I love is so good, and I am also made of all of that love. It was beyond reassuring. I remember looking at Kai, seeing all versions of us within her, and thinking (and saying), like a mantra: “Oh, I’m so glad it’s you. Oh, I’m so glad it’s you!” But at the same time, I knew in my heart that no matter who was there, I would be that happy.

When looking at her, I felt she was telling me how to be ready to transition to the next phase. That she and Nancy and even Mills the dog were all there to help me meet/become god/a star. That all my life, ALL life, sped by up to this moment, where suddenly everything was so very slow. And on the other side, of her, of the veil, was infinite loving warmth, was love itself, pure and condensed.

It’s like, right now we see everything from the inside out. I look outside myself to observe ‘reality’. But I was able to see myself from the ‘outside’ of space/eternity (which is still us, somehow – sorry, this is impossible to explain). And I saw that I am not what I don’t want or don’t like, but I am everything I like and love, therefore we are all beings of true love, not the things we reject or hate, or the bad things that have happened to us or bad things people think about or say about us. Those aren’t real parts of ourselves. All that’s real is the love we’ve given, accepted, and created.

I feel like I was ready to check out of this fleeting and confining timeline, to leave you all here and enjoy the love at the end of the story. But one vision stays with me.

I watched my own story from the beginning, and saw me as a child say, “No!” and pull away from a dangerous situation. It wasn’t a memory because in real life, I hadn’t pulled away. But this time I did, and suddenly the scene divided, and I saw three little girls shout “No!” and pull away from the hands of someone who meant them harm. And when they yelled, the rooms filled with golden light, divided again, this time more girls, older girls, all shouting, being cast in golden light, and bursting into more scenes, and more. Until the world was filled with glowing spaces and safe girls, all using their own glorious golden voices for themselves and each other.

They fought so hard for this…

I realized two things: that time is not just linear and what we say and do now can impact the past as well as the future. I don’t fully understand it, but I watched myself live my own life over and over, and it wasn’t always the same. So what I do today could actually positively impact my past self. And I learned that when we stand up for ourselves, even when no one else ever sees it, it gives that power to others to do the same. It was like watching cosmic golden dominoes. That’s what I meant when I shouted that we have to wake everyone up – it became so obvious. I had to stay here and use my voice as a drop in the ocean of peace.

Some good news in the world.

When the paramedics arrived, the trip felt more like a sitcom than a near death experience. It was explained that I had taken a moderate dose of high THC cannabis oil which is part of my cancer maintenance regimen. We couldn’t find the oil syringe to show them (someone threw all my belongings all over the room, real mystery).

One of the paramedics called me Sweetheart, and Kai told him to cool it with the terms of endearment. I found out later that Nancy had explained on the phone and again upon their arrival that I have trauma, which is good because if they’d tried to contain me, I might have unleashed the power of the stars I was channelling!

They did try to take my blood pressure, but I wouldn’t remain still and kept laughing and trying to spin around the room. I only had a sweater and underwear shorts on, so I was a little embarrassed later but in the moment knew nothing like shame. Finally, they were able to get a reading, and the one paramedic said my blood pressure was better than his. Apparently there was also a police officer on the scene, but Nancy explained the uniform and energy may not be appreciated, and he remained in the hallway; I never did see him.

I’m told the paramedics cleared me after a period of observation and released me into Kai’s care. Apparently when they were having her sign something, I shouted, “What are you signing!” because even on my way to becoming a celestial being, I still want people to read everything they sign.

The paramedics left the room only to run back when I immediately flung myself into the crevice on the floor between the bed and the wall. Kai says she tended to leave me there because I was snug like a bug and couldn’t hurt myself. I remember being a little chilly, however.

The paramedic who hadn’t called me sweetheart then called me ‘dear’, immediately backtracked and apologized, calling it a bad habit.

I shouted my response from the ground: “It’s not a habit, it’s a choice!”

So, hopefully we all learned something from that… Trauma informed first response means no ‘cutesy’ names, just get the patient’s name and call us by that. Otherwise, they did a good job, they were respectful and didn’t try to handle me a lot. I imagine getting a call for a drug overdose for a woman my age, they are likely not expecting a psychedelic trip – it looks a lot different than an opioid overdose. Hopefully less alarming.

I remember, while spinning, that I needed to decide: I could keep spinning forever, like a neutron star, and finally experience what happens after “death”, or I could jump back into this timeline, and keep trying to ‘wake everybody up’ by saying “No!” to injustice and teaching others how to do the same, eventually saving my childhood self and all childhood selves, with the help of everyone and all their selves. Although it was extremely painful, because again, what is on the other side is so stunningly beautiful and joyous and good, I decided to stay here and see what else I can do before I die.

No part of this was painful, though today I’m quite a mess physically from having thrown myself around the room like a pinball. Some parts were very scary – every time I had to relive my life, it was like a nautilus shell. The beginning was so fast and so dark, with only a few bright loving spots/people. Then a long dark stretch through my teen and young adult years. Then in my mid-twenties, a long stretch of bright glowing love, intersected by black sharp void of my surgeries and cancer diagnosis, then gold glowing warmth again, then, interestingly, as we move to the outer edge of the spiral, time took up more ‘space’ in every direction. Feelings were stronger, memories more clear. To the point where I could predict these beautiful surges as I relived it over and over: one was Iceland, a cold and blue-purple stretch of time, followed by Hawai’i, a warm, humid, bright yellow stretch. I replayed my shell over and over, trying billions of potential paths, dying countless times. I realize ‘past lives’ isn’t about being a vestal virgin or Egyptian queen: it’s about all the times I lived MY life, changing only the most minute details, or changing everything, like this night. I have done this so very many times.

But thank goodness Kai was there, and Nancy, and Mills, or I truly would have lost it. I remember thinking of my sister and heaving a huge, weighty sigh of relief that she even existed.

One of my friends “waking up” the next day, h.appily taken as evidence that all is well..

Thank goodness it happened at Nancy’s, where I could be relatively contained. Apparently the dog had been really freaked out, and while in Nancy’s room, aimed herself at the door, hyper-attentive, and only lay down when I quieted down several hours later.

Eventually, the lights were turned out, and I slept.

She Speaks: Merry Christmas or Happy Homogeneity

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.

Happy holidays, from one of those annoying social justice warriors offended by everything and determined to put an end to free speech.

