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.
On April 16 2019, Ottawa City Councillor Shawn Menard presented a motion asking the City to declare a climate emergency to the Environmental Protection Etc. Standing Committee. The motion passed at Committee and will rise to City Council for a vote by all City Councillors.
Since most of you are conservative-minded, I thought I would respond to you directly rather than wait for your left-leaning City Councillor to do so. Not all Councillors are left-leaning mind you, but I’m sure that anyone who supports this motion will be painted with the same red-orange brush.
I offer myself as your interlocutor because I made life choices that have planted me squarely in the centre of the conservative messaging’s Venn’s diagram.
I represent everything progressives want to progress away from.
I studied law but sacrificed my career to stay home with my children while my husband worked. To this day, my paycheque is sent automatically to a joint account and I couldn’t tell you the figure on my bi-weekly deposits. I am a Catholic mother of nine children conceived the old fashioned way. I chose not to use birth control with my own brain.
As a mother of nine, living in a walkable neighbourhood is unaffordable, electrical cars are too small, and using my bike to go grocery shopping is impossible. We live in a house built over prime agricultural land by one of those greedy developers bike-lane advocates wake-up to loathe at night. Neither of the two egress routes out of my neighbourhood have sidewalks and both require a documented death wish to be biked. Our neighbourhood — while far from the worst — has no green space other than the Hydro corridor and is so poorly serviced by public transit that we own three vehicles, one for each driver. Our van is the biggest on the street, yet another proof of my husband’s virility, as if we needed one.
Because I’m a good hang, I’m often tapped by newsmedia to be their token mother of a large family. In 2014, Robert Sibley wrote a piece about our family in the Ottawa Citizen. It took no time for the global warming trolls to go to town in the comments. I’ve been called every ugly name in the progressive workbook and then some. Not only was I not convinced to stop killing the planet, I wrote a blog post defending my choices. It remains the most popular post on my blog. You can’t buy right-wing creds like these. My husband is a gun owner and we have three grown children in the military. I don’t vote Conservative yet I’m a neodemocrat’s worst nightmare.
I’m friends with a lot of people who believe, as you probably do, that climate change is a matter of opinion at best and a hoax at worst. It’s not that you don’t want to use your bike or a LED lightbulb, you just don’t want the government to force you to do so for reasons you don’t buy. You want fiscal responsibility, business cases and freedom. Liberals think that your political inclinations are due to selfishness. In reality, you think, just as liberals do, that you hold the key to political stability and social cohesion. Every decision you make, from how to plant your garden, where to buy your house, and who to elect, gives shape to your understanding of happiness. Your imagination fails when you have to accept that other people are acting under the same inspiration.
Politicians who succeed in moving the ball forward on broad societal change are those who understand that public support does not rest on homogeneity of purpose but in aligning common interest among a diversity of points of view. If you can convince people that their neighbours are not after their piece of pie but rather part of a closed system, you might achieve something meaningful.
Part of my job at City Hall is to think of ways to talk about social issues without using words such as “sharing,” “equity” and “fairness” and replace them with “business case,” “common sense” and “freedom.” It’s interesting because conservative political philosophy never argued for letting the poor and the downtrodden fend for themselves. The difference between conservative and liberal philosophies is not whether or not we should help the poor but how to do it. In conservative philosophy, communities are loosely organized by geographical closeness or family ties and riches are shared based on need as defined organically by the community. Families should be strong and are worthy of protection because they are the social safety net. In liberal philosophy, government is responsible for sharing the riches and determining who needs what. The judgment call, the agency, is transferred from the family to the government. Things get sticky when the government and the taxpayers disagree on how much to share, who is needy and what is needed. Liberals don’t have the humility to admit that governments are becoming too large and unwieldy to adapt to need in a timely manner. It needs families and communitites to bridge the gap. Conservatives don’t have the humility to admit that individuals and families don’t have all the information necessary to decide who deserves to be helped. Evening-out the playing field with objectivity is the fair thing to do.
Pride: still going before the fall, after all these years.
The problem in Canada is that we lean left when it comes to our expectations of what we should receive and right when it comes to giving it to other people. We howl for tax cuts and service increases in the same breath. We elect conservative governments on promises of tax and spending cuts but we don’t carry through with the rest of the bargain: that in exchange for more freedom, we will make sure that those in need will be helped. We’re content to leave people to their sorry fate while commending our hard-work and good choices. Until hard times befall us and everyone is looking the other way.
Our election system rewards divisive language and polarizing ideas. Then leaves the winners to reach out to those they painted as the problem, wondering why they can’t reach consensus. The motion to declare a climate emergency is a good move for those who value freedom and fiscal responsibility but how can we expect conservatives to take Shawn Menard’s word for it when he just called them Dinosaurs on every media platform available? I have been telling my kids to use nice words rather than insults for 25 years, I can be your mediator.
Forget about making life better for other people. Forget about the environment, forget about a low-carbon economy, forget about stewardship, rising sea-levels and equity if you must. Just think about yourself, your family, and how measures to counter climate change can improve your quality of life, give you more freedom and lower your taxes.
The motion to declare a climate emergency comes with an obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to review the City’s priorities from the perspective of climate change. This may sound like a whole bunch of gobbledygook but think about it: the City will have to start thinking in terms of getting people off the road. I don’t think we’re arguing that cars and trucks cause pollution anymore. To do so, the City will have to promote density in areas already well serviced by transit and improve the efficiency and coverage of our transit system. You may think “how does this benefit me, who drives a car and lives in the suburbs?” and “What about my taxes and how much this will cost me?”
