Barbara the Slut and Other People and me

Some things have been sticking with me lately. Stories that I can’t shake. Women I wish I knew, could sit next to, siphon strength off of. I first read Lauren Holmes’ story “How Am I Supposed to Talk to You” in Granta but I didn’t put two and two together until I was reading it again in Holmes’ new book of short stories Barbara the Slut and Other People (Riverhead Books, 2015) when the first paragraph was like recognizing an old friend in an unexpected place. The women in these stories are so interesting, struggling with completely different issues in their day-to-day but belonging in this book equally. The character who takes a job working at a sex toy store in “Desert Hearts” where she hides from the pressure and expectation of early adulthood after graduating from law school. The titular high school student Barbara who vows to never sleep with the same guy twice and because of that is never really seen by anyone other than her autistic brother, waiting for the promise of university to save her from a school of narrow-minded bullies.  “My Humans,” a story narrated by a lovably smelly rescue dog who is witness to all the strange smells and emotional misunderstandings of a failing relationship. God knows what dogs pick up on that we just can’t but this stood out to me as one of the strangest and enjoyable stories I’ve read in a long time. While not all the 10 stories holds the same magic that the ones I’ve talked about here, they are all truly fascinating as a primer on what Holmes is capable of.

I’ve read so much this year, and often when I finish a book I think about what I would say about it but then it’s gone and I’m on to the next one. This book made me pause. Made me stare out the bus window for a stretch and just sit, so content in what I had just experienced. It’s not often that a novel, let alone a book of short stories will do that to me. It’s been a good season for great books. I’ve been meaning to write about others–Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay.

Hopefully, I’ll get around to that too but I’ve been curled up all day watching Aziz Ansari’s new show Master of None on Netflix. What a great great show. It has so much to say about diversity on TV, sexism and has one of the best on-screen relationships I’ve seen since Coach and Tami. There’s joy in a show like this, and a level of craft that you might not expect from Aziz but he co-wrote and produced it, so I’ve got to give it to him. The episode Indians on TV in particular really sat with me, using real footage from other television shows of Indian stereotypes. I can’t wait to see where it goes in season two.


On ordinary days that become perfect by circumstance

He found dentures washed up on a flea-ridden beach—smoothed down to half its dental cast by the timid waves that deposited large purple jellyfish like blood clots along the shore. We were looking for beach glass but here was the pride of his findings and he tucked them carefully away to be saved. Now they live in an antique mason jar on a ledge behind the toilet and if I see them on display I carefully rotate them back against the wall.

The day we get married the clouds won’t cooperate and I leave the decision in his hands but he knows I’ve never wanted to exchange vows in a church, so he makes the call I can’t and we’re standing under our handmade arbor regardless when the rain starts to fall. His eyebrows go up in perfect crescent moons and we both peer at the sky until a childhood friend donates her umbrella and his cousin holds another over his head and it can’t be coincidence that they somehow match the wedding colours in the photos we get back.

In the letter I forgot that I wrote to him that first summer that he admitted he’s been carrying all this time, worn down to the thinnest folds. He says “I read it when I’m feeling low.” And I hear all of the ways he’s held me to him even when we’re apart. And I see all of the ways we’ve been loving each other in tiny trickles that meet and grow into streams and suddenly our love is immense as a raging river and I don’t mind, I want to, be under its pull. Like I never needed to learn how to hold my breath. Like being near him helps me grow gills.

I read him my handwritten vows, voice shaking, taking slow and steadying breaths and trying not to cry. Here are the things I’ve learned and the ways I’ve loved you and will always try my very best to love you. And here are the ways fate made you family and the struggles we will always come through stronger. I empty my heart onto the page and later, people hold me in their arms and tell me how much they cried when we spoke. How we must be meant for each other. The love in the room is as pregnant as the sky and I feel it in the eyes that are watching us. I feel it in the hand of my best friend, entwined in mine under the table. In the words of my father, when he begins to speak Cree, and a shiver runs through the crowd. I feel it when my mother mentions how much my grandfather would have like to have been here, he is here, and the tear that winds its way down. Free at last.

Later, after the dancing, after my brother holds me and maybe for the first time, tells me to my face how much he loves me, how proud he is of me, after everyone is in their beds, and the room is picked clean, and my buzz is wearing off, and the dress is in a pile and he’s hung it on the door, and I peel fake eyelashes from my lids, after all of the emotion and the party and the hoopla we take our dog Sundance for a walk.

At 3am in a small dark town, settled, soft and the rain has finally stopped and we’re officially, stamped, marked, sealed, a family.

He holds my hand in his the same way he always has.

Wife he asks.

