Daily blog: Change, Change, Change Part 2


I started this blog post yesterday by sharing a condensed version of our move to and from the country. A friend asked me to write about change and it may be trite to say that change is the only constant in life but when we see how much energy people expand to fight or avoid change, maybe we haven’t explored it as much as we should.

Let’s have a little brain lesson. I’m not a brain scientist, neither do I play one on the Internet. From my board-book level of understanding, our brains have three parts. The lizard brain is responsible for primary functions such as fight, flight, freeze, feed, fear, and fornication. The limbic brain is responsible for emotions, habits and motivations, the things you do automatically but not out of survival. And finally the frontal cortex, responsible for higher order thinking. So imagine that you’re driving your car. Your lizard brain makes sure you are breathing, your limbic brain is fastening your seatbelt and driving the car, and your neo-cortex is worrying about your grocery list.

The lizard brain hates change. The lizard brain doesn’t do the higher thinking. It’s not triangulating competing information. It identifies changes in patterns and reacts to them. Imagine you’re driving again. It’s dark and windy. Suddenly a leaf blows across your windshield and you slam the breaks. That fear response is your lizard brain reacting to a change in pattern, protecting you from the saber tooth tiger about to pounce. You didn’t take time wondering if this was a leaf or a deer, you just reacted. Your lizard brain hates change. Your lizard brain needs a steady state to be able to see the subtle move of the saber-tooth tiger among the branches.

Everyone who has ever accomplished anything has had to overcome their lizard brain. The lizard brain is the little demon on your shoulder telling you not to go for it. It’s the voice threatening you with loneliness and destitution if you speak-up, if you follow through with an idea, if you show your art, if you share your music. It’s the fear that keeps you in an abusive relationship or in a dead-end job. It prevents you from challenging the status quo, from pushing boundaries, from believing in yourself.

Every time I sing in public, my lizard brain is hard at work trying to get me off the stage. It’s stiffening my diaphragm, tightening my throat, reminding me that I am a fraud and wondering who the heck I think I am. Every time I get on stage, I remind myself that there is no threat. That my lizard brain evolved to protect me from saber tooth tigers and sharks, not from embarrassment. “There is no shark” is my stage fright mantra.

Some people are more beholden to their lizard brain than others. Some people are terrified of change while others seek it out. There’s something about challenges, like poison, that builds strength in increments. We train for the day we need to lift a car by adding 10 lbs to our back squats every week. We build a tolerance to Iocane powder by taking a little bit in our drink every day. Flexibility and resistance take practice.

When I started thinking about writing this post, I reflected on the changes our family had been through over the years. Our nine children are very resilient to change, each in their own way. They have wildly different temperaments, personalities, and challenges and they have been born over an 18-year span, meaning that we changed as parents between having Clara and Damien. Our circumstances have changed, our parenting style has changed, we got older, fought our own demons, thought better of things. Looking back on 11 moves in 22 years, switching from school to homeschool and back to school, changing priorities, correcting course and, of course, adding more children as we went along, I’m starting to see lessons emerge. Things we did — not always intentionally — to help our children manage big changes without losing themselves.

I’ll share them in Part 3 of this post. Tomorrow.

Daily Blog: Change, Change, Change, Part 1


I’m continuing down the list of suggested topics my friends sent me on Facebook. One friend asked me to write about change and another one didn’t know we had moved (thank you Facebook algorithm for being weird, I’ve been yapping about nothing else for 6 months it seems… or maybe she just muted me… who knows?). If you are into podcasts, I shared our move story here. My friend said she didn’t have 53 minutes to listen to a podcast with all the children screaming and what-not. It reminded me of this Tweet from Dan Wilson:

All I’m saying is that a podcast and a pair of earphones is a great antidote to screaming children and what-not. But I digress.

Let’s try to make this short… Ok. In 2012 we bought land, in 2013 we started building a house on it and in 2014 we moved. The house we built was in a little community called Middleville, in the township of Lanark, about an hour west of Ottawa. The house was supposed to be our forever home, it was perfect for us as if we had designed it ourselves. Oh wait, we had!

Our move to the country was supposed to allow us to grow closer as a family, through homeschooling and a calmer, more family-centric life. I had reservations. I wasn’t sure I would enjoy living in the country right away but I thought I would grow into it. My reasoning was that I have a lot of drive once I set my mind to something. I go through phases of loving stuff, and when I love something I love it a lot.  I thought it was a matter of will. I didn’t appreciate to what extent it was also a matter of personality and temperament. I also didn’t appreciate to what extent the success of this project was predicated on everything working well forever.