If I learned one thing in my 4 months at City Hall is that there is a lot more to the smooth running of a municipality than meets the eye. You might think that living in the suburbs is just another real estate option but your choice to live far from the core is an expensive one. Take my house in Stittsville for instance. Each time I flush my toilet, a complex system of pipes and pumps works to send my sewage to the Robert O. Pickard waste water treatment centre, 39km away. 39km of pumps working non-stop to transport my sewage from one end of the City to the other. And you worry about the cost of LED lightbulbs. Building density around the core rather than build more suburbs like Stittsville means that we’re not extending the capacity of our sewage system farther away than we have to. You can make the same calculation for every piece of infrastructure, from parks to stormwater management to roads and sidewalks, streetlights, I challenge you to name one City service that doesn’t get more expensive as you build it bigger and farther away. If you build more density, your garbage trucks don’t have to drive as far to pick up the same amount of trash. It just makes good business sense. See: I’m using the same means as climate advocates to reach different ends. There’s nothing wrong with making everyone happy!
Transit and bike lanes are another sore point but as God is my witness I don’t understand why you can’t see the benefits of the so-called “war on cars”. I understand that no one likes to be painted as a monster but if I were you and I valued the freedom of car driving and the imperative of fiscal restraint I would sponsor a bus route. You think LRT is expensive but so are roadways. And the more cars we put on these roads, the more they need to be maintained, 12 months a year, in snow, sleet and suffocating heat. By crews of people drawing salary and benefits and driving Really Big Trucks. Not to mention the cost of being stuck in traffic: time is money and idling in traffic is both. Now, you might feel like it’s your prerogative to spend 3 hours in traffic every day and by a large measure it is. But here’s the deal: there are people like me who would rather put needles in their eyes than drive. I much prefer being driven. If you get enough people like me off the roads and into a bus or train, you get more highway to yourself, more time to your day and more money in your pocket.
Diversity of purpose, unity of means. That’s how the world should go round.
Last December I poked the oracle — my Facebook friends — asking for writing suggestions and the oracle obliged. Then Christmas happened, then work happened, then snowmaggedon happened, and one day I was riding the bus home as I usually do, thinking thoughts as I usually do, and I found myself in physical pain from not writing anything more meaningful than an email in over two months*, with big ideas and feelings stuck sideways and no way to knock them loose.
* I started writing this intro in February. It’s now April, and I have been writing more meaningful things than emails at work. Like this.
In my last topic request, people asked me to write about several overlapping things. At least they did in my mind.
The topic as they came out were:
Keeping kids on track when your values don’t align with those of the people around you.
Our policy about sleepovers and how we negotiate it.
The general idea of growing and nurturing a family culture.
These topics work well together because how we manage sleepovers is a perfect sounding board to reflect on family culture and identity, and how we negotiate being different than those around us..
As a rule, we do not allow sleepovers. When our four oldest children were young, it was a hard and fast rule with no exception. Now that our family has grown in age and size, experience and wisdom have brought some nuance to our position. But as a principle, we view sleepovers as unnecessary and generally unhealthy for children. The risk they pose is disproportionate to the benefit they offer. Let me explain.
There are risks in life that we can’t control and risks that we have no choice to expose ourselves to. Every time we take a vehicle we take a risk. We take a risk standing at a cross walk and sitting on our front lawn. Unconsciously — for the most part — I consider that the benefit of sitting on my front lawn outweighs the risk that I will catch a deadly mosquito-born disease. Everyone performs the risk calculation differently and that’s why we have people who don’t let their children play in the grass during tick season and people who travel to the Amazon with their baby in a backpack.
Children are vulnerable and part of our responsibility is to protect them. Vulnerability to risk is not only a function of physical strength and size, but also of maturity and wisdom. To properly manage a risk, we need to be able to see and gauge it. That ability comes with a gradual exposure to situations we can handle and success in handling them . That’s why I don’t allow a 2 year-old outside unsupervised but I do allow a 7 year-old outside unsupervised on my property. I don’t allow my 10 year-old to bike outside our neighbourhood but I do allow my 17 year-old to take my car and go to the grocery store to buy some Ben & Jerry’s providing that she brings some back for me.
If I were to put the risk/benefit calculation on a quadrant, it would look a little like this:
When I speak to parents about sleepovers, they often mention the necessity to let children learn from experience and the scourge of over-protection. I completely agree with both sentiments but I see judgement as a muscle. Muscle strength builds in increments as does the ability to see, appreciate and handle risk.
The existence of risk is appreciated against a steady state, a baseline. Our “spidey sense” is a sense — perceived by our lizard brain before it reaches our frontal cortex — that something is amiss, something is jarring. My job as a parent is to lay down a strong foundation of normal and loving interactions against which my children can gauge weird, inappropriate, abusive, and no good ones.
That sense of deliberate and conscious parenting is where sleepovers start being problematic. When I send my children to someone else’s house overnight, I am making an assumption that this person’s appreciation of “normal” and “age-appropriate” is the same as mine. If my children do not yet have a strong sense of what is normal and appropriate in our family, I am introducing a new layer of information for them to process. In most cases, the differences will be mild and inoffensive. But in the rare cases when they aren’t, confusion is what allows molesters to groom their victims and act under the protection of guilt and shame.
The risk of exposing my children to abuse, traumatizing content or a dangerous situation during a sleepover might be low, but the impact can be life-altering. All it takes is one visiting family friend, one big sister’s boyfriend, one big brother’s experimentation and curiosity. I heard stories of children being left alone after bedtime when the parents went out, children hiding under beds while a drunk parent flew into a rage, children being shown juvenile porn by an older brother, children being molested by the teenage babysitter hired by their friend’s parents. What degree of risk are we willing to tolerate when it comes to sexual or physical abuse? How low a risk is low enough when the risk is not necessary? Must our children learn about perverts by experience? Or are they better off not learning first hand about certain things?
When it comes to low risk and high impact, I have to make the right call 100% of the time. An abuser (or an idiot) only has to be right once to traumatize my child and change the course of a life.
As far as our family is concerned, sleepovers pose a completely unnecessary risk that is (A) completely avoidable, and (B) offers no specific benefit. There’s enough situations I can’t control. This is not one of them.