Husband I reply.


The weight of you

Buoyed. Up and up. A ribbon like tether grazing the ground, simple enough to snag. And you told me once that there’s a cancer in me and you can’t bear to watch my cells battle it out. You were the disease and I cut you from me in slivers until nothing remained but the imprint of what you once touched. The damp outline of love.

All the sad songs you told me not to read into—the life we only lived between the lines.

Yesterday we were infested and today the ants are gone.

He left an entire watermelon out to lure them and when it was black three levels deep he flushed the colony down the sink and that was the end of that.

So I disinfect all my surfaces and remember what it was like before I met him. Before the fixes were simple. Before I knew what it was to want to commit, to want to grow, to grow up and grow old with someone.

How everything changes when you find the right fruit, when it’s already ripened, juicy and just laid out waiting for you.

I am teaching myself to write when I’m happy. What’s the emoji for it’s about fucking time? All those years I thought suffering was romantic, pacing bridges like it wasn’t so far to fall. Floundering in a world of oceans with no turtle shell. Nurturing the darkness and refusing to see that hurting myself only hurts me. And that sounds simple enough so why was it so hard to read?

Here’s what I’ve learned in my years of silence—when it’s good, when it’s really fucking life changing, you don’t need a platform, you don’t need an audience, you just need each other. A comfortable weight. A warmth that’s heavy without holding you down. The strength at your back.

The last bus home.


2014: A year in reading

January: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling), The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, Lazy Days by Erlend Loe

It’s always colder than I remember. I finally read JK Rowling’s foray into mystery wondering why she needed to publish it under a male pen name. It’s the year of #ReadWomen2014 and it seems fitting, somehow. It’s really really good, easily devoured. Swinging the opposite direction into Kidd’s historical novel about slavery and abolitionists that I just can’t get behind while Lazy Days just feels lazy.

February: The Opposite of Me by Sarah Pekkanen

It’s weird how I don’t even remember this book. It’s likely I’ll read it again in five years and not realize until 3/4s in. Everything is a jumble because this is the month we adopt our dog Sundance.

March: The Best American Essays 2013, The Likeness by Tana French

The essays are edited by Cheryl Strayed. I finally follow up French’s debut that I loved. This mystery is so strange I fall for it too and add all her other novels to my to read pile. The idea of a series that moves from supporting character to supporting character is great.

April: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

This comes through in a review pile but I never get around to it. A creepy horror novel about an apocalypse that comes about from some kind of creature that drives you insane just by looking at it. Survivors spend their lives blindfolded. It’s good, and feels original, which isn’t easy when it comes to this genre.

May: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, The Whole Golden World by Kristina Riggle, Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Everything falls apart. My Grandfather gets sick. Americanah is the kind of life-changing novel that you’re lucky to come across in a year. The hype is real. I need to feel light so I flip to YA but it just makes me cry. Two equally mediocre novels follow it. We buy a house.

June: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Consumed: Food For a Finite Planet by Sarah Elton

I read Beautiful Ruins in the sun on my porch. When I close my eyes it could be anywhere. In Ohio on the way to the funeral home my mother and I take turns reading short stories aloud from The Thing Around Your Neck. I am so far away. Non-Fiction feels necessary now but only reminds me how broken this world is.

July: One Plus One by Jojo Moyes, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks

A good month for reading. I love everything I consume from the single mom raising a girl math genius, to the re-imagining of Snow White and the start of a trilogy about a big brother-esque future that eats me up. But especially Toews’ heart breaking semi-autobigraphical look at a pair of sisters, one who wants to die and the other desperately trying to convince her to live. It’s nominated for, and should have won, the Giller prize.

August: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks, The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

We go to Portland and I finish the second in the Twelve Hawks series on the plane. We get engaged under my favourite bridge and I finish The Book of Life on the way home, the last in a trilogy about supernatural love only not shitty like Twilight.

September: A Life in Men by Gina Frangello, The Broke-Ass Bride’s Wedding Guide by Dana LaRue, The Golden City by John Twelve Hawks, The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman, Penguin 75: Designers, Authors, Commentary

My best friend gets married and I get to stand with her at her wedding. There’s a speech. It’s emotional. I read A Life in Men and remember our trip to Europe, how wrong it could have gone but didn’t. I finish the Twelve Hawks trilogy without a bang, the first two were way better. I also finish the Grossman trilogy which is great. It’s sort of like what Harry Potter would have been if it started in college and starred Malfoy instead. It’s hard not to see it as “borrowing” a little too much from C.S. Lewis and JK Rowling, though.

