Sep 6, 2016


I assumed it was dead, although the smell was still fresh. (One final fuck you to the world, that stink.) I didn't go over to investigate; I'm not a serial killer in the developmental stage. Plus, what would I have done if it hadn't been? Played the good samaritan and stepped on its head? Put my hands around its smelly throat and suffocated it, looked into its eyes as the breath left its lungs for the last time? Driven over it with my bicycle, its black and white body hemorrhaging beneath my freshly-pumped-up tires? If it wasn't dead already, it almost certainly would be soon without my helping it along, as naps in the middle of the road are not generally conducive to recovery. Not to mention that the blur of fur and flesh had that particularly savage appearance common to deaths from high speed collisions between automobile and beast that are unlikely to result in anything other than someone's phone call to the dead animal removal service.

Sadly, a dead skunk is not a particularly uncommon occurrence (although they're mostly right to trust in their invincibility: nobody wants that funk caught in their grill). What caught my eye was the hawk standing guard over the body. A few feet away in the middle of the road, majestic and lovely, there it stood. As I rode by, it opened its wings slightly as if to fly away, but it must have determined (correctly) that I wasn't a threat. Settling its feathers, it resumed its vigil.

Maybe it was going to go in for a little skunk meat after I had gone, vulture-style. Maybe it had put the word out in Hawksville that there was going to be a party and he was politely waiting for guests. (Why is it a he now? I sometimes realize the extent of my patriarchal indoctrination in these moments of automatic male gender assignment in the absence of any gender indicators. I am not an ornithologist; it could very well have been a she.)

So anyway, despite the probability of that poor dead (or dying) skunk being lunch, I like to think that they were pals and that the hawk was protecting her friend as his/her skunk-spirit left his/her skunk-body, that she was mourning another senseless death caused by the human infringement on the animal world. Hawks just seem to have that sort of philosophical nature.

And then I was past them. The hawk was still standing there as I looked back. For all I know, she's standing there still.

Moral #1: One day you'll be dead, and someone will be standing over you, either to eat you or mourn you. Remember that death is imminent, and live your life accordingly.

Moral #2: Look both ways before you cross the street.

Aug 31, 2016

From Silence to Death

When I was young, my mother gave my father a human skull as a gift. With a child's instinct, I knew this was something to fear. Not the thing itself, of course - trapped in its glass case, the skull represented no immediate threat - but there was an undeniable menace there, in the yellowed bone and the empty eye sockets, in the smallness and silence of it. This is what we become.  

I was simultaneously drawn to and repelled by it, as one is of snakes and spiders and maggots and things we know instinctively to be dangerous but wish to understand in spite of the danger. I would sometimes have my afternoon nap on the mattress in my parents' bedroom, the skull looking blindly down at me from its case on the dresser. 

This was a period of nightmares for me. At night, I kept my hands and feet tucked firmly under the covers, I dared not peek under the bed or in the closet, I whispered the prayer my father had taught me to keep the nightmares away (sometimes it worked): 

Four angels round my bed, 
Two at the foot and two at the head, 
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, 
Guard the bed that I lay on. 

(But what about the middle of the bed?)

I had nightmares of fires and zombies and mad dogs and pursuit, and of skulls, naked and grinning and horribly alive. But with the nightmares came partial lucidity: my subconscious came up with a way of dealing with the terrors, and I invented a friendly flying skull that protected me from the monsters. 

Looking back, I realize the symbolic importance of that semi-conscious creation: I had made friends with death. 

And with this uneasy friendship came my interest in horror. Children's authors like John Bellairs and Roald Dahl at first, then the pulp horror of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Anne Rice, and F. Paul Wilson's The Keep, which all served as further nightmare fodder. (With age came unpleasant dreams about my teeth falling out, not being able to find the classroom or forgetting my locker combination, ghosts, vampires, rejection.) The classics followed: Stoker and Shelley and Stevenson and Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe and Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson. My guides in facing the specter of death.

(There were movies as well, of course, too many to mention, but there is something inherently more terrifying in creating the images myself from the words on the page than in seeing someone else's nightmare vision come to life - the alien bursting from his chest and grandpa trying to git 'er being notable exceptions.) 

It's harder to scare me these days, and I can usually wake myself up from nightmares before things get too dire, which is a skill I am happy to possess. (The nightmares themselves tend to be more mundane and less fantastical, although no less terrifying.) I don't possess a human skull (other than my own), but I have ceramic skull bookends and art and a framed photograph of a skull illicitly snapped in the catacombs of Paris. I have seen three corpses in their coffins, and I have seen life vanish while looking into my cat's eyes.