Staffer’s Notebook is where I put emails that are way too long, or none of my business, or ideas no one wants to hear about. Glen Gower is my long-suffering boss and the person most likely to receive “I wrote you a 1200-word reply, wanna read it?” in response to a simple question. Sometimes he says yes. Sometimes I send it anyways.
Subject: Paris… Sigh
Some time ago (or so) I mentioned the Square du Temple in Paris as an example of a great public space. Today we received an email critical of public art in transit stations in Ottawa. It reminded me of Paris. Everything reminds me of Paris.
As a kid my mom took us back to France often but we never stayed in Paris. Two years ago, I took Éloïse and Marie to France for a family reunion. Since it was their first trip abroad, I decided to play tourist before joining my parents in Brittany. I was always interested in urban design and the secret sauce that makes greatness. My travels to Europe as a child and young adult formed my outlook on density, public transit and art. I wanted my two teenage daughters to experience the smaller footprint of life in a large European city and take that experience back with them to Ottawa, like I did growing up. I took a ton of pictures of public art, gathering space and (of course) transit.
Here is a short video I took in the Square du Temple. It’s about 15 seconds long and doesn’t have much sound: I was trying to capture the feel of the place.
This park is located in the Marais neighbourhood of Paris, a hipster shopping district and former Jewish quarter. The girls and I bought bread, cheese and saucisson at the nearby Marché des enfants rouges — the oldest food market in Paris, created in 1615 — and took our “dinner” back to the park. Once there, we shared a moment with local residents and passers-by. The square is one of the 24 city parks designed and planned by Charles-Eugène Haussman, the prefect of the Seine charged by Napoleon with a massive urban renewal project. Haussman was ousted by critics for extravagance but his vision survives in the spirit that still animates Paris today. The garden in the Square du Temple contains 70 species of trees, some of them exotic and requiring special attention by skilled gardeners. Maintaining the park costs money and the park is not generating any revenues. It serves its purpose as a place of refuge in a densely built environment. It’s beautiful for its own sake.
Paris, like any city in a mature democracy, can no longer put one person in charge of transforming its image at any cost. But the spirit of making art and culture a set piece of any major project lives on. Many public projects in Paris have been commissioned to world-class artists and architects to reinvent and interpret. The Louvre Pyramid comes to mind as do many lesser-known transit stations.
We came to the Square du Temple through the “Arts et métiers” metro station, another public space worthy of a Google search if you are so inclined.
This station is named after the museum of “Arts et métiers” which translates to “crafts and trades”. It is lined with copper panels and was inspired by steampunk esthetics and the Nautilus — Jules Verne’s legendary submarine in 20,000 leagues below the sea. Unlike most metro stations, advertising is not allowed in this station. Portholes dot the walls and display sketches of some of the museum’s exhibits. The station is a work of art. Commissioning the art cost money and the station is not generating revenues through advertising. It’s a public transit station that serves its purpose as a transit station and as a work of art. It’s beautiful for its own sake.
I was reminded of this station during our chat about what our transit system says about our priorities. I said that Ottawa was a City of “good enough”. This is not a value judgement on the morality of being visionary or conservative, it’s a statement about Ottawa’s distinct personality as an agglomeration. I struggle to imagine Ottawa City Council, or the residents who elected it, supporting a kind of artistic vision for transit stations that makes them worth visiting in and of themselves and not just something to pass through. And yet, that ability to think bigger than “how do I get to work?” is part of the secret sauce that makes every corner of Paris worth discovering. I planned our Paris visit around landmark public transit stations, public spaces and public art. The two pictures below are another example of public art adorning a transit station.
We are a practical city. We don’t plant flowers that require a gardener’s care. Our vision for Ottawa Beyond 2036 is to be the “most liveable midsize city.” I wonder if this is not setting us on a path of un-remarkability and damning us to obscurity. Do we want to be a city where people merely live or do we want to be a city that people seek out? Do we want to be “survivable” or “desirable”?
I see “liveable” as a subset of a “desirable”. Liveable speaks to those who are already here. Desirable makes our city attractive to those who are not here yet. The difference between liveable and desirable may be an existential one: do we want to be a city looking inward or outward? Do we want to grow in stature and meaning or do we want to stay cozy within our small-town self-perception? When I listen to Stephen Willis talk about Ottawa Beyond 2036, I hear hopes for a city looking both inward and outward: a city caring for its own and shining beyond its limits. When I listen to the public, I hear wishes for a city that is safe and predictable in scope and ambition. Safe is unremarkable. It will keep our city sprawling, our zoning unequitable, our transit unreliable, our roads wide, our sidewalks missing and our children in our basements.
The best we can hope for by playing it safe is to make the wrong things better or maybe start doing the right things poorly. Doing the right things well will require vision and a will to match.
In public transit speak, “deadhead” is the movement of a transit vehicle without passengers on board. For instance, the time a bus spends driving from the garage to its starting point, or from the end point of its route to its starting point. In a city like Ottawa, where we run one-way express routes into downtown in the morning and out of downtown in the afternoon, deadhead is a costly yet unavoidable element of our transit equation. I thought it was a great concept to name my staffer notebook after.
As a staffer, I often feel like a necessary evil in the bureaucratic equation, something that most people would do without if they could, but can’t figure out how to wish away. If transit authorities could magically make their buses appear at their starting point without using gas or putting mileage on those axles, they would. If City Hall could magically make staffers disappear while maintaining a 100+h workweek for its municipal councillors, it would. The only reason we are tolerated is because we help maintain the illusion that elected officials can singlehandedly read hundreds of pages of reports, sit on 4 committees plus City Council, answer the phone, solve their constituents’ problems, cut ribbons and wrangle stakeholders.
