A time for grief


Where I write just enough to encourage you to follow my email newsletter.

People often ask me how I am doing since the separation and the answer is “still grieving.” I have not lost a beloved to physical death but I lost my family in the shape I have known and built it all my adult life. I heard Tara Brach read from John O’Donohu’s poem “For Grief” in a 2010 meditation about healing trauma. I was struck by this passage:

“And when the work of grief is done the wound of loss will heal , and you will have learned to wean your eyes from that gap in the air and be able to enter the hearth in your soul where your loved one has awaited your return all the time.”

My eyes are still fixed on the gap in the air where my intact family used to be and I am not yet able to enter the hearth in my soul where the new expression of my family is awaiting my return. 

Since I last wrote on this blog, my life has been upended by grief: mine and the children’s. I struggle to write about this jagged and unpredictable journey. We all know that separated parents should not disparage each other in front of their children. We look at statistics and studies on conflict and divorce and we tsk tsk at parents who are not able to put their children’s well-being ahead of their own. Can’t they just wait until the kids are out of earshot before letting it all hang out? Here is one of the first lessons I learned after I separated : Everyone, even those who communicate only by email and exchange kids in neutral parking lots, even those who are taking their spouse to court over custody matters, even those who just called their spouse an effing a-hole in front of the kids, knows that. That’s the easy part. What is not so easy is hiding the abject, gut-wrenching pain of the separation and its trauma.

I realized through this journey that witnessing my pain made people angry at Paul and his girlfriend. I can tell a story with words about my separation that gives a fair shake to both of us. But no one who has come close to me and my grief in the last year has indeed believed that shake to be fair. It is not in the words that I say or write but in the pain that oozes and radiates from every pore in my body. People reflexively understand the relationship of grief to love. That we have just as little power over the pain of losing love as we do over the delight of finding it. But more importantly, that we grieve in the measure that we loved. It matters very little what story we tell in words about the end of a marriage. Our pain and our struggle often tell a different story.  I am always questioning if sharing my pain is tantamount to shit-talking my ex-spouse. Maybe it is. And maybe you will stop reading here. If you don’t, I will assume that you made a choice to step into my world and share my journey.

This invitation to walk with me comes with a request. As my children grow older and my life story becomes more delicate, I am no longer comfortable throwing my personal reflections into the great expanse of the Internet through a public blog. The struggle to share intimate and authentic reflections in the open has curtailed my writing in the last few years. It’s one thing to write about potty training and sleepless nights and it’s a different one to write about marital breakdown, school problems, mental wellbeing, divorce, and recovery. As my children get bigger so do the family issues I grapple with.

I am still an open book. This is the only way I know how to write. But at this point in my life — and the life of the Internet to be honest — I want to inject an element of intentionality in my readership. I want to know that my writing goes to the people who really want to read it. Last weekend, I created an email newsletter as a new home for my blog posts. I will still publish snippets on this page but then invite you to keep reading in the newsletter. Registration is free (for now) until I capture my friends, family and long time readers. Then I will change it into a paid newsletter for a nominal amount meant to foster meaningful engagement. This is important to me and I know that my writing is worth $5.

If you want to subscribe to my newsletter and read the second half of this blog post on the grief of separation, please subscribe here and watch your Inboxes. Here is the link to subscribe: https://vroniquebergeron.substack.com/p/coming-soon

Now Now Now May 2021


The “Now” page is like an “about” page but instead of telling you something about my background, it tells you what I’m focused on at this point in my life. Since I wrote about my separation in the post Wayfinding a lot of people have reached out to pray for me, lift me up, and offer their love and support. It made me so incredibly grateful for this community born of bits and bobs and seemingly random pieces of my mind. 

Some of you have asked how you could support me and I don’t really know what to answer. I’m in that weird burned out place where everything is crap and nothing helps. So I thought I would write this “Now” page as a reflection on the past year and to take stock of this point in time.

This post is about me. I will write another one about the children and schools. The situation of school closures in Ontario is so dismal that it deserve its own post.

This is also a post about mental health. I feel strongly about describing my current state of burn out because (a) I want people to know that they are not alone; and (b) I can do so with impunity, meaning that it will not cost me my job or my meaningful relationships. In other words, I want to write about this because I can.

This story starts in April 2020

Paul and I decided to separate in April 2020. It was a mutual decision inasmuch as we both had reasons to want a separation. Our journeys were very different and getting there was two-person job. We both made a commitment to stay friends and protect our children from conflict and upheaval. 

When the pandemic first closed down schools and workplaces, 8 of our 9 children plus a partner lived at home. It took us until June to have the broad lines of our separation agreement hammered out and to be able to talk to the children about it. We were renting a large 4+1 bedroom house in Stittsville and agreed on a nesting model whereby the children stayed in the family home while Paul and I took turns parenting on a week on/week off basis. 

At first, we both stayed in the family home and I moved to a separate room in the home office. I had concerns about the week on/week off schedule which I found too extreme on either side: a week is too long not to see the children and too long to be parenting 6-9 children solo, especially in a school-lockdown-work-from-home situation, without the possibility of asking for in-house help from family and friends. Since we all stayed in the same house, there was a high level of integration of household chores and I could see the children every day. I agreed to give the weekly schedule a try. As much as I was in support of the separation and had no hope of reconciling, I couldn’t (still can’t) wrap my head around not seeing my children every day. The “drawing and quartering” of parenting time is a reality of divorce that I can’t accept as beneficial to my children, despite knowing how marital tension has affected their emotional development.

