Saturday, 23 March 2019

In Defense of a Dress Code

With the warm weather upon us, and the first signs of spring emerging, freedom from the icy conditions we experienced only a few short weeks ago has brought up the common debate about freedom of dress; indeed, Chilliwack has been making national news for its contentious discussion over the public school dress code. Currently, each school determines their own clothing standards, but most run along the lines of forbidding students to wear anything that is deemed “overly revealing”, with the CSS-SD33 website describing this in detail as meaning “bare midriffs, spaghetti straps, and low necklines.” (Student Dress Code, 2018)

Consequently, in early March, an SD33 board member− claiming that the current codes unfairly target girls− proposed a district-wide policy that would be less restrictive, and would allow for usually prohibited clothing items (such as those previously mentioned) to be accepted. (Hennig, 2019). What followed was what can only be described as an argument between the seven school district trustees during a meeting to discuss the issue, with one even admitting, “I lost my cool.” (Peters, 2019).

Problems suggested with the motion ranged between some who claimed that implementing a district-wide policy was a form of “micro-managing” that supported “immodesty”, while others contended that what a student wears should be determined by their family, and not their school, and that they shouldn’t have to worry about being “dress-coded”. More controversially, a male trustee and former teacher even admitted that he finds revealing clothing on female students to be, “distracting”, and “made him nervous as a teacher” (Lehn, 2019) while another insisted that “girls who dress certain ways are looking for ‘the wrong kind of attention’.” (Peters, 2019)

However, after following the news and giving this debate much thought, I am surprised that a more simple solution has not been recognized or offered. Though I will admit that as a mother of two daughters currently in the school district, I am less objective on this issue than is ideal; however my children are still in kindergarten and have many years before they’ll face some of these dress code concerns that are more prevalent amongst middle and high-schoolers. And I do believe that my solution will be so effective that it negates any biases I might have- undoubtedly, it has the potential to not only bring peace to the issue, but it will also create jobs and allow Chilliwack’s local economy and businesses to grow as well.

For I must say, I understand and sympathize with the concerns proposed by certain trustees about distraction and immodesty. Simply put, a woman’s body is a difficult dilemma for the male population, and, as it has been deemed fact by our community, we know that men are unable to restrain their desires (or their hands) when around innocent, underaged girls. Indeed, even a former Sardis Secondary student who describes herself as from a family of “strong Christian believers who raised [her] to value modesty”, she still experienced unwanted sexual touching and attention, even though she, “did everything right, and tried hard to ensure that no one ‘got the wrong idea’ about [her]”. (Modest Dress Codes Don’t Protect, 2019)

Clearly, casual modesty is not the solution to this problem. And in the same way that you would not expect a hungry dog to ignore a juicy steak dripping on the floor in front of it, we cannot expect men and boys to control their appetites towards their female students and peers.

Because it is not only a woman’s body that is upsetting, but also the way it moves− when she strides determinedly down the hallway towards her next class, or sits in the front row making copious notes, or perhaps when she swings unconcernedly on the monkey bars with friends. Even her very breathing, which makes her chest rise and fall, is an attack on her poor male peers who simply wish to teach or learn without being exposed to the scandal that is her physical existence. Men and boys are under constant assault, and can we really, in good faith, expect them to be perpetually vigilant in a school environment, always checking their own behaviour and feeling guilt and shame for any momentary slip? For if we punish and humiliate boys for their unwelcomed sexual contact towards their female peers, we risk exposing them to a life burdened by uncertainty and blame− one where they constantly feel responsible for the way they treat others. And this is deeply unjust, as we all know that it is the female form that truly carries the blame for men’s− and wider society’s− actions.

Therefore, my proposal is for a different district-wide policy, one that implements a garment known as a chadri or burqa to become the school uniform for all females who wish to attend co-ed institutions. Of course this might seem shocking at first, as the burqa has been an item of intense controversy in the West and has even been banned in Quebec, but I believe it is an important, untapped resource that our community could be greatly aided by.

To clarify, a burqa is not to be mistaken with a niqab, which is simply a veil for the face; the burqa is for the entire body, and will successfully coat a woman from head to toe in a sort of black invisibility cloak. In this way, she will be prevented from unnecessarily and maliciously distracting her male contemporaries, and these students and male teachers will finally be able to attain peace and success in their education without the fear of an unwitting attack by so many uncovered female bodies. And in fact, the burqas do not have to be black− they could be adorned with images of famous football players, or fast cars, or even US presidents so as to serve as an item of pleasure to the male gaze.