When I sat down to write this, I was inspired by a line from a book I recently finished reading, called Outline, by Rachel Cusk: "She had sat there, she said, and thought about her own lifelong habit of explaining herself, and she thought about this power of silence, which put people out of one another's reach." I was thinking about silence, and from silence I went to skulls, and from skulls to death. Which is a natural progression, I guess. When we stop attempting to express ourselves, to communicate what is in our heads and in our hearts, when we close ourselves up and cut ourselves off, that's when we die. 

And as much as I want to face death, make friends with it, I don't want to die. I don't want anything to die. So I'm going to continue this lifelong habit of explaining myself, in the hope that you will explain yourself, too, and together we can share our terrors until all that's left is yellowed bone and silence.   


Aug 22, 2016

All the Lights Go Out Eventually

I recently had the opportunity to visit my 93-year-old paternal grandmother. Earlier this summer, she caught pneumonia and didn't seek medical help because she assumed that she was just dying, which I guess is something you assume when you are 93 years old and start feeling really shitty. She did eventually go to the hospital, where she was diagnosed and successfully treated. So the old girl kicks on.

We hadn't seen each other in many years, and we are not close, but still, there is that familial connection, that blood bond, that made me want to see her before she died, to tell her I love her and that she was a good grandmother.

During our visit, she spoke matter-of-factly about her impending demise, which is an awkward thing to experience, as most of us would rather not address this particular issue until that creepy motherfucker is directly in front of us, holding a dance card with our name printed on it, in bold, undeniable.

I looked into my grandmother's eyes, the left clouded by cataracts, and we spoke of aging, and the way our bodies rebel against us. We spoke of the weather and my job and places we've traveled to. We also spoke of comparative mathematics, which is a field that she was inspired to investigate by her spirit guides. (Alas, it is doubtful that her binders full of notes will ever make it to textbook-form. Did you know that pi is no longer 3.14159 etc., but the square root of 10? I don't know what she was talking about, either, but her cloudy old eyes lit up when I mentioned it after noticing the labels on the binders.) She told me about the healing powers of placing certain crystals (these were arranged on a TV tray in front of her) on ailing body parts. We ate meringue cookies.

My parents let my grandmother take me to church once and she gave me an orange to eat. I remember the orange but not the sermon. (My grandmother once beat my father with a broom because he refused to go to church one Sunday.) I only went that one time.

My grandmother took me to the zoo and we made a book together afterwards about what we did and what we saw. She drew the pictures and I coloured half of them in before growing bored. (I was never crafty.)

My grandmother dyed her hair bright red, and she took me and my brother to the beach and wore mismatched socks, which I found embarrassing.

My grandparents' apartment was full of crystals and coloured rocks and minerals, and one day I got to polish my own gemstone.

There were always bowls of trail mix and dried fruit on the coffee table, and we went to the Shanghai Restaurant for Chinese food on special occasions. We went there for my Grade 8 graduation.

As a daughter and granddaughter and aunt and niece whose family members are not all within easy driving distance, I have come to realize the importance of those telephone calls about school and the weather, the birthday cards sent in the mail, the occasional emails, the token Christmas gifts. They say to the recipient: I am thinking of you and hoping you are well, and it doesn't matter that I rarely get to see you, because you are my family and my relationship with you has played a role in shaping the person I have become. Because of that (and sometimes in spite of that), I thank you.

I hugged my grandmother goodbye for what is assuredly the last time, and as I left the room, she said, "I'll see you in heaven," and I mumbled some sort of assent. (When the whisper of death is upon someone you love, it's sort of rude to disagree with their version of the afterlife.) Despite the presence of that bleak old specter, our visit was sweet rather than morbid, and when I left I was a little teary and sad, but glad that I had made the effort.

Making the effort is all we can do, really. Make the effort to be kind to others, and make the effort to do the things and spend time with the people that make us happy. It's hard sometimes. It's so much easier to let life slip by. But I promise you that the effort is worth it. Because all the lights go out eventually, and it would be such a shame to live your entire life in the dark.

Jun 28, 2016

Cardboard Boxes and Cheese Knives

I am surrounded by cardboard boxes.

