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

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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: What Happens in 204 Stays in 204 and the Fine Art of Secret Keeping.

We couldn’t stop looking at him and he at us.

The older I get the better I get at keeping secrets.   I now understand how sacred secret keeping is.  What a privilege it is to have someone trust you so dearly with a confidence.  Even if they have shared their secret with someone else, it matters not.  This is your secret to keep. Held safe for as long as required.  It could be for a day, a week, a year.  A lifetime.  Some secrets I will take to the grave with me.

I’m from a family of secret keepers.  So perhaps this gives me a bit of an edge over those who are not so well practiced.  The biggest secret our family kept concerned The Old Man’s drinking.  Not just his alcoholism.  But his recurring rampages that terrorized our family. We were like visitors to Vegas.  What happened in 204 stayed in 204. This family secret, that I held close for over twenty years, was one of two that shaped the landscape of my youth. I looked out at the world, not with wide-eyed wonder, but with fear.  For the flip side of keeping secrets is disclosure.  I didn’t want anyone to know about The Old Man. Not even my best friend.

Some secrets are held in fear.  Others in shame.  This was at the heart of the second family secret.

Little back story.  When I was twenty-four I wanted to go to Europe.  I hadn’t travelled much.  Nor ventured far when I did.  Little trips with my family mostly.  Circle Route around Lake Superior.  Trips to Duluth, Minnesota.  Once as far as Minneapolis.  One quick secret disastrous trip to Toronto with my first love.   A cross country car ride to Victoria which included stops in Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary.  That was it.  My wayfaring adventures by age twenty-four.

We converted Ma’s sewing room into a nursery for a few years.

Many of my friends had already been to Europe.  Backpacking globe-trotters.  Nomads and gypsies.  Sophisticated and worldly.  I had been to Duluth.  I was green with envy and itching to gallivant.  This became the hot topic of conversation between my new boyfriend and I.  We made plans.  Beginning with acquiring passports.  We did all the appropriate paperwork and mailed off our applications to Ottawa.  This was a long time ago so the details of the process are a bit sketchy.  But to the best of my recollection, this is what we did.  Then we waited.  And waited.  It took weeks to hear anything.

Everything went smoothly for my boyfriend, who was far less new after weeks of waiting for passports. His knapsack was packed and he was good to go.  But this was not the case for me.

I never got my passport.  Instead, I got a letter from the government of Canada informing me that I did not exist.  ‘Don’t exist’ I cried.  ‘How is that possible?  I’m here aren’t I?  Look at me.  I’m right here.’  This occurred while I was living on the West Coast, the first time round.  I thought perhaps this mix-up had something to do with geography.  That I wasn’t actually nonexistent, just misplaced.

Determined to prove that I did indeed exist, I decided to go to the fountainhead.  Take it to the two people who were there right from the beginning.  The source of my genesis.  No, not God and Jesus. That would come later.  Ma and The Old Man.  But before doing so, I mentioned this misbegotten madness to my sister, who was also living on the West Coast.  I showed her the letter.  ‘Look at this,’ I uttered incredulously.  She read the letter.  Looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I have to tell you something.’

The Old Man and his grandson sharing a moment together.

Ma and The Old Man weren’t legally married.  There was nothing shocking about this revelation. I had suspected as much for years.  But it was a bit unsettling to hear those words said out loud for the first time.  This subject was taboo in our family.  Strictly off limits.  In truth, I was the only one not in on the secret.  The evidence was there of course.  For starters, Ma and The Old Man never celebrated their anniversary.  Yet she went by Mrs. M.  And she wore a wedding ring.  This was good enough for me.  When I was really young I didn’t understand such things.  When I was old enough to know, I didn’t want to.  By the time I figured it out, I didn’t care. By then, I was actually in on the secret.  But no one knew that I knew what they knew.

Once the proverbial cat was let out of the bag I called Ma.  There was no going back.  The silence was broken.  The Boogeyman was released and he wasn’t all that scary.  I felt free.  I wanted to liberate Ma as well.  The call went something like this.

‘Ma, a strange thing happened when I tried to get my passport.’

‘What’s that dear?’

‘I got this letter from the government saying I don’t exist.’

‘That’s impossible.’

‘G told me everything Ma.’

Silence followed.  By a pregnant pause.  By more silence.

‘Ma why didn’t you just put The Old Man’s name on my birth certificate?’

‘I didn’t know I could.’

A common law marriage and an illegitimate child.  More secrets that consumed my parents.  Filled them with shame.  Followed by years of silence.  Humiliation.  Heads hung low.  I look back on their situation and my heart breaks for them.

