Scenes from the day: In a delivery van, with a good friend, watching the time slowly tick, knowing that a judge in a court room in another city is reading a thirty page decision. Pretty sure we know what the outcome will be. Starting to feel sad and panicky, and then my good friend says, wait. Let’s take a moment and imagine he’s found guilty. Let’s just live in that reality for five minutes. Turned out we didn’t need five minutes. I got goosebumps, instantly. I feel so… seen, I said. This is so unexpected, she said, and so right. For once, our justice system has not failed survivors of sexual assault. This changes everything, we said. And we believed it. She cried, and then I cried, and they were tears of relief.
An hour later, just before we order lunch, in a brightly painted downtown restaurant. My phone starts to buzz with texts. He’s been acquitted. We stare at each other across the table. I’m glad we had that moment, before, she says. I nod. We can’t think of anything else to say. My phone continues to buzz, with messages from my mom, my young friend, my older friend, my cousin friend, my sister in law. I imagine every phone in the pocket or purse of every woman I know lighting up in this way. I can’t tell if it makes me feel better or worse. I can’t tell what I feel, at all.
A little after that, walking three blocks to home. Suddenly, all I feel is flayed. Vulnerable. A peeled grape. Every man I pass, I think, you’re equipped with the knowledge that women lie, so it doesn’t matter what you do to them, because everyone knows they lie. It’s not logical—I recognize that, and yet, it feels real. My logical brain urges me to the bright side I have prioritized for the last eighteen months. The sea change that seems to be happening in our culture. The conversations about sexual assault and how survivors behave. The way men are participating in those conversations. But logic isn’t ruling this day. Instead, there’s a deep undercurrent of: that judge said you can’t trust sexual assault victims to tell the truth.
I get home and shut the door and shake. I shake like it’s my full time job.
I think about myself thirteen years ago. Could I take the stand in a court room and testify about things that happened thirteen years ago? What would I remember? The moment someone slapped and choked me? Or the stuff that happened the next day and the day after that? Which would be more memorable? The feeling of hands around my throat, or a photo we took in the park the next day? Looking back through the lens of more than a decade, what would I remember about my subsequent interactions with that person? Would I remember the normalizing I attempted? Or would I react as my current self and feel disgust, animosity, deadened? How credible a witness would I be, to any of my own experiences of that long ago?
And then I think, it doesn’t matter how perfect a victim you are. Earlier this month, an admitted rapist was sentenced to ninety days, served on weekends. He received that relatively sweet deal because he admitted his guilt, thus saving his victim the trauma of a trial. His victim fought to get free from him. She said no. She tried to text or call someone, and he took her phone away and threatened her if she tried to make contact with anyone. He said, why won’t you just let me do what I gotta do? She tried so hard not to get raped. In the morning, he mocked her, saying: you look like someone who just got raped all night. She went to the police. She was eight and a half months pregnant. Her young daughter was asleep in the next bedroom. The guy admitted his guilt. A perfect victim, a perfect case. Ninety days. Served on weekends. This is what passes for justice. So his victim was spared the trauma of a trial. That’s no small mercy. But it was his only one.
It doesn’t matter if you pose for a photo in the park with your assailant the day after the assault, or if you fight to get away from him. It doesn’t matter if you send him a bikini photo or if you report him to the police. It doesn’t matter what kind of victim you are. It doesn’t matter what kind of survivor you are.
It’s 2016. Survivors of sexual assault are still the ones paying the price for the crime of being assaulted.
What is the lesson here?
No, seriously, you tell me. What is the lesson?
I’ve been reading The Crooked Heart of Mercy by Billie Livingston lately and it is slaying me with its economy and energy. Such tidy sentences that describe such unruly human emotion. I love writers who can make it seem so effortless, and Livingstone is definitely one of those. The book is about terrible grief and guilt, so there is some common ground there. I’m paying close attention to the way Livingstone navigates it.
Last night I went to see Jason Isbell and Shovels and Rope play and it was so deeply good. Isbell especially writes songs that hit me exactly where I live. He writes about small-town struggle, addiction, loneliness, loss, true love. Expect to feel all the feelings when Isbell is in the house. And Shovels and Rope moved me with their incredible, unstoppable energy. They’re a wife-and-husband team, a two-person band. Watching her play drums and keyboard and sing all while looking like a total badass was completely inspiring.