This never quite jibed with my perception of self – I have thick skin and happen to be anti-censorship, though I do love that sweet, sweet justice – but I get accused of it all the time. It’s like when someone rages against ‘political correctness’, yet all that actually happened was someone was encouraged to be kinder. I live by the ethos of Maya Angelou – “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better” – but there are always those who remain glued to tradition like a kid’s tongue to a frozen fence post.

I say Happy Holidays at the checkout. I celebrate the season and the solstice, and I object to more than ten per cent of every single year being immersed in consumerism and crappy music. I say Happy Holidays not because I don’t celebrate Christmas, but because I can’t be sure the person on the receiving end does. I have no need to presume the belief system of a complete stranger, nor do I need to prescribe my own by using a narrow and specific greeting.

Having said that, I don’t tell people what they can and cannot say, and with exceedingly few exceptions, I truly believe that most people have only the loveliest intentions when wishing me a Merry Christmas. I have friends who are Christian and I’m grateful when they pray for me, because it means they are holding me in their heart and wishing me well, which is exactly what I do, by a different name, for my friends. I wouldn’t tell them not to bother or that their words are wasted, just like I wouldn’t ask them not to say Merry Christmas to me.

What I do ask, of everyone, is to consider the impact of a dominant religion with a history of violence and oppression being used as the default for each and every citizen. I think many people say and hear Christmas-related phrases without diving deeply into the implications, but I suppose that’s why I’m here: to ask people to delve into the depths of the things we say, do, and think, consciously or otherwise. I still get taken aback that we are approaching the year 2020 and haven’t earnestly attempted to adopt inclusivity when it comes to language and celebrations.

According to a 2011 survey, 24 per cent of Canadians declare no religious affiliation. This number is pretty statistically significant and it means that a good chunk of the people we greet don’t share the same religion associated with the greeting. Given this number, what I find affronting isn’t merely being wished a Merry Christmas – it’s when people object to my saying ‘Happy Holidays’. Even more confounding is when I start with my greeting and the responding ‘Merry Christmas’ feels like less of a wish and more of a correction. I’m not trying to erase anything – I’m making space.

I would have even less issue with this if it were just about a greeting, or a prevailing attitude, but it’s not. It’s our ever-present reality. Every other song on the radio mentions Christmas, it’s hard to find a holiday card that doesn’t allude to traditional Christmas trappings, and for more than a month people get swept up in shopping, party planning, and various seasonal panics and anxieties. If anything could be described as unavoidable, it’s Christmas. It’s what happens when you combine capitalism and religion – less about giving and more about buying.

I appreciate the backlash I’m seeing against this – families adopting a no-gift Christmas because of the pressure to get the perfect gift, the acknowledgement that our addiction to stuff is destroying the planet, and the awareness that the best part of any holiday is connection with our loved ones. But I wish we’d never had to get to a place of backlash, that we’d maintained a steadfast dedication to togetherness and generosity. That’s a Christmas tradition I might have been able to get on board with.

But in a lot of ways, that’s not what we have. We have engineered outrage about the ‘war against Christmas’, rolled out on conservative or religious media year after year, with no space for real conversation. We have bad faith arguments that claim people are being ‘forced’ to give up their religious beliefs or that there’s no longer any space for Christmas in this new, inclusive world. Ironic, when you consider the historical uses of force that Christians have used to suppress other religions. A little bit of a reversal, I’d say – which is something that every dominant system uses, from patriarchy to white supremacy.

When you’re used to being the default, it becomes the air you breathe. You don’t notice it until someone comes along and starts to take away your oxygen. Except in this case, your oxygen levels remain perfectly safe, it’s just that you’re being asked to acknowledge that other people breathe this air too, so if we could just share…

It was never okay that irreligion and non-Abrahamic religions were suppressed, stolen from, and practitioners punished. Therefore, asking for the cultural atmosphere to be more inclusive is just creating what should have always been. It is righting a wrong.

If we’re going to be gathering around the table and partaking of a feast this holiday, I only offer these words as food for thought. It doesn’t bother me when people wish me a Merry Christmas, but it does get to me when it’s a completely unexamined ritual. I strive to live very consciously, and I get challenged on language and appropriation from time to time, which I accept with the full knowledge that I am always learning and growing and seeing things from a perspective other than my own.

The holiday season is hard enough – if I know that my attempts at inclusivity have made even one person’s holiday season more bearable, I’ll sleep soundly. Maybe even with visions of sugar plums. Or maybe not.



She Speaks: We can only do this one way—together

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.

I really don’t want to write about this topic. I have heard and read more than enough already, so if you’re reading this, I’m impressed you aren’t as fed up as I am.

But I was at the pharmacy at Shoppers, picking up anti-emetics for chemotherapy, and watched a man get upset with the staff there over Shoppers being out of hand sanitizer. It got a little heated, and eventually he left. When I spoke with staff after, they shared that this was far from the first incident, and not even close to the most aggressive.

People really are freaking out.

Do I think that there’s cause for concern around COVID-19? Well, kind of. Myself, I’m thinking a lot about the inability of the hospitals in Ontario, and in Canada, and globally, to accommodate the sheer numbers of this virus that will be confronting them soon.

I read an article about the number of hospital beds in the United States, and was pretty distressed to learn that it’s only 2.8 beds per 1,000 people. After reading that South Korea and Japan have 12 beds per 1,000 people and China has 4.3, I thought, surely Canada is in good shape—better than the US anyway, was my presumption. Only to discover that Ontario has only 2.2 beds per 1,000 people. When I read that, I admit my stomach did clench. In that area, I don’t think we are prepared.

[Ed.: You can see the steps the Province is taking regarding COVID-19 here.]

However, that is not a problem that hand sanitizer or toilet paper can resolve. In fact, the hoarding of supplies can very well worsen the situation when those who need them the most can’t access them, and when they aren’t being used appropriately in the first place.

For example, why are stores out of hand sani but not hand soap? We know that frequent hand washing is the number one way to prevent transmission of communicable diseases. Relying on hand sani gives us a false sense of security. This is an opportunity for a huge shift in our culture and the way we interact with each other and protect ourselves. We have to be open to it and not let the fear of scarcity or contagion turn us inward and against one another.

Individualist hoarding can offer a sense of relief: “I am doing what I can to protect myself and my family.” It makes us feel like we have some control over a situation that seems to be spiralling out of it. But our community is made up of so many more people than someone’s immediate family, and we all deserve to be kept safe without it coming at the expense of others.