We didn’t have a plan B. Homeschooling had to work. Our health had to remain perfect. Paul’s employment situation had to stay on an upward swing. We could not need a second income. Our teenagers had to buy into the project. If even one of these things went south, the integrity of the whole thing was compromised. But we never thought of that.

First, my health went south. I suffered a traumatic miscarriage in 2015 which triggered an autoimmune condition and sent my ADHD into overdrive. It took two years to diagnose and manage properly, during which I gained 60 lbs, suffered from insomnia, had a paradoxical reaction to a treatment,  started suffering from intractable back pain, depression, anxiety, basically a tornado of causes and effects that became nearly impossible to untangle.

Homeschooling was eating me alive. I lived in a state of perpetual exasperation, frustration and crippling anxiety over my inability to teach anything without a fight. In the middle of everything I was struggling with, I didn’t have the mental strength to always be the bad guy. We were also facing a steep learning curve, trying to homeschool two high school students, two elementary school students, two preschoolers, and a toddler. When you “homeschool from birth”, you grow with the curriculum. The first three years are a period of learning but I didn’t have three years: I had kids in grades 9 and 10! By the end of the second year of homeschooling, I was suffering from a classic burn-out and my husband started taking time off work to catch the children up in their schooling. So much for his earning potential remaining on the up and up. He enjoyed homeschooling and the children responded well to him but we couldn’t simply send me off to work so he could stay at home: we had a giant mortgage and maintenance costs that could not possibly be met by a writer’s salary.

We started talking about putting the children back in school in the Fall of 2016. In December 2016 I dressed my toddler up to play outside and promptly forgot him. He was found on the road by a school bus driver who called 911. The police came, followed his little boot steps back to our house and brought him back to me. I had no recollection of anything. I was completely dysfunctional. In January 2017, our children were back in school in Carleton Place, a lovely little town about 30 minutes from where we lived and I was looking into therapy and medication.

For a few months, the children made the hour-long bus ride to and from school every day but by the time September rolled around, we decided to drive them instead. My life became completely scheduled around driving the children to and from school, going to medical appointments and doing groceries. It made it impossible for me to work, which made it impossible for my husband to work less and be home more. We were completely stuck in these silos: him making as much money as possible so I could spend my days driving in circles between Middleville, Carleton Place, and Ottawa. The weeks flew-by in a flurry of driving, we spent the week-ends catching-up with housework, grounds maintenance, and logistics. We no longer had time to host on weekends, we lived too far to see people on weekdays, it was a very regimented and isolated life. We had a beautiful property that we didn’t have any time to enjoy, a beautiful house that was starting to feel like a prison, our older children were almost never home, nothing felt like it was supposed to.

Sometimes in life, we are called to persevere and sometimes we are called to quit. One teaches us fortitude and the other teaches us humility. Depending on your journey, you may be called to grow in fortitude or grow in humility. Throughout our married life, Paul and I have been able to make bold decisions because we give ourselves permission to persevere or quit. We made a decision to homeschool and move to the country based on a set of circumstances. When those circumstances changed, we allowed ourselves to change course rather than persevere down a dead-end. Some people admire that but honestly, it’s a costly way to live your life. Given Paul’s professional success, we’d long have a house paid-off by now had we stayed in one place instead of trying different things: sending me back to school, starting a company, closing a company, buying a house, deciding to live debt-free, rent a house, buy land, etc. So while people admire our ability to change course — and we certainly flexed that muscle numerous times in the last 20 years — I often feel like we are constantly reacting to things rather than planning them.

When we decided to move, we set our sights on a suburban community in the West end of Ottawa called Stittsville. The three schools our children would be attending were on the same stretch of road, meaning that we could find a house within walking distance of all three schools. We couldn’t find anything suitable right away and had to wait almost a year before a rental house came on the market. The real estate market was red hot and we didn’t want to saddle ourselves with another McMortgage, especially as our older children were starting the leave the house. When a suitable rental came on the market, we had all but given up on the idea. Paul and I took a day off to visit the house, go for coffee and re-hash why we wanted to change course. By the end of the day, we had made a decision and grabbed the rental. Within four weeks, from late March to May 1st, we had moved out of Middleville, put our house up for sale and started settling in Stittsville. In late June we got an offer on our house and it closed in August, wrapping-up this episode of our life with a bow.

