Thursday, December 19, 2013

Naughty Bits, Nice Bits


Instead of feeling guilty about not having posted in a while, or trying to come up with half-assed blog ideas and then getting distracted by work/life/Christmas specials, I have made the executive decision to grace you with a list of tidbits to tide you over your good tidings, and also your lousy ones.

The first one I posted on Facebook, but feel so strongly about it that I want to share it here, too. I recently had the opportunity to attend We DayOrganized by the incredible people at Free the Children, We Day happens in cities across North America, to encourage and promote the idea of volunteering and giving back. And holy god, was it amazing.

One of the speakers at We Day in Montreal was Spencer West. He raised $600,000.00 for Free the Children by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. I’m not finished. Spencer didn’t just climb it… he climbed it on his hands. Because he has no legs.


One of the other speakers does have legs, but they don’t work particularly well. And yet, Lazylegz, as he's known, has formed a breakdance crew of "ill-abled" dancers from all over the world, and has a slogan: “No Excuses, No Limits.” Bonus: he's from Montreal!

Check him out on Ellen - and stay for the end! Wow.


I'd never heard of any of these people before, but from their wild applause and deafening screaming, it was obvious that the 2000 kids in the audience had. These kids were able to attend We Day only because they’d spent a significant amount of time and energy volunteering. Free the Children recently calculated that the kids who work with them, and with We Day and Me to We, have now done, cumulatively, a total of 9.2 million hours of service. That's A MILLENNIUM of volunteering and activism. They've also raised $1.4 million in pennies - enough to provide 56,000 PEOPLE WITH CLEAN WATER... FOR LIFE.

Did that make the news? Probably not. It’s so easy, at this time of year especially, to get down and sad. To believe that the world is going straight down the toilet, and that there’s nothing that can be done except to scream silently into the wind. I’m just as guilty of this as the next guy. 

But being part of this event reminded me that there are mind-blowingly positive things happening every day, that don’t get media attention because they aren’t sexy or sensational. So here's my $0.02. If you're not a Facebooker or a Tweeter or a whateverer, why not take 5 minutes and read about some of the Me to We speakers, or from any source of good news, and remember that really, truly, this blue and green marble isn’t such a horrible place? And if you are connected to social media, or email, or even a telephone, why not even spread the word? I keep hearing this thing about how altruism is the ultimate human pleasure, and somehow, I think it may be true. Just a thought - do with it as you will.

Speaking of the total opposite of all that, this time last year, I wrote a blog post about Christmas with the Greeks. I wish I could say I felt differently about its impending arrival this year, but alas, I am looking forward to Greekmas as much as ever, that is to say not at all. I love Tony’s family a lot, but something about the throngs of children massacring a Volkwagen-sized pile of Made in China gifts and the still-present elephant in the room and Mama Greek trying and failing to hide her feelings about this is still hard to swallow. So in case you missed it, or are bored, or there are no good Christmas specials on TV, I will share it here once again.

Obviously, I need to go and watch some Me to We speaker videos now.

With love and holly,

The Grinch 


*

Greekmas


I almost called in sick for Greek Christmas this year.  I know how Grinchy that sounds, but hear me out.  Greek Christmas involves six children under the age of 7, six parents about Tony’s and my age, two grandparents, and Mama Greek.  There is a lot of yelling – the good kind, but still.  In the photos every year, I’m sitting on an armchair in the corner, amidst a battlefield of used wrapping paper, holding a glass of wine, and looking afraid.  


Also, last year, Mama Greek pointed to the most recent baby and said, “Next year, I want one.”

I was sure it would be the white elephant in the room.  Word gets around in Tony’s family (when we got engaged, on the top of Mount Royal, our phone was ringing by the time we walked in our front door.)  Most of the people who'd be at Greekmas know we’re trying, and those who don't must suspect.  Sitting silently and awkwardly through kid talk and then getting the “So, how’s work?” question isn’t how I want to spend Christmas, or any day of the year, really.

But if I’m the Grinch, my husband is a Who.  By Christmas morning, he gets me into the spirit of the season.  And I don’t want to spend the day without him.

