Just breathe.

beach at bamburgh

I went to a restorative yoga class for the first time last night, while simultaneously playing host to a slowly ebbing migraine that nonetheless pulsed behind my right eye and refused to go gently into that good night.

I get tired of migraines sidelining me and I was determined to go to this class anyway. Besides – I knew that it certainly wouldn’t make my head feel worse.

And while it would have been nice to arrive to this class pain-free, I simply didn’t have the energy to care. And that turned out to be for the best. I didn’t bother with my usual anxiety, perfectionism and gracelessness – usually on hand to psyche me out like my grade-school gym teacher any time I try anything more physical than walking.

Instead, I gave myself permission to do a really bad job of following the instructions and gratefully accepted all the help from the instructor and the helper (there were a lot of blankets, bolsters and blocks involved in this class). The kicker was realising that I couldn’t wear my glasses, making the entire room as blurry as a Monet. Even more reason to do a ‘bad job’ of the poses.

The other thing I didn’t really have energy for was breathing properly, and focusing on the breath, and all that. Not at first, anyway. And that was ok with me. I was doing the poses, I was in a warm, dim room with several like-minded souls who were all craving the same calm and peace. I let my mind chatter away and breathed automatically and just didn’t care if I was counting to four or not. And of course, that’s when I calmed down. In a non-striving, it’s enough to be here and see what this class is like kind of way.

And then I started to breathe and focus on the breath, and breathed and focused on the breath. And breathed and focused on the breath.

I’m going to peel away the ‘everything is fine!’ facade for a few moments and be real.

It’s been a tough year. I read the news with horrified fascination and then try to take media breaks, only to be dragged back into the fray when the next ridiculous horrible stupendously stupid headline unfurls. Uncertainty is something I am very uncomfortable with, like most people, and I feel like every day I get a double portion of it, from the world at large, and as a freelancer. It’s making me tired and sad. It’s making me not recognise myself. It’s shaking my confidence daily. It’s keeping me from being creative.

So I started to breathe and focus on the breath, and breathed and focused on the breath. And breathed and focused on the breath.

I breathed until it felt like my heart was going to break with all the feelings I’ve been holding in check.

And I heard a little voice. It said:

Write.

 

 

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Harder to hit; becoming a moving target

No book on creativity has stayed with me quite like Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. It’s seared onto my mind, its concepts and ideas bubbling up in my thoughts, invited or not.

I certainly didn’t act on many of the concepts when I first read it in whatever the heck my twenties ended up being – let’s just say ‘not a creative time’ is a generous assessment. But I felt like I was doing something right and good for myself whenever I read it. And that’s not nothing.

Flash forward to now.

Moving to Leeds? Living a simpler life? Giving my thoughts more time to percolate? Addressing and reducing some anxiety triggers? Better ley lines? Beautiful places to walk? Friendly people? More cups of tea?

I’m never going to completely understand this phenomenon: put simply, my cup of creativity now runneth over. I try to harness bolts of inspiration when they strike, and more importantly, have the confidence to act on them.

Having different projects on the go means that I can hop around. If I’m in a proofreading drought, I can write blog posts to stay sharp. If I want to step away from the laptop, I can wander over to the kitchen and make something nice for dinner. If I want to keep busy while listening to a podcast, I can grab my knitting needles.

Recently I started a project that has been rewarding, challenging, frustrating, boring, and exciting. It has filled me with dread. It’s activated a virulent strain of ‘imposter syndrome’. It’s made me joyful to the point of exuberance. I’ve had to ask for help – I couldn’t do it all myself and outsourced key elements to talented professionals. I’ve also had to scold a printer for doing a lousy job and wasting a week of my time.

Working on it helped me through a cold winter week without heat, fallow times while freelancing, and kept my mind occupied during that grim time after the relief wears off after a job interview and turns into waiting to hear if I’ve progressed to the next level or not.

And that’s when I realised that I am embodying a principle from Week 8 of The Artist’s Way – something Julia Cameron calls a ‘diverse, hydra-headed productivity’, or put another way, becoming a ‘moving target’.