Check out Livingston, Isbell and Shovels and Rope, and tell me: What’s inspiring you these days?
Last week was all about learning. Every minute of every day, it seemed, was stuffed with one assignment or another, for a bunch of various employers. In order to complete the assignments I had to learn new skills and technologies, and figure my way through them on my own. It was challenging, but totally rewarding.
This week is much quieter. Yoga, coffee, kickboxing, helping out some friends with a little dogsitting, catching up with another friend while doing so. There’ve been bits of work woven through, but thanks to last week’s marathon of learning, those bits of work unfolded smoothly. And now here were are at Wednesday, and my schedule is gloriously open.
I’ve already been on my yoga mat. I’ll need to do some dishes and laundry at some point. But there are no further deadlines this week. There are projects I could work ahead on, a couple pitches I could write, but none of that will take the hours and hours that stretch out ahead of me.
And I realized today, the first day I’ve really had this luxury since January, that this is exactly what I quit my job for. For days like the ones last week, so crammed with learning and doing, and for days like today, undefined, all mine.
My writing will get my attention today. There’s a scene idling in the back of my mind (which hasn’t really happened yet with this book. This book has come in impressions, and that makes for hard writing, at least for this writer. But a scene! I know what to do with that!) and an afternoon lolling out before me.
See you on the other side.
We don’t do Valentine’s Day, my spouse and me. Too…stupid. We have never needed any special day on which to shower each other with love. If anything, we could use a Tone It Down Already, Would Ya Day. But there is a day in February we mark each year. It’s February 20. We call it Happy to Be Alive Day.
Eleven years ago right about this minute, we were headed home from the East Coast Music Awards in Sydney, Cape Breton. It was unseasonably warm and sunny as we packed up the car. And all down Kelly’s Mountain and along the Causeway it was a strangely lovely day. But as we started to get in toward Antigonish, there was a sudden change. The sky got dark, a snow squall sprung up. And just outside a wee place called Monastery, we hit a patch of black ice and I lost control of the car. We started to slide into the oncoming lane of traffic—that part of the TransCanada Highway isn’t twinned—and as I made eye contact with the driver of the pickup truck speeding toward us, I started to realize that maybe this was it. I did what any panicked driver would in that situation and wrenched hard on the wheel. That snapped us back into our own lane, and spun us around a hundred and eighty degrees. We connected with the guardrail on the driver’s side. The guardrail acted as a lever that flipped us up into the air. Kev had taken off his seatbelt about ten minutes earlier to get out his notebook because he was writing a song. As our wheels left the ground and we began to sail over the guardrail I yelled at him—because if you’re pretty sure you’re about to die, you definitely want your final words to the one you love to be screeched and nagging—I yelled: Oh my god, YOU’RE NOT WEARING YOUR SEATBELT. And I watched as he was lifted out of his seat and disappeared from view.
When the car landed on the ground on the passenger side, I watched the sideview mirror snap off. The guardrail collision had already taken out my sideview mirror. Because I couldn’t process the life or death facts of my situation, I focused on the car repairs this collision was going to necessitate. One sideview mirror was—what a hundred bucks? So, now we’re at two hundred bucks, my mind chastised me as the car bounced and lifted off the ground again. How far will we roll, I wondered. Does this end with us in the trees? Is there water down there? Big rocks? When will the car catch on fire? How badly hurt is Kev? Where did he end up, anyway? Then, bang, we hit the ground once more, this time upside down. I dangled from my seatbelt, trying to comprehend the events of the last few moments. It was deeply, deeply quiet in the car. I couldn’t exhale. And then, before my eyes, the entire windshield shattered in little spidery cracks, and I was overcome. “Holy shit, Kev,” I said, in a self-accusatory tone. “I totally fucked up our car.”
