Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Don’t be a Hater.

IMG_3289

I hate haters.  If that’s you, then please leave.  Now.  I mean it.  Get out of here.  Get off my cloud.  Off my blog.  Off my Facebook, twitter and tumblr.  Get lost.  You’re not wanted here.

That liberating mini-rant was inspired by a Facebook post by Cheryl Strayed, who wrote a book called WILD and a column in The Rumpus called Dear Sugar. Here’s the post in its entirety because Cheryl’s a much more effective and brilliant ranter than I.

“Sometimes I’m asked how I deal with the haters. I don’t deal with them. I pity them. I don’t expect everyone to love my books. In fact, I frankly expect the opposite. (In the history of books, there isn’t one everyone loves.) But I must say I marvel at the ugliness it takes to gather one’s forces in the direction of what one loathes rather than loves–to go out of one’s way to say to a writer: YOU SUCK. So I send out a little silent non-God-connected prayer to the jackass who felt the need to share his or her jack-assed-ness with me. And then, without comment, I zap them forever from this page.”

I understand how she feels.  I’ve been lucky. Most of the reviews of my novel and the comments left on my blog have been kind.  Perplexing at times.  But generally magnanimous and insightful. Then again they’re mostly from friends, family and nice strangers.  I haven’t sold millions of books, nor do I have thousands of Facebook fans and I don’t write a column, do public speaking or author readings, like Cheryl.  Essentially I’m an invisible writer so I’m safe.  So far.  But I fear the haters are out there.

I’ve been writing since I was a kid.  It started with diaries.  If you’re a girl from my generation then you know the kind I’m talking about.  Pocket-sized, with a leatherette cover, and a tiny gold lock and key to keep a young girl’s private thoughts secure and safe. The pages were ruled and had shiny gold leaf edges. I had to write very small and neatly because the spaces between the lines were narrow and the pages no bigger than a 5×7 photograph. The diary’s compact size, however, didn’t diminish the size of my ideas, thoughts and dreams. To this day, I keep a diary.  No longer under lock and key.  Simple utilitarian Hilroy notebooks filled with some of my best writing.

Then there’s this blog. One big mother of a diary.  Out there in cyber space for the world to read.  To love.  And to hate.

The last two years spent writing this very public diary have been an interesting ride. Big eye opener. A revelation on intent, perception and interpretation.  Here’s the thing.  I’ve been sitting at my computer every Saturday thinking I’m writing sweet straightforward stories about my life, past and present.  Nothing edgy, not at all controversial.  But every now and then I read a comment left on a post and I think, what the fuck?  What’s really going on here?  What did I say that offended you so?

Take my post last year on Halloween for instance.  I thought it was just an amusing tale about how I hate that particular holiday and all the reasons why.  For anyone who has been to Northwestern Ontario at the end of October, you know what I mean.  Think of the early sixties, sad costumes cut from sheets, snow, slush, snowsuits, parkas, molasses kisses, snot streaking across your feverish face and you get the picture.  But some readers didn’t get it. Nor were they amused by my satirical tongue planted firmly in my facetious cheek.  For them, I had violated everything that was sacred about playing dress-up once a year. I was the Halloween version of Ebenezer Scrooge.  An angry fun-spoiler.

Even when I thought I was writing an deeply empathic story about the tragic death of a young boy riding his bike for charity, and how my heart broke for his mother, one person read something completely different. I had somehow insulted her.  She sent me a private message (thank God) to chastise me for not writing about her suffering. “What about me?” she essentially asked.  I was gobsmacked, and like Cheryl I zapped her from my Facebook page.

My all-time favorite head-shaker came when I read the comments to my post on “Regrets.”  Some people couldn’t handle that notion at all.  It made them squirm with discomfort. Complete strangers left their sage advice on how I shouldn’t regret anything in life. Little mini pep talks were posted to inspire me to rise from my funk of regret.  Nuggets of homespun wisdom on the virtues of living a life free of regret flooded my inbox. “You did the best with what you knew at the time,” brand of pop psychology was offered up like manna from heaven.  What I found most disconcerting about all this inspirational well-meaning advice was the judgmental and admonishing overtones.  But their comments also made me smile.  Like Yoda.  I know all that shit.  I know it and I still have regrets. I’m okay with that. So there.