They consist mostly of books and kitchen stuff, which is fairly representative of who I am as a person. (I haven't packed the CDs yet.) One thing I have learned from my recent packing experience is that I officially own more cheese knives than one person could reasonably be expected to use at any given time without being in serious need of some bran.

As an aside, I have rewritten history here for dramatic effect, as I actually came to the too-many-cheese-knives revelation some months ago. I think I might even have already written about it. In truth, I haven't even packed the cheese knives yet. But I have packed many boxes full of kitchen gadgets that only get used a couple times a year, and the cheese knife epiphany of having too much kitchen stuff is applicable. Since we don't actually move for a couple of weeks, I have whittled the cupboards and drawers down to the necessities; some cutlery, some bowls and plates, a few glasses, a couple of pots and pans, a can opener, and a cheese grater are all anyone really needs. (I do really like my lemon zester, though.)

I enjoy moving, the act of packing up one's existence, deciding what must stay and what can go. And I enjoy the act of unpacking later, too, and putting everything in its place. If you come to my home, you will always find exactly what you need in the exact place that you need it. Order brings me peace, and I loathe clutter. (Mostly because I really hate dusting, but also because, generally speaking, objects hold little value for me. I say 'generally' because I tried and failed to get rid of my Strawberry Shortcake dolls not too long ago, so I have obviously developed some emotional attachments to things, despite my best efforts.)

By putting things into cardboard boxes, I am in the process of detaching myself from this place that has been my home for the past 11+ years. Memories were made here, and I will take those with me, like the boxes of books and all those cheese knives. People (and one cat) have come and gone from my life while I lived here, and I am glad for the time spent with them just as I am sad that they are gone.

I will miss the spider in the insulation that is now buried behind drywall and paint; the new owners will not know he exists. I will also miss Roy, the royal maple tree we planted in the backyard, who has grown tall enough to block the neighbour's window, which was our original intent. He is a fine tree.

I will miss the street name, which is also the name of the childhood doll my father made for me, and address, which means "angel" in Korean and must surely be responsible for some of my success: my last name also means "angel," but in German, and I make my living helping Korean students write essays. If I was the type of person who believes in fate, and I'm not entirely sure that I'm not, I would chalk those auspicious coincidences up to her for sure.

I am caught between a nostalgic melancholy for the old and excitement for the new. There will almost certainly be new people and new parties in the new house, new conflicts and new resolutions. I am looking forward to those people and those experiences and to how they will help me learn about myself and about the world. I am looking forward to nurturing what will one day grow from a skinny sapling into a fine tree.

And I am looking forward to one day using all those cheese knives at once. I hope you can be there to help me use them. Riot on.



Jun 7, 2016

Just call on me, brother, when you need a hand. Or don't. Whatever.

Two mnemonic devices that I remember from grade school spelling class are "the principal is your pal" and "a friend is a friend 'til the end." That first one has nothing to do with this blog; I just can't resist the urge to improve the internet's spelling ability whenever I get the chance. But that last one is both a helpful spelling tip and a truism: friends are your friends until the end, either of time or of the friendship, whichever comes first (usually the latter).

Most friendships, like cartons of milk, have expiry dates. You meet someone at a particular point in both your lives, and the relationship is mutually beneficial for a certain period of time. Then something happens, usually some major life change like graduation or a change in geography or a new job or a new boyfriend or one of you has a baby or the podcast fades or you realize you're an alcoholic and have to stop going to the bar. (Hell, maybe you go to jail. It's got to be hard to maintain friendships from jail.) And you move on, and that friendship just fades away until one day you're looking through old photo albums and you find that you can't even remember the name of the person who was once important enough to you that you developed a photograph of them and put it in an album. (Or maybe that just happens to me. I have a really terrible memory, especially for proper names. As an aside, yes, I still develop photographs and put them in albums like a weirdo.)

Sometimes people are very important in your life and then they just aren't anymore. As a society, we place great emphasis on loyalty, but fuck loyalty, I say. Or rather, be loyal until it isn't worth it anymore. Unlike family, friendships are relationships that you choose. And you can choose to not be in them anymore, too. 