Of course, there is one problem with the burqa that I obviously recognize, and that’s the fact that it doesn’t properly cover the eyes; often simply a layer of mesh or a screen is used, but this doesn’t entirely remedy the issue. And it is without question that if a girl can look for the wrong kind of attention with her body, she can certainly do it with her pupils! However, I believe that if we as a society work quickly to teach our school-aged daughters to keep their focus on the ground (which they will have to do anyway to avoid tripping over the heavy folds of fabric in front of them) then we can circumvent the potential difficulties of seductive, immodest eye contact that they might initiate.

I did mention that my solution would help with Chilliwack’s local economy, and this can be demonstrated by the way that our little city is widely recognized for its handmade, homemade goods− given this, all burqas could be made locally by many of the quilting guilds, craftswomen, boutique shops, and practically anyone who owns a sewing machine in town. Spring and summer farmer’s markets, which often showcase locally handmade dresses or purses, could instead hang these female body-bags from their stalls− and if it was a required uniform, they’d be guaranteed to sell out. The burqas could be made individually for families, or produced and ordered en masse to be distributed by our local churches during Sunday service to the school-aged female population. Even for stay-at-home mothers and wives (who often find themselves with more rest and free time than they know what to do with) would benefit from this opportunity. Once they’d mastered the art of sewing− which naturally is a skill all women should possess anyway− they could finally keep their idle hands busy stitching seasonal burqas for their daughters.

If the steak is not before it, the dog will not salivate. For the first time in a long time, schools will be safe spaces for men again− grades and class averages will undoubtedly rise, as men will be able to attend, teach, and focus without the terrible distraction of noticing a body and face that differs from their own. No longer will they be diverted by a prepubescent female adjusting to a changing figure, or be made to feel physically uncomfortable by a woman who is herself physically at ease. And for parents, they finally won’t have to worry about their daughters being perceived as wanting “the wrong kind of attention” or being immoral− the burqa will protect her from being perceived in any way at all.     

Works Cited
Hennig, C. (2019, March 12). School dress codes unfairly single-out girls, trustee says. CBC News. Retrieved from:
Lehn, D. (2019, March 17). More controversial remarks from Chilliwack School Trustee Darrell Ferguson. Fraser Valley News Network. Retrieved from:
Peters, J. (2019, March 13). Trustee admits to ‘losing her cool’ during Chilliwack dress code discussion. The Chilliwack Progress. Retrieved from:
Chilliwack grad says modest dress codes don’t protect students from assault. [Letter to the editor]. The Abbotsford News. 2019, March 18. Retrieved from:
Chilliwack Secondary School. 2018. Student Dress Code. Retrieved from:

Image via Google Images

Thursday, 7 March 2019

You Can't Please Everyone

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been deeply crippled by a need for approval. I hate to admit it, because I like to carry on as though I’m possessed of an indifferent, laissez-faire demeanor, but that’s never really been the case. In fact, probably since the first time I ever tumbled as a baby I’ve struggled with feeling like life is a competition, and I’m an underdog eagerly working my ass off to earn the points I need to catch up. To please the right people, and achieve that approving pat on the head that might give me permission to pause for a minute.

I don’t know if this is a female thing or a very Sydney-specific illness; I’m not sure if it comes from societal conditioning or familial conditioning, or more likely some combination of both that mixed disastrously with my temperament. And maybe it’s all wrapped up in a virgin/whore complex, for which there are many who deserve a share of the blame. Or perhaps I’m just a perfectionist, and that’s no one’s fault (except for parents and their genetics− thanks a lot).   

But I suspect there are many of us out there; I see these same seeds planted, the roots of them in my female friends and acquaintances. I recognize this desperation to be accepted for their body, or sexual orientation, or style, or career, or socio-economic status, or marital status, or home. I see the way their conscience demands freedom from a diet of shame and guilt. I see the way they, like me, crave with every cell in their body to feel as though they deserve a place− in this world, and in their society− exactly as they are.

I see how many of them try to do the “right” things and be a “good girl”; I see those who feel incapable of reaching that bar and so punish themselves, becoming a “bad girl” by rebuffing social norms entirely, coveting disapproval but depriving themselves in the meantime of their own unique completeness. Both are a rejection of the self. Sometimes, as I’ve done, they’ll even close themselves off from certain desires or opportunities, self-flagellating with the belief that they don’t truly deserve the things that they want− that by being different from the standard they’ve relinquished the right to respect, autonomy, and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s like a quote I heard the other day that said, “Beauty is defined as one thing, and however close you are to that thing is how attractive you’re considered.” And I think not only is that more true now than ever, but that it also applies to so many areas if you’re a woman in my world. Success is defined as one thing, integrity is defined as one thing, value is defined as one thing, and that one thing rarely includes an acceptance of reasonable missteps or failures. In fact, for every time you make a choice that falls contrary to one of those definitions, you lose communal esteem points; like an investment, your stock drops.