Last December, I started working at Ottawa City Hall for a municipal councillor. Personel attached to a politician are often called “staffers”. In Ottawa, “staffers” are not to be confused with “City Staff,” the public servants and bureaucrats keeping the machine going. It is no coincidence that the two jobs I found after spending several years at home were staffer jobs, one for a federal politician in 2008 and one for a municipal politician in 2018: staffer positions are entry-level positions that require no other background than getting along with your boss. We are hired and fired at our boss’ will. Our salaries come out of each politician’s office budget, along with swag, pens and paper, printers and newspaper advertizement. This is not only a pay mechanism, it is an adequate reflection of our relative importance in the hierarchy of the City. At best, we are something less valuable than furniture. At worst, we get shit thrown at us and get fired for being in front of it. In meetings we have no name, no identity, no claim to a chair or an introduction. (As I was writing this in the cafeteria — no word of a lie — a municipal councillor I meet several times a week walked past me and gave me a blank stare of non-recognition when I said Hi…)
Because staffers are poorly paid, mostly young, and often of questionable ability, the turnover rate among political staff is high. We do not have any recourse if we are treated unfairly: we signed-up to be hired and fired at will. For someone like me, it has been mosly an advantage. I am smart, usually competent, and able to get along with anything with a pulse. What I lack is a resume and work experience beyond “raised 9 live children, no face tattoos.”
I am, essentially, deadhead.
But that’s not how I see myself. I was lucky to be hired by a phenomenal municipal councillor, along with two other spectacular woman. My colleagues make me want to be better every day. We are working in a collaborative environement, supporting one common mission and each other. Within the confines of my office, I don’t feel like an entry-level minion. I feel like a trusted advisor, someone’s whose ideas and talents are valued and used to their full capacity. My push back on some of my boss’ ideas is as appreciated as my support and I have yet to execute a direction I didn’t agree with. When my boss and I disagree, we hash it out, argue, convince each other — or vice-versa — and move on. This is a rare work environment where we are building trust one good decision at a time, like a row-boat moves forward one stroke at a time, as long as both rowers are paddling in the same direction at the same time.
This collaborative environment where ideas are shared freely has caused me to dig deep into municipal policy and planning. I have a Master’s Degree in law: I am naturally inclined to get into the weeds. Urban design is an ongoing invitation to geek-out on just about anything. I am driven to keep up with the conversations happening around me, even when I sit unnoticed and silent. It can be hard to keep my mouth shut and I am chomping at the bit more often than not. I am often writing emails I never send and piling on notes no one will ever read. My hope is that sharing my thoughts on this blog will help me manage my restlessness and form ideas that are my own in this new space I just created.
Early last December I went fishing for blog topics on Facebook and a few friends asked about our Advent and Christmas traditions. There is a “tradition anxiety” among parents of young families: they look at established older families’ traditions, or think about the traditions their own family took years to establish, and wonder what’s wrong with them. The children are crying, everyone is cranky, parents are overwhelmed and nothing feels like the warm-and-fuzzy they see on the Internet or remember from their childhood. This is especially true with young Catholic families who have Kendra Tierney (bless her heart) to look up to. I really envy people like Kendra who have a skill set that dovetails nicely with being the mother of a large family. Kendra Tierney is amazing at homemaking, hosting and getting her kids to wear matching outfits. I’m amazing at writing, reading, and learning new languages and instruments. All skills that are not only useless in case of a zombie apocalypse — beyond being eaten first — but make me a worse parent because they don’t respond kindly to constant interruption. They require practice and introspection and probably a governess too.
“This year, traditions have been canceled for cause of New Job,” I wrote back, hoping to avoid showing the world how lame we are, tradition-wise. Then the CBC called to ask if they could talk to me on the radio about our family traditions and I thought “Can’t avoid it now…” (you can listen to the clip here).
I learned over years of trying to #makememories that memories aren’t made. Memories happen. They grow organically from the things we do over and over again, like the footpaths that appear between sidewalks, showing the shortest point between A and B. If you break down crying every year over your children’s Christmas outfits and yell at everyone to get in the car dammit we’re late for church, it will become the Christmas tradition your children remember, you can quote me on that. I try to keep my eyes on the overarching tradition of enjoying our time together, especially now that my older children are leaving home and returning for holidays. What flows from that — cooking, special outings, crafts and activities — is always up for grabs.
I like to keep traditions to a minimum. It’s a survival mechanism in a family that spans 18 years from oldest and youngest. It’s one thing to get all excited about the Elf making snow angels in a pound of flour when you have two children born two years apart. The window of time during which you have to one-up yourself Elf-wise is relatively short. I’ve had young children in my house for almost 23 years. Not only is that a lot of years to keep up a charade, but things also happen during those years: new jobs are started, bugs are caught, friendships are created and lost, babies are born and lost, pregnancies are announced, fortunes are made and undone. Because traditions are made on the sod that is repeatedly trodden, the ones that survive must be hardy enough to thrive in dry and depleted soil.
Over the years, I have tried to uphold traditions that are rooted in our Catholic Faith. We are practicing Catholics, which means different things to different people. For us, since having Sarah almost 10 years ago, it has meant something like the absolute minimum required by the Precepts of the Catholic Church (whip your catechisms, flip to #2041-3). Since we are so lame faith-wise, I try to make the most out of the feast days of Advent and Christmas. We light-up the Advent wreath at meal times, we celebrate the Feast of St-Nicholas by leaving a small religious item and chocolate money in the children’s shoes on December 6th, we have Jesse Tree ornaments (although we have never finished a Jesse Tree ever), we celebrate the Feast of Mary Mother of God on January 1st and the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. This year, we did none of the above.
In past years, I was leading music ministry during Mass and it forced me to follow the liturgical calendar and Mass readings carefully. I realize now how much this Ministry was nurturing my own life of faith. You may not get on your knees and pray every evening but when you have to practice a psalm or two every week, you eventually learn them. And guess what? In your times of need, the words will come to comfort you. When you have to read the readings, pick the songs, practice the songs and deliver the songs to a congregation, the liturgy becomes part of the rhythms of your life. And the rhythms of a mother’s life become the rhythms of the family’s life.
