Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A pause for paws: A love letter to cats

Mark Twain once said: “When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.”

It's safe to say that I whole heartedly agree.

Pets have walked in and out of my life since I was a baby. I learned to crawl with a dutiful spaniel by my side and I grew up with a fondness for everything from goldfish to horses, but I've always had a special relationship with cats.

The first pet I could ever really call my own was a cat. Her name was Daisy and she was a champagne coloured tabby that radiated warmth and charm. People who hated cats loved her - that's just how charming Daisy was. I got her as a kitten when I was five and she quickly became my soulmate. We would bump our foreheads together in greeting, she'd keep me company on lonely days, and she'd sleep by my pillow to chase away the bad dreams. Our bond was so strong that I was certain we'd been together a lot longer than it may appear. You see, when I was little I was convinced that I had lived a past life and when I met Daisy I was sure that she'd been with me in that life, that she'd been my cat before. She'd often look me straight in the eye with a steady gaze and I could tell that she knew what I was feeling, or thinking, and she'd respond without me having to say a word. She was the most intuitive animal I've ever met. She also gave me a wonderful gift - the second cat I ever called my own - her daughter, Ginger.

Daisy curled up by my side.
Ginger was fat and full of purrs. She trusted me completely, so I could do any number of ridiculous things to her (dress her up in a hoodie, drive her around as a passenger in my Barbie car, or cuddle her upside down) and she would merely smile, purr, or fall asleep. Ginger may have been loving, but she also had a cheeky side, and if she didn't like you she'd show it in the sneakiest way possible; she'd make you stink. Ginger had the most atrocious smelling farts and if she was picked up by someone she despised she would stay very still and then let loose a deadly smelling gas. I observed this behaviour on a number of occasions and it always made me laugh. Ginger looked so unassuming when people were cooing over her that no one ever expected her to covertly attack them with her flatulence. Once she farted on someone they never wanted to handle her again, so she'd waddle away knowing she was free from dealing with that person forever. However, if this large, gassy, orange and white tabby loved you she loved you with her entire being (which is a lot because she was super obese.) Her love was the generous kind and she was always trying to take care of me. I used to come home after school and curl up with a bowl of popcorn to watch Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Simpsons on TV. Once, when I was sitting on the floor with my popcorn bowl resting in my lap Ginger sidled up, dropped something in the bowl, and then sat squarely in front of me with the most pleased expression on her face. I went to reach for a handful of corn and stopped abruptly when I realized she'd dropped a dead mouse into the bowl. I stifled my cry of surprise and thanked her for the lovely gift... she just kept giving me this look that said "see, see what I've brought you. Food! And I put it in your food bowl." The fattest cat on earth had literally passed up on eating this juicy mouse in order to place it in her owner's food dish - if that's not love, I don't know what is.

If I have back problems today it's because of carrying Ginger.

Mark Twain and I are not the only writers who love cats. Truman Capote, Edgar Allan Poe, Jack Kerouac, Neil Gaiman, and Ernest Hemingway are just a few authors who've had strong bonds with felines, the latter even having a type of cat named after him (six-toed cats are known as Hemingway cats.)

I never understood authors' apparent predilection to cats until I met Ophelia - my third cat. She was a true writer's companion. I often spend hours at my computer researching stories, transcribing interviews, and writing articles, and Ophelia used to sit by my side the entire time with no complaint. She liked to stretch out over my notes, and would listen attentively as I read aloud to her. This long-haired, white beauty was a Turkish Angora. Her breed is a talkative one, so I was never short of conversation while I was working. If I asked Ophelia her opinion on something she'd respond with a chirp, a low meow, or a high pitched purr and I'd sometimes reconsider a line or two depending on her response. There was only one occasion when Ophelia pushed me away from my work and it was when I stayed up to write a magazine feature. I was so absorbed that I didn't realize the time until she pushed her head to my chest forcing me to lean back and see that it was 2:00am. I looked at her as she kept shoving her head at my heart and I finally said "ok, time for bed" at which point she jumped off the table and walked to my room, her sleepy owner trailing behind her. Only a true writer cat knows when to turn away from the page and face the pillow instead.