He told me later that’s when he knew for sure we were both alright. The next few moments were a blur of helpful, terrified fellow motorists arriving at my side, yanking me free of my seatbelt and hauling me out the window, probably also afraid the car would catch fire—and no doubt, now that I think of it, expecting to find gravely injured people in that wreck. Kev wriggled out a window somehow. He’d sailed out of his seat and somehow survived all that rocking and rolling, coming to rest on the dome light when the car finally stopped moving. We stood dazed in the snow for a moment, eyeing each other. And then we did a spontaneous little jig. All our limbs were attached and working. It defied reality. He broke a nail on his guitar-picking hand. An infinitesimally small piece of windshield glass somehow made it up my sleeve, through three layers of shirt, sweater and jacket, to just barely scrape my right elbow. The car was a write off. But we were fine. Better than fine. We were ALIVE. Totally euphoric.
We hauled all our belongings to the side of the road and waited for the cops. They were busy that afternoon. There were dozens of collisions along that stretch of highway. Against their wishes, Kev loaded all his instruments (and I do mean all of them—bass, amp, drum kit, acoustic guitar) into the cruiser and we packed ourselves in, too. The cops dropped us off at Chuggles in Antigonish, where we could get a drink while we waited for Parker to drive from Halifax to get us. We called our parents and told them about the crash, and that it was okay, that we were okay. That we were alive. We heard a song on the stereo by a local band. “Bass player in this band died a few years ago,” Kev said. “How?” I asked. “Car crash,” he said. We bugged our eyes at each other and ordered another drink. And caesar salads. And steak. And cheesecake. He wrote a song. I got an idea for a radio show. I squeezed his hand as hard as I could, and he squeezed back, harder.
When we finally got back to Halifax, hours and hours and hours later, the house was dark and cold. The battery in the thermostat had died sometime over the weekend and the temperature was a chilly six degrees. We put in fresh batteries and got into bed, burrowing together under the covers. How are you, we asked each other. Happy to be alive, the inevitable answer.
And so, from our house to yours, Happy Happy to Be Alive Day.
ps: One thing making me happy to be alive today is this great blog about books. Thanks to Naomi for the lovely reviews of both Fallsy Downsies and Homing!
I seem to have fetched up in the midst of a super-busy week. I’m making my first-ever podcast item for TGIM, using field recording muscles I haven’t flexed in a long time, and mixing muscles I haven’t flexed in even longer. So there’s some trial and error, teaching myself Garage Band, Zencastr, iQ5 recording. There’s a lot of hunching over the laptop, muttering.
At the same time, I am now more than a month into my part-time job as Operations Manager for Propriometrics Press, working for this completely inspiring woman. So, while I’m hunched over my laptop, muttering, I’m also super-aware I should be moving a little more. And some of my laptop-hunching muttering time is also happening while I’m Operations Managing. The learning curve is incredibly steep. Yesterday I taught myself how to make a monthly sales report. I don’t really know how to use Excel at all, so this is kind of a big deal.
Meanwhile, I’m batting clean up on a piece I prepared for a high school textbook McGraw Hill is putting out on Truth and Reconciliation, for which I got to interview this gorgeous ray of positivity and fierceness. There are a few loose ends to tie up before I can consider that assignment totally done.
It’s all amazing work, work I feel so lucky to have. It is work that challenges me, and stretches me and pushes me outside my comfort zone every day. Awesome. But it is work—not writing.
Ah, the writing. Yesterday I was untangling the cord of my earphones and I fell down into the kind of trance that means there’s writing there to do. I don’t know the specifics, but I know there’s a scene with a tangled rope or cord, and Lex’s younger brother, and some tears. I’ll write it to find out what’s there. Could be something, could be nothing. And so, here again, there’s a learning curve. I know how to write, how to make sentences. I know I can pile the sentences up into a novel. But I don’t know yet how to write this novel, and these sentences. So, there’s a challenge there, too. Good Birds is all loose end, at this point. And I am not spending enough time with it yet. I need to work toward a better balance, the freelancer’s lament.
Which is why I’m particularly looking forward to Thursday night, when Sarah Mian and I once more load our books into her vintage valise and hit the road for Truro. We’ve been invited to read at NovelTea Bookstore and Cafe on Prince Street. What a relief it will be to slip back into the familiar pages of Fallsy Downsies, to hang out with my old friend Lansing Meadows. I know what he’s about. No learning curve there, just laughs and a few tears. Come see us in Truro.