We are now suburbanites with no mortgage (my favorite way to live). We live on a busy street corner with a bus stop in our backyard. There’s red carpet everywhere and really ornate window covering. The kitchen is that dark oak that was popular in the 90’s… Everything looked wrong for a family who was hoping to homeshool and homestead in their perfectly designed house. But on the day we moved, our 9 children were sitting around the table for supper. Not because it was a special occasion but because they could. They didn’t have to stay in town to work or find accomodations for their Summer job. They could just live here. Everything looked wrong but everything was right again.

 

 

 

 

Daily blog: Knitting and baking.


I put a Facebook request for a blog topic and within the requested 5 minutes I received two suggestions: knitting and baking.

I not a good enough knitter to write something useful about knitting (like tips and tricks or maybe a made-from-scratch pattern?) but I can certainly share what I’ve been up to. As for baking, this is a little bit more up my alley although needing to eat low carb and gluten-free has put a damper on my baking ambitions. There isn’t much that ruins my will to live like baking something I can’t eat. I always end-up eating it anyway (gotta make sure no one dies) and since I’m a decent cook, I end-up eating most of it. Half a pan of banana oatmeal chocolate chip muffins is as potent as a whole bottle of antidepressants except that it won’t kill you. It will kill your keto streak, however.

In the knitting department, I finally finished the Martin-Storey Mystery Knitalong from 2016. I purchased all the wool in a kit and tried really hard not to see it as a $200 blanket. Because I would never spend $200 on a blanket unless I was making it myself, which makes no sense whatsoever. Why do we expect knitting and sewing to make sense? They’re hobbies. All hobbies are expensive and useless, that’s the point of having a hobby as opposed to a job. We don’t expect horseback riding to make financial sense from a transportation point-of-view, do we?

First, I was supposed to finish the blanket for Clara’s 20th birthday. Then as her Christmas gift, then as her 21st birthday gift, then 22nd and finally, I decided that it would be her graduation gift. I was still finishing it at 1 am the day before her graduation party and blocking it the morning of. It might have been wrapped-up slightly damp but it was given as a graduation gift and that’s that.

Then I made a bunch of striped Barley hats with the leftover yarn. No one will wear them because they are itchy but eh.

Here are the patterns:

Barley hat by tin can knit.

I added the stripes myself. To properly stripe the garter stitch section, you have to make sure to change colour on a knit row and from a knit row. So you’re knitting the new colour unto a row of knit stitches or else, ah, hum, I can’t describe it but if you purl the new colour or knit the new colour on a purl row it will look like you’re wearing your hat inside out. Don’t take my word for it, try it if you enjoy frogging your work.

Martin Storey 2016 Mystery KAL

My personal religion is that sampling is for the birds and that’s not always a good idea when you are knitting an afghan. I learned so much putting this thing together! It took me two-thirds of the sewing the squares together to finally understand how sewing worked (it’s a little more subtle than the Montessori lacing toy would have you believe).

Baking-wise, I suffer from cooking fatigue. I haven’t been baking much but I have been learning Indian cuisine. I started following recipes but I decided that I wanted to learn how to cook the way an Indian mom would in her own kitchen. And from what I could see, women learned cooking from other women and not from books. I found this guy on Youtube who cooks on an open fire in his garden. He doesn’t say a word but his videos are mesmerizing. I still use recipes but I’m also learning about the order of things in Indian cuisine — what goes in when, how big should the chunks be, how long should you pound the brains out of that ginger — from his videos. I love that he is using one knife (I get laughed at because I also use one knife for everything) and sitting on the floor. Living in a real Indian or Pakistani family just to learn how to cook is a bucket list item for me. Let me know if you know someone who will have me. Man, I love palak paneer…. Gotta go!!

Daily Blog: What’s not on your resume?


 

I have been looking for work lately. We moved back to the city last May, my children are all in school and my husband is working from home. Sounds like as good a time as any to finally launch into a career. I’m 45 but I don’t feel it. Maybe that’s why not finding work easily never crossed my mind until now?

I spent the last 20 years getting two law degrees, a patchwork of unrelated experience and, oh, raising productive members of society. One of my children asked me once if they would get a reward for graduating high school. I said, “With the amount of privilege you have, I expect you to graduate high school!” There is no virtue in finishing high school when you have been given every advantage society, geography and history can throw at someone. You have to put your back into squandering this much unearned advantage.