“I’ll go,” I tell him, over our traditional Christmas breakfast of Lucky Charms.

“Then there’s something you need to know,” Tony says, quietly.  

Yup: another of the cousins is newly pregnant.  (I know.  It’s like the plague.)  She and her husband won’t be there today, but there will be talk about it.  Tony asks if I still want to go. I imagine spending the day feeling sorry for myself at the dog park, versus feeling sorry for myself with him, and cheesecake.

“Okay,” I say.


I am nothing if not rational.

 *

Before we leave, we Skype with some of the cousins in Greece.  I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard a Greek person on a long distance phone call, but you’d swear they were trying to make it so that the actual phone part is unnecessary. (Nonna Maria also has this issue, so I guess it’s not just a Greek thing.)  Lest you believe this is an affliction of the elderly, you only need sit in on a Skype call between my husband and his cousins.   Perhaps it’s passed down through the generations, like a good spanakopita recipe.  I have to stand outside of the range of the camera in order to avoid ear ringing.

“Tell them thank you for the gifts!” I say, meaning that Tony should translate this for the cousins.

“THANK YOU FOR THE GIFTS!” Tony shouts, in English, at 10 times the volume.  

                                                                         *

For the first time in our seven Christmases together, Tony doesn’t shave this year.  His hair is a little long too, and when we go to pick up Mama Greek, from her reaction you’d swear he’d showed up with blood leaking from an open wound on his forehead.

“Why you not tell my son to shave?”  MG demands, in her “quiet” voice, which most of her neighbours can hear perfectly.

“He doesn’t do everything I tell him to do,” I tell her.  

She frowns at me, then heads to the bathroom, takes 3 combs from the cabinet, and places them on the coffee table.  

She points them out to Tony, when he returns from the basement. 

“For your hair," she adds, in case there's any confusion.

Tony stares at the combs for a minute, then takes a picture of them. I try to hide my laughter by shrinking behind my knees on the couch, but it’s no good.

“YOU LIKE HIS HAIR LIKE THAT?” Mama Greek accuses me, waving her fist threateningly.  “WHY?  WHY?”


                                                                    


We get into the car, and I try to avoid the usual “you-sit-in-front-no-you-sit-in-front” song and dance by taking the driver’s seat.   But Mama Greek is already drawn for battle. When Tony announces that he will sit in front, MG blows her top.

“WHY?”  Mama Greek gasps.  “You should sit in the front!”  

 Tony stares at her. “That’s what I said.”

“WHAT?”
                                                                  
En route, she frets constantly.  Do I need to borrow her sunglasses?  Are we sure we don’t want a candy? Watch out for that car, half a kilometer ahead!  But when we arrive, everything changes.  She enters the house first, to the Pavlovian shriek of 6 children, all of them primed for chocolate and cash.  Tony and I go to follow her, and she shuts the door in our faces.

                                                                        *

The evening goes pretty well.  There’s a lot of laughter, and a lot of dessert. I have to make some quick escapes, namely when excited discussion erupts about the pregnant cousin, or when Mama Greek tries to force-cuddle the kids one by one as they run by.  But instead of feeling like an emotional basket case who can’t handle the truth, I give myself these moments, to sit by the fire and write festive text messages to friends, or wander around the quiet second floor, some of which is still decorated in perfect, shimmering 1970s glory. 

There is also a lot of talk about barfing, ear infections, and sleepless nights, and a lot of shrieking, crying, and refusal to eat turkey.  


“I’m ready to sell my son on eBay,” one friend texts me.

I realize that the thought of going home to a quiet house to stay up late, eat popcorn, watch Christmas movies and then sleep until we feel inclined to do otherwise probably sounds like paradise right now to most people with kids.  

And so, that is exactly what we do.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Plan


I spent the last week of my travel adventure this summer in Turkey, staying with my dad. The closest swimming area to his place isn’t reachable by foot, but there’s a boat taxi that can take you there. Actually, it's more of a boat bus, as it leaves on the half hour and goes back and forth across the bay, but the point is it takes you to the beach, and the beach was where I wanted to be, as much as possible.