We do this to ourselves and others all the time, defining our right to take up space by how high or low we perceive our stock to be. But there is no flexibility in these definitions; no room for a healthy person to grow, emotionally or physically. They are The Rules and as such they demand consistency and rigidity− the very opposite of what beauty, nature, and art require. And when you deprive the soul of this ability to breathe, stretch and embrace an innate ebb and flow, you cripple it or turn it to stone.

Which is exactly what it feels like we need to become sometimes to be acceptable: a flat, soulless statue who can be held up on a podium of public approval, erected before a sea of nodding, smiling heads. Cowed on the inside, but shiny marble on the outside, never jarring the eye or causing distress to those pleased observers. Indeed, like many women I recognize that I am more comfortable giving myself discomfort than I am with causing it in anyone else; we wear our shame rather than recognize that costume belongs on those who’ve long forced us into it.

And this is essentially the crux of the issue, because when you feel so pressured to meet so many expectations, but those expectations are contradictory, or upsetting, or unnatural, or genuinely unreachable, you’re left with an overwhelming sense of failure.  And not just failure, but inadequacy too− perhaps the plague of modern women. How many sisters, friends, wives and mothers do you know who constantly feel as though they’re never enough and yet they’re simultaneously too much; that they’re perpetually falling short of the standard?

I’m often one of them, and it’s a habit of thinking that’s deeply ingrained. But I’m not sure how to stop doing it, how to stop checking off boxes, or fitting neatly into the plan on someone else’s Excel spreadsheet. Sometimes, it’s so much easier to just surrender, because moving forward and making decisions− AKA refusing to become a static character in your own story− is difficult enough without feeling like you’re distressing people.

And while phrases like, “you can’t please everyone” sound reasonable, they are deeply insufficient at explaining what comes before or after that conclusion. There are missing premises here; no, you can’t please everyone, but what if you think you should try? What if you were raised hearing or feeling as though pleasing everyone WAS possible, and life would be so much simpler if you could reach that attainable goal? What if, in the attempt to follow your own path and trust yourself, your inability to satisfy those perceived standards leads to rejection from the people whose support you crave the most?

But maybe that’s the part that’s missing from that mantra− an assumption that’s so obvious, it’s not necessary to declaim. “You can’t please everyone, because trying to will make you crazy, and trying not to will always result in some rejection and pain.” It occurs to me then that love, and self-love, are not a paycheque to be earned after a certain number of sacrificial hours have been completed. That regardless of our personal choices, we still retain a fixed value; opinions are not strong enough to reduce us, and the scale we inhabit will remain balanced despite how much disapproval gets stacked on the opposing side. And if as women we can’t accept this, if we continue to remain safely in the space our communities have allowed us to occupy, we forever deprive ourselves (and our children) of our true potential, power, and freedom.  

For me, that ultimately means that at a very basic level I’m going to stop assuring others of what I will or won’t do, hoping to placate their expectations, emotions, or concerns. We don’t even know what the next minute will hold, let alone days, months, or years; no one, least of all me can predict what path they might choose in the pursuit of peace and self-actualization. And at some point I need to learn that whatever is flourishing internally does not need to align with what’s expected externally− that I am free to exist within and make decisions that are right for my family, my body, my home, and my journey outside of what anyone thinks of it.

We all are, even if we don’t know it yet.

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Why I Won't Get Married (Yet!)

Probably around the time that one of my best friends got engaged earlier this year, I began to notice my Instagram feed changing. Maybe it was my own doing- I’d attended bridal shows with her (as tracked by my linked Facebook) and began following different wedding gown and planning accounts to help her get an idea of what she was looking for. Unfortunately, Instagram thought it was what I was looking for, and began marketing marriage to me incessantly.

Quickly, my explore page began showing me dresses, venues, altars; brides, grooms, and rings rings rings. Each time I tagged my friend in a bridal post, or sent her an image of a bridesmaids dress, I found my own accounts further swamped in wedding/lifestyle advertising that seemed specifically marketed to my own preferences for all things literary or vintage. I saw lists like, “How to Have the Perfect Bookworm Reception”, and I remember handing my phone to my boyfriend in disbelief one night showing him the rows and rows of so-called “ethical engagement rings” that Facebook had adorned all over my home page.

It didn’t make sense to me, and it was, frankly, a bit annoying. After all, I have a wonderfully imperfect relationship with an equally wonderful, imperfect man, who co-parents with my ex-husband and I, loves my daughters, and who has shown time and again to be equally supportive and committed.