My three oldest children have gone beyond graduating high school. All three are serving in the Armed Forces, all of them have achieved a certain measure of academic and personal success. All of them are fluently bilingual, polite with waiters, kind to children and animals. Not to detract from their own merit, all this didn’t happen in a vacuum. They grew-up in a loving and nurturing environment that gave them the space they needed to blossom. They didn’t have to worry about their physical or emotional safety, they had good role models and a cohesive extended family. This nurturing environment came at a cost to many people over several generations and served to my children on a silver platter.

But of course, I can’t really write this on my resume. It’s real though. Providing a stable environment for children to grow-up in happens over years. It happens over the job opportunities we turn down because the commute would add 4h of daycare to our children’s days. It happens over the promotions we refuse because we can’t make the 7:00 am issues meeting. It happens over the internships we don’t apply for because we can’t move to a different city for 8 months. It happens over the travels we can’t make and the reputation for not being a player we earn for ourselves. It happens over taking the boring translation job we can do from home over the stimulating speechwriting job we cannot. All the forks in the road where we put our families ahead of our ambitions amount to children who grow-up with parents who are physically and emotionally available to them. It also amounts to a very. boring. resume.

Someday someone will see my resume and wonder what’s in the negative space around the bits and bobs of disjointed items. And that person will hire a motivated, engaging and emotionally intelligent person who will take their mission and make it hers because that’s what raising a family teaches you. Someday, someone will see the young girl while everyone else is still looking at the old lady.

My Netflix List: Beyond the Clouds


I just finished watching “Beyond the Clouds”, a 2017 Hindi movie marking Ishann Khatter’s debut role (also known as Shahid Kapoor’s half-baby-brother). I was intrigued by this movie after seeing Ishaan’s first major release, “Dhadak”.

“Beyond the Clouds” is the gritty story of a young drug dealer who matures suddenly when his sister is unjustly imprisoned. It’s a coming-of-age story about unlikely relationships forming in the shadow of tragedy. Having seen “Dhadak” before “Beyond the Clouds”, I couldn’t believe that I was watching the same Ishaan Khatter. With this talent, looks and family connections, a stellar career is his to lose.

“Beyond the Clouds” is a difficult but sweet movie, with plenty of tender moments to relieve us from the injustice of it all. The movie ends at an inflection point in the story, not at the end of the story, which felt a little abrupt. As if director Majid Majidi had suddenly run out of film.

Part of the narrative unfolds in a women’s prison in Mumbai and one thing that surprised me was the presence of children in the prison. Of course, the children of poor women have nowhere to go once their mothers are imprisoned. Some are born in captivity, some just follow their mothers behind bars. One character is a 5-year-old child who came to prison with his mother at the age of 3 months. She is serving a life sentence for killing her abusive husband, along with her son. At some point in the story, someone explains to him what the moon is. He has never seen the moon, or the stars, or felt rain. He is under lock and key at night, like the rest of the inmates.

It reminded me of the migrant situation in the United States. Family separations came about because family incarcerations were illegal. Both are inhumane approaches throwing the sins of the parents unto their children. No matter how you feel about migrants, no matter what you believe about the relationship between migrants and the children who accompany them, there is no argument that the children are innocent. And yet, they suffer the worst punishment because they are innocent.

Different factions make different arguments to justify family separations or incarcerations. The parents were endangering their children anyway, the children should be removed for their safety. The parents are acting against the law, people who disrespect the law are criminals, criminals are always separated from their children when they go to prison. How else are we supposed to discourage people from coming into the country illegally? These children are not really children. These parents are not really parents. Regardless of the point, there must be a mental classification of the families as somewhat different than we are. The children cannot suffer as ours would, the parents cannot feel like we would feel. These people must be different than we are. We are human, they are… something else. Relating is built deep into our DNA, attachment is our first survival mechanism. There is mental work involved in making the other into someone we can’t relate to.

In today’s The Daily podcast, a father and his daughter who disagree on the Trump administration’s immigration policies have a phone conversation. At some point, the father exclaims: “These people are not fleeing for their lives, they are just looking for a better life!” Aren’t we all? Shouldn’t this make us more empathetic? Unless “these people” are something different than we are. Something less deserving. Something less… human.