I don’t expect Bellicose Soap Co. to make me a billionaire, but I hope that having the occasional order to fill will be a nice change of pace from writing and editing. It will make me happy to send these little soaps off into the world – my idea, my creative burst made real.

A Canadian’s thoughts on British snow

Many people asked me what I thought of the snow this week in Yorkshire. On one hand, it’s been a laughable amount to this intrepid Canadian, but on the other hand, I can’t join in to the jokes that colder, snowier countries are making.

People have died. People have been stranded in their cars, stranded on trains, stranded at home.

It all boils down to infrastructure. Countries and cities that regularly experience heavy snowfall have the means to remove it and melt it, while I can only guess that many parts of the UK have a seriously limited contingency plan. In contrast, Montreal’s snow-removal budget for 2017 was $159 million. When we lived in Ottawa, I remember seeing special snow melting trucks slowly rumbling down our street during particularly heavy snowfalls.

But you simply can’t expect a nation that rarely has to deal with snow to have a good handle on things when it does. And it doesn’t matter how familiar I am with walking on snowy and icy sidewalks – when I’m on the bus, I’m still at the mercy of the driver’s abilities. I distinctly felt my bus slide to a stop a couple of times at red lights. An in-town journey that usually takes 15 minutes took 40 minutes on Thursday morning. I can completely understand why people commuting from further away chose to take snow days.

And why not? Why endanger themselves when something a bit unusual is happening? Schools and nurseries were closed for part of the week, so many people had no choice but to stay home. I heard stories of families playing in the snow – tobogganing in Chapel Allerton Park, making snowmen, making memories with their kids.

And who doesn’t love a snow day? I was really impressed with how seriously the office I temped in handled various staff members’ decisions to stay home. There was no shaming, no ridicule, no sarcastic  ‘air quotes’ about working from home. If I’m honest, I was a bit sad that I didn’t live far away enough to have a snow day myself!

I grew up in the country, on an unpaved rural road. If I heard my parents listening to the local radio station before 6:30 am, I knew it was only a matter of time before my bus and/or school would be cancelled. We’d also get an early-morning phone call if the buses weren’t running. I would snuggle back down under the covers, grateful for a reprieve from math quizzes and science projects; smug in the knowledge that my brothers and I would likely spend most of the day tobogganing. Turning on the radio in the mornings this week transported me straight back to that feeling, except I had to continue putting on my makeup and checking bus times.

I also have a happy memory of my father from when I was about 16. One icy, snowy night he picked me up in town, but we had to ditch our car on an icy road about a mile from our house. We left my shopping bags in the car, and walked hand in hand to keep each other from slipping. It was nice to have my dad take such good care of me.

So it doesn’t matter that the phrases ‘freezing rain’ and ‘ice storm’ strike more fear in my heart than the prospect of snow. All that matters is that everyone does their best to stay safe and warm.

‘As ithers see us’

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
– Robert Burns

Ok. I get it. The parts of my life that I make public – especially on social media – seem enviable: living in a new country, surrounded by beautiful architecture (more on that later), easy access to awe-inspiring countryside and quaint towns, with dazzling European cities a short plane ride away. Career is doing quite well, marriage is going strong and we have a cat that really loves to cuddle. Living the dream? You fucking bet I’m living the dream. And I give thanks for all of these things every single day.

I struggle a lot with what to post on social and have done so ever since Jeff and I crawled out of student debt and were finally able to think about travelling further than Montreal. Some people genuinely want to see and hear about our experiences and actively request photos and status updates, especially of our adventures while living in England. Others, and I know first-hand because I was this person for many years, might find it frustrating to scroll past travel photos, especially if they’re at work and it’s not Friday afternoon yet.

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Hello from #whitby! #daytrip #199steps

A post shared by Heather Hewer (@heather.hewer) on

A few years ago, I read, loved, and thought an awful lot about this piece, 7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook. To my eternal amusement, an acquaintance on Facebook actually posted it and suggested that his Facebook ‘friends’ should follow its advice. An excellent candidate for a brisk ‘unfollow’.