Ophelia, the Lois Lane of cats. 
After each of these beautiful, caring, charismatic cats has died I have been devastated. I have cried harder after losing them than I have for anything because they were the source of the kind of love only a pet can provide - unconditional love. After each parting I feel like I can never love any cat as much as I loved the last, but I always manage to find one that steals my heart again.

This time around it's Yorick, the fluffy, black kitten that my partner and I have recently adopted, who has tugged at my heartstrings. His Shakespearian name, inspired by my last lovely girl, suits him to a T. He's clever, affectionate, and has a sneaky sense of humour - already playing the jester and amusing us to no end. How quickly we fall in love with tiny paws and big purrs.

Yorick the jester. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

My shadow: insecurity

In the words of Jon Lajoie, "I'm just a regular everyday normal guy." I have good days and I have bad ones. I'm fortunate that my good moments outnumber the bad, but when they don't insecurity follows me like a shadow.

In certain light the shadow gets bigger, more menacing, and I'm afraid to turn around and see how far it stretches behind me. It can cast shade on all sorts of things: my writing, my body, my relationships, my dreams. 

Sometimes I'm able to talk myself out of letting this shadow, that's coloured with doubt and the memories of past experiences, get to me. I'm able to beat it back until it's small and grey and insignificant, but not always. There are days when the shadow wins. It swallows all my confidence and pride and leaves me questioning everything that I appreciate in my life. On days like that I want to turn off the light; shadows can't be seen in the dark. 

I hate doing that though because it's challenging to get things done in the dark and, like it or not, I always have things to take care of. I often turn to that line in Baz Luhrumann's Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen) that says "remember the compliments you receive. Forget the insults." That phrase acts like a nightlight to me when the room goes dark. I think back and find the best things people have said to me and use them to create so much light that it makes the shadow seem small again. 

Today, however, I tried something different. In a moment of self-doubt, when questions flooded my mind and the shadow started to grow, I decided to embrace my insecurity. I didn't try and fight it, instead I felt it take over and thought "this is how you feel right now. Acknowledge it." I decided to see my insecurity as a strength - it demonstrates how much I care, it helps me relate to others, it means I'm human. 

I'm going to keep reminding myself that I'm only human. 

Me on a good day. 

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Permission to slow down

Last night I was at a party speaking to a beautiful stranger about her wonderful sounding life.

She said she was a production assistant, she's married, lives on a nice street, and she's a mom to two adorable children, but you wouldn't know it to look at her - she works out. She said how much having kids changes you and that as soon as she had hers she realized she needed to slow down. As if having a family gives you an excuse, permission, a reason to take it a bit easier.

This remark hit me because just recently I was reminiscing about a weekend when I slowed down. It was in the late winter and I had a sore throat. The sore throat turned into an irritating cough, which kept me awake, and made my whole body hurt. I lost my voice. I had to cancel my plans to go out, catch a play, get stuff done around the house, work on a story, and instead was grounded on the couch with a pot of tea, a pile of blankets, books, and a list of movies I'd been meaning to watch. I spent the entire weekend resting and trying to feel better so I could go back to work on Monday.

Not too long ago a friend asked me how I was doing and I said "this is going to sound weird, but I wish I was sick." And then I told her about that weekend I'd spent in late winter doing nothing but resting and how I wished I could do that now, but I had so much to do that I'd feel guilty if I sat down with a book. For me, being sick was like getting permission to slow down. Although it sounded morbid to wish for illness, I knew my friend would understand my meaning. She sympathized and said she knew exactly where I was coming from. We were in similar boats, adrift on twin seas, and both of us wanted to drop anchor and just be still for a while.

It bothers me that I feel the need to have a reason to take it easy. That when I don't have a reason I feel guilty for not being "productive" and that I'm "wasting time." I lead an active life, work multiple jobs, and have ambitious goals, and I should be able to relax guilt-free, yet I struggle with this on a constant basis.