In China, they see the novel coronavirus as something to defeat as a nation. They put measures in place to ensure that the risk of spread is as little as possible. Hospitals have been built in a matter of days. People are respecting quarantine and choosing to self-quarantine if they are unwell. Schools have closed, and workplaces are making accommodations to have people work from home. I’m not saying they have no instances of supply hoarding, but I am suggesting that if we were to confront any pandemic as a planet, we would have the best chances of ending them. China working as a nation is effective; people harassing retail staff for something beyond their control is as selfish as I can picture, and as ineffective.

But what if we decided that this is the opportunity to work together as a planet? What if we listened to the experts and acted on best practices, instead of those whose jobs depend on eliciting fear or panic to get clicks and ad revenue?

Our world has seen global pandemics before: Spanish Flu, H1N1, and HIV (which is still considered a pandemic). We have come out the other side with better understandings of viruses, responses, and prevention. The way we understand best practices now comes from what we did wrong in other pandemics. We are meant to learn from past mistakes, not repeat them.

Wash your hands. Learn to avoid touching your face. Stay home if you’re ill. If you think you have the virus, call the hospital—don’t go there—and self-quarantine. Only wear a mask if YOU are sick. Turn off the grim reaper that television and online news have become, and check in once a day, or don’t. Stop taking out your fear and frustration on people who are not in control of the supply of the items you’ve decided you must have.

If we can’t work together to suppress this illness, I truly wonder how we will be able to confront a climate catastrophe. There is all the evidence readily available that climate change will harm, kill, and displace more people than COVID-19 will affect. If the news and dinner table conversations addressed that the way it has this virus, I’d feel more confident that we’ll actually do something about it. Unfortunately, human beings are so much better at responding to short-term disasters than long-term ones. Thanks, lizard brain.

You know what, though? I would overlook the self-focused shopping lists if people were kind and respectful about it. Whose fault is it that the stores’ shelves are bare? Well, if you’re there for that item, it’s people like you. We are counting on each other to keep each other safe—it’s way more effective than counting just on ourselves. If I only count on me to keep me safe, I’m up against a lot of people. But if I count on all of you, and you can count on me, we have far fewer ‘enemies’.

And hey, look at what we could gain! This could be our chance to come up with a new, fun way to greet each other. I’ve heard of touching feet or elbows in greeting. If there are aliens out there, I bet that’s what they do! This could open our eyes to the hospital bed shortage and we can rally together to keep beds open and available instead of steadily losing them.

We could see the vital importance of front-line workers in all fields, exposed to all manner of disease, to make our lives better and easier. And this includes retail staff, who can’t leave their checkouts to wash their hands every time we hand them money. We could practice our distress tolerance and learn what we are in control of (ourselves) and what we are not (pandemics). We could just choose to be determined to be respectful and kind during a frightening time—and this goes for climate change, too. Maybe kindness is a kind of cure.

Maybe this is a practice run for our global response to climate change. Maybe we can actually see this as a challenge to overcome together—as a community, as a planet—and learn from this what we need to know to combat the climate crisis.

Or maybe we just need to get through this without losing faith in humanity altogether. I’m not one to settle, but I’d take that.

She Speaks: Here we go again

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.

I’m sure by now we’ve all heard that pithy quote about the definition of insanity, but for those of us who may not have, it’s like this: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’

I kind of think this is us, humanity, running around in circles and wondering why we’re so dizzy.

On February 11, Huntsville Town Council voted on who will take the vacant seat for Huntsville Ward, a space previously occupied by current mayor, Karin Terziano. Mayor Terziano became mayor by council vote (though unopposed) after former mayor Scott Aitchison became our Conservative Member of Parliament. Former councillor Bob Stone, who lost his re-election bid in the 2018 election, vied for and was awarded the vacant council seat.

Prior to the vote, the Town had an interesting choice to make. Do they allow the vacancy to be filled by a mid-term election put to the voting public in that ward, or do they accept applicants and make the appointment by internal vote?

An interesting, but perhaps not insane, decision was made to allow applicants to apply, introduce themselves and present in front of Council, and then have Council do a live vote, with the successful applicant taking the oath of office immediately.

As I mentioned in my speech to Council during my bid for the seat, I suffer from what’s been called an insatiable curiosity. I’m a “need-to-know-it-all.” It’s part of what makes me a good writer, and it’s part of what drives me to challenge existing power structures. My favourite word growing up?


So when the opportunity to put my name in for the seat came up, I thought, well, isn’t that curious?

Is this a message from the universe? Should I enter the political ring?

The issue of ‘women in politics’ has a sordid and complicated history. Though women are not a voting or decision-making monolith, nonetheless it is political to be a woman. How else can we explain to young people, who may want to grow up to be prime minister (heaven help them), that in Ontario, it’s only been 90 years that women have been considered people?

This is the stuff young women need to know if we’re ever going to stop running in circles. This information floored me when I first learned it. How could that be? It was as plain as the acne on my 12-year-old face that I’m a person!


Well, power. Power that got rebranded as tradition.

On the last day the applications were due, I woke up feeling like a decision had been made for me. My hysterectomy to remove cancer had been less than two weeks before (obviously I was a good candidate, no longer suffering from what Plato described as a ‘wandering womb’, which ostensibly made women poor decision makers despite being exclusively entrusted with creating and raising humans).

I hadn’t had many good days yet since the surgery and knew I might be in for more bad news later. But I printed off the application and scurried to my appointment at the nurse practitioner to get my staples removed.

I figured if I saw three people who would support my bid before the deadline, I’d submit.

Perhaps this sounds a little whimsical. But I have come to learn to trust myself. It’s how I left unhealthy relationships, it’s how we caught my cancer early, and if I was meant to be on town council, then by golly that’s how I’ll get there too.

The first person signed for me right away. The second, while I was at my NP appointment. The last, as I was walking into the building to deliver the application. And just in case something had interfered with those instances of serendipity, a fourth person who surely would have signed for me entered the Town Hall elevator at the same time.

Application submitted, I worked on my speech.

I’m a better writer than speaker, but it was a good speech. Many of them were. Out of 11 presentations to Town Council, four were women. Look at us humans go!

I told Mayor Terziano that it was an honour to speak before the first female mayor of Huntsville, and I meant that. I don’t take ‘firsts’ lightly, though it’s beyond frustrating how we often let ‘firsts’ become ‘lasts’ because we transform failures of a leader into failures of womankind (Kim Campbell, anyone?). Men do not suffer this fate, alas. They are allowed to be individuals, and if the previous leader failed, we don’t say, ‘this is why men can’t lead.’

But I digress.