Catholic moral philosophy teaches that an act, to be morally good, must preserve the goodness of the object, the end, and the circumstances altogether. Inserting evil into any part of the equation corrupts the entire chain of means to end. Denying human beings the dignity they deserve because we have made them into something less than human corrupts the chain of morality entirely. In “Beyond the Clouds,” petty drug dealer Amir’s life is only worth what value he can bring to those hiring him. When he starts causing more trouble than he’s worth, he is summarily dispatched. A commodity himself, he values those around him based on the benefit they can bring him. When, en route to sell a young girl under his protection to a local brothel owner, he sees her humanity, he can no longer get through with the transaction. His punishment comes swiftly and ironically when his best friend sells him out to the thugs he betrayed,  30 pieces of silver-style.

Dehumanization. It’s a story as old as the world. And it never ends well.

Daily Blog: Making friends while adulting


I was listening to this episode of the Gretchen Ruben podcast and got a little hung-up on the “why you should have people over” part.

I’M TRYING GRETCHEN!!

I grew up in a family where my parents’ friends were like family. My mother’s family was in France and my father’s family was in Chicoutimi, a prohibitively long drive from Ottawa, especially in the winter. I grew-up celebrating Holidays, birthdays and major events with my parents’ friends and their children, who were like cousins to me. This image of friendship was formative and I remember in high school thinking that my high school friends would become like my parents’ friends. They didn’t. To this day, I have friends and my husband has friends but we have very few family friends.

This image of friendship etched in my heart is making it hard for me to appreciate the friendships I do have in my life. I often feel like I have no friends but it’s not true. I have many dear friends but they are not family friends. Our children and husbands don’t know each other. We don’t celebrate together, we are not invited to their children’s birthdays or to be their children’s godparents. We have coffee together, we hold each other up in bad times but our families are circles that do not meet.

Throughout the years, I have tried to make family friends by having people over. I have organized apple picking parties, snow fort building parties, brunch parties, family birthday parties, couples’ book clubs, beach picnics, parents meet-ups and recently Bollywood Movie Nights. I have given my phone number to so many people who have never called or texted me back, it’s embarrassing. So many people complain about how hard it is to make friends in your adult years but so few people are willing to do anything about it.

As I have gotten older, making friends has become harder and harder. I noticed that the people who have close friends made them when they were younger. Friendships nurtured for years before the weight of family obligations, work and general busyness challenged them. It’s hard enough to keep existing friendships through our thirties and forties, making new friends is nearly impossible. I can’t host as often as I used to. Our weekends are often packed. We need to manage our own schedules and that of our children. People are more discerning about their friendships, being roughly the same age and stage is no longer enough commonalities to be best friends. I have a professional relationship with most of the people I meet these days, like my massage therapist or my dentist.

The realities of life with a job and a growing family will probably prevent most of us from making meaningful new connections during our thirties and forties but I’m sure that planting these seeds will pay off in the future when we are no longer so busy. I will keep working on these budding friendships, like tiny plants that could be weeds or flowers, it’s too early to tell. Until the day when we can invest the time and energy to let them grow.

B-logging like it’s 1998


There are two things I need to do more this year, one is writing and the other one is being more like Seth Godin. I listen to my share of podcast interviews and nothing sends me scribbling things I need to remember like an interview with Seth Godin. This week on his blog, Seth celebrated daily bloggers who had reached (and overcome) the 1000-posts threshold and I decided to start blogging the way God intended when He created the Internet. Daily web-logging. Journalling. It may not always matter, it may not even be good. But I need to get the bad stuff out of the way so the good stuff can emerge. Like a monkey with a typewriter.

I often have ideas that I store away for future posts. They are bits of conversations, advice I give to people or little strokes of insight I get from thinking thoughts. They don’t always come fully formed and I often store them away to include in future posts. The problem is that I don’t write often enough to synthesize everything in one coherent text. But my life is at an inflection point right now and maybe there is worth in sending these reflections out into the world. I’m taking charge of my health and addressing lingering physical and emotional issues, my youngest child is in school and I am looking — unsuccessfully — for work. The ups-and-down of applying for and being turned away from entry-level jobs I am way over-educated for is certainly a mind-fuck worth sharing. I turns out that we live in a world that talks a good talk about the importance of raising children well and an even better talk about feminism and diversity. But try to find work when your last degree is 10 years-old and your experience it patchy and no one will give you a call back. You’re too old for internships, not cool enough for start-ups and not connected enough to be given a chance. We want diversity in the workplace as long as it walks like a white man and talks like a white male.