The act of authentic writing is like performing open heart surgery on yourself.  Without anesthetic. You slice open your chest, rip apart your flesh, hack into your bones and pull it all out.  You have to be willing to be vulnerable.  Fragile.  Breakable.  Frightened at times. Scared out of your wits.  Where did this come from?  Where is it going?  But to write this way you also have to be courageous. Fierce.  Raw.  Genuine.  Willing to take big emotional risks.  Go to the dark and scary places of your soul. Tell the truth.

I not only write from the heart.  I give you my heart.

Don’t trash or break it.  Just because you can.  Like Cheryl said, what we write isn’t for everyone.  I don’t like every writer, story, blog, book, novel, essay, email.  How could I?  I respectfully put what I don’t like aside and seek other things to read.  This doesn’t mean that something I don’t fancy isn’t well-written or worthwhile either.  It just means it’s not my cup of tea.

One of the big reasons I pass on a lot great literature is because it’s beyond me.  It’s either written in a style I’m incapable of comprehending or I find laborious and tedious. Like reading the Bible from cover to cover as my husband did one year.  That was sheer madness to me but he found it engrossing and meaningful.  Often it’s a genre that doesn’t fascinate me.  My son loves Tolkien, for example.  I can’t get past the first page, although I do love the movies.  We both agree on Harry Potter.  I love Anne Tyler.  I don’t think he knows who she is.

Just so we’re clear here, I have many different opinions and contrary thoughts on writers and their words. And if asked, I’ll offer them. (Sometimes even without being asked.)  But a carefully considered and thoughtfully crafted perspective on any given piece is far different from a reckless and careless comment spit out like stale bubble gum.

How does saying, YOU SUCK advance humanity?  How does that make us better?  How is that comment meaningful to anyone? What does it have to do with anything?  Does it encourage dialogue and advance the conversation? Does it connect us with compassion and empathy? Of course not.  It serves no purpose.  So the only intelligent thing to do is to zap it like Cheryl does.

I’m not a super genius.  I’m not even all that smart, frankly. Perhaps wise on occasion.  I’m a work in progress for sure.  So is my writing.  I like to think it gets a bit better every day.  Just like me.

Who knows? Maybe I SUCK.  But let me be the first to say it.

Link to Cheryl’s website to learn more about her: http://www.cherylstrayed.com/

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: We are the Champions.

Ma and Mel surrounded by a sea of cat pillows.

On Halloween night I was driving home from work when I passed a little girl who was out trick-or-treating with her mom.  She was about six years old and dressed as a Princess.  She had a wand in one hand and a pumpkin candy bucket in the other.   It was just the two of them.

The sight of this little girl brought me back to another little girl, another Halloween night.  My daughter Mel was about the same age when she too dressed as a Princess for Halloween.  That night, we visited Ma at my sister’s place where she was staying at the time.  Ma was on the doorstep of death by then.  She was tired but uncomplaining.  As sweet as the candy being given.

I took this picture of Mel and Ma on my sister’s white couch surrounded by a sea of cat pillows.  It would be Ma’s last Halloween.  A few months later it would be her last Christmas.  Last New Year’s.  Last everything.  She would not see another Valentine’s Day.  The Old Man’s Sweet Heart would be gone by then.

The vision of that little Princess released a flood of tears. I longed for Ma.  And my own little Princess Mel.  I longed for all the little girl Halloweens where we walked the rainy streets while she collected her bucket of treats.  All gone.

As I drove down the road, the divine and powerful voice of the beautiful Freddy Mercury filled my truck with We Are The Champions.  Yes we are Freddy, I thought.   Mel, Ma and me.

Forever champions.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Why I Never Liked Halloween.

Daughter #1 makes fabulous costumes like this Mummy for my grand daughter.