I met Bob Stone at a women’s strike I co-hosted in front of Algonquin Theatre, years ago. A hardy and hearty group of women rallied to reveal women’s unseen labour: emotional labour in the workforce, and unequal labour at home.

Hey, Iceland got 90 per cent of their female population to strike and brought the country to a standstill—an event that inspired a female prime minister in what’s now considered the world’s most feminist country.

Mr. Stone approached our group with hands raised in a placating gesture—understandable, as it’s well known that feminists are responsible for the majority of violence worldwide—and introduced himself. He indicated his support and asked what’s to be done about men and boys and their struggles. Another strike attendee encouraged him to take on that project because, as a man, he is in a better position to make changes to benefit boys and men! (It’s that whole power thing I keep mentioning. Also, insanity.)

I share this anecdote for two reasons. One, he had a great question and a promising response to the answer. And two, I hope that Councillor Stone will use his renewed position of power to do what he said he’d do that day: look into the issue and take it to social media. Make change.

I heard a lot of amazing ideas, passion, and expertise from the people who presented their cases to Council that day. There were innovative tech solutions, alternative housing models, and calls for more space and support for the arts, all of which have the potential to elevate life for the citizens of Huntsville and further establish us as a town to emulate.

I thought, wow, this is an amazing opportunity to stop spinning, stop getting so damn dizzy, and shift our focus. It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted my own name to be revealed as the new councillor—but I desperately wanted something to disrupt the status quo.

Many issues that Huntsville faces were identified, by councillors, the mayor, and applicants alike. We all seemed to know what the problems are. Some had ideas to resolve them, some needed to know more, some would have voted with the majority, some may have been contentious.

How interesting!

It was not the best speechmaker that won (apologies, Councillor Stone, but I daresay you might agree with me). However, it was someone who had experience with the position, with co-ordinating with our community, and with the intricacies of the position of councillor. Those are very sane reasons for the vote to have gone the way it did.

Yet, I can’t help but be reminded of the definition of insanity.

Historically, members of Huntsville Council have been mostly white, male, upper-middle class, straight. I’d say those demographics are still well represented today. There were opportunities with multiple applicants to challenge this entrenched dynamic. Council seemed very appreciative of and interested in new ideas, fresh perspectives. But that is not how they voted.

Business as usual, as usual. So I guess we just keep spinning our wheels and wondering why nothing changes when we change nothing.

She Speaks: Either you’ll get cancer or you won’t

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.

My mother, local artist Donna Parlee, was diagnosed with breast cancer February 2, 2015.

I remember the day because it was Imbolc, the pagan sabbat halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. Before she returned from her doctor’s appointment and told me she had cancer, I knew nothing about Imbolc—and not much about cancer.

Imbolc is an Old Irish word that means ‘in the belly’, or alternately ‘ewe’s milk’. The interpretation lends significance to the holiday as a celebration of fertility, reproduction and the young.

I thought this especially unfair, that my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer on a day that celebrates women’s power to nourish with her body.

My mom had a very abrupt, disruptive cancer experience. She moved from appointment to appointment with decisions being made about her well-being, her body, and her life. She had no advocate, little support, and only the pithy information offered by her doctor to supplement what she researched on the internet.

I learned about Enliven, Muskoka’s centre for well-being in cancer, at the nurse practitioner’s office that year. From their website:

“Enliven provides proactive self-care services (programs, workshops, events) that support people living with cancer to navigate their journey in positive and productive ways, reducing the social isolation that comes with a cancer diagnosis.”

I immediately told my mom about this group, though she already had the information. She attended yoga classes with the late co-founder, Joanne McLean, and returned feeling grounded and seen. I was so very glad our community was home to this organization, but once my mom’s cancer was treated, she was no longer involved, and while I referred people to Enliven through my work at the women’s shelter, it wasn’t relevant in my personal life.

Until October 31, 2019.

I remember thinking I didn’t want to have to tell my mom that I have cancer. After her experience, I wanted to return home from my post-op appointment to tell her the biopsies the surgeon had taken came back clear. That everything was fine and the scare was behind me. But only four years after she told me she had cancer, I had to tell her the same thing.

Luckily, I knew about Enliven.

I had learned from other difficult experiences that community, support, feeling heard, and feeling helpful make all the difference when you’re going through something life-altering or traumatic. Whether it’s grief, addiction, loss, illness, or any other major event, having your circle around you can keep you above water. I’ve written about this many times in Huntsville Doppler and elsewhere—the importance of community cannot be understated. But…

I understood very quickly that I needed to talk to people who’ve gone through what I was experiencing. And ovarian cancer is different than breast cancer which is different than colon cancer. And having had cancer is different than having cancer. There are so many gradients of cancer it’s staggering, but the more people you talk to, the more you are upheld.

And, yes, there are downsides, reams of them. I’m thirty-three years old going through surgical menopause after a hysterectomy. I hadn’t shut the door on having children, but the decision was made for me to save my life. I wasn’t anti-menstruation—I miss my cycle. Cancer is an illness that can offer many options of treatment, sometimes too many—but none you would choose if ‘my previous good health’ was still one of them. It often feels like there are no good choices.

I have been told about so many cures for cancer that if I tried them all, I’d probably just end up with a really bad stomach ache and an exasperated oncologist. Often when people hear about my type of cancer, I learn about their friend/former roommate/random celebrity who died of the disease. And if encouragement to stay positive could actually act as an immunity, cancer would indeed be cured.

But please don’t misunderstand me—not one person who offered advice, sympathy, or positivity meant me any ill, and I accept it all with the love with which I know it was intended. One thing I trust about humanity: for the most part, we really do want to help.

That’s why I went to the Enliven Gala on February 4, five years and two days after my mother’s diagnosis and one week after my hysterectomy. I did a lot of resting, and friends new and old would sit with me. I felt like the world was moving a little too quickly around me, and I hovered on the verge of tears a couple times because of the intensity of the evening and my gratitude that this event exists, and maybe a bit from the pain.

A central grounding force throughout the evening was singer and songwriter Christina Hutt. Familiar songs made enticing and new by her rich, powerful voice kept me in the space between reminiscence and overwhelm. I wondered what drew her to performing at the event, and when I asked, she told me, “It has been my experience that music can be healing for both the listener and the performer.” Nothing could be more true—since my diagnosis, I’ve held music around myself like a well-worn quilt. She continued, “That night, I watched a community embrace one another. I saw a room filled with love and felt so proud as I sang for our cancer warriors.”