I try not to fall into any of the annoying categories the writer listed, and often ask myself if a post fits his criteria – is it:

  • interesting?
  • informative?
  • funny/amusing?
  • entertaining?

Now I realise there’s nothing more tiresome than a person who thinks they are funny, and isn’t, and I know my limitations – I can’t tell a joke worth a damn, for instance, but I like to think I’ve made a few people laugh over the years. I try not to complain, in real life or on social. I think that whining online (or worse, ‘vaguebooking’) is deeply boring, especially if the person complaining isn’t receptive to suggestions or solutions. That said, my stance changes completely if we meet up for a cup of tea or a glass of wine –  I’m all ears and sympathy.

When posting, I like to share interesting articles, tag people in recipes that are right up their alley, or support a restaurant, jazz venue, musician or product I particularly like. I’ve worked in social media – I know how much every single like, retweet, share, or comment can mean to the person responsible for engagement. But I don’t always manage to stick to these guidelines, and if everybody did, our feeds would be nearly empty, with tumbleweeds and suggested posts rolling through them. You can’t just ‘fix’ people like that, any more than you can control a party beyond food, drinks, places for people to sit, lighting and music.

And this criteria gets really murky when it comes to travel photos. If one were take a hard line with that article, travel photos are an instant ticket to being insufferable; reeking of ‘image crafting’, ‘attention craving’, ‘narcissism’, and ‘jealousy inducing’. But what about the people who truly want to hear about these trips? What if I’ve taken a photo I’m proud of? What if posting from the city I’ve travelled to is the quickest way to let my loved ones know I landed safely? What if friends and family miss us, but also understand that we are taking advantage of an amazing opportunity and want to see the evidence? What if they are -gasp- happy for us?

I’m not going to stop posting travel photos. It’s enough that I’ve given my cat her own Instagram account that people can choose to follow or not.

I’m also not going to tell you about the not-great parts of my life. Why would I? And I certainly wouldn’t do it in a forum like this. But just like everyone else, I’ve had them. I’ve got them. One of these days I’m going to actually create the t-shirts I keep meaning to, that simply say:

You don’t know.

Because You. Don’t. Know.

We’re all just walking around, doing the best we can every day, even if our best isn’t always that great.

When I was very young, most of my world was bland, mediocre, if not downright ugly – my family’s church springs to mind as a particular example of hideous modernity.  It was all an affront to the eyes of a bookish, romantic girl fascinated by old stone buildings, Victoriana, fairy tales, princesses, hobbits and pretty things. I once wrote an exam at Guelph C.V.I., one of the oldest schools in Ontario, and thrilled at its ‘oldness’ – the closest I ever got to feeling like ‘Anne of Green Gables’. That girl is still me, and I delight in drystone walls, hedgerows, 18th-century stonework, rolling hills, fields of grazing sheep, and the stunning cathedrals of Yorkshire, England, Great Britain, and Europe.

But bless, I also know the power of the Unfollow button, and it’s there for a reason. Use it. Nobody needs to know.

Me too

This is showing up on my facebook feed today:

Me too.

If all the people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

Please copy/paste.

Me too.

It occurred to me that while nothing incredibly traumatic like rape has ever happened to me, I nonetheless have a list of sexually harassing experiences that I have tried to forget or in weaker (younger, inexperienced) moments, rationalized or minimized.

In no particular order,

  • The creepy old guy that worked at the shoe store in Ottawa with me, who constantly made inappropriate comments about my body and my appearance. I never reported it, but dreaded and feared every moment that we worked alone together.
  • My male ‘stalker’ in Ottawa, who was a customer at the shoe store. I was being nice to him because I was selling him shoes, he misunderstood and thought I was flirting with him. He tried to ‘visit’ me at the store a number of times, but I always managed to hide in the stockroom until he left. Thank god he never found out where I lived.
  • The guy at university who plied me and my girlfriends with drinks all night and was incensed when I wouldn’t let him ‘take me home’. Found out later (from one of his own friends) that this was his MO for date-rape.
  • The guy at work who said ‘no offense, but are your boobs getting bigger?’
  • The manager at a place I worked  that sells Chicago-style deep dish pizza who would ask me about my weekend plans with my boyfriend by saying inappropriate things like  ‘ooooh are you going to do the nasty?’ I heard he got fired for sexual harassment a few months later, so obviously someone was more proactive than I was.
  • The man who exposed himself to me while I was about twelve and walking home from school. I turned away quickly and didn’t see much, but I was too afraid to tell anybody. We had been decorating Easter eggs with beeswax designs that day in school and to this day the scent of beeswax elicits a faint memory – I’ve all but suppressed it otherwise.
  • All the high school dude-bros who barked like dogs when I passed them in the hallway.
  • Two guys at a sandwich place who openly leered at my cleavage while I ate my sandwich.
  • Any guy who ever asked if ‘the carpets match the drapes’.
  • All the places I haven’t been able to go to on my own after dark for fear of assault or rape.