I hate Halloween.  There I’ve said it.  I’ve come clean.  No more pretending.  Putting on a false face.  Wearing a polite mask while the rest of the world gushes fanatically about how killer Halloween is. I think it stinks.  Truth is, I’ve always hated it.  I can’t think of one happy Halloween memory.  It terrifies me.  Even as an adult.  I’m intimidated by complete strangers dressed in costumes and wearing masks or bloody makeup knocking on my door.  Even the small ones make my bones chill.  Nothing more sinister than a teensy weensy spider.   Some would say that’s kind of the point.  But not for me.  Before you call me the Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge of Halloween, in my defense, there are some spellbinding reasons I feel this way.

Little back story.  I grew up in a small town in Northwestern Ontario.  Winters were cold there.  Very cold.  And very long.  Bleak at times. Some years the first snowfall came as early as October.  And the last one could come in May.  May, for God’s sake.  In between the snow was relentless.  Some years it felt like perpetual winter.  Perhaps that was just the teenage me in a bad mood.  But still.

This foul, malicious mean-spirited weather played a major roll in shaping, if not permanently blackening, my recollections of October 31.  I don’t even know what to call this thing.  Is it a holiday?  An event?  A special occasion?  A celebration?  Festival?  For me, it’s none of these.  But it truly was, and always will be, a night of horrors.

Here’s the blood-curdling, hair-raising reasons why.

The Halloween before Ma died my youngest was everyone’s little princess.

1. I was a shy kid.  This made knocking on the doors of strangers difficult at best.  Okay, I’ll admit these were all neighbors’ doors.  But every year on October 31 they felt like complete strangers to me.  Creepy visitors from another planet.  They just seemed weird.  Not like themselves.  I particularly feared the ones who invited me in to retrieve my treat.  Then asked me to sing or something equally humiliating.  This was painful.  It scared the Bejesus of out me. You’d think they were handing out million dollar bills instead of a lousy peanut in a shell.

2. I didn’t have any siblings close in age to trick or treat with.  This meant The Old Man or my older sister, who was practically an adult, had to take me from door to door.  It was lonely.  And sad.  I felt like an outcast.  A loser.  There’s nothing more pitiful than a lone trick or treater. Not nearly as dreamy as the Lone Ranger. Not even close. This also brought out the green-eyed monster in me. I envied the rowdy screeching C kids from across the street who paraded around the neighborhood in their clannish cluster of clever costumes.  Their mother was off her rocker at the best of times but this zaniness came in handy when constructing costumes. She was an artistic genius with an imagination that knew no bounds.  Her costume making skills were unrivaled.  Having said that, it might not have taken a whole lot of talent to out-costume the rest of us.

The yellow crayon costume. I was proud of this one at the time.

3. The options for costumes were limited. Nothing like it is today. You couldn’t go to Walmart and buy one.  Nor could you order one online. There weren’t any pop-up costume stores.  There were no tickle trunks. None of that.  You were left to your own devices.  Make do with what you had on hand.  At our disposal at 204, and for most families of the era, were sheets with holes, black shoe polish, raggedy old clothes, chiffon scarfs, square bandanas, bed pillows, worn-out cotton house dresses, broken brooms, fake cowboy hats and silver cap guns from Kresge’s or Woolworth’s.  This mundane collection of household odds and sods gave birth to the likes of Aunt Jemima, Roy Rogers, various uninspired ghosts, bums, witches and lesser famous cowboys, the odd pirate, gangster or something vaguely resembling an animal.  That was it.

4. I was often sick on October 31.  Fever.  Cold.  Body aches. Runny nose.  Headache.  Stomach flu.  The shakes.  Just overall malaise. The change of season brought with it the usual run of childhood illnesses.  Mine seemed to start right around Halloween.  I would drag myself from door to door in my Aunt Jemima costume, scarlet freezing hands clutching the white pillowcase I used to collect my treats, uncomfortable wooly winter jacket left open because it wouldn’t close around my stuffed-pillow belly, the ground slushy, slippery, uneven and hazardous under my brown rubber galoshes, snot and tears pouring down my black polished face as the wind fought for possession of my sack of treats.  It was abysmal.