It’s such a vital thing: being supported by people who may not have experienced cancer themselves, but who know the need for community, for love, and offer it openheartedly.

At one point in the evening, after having been asked countless times how I am, and after countlessly recounting my cancer status, I mentioned that cancer is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.

I say that without knowing my outcome, without even knowing if it’s spread or how far. It could be bad. If it is, I have a lot to do in hopefully more time than I think. Actually, that’s the case for us all, whether we have cancer or not. I think we are here to experience being human, and to try to be helpful.

One in two people will get cancer in their lifetimes. I say congratulations to anyone I speak with one-on-one—if you haven’t had cancer already, and you’re in a room with me, you’re off the hook.

(Please don’t try to explain statistics to me in the comments; that was a joke.)

If you are the one-in-two who hasn’t had cancer (yet), I encourage you to listen. It’s a world I had never expected to step into, and one with lessons aplenty. You can’t cure cancer—it’s not even your responsibility to cure sadness. If someone you love has cancer, just be there, with them, even if it’s dark, even if it’s boring, even if they are reacting in a way you think you wouldn’t. Because you just don’t know how you would react—I didn’t either.

For me, cancer clarity has become a real thing. Your focus narrows. It becomes evident what is important and what is not. What is based in love, and what comes from fear. I had to decide what needed my dedicated attention and what only warranted brief observation. My energy expenditure became sacred—like it always should have been, but wasn’t, because I assumed it was infinite.

Enliven allows people to have what I’ve cultivated: a community. A circle of people who care, who’ve been there, who want to see change happen around this diagnosis. They know the tips and tricks, they rally around you, and they just let you feel.

After the rush and excitement of the gala, I reached out about being a member of the Enliven board. I wanted to participate, to help shape things, to be a part of something I so believed in! After answering my eager questions, the chair of Enliven, the effervescent Jackie Riley, softly inquired about my energy, my healing.

Oh. Right.

See? They get it, even when I don’t. Energy is sacred and finite, especially during this part of the journey. So for now, I will receive the gifts of Enliven and build up my capacity to give back. In my understanding, that’s what well-being is all about.

With that said, they are looking for volunteers.

She Speaks: Injustice marches on. Where are you?

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.

Fifteen people marched in Bracebridge on January 18, 2020. This is the most recent of the now-annual Women’s March, and the Muskoka Chapter made sure it happened, despite numerous challenges.

There are good, and unfortunate, reasons behind the significant drop in marchers this year. To consider a few, the location was changed from Huntsville to Bracebridge, the organizers are extraordinarily busy people with large workloads and other actions to plan and attend, there was a blizzard… and maybe people are just a little over it.

I’ve talked about marching on Washington in 2017. Once you’ve marched with half a million women, the difference between 125 (Huntsville 2018) and 15 (Bracebridge 2020) doesn’t actually seem that vast.

Of course, I would love to see the streets of Huntsville and Bracebridge lined with women and our supporters, shouts and signs demanding justice on various women’s issues—MMIW, the wage gap, creation of a consent culture, the end of horizontal hostility within our own feminist or LGBT communities, the end of violence against women, forever. But I know how valuable it is for one woman to stand up and demand better treatment, for one woman to say, “This isn’t right and I am going to change this.”

It’s easy for an activist to burn out, even when they have supports in place, when they are self-aware and practice self-care. It’s one of those great un-ironies that the people fighting so hard to change a system that is fundamentally insufficient for the vast majorities of its participants are fighting without compensation, without an income for the significant amount of effort and energy involved in this work. We work to make things better, but so many of us can’t participate in this most basic democracy because we have to work the underpaid and often unfulfilling jobs that don’t quite cover the bills. If everyone who wanted to was able to march, we’d have almost every woman and ally in Muskoka on the streets. Stores would shut down, services would halt.

But then again, if we had a system that provided for that, well—what would we be fighting for? In the ’70s, women in Iceland held a strike to demand fair wages and more supports like childcare, as well as an end to violence from the men in their lives. This strike was extremely effective because almost all women participated—meaning their husbands couldn’t go to work because they were suddenly left to mind their children or parents, work that had been left to women for so long, in addition to their paid jobs. Communities came to a grinding halt and suddenly the impact of women’s work had a spotlight shone on it.

In Muskoka, an activist group I was a part of attempted to organize a women’s strike in 2017. We went to retail stores and restaurants to share the concept and hear from local women about what they wished would change. Although the women we spoke to were almost universally supportive of the idea, our turnout that day (and yes, there was a blizzard) was about 40 women.

Here are some things I learned from local women in trying to organize a strike:

1. They are in no way blind or in denial of the inequalities in their workplaces. Most women worked for men—and the resounding response to a suggestion to walk off the job was disbelief. They were sure they would be fired. I shared my own surprise—is it healthy or good to work for someone who would fire you for fighting for a better life for yourself?

2. Women were very quick to share the injustices of their particular workplaces. As a result of pounding the pavement during that time, there are several stores that I boycott now because of the sheer misogyny, ineptitude, and corrupt practices of local men in positions of power—even just a little bit of power.

3. Women are tired. We got a lot of people thanking us for the work we were putting into this effort. Women told us about their own activist days, and how disheartening it is that we still have to do this same work. Some noted a horror at a perceived backslide of rights. Many women seemed apologetic that they didn’t or couldn’t ‘do enough’.
It could never be enough. We are working against a hugely entrenched patriarchal, colonialist, oppressive machine that eats activists for breakfast. It is not a broken system, it is working as designed, and therefore cannot be fixed, only destroyed so we can start again.

My sign on January 18 read “Violence Against Women = Hate Crimes”.

Abuse against women by men who know them is the only crime that apparently lessens in severity because the person committing the crime is known to the victim.

If my brother robs me, is that not worse than if a stranger were to do it?

If my best friend burns down my house, is that not a larger betrayal than a random act of arson?

Why is it that when we label violence as ‘domestic’, we decide it isn’t as heinous, as cruel, as wrong as it would be if it had happened outside the home?

Isn’t it worse that women are most at risk of violence from those who claim to love us? Isn’t that more horrible, not less? Why are the sentences lighter, then? Why are violent abusers released on bail time and again, taking the opportunity to escalate their acts of terrorism against someone they claim to love?

And it is terrorism.