Friendships (like all things in life, really) are all about the balance. If you are the one constantly providing support (or time or money or invitations to hang out or whatever else your friendship is based on) and never receiving any, I'd say it's time to find someone more worthy of your attention. I believe that people are inherently selfish, and that that is as it should be, but we cannot exist on this planet without making some emotional connections, so there has to be some reciprocity in order for a friendship to make it through the (hopefully) long haul that is life. If you were there for someone during their worst moments and they can't even be bothered to give your major life experience a social media 'like', the ultimate in lazy acknowledgement, then you know that friendship has run its course. And, yeah, that can feel pretty shitty, but I try not to look at it as a waste of time. Ever the optimist/realist, I recognize the value that person once added to my life, and I move on.  

As an aside, social media platforms have certainly made the friendship-fade more difficult. Seeing an old friend pop up on a current friend's profile can be disconcerting, not to mention how upset people can get about getting deleted, as if being deleted from someone's social media friends list has any bearing whatsoever on one's value as a human being.   

I try to live my life not expecting anything from anyone. This way it is almost impossible to be disappointed, and I am frequently pleasantly surprised by the kindness of others. And I'd like people to not expect anything of me, either; I can't let you down that way, and I really don't want to let anyone down if I can help it. 

It's not easy, of course. I hold the truly important people in my life to a higher standard than I do the mere acquaintances. There are a great many more acquaintances in my life than friends. (Part defense mechanism, part emotional evolution?) Or rather, because I know a lot of amazing human beings who bring something positive to my life and who definitely qualify under the moniker "friend," a great many more friends than people I would kill for. I would kill for a very select few. The rest of you are on your own.  

So if once upon a time, we were friends and now we aren't, I'd like you to know that I'm glad I knew you, and I hope that you are happy and have at least a few people in your life who you would kill for, because we can't do it all alone, as much as that thought appeals to me. Ah well, and riot on.  

Apr 29, 2016

Life Lessons

Modern society can be a major drag. We are bombarded with people telling us what to think and how to behave (and publicly shaming us if we dare to disagree); news feeds tell us what is "trending" and therefore "important"; we use emojis instead of words or deeds to express ourselves; we need constant approval in the form of "friends" and "followers"  (and, oh, how I resist that word) as validation that we are worthwhile. We're living online instead of out there in the world. But out there in the world, a world that is frequently hostile and dangerous, yes, but also infinitely lovely and vital, is where the real lessons are learned, the sorts of lessons that stick, even if you don't recognize their value at the time.

Here are 9 things I learned when I was a child as a result of actually experiencing things:

When you are standing in the middle of a field, with nothing around you but golden waves of prairie grass and the endless blue of the cloudless summer sky, you see the arc of the horizon and understand instinctively that the earth is round. Lesson #1: Science is right.

This girl sitting in this wheelchair, with her gnarled hands and lolling head and crooked spine, her unintelligible moans and grunts, this girl you spend mandatory time with twice a week at school, this girl who is two years older than you but who cannot read or learn her times tables or run around outside at recess, this girl who will probably never kiss a boy or eat with a fork but who can still laugh, this girl is just a girl, a girl like you but with really bad luck. Lesson #2: Life is not fair.

Dogs will form packs, and they will grow wild and daring and dangerous, and they will roam the streets of your prairie city searching for anything smaller than they are to attack (the neighbourhood cats, or your younger brother, maybe, or you), until someone (your father, maybe) bashes the alpha male's skull in with a baseball bat, and then they will disband, or at least stay away from your part of town. Lesson #3: Pack mentality is dangerous, in dogs and in humans.  

On your last day in Calgary before you move to Saskatchewan again, you finally learn to ride your bike. You are 8 years old, and you ride around and around and around the block while your parents load boxes into the old blue trailer, the summer breeze on your face, nothing but you and this old blue bike and this new-found feeling of freedom, and you wonder why you let the fear of falling, of a bump or a scrape or a bruise, prevent you from learning before now. Lesson #4: Don't be afraid to get hurt a little. It's probably worth the risk.

You watch half-hour videos of the trickster in Native History class, whisper "chickadee-dee-dee-dee-dee" to the cute boy who sits beside you, the boy with the long black hair and golden-brown skin, to make him laugh. You can't play together after school because he gets bused back to the reserve. Adults complain about the stupid Indians, the thieves and drunks and criminals, but this boy is your friend. Lesson #5: Racism exists in the world, and it is ugly.

A group of older girls relentlessly teases your best friend, these girls push her and pinch her and call her names, although for some reason they leave you alone. One day, while walking home from school, these girls confront your friend, who is in a cast, start yelling and shoving, and you are angrier than you ever thought you could possibly be at the way they are picking on someone weaker than they, someone you care about, so you look around for a weapon and pick up a large rock, fully intending to smash one of them in the face, send blood spurting and bone flying, but an adult arrives and breaks things up. Lesson #6: You are human, and therefore capable of great violence.