5. Most of the candy was as ghastly as the night.  Just downright disappointing too.  Molasses kisses.  Tons of them.  Everyone, Ma and The Old Man included, doled these out by the fistfuls.  They were cheap and adults liked them.  There was an abundance of the regular old suckers as well, mostly grape, which I hated.  Just plain bad luck that I ended up with so many in this loathsome flavor.  There was the odd BB Bat, which I loved, and Double Bubble which I could have eaten by the carload, and one or two Tootsie Rolls, which I seriously considered trading The Old Man for.  There were also apples and weird nuts.  Nobody ate those even back then.  Razor blades and poison could be hidden in anything.  Besides as far as I was concerned, healthy treats had no place in my pillowcase.  After all, this was Halloween.  The one time in the year where you could stuff your face silly with sugar.  Even if it was in the form of molasses.

This Casper costume was a colossal fail.

So there you have it.  I traipsed around the neighborhood with The Old Man, frozen, sick, exhausted, pretending to be the woman on a pancake box, terrified and lonely.  Only to get home to 204 to find a pillowcase full of disappointing and lackluster treats.  Of course, this did not deter me from eating every last morsel by the middle of November.

I stopped this torture when I was 11 or 12, and no longer “went out.”  Back then you didn’t wear your costumes to school, nor were Halloween parties widely embraced.  I was off the hook.  Also, decorating your house was unheard of.  If there was a carved pumpkin on the front steps you were possibly over-the-top and an extreme Halloween celebrator.  It wasn’t the festive occasion that it is today.  Not by a long shot.  At best, it was a blip in the radar on the way to the best holiday of the year.  Christmas.

There was a blissful decade where I avoided all things Halloween.  And then I had children.  Don’t misunderstand, it still wasn’t something I embraced, nor got enthusiastic about.  My costume making skills hadn’t improved with adulthood either.  My imagination in this area appears to be stunted or nonexistent.  I always liked the notion of a tickle trunk but just never got around to creating one. I was a terrible costume maker despite my Seamstress chops. I could make an evening gown for Ma but for the life of me I couldn’t stitch together anything interesting for my kids to wear for Halloween.  No fierce animals.  Nor mythical creatures.  Nothing regal nor royal. Otherworldly.  Nor conjured. Nothing evil.  Nor good.  I was hopeless.

My oldest daughter is a living doll in this costume.

Over the years I made two feeble attempts at fashioning a costume from scratch. There was the yellow crayon I made for my oldest daughter.  She graciously wore this felt tube a couple of years in a row. The first time it was a full length crayon.  Ankles to neck.  The last time it was more mini.  Knees to neck.  The other atrocity was the Casper the Ghost costume I made for my youngest daughter.  The head piece was a complete fail.  It looked more like a brain on steroids than poor Casper’s head.  Thank God she was only three at the time and unaware that the costume was a hot mess.  And that her mother was responsible.

This brings me to reason number 6 for finding Halloween horrifying. This has nothing to do with the child from 204.  This is all about the adult me.  I feel inadequate.  Ineffective. Incapable of making a good costume. A lifetime sewer and I can’t stitch together a single idea that works.  I have been a complete and utter failure at all things Halloween.

Despite all of my Halloween trauma and agony, it appears I have not passed any of this anxiety and distress onto my three children.  Well, perhaps a little onto my youngest daughter. Maybe this has something to do with the Casper costume. Let’s just say, she’s seen pictures and leave it at that. They fully embrace the holiday-occasion-event-spectacle.  They dress up.  They’re gifted costume devisers, especially my oldest daughter.  They have fun.  They hoot and holler. They go boldly into the spooky night.  Unlike their mother who cowers in the corner waiting for the night to be over.

My son as somebody from Star Trek.

Footnote to this story.  A few years ago I wore a costume to work for Halloween.  Some of my colleagues were dressing up for the day and I wanted to be included in this group of “fun” folks.  I went as Cindy Crawford.  The costume was simple and understated.  I drew a mole just above the outer edge of my lip.  It was identical to Cindy’s.  That was it.  The rest of the costume looked like I always looked on Halloween.  Dull.  But I did have a great time that day getting my colleagues to guess who I was.  Best costume ever.

I also love molasses kisses now.  So there’s hope.