But after a while, insidiously, all that advertising got in a little. I wasn’t consciously aware of the change, all I noticed was that one day I started looking at wedding dresses with less bridesmaid objectivity and more personal longing. And after weeks, or perhaps months of this, I became less and less satisfied with our situation, and began questioning both the value of my relationship, and my own personal value as well.  Even though I’m a full-time student and full-time mom, and my boyfriend has a very demanding job, coupled with the fact that this year we completed an enormous renovation and then sold our house, I still felt like it wasn’t enough that by being unmarried, we were somehow falling short. Like our life, and our love, was somehow less valid because it had not yet been publicly declared in a well-photographed legal ceremony. I allowed those ads to get so far under my skin that I worked myself up to the point of mentally loosening so much of our progress and commitment, focusing most of my attention on what we didn’t have versus what we actually did.
The worst was when− entirely single-handedly− I gave those ads enough power to chip away at my self-esteem, as I questioned whether or not I was worth marrying in my partner’s eyes, or if to him I was damaged goods because of my past divorce. In the process, I created problems where there had previously been none; I distrusted my boyfriend, distrusted myself, and lost faith in our connection because I felt sure that we’d never exchange those all-important vows.

It took me nearly driving that car off the cliff to take a good, hard look at exactly where I was headed. Then, in a moment of crisis, I briefly separated Instagram and Facebook from the equation, and asked myself: would I still want to get married right now if I knew the pictures would never get posted online? If I knew I would never update it on a social media account? Would I, in this moment, take the opportunity to transform my relationship into a marriage if no one except us would even know it had occurred?

And the answer came back unwaveringly: I wouldn’t. In fact, I wasn’t nearly ready.
And as though social media had been the dam holding back all the tides of clarity, the removal of them allowed my truth, and all the lessons I’d learned since my divorce to rush in. Like how being married is not the same as being boyfriend and girlfriend that marriage is a living, breathing organism with its own set of rules and expectations, and you’d better be sure before you invite it into your life. Or how easy it is once you’re married to lean on that status instead of do the work, once you've stopped working towards a wedding. The way that when you’re married you can gradually stop choosing each other, because it’s easy to forget that you still have to. To me, that commitment shouldn’t be embarked on lightly because it comes with so many unique challenges I know I’m not yet ready to face again; in fact I'm not sure I ever could, unless I'd spent enough time away from social media to trust that it was really what I wanted, not what I thought I needed in order to feel socially adequate.

As I came to my senses, I remembered then too how much I enjoy my relationship right now exactly as it is. We haven’t yet settled into rings, roles, or complacency our very unattachment brings a level of excitement and risk that means we’re still surprising each other. And we’ve both admitted that while we’ve grown a lot, we have more to do before we enter that particular arena if we plan on being successful. So while most of our friends are married (or nearly there) our plans for the immediate future are personal goals, trips, and other adventures; we remind ourselves constantly that despite a few silver hairs, we are still so young, and that even though Instagram would have us think otherwise, we don’t actually have to do anything we don’t want to. Truthfully we will only have this period as boyfriend and girlfriend for a set amount of time; all stages are fleeting eventually, and as we head into the new year it serves us to really treasure this one. 

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Forgive Yourself for Yesterday

Ten years ago, back when I was seventeen and graduating high school, we were all required to participate in exit interviews to discuss what we had arranged for our anticipated futures. I’m not sure if they still do them, but that interview was the first moment I began to understand just how much things were going to change after graduation− that the arrival of the real world was imminent. And when I sat down for mine with my English teacher during one warm June lunch hour, I’ll never forget the way he asked, “So where do you see yourself in five years?”

I’d known the question was coming, and had planned to describe my post-secondary goals. But I surprised myself by answering immediately, instinctively, “Married. With kids.”

I remember the way we both seemed taken aback by what I’d admitted. He raised his eyebrows, and leaned back in his chair. “Really? No University?”

I’d shrugged. “Well of course I’ll go to school and get my degree. But I want a family.”

And at that moment, I realized it was true. Until he’d asked, I hadn’t really known that deep down I wanted to be a mom. I wanted to be a wife. I wanted tradition, and routine, and despite all my career ambitions, I felt in my bones that family would always come first. And naively I also believed that I’d never meet with any roadblocks on my way there.

But of course, nothing went as I’d so carefully outlined in my Planning 12 binder. Eventually I did get married, but then I also got divorced. I did get to university, but not until after I became a mom− and I’m still another year and a half away from finishing my degree. And while I have two beautiful, incredible children, their gestation and birth caused so much trauma to my body that afterwards my doctors told me it would be very difficult for me to ever have another successful pregnancy. That I could expect to miscarry in the first trimester, and require surgery just to carry another child beyond that point, and that if I did I’d likely run into the same complications I experienced with my twins. And ultimately they disclosed that attempting to have more children would require serious planning, medical intervention, and emotional preparation because my body simply isn’t competent enough for it.