I’m turning 45 in a week, here goes nothing! Welcome to my B-log.

Book review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy


(In which I review “The God of Small Things” and tell you what you should read instead.)

 (A short reading note: I read up to chapter 7, then — thoroughly confused — re-read chapters 1 and 2. It renewed my interest in the characters and clarified some plot lines I had lost.)

 The God of Small Things is the 1997 Booker-prize winning debut novel by Indian writer Arundhati Roy.

TL;DR: Set in Kerala, a region located on the southwestern coast of India, The God of Small Things explores themes of forbidden love, class relations and social discrimination. The story is told in the third person but through the perspective of Rahel, a fraternal twin girl at the centre of the story. The narrative shifts back-and-forth between 1969, the year Rahel’s family is upended by tragedy, and the present set in 1993. The story unravels from its climax, tearing down the edifice of memories and events rather than building up to it. The disjointed narration – jumping from Rahel’s past to her present and interspersed with lengthy side notes – made it difficult to get invested in the story. Arundhati Roy makes extensive use of capitalization and misspelling to reflect the children’s innocent voices and – possibly? — the re-birth of India from its colonial past, recreating itself by patching together pieces of ancient culture and elements of occidental language and esthetics. The God of Small Things is in turn gripping and confusing, with chapters of heartbreaking clarity following long stream-of-consciousness tirades reading like creative writing exercises.

I started reading The God of Small Things last Summer and soon lost interest until a friend posted a picture of her children’s grade 12 reading list on social media. There it was, The God of Small Things. Moved by a certain pride and piqued by the thought of being out-read by my friend’s teenagers, I picked it back up only to be perplexed as to why it would be assigned to Canadian grade 12 students.

I’m of a mind that we should be sent out into the world to work hard and make mistakes at 16. Then we should come back to finish grades 11-12 in our mid-40s once we appreciate the usefulness of understanding things like math, computers, history and literature.

Everything we hand over to teenagers forms them in one way or another. Sometimes, the lesson they learn is not always the one we think they should. When my oldest son was in high school, he got in a fair amount of trouble for reading an English book in French school. In a minority environment, French schools battle the rising tides of linguistic assimilation by making boneheaded rules such as not allowing kids to read English books outside of English class. He was reading Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hand with the Devil in its original English, received the three proverbial warnings, it escalated to the vice-principal’s office, his parents were called, suspension was threatened and all the while I was slowly clapping at the perfect example of how to make kids in a minority language situation despise their mother tongue. The lesson as intended by adults: if you don’t read in French, you will lose it. The lesson as learned by my teenager: French teachers are idiots.

What can The God of Small Things teach Canadian 12-graders? Many things, but probably not the right ones.

The God of Small Things doesn’t show any light shining through the cracks of India’s post-colonial unrest and  firmly entrenched caste system. Through the story of the arrival and accidental death of Sophie Mol in Ayemenem, India appears as a backward, dirty and sexually perverted society. It pours out like an oil spill, turning adults and children into black, spoiled versions of themselves. The God of Small Things follows the inexorable march of abuse and trauma from one generation to next.

Pointed in the wrong direction, trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps because their footprints had been swept away.” ~ The God of Small Things

The exploration of India’s fight against itself in the face of impossible circumstances is also the theme of Katherine Boo’s 2012 narrative non-fiction Behind the Beautiful Forevers. For three years she followed Abdul, an enterprising young Muslim living in the slums filling the unused nooks and crannies of the Mumbai Airport. His hopes for a better future crash against the forces of globalization, terrorism and political corruption but his downfall is orchestrated by his own neighbours, vying for the same limited supply of good fortune Abdul had started to scrounge for himself. Boo writes:

Instead, powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes they destroyed themselves in the process. When they were fortunate they improved their lots by beggaring the life chances of other poor people.”~ Behind the Beautiful Forevers


As a work of fiction, The God of Small Things can afford to wallow in hopelessness. What makes Behind the Beautiful Forevers a more suitable read for a class of privileged 12-graders (or for you and I) is that, telling the story of the living and breathing people who make the Annawadi slum their home, it cannot completely avoid the hope and invention weaved into the human tapestry. The human struggle supposes a fight between adversaries: fear and courage, good and evil, light and darkness.

