Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Gentle Men

So I was dating that guy.
And I was trying to be all casual about it. Which was fine, until I started to have feelings. I didn't want to have feelings, because I didn't want to get attached and/or hurt. And because, as we all know, feelings are not cool.
And the thing was, he wasn’t perfect. But I was so thrilled to find someone who just got me – my love for travel, my desire to change the world, my excitement about using art for social justice - and in Ottawa! So I did get attached. Which is part of why he wasn’t right for me:  he did not. Get attached, I mean. At least, not to me. He wasn’t an asshole (unless you ask my dad), but did not do feelings. He did not do vulnerability. He was cool.
Also, he didn’t read my blog posts.
“Give it time,” I told myself. "Maybe these things take a while to develop. Maybe people change. Maybe vulnerability grows." So I waited, even though I knew – or at least, the loud lady living in the corner of my brain knew – that people don’t change on a dime like that, unless they are characters in Hollywood movies. 
And then, Ruble died.
There is no need to describe the heartbreak of losing a pet to anyone who has experienced it, and perhaps no point describing it to anyone who hasn’t. Ruble filled up my heart. He held me together. In the absence of having kids or much of a normal family, he was my emotional rock, my happy thought, my best friend. Even when we were apart, his existence on this planet made my most difficult times bearable.

Coming home from his MRI last year.

He’d been slowing down for a while. He was on anti-seizure medication, getting a little tubby around the middle, sleeping more and eating less. But I’d hoped we had at least another year or two together. Not a day, which is what I was told one Tuesday in February, after his legs gave out on our morning walk.
And then life became a series of moments I was certain I would not survive.
Speeding to the vet clinic as he gazed at me from the passenger seat.
The phone call from the vet, who told me he had a tumour on his spleen that would burst and kill him if I didn’t put him down.
Our last night together, sleeping on a mattress on the living room floor, me waking up every few minutes to touch him and listen to his breathing, knowing that tomorrow, he would be gone.
Driving back to the clinic. Choosing an urn to put his ashes in. Telling a 20-something in pink scrubs that she could insert a needle into my dog’s front leg, and holding him in my arms as he left this world.
These are the times when you don’t even think about being cool.
Happier times.

The days that followed knocked the breath out of me. I walked, lost, around a house still strewn with squeaky toys and dotted with nap spots. I stared out at the empty backyard, with paw prints still in the snow. I sat on his blanket on the living room floor. I cried more and harder than I can remember.
It was around then that the dude pulled away. And since cool wasn’t even on the table, I saw how I wasn’t doing either of us any favours be pretending not to care as much as I did - about him, about Ruble, about anything. I told him as much.
“I am not cool,” I said. (To paraphrase.)
“I don’t want a relationship,” he said. (Pretty much verbatim.)
“See ya,” I said, probably a lot less eloquently, and drove off victoriously into the night, because now, everything was going to be okay.
I woke up the next morning feeling even shittier than before.
Normally, in this type of scenario, I would have Ruble. He'd be curled up on the front doormat waiting for me to get home, or waiting impatiently for a cuddle or a wrestling match on the carpet, or following me around as I mopily cooked dinner, looking up at me with that expression of,
“I know you that you haven’t showered today, that your socks don’t match, and that your hair looks like you’ve been in an electrical storm. I know feel like a sad sack who will never find anyone to love you. But I love you. Totally. Without question. Exactly the way you are.
Now please throw the squeaky toy.”

Only someone who loves you that much lets you put a flower in his hair.

Instead I had repeated icy, jagged stabs to the chest when I remembered that I would never see that expression again.
Normal things took superhuman effort during this time. But as the days wore on, I managed to drag myself out into the world. One night, I went to have coffee with my friend Marjorie. I filled her in on Ruble, and about calling it off with the dude.
“I thought I would feel better after listening to my heart,” I told her. “I don't. I feel like garbage.”
Marjorie, who is so gentle and wise that your shoulders drop two feet just being in the same room as her, put her hand on my arm.
“You have to be patient with yourself," she said. "It’s going to get easier.”
This act of kindness, plus the fact that I was so used to bawling every five seconds, made me instantly well up.
“I’m going to cry,” I said.
“That’s okay,” she said.