Hearing the stats and the personal stories serves as social chains for women, influencing what we do, where we go and at what time, what jobs we accept, what harms we will tolerate. And as Audre Lorde said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

I have loved the work I’ve done alongside women activists. They are some of the most passionate, incisive, hardworking, and fun people I’ve had the privilege of knowing. But I see myself in them—tired, underappreciated, misrepresented, frustrated. So we write and we speak and we make signs and we show up, and we always will, because we share a vision of world where justice is the driving factor, where cruelty and divisiveness and greed are traits of pariahs, not those in position of power.

It’s okay if you didn’t march for women’s rights or strike for teachers’ rights or sit-in for climate justice. Just don’t stay silent about it, don’t ignore it, read everything you can on it, and take care of yourself. Choose your battles, but remember inaction is a choice as well, one that puts you in the camp of the oppressor.

You are needed, you are important, we are waiting for you.

She Speaks: What does it take to die in Canada?

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.

The woman in the photo above is Helle Rannik – a woman more full of life than her very ill body could contain. Three years ago, she decided to die in a way that had been legal for only seven months.

You have two short weeks to formulate an opinion on Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID)—if you haven’t already—and submit those thoughts to the Canadian government.

To do this, which I hope every reader does after they’ve read and commented on this article, just click here and complete the questionnaire.

I’ve always been a pro-choice type of woman, believing our bodies are both temples and gods, and over ourselves we must have the highest degree of control. ‘My body, my choice’ was a rallying cry set to nursery rhyme melodies for me, and so when I researched for an essay in tenth grade about euthanasia, it seemed obvious to me. If I want to die and I think I have good reasons, why shouldn’t that be allowed?

We are more compassionate when it comes to the end of our pets’ lives, I realized.

In June 2016, Canada exempted doctors and nurse practitioners, allowing them to perform end-of-life care if their patient has met the stringent criteria.

They are, simply put, as follows:

  1. The patient must be of sound mind at time of decision, and death;
  2. The patient must be facing imminent death;
  3. The patient must be experiencing intolerable suffering (the physician determines this);
  4. Two independent witnesses must sign off, confirming identity and consent; and
  5. Two independent physicians must approve the request.

Arguments calling this process too strict are abundant. For example, the definitions can get a little watery. What is intolerable for me may be tolerable for you. ‘Sound mind’ can be rather a fleeting time during end of life, leading people to go ahead with medical assistance in dying before they are entirely ready, while the ‘sound mind’ window is still open and before they lose their capacity to dementia or brain damage. Independent witnesses are actually a bit trickier to find than one might think, and volunteers are needed.

Also, many people along the complicated process can conscientiously object to participate. Legally, doctors have to refer their patients to someone who can attend to this request, but others, such as pharmacists, have no such obligation, leaving the patient’s family scrambling to find a pharmacy to fill a very uncommon and complex prescription.

These barriers and many more aside, the Canadian government is seeking input about the concept of “reasonable foreseeability of natural death”. On September 11, 2019, the Quebec Superior Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to limit MAID to those nearing death.

From the questionnaire website:

“The case was brought by two persons living with disabilities, Mr. Truchon, who has lived with cerebral palsy since birth, and Ms. Gladu, who has lived with paralysis and severe scoliosis as a result of poliomyelitis. Practitioners who assessed them were of the view that they met all eligibility criteria for MAID, with the exception of nearing the end of life. The Court declared the ‘reasonable foreseeability of natural death’ criterion in the federal Criminal Code, as well as the ‘end-of-life’ criterion in Quebec’s provincial law on medical assistance in dying, to be unconstitutional.”

Rather than insisting that those who are accepted to receive MAID are nearing inevitable death, the Canadian government as per the Quebec ruling will decide whether or not this is discriminatory, an undue burden. Should Canadian citizens be able to determine their own date of death, regardless of whether a ‘natural’ death is imminent?

Since Canada declared MAID legal, nearly 7,000 Canadians have died this way. In Muskoka, few have done so. The vast majority of people who choose this are elders, and two-thirds of people who choose MAID cite cancer as the underlying cause. MAID accounts for just over one per cent of deaths in Canada. It’s my estimation that in my lifetime, MAID will be the most common cause of death for its affected population, and that conversations about what constitutes a ‘good death’ will be dinnertime fare, not deathbed pleadings.

The last time you were in a long-term care facility, did they have a notice on the bulletin board outlining MAID and end-of-life options? Many people in LTC have been there since before the new law was put into place and practice, and it’s well known that elders can be isolated and often not informed of legal rulings. This information needs to be available to all Canadian citizens as a viable, and some doctors say, “pretty profound” option. Palliative care need not be considered an alternative or oppositional treatment to MAID—the two complement each other, and in conjunction with advance directives, can provide the most holistic treatment a patient could ask for.

(Advanced directives are patient-determined ‘rules’ for when MAID can be performed if they are no longer of sound mind. Currently, this is not relevant as ‘soundness of mind’ is a mandatory condition of receiving MAID. However, the argument is that those with deteriorating cognitive conditions should be able to give advanced consent to medical assistance in dying, and let their families and care providers know about their advanced directions: basically, when it is time to perform MAID after the patient is no longer of sound mind. They vary from person to person, as I’m sure they would for you or me.)

Medical assistance in dying was brought out of the theoretical and into sharp relief for me when I met the woman who would become my partner. In January 2017, Kai Rannik’s mother Helle concluded her journey in her decision to die. Her suffering had been deemed intolerable, her last meal had been heartily consumed, her last joke played out to the teary laughter of her most loved ones, including Kai, who was her support and advocate throughout a complicated and very new process. Since that day, Kai has spoken widely on the journey of MAID from the perspective of a loved one. She is the ‘lived experience’ voice of a highly divisive subject, but she does not preach MAID; she teaches about love, and consent, and the process of grief after a good death.

Since meeting Kai and seeing her speak, I have had the honour of helping Helle’s ashes find their way home; of reading excerpts from a heartbreaking and hilarious diary, and of hearing my loved one say, “I miss my mom” when that feeling strikes her. I feel like I only just missed getting to know a woman who transcended life itself, whose autonomy superseded tradition and social mores, and who blazed a trail that I would be honoured to traipse down, should I make it to 133 years old and finally be ready to call it a day.

Strong opinions should be backed by facts first, then experiences, then feelings. Read about this, talk about it, consider what it may have been like for those you know, since passed, who may have benefited from a choice in death. Other challenges will be coming—MAID for mature minors or those with mental illness diagnoses. We are at the forefront of a very expansive human experience. But death does find us all.

Have your say.

Here’s the questionnaire again.

She Speaks: My new year’s resolution is…

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.

There are so very many things we need less of.