October: The Vacationers by Emma Straub, Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham, The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling), How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

It’s cold and Straub is a disappointment. We put up last minute Halloween decorations and I finish the month off perfectly with three awesome books.

November: Yes, Please by Amy Poehler, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Possibly the best month of reading yet, all three books end up on my year end list.

December: The Dilettantes by Michael Hingston, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, Love Enough by Dionne Brand, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books by Azar Nafisi, Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

It all went by so fast I think. I finally read Hingston’s book that’s been on my shelf for awhile, it’s as good as I thought it might be. Really enjoyable. Fuller’s yet-to-be-released novel about a girl who’s kidnapped by her survivalist father and raised in a cabin in the woods where he tells her the world has ended is fantastic. It deserves a lot of love in 2015, I hope it gets it. I finally start yet another mystery series that I’ve heard so much about. Brand disappoints, as does Nafisi. I read Us Conductors only because it won the Giller prize and I had to see if it was better than All My Puny Sorrows. It’s beautiful, but no. I finish the year off with an instant favourite. Station Eleven is an apocalyptic tale told in many POVs about a virus that disseminates the world and then, 20 years later, a group of travelling actors and musicians that believe survival isn’t enough. It’s perfect.


On being Not That Kind of Girl or a Bad Feminist and saying Yes Please anyway

dunhamIt’s been a trifecta of fantastic female role models publishing memoirs or memoir-like essay collections lately. I read them all one after the other with little pause on the bus, holding down laughter and tears in equal measure. It starts with Lena Dunham (doesn’t it always?). Not That Kind of Girl is almost as uncomfortable as the worst sex scenes on Girls, which makes sense, because this is her life, this is her writing fodder. Strange how it feels worse when she tells it as truth instead of fiction. We are all unreliable narrators, that’s the main thing to take away, so I don’t understand where all this “Lena Dunham molested her little sister” frenzy comes from. Weren’t we all strange children, once? Can a seven year old molest another child? Doesn’t there have to be some agency in that? Doesn’t there have to be sexualization for an activity to reach that far? I remember several times as a child I was caught experimenting with another kid—curiosity always gets the best of us—but the only person reading into that is a deranged person. Did Dunham grow up without learning boundaries? Probably, yes, but isn’t that what speaks to us so much in her art? That struggle? Controversy aside, Not That Kind of Girl is all that I thought it would be—speaking heavily to this person I’m not sure I am yet. It’s universal. Even when it all comes easy, it still feels hard.

Not That Kind of Girl was simple, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t great. It was fast and hit me hard and felt over too soon. It made me remember those dark bits that sit inside me, spoiling. That’s where the art comes from—the hurt roiling and turning into something dense and gleaming.

Bad Feminist wasn’t easy. Roxane Gay’s series of essays was difficult even though all her ideas are laid out on a gay
nice plate of pop culture with sprigs of humour—don’t eat those, they’re decoration! It’s difficult precisely because it’s so damn good. As someone who is just as invested in pop culture and racial issues as Gay, it was hard for me to have to reflect on my own bias and prejudices that still exist because none of us are perfect. We are all privileged, bad feminists that wrestle with racial issues and what we let people get away with. I did like that 99% of the time I came down on the same side of an issue as Gay, and weirdly we like a lot of the same TV shows, movies and books. Like minds and all that. In one particular chapter she did manage to spoil Gone Girl for me, but that’s my own fault, I suppose. What I like best about Roxane Gay, who I’ve followed on Twitter for some time, is that she’s as undecided as I am—about what feminism means to her, what it should mean to all of us, and how to be a good one. If there is such a thing as a good feminist, anyway. I prefer to think we’re all just bad feminists in one way or another as well. I’m a feminist but I like “Blurred Lines.” I’m a feminist but I laugh at sexist jokes sometimes. I’m a feminist but I believe in marriage and entertain the idea of being supported by my husband, staying home and raising kids. I’m a feminist but I’m not a “perfect” one. But, what Gay gets at, is that it’s about claiming the title anyway, in whatever form you feel comfortable with. Because, everything else is just icing on the gender equality cake, right? It’s about supporting our ability to choose. Everything else is noise. Let’s try not to get distracted.