Soon after we separated, the chronic back pain I had been dealing with for over 3 years and for which I had consulted countless healthcare practitioners disappeared. My migraines went down from 6-10 a month to 1 or 2. My relationship with my children transformed. I was able to stop walking on eggshells and start showing up as myself. I read Untamed , started working through The Artist’s Way and journaled my way through the Summer of 2020. With the temporary relaxation of pandemic restrictions, I was able to spend time with my parents on weekends and exercise regularly. Our family adopted a new puppy in May and her early training forced me on a daily morning walk. I went on bike rides to a nearby meadow and napped underneath a willow tree almost every day before making supper. I took the kids on bicycle adventures on the Poole Creek pathway system and we came back muddy and exhausted. The forced focus on my children seemed to dovetail nicely with the transition into separated life and I looked to the future with cautious optimism.

Juno

Once the children went back to school in September I settled into a manageable work/life routine until I had to find a new job. A stroke of good luck landed me in a similar position for a different City Councillor. I found my place amongst a dynamic team who has shown amazing flexibility and generosity through school lockdowns and my haphazard work output. For those who follow me on social media and know how well I got along with my former boss Glen, yes we are still best friends. But working in politics for your best friend can get awkward, for instance when you are seen together in the community walking your dogs or having coffee outside work hours. We decided to part ways professionally while we could make the decision ourselves rather than have it made for us. 

Living in the same house as your ex-spouse is not emotionally easy and by November our living arrangement was showing some strain. Spouses rarely get to the point of separating at the same time. I once read that the spouse who first brings up separation has usually been wrestling with the idea for 2 to 5 years. With the gift of hindsight, that feels accurate. From that perspective, the spouse who has been mulling over separation for some time moves forward with the momentum of someone tackling a long held ambition. That lurch towards the new self might be worth celebrating but when you are watching and wondering what just happened, it hardly puts a spring in your step. And from the perspective of the spouse moving on, doing it in the gloomy shadow of your ex-spouse is no carnival either.

We agreed that Paul would stay in the family home and continue supporting the family financially while I would look for a place of my own. I would still come to the family home on my weeks but it would allow Paul and I more time apart. In November I moved into a small house about 1 km away from the family home. I kept coming back to make the kids’ lunches every morning, often made the family suppers and stayed for bedtime routines. Getting the kids out the door and feeding a family of 11 remained a two-parent job. The routine of getting up every morning at 5am and walking over to the family home was relentless but it made for a smoother transition for the children and I. I had concerns that moving out of the family home first would give the children the impression that they lived with dad and that mom had left. Today, I see that the children are beholden to the idea that they live with dad and visit mom despite a change in circumstances that you will read about later.

The nesting agreement ran its course as the differences in values and expectations between Paul and I became increasingly difficult to navigate. Nesting requires a high level of consideration from each parent for the other and the willingness to walk a mile in the other’s shoes, which is antithetical to the idea of separation — or so I’m told. These differences in values and expectations, the growing gap between what I thought nesting would be and the reality, kept me in a constant state of emotional turmoil. Paul would probably tell you that my needs and expectations were not reasonable for a separated couple. And both of us might be right. Reflecting on this transition, I can I say that I had poor boundaries because I was still expecting Paul to care for me like he had done for so many years. And Paul was done caring. I kept putting myself in situations where I would relive the rejection of the separation over and over again, and I didn’t understand that it was my responsibility to get out of harm’s way.

I once heard that « boundaries are the distance between you and me in which I can love you and me simultaneously. » Boundaries are what you need to feel ok. What you need to do for yourself so that others — your children, your spouse — are not saddled with the burden of making you happy. The Christian ideal of selflessness might be good theology but it’s really bad psychology, and even worse parenting. It made me despondent and resentful. I didn’t understand that I couldn’t expect my family to care more about my well-being than I did myself. You don’t teach empathy by being selfless, you teach empathy by having a self and forcing your loved ones to navigate around it. You teach them to care about others by being an other. 

I strongly believe in the nesting model as an arrangement that shifts the burden of instability from the children to the parents. This commitment to nesting led me to accept things I was not ok with. Instead of standing firm on my boundaries and principles, I tried to reason myself out of them. It didn’t work and I started sinking. As my mental health deteriorated, I tried setting loose boundaries, hoping that Paul would interpret them in a way that made me feel ok. By the time I understood that my boundaries and values were mine to define and enforce, I was already too far gone into despair to come back on my own. A dear friend told me “Don’t beat yourself up for taking so long to learn that lesson, celebrate the fact that you finally learned it!” I’m not there yet but I’m on my way. Writing about it helps.

I couldn’t continue with the nesting agreement as it was but the deadline was forced upon us by the death of our landlord in the Fall and the subsequent sale of the house. Our lease was expiring on April 30th and we decided that Paul would find his own place rather than another family home. Paul did not find a place in time and on May 1st the 6 younger children (19 and under) moved in with me. I have a housemate who moved-in last March to help with the rent, before this upheaval came about. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement when I was only here part time. Now that I’m here full time with half a dozen of my finest creations, I’m not sure to what extent the benefits are mutual but having a dear friend to rely on in this crazy time has been an incredible gift. Having someone to share the rent allows me to stay in Stittsville, close to the children’s schools, where I could not otherwise afford to live.

Paul will move into his own place on June 1st and we will share parenting time 50/50 on a 3-2-2 day pattern. The younger children will traipse back-and-forth between the two houses but David and Marie decided to stay with Paul full time and visit me. Paul still hopes to move back to the country as soon as possible. I expect that my house, with its closeness to schools, work, transit, and friends will gain in popularity at that time. The idea of any of my children “visiting” is stuck sideways in my gizzard but I decided to take a cautious approach and see it through instead of fighting it.

This unexpected move into my tiny little house is giving me a chance to establish some new family routines in a place where I feel safe, secure, and loved. I’m hoping that with the gift of time I can finally start settling into this new life I call my own, but still feels very much like someone else’s.