When your mother is sad, she will play "I Want to Know What Love Is," by Foreigner, over and over again on the stereo, and then she won't be as sad anymore. Lesson #7: Music helps.

When you are sad, sitting in an old wooden chair with the rope seat fraying beneath your bum, knees pulled up, crying into your hands, your old black cat, Fats, who is blind in one eye from that time your parents sent him away to a farm but he wouldn't let you get away that easily, so he showed up again a year later, skinny and with that one milky eye, and stared at the place where the food dish used to be like nothing had happened, so then there was no way you could ever get rid of him again because he obviously belongs to you, will come over and look up at you and meow and you know he is asking if you're okay, he doesn't want anything, doesn't want food or to go out, he just wants to comfort you. Lesson #8: Life is better with a cat around.

Pippi breaks the rules if they don't make any sense and you better not mess with her because she's way stronger than you. Lucy is adventurous and brave and compassionate, and she knows that other worlds than this exist out there. Laura wants to be a good girl for her Pa, but she sometimes can't help getting into trouble. Mary is lonely but doesn't let that stop her from doing amazing things, like bringing a whole garden back from the dead and helping a boy learn to walk again. Anne will never stop dreaming, even if she does have red hair. Lesson #9: Reading is good for you.

(I suppose you could argue that sitting still and reading books is not really being out there in the world, but then you have probably forgotten about what it means to play. The experiences of these characters became mine, and in my imagination, at play, I was every one of them. I would not be the woman I am today without these girls.)

The world is pretty shitty a lot of the time, but it can be pretty wonderful, too. Riot on.

Apr 26, 2016

From Holly's Bookshelf: A facebook post that got out of hand.

From Holly's Bookshelf: Not That Kind of Girl, by Lena Dunham. First, I love the cover. (Despite the old adage, sometimes you can.) That cheesy 70s font takes me back to the libraries of my childhood and the pulpy novels my mother would read (which I would skim for the "good parts"). I love that it looks like a terrible self-help book because, in a strange way, it is one.

I'm a season behind on Girls (like many viewers, I am simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the characters), and I recently watched Tiny Furniture, which I loved because it is like Girls with that same sense of feminism and struggle and aimlessness, but more vulnerable, less caustic. Whether you care about those characters or not, you cannot deny her incredible wit and intellect.

I picked the trade copy up while I was killing time during an open house, attracted by said cover, as well as the vague memory of sibling-abuse controversy it garnered when it first came out. (Apparently, playing doctor and exploring one's own sexuality with others in childhood is as frowned upon these days as letting your kid play outside in your own backyard unchaperoned.)

The book is great, and I urge you all to read it, but, more important to my own personal reading experience was this: I realized something while reading her essays, which is that essays are what I write. My fiction is forced, and I love stories too much to ever write a shitty novel. I don't have that one brilliant story inside me that will resonate with readers for hundreds of years, like Harper Lee or Aldous Huxley, or those millions of incredible story ideas, like Stephen King or Ray Bradbury or Alice Munro. But I do think that I have a perspective on life that is valuable. Wise, even, sometimes. Worth sharing.

I love the writing of Chuck Klosterman and David Sedaris and Richard Hell and Lester Bangs (where are all the ladies? I must find them!), the kind of engaging, literary non-fiction that makes me laugh and think and identify and google and learn. And maybe that is the kind of writer I can be, maybe that's what all my inner monologue narration and lists of 9 and weird short bits of prose and poetry can turn into someday. Maybe that's what this blog and my annoying, overly-long facebook posts can become: a collection of essays, grouped by theme (experiences in hospitals, childhood, suburbia, reactions to current affairs and popular culture, etc.). Maybe it can make that scary transition from the internet to the page someday. 

I believe that what I have to say is important and insightful, or at least entertaining (hopefully all three), or I wouldn't bother writing it down. My writing is important to me, which means it might also be important to other people. Not everyone, obviously, but possibly someone, and maybe even many someones. Sometimes I am my own favourite writer, and I don't even remotely have a problem with how conceited that sounds. I have always possessed a kind of self-conscious confidence.      

I had an epiphany while reading Not That Kind of Girl, which is pretty fucking cool.