I had to give up my music ministry responsibilities last year after Easter and while I miss it every week, I didn’t appreciate how much it anchored our families’ traditions. It put me in the Advent spirit of waiting and the celebration of Christmas. This year, we missed the boat entirely, like the Spirit of Christmas passed over our house. On Christmas morning, Éloïse and Clara were taking McDonald’s breakfast orders and I asked “Is that new? Drive-through McD on Christmas morning?” and they looked at me sheepishly and said “Well…. you usually have a whole brunch spread out…” Which is true. Usually.
The 12 days of Christmas are not over yet but in our family it has come and gone quiet as a mouse. We spent time with our older children, who are home from University, and with our parents and siblings. We caught up with cousins and friends we had not seen in a long time. We celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary on the 30th and Marie’s 17th birthday on New Year’s Day, and I was back at work on January 2nd. We watched a lot of movies and drank a lot of coffee. But if I can be perfectly honest, while I am quick to roll my eyes at people’s elaborate traditions, missing out on them reminded me that they serve an important function in breaking the ordinary, in forcing us to become completely engrossed in something different than our every day routine.
A change is as good as a break, they say. Keep changing.
The fun thing about GoodReads is keeping track of what you read by date. In the spirit of making everything one big competition, I couldn’t help but notice that I have read significantly fewer books in 2018 as I did in 2017. I honestly don’t know what I did with my time; what with moving to Stittsville on a 4-week notice, driving the children back to school in Carleton Place for two months, Paul being in Latvia for part of the Summer, having physical therapy several times a week, looking for work and finding it, it’s hard to believe I wouldn’t have time to “yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of (my) mind by extensive reading.”
In January, I finished reading “Papillon” by Henri Charrière. “Papillon” is the questionable autobiography of Henri Charrière, a French man unjustly sentenced to forced labour in the French prison colony of Guyana in 1931. When I was in secondaire 4 (the Quebec equivalent of grade 10), our geography teacher stopped teaching geography in May of every year and read this book to his students from memory. I’m pretty sure he left out the parts where Papillon’s dingy is shipwrecked on a South American beach and he is welcomed by a tribe of naked aboriginal warriors and given two nymphomaniac teenage sisters to marry… Still, it was riveting.
After finishing “Papillon” I tackled “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. This book left its mark as one of the best-written, gut-wrenching books I have ever read. From its unique story to its creative structure (I must have read the book three times for all the times I re-read chapters from the vantage point of the characters as they were revealed) it is a true work of genius.
In February and March I read Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk. Well-done and worth a read. Everyone speaks of Elon Musk’s work ethics but I don’t think “ethics” means what people think it does. In that context, “ethics” are the moral principles governing a person’s behaviour and activities. Reading “Elon Musk: Tesla, Space X, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” I didn’t get the sense that Elon Musk had succeeded because he made decisions based on moral considerations — even if I didn’t share his principles. Elon Musk succeeded in spite of himself by brute force: he has worked relentlessly at launching his companies at the exclusion of everything else. Maybe that’s a moral imperative but the picture of Elon Musk painted by Ashlee Vance betrays a man who is compulsively pursuing the goals he set out for himself, not someone who is making moral choices in the conduct of his activities.
In April, we set the wheels in motions for our move to Stittsville and it looks like I didn’t read much. Imagine that!
In May, I started reading “Two” by Gulzar. Gulzar is a prolific poet and lyric-writer for some of Bollywood’s most beloved soundtracks. “Two” was his first novel and it chronicles the migration of two groups of villagers over the confusing few months preceding the partition of India and Pakistan. Before the lines were drawn, before anyone knew where to go or what was going on. Moved by a sense of impeding doom, Muslims and Hindus who had always lived harmoniously side-by-side set out in separate groups to move where they thought they would be welcomed, away from the sectarian violence rising on each side of the newly created border.
In July and August, I read “L’étranger” by Albert Camus. What can I write about this book that hasn’t been written before? It’s a French classic about a man whose naiveté and honesty — and stupidity? — cause his downfall. He is in equal parts victim of his own choices and wrapped up in events beyond his control, which makes him nearly impossible to sympathize with or completely hate. That’s the genius of Camus’ writing: his ability to show us our own absurdity and hubris through Meurseault’s nihilism. The book opens with one of the most famous French opening lines: « Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. » (Today, mother died. Or was it yesterday, I don’t know.) Slowly, Camus brings us to the same detachment and disenfranchisement as his narrator so that by the time he is condemned to death following a botched and superficial trial, we too can take it or leave it. The genius of “L’étranger” is in what it does to the reader when we become Meurseault.
August to October
In August to October, I slugged through “The God of Small Things” and wrote a review about it. You can read it here. Please read it. I almost broke my brain writing it.
In November I started “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck. Then I found a job. Then my e-reader ran out of juice and I couldn’t find my charger (try that excuse with a paperback!). I’m only on chapter 4 but every sentence is distilled perfection. I already have several index cards with “perfectly written phrases” kicking around. I know this book will bowl me over. I’ll write about it in 2019.
In December I started working at City Hall for my municipal councillor, which blew my urbanism geek’s closet door wide open. “Happy City: Transforming our lives through urban design” by Charles Montgomery is putting some of my experience with the isolation, depression and rebirth I felt when we moved to the country and back into the city. I write quotes on index cards when I read and stick them into the book for future reference. I’m only 50 pages into ‘Happy City” and I have already written so many memorable and important quotes on index cards that I had to start using Evernote because the book was getting too unwieldy from all the extra weight. I’ll probably write a full review when I’m done.
There you have it! Books from 2018. What did you read?
As many of you know, I recently took a position as Councillor’s Assistant for my own municipal councillor, Glen Gower (visit the website, subscribe to the newsletter, Follow AllTheThings), community advocate and overall great guy. When I worked for Pierre Lemieux on Parliament Hill I used to say “Pierre is the best boss so it’s all downhill from there” and, well, it looks like I knocked it out of park boss-wise again. My new workplace doesn’t feel like a boss and three employees but rather like four people with different gifts and abilities plugged into the same circuit for the same purpose. Glen often speaks of his work at City Hall as the work that “we” do and it’s one of the little things that go a long way in making people feel like they matter. I’m a lucky minion.