And so I sobbed on her shoulder for a few minutes, as if that were a thing people normally do in crowded restaurants. Then we went back to our desserts, any semblance of now cool long forgotten.
But as I walked back to my car that night, I noticed I felt different. Sort of... okay. Not like dancing, or even really cracking a smile, but, for the first time in days, not like curling up in the fetal position under the couch. I realized that the kind of gentleness Marjorie had shown me was like a foreign language to me, because I rarely am that gentle with myself. And, almost as worryingly, I seem to actually seek out guys who don’t do gentle, either.
I’m not saying this accusingly. Men of my generation were not taught to be gentle. Having feelings, getting attached – these things were not encouraged when the boys of my age were children. But if I want someone who’s like that, I’d better start practising it on myself.
I need to be, as the expression goes, the person my dog thought I was.
Who is not cool.
Who never will be.
Who has big feelings, and is loud, and, and gets attached. 
I still cry for Ruble, most days. I still feel like a piece of my soul is missing.
But I'm finally honouring what he taught me: that real love only happens when you take off your armour. And that starts when you accept every single part yourself, as messy and mismatched and uncool as you might be.
And despite the schnauzer-sized hole in my world, something about that feels a lot like freedom.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Naughty Nat

“What are YOU doing here?”
This is my greeting as I wriggle through the mountains of boots, mitts and snow jackets in the entranceway at Matt and Holly’s. It’s Sunday night, and I’ve been invited for dinner, for which, miraculously, I’ve made it on time. I’m toting salad ingredients and a birthday gift for Matt. I am also operating on four hours sleep, slightly hung over, and haven’t been home since the day before.
My greeter is 4-year old Owen, one of Matt and Holly’s kids. We are good enough friends that I don’t take this question personally, nor do I bat an eye when I open the door wider to see their other child, Simon, twirling around the living room in full showgirl costume. Matt and I were close friends in university, but lost touch slowly throughout our twenties, living in different cities, getting married and having a family (in his case), or getting married and getting divorced and fucking off to travel the world (in mine). Which is why I was stunned to receive a message from him about a year ago, saying that he was having a hard time, and wondering if he could ask my thoughts on the matter.
I wrote back that I was touched that he reached out, but, “I hope it’s not relationship advice you’re after, because you’ve come to the wrong place.”
It was, in fact, relationship advice he was after. As it turned out, he and Holly, married over 10 years, whom everyone (including me) thought was rock solid, were crumbling.
And so, with strange but beautiful timing, two friends who hadn’t exchanged much more than a birthday greeting for the past decade plus became fast penpals. My love life wasn’t doing so hot either, and I realized how desperate I was to have a guy friend’s perspective, and even more so a guy friend whom I’d trust with my life. Maybe it was the fact that neither of us had anything to lose, but since then, Matt and I have shared our most vulnerable sides. We write to each other when the shit hits the fan, and joke together about midlife crises, and our respective adventures in self-help reading. It is Matt with whom I share stuff like the Tinder date who asked me one question all night and then cut me off three words into my answer, the fear that I will never meet anyone I like again, and the possibility that I have become so cynical I won’t know what to do with myself if I do. I am constantly inspired by the amount of work he and Holly put into turning their ship around, their respective willingness to take responsibility for their parts, and for their love and acceptance of their 6-year old’s decision to be a girl, despite having been born otherwise.
Since coming back home, I’ve hung out at Matt and Holly’s a lot. I’ve eaten their food, played with their kids, and slept in their spare room after nights out (nothing says midlife crisis like waking up at 9am to find your buddy shoveling the driveway while you still can’t open one eye.) I’ve shared a lot of intimate things with them, including one that I’ll just throw out here: one of the other reasons I came home is that I was thinking about having a kid on my own.
I won’t go into it more for now. It’s not imminent, nor is it, for obvious reasons, a sure thing.
Later that night, as I sat on their couch reading a book about the Egyptian pyramids to a rapt Simon (turns out the showgirl costume was actually Cleopatra outfit), I could feel one half of me bursting for this kind of connection… and the other half just wanting to go to Egypt. And also, Jordan. And Morocco. And Tunisia, and South Africa. And being overcome with gratitude that I can. As my friend Melissa put it, “Having kids would really get in the way of my life right now.”
I know this is an un-PC thing to admit. Most people with children would cry out that I can’t possibly know what I’m talking about, and that I won’t know love until I have a child. And maybe they’re right. All I know is what I know: the life that I have built, which, despite its imperfections, is pretty damn great.
Speaking of imperfections, I am currently living with my dad.
He’s usually out of the country so it almost doesn’t count. But he is here now, a situation which calls for some awkwardness at certain moments, like, for example, the Saturday night of this same weekend.
“I’m leaving!” I shout, from the doorway, conspicuously clutching an overnight bag.
“When are you back?” my dad shouts back.
“Um. Tomorrow?”
“Ooooh! Same guy?”
“Is it getting serious?”
“Well be careful, park somewhere safe, and don’t drink and drive.”
I roll my eyes, turn bright red and rush out of the house.
You try lying to this face.