The boat taxi moves extremely slowly, almost as if to lull you into a holiday mind state. The second day I took it, we were chugging along towards the beckoning stretch of sand, with its chaise lounges, umbrellas and vacationing people, when it occurred to me – I hope you’re sitting down here – that I was actually relaxed.


the "commute"


I have to admit, I got a little bit excited about this. Being relaxed something I feel I regularly strive towards, but very rarely achieve. Much more common is, “WHY THE HELL CAN'T I JUST RELAX?” which works really well, let me tell you. And yet, that morning, I didn't need to get to the beach any faster. The sun was glistening on the waves, the breeze was blowing, and I was grateful to be exactly where I was. Curious about this unusual occurrence, I searched my brain for what might be different. And behold: something was missing. Very missing. Something you could call The Plan. 

I tried to remember the last time The Plan hadn't taken up most of my brain space. This took considerably more effort. As a "creative person," I have spent so long struggling towards achieving "the dream" - i.e. get book published, change millions of lives, be on Oprah, live happily ever after - that I've started to forget there is anything else. I realized that the last time I didn't have The Plan on my mind was 8 years ago, which was also the last time I travelled on my own, and that was only because The Plan didn't yet exist. Back then, I was still searching for what and who I wanted to be. Since then, with slight alterations here and there - replace book with film, Oprah with Ellen, add baby, stir, etc. - it's always been front and centre. There's always been some other life waiting for me, a life which would be mine after I jumped through enough hoops and climbed enough mountains. Who I am, where I am, and what I am doing has never been adequate.



New Year's Day, 2006, Zurich. Totally plan-free. Also, hungover as @#*&.


Not that the last 7 years have been hell, by any means. But there has been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction so constant, one that I assumed was simply a symptom of not having achieved enough. 

Before getting to Turkey I’d been in Oxford with a dear friend, someone who embraces a life philosophy totally opposite to mine. You’ve never met a person so in the moment, who is more appreciative of the small things in life, or who has more fun. Interestingly, I hadn't seen him for 8 years, either, since the beginning of that last solo trip. As we sat by the river and celebrated our reunion, he told me a fable about a fisherman. I'd never heard it before, but I know now, after gushing on about to anyone who will listen, that it's a pretty popular tale. In case you’ve never heard it either, it goes something like this:

Thai fisherman is fishing on a dock somewhere beautiful and peaceful. American businessman on holiday shows up.

Businessman asks fisherman:  “How long does it take you to catch all those fish?” 

Fisherman replies, “Not long.” 

American asks, “What do you do for the rest of your day?”

Fisherman replies, “I spend it with my family.”

Businessman tells the fisherman he should fish more. That he should catch as many fish as possible. Businessman explains that the fisherman should buy a bigger boat and catch even more fish. He says that if the fisherman does this, soon he'll have his own company, and then his own production plant, and he can move to the city and have multiple branches, and retire a rich man.

“Why would I want to do that?” the fisherman asks. 

The businessman replies, “Then you can do what you love: fish and spend time with your family.”

When my friend told me the story I nodded, knowingly. I thought I was a wise person who understood such things. I knew I'd spent much of life looking so far ahead I missed what was in front of me, but I believed it was for a greater good. And anyway I wasn't a businessperson, I was an artist. I had to make sacrifices. 

Now, on the boat taxi, the way that I'd been manifesting that fisherman story became clear to me. I saw how the constant chasing of the carrot on the stick; the drive to be better, faster, stronger more - to be, let’s be honest, a Somebody – had gotten me to one very definite destination: miserable. I'm not bashing dreams here, please understand. But there is a difference between knowing you'd like to go someplace, and determinedly beating yourself up every minute until you get there.

Then, something mysterious happened. It all floated away. 

I simply stopped caring. Not about writing and creating, but about the outcome I was so feverishly running towards - the validation, the accolades, the future self I supposedly needed to become. It's one of the greatest gifts I've ever received.