By the time I was old enough to get married things were so different. Common law marriages.  People living together.  Shacking up.  It was happening all around me and no one cared.  Hippy chicks were having babies and wearing daisies in their hair.  Feminism had arrived.  Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan were inspiring young women everywhere. Myself included.  There was nothing illegitimate about any of it.  More options and choices.  No judgement.  Different strokes for different folks, as Sly and The Family Stone sang.

What a burden my parents carried in their hearts all those years.  In the end, it was a relief to have the truth spoken.  Confession is good for the soul they say.  This held true for my parents, especially Ma.

I can’t think of anything more soul destroying than living in shame.  The joy that it robs. The dignity that it steals.  The humiliation it perpetrates.  The things we teach our children without even knowing.  Nor intending.  Passed down from one generation to the next, along with Grandma’s handmade quilt.  I understand the shame Ma felt.  Intimately.  I too carry this pain in my heart.  Sometimes I don’t even know why.  It’s like the elusive butterfly.  Impossible to grasp.

My passport awaits. I just have to fill out the forms.

After the birth of my son I experienced a fleeting moment of shame.  I thought I was beyond reproach, yet this stung.  He was only hours old and he filled my spirit with such wonder.  A Nurses Aid, who was old enough to be my mother, entered our room to check on us.  I was engaged in a gripping one-sided conversation with my son.  As she was adjusting my blankets and plumping my pillow, she referred to me as Mrs. M.  I immediately corrected her and explained that I wasn’t Mrs. M.  That was my mother.  Then as carelessly as she tossed a crumpled Kleenex into the wastebasket, she responded with, ‘That’s what we call girls like you dear.’  She wasn’t being malicious.  Nor did she intend to hurt me.  Just stating the facts.  Telling the truth.  Yet there I was.  Drowning in a puddle of shame. Maybe we hadn’t come a long way Baby.

But the hand of God touched me that day.  The hurt didn’t linger.  Thankfully.  Besides, I had a beautiful brown-eyed boy to love and protect.  I had to toughen up.

I still don’t have a passport.  I haven’t been consumed by wanderlust these past thirty years so it hasn’t really mattered.  Acquiring one fell off the to do list years ago. My life has been full and adventurous despite traveling abroad.  Yet a part of me often wonders if I’m stuck.  Fearful that if I apply for my passport I’ll be told I still don’t exist.  At least not as me.  The girl with the unpronounceable Finnish last name.  I have an official Birth Certificate containing Ma’s first husband’s surname.  I look at it and think, ‘Who is this person?’  Not me.  I look at the ancient tattered Registration of Birth that the Old Man altered and think, ‘Who is this person?’  Me.  Not sure how he did it.  But somehow he removed the official legal surname and typed in his.  It always looked right to me.  You see what you want to see I guess.  I never wanted to be anything but the Breadman’s daughter.

And with God’s grace I am.  Always will be.  Passport or not.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: I Never Can Say Goodbye.

Ma enjoying her morning tea the summer before she died.

Goodbyes can be hard for me.  Especially when I’m saying them to someone I love.  Then they don’t feel very good at all.  But within every goodbye is the welcoming possibility of the next hello.  Saving grace.

Some goodbyes are more difficult than others.  Some are temporary.  Short lived.  But others are permanent.  Never another opportunity to bid someone a fond adieu.  These are the most difficult.  The heartbreakers.  The sorrowful ones.  And sadly unavoidable.  Sooner or later, it happens to all of us.

If we’re lucky there may only be a few really big goodbyes in our lifetime.  But along the journey there are many little ones.  These are the fine hairline fractures of the heart.  The tiny losses that are barely detected by our minds but somewhere deep inside our spirt, there is a knowing.  And with each one, life changes.  Maybe not in a gigantic shrieking way.  But there is a shift.  It’s the winds of changes, Dylan sang about.   And things are never quite the same as they were.  I think we record these moments in our soul.  Some we bury deep. Others we record for posterity.  Capture in black and white.  Or  record in living color.  And play back.  Again and again.   But no matter how many times we practice we are never ever truly prepared for the last time.

We probably say goodbye to someone everyday.  I know I do.  In the morning my husband shouts up the stairs on his way out the door for work.  “See ya later,” he calls.  I’m in the bathroom readying myself for work, toothbrush in hand and I holler back, “have a good day!”  He responds in kind, “you too!”  I can hear the back door slam on his way out.  Hello, where’s my kiss.

My youngest daughter does a similar thing as she leaves for school, or to meet with friends.  “Bye Mom.  Love you!” she sings.  Her sweet voice, music to my ears.  “Love you too dear!” I trill.  I could be anywhere at this point.  Applying mascara in front of the bathroom mirror.  Throwing on a pair of skinny red jeans for work.  Rummaging through my closet for a clean top to go with them.  Gathering up the bag of goodies I need for work.  I hear the door slam.  I hear her say “hello” to her best friend.  They giggle.  They talk loud.  They’re young.