So once in a while, particularly as the last leaves fall and the shortened days become shrouded in darkness, I reflect on all this, and it leaves me feeling a little stained; a little fragmented. I don’t have self-pity, I just feel disappointed in myself. In a way it seems like I’ve failed to appropriately accomplish any of the things that I once believed would be so easy for me. I’ve always heard it said that wrinkles are proof that you’ve lived, laughed, and loved, but now and then I wonder if they aren’t simply a reaction to carrying around so much weight. And the older I get, the older I feel, like I’m burdened by that long list of things that didn’t turn out the way I’d planned or expected. The path I’d once marked so clearly in my mind seems tangled now, and I’ve lost my footing. Sometimes, I wonder if my inability to find it again is nothing more or less than what I deserve, as though all my failures mean I don’t have any right to the happiness I’d always felt so sure was waiting for me.
But when I confessed all this to my boyfriend the other night, he expressed something to me that I think I’ll always remember as distinctly as that exit interview. He took my hands in his, and uttered the most powerful line:

 “You have to forgive yourself for yesterday. For all the yesterdays.”

Forgive yourself for yesterday. Since our conversation, that line has been stuck in my head, looping and looping. And gradually it’s been loosening, uprooting so many of those negative voices that have been digging in for years. I’ve given them power, unquestioningly, for as long as I can remember, but now I’m finding that I’m examining their validity with a little more judiciousness.

And I’ve begun to wonder if maybe he’s on to something. If maybe the real issue isn’t my failures, but my perspective on them. That perhaps happiness isn’t any less accessible simply because it’s had to be redefined, or reshaped to fit a different reality. And that while the future I dreamed of as a teenager might be gone, suppose for a minute that that simply gives me a blank slate to create a whole new one that is more in line with who I’ve turned in to?

I don’t know why I’m so hard on myself (though I suspect it’s some sort of lingering Catholic guilt) but I know as I near thirty I deeply desire to shake off my past and everything I’ve allowed to drag me to my knees. To show my daughters that you are not beholden to your mistakes, and that there’s no shame in imperfection− in being a flawed, stumbling, learning, growing individual. And that your past can only consume parts of you if you let it. That if I don’t start giving myself permission to slip up, I’ll never teach my girls how to learn from their own mistakes, and that the only unforgivable error I could make would be to perpetuate that cycle of shame. As a parent, there is nothing my children could do that would make me believe that they don’t deserve redemption or happiness, and maybe it’s time I try practicing same kind of unconditional self-acceptance.

No, I haven’t been perfect over the last decade; I’ve made disastrous choices, and let anxiety lead, and hurt people, and lost my head. I’ve been selfish, and insensitive, and cruel, and at times I’ve stepped out instead of stepping up, or allowed weakness too many opportunities to grab the wheel. At the end of the day I didn’t have a perfect first marriage, or a perfect college experience, and I don’t have a perfect body that performs on command to create the family I always dreamed of.

But if I did, I’d be an entirely different person. I wouldn’t have any of the things I have now, like unbelievable twin daughters, and a wonderful partner, and a beautiful home. I wouldn’t have so many amazing professors my age has enabled me to befriend, or career goals that have formed out of my own unique challenges. I wouldn’t have the life experiences that have pushed me to become a volunteer in fields I’m passionate about, and if I hadn’t fallen so low I wouldn’t have found the courage to question what I really want out of life, let alone pursue it. I’d certainly have a lot less to write about.

Though it’ll take some time to get there, I am slowly recognizing that I can either spend years looking backwards, wondering what could have been, or I can look forward to what I have on the horizon. I can set new goals, push through current ones, and enjoy each new moment as it comes to me. I can let go of all those perceived failures and remember that I do not deserve to be shackled by the shame of my inadequacies− that sometimes it takes realizing what you don’t want to figure out what you do.
It’s not so complicated. It's something I suspect we all need to remember once in a while. You can either hang on to who you've been, who you wanted to be, or you can forgive yourself for yesterday and embrace today. All the todays.

As I will− each fresh one that I'm given.

(image via Google Images)

Monday, 29 October 2018

Me, Too.

Is vulnerability ever supposed to be easy? I can be so hard, so withdrawn sometimes, stiffening against his gentle love. It doesn’t take much- a sharp word, a dismissal, a perceived criticism, and I’m sucked deep back into myself, emergency shutters slamming. And as he senses my system arming, I sense the way it hurts him, that deep rejection I project. This fortress tower only holds room for one.

At least it’s safe. My own hurt hides under a quilt of anger that wraps itself around me. There’s no warmth but it does burn. I wish it could be his arms. I wish I wasn’t so quick to prepare for battle, wasn’t always slapping mortar between the stones. I don’t know anything else though- I long ago learned how much of war I could handle, and began developing my defences. I think it’s strong, this shield, but if I had any real courage I’d run into the field without it and accept the blows as they come. What is life without that copper tang on your tongue? A taste so preferable to the sour stickiness of fear.