My mental health is what it is. No one is doing well, we are all burned out and struggling. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed in the morning: the dread about the day ahead looms so large. I once sat in my van with my keys in hand ready to drive away without the children. I didn’t. I’ve cried so much I’ve had to lie on the bathroom tile to cool my face down so I could breathe again (thank you Eat, Pray, Love for the tip). I end almost every single day in tears. This has opened the channels of communication with my younger children about crying, coping and caretaking. I have had the chance to explain how crying is a good way to release negative emotions and that they shouldn’t feel the need to fix it or make it stop. They have shown incredible open-mindedness about my ups and downs and they know that it is not their jobs to make me feel better. Still, I can see that they are concerned and sometimes worried about me. Yesterday I laughed during a light-hearted exchange with my housemate about laundry and David immediately came out of his room to see if I was crying. But sometimes they just see me struggle and ask: “Are you still crying because of the Ford government?” I say “Yes,” they shrug and walk away.

Some days I am productive and efficient but those days are fewer and farther between. Making a meal schedule for the family makes me weep from mental exhaustion. I keep wondering what it will take for the government to understand how badly parents are breaking right now. How much worse does this have to get before someone realizes that COVID is killing people who haven’t even caught the virus?

I feel like I’m carrying a boulder on my shoulders and wondering why I can’t run anymore. The weight of the past year has completely flattened me and I don’t know if I will ever be able to get up again. I’m seeing a therapist weekly, I have friends to talk to and I’ve made my house into a cozy spot that feels like me. I work for a great person amongst a great team. There is reason to hope for better days and my housemate is an optimist who reminds me of who I am. By all accounts, I’m in the best of spots to be going through this garbage. But I was surprised to realize that the best therapy, the best meds, and the best friends and family do not make the intense emotional pain of the separation go away. They just give it a container so that it doesn’t spill like a stricken oil tanker, killing all the beautiful living things around it. The pain is still yours to sit with.

This is where I am sitting now.

Wayfinding


In which I bury the lead so far, it’s like I hope you’ll miss it. 

A few years ago my son Colin gave me a framed picture with two pine trees. It was a color picture appearing as in black and white, taken from our dining room window in Middleville. Heavy water-logged snowflakes had left wet marks on the window, diffusing light and making the skies look decorated.

When the twins were born in 2011, we lived in Navan, a rural community of estate lots and small farms in the east end of Ottawa. The CN rail line ran about 7km south of our house. On most days, we could hear the whistle blow as the Via passenger trains ran alongside Russell road and crossed Sabourin at the bottom of Milton. The whistle blow was too dim to hear as my household geared up to its usual chaos. But in the silence of the early morning, I could hear the faint sound of the trains passing by. 

The twins’ birth marked a year of upheaval in our family. Nothing reveals fault lines like an earthquake. Having two newborns in an already large family shook us to the core. They slept and woke up like normal babies. Caught colds and fevers. Ate when they were hungry. Cried when they were needy. They were by all estimation normal babies but they were two. At the same time. My toddler didn’t sleep through the night and could not be left unsupervised, my children went to school, sports, and music lessons. My teenagers had part time jobs to be driven to. The twins claimed my nights and my other children claimed my days and there was not a single minute available for me to sleep or even rest. For the first year of the twins’ life, I did not sleep more than 45 consecutive minutes. For 11 months, I saw every single hour on my alarm clock, every single night, until I ditched the clock. 

On most nights, the twins would take turns needing to be fed, burped, and rocked. After spending the entire night up with one baby then the other, they would finally settle at the same time around 5:45am and sleep for 2 or 3 hours. I still had to get up by 6:15am to get the other children ready for school. The only 2 or 3 hours I could have slept were spent making lunches and helping children get dressed and ready for school. My days never started and never ended. 

In the early morning, when the twins were asleep and the house was still quiet, I would hear the train whistle in the distance. It became an anchor in my never-ending days: the train meant that the sun had set in the evening, risen in the morning, that my world may have been turned upside down but that outside, life was still unfolding, oblivious to my turmoil. It gave me comfort to know that the world kept turning, that the trains kept running, that people went to bed, got up and went to work in the morning. It gave me hope that a normal life was right there waiting for me.

When we moved to Middleville — a small rural community in the middle of the Lanark Highlands where we built a house in 2014-2015 — I lost the train whistle. I noticed it right away in the morning silence. In the middle of nowhere, I had no anchor, no mooring to pull me back to shore. My husband had moved us there for the exact reason I would lose myself: the world around us could burn down and we would not even notice. 

I once read that tall and unusual trees act as visual beacons for migratory birds as they navigate the skies in search of food and home. Every morning when I got up in silence, I would glance out my bedroom window and see two pine trees, tall, healthy evergreens towering over an overgrown plantation of the same. I always thought of these two trees as wayfinding for birds. They became my new anchor as I once again sunk into despair and loneliness following a complicated miscarriage in 2016. When I woke up in the morning, I would glance at the trees and their presence would reassure me: the sun had set, the sun had risen again, the earth was still turning, the world wasn’t burning, and happiness was still possible even if currently unavailable.

A year ago, as the pandemic covered every home with its thick blanket of fear and anxiety, when we still believed that it would be over in a month, my marriage of 24 years ended. Paul and I separated and started the painful process of entangling our respective lives. For 10 months, I was too focused on my children to acknowledge the magnitude of the earthquake that had just taken place. In the fog of lockdowns, school closures, separation agreements, and the absurd process of setting boundaries around a person I couldn’t imagine living without a few months before, I missed seeing the sheer destruction around me. Without anchors I missed the sun not setting and rising again, the world burning outside my door. The trains not running, people not working, life not unfolding, ready to welcome me back. The walls had collapsed and I sat in the rubble until the rubble felt like home. Two months ago, when Paul started a new relationship, the floor suddenly caved in and I fell down the deepest well of grief I didn’t know existed. Every time I think the bottom might be near and I might be able to push myself back to the surface, I fall even deeper. When I look around me, there are no tall trees showing me the way home, no train whistle waiting for me. Nothing looks like family, nothing looks like home. 

I don’t know where home is anymore. 