Working as an assistant is a weird space to occupy for someone who has been CEO, President and Self-Appointed Dictator for Life of her universe for quite some time. It’s challenging, especially when I feel the swell of strong feelings rising. I have to remember that if I wanted a voice at City Council, I was free to run against my boss and have my ass handed to me. It’s a free country.
In the meantime, I would be immensely grateful if you allowed this blog to remain my little corner of the Internet and didn’t assume that my opinions reflect those of my boss or the city. I’m going out on a limb assuming that my readership is small and loyal enough to protect me from the pitfalls of being a staffer with a personality. But if you make me choose between y’all and my paycheque, I’m going to have to go with the paycheque and a big gaping hole in my heart. Check? Check.
Last December 13, the Ottawa City Council met for what some called “pot day,” a special council meeting to debate and otherwise equivocate on the impending licensing of cannabis retail stores in Ontario. Keeping cannabis out of the hands of children (by which Public Health means people under 25, Ontario means people under 19, Quebec means people under 21 and most parents mean anyone who was born to them) is the primary public interest concern driving the regulatory framework of cannabis retail. What “public interest” means differs based on your profession: Doctors doctor, Lawyers lawyer, Accountants account, and politicians represent their constituents with the range of wisdom and intellect we expect in nature. I’m not a doctor, no longer anything resembling a lawyer, I can’t math and was not elected to anything, but one thing I know how to do is impart a healthy dose of perspective and encouragement to parents who are wondering what the heck is going on with cannabis.
Cannabis is legal in Canada and regulated in Ontario by the Alcohol and Gaming Corporation of Ontario. The Ford government set the table for Ontario municipalities by taking away their powers to regulate cannabis retail stores through zoning by-laws. In essence, if a municipality allows retail stores somewhere, it has to allow cannabis retail. It cannot limit the number of licenses issued on its territory, it cannot regulate the clustering of cannabis businesses in certain parts of town, it cannot increase buffer zones around schools and daycares, etc. Many people compare the cannabis regime to alcohol sales through the LCBO but in Ontario cannabis laws and regulations are comparable to cigarette laws and regulations. Got it?
As far as we know — and until it changes again tomorrow — cannabis will be available in 25 retail locations in Ontario starting this January. The retail license regime went from authorizing up to 75 licenses per distributor to 25 for the whole province overnight. Cannabis has been available for purchase online since last October so the question at this point is not when will legal cannabis come to your neighbourhood — spoiler alert: it already has — but rather when will it be available in brick & mortar stores around the corner.
As parents, the public discourse about drugs and alcohol has a sense of inevitability. We exist in a weird place of confused messaging from our governments whereby cannabis, like alcohol and gambling, is seen as just another business when it comes to revenues but a dangerous boogeyman when it comes to its impact on society. We are told to consume freely, but not too much, enjoy, but not too often, send as much money as you can in tax and duties but stop just shy of costing us more in treatment and social services, ok? It’s like abstinence-only sex education: stay far far away from this evil stuff until you reach this magical point (age, marriage) when all this truly evil stuff will suddenly turn good in a puff of glittery smoke. We put buffer zones around schools and hide products behind blinds as if children could walk out of school and accidentally step into a life of addiction.
I’m not concerned about legal cannabis. There I said it. As things are now — and have been since I was a teenager — it’s easier to come by 10 gr of pot around any given high school than it is to buy beer. There is not a single contractor pick-up truck or delivery van in my neighbourhood that doesn’t reek of pot. If you think that pot shops herald the end of civilization, remember that your kid’s high school is currently the local pot shop.
My concern when it comes to drugs and alcohol is not whether my children — by which I mean anyone born to me, whether they are actually children, teenagers or full-grown adults — will try it but whether they will become habitual users or addicted.
I was in a relationship with an addict for two years. He had started drinking at age 12. In the province of Quebec, where alcohol is sold in corner stores to people over 18, he would walk out of his house to catch the school bus, buy a litre of wine at Mac’s milk, and drink it all before his bus turned the corner and picked him up. All the drugs eventually followed as they tend to do.
They say that cannabis is the gateway drug leading to stronger stuff but it’s not cannabis that causes the addiction, it’s whatever the addict is trying to numb. The root of addiction is not the substance, it’s the pain of illness, of loneliness, of dislocation. Cannabis doesn’t have to be laced with Fentanyl to become addictive: it only has to fill a hole, numb a pain, or scratch an itch. I learned the hard way that trying to control the substance without addressing the pain is an exercise in futility. And the pain is dyed in the fabric of the person, sometimes woven right into their DNA. That’s why our parenting leading up to the first time our children are exposed to addictive substances matters more than whether the pot shop sits 150 m or 300 m from their school.
Few parents understand how much influence they have on their teenagers’ lives and choices. Did you ever marvel at how quickly teenagers learn musical instruments? Or languages? Or sports? Or video games? Our teenagers are always learning. I can no longer count the number of times parents have told me with resignation that teenagers have to rebel so there’s no point trying to stop it. Teenagers have to become individuals, and while they often do it in contrast to their parents’ identity, it doesn’t have to be in opposition to it. As a parent, you can choose to be your teenagers’ foil or their sounding board.
Teenagers are wired for love and relationships. If we are not there — physically or emotionally — to provide the unconditional regard they crave, they will find it elsewhere. There is no option where our teenagers don’t attach: if we leave the spot empty, they will attach to peers or to whatever else fills the void. Behind a prickly exterior and off-putting manners, they yearn for connection. Even more: they yearn for connection with us. They struggle with the difference between agreeing and understanding because they crave our approval, not because they look down on it.