Earlier this week I went to Moncton to help my in-laws move from the house in which they’ve lived for more than thirty years into a spiffy new condo where they still have lots of space, yet won’t have to shovel the thirty centimetres of snow expected to fall there today. I spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday helping them clean, carry, unpack and organize. It was glorious.
Yesterday, I went to a friend’s mother’s funeral at two in the afternoon. It felt so good to be able to support my friend in this way, and to hear all the stories about his mother that were told during the service.
Last week, I went to deep-end water-aerobics, a workout I love and which sadly isn’t taught in Halifax before ten am or after six pm. That’s a middle-of-the-day workout only in this town, for some reason. I go at quarter after twelve on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
And on Wednesday night I filed my application for the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre. This is an experience I’ve long longed for. You spend five weeks in the company of other writers who are engaged in serious projects. You work with an editor. You write all the time while someone else fixes your meals and makes your bed. You live in the glory of Banff, walking the trails, soaking up the culture, being a writer first, last and always. The Writing Studio has always coincided with Spring Ratings. CBC had a really strict policy about hosts having to be present during ratings periods. And anyway, five weeks of annual leave, taken all at once? Nope, not possible for this girl. It’s one of the compromises I made with my writing while I worked at CBC. But I don’t have to make that compromise anymore. There’s no guarantee they’ll accept me, and it’s super expensive to go and I probably won’t get financial aid…but I don’t care. If they take me, I am going.
Another compromise I made while working at CBC was not (for the most part, with one notable exception) stating my opinion in public venues. That was monstrously hard. I failed spectacularly that one time, linked above. (And, I guess, with this follow-up, even if it was more public-service-minded.) In any event. I don’t have that stricture anymore, but it’s taking a long time for me to really realize that. But it occurred to me, while I was thinking of all the other things I can do now that I couldn’t before, like help my in-laws, go to aquafit, go to funerals, go to Banff, it occurred to me that I can also say, as loudly and as often as I want, that I believe Lucy. I believe Lucy and I am sending everything I have her way. I think she’s a hero. She is testifying to a survivor’s truth. A truth we rarely get to hear from a court room, loud and clear across the nation. Still, it hurts to watch the trial unfold, it hurts to hear the kinds of questions Lucy and the others are asked to answer in cross-examination. It hurts to contemplate that the outcome of the trial may indicate that nothing has changed. Except, except…despite that possible outcome, everything has changed, thanks to Lucy. I believe Lucy.
Here’s to doing the things we never could before.
It has been challenging to move from a life that was clearly defined by the clock, with daily and hourly deadlines that were immutable, and an in person team that was constantly communicating what I needed to be doing at any given moment. In that life, I knew everything about the deepest inner workings of the project I was on. I knew it by heart, by muscle memory. Parts of it I could do with my brain tied behind my back. This new life has deadlines, but they are blurry, self-assigned, sometimes moving targets. I have some part-time work, with a publishing company in the Pacific Northwest and it’s a busy, slightly confusing time to have come aboard. Figuring out my job there is a little like writing a novel, which is itself a little like trying to describe an elephant by patting it with your hands while wearing a blindfold. That simile works better in person, because you can see me close my eyes and fumble around with my hands in every direction. Take my word for it, it’s not easy.
So, there are things I’m trying to balance in this new, self-directed life. Figuring out the new job, for sure. Getting back to a daily yoga practise. Rebuilding my gym habit. Making sure I get a daily walk. Dedicating myself to practising piano every day. And, of course, there’s writing the novel.
You should do it first thing, my husband said to me, regarding my piano practise.
I find if I do it first thing, my yoga teacher said about a particular set of stretches, it tends to get done.
You should do it first thing, my writer friends say, about the five hundred words a day I intend to write.
I’d like to do it first thing, I think, about the daily walk. If I do it first thing, it’s more likely to happen, I think, about the gym habit. I need to get at it first thing, my panicky brain says, about the work that goes with my new job.
I suppose if I start the night before, I can fit in all these first things before sunset.
Maybe I can get to each of them first thing once a week. Monday it’s the gym, Tuesday it’s the part-time job, Wednesday it’s the novel, Thursday it’s the yoga, Friday it’s the walk, Saturday it’s the piano. Sunday is a day of rest from it all.
If you have a self-directed life, how do you make sure you’re actually getting to all the things you consider priorities?