Object writing: Thanksgiving


The late afternoon sun sits just above the awning, pouring a diffuse light into the coffee shop. A large reclaimed wood table marks the centre of the establishment, drawing eclectic elements of design and decoration to itself. A school holiday on the eve of Thanksgiving has forced families into a 4-day weekend, a blessing grown tenfold by Mother Nature’s friendly disposition.

Coaxed out of their homes by summer’s last hurrah, customers slowly fill every seat in the small, welcoming space. Some come and go, continuing their stroll coffee in hand. Others settle on the patio, soon to be met by friends or greeted by acquaintances.

Distracted, I watch the moment unfold through the large windows in front of me. The street and its activity unroll, bordered by the black and white awning, each window like one of 24 frames. A second in time.

 

Staffer’s Notebook: We’re not gonna take it. Or we will.



This post started out as an email to my boss, Glen Gower. Then it got a little too long. 

Last month news broke with allegations of improper behavior by Councillor Chiarelli. This week, Councillor Chiarelli requested a leave of absence for stress-related illness as victims shared more first-hand testimonies of sexual harassment. For women working on Councillor’s Row, questionable workplace behaviour from elected officials was old news. The real news was that someone was talking about it. 

My work relationship with my employer gives me space and confidence to share my concerns about the general working conditions for political staff. In the weeks since the news broke, Glen and I have had several conversations about working conditions for Councillors’ staff and he encouraged me to share my thoughts in my Staffer’s Notebook.  

The power dynamics leading men to exert dominance over women’s minds and bodies is well expressed by Oscar Wilde’s famous quote: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” We expect elected officials to be leaders in their community and we hold them to the highest standard of behavior, yet it is democracy’s inconvenient truth that they represent the best and the worst of us.

The story of the powerful man and the intern is as old as democracy itself. I scoff at the surprise that it should happen here, in Ottawa. If the MeToo movement has taught us anything, it’s that years of sensitivity and inclusion training has done nothing to discourage those who use sex to control. We seem to take comfort in the suggestion that this behavior is the purview of jerks. Drawing a clear delineation between the good guys and the bad guys prevents us from looking at the ways our work environment enables abusive behaviour. Nowhere is this as true as in political offices. At all levels of government, the harassment and questionable hiring practices of elected officials take root in a garden carefully maintained by others.

I have worked as a political aide in federal and municipal politics. Everywhere, our employment conditions are precarious. Yet we work amidst organizations with mature and elaborate HR practices, alongside a well-represented unionized workforce. Be it in the federal or municipal government, elected officials are free to belittle, sexually objectify and threaten their staff while everyone looks the other way. And so the seeds of abuse sprout and grow unchecked, untamed and unmanaged. Our only recourse is to take it or leave it.

The image of one elected official representing one constituency has not kept pace with the complexity of representative democracy. Elected officials still hold office as a one-man show, but their operating budgets have grown to include a full-time staff providing the level of service that residents expect. Yet, everything in the staffing of political offices seeks to minimize the visibility of staffers and discount their existence. We are an extension of our employer, a line item in an operating budget, hired and fired at will. Our jobs have no requirements, our salaries are drawn from the same budget as office furniture and left to the discretion of each councillor. There is no salary scale, no promotion track, no equal pay, no performance reports, but most importantly, no complaint mechanism protecting us from the consequences of speaking out. Like office stationery we are expendable, and our value lies in augmenting a Councillor’s capacity without being noticed.

The low pay and precarious conditions of employment invite a workforce that is young, inexperienced and transient, unwilling to compromise its ability to find better paying work elsewhere in the organization. It also works to create a revolving door of young and inexperienced staff that carries with it a reputation for incompetence and ineffectiveness. Some departments will not let municipal staff interact directly with political aides in the absence of a manager. It works at cross-purpose with the City’s stated goal to be an employer of choice and with councillors’ need to receive sensible and knowledgeable advice in the conduct of their duties. Most importantly, it prevents the coalescence of stories, concerns and experiences into corporate memory and practices.

The precarity and sensitive nature of elected officials’ positions has explained their need for flexibility in staffing. For the most part, this flexibility has worked to the advantage of people like me: people with incomplete or patchy resumes, people with interrupted work experience, people whose personal lives have stunted their professional development, in other words, people who have difficulty finding work elsewhere. A CBC news item referred to our positions as “desirable” and I agree that my position as a Councillor’s Assistant has given me a unique perch into the complex levers of public administration. But being “lucky to have this job” combined with the unchecked staffing practices afforded to elected officials compromises our ability to challenge abuse,  especially in the absence of clearly defined protections against retaliation.

We assume that the desirability of our position makes up for its precarity. This might be true for the stock staffer imagined from political tv series but for those who eschew the glamour of fiction, the desirability is subservient to the precarity. We have bills to pay, families to support. We make decisions to manage the precarity of our positions rather than its desirability: we keep our heads low, we don’t make waves. We can justify the low pay and long hours by the desirability of the position. But we cannot in good conscience justify vulnerability to abuse and harassment as the price to pay for a desirable position. Yet this is the message that the City sends staffers by letting elected officials make their own rules in matters of staffing.  

Last week, Mayor Watson and Councillor Kavanagh issued a public statement stating that “All City employees, including employees of elected officials, have the right to a workplace that is free of harassment.” This is as true as it is meaningless. We may have access to counselling services and a shoulder to cry on, but we are institutionally kept at arm’s length from the City’s Human Resources. Once we avail ourselves of our 6 counselling sessions, our options to deal with harassment remain as binary as they ever were: take it or leave it. There is no HR pipeline to find us safe employment elsewhere in the City, no procedure to provide adult supervision to our employers, no protection against the gossip and rumours that may spread as a result.

The Clerk’s Office sent out an email reiterating the City’s commitment to be a workplace free of harassment and announcing a review of the recruitment and hiring process for Councillor’s Assistants. I hope that this review will be done in consultation with Councillors’ Assistants. However, I am concerned that the need for sweeping systemic changes, once identified, will meet fierce opposition from Councillors and inertia from City Staff. 