I don’t want to live this way. After all, he doesn’t deserve the barricade, and I didn’t build it for him. It was to hold out all the poison, like ivy that grows on and in these walls, tries to find a crack. It sprouted at age six, at twelve, at thirteen, at sixteen, at twenty. It spread patiently, insidiously. It knows I’m not easily startled, and that it must encroach gradually if it is to successfully swallow me up. And so I assemble quickly, and fear creeps slowly, and nothing gets in, but nothing gets out either.

I did escape once when we met I was still entombed, yet found the strength to kick through doors and leap from a window without a line. Just so I could feel his hands, his skin against mine. I was blind to the potential pain, and in that sightless paradise we stumbled around bound tightly together. Within that world we’re at our best, like we can feel the very colours under our feet, and even with our eyes closed it could never be darker than that darkness I inhabit alone. When I’m free our sparks set everything aglow. 

But even with goodness illuminated, it’s still so tough to believe in anyone, anything. You never know your own vulnerability until someone pricks the surface of it, and then you swear it won’t happen again. Then you’re the You after, the You who sees with clouded vision and wonders what’s underneath each amiable mask. You remember the moments of abandonment, and assault, and abuse; you remember the broken possessions and how you still feel like damaged goods. You remember being pressed against your will onto a dirty floor and the way it stung your nose. How you should have gotten out then, but didn’t− you stayed. All the times you stayed quiet, and the shame you feel even for the times you didn’t.

You remember how masterful you became at pretending you were never in pain. You see the way each broken moment took a little piece of you with it, and you guard what’s left like a dragon clutching its gold, hoarding it within sharp claws. All the things you never shared with anyone, until him. You try desperately not to punish him for the sins of your fathers, your brothers, your lovers, your friends.

Of course, he isn’t perfect; he’s contributed his fair share to my collection of stones. But he’s broken many apart too, turned them to dust in his large, calloused hands and reached for me. I don’t keep track of those very well though it’s difficult when they’re sand at our feet. It’s easier to record the rocks he’s added, each boulder stacked like cards against him. Sometimes, pressed up against the slate I feel like I’m becoming one of them, cold and unyielding.

But I must be unyielding; or at least, never surrender to the urge to run. I must fight the voice that begs me to escape to my concrete panic room, and instead, swing the door open. And not one time either I need to muster up the courage again and again, every time he hands me a new stone. For every rock he creates, we must grind ten more to grit until the whole castle comes crashing down around us. If love is deceiving, and life is revealing, my survival depends on my ability to choose uncertainty, every day, every time I’d rather withdraw to where it hurts less. Not just for us, but for myself.

Because nothing grows back here, deprived of soil and sunshine. There’s no heart to this house. It’s secure, but barren. Dead. And for the first time in my life, the walls feel more like an obstruction than protection. Keeping me not only from the bad but also from the good, from all those poignant, fervent flavours. It will turn me grey like itself, if I let it. In truth, I’d rather bare my pink skin to harm; I’d rather bleed. I’d rather live a short life with him than a long life with anyone else. For even with his mistakes, he’s still one of the few who has ever earned that effort.

And most importantly, so have I. Despite what’s happened to Me Too, I can’t punish myself, can’t deny myself water because I’m afraid I’ll drown. Mostly, I can’t let those moments steal any more from me than they already, greedily have. Trust and vulnerability are hard, but at 28 I’m determined not to transform into anything harder.

Monday, 27 August 2018

True Life: I'm Dating My Stepbrother

Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but you did read that right: my live-in boyfriend, who I’m madly in love with, share parenting duties with, and am planning a future with is also, strangely, my step-brother. And while that may sound like the headline of a Daily Mail article, the reality is much less dramatic.

Look, I’ll be the first to say it: dating a member of your step-family is a little weird. The idea seems at best, irresponsible, and at worst, inappropriate on so many fronts. Though we’re not blood-related, it initially brings to mind the hillbillies from Deliverance, or The Hills Have Eyes mutants, or, for those who are a little less horror-movie inclined, the history of the Egyptian Pharaohs known to have often married their actual siblings to keep the bloodlines pure.
But I’ll also be the first to say that I didn’t choose this; rather, in typical fashion, love chose us.

Let me explain.

The thing about an ugly divorce is that the aftershocks usually don’t end when the papers are signed; rather, they can rise up again and again, refusing to die (or being deliberately kept alive) for years, decades, even lifetimes and beyond. Luckily, my ex-husband and I didn’t have one, and our daughters won’t have to experience those vibrations through the family current, haunting their past and future. But my own parents did, and I think the awfulness of it watching my known world become unknown, violent, and frightening left me with some major trust issues, particularly towards men.