We need less judgement from people who’ve never walked in our moccasins. We need less single-use disposable plastic. We need fewer lawyers making decisions and more scientists. We need fewer power-hungry leaders and more reluctant ones.

When I think about what we need more of, I am hard-pressed to think of anything that doesn’t lead back to love.

So my New Year’s resolution is love.

If you’re the type to eschew resolutions, I understand. They set us up for failure, make us feel like we aren’t good enough, and practically guarantee incompletion or even regression. Resolutions suggest we are not whole and complete, but ever-striving works-in-progress. And if that mindset works for you, again, I get it. I believe we are all on a journey to our higher selves, always learning. But do we need to, once a year, revisit the same lessons of insufficiency, insecurity, and scarcity? What exactly did we miss from last year’s attempt?

What about just… love?

My primary work is with women, so I’m excruciatingly familiar with our capacity to exude love. We invite outsiders to our holiday spread, we painstakingly choose or create greeting cards that convey the depth of our appreciation for others, and we give until, well, there isn’t anything left to hand out. For many women, love is an ever outward flowing resource, often not reciprocated to the same degree, often not appreciated, sometimes not even acknowledged.

When I try to encourage women to practise self-care, they frequently explain that they do—they’ll take a bath or have their favourite food. With a gentle challenge, I explain that this is survival. Good hygiene is part of being healthy—and we need calories to live. Adding bubbles or salted caramel doesn’t make it self-care.

And when you’re in the tub and thinking about the grocery list, or eating your snack alone in your room so your kids don’t beg you to share, that’s not self-care either. It’s another chore, another thing for which to feel guilty. It’s a start, no doubt. But it isn’t love.

Imagine this. You text your partner the grocery list so they can stop at the store before coming home from work, even though you had the day off. You ask your sister, who you helped move house last weekend, if she can watch your kids for an evening. You tell your friend that you just can’t be available for phone time this evening because she needs more energy than you have. And you tell your work that no, you absolutely cannot come in today, even though they’re understaffed, even though someone is sick.

Now you have the groundwork for love. Love for yourself. It takes a major foundation to love yourself, one that is constantly encroached upon. You need support, but more importantly you need to call on those supports. You need space and time, but no one will create that for you. You need to know, beyond question, that you are worthy of love. Other people cannot love us better, cannot love us enough to make up for our deficit. And anyone who told you that self-care or self-love is selfish simply wishes they had created that foundation for themselves.

Mothers especially but all parents offer the next generation a hazard, one they learned from their parents. You put everyone else first because you can, you have to, they need you, only you. And maybe at the end of the day there’s something left for you. Probably not, but maybe one day. We recycle this value, “selflessness”, as if it were a highest good. But it’s a myth.

Giving away the last ounce of your energy in a day is not a gift. It’s a curse. You’ve passed along the idea that you don’t matter, which creates two scenarios: 1. the people who want to take advantage of you have learned that you will tolerate it, and 2. the people you want good things for will model your “selfless” behaviour, and the cycle continues.

Please don’t misunderstand this for victim blaming. We were all raised in this culture together, breathing in the toxic microplastics of patriarchy and classism and racism. But if you’re asking yourself my favourite question when it comes to understanding the ‘isms’—“Who benefits and who is harmed?”—you’ll quickly arrive at the conclusion that these systems thrive because we have been told, and then believed, we aren’t worthy of love. That there is a finite amount of love to go around—maybe we should give it away while starving, or maybe we can hoard it so we might have enough.

Each one of us is inherently and inalienably worthy of love. No need to prove it or earn it, it’s there. Short of causing deliberate harm to others, which creates a love-scarcity situation for another being, you don’t need redeeming. There is enough.

A little woo-woo, isn’t it? Blame it on my cancer diagnosis, but I’m feeling very strongly about this. Why are we here? Why do some people suffer and some thrive? Why do so many feel unlovable, not worthy, not good? Why are we judging ourselves as if every day is a test we expect to fail?

If you lead with love, you will not make a mistake. There are no wrong paths in life. And if the person who receives the most love from you is you, you will find you have more to give than you ever thought possible. Put your oxygen mask on first; can’t pour from an empty cup. For eternity’s sake, be soft with your own heart!

Self-care is the greatest ability I ever learned, even better than wilderness survival skills. But it’s one of those skills that you need to practise, and update. Like with first aid, the minutia change as we get more information but the basics remain. No one will thank you for making them a sling when your femoral artery has ruptured. You have to take care of yourself first.

And hey, if you don’t, self-compassion is a great skill, too. We’re going to react out of habit, out of perceived or real scarcity, out of fear, out of misinformation. We need to be okay with ourselves when that happens. If not, no one will be harder on you than you, because you know all your weak spots. I’m not one to push forgiveness, except when it comes to forgiving ourselves. I actually think that may be the best way to practise it.

20/20 hindsight is a terrible thing. As humans, we are cursed with being able to look back at our lives and judge our decisions from a more informed place. How unfair! Instead, let’s have 2020 vision. This new year, we are doing things differently. Figure out what you love, and fight for it. I sincerely hope it’s yourself. Happy new year.

She Speaks: You are not up for grabs

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.

You’re at a get-together – mostly people you know, but some you haven’t officially met. The environment is positive, and you feel glad that you came out despite the snowfall and your already amped stress level.

As you’re sitting and catching up with a friend, someone comes up behind you and begins to massage your shoulders, informing you that you’re tense.

How do you respond?

How should you?

I was about 25 when I decided to practise using my voice. My serious voice, my brook-no-dissent, speak from the diaphragm, no apology and no softening giggle, kind of voice. Not only was I shocked at how effective it was, I also reeled from the reactions it got.

I’d been reading up on women and the qualifiers we use when we speak. Women’s strength, our voices, have been silenced, punished, monitored, interrupted, and dismissed for longer than any of us has been alive. We grow up in a culture littered with remnants of our non-personhood. It’s not usually as blatant as a man shouting at a woman to shut her mouth, though I’ve heard and overheard that as well.

It’s men thinking women are dominating a conversation when we get 33 per cent of the talking time, and that things are equal when we speak only 17 per cent of the time.

It’s men interrupting women at a disproportionate rate.

It’s people thinking women mayyyyy be as competent as men but not as decisive or ambitious.

It’s male doctors dismissing women’s pain to the point where it kills us.

It’s people taking hurricanes named after men more seriously, for goodness sake!