I have, to my surprise and horror, met someone I like.
It’s not serious. I can’t do serious yet. I am still too traumatized by serious. Even leaving a bottle of contact lens solution at his house feels transgressive. He gave me a toothbrush because I forgot mine, and I had to stop myself from throwing it out afterwards to delete the evidence.
He loves to travel.
He doesn’t want kids. At all. Ever.
“As long as you’re having fun,” Holly declares, “that’s all that matters.”
Did I mention I really like him?
“Goodnight, children!” I yell to Owen and Simon, as Matt tucks them in for bed.
“Goodnight, Grandma!” Owen shouts back, and I laugh.
“How about goodnight, Auntie Nat?” Matt suggests.
“Goodnight, Naughty Nat!” Simon pipes in.
I help with the dishes, and give Matt the self-help book I bought him. Then I drive through the quiet streets, back to the closest thing I’ve had to home in a while. I unlock the door and tiptoe inside to find my dad on the armchair, legs stretched out, in front of a TV show about the Egyptian pyramids, and fast asleep.

Thursday, January 19, 2017


Day 1

“Maybe I’ll get a flu,” I think, hopefully. “Or there will be a very localized apocalypse.”

I am driving to a meditation retreat.

It’s New Year’s Day, and shudderingly cold. I don’t want to be here. I think about my fireplace, and the friends I could be spending time with, and the fact that I am about to be without Internet for five days.

The theme of the retreat is breathing meditation. As soon as I try to follow the instructions, my thoughts, which I’d been drowning out over the past few weeks with parties, sparkly things and bacon-wrapped food items, go to town.

You can’t even breathe properly.

Shut up. You are not welcome here.

Anyone else would be relaxed by now. You’re in this beautiful mountain village, all snowy and peaceful, and you can’t relax. After all these years, you -

I go for a walk.

I command myself, for the next 30 minutes, come hell or high water, to concentrate on my in breath and my out breath and nothing else.

Except I’m really hungry, and it’s another two hours until dinner time.

Also, what I should call my book? It’s so cold that my hair is freezing. When was the last time I had my roots done? Wow, that little ice-covered cabin reminds me of Game of Thrones, especially that great episode when in breath out breath, goddammit.

What’s happening in Syria right now? It’s irresponsible not to know. I reach for my phone and then remember it’s back in my room, turned off, which it will be for the next three days inbreathoutbreathinbreathoutbreath. I think of my fellow retreatants, all probably sitting blissfully on their cushions, their heads turned towards the sun, their minds thought-free as I storm up and down the same laneway because it’s one of the few that’s been plowed. 

What everyone else's meditation probably looked like.

I should just leave - just jump into my car and gun it back to reality, where I can drown all of this out with Netflix, Pinot and to do lists like a normal person. IN BREATH OUT BREATH, KARNEEF. I march back to the house, shake the snow off my coat, curl up on a couch, and take a nap.