After speaking with the beautiful stranger last night - working mother of two, fit, well-dressed, and fun - I realized that I didn't want to wait until I had kids, or was sick, in order to slow down. I should be able to give myself permission to take it easy whenever I feel the need. I should be able to curl up and be still and not feel as if I'm going to fail if I don't get everything done as soon as possible.

I hate when people use the phrase "make time," as if time was something you can build with the right tools, but right now it's the best combination of words I can think of for my new goal. I need to start making more time to take it easy and not wait for that winter cold to lay me up. I started trying today.

I watched a movie, and then I watched another one. I flipped through a novel, drank tea, and stayed in my pyjamas. I took a nap and slept for a solid hour. I watched the birds and squirrels jump around in the tree outside my window. I'm hoping this will become a habit.

I could learn a lot from cats. They nap like pros.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Pains and gains of 30

My arms still hurt from Friday night's revelry. This could make me feel old, but instead it makes me laugh.

I spent Friday night on the dance floor of Clinton's, surrounded by friends, dancing our faces off to music we would have listened to in our teens. Laughing, sweating, hugging, foot-loose shaking while singing along to every tune, I couldn't believe how lucky I was. I'd not only made it to 30, but I'd made it with this pack of gloriously funny, crazy, beautiful people by my side and they'd made all the difference in a life that has been a mosaic of good times and bad.

It's interesting how one experience can change your view of things for years, maybe even a lifetime, to come. I had a bad birthday once - a birthday so bad that it made me question my identity and everything I thought I knew to be true. Ever since then I've been trying to make up for that day by celebrating the hell out of life; especially around my birthday.

For the past couple years I've thrown big birthday parties with lots of food, and booze, and cake, and games, and it has been awesome and fun, but this year I wanted to do something different - this year I wanted to travel and dance.

My boyfriend helped me with the travelling part as we explored Quebec City the weekend before I turned 30. We walked every where, ate tons of delicious food, practiced our broken French, and learned a lot about a beautiful city. The trip inspired a new travelling goal that might take us a while to achieve, but will be worth the time and effort when all is said and done. Our goal is to visit every capital in Canada - a lofty goal, but for every city we get to I'll be reminded that this idea was born while celebrating a milestone birthday and that when I was 30 I liked to dream big.

(Side note: Getting to Iqaluit will be the real challenge since Nunavut has such a short tourism season and costs a fortune to get to, but it's doable if we save every dime we find. Maybe 20 years from now I'll ask all of you to join me on a cruise through the Arctic to celebrate my 50th birthday - wouldn't that be nuts!)

There have been some heartbreaking moments in 2016. There has been death, illness, and loss in my life and the lives of those close to me, so I wanted my birthday, more than ever, to be a celebration of living it up. I called upon my friends to join me for the aforementioned dancing in hopes that a night out would remind me to live in the moment and never take a second for granted. You never know when a dance might be your last, so move, sing along, and make it count.

My arms still hurt from all that moving, my feet tender from the dancing, and my throat is sore from all the singing along. I swear, I didn't hurt this much when I was 29; it didn't take this long to recover. Thirty might be more painful than 29, but I'm planning to make it pain that's full of gain as I gain more good memories, friends, family, experiences, and eye-crossing love.

The tracks taking us away from Quebec and
back home to Toronto on the eve of my 30th.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

"Can I still be Batman?": Career questions for the modern woman

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be many things - a ballerina, a painter, an actor, a marine biologist, Batman - I wanted to be recognized for good work, work that helped people.

Despite practicing the art of making faces in front of the mirror, memorizing the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and reading a lot about dolphins, my goals of becoming an actor/artist/dancer/biologist/superhero weren't taken seriously by my teachers. Their idea of what I should be when I grew up was different than the ones I thought of while playing make-believe.

They told me I should be a writer.