While my mother and father split when I was twelve, those unavoidable aftershocks kept coming, and at sixteen my family home was still mired in chaos, despite my dad no longer living there. It had, for a long time, been a home of male-dominated violence that we desperately attempted to ignore and normalize, working around it like you might a sinkhole in your living room. And consequently as I neared the end of high school, my ability to sense danger had become massively overdeveloped; my fight-or-flight response was in a near-constant state of activation, to the point that I couldn’t focus in class, slept too much, and was inundated with debilitating stomach cramps later diagnosed as an ulcer. And naturally, I remember promising myself that one day, when I had the means to support myself, I’d never again live in an environment that caused me such terrible, suffocating anxiety.

So when I got together with my now ex-husband almost eight years ago, I barely hesitated to leap into a full commitment because I knew he was gentle, predictable, and kind highly underrated traits that to me, the product of an explosive and uncertain youth, were extremely appealing. The men I’d dated before him had been in most ways entirely normal human beings; however, they’d also had tempers, and moments of wild instability, and at some point it had always become too triggering for me and I’d ended it. But during our short time together my ex-husband was the safe place that I’d sorely lacked as a young adult; after we separated I found myself wondering how I could ever trust anyone the same way again. Part of me was convinced that underneath every seemingly sane man lurked a monster who my love would eventually unleash, and I’d wake up one day back in the home I grew up in, realizing with horrible clarity that I’d never really left.
However, the universe works in mysterious ways, and it turned out there was a man in the world who managed to possess both strength and goodness; fortunately for me, he recently married my mother. Their wedding was nearly three years ago now, and while her new husband isn’t perfect, he is kind, and funny, and stubborn, and proud, and somehow manages to have control without being out of it. He is reliable, and loving, and someone I feel I can always go to for help and he’ll provide it, unconditionally.

And he has. So I suppose it isn’t entirely surprising that when my broken heart began to mend, I fell head-over-heels for his youngest son.

The first time I met my current partner, and, incidentally, my new stepbrother, I was 24 a married mom of two with minimal confidence and even less life experience. My now-boyfriend was 28, recently out of a rough engagement, and enjoying his bachelorhood to the fullest. Our situations couldn’t have been more different, but almost immediately I liked him we laughed easily, my daughters tugged at his hands, and within him I sensed that same inherent goodness I read in his father, the impossible knowledge that he was someone who could be counted upon. And as our friendship developed, over time he became as close to me as a brother, calling or texting randomly to ask for relationship advice, or impart a great story, or laugh about our parents’ antics.

But love finds a way. Later, when my marriage unraveled, the calls and visits became less superficial and more supportive; he’d send me funny videos in the morning so I could wake up and laugh, or he’d pop by with the pretense of needing help himself but would quickly press me about my own emotional state. In the midst of my divorce, a situation where it felt like all the men in my life were disappearing− alongside losing my husband, my own father wasn’t speaking to me, my brothers were hurt and distant, and I no longer had in-laws− finding a man who witnessed my worst and accepted all my imperfections without judgment was nothing short of miraculous. He was handsome and kind and infuriating and wonderful, and restored my shaken faith in the male population at a time I desperately needed it.

Were we supposed to fall in love? Probably not. In an ideal world we both would have found more sensible partners− ones who weren’t, as my sister later joked, “swimming in the family pool.” But the older I get the more I begin to realize that nothing happens the way we expect; people change, and make wild choices, and fall out of love, and go to rehab, and even vote in Donald Trump. We are living in an incredibly strange time, one of overwhelming change and tragedy and almost debilitating uncertainty, and all anyone trying to survive it can do is to listen to their instincts and hold on tightly to a personal sense of moral truth. For me, that means paying attention when my heart speaks to me, and being brave enough to acquiesce to its demands.

And ultimately, there’s something to be said for a love that endures despite overwhelming odds; a love that persists beyond your own prejudices and established beliefs. While my partner and I aren’t actually related and didn’t meet until our mid/late twenties, there’s still a weirdness to dating a member of your step-family; the fact that the pull we had towards each other pulled right through that enormous mental block says something about its power. And though Josh and Cher made it look easy in Clueless, and Kathryn and Sebastian gave it a manipulative twist in Cruel Intentions, the reality is that for us it’s neither of those things; it’s something infinitely more complicated and special. Finding a partner who decides you’re worth taking such a colossal risk for who is willing to shoulder the burden of public criticism and rejection from the beginning is someone with inarguable strength and courage. And to me, those are character traits I can’t deny or ignore.

While I won’t go so far as to claim that dating your step-sibling is normal, there is something about all of it that feels serendipitous, that gives me faith in a larger, still shadowed plan for my life. And of all the unknowns swirling around the world today, that is one of the few I can get behind.    