At work there are numerous goodbyes.  Business associates and colleagues come and go.  I wish them well.  “Have a good day!”  “Enjoy your week!”  “Your weekend!”   Cheers and tootle-dos. And with each “so long, farewell, it’s been good to know you” there is always the promise of tomorrow.  Another day to say hello.

Some goodbyes are rites of passage.  Like when my son moved out of the house and in with his buddies.  He was a young man by then.  But that’s not what I saw as he moved his things out of his bedroom.  I saw my little raisin-eyed boy who loved to rub his hands together with glee whenever his favorite team scored a goal.  I saw the little boy who held my hand on the way to school his first day.  I saw our entire life together flash before me as he closed the door.  Just like they say happens when you die. I saw it all in an instant.  Hello, can we press rewind.

A similar thing happened when my oldest daughter left to go to college.  My son just moved across town.  But my daughter moved across the Georgia Strait.  In theory still close.  But there was this inconvenient body of water between us, which meant we couldn’t just hop in the car and be there in ten minutes.  This geographic situation introduced all the “special occasion” goodbyes.  Her birthday and Thanksgiving weekend combo.  Christmas vacation.  The quick trip over for a winter weekend.  Easter and maybe spring break if luck is on our side.  The long weekend in May or Mother’s Day.  Choose one.  Canada Day and little sister’s birthday BBQ if time permits.  Time.  Never enough.  But we’ve got memories by the truckload.  And lots of hugs and kisses at the ferry terminal or the back door.  “Love you dear.”  “Love you too Mom.”  Hello, can we have more special occasions.

By the time I had these rites of passage and special occasion goodbyes with my children, I was already well practiced with Ma and The Old Man.  I remember the first one like it was yesterday.  It was the hardest.  Painful doesn’t even come close to describing it.  When my son was three we moved to the Westcoast for the first time.  My sister was (and still is) living in Victoria.  The plan was to move in with her and start a new life.  It was time to cut the apron strings.  And stand on my own two feet.  Embrace adulthood by moving three thousand miles from home.  It was all very exciting.

The departure scene at the airport is imbedded in my memory.  Forever.  Leaving Ma was hard enough.  But leaving with her grandson in tow was agonizing.  She had helped raise him and he meant the world to her.  We hugged.  We cried.  We waved goodbye.  My son and I got on the plane.  I wanted to jump on the next one back.  I didn’t.  But I did return a year later with a new husband.  Hello, we’re home.

There would be more moves over the years and many goodbye hugs and kisses.  All in preparation for the big one.

Ma died a year and a half after she had a massive heart attack.  Until that fateful day she always seemed so young and energetic.  She was one of those people whose age was indefinable.  We all thought she’d live to one hundred, including Ma.  Her heart attack was a shock to everyone, including Ma.  In fact, once Ma was out of the hospital and recovering nicely, she immediately went into denial.  “Oh I didn’t have a heart attack,” she’d say.  “Oh but you did Ma,” we’d say.  She never listened.  And either way, she seemed in pretty good shape for someone who may, or may not, have lost over 70% of her heart muscle.  Hello, who knows best.

The year and a half that Ma lived after her heart attack was a gift from God.  Not just for her.  But for me as well.  Had she died instantly that day in early August, I’m not sure I would have fared as well as I did.  This long goodbye.  This period of grace from God was the time I needed to come to grips with my mother’s mortality.  Despite her youthful appearance and vigorous disposition, she was in her eighties.  She was elderly. And no one, not even Ma, get’s out of here alive.  That year and a half was a sweet gentle loving time.  I grew to appreciate the quiet moments.  I learned to sit and be still.  I learned to watch and witness.  I grew a grateful heart.  I learned to let go.

A few months after her heart attack my sister brought Ma out to the Westcoast for a visit.  Because she had been doing so well, we thought this would be a good thing for her.  She never did return home.  Never saw The Old Man again.  She pined for both.  One minute she was doing really well and the next she was severely ill.  Quite quickly we ran out of time to get her back home.  She was stuck in Oz.  Her last Christmas was spent in the hospital.  We spent the best part of it there with her.  It was a sad time.  But it was wonderful too.  Miraculous.  Not because Ma’s heart was repaired.  But because mine was transformed.  Permanently.  I would never take life for granted again.

Ma enjoying an intimate moment with her great granddaughter just days before she died.

In the days before her death my oldest daughter brought my granddaughter to visit Ma in the hospital.  They couldn’t get their eyes off each other.  There they were.  The one leaving earth and the one who had just arrived in a profound intimate exchange.  No words necessary.  Just a meeting of the souls.  Kindred spirits.  Evermore linked.

Hello.  I love you.