When I returned home to Montreal, I started to really see how chasing the carrot had affected every part of my life. How being so focused on making sure I got my piece of the very limited pie was making me not just sad, but self-involved. I wasn’t really engaged with my community. I wasn’t doing much that was joyful. I'd put a TON of pressure on my relationship to compensate for the misery I was causing myself. I even realized how rarely I'd enjoyed creating, because I'd felt such pressure to do it better, faster, and more. A few weeks after I returned, as an experiment, I applied for a grant, but decided to only submit the application if I could enjoy the process of finishing it on time. I played music while I wrote. I took breaks and skyped with old friends. I brainstormed in pictures, with Crayola markers. In other words, I had fun. Fun! Making art! What a unique concept! 

The more people I talk to about my boat taxi moment, the more I see that similar types of switches are going off for others. One friend, who just got her PhD, confessed that she got more fulfillment spending two weeks hiking alone in the mountains than she did seeing “Dr.” on her credit card, after 12 years of schooling. Another, who was diagnosed with MS, was left by her husband and learned that her father had brain and lung cancer, all within less than a year, now talks about the clarity she has from no longer being under the illusion that she's in control of her life. I’ve spoken to people in their sixties and seventies about the lengths they went through trying to fill or ignore the empty holes they were convinced no one else had, and the sadness and harm it brought them and the people they loved. They have such gratitude that their plans didn't work out the way they were supposed to.  

The Buddha said that pain is certain, but suffering is optional. I'm feel more freaked out than ever there days, and also more at peace. I could try to tie this post up with a tidy summarizing statement, but this is about a question, not an answer. And I'm pretty sure that the more I keep asking it, the better.




Friday, October 25, 2013

Dear Bridget,


You arrived on my doorstep yesterday. Well, not you as such, but the latest installment of your diary, which I’d pre-ordered from Amazon. I know they are harbingers of evil and I will be going straight to hell for this, but it'll be worth it. 



I can't remember the last time I was so excited to read a book. I realize, as a “writer,” this is not something I should be shouting from the rooftops. I’m supposed to be going gaga for whatever won the latest Man Booker, or at least something that sounds literary. And yet I ripped the box open and had started the first page before my ass hit the armchair. For just an hour, I told myself. Then for just one more chapter. Then, until I finished lunch. The next thing I knew, I’d gotten to the last page.

It was like spending the day with an old friend, one I hadn’t seen in years and had missed more than I'd realized. I first discovered you in my early twenties, when my roommate told me about your diary, and was shocked that I’d never heard of it. I was so broke at the time that I read it at the bookstore during breaks from my job. I did eventually buy it, and it is now the most battered, worn out book I own, due to having been stuffed in a backpack and dragged across several continents on my post-graduation “finding myself” trip, after another roommate told me that one should always travel with one's favourite book. I'm revealing a lot here - again, I feel like I should claim that I brought along Siddartha, or Zen and the Art of something or On the Road at the very least. But what it comes down to, and what I remembered, still in that armchair, straining my eyes because the light was fading but in too deep to turn on a lamp, was how much better you make me feel about myself. Not because I’m better than you (and yes, I realize you're not a real person, but let’s not go there) but because you make me feel like it’s okay to be human. What better travel companion is there than one who reminds you to laugh about the fact that despite visiting three continents, being given a Sanskrit name and learning to pee in a squat toilet, you did not actually manage to find self?

You make me feel like maybe it’s not so weird and shameful to obsess, or to fantasize about future 5 minutes after meeting someone. Or to feel lonely sometimes, even when I shouldn’t, or to feel like I’m both too much and not enough. I get so convinced that everyone else has it figured out, and god, do I ever appreciate I'm not the only one who pulls that stunt. I spend so much time chastising myself, telling myself no one else would go to visit a friend - a new friend, whom they're still hoping to somewhat impress - and get salsa all over their pants, and then go to pick up a takeout and realize they’ve forgotten their wallet at home and have to go back and ask said new friend to borrow money to buy dinner. Or invite people over for macaroni and cheese and suddenly, painfully realize, once the wine has been poured, that they forgot to get macaroni. Or be late for a meeting because they remembered the street address backwards. I realize these are not problems of a global scale, but what I don’t notice, when I’m having them, is how loudly I shout at myself. Yet there you are in your chocolate-smeared coat, or stuffing grated cheese straight from the fridge into your mouth, or obsessively checking Twitter, or feeling hideously sub-fashionable among the youth. And when you share all that, it feels like I’m not failing as badly at life as I thought. Also, you make me laugh. A lot. 