Power is a tricky thing to pass on. It’s slippery and it doesn’t have handles. 

Sight Lines


It’s Tuesday morning and we are walking to school down a neighbourhood street, the kind that invites speeding.

The street is straight and as wide as a French highway. Every street corner boasts ample sight lines, right into another beautiful, wide, straight, neighbourhood street. These neighbourhood streets are so close to two elementary schools that the children who live here do not qualify for bussing. They are expected to walk or bike. Yet the car — or if you live in an affluent suburb like Stittsville, the luxury SUV and the contractor pick-up — is King. The roads are designed for maximum visibility, which we have learned, invites maximum speed.

On our walk to school, I am holding my 5 year-old’s hand on one side of the street. My daughter is walking on the opposite side  because she’s mad at me.

Before we left, her brother threw her school bag on the ground instead of giving it to her and she said: “I’m not picking it up” and started leaving. I said “So he throws your school bag on the ground and you leave it here with your lunch and your homework. Who are you punishing exactly?” Her brother was long gone. She lashed out at me “SHUT UP. I don’t care about you, I don’t care what you think. Just stop talking.” And my heart just broke because it was the third time before 8 am I had been told by someone to shut up and the second time I had been told that no one cared. And that was after being yelled at by another angry child who had been asked not to swing a toy at the walls, accusing me of not caring about anyone. Never in my life have I met someone who worked so hard for people she doesn’t care about.

And so we walked towards the school and toward an incoming white SUV who had to swerve to avoid my daughter on one side, then swerve to avoid my son and I on the other side. In my impatience, I made a hand gesture signalling her to slow down and she did slow down just enough to roll her window down and yell at me.

“I’m doing 35!” she said as she sped off again through a stop sign. The stop signs are beautifully designed for maximum safety, with sight triangles the size of Texas. The visibility is so impeccable that you don’t even need to stop, you can see cars coming a mile away. A 5 year-old on his bike, maybe not. But he’s not the King of the road.

Who knows, maybe she was doing 35? Speed is hard to appreciate when the pick-up coming at you is so jacked that the front wheels are taller than your 5 year-old. You wouldn’t want to be stuck in traffic on the 417 with anything less than 10 inch of ground clearance. Everything looks too fast when it weights 2 tons and is coming at you, know what I mean? I don’t have a radar gun in my head, I only have a hunch that whatever the speed limit is, if you need to serve to avoid my child, it might be too high. Just a hunch. Just a mother’s heart that may be bruised but still skips a beat when you hurl a heavy-duty motor vehicle at the featherweight child she’s just been accused of not caring about.

My daughter crossed the street and came to see me. She said “Why was this lady yelling at you?” and I said it was because I had made a sign to slow down. “That lady looks like she might have a problem” my daughter answered.  And I said “Maybe. But how is that different from what you did this morning?”

“I said something you didn’t like so you yelled at me. I said something this lady didn’t like so she yelled at me.”

“I’m everyone’s anger doormat. People are angry and they don’t like it, so they look for someone to wipe their anger off on. You just used me to clean the anger you felt towards your brother. This lady used me to clean up the anger she felt at God-knows-what. We wipe our anger on people and we leave satisfied, for a moment. But the anger doesn’t disappear. Now I have to deal with it. Now I have to deal with the pain of having been yelled at, of having been told no one cares about what I say, of having been accused of not caring.”

Now I have to deal with the fear that the next time this lady drives by my family she’ll speed up instead of slowing down, just to show me who this street really belongs to. Anger doesn’t dissipate. It doesn’t evaporate. It communicates like a disease. It sullies everything it touches until all of us are trying to wipe it off something else.

Seeing is not caring. We thought that better visibility would make our roads safer,  as if seeing the other was all that carefulness needed to take root. We expanded the sight lines, widened the triangles, until we realized that carelessness expands to fit the space it is given.

We have worked diligently to eliminate friction points. To eliminate the need to proceed with caution. To eliminate the need to look the stranger in the eye, to see the other’s fear. We are trying to eliminate the need to mature, to become self-aware. To admit our mistakes. We make it possible for a grown woman driving an expensive vehicle to react with the maturity of a 10 year-old girl and drive away satisfied, having learned nothing but maybe taught two children that problems are solvable by denial and deflection.

And so carelessness expands to fit the space it is given, anger communicates like a disease, and sight lines become blind spots.

 

Blogging like it’s 2009


Last Fall, after looking unsuccessfully for work for a few months, I deemed it God’s will that writing should be my new job and committed to write a blog post every day to get back in the writing habit.

Of course, 3 days later I found work that I enjoy so much it became my hobby. In other words, I haven’t been blogging much since December. I still write plenty but that will be lost on you unless you have questions about utility easements and bus rapid transit.

All that being said, I miss writing about inconsequential things like raising well-adjusted children in an off-kilter world, loving your babies when you don’t like them, and trying to find balance when everything piles up on one side. I still have ideas and opinions and I share them freely on text and email. But I miss the interaction with friends and family near and far through my blog.

As more and more people take breaks from social media and become more circumspect about what they share publicly, and as social media grows increasingly useless as a free sharing platform, writers have switched to subscription models and email newsletters. I tried the subscription model but I’m not popular enough to make it worthwhile: I received enough money to create an obligation to write but not enough to free-up time to do so. I never tried the email newsletter but if your Inbox is anything like mine, you know that we are way past peak newsletter. I’m not sure what the solution is but I think that we will soon see a return to RSS readers and eventually ink on paper. In the mean time, if you enjoy reading what I write, I would like to know what is the best way to reach you.

I have a few “Staffer’s Notebook” posts on matters of urban planning and city-building currently stuck in the pipe but I plan too return to my completely haphazard mix of “whatever floats my boat” as soon as I clear them. I’m also working on a “Now” page, which is something more specific than the “About” page but more permanent than a social media status. Think of it as what you would tell relatives you see once a year at a family reunion.