Mental illness aside — a topic and I am not knowledgeable or experienced enough to tackle — all the little things we do from birth to show our children that we care add up to a relationship that can withstand the onslaught of drugs, alcohol, and risky behaviours our children are exposed to in school and in the media.
I can’t promise that my children will never engage in risky behaviour. Some already have. But the best I can hope for is that when they feel the pangs of discomfort, when they have doubts, when they want to challenge the orthodoxy of their peer group, they will know that they can turn to their parents for comfort and guidance. That they will trust enough to give us a chance to fill that hole, to love them back to balance. Because in the end, when given the choice between unconditional love and some artificial make-believe, the real thing is what we all yearn for.
I went fishing for blog topics on Facebook and as always, my friends were more than generous with their suggestions. Someone asked me two very good and related questions:
– How do you respectfully communicate with parents who are sometimes and/or all the times overwhelmed with a single child or two, when you have many (ie; not pulling the “you have it easy” card and edifying and respecting them as parents)?
– Likewise, how should those with a singleton respectfully communicate with you and your family?
I found these questions interesting because my problem is usually the opposite: people with smaller families are afraid to complain to me about their problems because they assume that I have it worst, or they apologize for feeling overwhelmed. In other words, they project their own feelings of inadequacy unto me. My challenge is not to communicate respectfully with them but to convince them that I understand.
How should people communicate with me? Respectfully is always appreciated. But if I’m allowed a second request, it would be to stop calling me (A) a Saint/Hero, or (B) Crazy. It makes me really uncomfortable to be called a saint because I’m not. I have character flaws the size of Texas, and I have been born into so much privilege I would be insufferable had I not allowed the size of my family to humble me a little. Being called crazy is just insulting. It’s probably better to err on the side of making me really uncomfortable by calling me a saint than insulting me by calling me insane. But I’m at a point where I avoid telling strangers how many children I have because intelligent conversation tends to die there. And that’s not cool because my family is my life’s work and I am immensely proud of it. Ask me anything and I’ll talk your ear off (just like I’m doing right now). Don’t just stand there with your mouth agape calling me a Saint or a Nut.
I think it’s important for everyone to know that I’ve been overwhelmed since 1996. I was struggling with two children, and with three children, and with four children… you get the idea. Nature abhors a vacuum and when given 24h, each one of us fills them to the brim. We used to wash clothes and dishes by hand and we thought that inventing the washing machine and the dishwasher would free us up. But instead of enjoying the extra time, we replaced homemaking chores with work chores. When a promotion gives us more disposable income we incur more expenses. We fill our houses with stuff and when we get a bigger house, we get more stuff. If we can’t get a bigger house, we rent a condo for our stuff (Dymon anyone?) Whether we fill the void with activities, worries or things, we take our 24h and 3 lbs of brain and use them to the max.
People feel like they have their hands full with one child because they do. It’s not my place to tell them how their hands should be full or to pass judgment on the wisdom or advisability of filling their 24h the way they do. When it comes to time in a day or in a year, we’re all dealt the same hand. Time is the great equalizer.
The truth is, I love people, and I love diversity. I love how in the words of Don Henry sung by Miranda Lambert:
“Ever since the beginning to keep the world spinning
It takes all kinds of kinds.”
Listen, I have 9 children spread over 18 years. I’ve been pregnant 11 times in the last 22 years. I have been entirely focused on my family at the exclusion of everything else. If everyone was like me, the world would not be a better place. We would be missing a lot of art, a lot of excellence, a lot of invention, a lot of service and a lot of philanthropy.
Walk with me for a minute. I am a talented musician. Music comes easily to me. But I gave up honing my skills 22 years ago when I had my first child. I didn’t play any music for 12 years until I picked it up again 2 years ago. Now I dabble, I play a bit of this and a bit of that, all of it poorly. The basics still comes easy to me but I hit a wall as soon as hard work comes in the picture. Jason Isbell is almost 40. He spent the first 37 years of his life playing the guitar and getting his head and heart smashed in creative ways. He had nothing else to worry about than his own foibles before he got sober, married Amanda Shires, and had a daughter. How many hours of writing, noodling, and living went into writing Last of My Kind or Speed Trap Town? I drove 5h to upstate New-York last Summer to see Jason Isbell in concert. I have 9 children and I can tell you: outside of the four walls of my house, I never touched anyone’s life to the point where they would buy a ticket, book an Airbnb and drive 5h to watch me do my thing. Don’t try to tell me my writing is touching lives: I tried crowdfunding this blog two years ago and 7 readers committed to paying a total of $63 a month, two of them were related to me. Of the 500-ish people who read my blog, only 7 thought it was worth paying for. That did my head in for a while, that’s why I stopped writing for two years. I’m a fragile little thing that way. Jason Isbell is touching lives, including mine. The world needs him to spend a fair amount of time navel-gazing his way into thoughtful lyrics, practicing his guitar and touring the United States.
My point is not that you should be Jason Isbell or make a ton of money blogging if you have only one child. My point is that everyone leaves their fingerprint on the world and every fingerprint is different. I’m volunteering at my children’s school for the first time in 18 years! Who do you think raised funds for activities, helped with field trips, decorated the school and organized the movie nights my children have enjoyed since my oldest started school in 2000? People with two kids and a job, that’s who.
One of my parents’ dearest friends is helping Syrian refugees settle in Canada, accompanying them to the grocery store, acting as a cultural translator, teaching them how to access the services they need, finding volunteers to fix bicycles for their children, and businesses to donate food and clothing. How many children of her own does she have? None. Do you think people like me are doing what she’s doing? No, they’re not.
Sometimes getting up in the morning is heroic. Some of my friends do not volunteer. They do not run successful businesses. Some of them have grown up in dysfunctional families, some of them have suffered abuse, some of them have overcome physical and/or mental health challenges. And every day they get up and they do their level best to give their children a kind of love they have never received. I watch in awe as some of my friends create happy families out of thin air, having never been in one. They are studying and learning through trial and error the fundamentals of loving, of being patient, of being self-sacrificing, all things that I learned from my parents like my first language. Some people work way harder at normal life than I do. Raising one child is as hard for them as raising 9 is for me because I received so much from life.