Around the time your first diary started to make it big, TIME Magazine suggested that your diary, along with the existence of Sex and the City, signaled the end of feminism. That going on about men, shoes, weight and cheese, instead of careers and the joys of boot camp yoga and how great it is to be alone and depend on no one, meant we were all moving backwards, reversing at warp speed to the 1950s. But I saw it differently. I still do. Your writing is a salute to all of us - women, men and other - who are trying to Be Good, struggling to Do it Right, doing everything we can to Become a Success, and feeling like most of the time we just aren’t making the grade. Who berate ourselves for not being exemplary parents, patient enough partners, workaholic enough careerists, or feminist enough feminists. Who, to choose an example completely at random, get excited to be invited to the "networking event," then hide in the bathroom until our friends arrive because we suck so badly at small talk. But because of you, instead of going home that night feeling small and weird, and not even close to Strong, Smart and Sexy, whatever the hell that means, we feel like maybe we're okay, and that was even kind of funny, and what sort of world do we live in anyway where froth served in a plastic spoon is called food?

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that even though you're a character in a book, to many of us you are real, in the best possible way. From armchairs around the world, we raise our glasses to you in salute. And, as you so beautifully put it, we Keep Buggering On. 





Wednesday, October 16, 2013

365 Attempts

For the past year, a bunch of other Montrealers and I blogged once a week as part of a group blog experiment called 365 Attempts (at life.) 

The last post on the last day fell to me. Here's what I wrote, but with some extra pictures that I didn't include in the original post, because I love ya.


My fellow bloggers have spent the week writing beautiful posts about the experience we’ve shared during this experiment over the last year. Thus, in my final - and the final - 365 Attempts post, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I didn’t realize it was a secret - I thought it was common knowledge. But after speaking to several friends, I learned the truth: very few of you know about the easy way to put a duvet cover on a duvet.

I hear more and more tales of people struggling upside down, grunting and swearing, emerging from the duvet cover without success but with a hairdo that could rival Russell Brand's and retreating to the kitchen for a large glass of wine while shouting at their partner to do it their goddamn selves. Not necessary! If you, too, struggle with this, the following instructions will help.

image

personally, I love his hairdo and also Russell Brand is one of my heroes, so I mean no offence by that statement


1.  Turn the duvet cover inside out.

2.  Reach both hands inside the now inside-out duvet cover and take hold each of the far corners, that is to say the corners that belong to the top end of your duvet, with each hand. (At this point I also recommend you climb inside and make ghost noises, but this is not essential for the end result.)



3. Now grab the corners of the top end of the duvet itself with these same two hands, from inside the inside-out duvet cover.


4. Perform a swift flourish in which you shake the duvet cover so it inverts itself to be the right way out and falls over most of the duvet.


5.  Deposit the duvet on the bed and pull the remainder of the cover over the remainder of the duvet.

6. Have a large glass of wine anyway. You deserve it. 

You can also use the same method with pillows and pillowcases.

You’re welcome.


*

Now, about blogging once a week for the past year.

When I was in my early twenties - as opposed to the very late twenties I’m in now - I spent a summer cleaning houses.

I actually liked the job. There was something soothing about scrubbing a tap until it shined, or vacuuming a carpet until it was fluffy and spotless. But I think the other reason is that that was the summer my parents split up, and being in other people’s homes gave me a sense of hope.

I would walk through their living rooms and think about the family who lived here, all crowded around the TV together. I’d look upon their kitchen tables and master bedrooms and imagine them, parents and young children living under one roof, laughing and enjoying each other’s existence. The following year, back at university, I had the good fortune to live in (the rattiest building in) a beautiful old neighbourhood. Every night as I walked home, I would gaze into the big bay windows of the grand, Victorian houses I passed. The cosy living rooms and book-lined walls and big couches, the people sitting down to dinner, smiling as they put steaming platters of food on tables… I was certain these people were fulfilled and completely at peace, and that one day, I would be just like them. 