In the meantime, here is a picture of Ève and Lucas — my twins — who were the reason I started this blog 8 years ago, while on bed rest expecting them. Don’t blink!

 

Staffer’s Notebook: Trees and road safety


I am currently in France visiting family for a little over two weeks. Since my job is also my hobby I took the opportunity of travelling without young children to turn this holiday into an urban planning field trip. Europe is far ahead of North America when it comes to managing population density, resource conservation and the perils of pollution. It’s not a criticism as much as an observation: they addressed those concerns as they emerged, they just emerged earlier than they did in North America..

Yesterday, we travelled from Rouen (in Normandy) to the Ardèche region, a forested mountainous area near the Rhône and within a crow’s flight of the French Alpes’ foothills. It’s in the south-eastern quadrant of the Hexagon.

Instagram: @hey.vero_

We travelled most of the way on France’s privatized toll highway system and finished the trip with a short stint on the “Nationale 7” , the historic tree-lined trunk road stretching from Paris to the Italian border. Used by thousands on their way to the Mediterranean, it is known in popular culture as “Route des vacances” (Holiday route) and — more tragically — “Route de la mort” (Death Route). It is comparable in history and popular culture to America’s Route 66. If Route 66 had been built by the Romans.

We drove down the old Nationale 7 along the Rhône River towards the mountains of Ardèche.

Later that evening, we were discussing road safety and how a series of French policies in the 80’s and 90’s had seen a steady decrease in road casualties from 18,000 a year down to 4,000 with an increasing population. My uncle said in passing that it was hard to parse out which policy had had what impact “between alcohol, speed, seatbelts and trees…”

Trees?

My mother said “Oh, these trees killed a lot of people!”

As it turns out, the iconic borders of trees have a storied past. Seen by some as a road safety hazard, they are also part of France’s cultural heritage to be saved and protected:

Avec la vitesse, la conduite en état d’ivresse, les incivilités, les arbres d’alignement en bord de routes sont aujourd’hui considérés comme un danger à éliminer. Et pourtant… Depuis des siècles, nos paysages sont structurés par les alignements qui bordent routes, fossés, canaux et rivières. Les arbres de bord de route, et en particulier les alignements, constituent un patrimoine reconnu, protégé par la loi dans certains pays.

http://www.patrimoine-environnement.fr/les-alignements-darbres-en-danger-partout-en-france/

Believed to be an answer to medieval deforestation and a solution to shipbuilding needs , the trees, called “arbres d’alignement” for the way they delineate the roadway, were mandated by Henri III in 1552.

Roadway tree planting intensified at the beginning of the 19th Century as a mean of reducing the dust caused by vehicular traffic. By 1895, 3 million trees lined 35,000 km of national roads and even more could be found alongside secondary roads and channels.

In the 1940’s the border trees — until then considered a source of shade and cultural identity — became the scapegoat for the death toll brought on by the rise of the automobile. Calls for their systematic removal met cries for their preservation. Accused of causing 10% of roadway deaths, border trees were not even given the grace of mentioning the state or behavior of the drivers before being killed.

Caught in the crosshair of a campaign to reduce road fatalities, border trees received the support of President George Pompidou in 1970 when he wrote an exasperated letter to his Minister of the Interior upon learning of a policy to remove border trees in spite of his express wishes that they be preserved (my translation):

Trees have no other defenders than myself it seems, and even this doesn’t seem to matter. France does not only exist to allow the French to drive around it at will. Regardless of their importance, road safety problems shouldn’t result in the disfiguration of France’s landscape.

Decreasing traffic accidents will only result from educating drivers and establishing simple rules adapted to the configuration of the road instead of the current complexity sought in signalisation as if it was a hobby. It will also result from more stringent rules in matters of drunk driving (…)

In other words, blaming the trees is a little rich when you were soaked as a Christmas cake behind the wheel. (My uncle told me that blood alcohol levels used to be an extenuating circumstance in vehicular manslaughter trials. We laughed but it wasn’t funny).

Ordinances calling for the systematic removal of roadside trees multiplied in the 80’s and 90’s until 2006 when studies of road safety revealed that border trees — or as one urban designer once told me “anything vertical close to the curb” — had a traffic calming effect. Studies of road safety statistics in communes where trees has been completely removed also emerged showing the questionable impact of designing roads to be wide, straight, and devoid of obstacles (spoiler: it makes people drive faster, has an hypnotic effect and contributes to an increase in accidents.)

In 2010, a village near Norfolk, England experimented with the traffic calming effect of the ironically called “French style avenue”. Borders of trees were shown to reduce the average speed upon entering the village by 3-5km/h for a fraction of the cost of buying and maintaining traffic cameras.

England is generally considered to be 30 years ahead of France in matters of traffic safety and yet, despite these positive results, the remaining French border trees have been singled out as part of a wide-ranging safety audit of French departmental roads.

If you are as interested in the confluence of road safety, traffic calming, environmental preservation, urban design and urban heritage as I am, go and read this 66-page document (with pictures) on road infrastructure and natural landscape from the European Landscape Convention : http://patrimoine-environnement.fr/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/CEP-CDPATEP-2009-15-TreeAvenues_fr.pdf

In the meantime, here is Charles Trenet singing the praises of Nationale 7:

Q: How do you know someone does CrossFit?


A: … they tell you.

At the risk of being one of “these people”…

About 4 years ago, a friend joined a Crossfit gym and started gushing about it *incessantly* on social media. My 9th child was about 7 months old and my health was declining rapidly due to undiagnosed autoimmune thyroiditis or Hashimoto’s disease. I was gaining weight rapidly, going from 140 to 200 lbs over a 4-month period. I suffered from creeping depression, constant fatigue, debilitating migraines and insomnia, and the best answer doctors had for me was that these things tend to happen when you turn 40… I did a Whole 30, cut gluten and dairy. I lost some weight but nothing got the results my friend was seeing on her CrossFit journey. I envied my friend’s measurable progress but I thought — as most people do — that I wasn’t in good enough shape to start CrossFit: I had a back injury, bad knees and a lazy streak. I wasn’t as focused as my friend, it looked too hard, the people looked weird, it just wasn’t for me.