And some people are just selfish. Some people are jerks. Some people roll their eyes and tell me “I don’t know how you can have 9, I only have two and it’s too much” *in front of their children*. Some people are just clueless. Last week I was volunteering at our school’s book sale during the parent-teacher meetings and the children had written lists of book suggestions to help their parents in their shopping. One mother picked up her grade 5 daughter’s list and seeing with horror that it had been written in script rather than cursives, called home to tear a strip off the kid for writing like a baby. Told her she was personally insulted by it. Asked her why she would embarrass her that way. Said she was going to buy her the books but since she had written like a grade 1 kid, wasn’t going to reward that. Her sister would get books but not her. Told her never to insult her like that again. Repeated everything twice to drive it in. I felt so bad I wanted to drive to her house, find her daughter and give her a hug. I’m sure this mom loves her daughter and wants what’s best for her. I’m sure this mom thinks her brand of tough love is how you raise competent, well-rounded adults. I’m sure this woman doesn’t have 9 children and probably shouldn’t have 9 children. It’s ok not to have too many children when your parenting toolbox includes shaming and belittling.
When people tell me they are overwhelmed with 1 or 2 or 3 children, I simply say “I was overwhelmed with 3 too!” Which is 100% the honest-to-goodness truth. I remind them what is difficult about their lives. Your children are all under 4. Or you have 3 active boys. Or your husband works two jobs. Or you suffer from anxiety and depression. Or you had fertility struggles. Or you live with your aging parents. Or you are a single parent. Don’t look at me and feel bad. Look at where you are. If you feel like you can stretch a little more, stretch a little more. If you can’t, don’t injure yourself. Accept the pace. Try to finish a little ahead of where you started, try to leave the world a little better than how you found it. If everyone reaches just a little farther, we’ll come out ahead in the end.
How do I respectfully communicate with people who only have one child? I just assume that their lives are as full as mine, just with different things. I don’t need to know everyone’s story to assume they have one.
I bet you are all dying to know how my first few days of work went. Now that my work at City Hall reflects on other people, I have to be more circumspect in what I share on the Internet. I thought I might be expected to stop blogging but then decided that millions (billions even!) of readers would not tolerate the absence of my writing and that it would be political suicide to cancel me. Of course, my boss was not consulted on any of this but he’s a sensible man. He hired me after all.
On my first day of work, I headed out in pitch darkness to the bus stop beside my house. The bus stop beside my house is so dark at 6:45 am that I can’t even see my Presto card in my wallet. Which is probably why there is a Braille end to the card: it’s cheaper than a street light. Since a street light in that location would shine right in my bedroom, I’m happy to stumble a little on my way to the bus stop.
It was a sloppy rainy day, with freezing drizzle alternating with floppy wet snow. I had taken the children to the pool the day before, which was — as I texted my friend Holly — a rookie move, hair-wise. At this point, I told her, my hair couldn’t get much worst. Spoiler Alert: It Could.
I also had to wear something that would carry me from work to the new city council’s inaugural ceremony in the evening, not knowing what the dress code was for either event. I picked a long pleated skirt from Clara’s closet — Clara is my eldest daughter, not the name of an upscale dress store — the same one she had worn at her graduation last June, incidentally held at the same Convention centre. Basically: one skirt, worn twice, at the same place.
So I took the bus worrying about mucking up my skirt but who said I had a clue?
That’s when things got interesting.
I remember listening to my mother — who was born and raised in France — tell me that even after 25 years in North America, she still found it confusing to have the Atlantic ocean to the East. In France, the Atlantic ocean is to the West. I remember wondering why on earth was this information relevant to someone living in the (landlocked) Gatineau area. On my first morning of work, I understood what she meant.
I lived most of my life in the East end of Ottawa, where buses cross the Mackenzie bridge first, before proceeding downtown. Now I live in the West end and it turns out that West end buses cross downtown before finishing their routes on the Mackenzie bridge. My workplace sits near the Mackenzie bridge side of the downtown core. Like a good little bus minion, I quietly read my book until I knew the bus was approaching downtown and when I looked up, I noticed with horror that I was at Slater and Bay, on the opposite side of downtown from the Mackenzie bridge. Are you still following me?
In a split second, my East-end brain had a conniption fit and assumed that it had missed the stop. I jumped out of the bus in a panic and found myself standing confused in a puddle. But that’s not all. At this point, my brain — who was born and raised in this city — has not yet remembered that West-end buses start their downtown crawl at Slater and Bay. When you miss your stop, you start walking in the direction your bus cam from. Right? So I started walking away from where I was supposed to go.
At this point, my brain’s throbber is in a death spin. It knows it’s not going the right way but it doesn’t know why. So I whip out the Google, ashamed that I would need Google’s assistance getting to my first day of work for the City where I was born and have hardly ever left! But thankfully, the Google made it worst, at least giving the cold comfort of not really needing it (… with friends like these…)
What Google did was give me the driving directions to my work. And if you have ever been so blessed as to drive through Ottawa’s downtown core you know that it features a nightmare of one way streets, blocked streets and roads to nowhere. In the immortal words of Doc “The Hornet” Hudson: you need to turn right to go left, or at least drive around a block or two to properly align your car with your destination without driving down a one-way street. So the Google, in good Doc Hudson fashion, sent me West up Albert street towards Lebreton Flats in order to properly align me with Slater street heading East, as if I was limited by the shackles of traffic rules.
By the time I realized what was going on, I was about 1.5km away from my work and soaked to the bone. I turned around and walked 25 minutes down Laurier street to City Hall, where I arrived fashionably late with my hair in two giant icicles and my bangs dripping down my face.
Later that day, I was tasked with urban planning and roads related issues in the Ward, which invovles — I found out — a lot of reading maps upside down. Don’t worry, you’re in good hands.