Mr. Howard, my grade 6 teacher, was the first to speak to me about my career ambitions seriously. He asked me one day after handing back an assignment what I wanted to be when I grew up. Mr. Howard was a tall man, with a deep voice, and he'd fold his hands together when pondering something serious. Everything he said had a sense of gravity to it. I faced his question as seriously as he had asked it and responded that I was going to be an actor and was currently studying musical theatre after school.

He said "Are you sure? Because, Amanda, I think you might be a writer."

I smiled and insisted that I was sure, I was an actor through and through.

"Okay," he said. "But you're a very good writer."

All through high school my teachers echoed this question and their response was usually the same as Mr. Howard's: "are you sure? Have you thought about writing?"

It wasn't until I was reaching the end of high school, while sitting in the yearbook room working on a story, that I realized something. I was completely absorbed. Time had flown by, noisy classmates surrounded me, but it didn't matter - I was taken in by my work. Writing, editing, re-writing so the story would fit on the page, and in an instant I knew: "those bastards, they've been right all along. I'm a writer - worse, I'm a journalist."

For years I'd been working towards a goal that suddenly seemed wrong and I quickly had to change gears and figure out how to be what I was always told I should be. The show tunes and facts about krill had to be moved aside to make way for picas, the rule of thirds, and Caps and Spelling.

I studied hard, graduated with honours, and got into a university that I thought would teach me everything I needed to know about being a journalist.

My professors were encouraging, always telling me I was good, but instructing me on how I could be better. Again, I studied hard and improved, and graduated with more honours, and then BAM! The recession of 2008 started and the game changed.

The newspapers shrunk, Social Media got bigger, the TV stations started laying off hundreds of people at a time, and the papers that had been printed for over a hundred years stopped being printed and moved online, and everything got smaller, including the paycheques, until the day came when I was asked to write for free.

Because I can't afford to work for free I've had to face the question again: what do I want to be when I grow up?

But now it's coupled with other grown-up questions such as: does what I want to be allow me to afford a house? A family? Retirement? Am I still a writer if I can only afford to write part-time?

I doubt Mr. Howard could have predicted the financial climate of today and he was only thinking of a talent for a story well told when he encouraged me to consider the path of a professional wordsmith. And maybe if he could have seen the future he would have said "Amanda, I think you might be a writer" anyway because perhaps there are some things we can't help being whether we like it or not.

For richer or poorer, I appear to be a writer, but I often wonder... can I still be Batman?

I still type like this. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Robin Redbreast by the grave side

Surrounded by the graves of strangers I feel completely at ease. 

I like to go to the cemetery when I need to clear my head. It's a great place to go when you need to think - it's quiet, steeped in nature, and no one bothers you. It's the only place in the city where people don't stop me to ask for directions. 

I walk along the path between the headstones and think about my week, mulling over my problems, smiling at my victories, and letting the lives of those who've gone before me help me put things into perspective. 

The sun is shining, but despite the pale blue sky I can see the moon. It looks like a small white button that has popped off a shirt and is waiting to be noticed. I stop to admire this scene and take a deep breath, the air almost smells of spring. At once I feel content and at peace until I'm distracted by the flapping of a bird's wing. I turn slowly to locate where the noise is coming from, when all of a sudden the sound multiples all around me. 

Robins, more than I can count, are shooting into the air from beneath the shadows of the headstones at my feet. I stay perfectly still and let them fly past me to a portion of the path ahead. They land haphazardly amongst the stones and I try and count them - five, twelve, sixteen, no, twenty, twenty-one? As soon as I think I've counted them all they move and seem to add more to their ranks. They hop between the graves, poking at the grass, and standing on the stones, all the time flapping their tiny wings. The noise reminds me of waves crashing on a beach, but it doesn't sooth me, instead it makes the hairs on my arms stand on end. 

I've never seen this many robins in one spot before, and I'm surrounded by them. Robins have a rich history in folklore, with their blood red breast tying into tales of hell fire and the crucifixion of Christ. But there is another tale that came to my mind as I stood as still as a statue amongst the graves - it is said that if a robin finds a dead body it will cover it with leaves or moss. This lore was depicted in Babes in the Wood, a story from the 1500s, where robins cover the dead bodies of abandoned children with foliage. 