The picture below shows me in December 2014 and May 2015, before and after adopting a paleo diet. 

In the Spring of 2015, after adopting a Paleo diet and cutting out gluten, my cycles regulated and I was able to get pregnant. After an early miscarriage I was pregnant again and looking forward to welcoming Baby Number 10 around the end of March 2016. In September 2015, I miscarried again, this time after 13 weeks of pregnancy. The miscarriage was sudden, unexpected and turned into a major medical emergency when I started bleeding out. It was like my body had opened a faucet at full volume. The last thing I told my oldest daughter as I left for the hospital was “try to make my bathroom not look like a crime scene.” There was blood up the shower walls from the large clots that felt splashing on the floor. I passed out from the blood loss, was hospitalized and received a blood transfusion. A friend told me to expect the recovery to last as long as the pregnancy would have. Of my 10 pregnancies, that one was by far the one that took the most out of me.

September 2015, before and after the blood transfusion.

After my miscarriage, I started sufferig from unrelenting back pain. I assumed it was due to poor core conditioning and took a gym membership. I went to the gym regularly for weightlifting, yoga, Zumba, and TRX group classes. I have ADHD and the trauma of the miscarriage had sent my symptoms into overdrive. Back then, before I gave up trying to brute-force it without meds, I had a decent day if I could get two exercise classes a day. I would drop off the kids at school, go to the gym for 3h, see the physio for my back, see the therapist for my brain, and it was time for school pick up. I used to joke semi-seriously that being me was a full time occupation.

Being active was better than not being active but the results rapidly plateaued. I had lost some weight thanks to dietary changes but I kept gaining unless I followed a strict autoimmune protocol diet. This caused me to hyper-focus on food and tailspin into anxiety. I felt in a constant loop of lose-lose situations, damned if I did, damned if I don’t. I was cycling through different types of physical therapy and alternative medicines  to address my back pain, looking for anything, anyone, that could at least stop it from getting worst. My thyroid condition was tricky to manage, going through 3-month cycles of flare-ups, medication adjustment, stabilization, and back to flare up. My migraines were getting more intense and more frequent, often keeping me bed-ridden for days. Medication narrowly kept my ADHD from running away with my sanity but if I forgot to take my meds, the whole day was a write off. I was moody, unpredictable and sad. I was looking for work unsuccessfully and half-thankful I wasn’t getting any luck: I didn’t know how I could hold down a job in these conditions.

I was hopeless and depressed, believing what I was told: I was over 40, my body had been through a lot, that’s just what happens when you have 9 kids. You’re amazing for showing up, why do you expect more?

My oldest daughter signed up at CrossFit Closer on my recommendation. A year later, we moved just around the corner from Landmark CrossFit in Stittsville and registered two of our kids for the teen classes. A few months later, my husband signed up. One of our close friends signed-up at my daughter’s gym. At this point, I considered myself Patient Zero for 5 CrossFit memberships and I didn’t even know what a box looked like on the inside. I saw how amazing it was for other people but I wanted no part in it.

On my 45th birthday, I sent my resume on a lark to my new municipal councillor and on December 1st 2019 I started working at Ottawa City Hall. From my first interview, I knew that this job would change my life. Right out of the gates, it gave me enough confidence to see that I still had a fight left in me. I agreed to try a CrossFit class with my husband on New Year’s Eve just so he’d shut up about it.

I went. It sucked. I came back two days later. I’m stubborn like that, and I just can’t quit at the bottom. And that’s how I knew the old me was still hiding somewhere in there.

It’s been 6 months and I go to a 6:00 am class every weekday. I started training 3 times a week in January and increased it to 4 then 5 times over March-April. I try to squeeze-in a yoga or mobility class once or twice a week and I bike 30km to work once or twice a week.

Inside the gym, the transformation has been slow and steady.

You won’t see my Amazing Mom Bod on Instagram because I ain’t got one. I still weigh more today than I did 9 months pregnant with twins. In 6 months of training I gained 8 lbs and dropped half a pant size, so i’m not even getting new clothes out of this deal. If I was in it for the body, I’d be blowing my nose in my bikini right now. My technique is improving, my stamina is improving, my range of motion is increasing. When I started CrossFit I couldn’t run, I couldn’t lift, I couldn’t jump. And now I can run a little, I can jump on and over things, and I can lift some weight. My back pain is slowly decreasing but is still a limiting factor. I take two steps forward and one step back, consistently slower than everyone else, but I’m moving in the right direction.

Outside the gym, the transformation has been more remarkable.

I can bike to work. I can drive my car in reverse without needing pain meds to get over the twisting motion. I can get out of my car without having to remember which foot goes down first. This spring, I helped with the flood mitigation efforts in Ottawa and I was able to fill sandbags, move sandbags, hoist myself on the back of a flat bed truck, jump off the back of a flat bed truck, run with a wheel barrow from one site to another, in pouring rain, all this a few hours after my 6 am workout and I felt better coming out than I did going in.

My migraines are almost completely gone and their severity has decreased to the point where they can be managed with minimal medication. My autoimmune condition is a non-issue and my thyroid meds have not increased since last year. I was even able to completely eliminate one thyroid medication. I went from taking 4 prescription drugs daily to two. I eat well but I’m not tracking calories, macros or eliminating entire food groups. I limit my sugar intake by eating whole foods but I don’t worry about treats. The reality of high intensity workouts is that you can’t eat like shit before and you don’t want to eat like shit after. I can follow my body’s cues on how much carbs, protein, fat and hydration it needs. Not having anxiety over food and diet has been a huge improvement to my quality of life.

Inside my head, the transformation has been life-changing.