Day 2

Nap-taking (and, for that matter, storming through the countryside) would be frowned upon in some of the stricter meditation traditions, but not here. In fact, Derek, who’s teaching the retreat, has explicitly penciled naptime into the schedule, and suggests that if we pass out in class, not to worry, we’ll absorb everything via osmosis, anyway. I test his theory by falling asleep a few minutes later, my forehead on the floor as if in some devotional yoga pose. I wake up pissed. Classes are my favourite part of a retreat – like university seminars about death, sex, human behaviour and the workings of the mind, plus great stories about traveling with Burmese monks - and I missed most of this one, because I was tired, because I can’t relax, because I’m doing this all wrong.

“I’m going out of my mind,” I whisper to my friend Susan.

“Me, too,” she whispers back. “But don’t forget: it’s Day 2.”

Of course. On every single retreat I’ve ever taken in my life, the first three days have been an orchestra of self-judgment, resistance and discomfort. And then, magically, it seems to clear.

One day to go.

Day 3


Day 4

To celebrate our last full day, we head to a nearby Nordic spa – one of those places with the saunas and hot and cold pools. Incredibly, the anxiety in my stomach which has refused to fade over the past few days heightens at the idea of it. If I can’t calm my mind on a meditation retreat AT A SPA, I am doomed for life. 

We wiggle into our bathing suits, wrap ourselves in spa bathrobes and disperse. I find a hidden hot pool near the back of the property, inhabited only by a couple and a lost-looking bearded man. I climb in and float, trying to feel grateful. After all, there are people all over the world who are hungry, terrified, alone, and here I am, meditating a giant outdoor bathtub.

You are a terrible person.

You are incapable of gratitude.

You should be -   

I climb out of the pool and storm inside.


Lest you are under the impression that meditation is about being free from thoughts, here is a story for you.

A couple of years ago, I was in Australia, surrounded by beaches and beauty and abundance and love, having a really difficult time. My marriage had just ended. I had just come off two months in rural Uganda. I was trying to be in a new relationship. And I didn’t feel like I would ever belong in the “normal” world again. I hadn’t actually met Derek in person yet, but I reached out to him by phone. I gave him the scoop, and he burst out laughing.  

I’m not kidding. He laughed his ass off. I could hear him tears wiping the tears off his face.

“You’re going through some of the most stressful things that could happen in a person’s life at the same time,” he said, finally, “and you’re wondering why you’re anxious?”

“I’m just so sick of feeling bad,” I said.

It was then that he gave me one of the most useful meditation instructions I’ve ever received. Instead of trying to shove Feeling Bad Natalie away, he suggested, why not let her be in the room?

“She can be on the other end of the park bench,” he said. “Or, if that’s too close, then down the street. Just let her be there. You don’t have to do anything else.”

This meditation has saved my sanity many, many times.

Now, in the spa, I face my reflection in the window. Feeling Bad Natalie stares back. There is a knot in her stomach, tension in her spine, and so much shame. She’s a lost cause. She’s in a white fluffy bathrobe, for godsakes.

We stare at each other some more.

It’s uncomfortable.

It kind of hurts.

“This isn’t easy,” I say to her, silently.

Something from deep down says, “It’s not supposed to be.”

I bathe in the unease. I don’t yell at FBN, which, I realize, I have been doing all week. Minutes pass, and I became more aware that as difficult as this is, it isn’t killing me. Thoughts are masters of disguise – they sneak in from different directions and with different agendas and convince us to believe them, again and again. But the more we practice, the faster the instruction comes back. I’ve done this a thousand times, and still, I forget.

Finally, the heaviness lifts. I take a deep breath and go back outside to the hidden pool, which is now vacant. I look up at the sky, and it’s like someone has washed a dirty window. I had completely missed the ice-coated branches of the trees sparkling in the moonlight; the sound of the wind; the deep, black velvetiness of the sky. The spa is about to close, but I stay where I am, now overcome with gratitude, until one of the staff members comes out, doesn’t see me, grabs my bathrobe and heads back inside.

I chase after him, and my friends laugh when they spot me from a window, a steaming blur of skin and bare feet scurrying across the frozen ground. We go back to the house and share a massive dinner, more laughter, and the kind of raw, juicy conversation that happens at in these kinds of environments. And when I drive back home the next day, to reality and phones and normality, I cannot, for the life of me, stop grinning.