And this is just a short list, of a fortunate woman who:

  • is in a long term relationship with a respectful partner
  • has lots of wonderful male friends who always have her back on nights out
  • was raised with a take-no-shit attitude
  • has never doubted her access to equal rights
  • has worked (for the most part) in places with excellent HR departments
  • has never been desperate for money, food or shelter

How much longer would my list have been without any of those things?

Wildflowers, or RIP Tom Petty

heide-1659928_960_720I don’t often write about music – in fact, this is my first time publishing a music post – although I have a draft about Leonard Cohen that never made it out of its half-spun cocoon last fall. I’m not a musician – I was dragged to piano lessons for 10 years of my childhood and took music each year of high school for some easy ‘A’s, but living with a proper, fully realised musician means that when he’s not home, silence, TV or podcasts are my usual jam.

But this week the side of me that loves the jangly acoustic guitar and soulful lyrics of not one, but two singer-songwriters busted the folksy-hippie-chick side of me right out of whatever recess she normally absents herself to, and cracked open my heart in the process.

It started while I was watching the most recent episode of Outlander. If you saw it, you know what I’m talking about – pairing those devastating final scenes with this beautiful Bob Dylan cover:

And then the universe decided that within 2 minutes of drying my tears for a well-loved, but ultimately fictitious character, I should receive the news that Tom Petty was dying/near death/dead.

Oh Tom. If anyone’s held my soul in thrall all these years, it’s Tom Petty. One night last December I was happily flying high on some career success, and a glass or two of wine, singing to the cat rocking out in my living room to Tom Petty and wondering how he was doing – 2016 wasn’t quite over yet. A quick google confirmed that he was not only alive and well but announcing a tour with a stop in London’s Hyde Park. Tickets were purchased and Tom Petty!!!!!!!!! typed into my online calendar for 9 July.

Except, except, except… I.Can’t.Stand.Concerts. Literally. No matter how comfortable the shoes, I have trouble standing for long periods of time, so all-day outdoor concerts with general admission are basically a circle of hell for me. Even though it would mean that we’d be pretty far back, Jeff and I decided to arrive right before Tom was scheduled to go onstage. Before they appeared I even still had a moment of wondering why we’d gone through all the trouble of taking the train to London so we could stand in a park watching a screen of the far-off, tiny stage. And then the music started and I forgot about my feet, forgot about everything. I was super embarrassed at the time, but some of my favourites: “Walls”, “Wildflowers”, “Free Fallin'”, “Into the Great Wide Open”, and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” made me cry (and yes, I ran out of tissues). I think sometimes part of the reason I don’t listen to great music that often is because my favourites affect me so strongly. Hard to explain choked-up tears on a bus, train or in the office. I’m also looking at you, Leonard Cohen.

This wasn’t the first time Tom Petty had affected me so much. Wildflowers is an album that often ended up on repeat, I fell asleep to it many, many times, and it’s simply one of my desert-island discs. Vox, in their wonderful piece, Tom Petty can’t be explained in just 11 songs. We tried anyway. did a nice job of summing up what spoke to me but could nonetheless never quite put my finger on:

…“American Girl” also gets at the heart of Petty’s great thematic concern: the lives of ordinary people who can’t escape either their circumstances or the perhaps foolhardy dreams they can’t give up.

and this, about “Free Fallin'”

…a great reminder of how good Petty was at capturing the gap between desire and fulfillment.