The biggest difference CrossFit has made has been in the management of my ADHD symptoms and I want to dwell on this for a minute. We know that exercise is key in managing symptoms of cognitive and mental disorders but few therapists know that all exercise forms are not created equal.

ADHD medication — while life-changing — is not a panacea. It makes it possible to manage your condition by giving you the ability to form habits and follow through with healthy lifestyle choices but it doesn’t magically give you a “normal” brain. Using enough medication to manage all your symptoms without effort puts you in dicey territory when it comes to the delicate balance of benefits and side-effects. To get the most benefits from medication with the fewest side-effects, you should travel the last mile on your own steam. That’s what CrossFit has done for me.

High Intensity Interval Training combined with strength training have had the same impact on my ADHD symptoms than medication. Medication gave me the ability to function normally in the world. CrossFit is allowing me to finally realize my full potential (and if you or someone you love has ADHD, you know that “not performing to potential” is one of our Greatest Hits).

Living with ADHD is like trying to drink from a fire hose. All the time. Your brain is processing every input cranked up to 11. Physically, CrossFit workouts are like a soothing bath of endorphins for your brain. Every morning at 6 am I take a day’s worth of nervous tics and fidgetting energy and I burn it for fuel in a workout.

My CrossFit coaches were the first people who didn’t buy the “you’re over 40 and had too many kids” set of excuses. They took me where I was at and told me to push it an inch farther. With 9 children, nobody dares call me lazy or tell me to try harder… except my CrossFit coaches. They believe that wherever you’re at is where you push from. And maybe the range of how far you can push is tiny, but they’ll make you cover than range.

As a mother of 9 in her mid-forties, I can’t tell you how life-affirming it has been to spend the first hour of every day with a group of people who believe that you can always improve something, that there is no right age to give up and stop trying.

The group class setting and the planned workouts have helped me stay consistent for 6 months, a record for anyone who has a brain wiring averse to forming habits. The feeling of peace and contentment I feel after the buzzer rings and the workout ends is like nothing I ever felt before. It acts like its own drug and it keeps me coming back the next day.

Don’t take my work for it. Try it. Find a CrossFit gym that matches your needs and abilities — some are more competitive than others. If you have injuries or challenges, ask clearly how the coaches are planning to address them. Ask about modifying workouts to fit your circumstances. If you don’t like the answers, visit another gym — or just come with me to Landmark CrossFit in Stittsville. The coaches have built their brand on achieving progressive results through great form and technique and my gym mates cover the gamut of age and ability.

Come on, do it. I wouldn’t be “one of these people” if I didn’t think it could change your life.

 May 2019 at my second born son’s graduation from RMC, holding my youngest son.

Full, beautiful, blessed and lonely


Hi world,

I know it’s been a while.

Life here is relentless. I work, I take care of my family, I try to sleep enough and I go to the gym. Taking care of mind, body and family is all that my 24 hours currently allow. Of course, my family is a little larger than average and my work has no clear boundaries. But last weekend, my husband went on a motorcycle trip with his friend Brad and I had a moment of sadness when I realized that I had no one to talk to.

It’s nothing new. I’ve been on the outer edge of my friends’ lives for most of the last 23 years. But when Paul leaves, the echo rings deep. I have friends, don’t get me wrong, but I never see them. I’m the weeds growing on the shoulder of people’s personal lives: my friendship is the rugged type that blooms in weird and inappropriate places. It doesn’t expect care and feeding, it takes root firmly in the poorest soil but remains mostly ignored and undisturbed. Nobody picks it up or plants it on purpose, it never ends up in a bouquet, displayed in a special spot or marking a special occasion.

It’s a full, beautiful, and blessed life. So full it has pushed out relationships, ambitions and dreams. So beautiful it has built walls around itself. So blessed its halo intimidates those who come close to it. Full, beautiful, blessed, and lonely in the midst of a crowd of children, acquaintances, colleagues and followers.

I started this blog almost 8 years ago while I was expecting my twins. At the time, social media was but an echo of what it has become. It offered a connection with the outside world, a way to keep in touch against the isolation of bed rest and, later, the twins’ infancy. But its promise of friendship without effort was a hopeful lie. Friendship requires presence. Presence requires effort. Our brains are tricked into believing that the little thumbs’ up at the bottom of a post are a meaningful connection but our hearts are not dupe. I am lonely in the midst of a crowd. I get social media wine emojis all the time but I have no one to go for drinks with.

This sense of loneliness and isolation comes at the bottom of a wave, when there is a false sense of calm. In the calm, what was previously hidden appears in sharp contrast.

“And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask the more.”

This full, beautiful and blessed life has required much. When the water recede for a moment, in the momentary lull between two waves, I feel a sadness at what I have lost, or never been able to gain. In these moments, what has been given disappears in the shadow of what has been required. I mourn the relationships that withered and those who were never given a chance to grow. I mourn the skills I lost and the progress I never made. I mourn meeting someone to play and write music with. I mourn traveling to the cities I only read about. I mourn being sought out for my knowledge and experience. I mourn the person I thought I would be when I grew-up. I mourn the friend I could have been.

When the loneliness weights too heavily, I take refuge in writing and there, in my own thoughts, characters live, breathe and love, they travel, sing and fight. They take risks and make horrible mistakes that they struggle to repair. They live the lives I will never live and screw them up in ways I will never dare. They process emotions I hide deep down and move along an arch that bends away from proper order and convenience. They are left to run freely towards their dreams and ambitions without too much regard for appearances or good conduct.

These days spare little time for fiction and creativity, for pretending, for music and drawing. In times like these, I have to make do with patience and civility, keeping entire universes of things unsaid and stories untold in square little boxes, hoping they don’t escape as angry words, bitter tears or extravagant expectations. I carry the weight of this contained universe in my chest and pray that it doesn’t implode and burn everything in its vicinity.

Universes are hard to carry: they are slippery and they don’t have handles.