I graduated and went traveling. I came back home and fell into the clutches of a full-fledged depression. I recovered and left to travel a second time, and broke up a perfect-on-paper relationship with a guy I was by all accounts supposed to marry. Some shitty things happened, and some great things, and I finally came back to follow my dreams and become one of those people. But no matter how hard I tried, it just wouldn’t happen.

My life didn’t feel fulfilled or at peace. Sure, I had moments, but the goal isn’t moments, is it? It’s 100% A-okay. It’s true love and a wedding with lots of mason jars and a design-blog-worthy home interior and perfect children and a mantelpiece full of accolades from your Top 40 Under 40 career.

The fact that I wasn’t measuring up to this never hurt me more than the summer I got married. Tony and I were arguing night and day, and I was goggle-eyed with anxiety because this was supposed to be the happiest time of my life and instead I was terrified and angry and lost and not actually sure if I would make it down the aisle. I barely shared this with anyone, though, because I was sure I wasn’t “supposed” to have these types of feelings. Certainly not before getting married, but really, not ever. And yet, I shared it on my blog. I guess it had to come out one way or another. I didn't relate the whole shebang, event for event, but just wrote a little bit about how scared I was, and how much pressure I felt to be bridey and happy. And some people said, “Yeah, I felt that way, too.” And each time they did, I felt a little bit less crazy.

I began to share more after that. Every time, I pushed the envelope just a bit. I’d write a post, click “publish,” and then lie down on the floor and think, “I can’t believe I just admitted that. I’ve ruined my life.” And yet, those posts were the ones that got the most responses. The more I shared, the more people shared back, opening up about their own frustrations and family dramas and personal tragedies, or just saying, “Thanks. I needed that today.” And likewise, whenever I read someone else’s truth, I felt more at peace with my own. The more truth that floated around, the more I recognized that the perfect life I was pushing myself towards didn’t actually exist, and that all of this pushing was making me kind of crazy. And I wasn’t the only one.

That’s why I wanted to do this project. This world we live in is far too lonely and alienating as it is. I really believe that the more truth we share, the easier it is on all of us. 

So here are my parting words to you, dear 365 reader, aside from – shameless plug – I will still be writing at nataliekarneef.com so please come visit me there anytime:

As much as you can, please, tell the truth.

Even if you’re not a blogger, or a writer, or even a talker. Even if the idea of it scares the motherloving pants off you, just try it once, as an experiment. Open up to a friend you don’t know well, but would like to. Share something with a colleague, or a neighbour, or an old friend you haven’t heard from in years, or a good friend you haven’t spoken in months, out of pride or hurt or anger. Reach out and say something from inside your heart. Sing the truth, or dance it, or put it on a cake. That’s what we were put on this earth to do, not to play it cool or pretend we’ve got it all together or keep it all in so as not to trouble anyone. Keeping it all in will kill you. That may be a strong statement, but I believe it with all of my heart.

Tell someone what you’re afraid of, what keeps you up at night, how you really feel about your mother. And then do it again. Hell, tell me! I’d love to know. No one has a squeaky clean life. No one. Okay, maybe a few people, but we won’t talk about them. The rest of us have messy, certifiably insane families, and are laden under the weight of addiction and jealousy, and are rife with indecision and co-dependencies and secrets we’re certain we’d be burned at the stake if people found out. But we wouldn’t. And if someone you tell is still so afraid that they judge you for telling the truth, there are 199 others who will hug you and pour you a cup of tea. I promise.

Stop airbrushing your life. That Instagrammed breakfast looks great, but it’s probably not an accurate representation of your morning. You are far more delicious and unique than the outfit you’re wearing today or the lunches you make your children or what you pin on Pinterest. We care way more about  how you got your stretch marks and scars and cracks, and how you survived them. Because we have them, too. We’re all on this boat together.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for reading us this year. It was an honour to tell you the truth every Saturday, and to read Tanya’s and Kenneth’s and Carlo’s and Courtney’s and Antz’s and Johnny’s and Nat’s truths throughout the rest of the week. You guys are seriously awesome.

With love,
Natalie