(Image Via Google)

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

If Not Now, When?

Yesterday, I turned 28.

Upon waking, I found that it is a strange age; I was more comfortable with 27. 28 is firmly detached from that early-to-mid-twenties chaos and confusion, but not quite encroaching on a more settled 30, either. There is so much I thought I’d have done by 28 that I haven’t, and mounds I never thought I’d do that I have.

Last month, my daughters turned five, and the transformation in them is inescapable. They’re taller, leaner, hips suddenly curving slightly in a way that marks them no longer as simply children, but as distinctly female. Their hair is blonder now, their art and writing becoming more complex, and together we’ve embarked on reading our first of many novels together. They chose my childhood copy of The Wind in the Willows− my name scratched shakily inside the front cover− and have quickly become entranced with the adventures of Water Rat, Badger, Mole, and Toad of Toad Hall. I read them a chapter every night before bed, and as they lean into me I notice the way their legs dangle over the edge of the couch, and how their scent has lost its lingering baby notes of diaper fluff and milk. Now they smell like cotton, grass, sunshine, and the sticky sweet sweat of summer. The alteration unsettles me.

Though my girls still love being held and hugged and kissed as much as they always have, they are asserting more boundaries too, and I am beginning to experience the ache of realizing we cannot go back; regardless of what miracles may occur throughout their lives, they will never be my babies again. The evidence is walking and talking around me daily, as kindergarten looms and the public school system reaches out to snatch the better part of their days from me for the next thirteen years.

And as our last untouched summer winds to a close, I realize with some deep, ancient part of me that soon all I'll have left of these moments are photographs− we will never be here again. Each day Time gives me a little more of my girls, and yet mercilessly steals other treasured parts away; I feel simultaneously flooded and like I’m desperately trying to catch a wave with my fingertips. The pain is palpable, and through I welcome the new stage we’re entering, I think I’ll always feel the loss of those baby years acutely.

Unlike my daughters however, while my digits have increased, physically I remain much the same. I have no more and no less wrinkles today than I did yesterday. My height remains firmly 5’4 (and a half). I am still a voracious reader, a mediocre cook, a major night owl, and a terrible reverse-parker. Sure, I get slightly more hungover than I used to, my knee and elbow skin seems looser, and as my boyfriend often says, we’re reaching the age where injuries are less funny and more scary. But bodily, I'm effectively unchanged− it is my mentality where there's been a less-than-subtle shift.

For the first time I feel like I am beginning to truly fill in my form, as though my insides are growing to fit exactly who I’m supposed to be. Nowadays, waking up in the morning seems like pulling on a pair of latex surgical gloves; my skin sits seamlessly and I’m more secure, sure, and confident both in the choices I’ve made and the risks I want to take for the future. Perhaps that's a normal part of growing older, but to me it feels like too special of a transition to be labeled, "ordinary". As someone who has spent the better part of the last ten years mired in anxiety and uncertainty, to be slipping into some form of surety is a thrilling, and necessary, development. 

Particularly because for me, 28 is going to be a year of metaphorical cliff-jumping; on top of having two kindergarteners and encountering more freedom than I’ve had since I was 22, I’m planning on taking a massive career leap that may or may not result in me crashing horribly, crushed and defeated. But I’m going to do it anyway, because through my children I have finally begun to understand that if I don’t take advantage of the years I have, I will lose them forever. Despite what Back to the Future and HG Wells told us, time travel isn’t real if I wake up unfulfilled at forty, I will never be able to claw my way back to my twenties and remake those huge decisions. The days ahead now seem less limitless, and more limited a road that narrows towards an horizon line along which Time is determinedly driving all of us.  

And while I always thought aging was the enemy, it turns out that the more I accept and embrace it, the less powerful and terrifying it seems; with each increasing year, my fear of the future diminishes, and I am less afraid of death because it is less unknown. And unfortunately it’s taken me 28 years to recognize the way I’ve wasted so many seasons, passively watching the passage of life without either appreciating the one I’ve been given or asking myself what I really and truly want from it.
So I refuse to be frightened any longer. I refuse to hope someone else will come along and give me the answers. I refuse to wish my days away, living outside the very moments I’ve been blessed with. I refuse to ever again be a passenger of my own existence. Though I cannot control what time has taken and turned to dust the parts of myself and my children that have been left behind I can control how I use what still remains ahead, those possibilities that dangle palpably with each new sunrise.

I suspect now more than ever that 28 is going to be big, and scary, and exciting, and chaotic, but it is mine every single tumultuous piece of it. I will claim it with my hands and my heart, grabbing a firm hold and wielding it unassisted.

After all, if not now, when? And if not me, who?

(Image Via Pinterest)