While Beautiful Forevers explores economic poverty and the fight to survive, Arundhati Roy writes about the poverty of heart of the privileged, the paucity of compassion where never having been received, it cannot be given. Where the fossilization of inequality makes earning your privilege impossible, leaving each person to struggle to be the first one to take before it is taken.  It might have been the reality of rural India on the eve of the seventies, a country grappling with the scars of colonialism and a punishing segmentation of society determined by birth, but is it really the image of India we need to teach young Canadians in 2018? Wouldn’t they be better served by the story of Abdul in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a young man fighting to overcome the vagaries of history, rather than that of Baby Kochamma, an old woman who will stop at nothing – including sacrificing a man’s life and her own children’s happiness – to preserve them?

Nothing mattered much. Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered. It was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In the country that she came from, poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace, Worse Things kept happening.” ~ The God of Small Things

Stories of perseverance in the face of impossible circumstances are formative. I read the City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre when I was 20 and it was a spiritual experience. 25 years later, I can still feel the confusion of being horrified by the abject poverty, bewildered by the prejudices of those perpetuating inequalities from under someone else’s boot, and moved to tears by the peace and joy found in everyday occurrences such as weddings and festivals. India is a land of extremes, densely packed. Just like the human mind, multitudes and all.

If the goal of assigning The God of Small Things to high school students is to present a fictional account of cruelty and corruption in India, why not do it through a story that also presents its dignity and heroism? The first time I heard Kurt Vonnegut’s now-viral lecture on the shape of stories, my mind immediately went to the day I finished reading Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. I was sitting on my bed, frantically looking for the rest of the story where the bad people got their due and the upright were justified.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ

In A Fine Balance a man falls into a hole, then another hole, then crap gets poured down the hole, he escapes by falling into a yet deeper hole where he finds a sandwich, but a jerk falls down the hole, eats his sandwich and pisses on the crusts. The end. The bad people are really bad, the government is inept at best but mostly indistinguishable from organized crime and the upright never get their due. By the halfway point of the novel, you start feeling what orientalists calls “Indian fatalism.” The walls close in, your shoulders slouch and you resign yourself to the impossibility of a happy ending.

It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because Kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings.” ~ The God of Small Things

In The God of Small Things, the impossibility of a happy ending is foretold. It robs you of the hope that propels you through the 600 pages of A Fine Balance. It’s a gruesome and dark read that refuses to give its reader the comfort of anticipation.

In many ways, The God of Small Things is structured around the protection of that sense of discomfort. It opens with its dramatic ending and ends with a perfectly crafted love story. By the time you read the last chapter, you know that this brief episode of sanity will immolate itself and consume everything around it. Your mind is never at ease.

 The uneasiness of the story is only compounded by the narrative voice. The God of Small Things is written in the third person from the perspective of a 7-year-old child. The voice changes from one chapter to the next, sometimes voicing the experience of Rahel as a child and sometimes voicing her recollection of the events as an adult. At times, an omniscient narrator takes the baton for lengthy descriptions of historical, cultural or environmental facts. Re-reading parts of the book to write this review, I came to see Rahel and Estha as representation of the wider political unrest of India, rising out of British rule and scared by partition. The twins are pulled and tugged from every side, between their Malayalam mother-tongue and English, between their anglophile grandmother and their Communist-sympathizing uncle, between The Sound of Music and Kathakali. Together they invent a language by inversing letters and liaising English syllables in creative ways, giving their English the fluty musicality of Malayalam. Their relationship is complex and riddled with dysfunction, like a shiny new building resting on rotten foundations.

He didn’t know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation.” ~ The God of Small Things

The breadth of what Arundhati Roy tries to capture with the characters of Rahel and Estha makes it difficult to yield to the narrative and let it carry us through the story. The success of stories written in the voice of children relies on our ability, as readers, to slip into the narrator’s skin. To Kill a Mockingbird became the literary classic that it is in part because we lived Jean Louise’s loss of innocence through her own voice. Much has been written on Harper Lee’s reclusive nature, but it was foretold in the way she completely disappeared behind Jean Louise Finch. Given the discomfort that Arundhati Roy seeks to foster through The God of Small Things, I’m hesitant to call her narration “inconsistent:” letting her adult voice peek through the child’s narration might have been a deliberate attempt to yank us from one mental space to the next. But it makes for an exhausting read.