And all of the above is just one layer of a society still rampant with violence against women. Only four per cent of sexual assaults are committed by someone not known to the victim – which means 96 per cent of rapes are committed by someone the victim knew, trusted, liked, or was related to. Mostly the later, I regret to inform you, with ‘stepfather’ being the worst perpetrator, paralleling my own story.

If one in three women have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime

And women are harmed or murdered for saying no to men

And you’ve been taught your entire life that your voice, your comfort, your safety isn’t as important as the person next to you, across from you, behind you…

What do you do when that person behind you begins rubbing your shoulders without asking you, without making sure you know who it is, choosing not to see the context that women live in every single day?

When I was 25 and this happened, I turned around, out of the man’s grasp, and said, “Do not touch me.” The man didn’t even meet my eyes, but he threw his hands up and walked away to stand with a friend of his, both of them talking in raised voices about me. Some really unfriendly words were sent my way.

Most women who I share this with have plenty of stories of their own about the ‘creeper’; the guy who’s just a ‘little too friendly’. Someone who is known to be a boundary violator. But instead of making sure this guy is never invited anywhere or accepted into a friendship group, we just accept the warnings and put up our guard around him, informing new people in our circle to just ‘keep an eye out’.

And he goes on, doing what he loves to do, and eventually women leave the circle, leave the group, lose their voice.

When I tell people what I said to the guy who got handsy with me, most are surprised. Many say they would never be so blunt/so rude/so brave. I didn’t say, “Sorry, do you mind not doing that?” (apologize, frame as a question, his choice). I didn’t say, “Oh, I have an injury, please don’t” (defend, using a true or untrue excuse). I didn’t make a joke or make it light, though there are times for that. The reason I said what I did, how I did, is because I have every right to. It’s my boundary.

A boundary is a line you draw on behaviour, yours and others. It represents what you may enjoy, accept, tolerate, consider, or decline. The most vital skill that acts as a prerequisite for good boundaries is great communication. You can have boundaries without communicating them, but people will inadvertently approach and overstep them, and when they do, you won’t be able to explain to them why that wasn’t okay.

Communicating well means believing that your truth and your desires are important. It means understanding that your perspective is only one and may not be shared, and that all others have perspectives informed by their own life experiences. It means listening to understand, not just waiting to speak. It means clarifying miscommunications or misunderstandings head-on, which gets so much easier the more you do it.

Investing in your communication abilities means you will deal with confrontation less, not more – because when you are clear, don’t make assumptions, and have expressed your lines in the sand and the consequences for crossing them, situations rarely escalate to a confrontation. It takes a lot of little, sometimes awkward conversations to avoid a fight, but the payoff is endless.

You can have boundaries around anything. Maybe you don’t like hugs. Instead of saying you have a cold, or swinging your hand out to be shaken, we can say, “I’m not a hugger. Thanks for understanding.” Saying ‘thank-you’ instead of the dreaded apology makes it seem like a positive instead of a negative and lets the other person consider what you’ve said. Hmm, do I understand? Why or why not?

This is not rude. This type of sincere, good faith clarity is absolutely imperative to our wellbeing and indeed for many women, our survival. A predator will push beyond “I’m not sure I like that”, but when confronted with “You absolutely do not touch me like that” will often back off because you’ve made yourself a more difficult target, and predators are looking for easy targets.

If we insist on a culture of consent – “Can I hug you?” “Do you like that?” “Can you help me?” “Can you explain to me what you meant by that?” “Can we talk about why this keeps happening?” – then when things go awry, like a stranger trying to rub your shoulders or someone harming you, taking advantage, etc, we see it for what it is. People who want to cause harm rely on a culture that keeps certain things shrouded in secret and shame. They count on victims not having the emotional vocabulary to say No – and maintain and enforce it.

I’ve heard the arguments against this – the idea that it will make all our interactions, especially sexual, stilted and awkward. Here’s how I handle this – I communicate. “So, I believe in consent culture, good communication and boundaries. When I have sex, I like to check in and make sure my partner is enjoying this. If you aren’t, please tell me, and I will do the same.” Must be the millennial in me, but I think that’s awesome, not awkward.

Communication is best practised when things are going well because it will save you when things get messed up. In the middle of a divorce or illness or loss is a really difficult time to try to learn to ask for what you want and needed. But it’s still better than never learning at all. A lot of people barely analyze their own thoughts – very few are out there analyzing yours. No mind readers here; we have to do the work.

To make this topical for the holidays, please remember:

You do not have to tolerate hateful rhetoric at the dinner table, not even during the holidays, not even when it’s your mom’s favourite (racist) sister. “I’m uncomfortable with this conversation. I’ll be in the other room. Anyone is welcome to join me.”

Children are allowed to have boundaries. Please don’t tell them to hug people. Let them make that choice. “It’s very sweet that you want to hug little Matilda, but we encourage her to choose who she hugs. We are teaching her boundaries.” You have to MODEL this. Don’t allow your own boundaries to be violated.

You are not obligated to offer explanations or defenses for who you are, who you love, what you do for work, your mental health, or anything you aren’t comfortable discussing. “I’m not up for talking about that, but I hear your concern.” Switching the subject is super effective, or you can just move on.

I have no problem being a buzz-kill when the buzz harms me or others. I am important and so are my values, and I will prioritize them because that’s the person I want to be. And I want kids to see an assertive, unapologetic woman saying No to what she doesn’t want and Yes to what she does, and know they can do the same. And believe me, I do get teased for this by my friends and family. I often hear, ‘no one talks like that’ (I do!). I have heard every reason and every scenario wherein these skills just don’t apply. Yet, I’ve never been in one myself, where I couldn’t make the decision to express myself clearly and state my hope that the other does the same, with the intention of having a positive experience.

I will take the teasing from my friends because they know, beyond a doubt, that I will be honest and kind with them, that nothing I do with or for them is out of a sense of obligation or guilt. Because I know how to say no, my yes is all in.

Listen, we live in a community where our MP sent dick pics to someone he thought was a woman, a town councillor is in shit for making a homophobic joke about a community member, the president of our closest neighbouring country admits to and brags about sexually assaulting women, and the OPP in Bracebridge and Huntsville had deemed more than half the rape accusations they received as Unfounded. This is our world. We have to live here. I want to change it – and ALL of these examples are about boundaries.

And hey, if someone rubs your shoulders and you are cool with that, ‘yes’ is a brilliant word. But the issue still needs to be addressed. “I’m definitely enjoying this, but next time you need to ask the person before you touch them.”

Their response to your words will tell you everything you need to know.

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