Newly dug graves dot the cemetery where I walk and I wonder if the robins have come to cover them. If lore is to be believed, maybe they are, but I don't stick around to find out. Instead I side step slowly away from the birds, keeping one eye on them and the other on the path that leads me to the street. Every time I move the robins stop flitting about the grass and watch me, so my progress is slow. Their movements and their gaze has unsettled me and my stomach feels like it's fluttering faster than their wings. 

Robins are said to be a sure sign of spring, but in a graveyard maybe they signify something more, something older than lore. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

The woman in the rain

Last week, on a rainy day not unlike the one we're experiencing right now, I was stopped by an old woman all dressed in blue. 

I was hurrying down Yonge Street on my way to work when she caught my eye and beckoned me over to where she was standing on the corner. I removed my ear buds, shifted my book bag about, and asked if she was okay. 

She wanted to know if I was heading to the subway and if I wouldn't mind walking her in that direction. She was old, she explained, and afraid she'd slip on the wet sidewalk, so she needed a steady hand to lean on while she made her way to the bank. I offered her my arm and off we went down the street. 

We were only a block away from her destination, so I didn't think this would take much time until we started walking. And by walking, I mean shuffling, at a pace slower than I thought possible. Suddenly this city block seemed like a 1000 mile journey and time began to slow and stretch before me - this was going to be a long walk. 

As she carefully put one foot in front of the other, arm looped with mine, she pointed out how wet everything was, how slick the sidewalk had become with the rain, and how the pavement seemed to slant towards the road. Despite having lived in this neighbourhood for almost eight years and having walked this stretch of road countless times, I'd never noticed the slant in the sidewalk until she pointed it out. "Why do they build sidewalks like this?" She asked me. "It's quite dangerous, you could slip into the road." 

We made pleasant conversation as commuters rushed around us on their mad dash to the train. She asked if I was in school, or if I was heading to work. Did I work downtown? Was my commute awful? I asked her how she managed in the winter when the sidewalks were icy and covered in snow. "Winter is hell," she said. As someone who has landed butt deep in slush on an icy run to work, I couldn't help agreeing with her. 

When we got to the corner she asked if I could help her cross the street. By this time I was already ten minutes late for work, so I said "of course", and we began our snail-like amble across Yonge. A very busy Yonge, in the midst of rush hour traffic, with construction dominating one corner and buses roaring past on Eglinton spraying pedestrians with gritty puddle water. The orange hand on the cross walk started to flash its countdown and we were barely half way through the road. She must have felt my arm tense because she quietly said "we'll make it" as she continued to shuffle by my side. Our time ran out and cars gingerly drove around us as we completed our crossing. 

We finally made it to the bank and she squeezed my arm and thanked me three times for my help. I asked if she'd be okay getting home, and she said she'd manage. "Manage" being the operative word here. A walk that would have taken me less than two minutes had taken us almost fifteen to complete. A road that I wouldn't balk at to cross suddenly seemed like a horrifying obstacle course when I looked at it through the eyes of this little, grey-haired lady dressed in blue. I told her to have a good day, but I couldn't help but wonder how good it would be if there wasn't anyone to help her. This city isn't set up to accommodate people who move slower than the average rat-race clip and I worried about how long it would take her to get home. 

I ended up being very late for work, but I learned a valuable lesson, which made my tardiness seem worthwhile. For the past week I've been trying to see things through the eyes of the little old lady in blue in attempt to observe more and appreciate the ease of my youth. I've slowed down my commute so I can observe my surroundings, like the slant in a sidewalk, or how quickly my neighbourhood is growing. And today, I took out my earbuds and listened to the rain patter on my umbrella as I walked. It was a nice sound, and I slowed to a shuffle. 

Renoir, the man knew how to paint an umbrella.