Should you read The God of Small Things? Unless you make a point of reading Booker-Prize winning novels, it’s not a book that I consider unavoidable. In the same topical space, I would only recommend reading The God of Small Things after reading The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. If you want to read books written in the voice and from the perspective of a child, you should read (or re-read) To Kill a mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, and – if you read in French – C’est pas moi, je le jure! by Bruno Hébert, a mesmerizing and unsettling book about a Summer in the life of a tormented and traumatized child. If you are interested in the interplay of modernity, culture and ancient religious practices in India but not enough to read a whole book, I suggest watching the movie “Masaan” (available on Netflix).

As an Indian-resident author and an activist on environmental and social issues, Arundhati Roy’s sharp criticism of India is legitimate, but I would caution against making this your first foray into Indian literature if you are from the West. We never get a second chance to make a good first impression.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dance Fitness Workout Playlist


Do you remember the days when we would make mixed-tapes from the radio, recording our favorite songs as they came-up and sharing them with each other? Well, I think that the playlist is as good a love language as the mixed-tape ever was. In fact, the cool kids like Hamilton still call it mixtapes — having shed a few letters and a dash in its reinvention — even though there’s not a single bit of tape to mix and rewind with a pencil.

I still make lists and mixtapes to share. Here is my dance fitness playlist for October. Yes, I’m still deep in my all-things-India phase (if you are in Ottawa, I host a bi-monthly Bollywood movie club wanna come? Next movie is Dil Chahta Hai on October 12). This fitness playlist features my two favorite dance fitness/Zumba accounts from India: Vijaya Tupurani and Dil Groove Maare. The choreographies are a little more elaborate than you would find in a Western/white fitness class. My theory is that Desi people come to fitness with more rhythm in their bones since all their popular entertainment and celebrations are steeped in music and dancing. That’s why I make a playlist at the beginning of the month and work on the routines over 4 weeks. Enjoy!

School, on the first day


All your back-to-school pictures are awesome and one day my children will hate me for not having a single one of them.

School started on the first day and the a/c broke in the middle of a heat wave so we went to the beach. A heroic HVAC repairman shot the trouble for about an hour before replacing the busted thermostat with a new one. He said apologetically “The ones we sell are $200” and I said “What does that mean?” and he said “You can get a cheap one at Home Depot for $40” and I said “But then you need to come back to install it and it adds up to the same thing or am I missing something?” and he said “some people install it themselves” and there was an uncomfortable silence during which he beheld the 12 eyes of the 6 sand-caked children hanging off my shirt and read my mind and my mind was lost. He said “I can discount it for you… Like $100?” and Sarah looked at him in earnest and said, in a tone that would not have been out of place in a Jane Austen novel: “You are a very nice man!” and he smiled and repaired the A/C on the first day but we still went to the beach because we had pizza.

The next morning as we were leaving for school, Lucas dropped David’s bike on Eve’s bike and got David’s pedal desperately stuck in Eve’s spokes and after 10 minutes of trying to get it undone, as the school bell was ringing, with my hands full of grease, I kicked the whole thing and yelled to the Heavens “WHY DOES MY LIFE HATE ME?” and David was finally able to get it unstuck and we got our first late note on the second day.

David said “My teacher said I need more dividers and I need them THIS MORNING” and repeated this about 15 times until I yelled to the Heavens: “When your teacher gives you a hard time for not having more dividers than were listed on the supply list they provided, you will say “I’m the 5th of 9 children and my father is in Latvia, my mom is doing back-to-school all on her own without a/c and she’s asking for an extra day” and the teacher will prostrate at your feet and send me flowers because it takes two people to make 9 kids and I’m doing this by myself” and David backed away slowly with no sudden moves.

The ad on Facebook asked “What’s their back-to-school outfit?” and I said We’re wearing the same clothes and the same shoes we were wearing last week because they still fit and the weather is still sunny and warm. Our hair smells of seaweed and river water because we were at the beach eating pizza until it was so dark I couldn’t see the children anymore. We filled up the van listening to Taylor Swift’s Love Story, singing all the words out loud and only some of the children were embarrassed. If your Chevy Express is almost empty, you can sing Love Story from start to finish while pumping exactly $138 worth of gas and no one will even look at you weird since you’re 44 and no one looks at women in their mid-forties which is a little sad but mostly liberating. So this will be our back-to-school pictures for 2018.