I may not be an American girl, but well have I known that feeling of being trapped in a small town, with outsized dreams that felt like they were never going to take flight.

And finally, I have Tom Petty to thank for feeling at peace with our decision to up sticks and move to England. One day in Toronto, when we were getting close to the point of no return, I was walking alone on my lunch hour, wondering for the umpteenth time if we were making the biggest mistake of our lives. A car pulled up to the same intersection I was waiting at, and “Wildflowers” just happened to be blaring on its stereo (where Tom Petty’s music sounds best, if I’m honest). As I stood there, Tom sang “Go away, somewhere all bright and new”. Thanks for the well-timed epiphany, Tom.

Rest in peace.

And in case you were wondering – the wildflowers in Yorkshire are pretty great.

16 boring secrets for a happy relationship

dishes.jpgJeff and I just celebrated our nth wedding anniversary the other day, and it’s pretty clear to most people that we are happy together. I often get asked what our secret is, sometimes by other musician widows, because of his irregular and busy calendar. Short answer? He’s lucky I’m very independent.

Oh yes, we have some pretty great arguments and yell-y fights, some which are supremely ridiculous and unique, along with disagreements and frustrations that are probably similar to everyone else’s. One shiny pound coin or a batch of freshly baked scones to anyone who can clearly explain to me why we sometimes act the shittiest to the people we love the most.

So, while riding a train to somewhere beautiful last week on our wedding anniversary, we came up with this list:

  1. Do the dishes. You don’t have to want to do the dishes, but that’s a moot point if the dishes are already done. Just do them. Errands, chores and emotional labour resentments can build up quicker than you think, and constantly being the lazy one is never, ever going to be a sexy look. RAWRRRRRRRR.
  2. I’m going to take that horrid, misogynist adage ‘happy wife, happy life’ and break it down:
    • First, do everything you can, big and small, to help each other realize their hopes and dreams.
    • Second, if something matters way more to one person than the other, whether it’s minor stuff like looking for a specific type of electric kettle that suits your vintage modern kitchen, or major stuff like the type of property you buy, let the person who cares more ‘win’.
  3. One toilet per person, if that’s possible.
  4. Be polite to each other. People have actually made fun of us for this – but why wouldn’t we be nice?
  5. Share your online calendars – and if you both stay on top of your own, planning stuff gets so much easier.
  6. Get the biggest bed you can.
  7. You don’t have to spend all of your time together. As a jazz guitar widow, if I hadn’t maintained and developed my own interests and hobbies, I’d be a very bored, possibly codependent, person. That also goes for keeping your other friendships strong too.
  8. Relatedly, taking separate trips doesn’t mean you’re staring down a divorce. Life gets busy and sometimes it’s the only way. It will give you a chance to miss each other.
  9. Let your partner rant and vent about their bad day or problem for a while, and ask permission before offering solutions.
  10. Don’t jump ahead on the TV shows you’re watching together.
  11. Respect each other’s daily routines and circadian rhythms.
  12. Try to figure something out on your own before disturbing your partner. Look for the thingummy before simply yelling ‘where’s the blah-blah?’, or google the thing you don’t know. The internet is pretty amaze. Your washing machine’s manual can most likely be downloaded as a pdf.
  13. Get onto the same page when it comes to sex. Someone incredibly wise I know likes to say, ‘use it or lose it’.
  14. Ditto for money. Except for the ‘use it or lose it’ part.
  15. Make a comprehensive grocery list and actually look at it while you do the shopping. Everyone has a few grocery must-haves: replenish those without being asked. 
  16. Be on each other’s side. For big things, of course, but for little things too. Don’t say yes to the date of a big, raucous family thing when you know it will take place a scant number of hours after your jetlagged partner flies in from a different continent. If someone is saying something hurtful to your partner, speak up. If your bantam-sized wife decides to run outside and tell off the 6’3” guy whose car alarm has gone off all night, every night, for a week, stand beside her, even if the car alarm guy is terrified within seconds of her tirade.

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other? – George Eliot