poehlerThankfully, I rounded out my two weeks of reading with the brilliant and hilarious Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. Which I would describe using its own title and life mantra—yes plzzzz, more plzzzz. If you enjoyed Tina Fey’s Bossypants (this is in the same vein) or just wish you were friends with Poehler and want to insert yourself in her life imaginatively using as many real facts and anecdotes as possible, well this will be perfect for you. Considering, first the simple paper quality her book is printed on, it’s thick and slippery like a fancy coffee table book (like I have any of those) which makes all the photos and handwritten notes pop off the page. She says at one point she wanted to have all these things just stuffed in the pages so they would fall everywhere if you shook it. Is it weird that it sounds completely magical to me? To be honest I didn’t know that much about Poehler’s personal life beyond her clearly amazing friendship with Fey and recent divorce from Will Arnett. So, reading about her childhood and how she got into improv was really interesting, especially since she has a great candid style of writing that makes you feel like she’s sitting across from you at a bar just shooting the shit and trying to make you laugh. I’m telling you, exactly how I imagine Poehler and I to be when we fake hangout. Sigh. It also was full to the brim with love for her ex-husband, her parents, friends at SNL and Parks and Rec, and of course her children. Poehler’s attitude in the book is so can-do, don’t give up on your dreams, make happiness, even when she hints at depression and rough times. This one, above all the others made me want to cry in front of strangers on the bus. I welled up. Required reading for anyone who is starting to doubt their purpose, going through a transformative time, needs some inspiration, or just wants to read about how awesome Poehler is. She is so so awesome.

Personal, Prose

What we always knew

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an emotional itch I can’t get to. My best friend got engaged last month and I’m already writing my speech in my head, every night, while the neighbour’s automatic flood light forces its way through our heavy curtains and everything still feels so immediate.

I always felt like the older twin, the one who came first but always had so much more to learn. We used to communicate without speaking—in raised eyebrows and head tilts; in wide eyes and pursed lips. She was a mirror, but always with a better brighter version of who I wanted to be.

The summer nights before fiances, between boyfriends, we took command of entire cities. Leaving artifacts ruined in our wake. We were just people but a force of nature together. Cap ou pas cap? Toujours cap.

Sometimes youth feels like invisibility and a platform all at once. Drapped in each other’s arms at the end of so many adventures, with all these stories to tell, secrets to keep, we were invincible in the kind of friendship that you can’t forge, but finds you when you least expect it.

Now all these responsibilities keep us grounded. Soon she’ll be married, a wife and then probably not too far along, a mother. Exactly like we always planned.

At her wedding I get too drunk, warming my wine glass between two sweaty palms—an offering to the gods of public speaking. In front of me on the podium my ring finger sparkles, catching the light and I lose my place for a moment and clear my throat, wings scrapping my insides as something struggles toward the light.

When I practised I couldn’t stop crying, it was alarming, a submarine filling with water, all of me leaking out onto the page. But the wine has made me calmer, my voice measured out two beats ahead of my brain. It’s over before I know it and her husband (husband!) embraces me whispering thanks into my ear and I hold on to him like the ground is shaking. This is all so new now.

They go to Greece on their honeymoon. I sit cross-legged on my dining room floor assembling the kitchen table my mother gave us. Inheritance hand-me-downs. It’s coming apart at the corners and I think about waiting but drag a chair to the closet and bring down the drill. Manage. On every surface I pile library books according to size and wait for the fees to accumulate. All these late notifications but I can’t bring myself to return what I haven’t read yet.

When we’re older, old, paper-thin. I’ll gather you in my sure hands, winding your white hair into the tightest of  buns. Like you always knew I would.


All our losses

There are things I do to forget: Laugh more, take my dog for long meandering walks, concentrate on a new diet and exercise program, watch hours of both good and bad TV, and read books. Lots of books. But, it doesn’t matter. Death is everywhere. Characters disappearing as easily as the light slips away in the summer—later than you thought, but quicker, too.

I have selective memory problems and like a healed amnesiac it hits me sometimes, a bright light in a dark room. I want to remember him stronger, younger, fierce—but when I think of him it’s always propped up in a hospital bed, tubes pumping and draining his tired body. His legs, thinned, and the feel of his calloused heel as I rub in Aveeno lotion, wondering if it tickles.

Grief is a tricky, stalking thing. A shaded presence in my peripherals. Breathing on my neck at the stove. Sinking into the cushions next to me as I type.

I read the poems he wrote after my grandmother’s death and I can’t write my own. What more is to be said? Here are all the things I never said to you. Here’s what I whispered in your ear when everyone else left the room. Here are the ways I feel I failed and all the regrets I carry with me just like before. Saying goodbye takes a moment, a weekend, a lifetime. I hardly knew you. I knew so much.

I take my coffee in his old mugs and wear his oversized socks despite the heat. All we leave are things behind. Plates that break in my suitcase and Ziploc bags of old photos.

And love.

The kind that hangs over us like a fog, unable to settle, leaving imprints in our hair and kissing our cheeks. The kind of moisture that feels like a homecoming—this place you never wanted to return to but can’t bear to leave.