Growing a Voice

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A few months ago, I watched my kid get up in front of about 800 people, many of whom were strangers, and sing. By herself. A capella. She auditioned without telling us, and beamed when she was selected to perform. There were no sleepless nights, no mysterious stomach aches, no nails bitten down to the quick. She was suitably nervous beforehand and during, relieved when it was done, and unsure what her peers would think of her performance. She is, after all, a kid. At no point, however, did she doubt that she deserved to be there, to be heard. What’s more, there was never a moment when I thought she couldn’t do it. It was just another instance when I was left to wonder from whence this kid got her courage, because it certainly wasn’t inherited from me.

I was the runty kid who cried if anyone looked at her the wrong way. The very last thing I wanted to do when I was little was speak up or ask for an audience. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot to say…when I was by myself. I had monkey brain from a very early age, and there was no shortage of ideas and opinions, but I was out-and-out terrified of other people listening. There were guarded monologues, performed in front of my toys and secret thoughts, stories and poems scribbled in journals.

I didn’t find my voice until I was an adolescent, when a part in my favourite musical came up at school, and I knew I’d spend eternity giving myself face-palms if I didn’t at least try out for it. In addition to my persistent childhood timidness, I was at the tail end of a freakish growth spurt, and I was all bad perm, gangly limbs, and a unibrow. It took everything I had (and a fair bit of coaxing from my friends) to sing an audition piece in front of my teachers. When opening night came, I managed to catch a horrible chest cold, and I sounded like Harvey Fierstein after a month of chain smoking. But I still went on, and it was good. I was in front of hundreds of people, and they were listening. Being heard didn’t cause me to implode. In fact, it triggered a lot of growth. I probably had a fat head for a while after that, but the seal was broken, and I started making up for more than a decade of keeping to myself.

The quiet, shy kid is still part of me. I still get sweaty palms and rapid heartbeat before I have to give a talk or appear on camera. If I know there’s a meeting coming, I rehearse what I’m going to say the day before, in the car, in the shower, in front of my dogs. I worry a lot about screwing up, about being misunderstood. Despite my best efforts, I still have a wobbly, little-kid squeak in my voice, which I’m convinced is my shy inner child speaking her mind through my grown-up body. But what used to terrify me is now a rush, and I relish the opportunity to speak the contents of my jittery little mind. I now make my living screaming into the void.

There’s still room for improvement, mind you. I have not, as of yet, done a solo in front of 800 people in a school talent show.

 

A Letter To My Daughter, On Mother’s Day

Hey Kiddo,

I hope it won’t offend you to hear that I never wore rose-coloured glasses when it came to having children. At eighteen, I was convinced I would have three of you, immediately after finishing university. At 25, I thought maybe two, and not for a while. By the time I hit thirty, I was leaving the number and time frame blank. Life kept getting more interesting, and the task of being someone’s mother got progressively more daunting. Once in a while, some brave older woman would confess to her shortcomings as a mother, tell me that she had no idea what she was doing, and that she wasn’t sure she’d done anything right. I wasn’t disappointed to hear any of this, I was just relieved. I didn’t think I’d do it right either. For me, motherhood always seemed really interesting, but hard.

But you knew that when you picked me, didn’t you? You were prepared to love me, warts and all, at every stage of the game. There’s never been an off-handed comment about how I don’t wear make-up, or a snide remark about me spending too much time on my laptop. You leave me sweetly-doodled notes on my messy desk, and when you come in to our room in the wee hours of morning, you wake your father first. You introduce me to your friends as someone who does cool things and knows cool stuff. You’ve been happily letting us drag you all over the world since you were smaller than my carry-on. I think you actually dig all of my quirks and weirdness.

I have to admit, I still feel like I’m screwing things up in not living up to some “Leave It To Beaver” standard (look it up on YouTube). There will inevitably come a time when you wish I had done a few things differently, and if you choose to have children one day, they’ll do the same for you. I still wish for more sleep, maybe a little more quiet, certainly more hours in the day. But believe me when I say that when I tell you to always be yourself, it’s partially because you’ve always let me be myself. You’ve more than let me, you’ve insisted on it. The only way to really screw up would be to not recognize this as a gift, to not take it in stride.

Five Mother’s Days from now, I will still be me (even more so) , and you will still be you (even more so), and I will still be grateful that we two strange creatures bumped into one another. We work, don’t we?

With love,

Mom

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This Is Doubt, And It Is Your Friend

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I have a warm, fuzzy relationship with Doubt. No, I’m not one of those annoying naysayers who jumps on every opportunity to pull things apart. I take only a little bit of joy in proving people wrong. I just tend to be a big picture kind of thinker, and as such, I get swept away in enormous clouds of ideas. Getting down to the details and execution part of things isn’t exactly second nature to me.  I have to be dragged out of the stratosphere on a regular basis. And that’s where Doubt tends to do me a solid.

For me, Doubt is kind of like Jiminy Cricket (maybe a less naggy, whiny version of him). Somewhere in the mush that is my consciousness, there is a firm, but friendly little voice that reminds me that I’m missing something, that I’m being goofy and irrational, that I need to settle down and give things another look. Doubt keeps me grounded and honest. Doubt reminds me to do something productive with these big ideas I have. Doubt is always there, watching carefully and taking notes, and I’m grateful for it. I’d be a terrible flake if I hadn’t made friends with Doubt long ago.

It hurts me when my friend Doubt gets a bad rap. At times, I see Doubt trying to interject itself into heated conversations, or speeches given from atop soap boxes. It asks (politely) things like “Are you sure that’s true?” and “Have you considered this side of things?” It’s not trying to be a jerk about it, it’s just trying to help. But on many occasions, people seem to feel personally attacked by it. They think to Doubt or to be Doubted, is to have their voices and their views negated entirely. Maybe they’ve chummied up with Status Quo and Everybody Knows, and don’t want to offend them by making friends with Doubt.

Here’s the thing about my friend Doubt: it tends to show up when and where it’s needed. It’s not vindictive or pedantic, and it doesn’t have an ax to grind with us. It doesn’t pop in because it was bored or it was in the neighbourhood. Doubt calls attention to the gaps that would otherwise go unnoticed, and gives us the opportunity to fill them in before we fall into them. That niggling feeling we get in our stomach when Doubt pops up is a good thing. The nights we spend awake, staring at the ceiling, that’s a good thing too. We’re in a time and place where there’s more to doubt than there has ever been before. Maybe it’s time we let Doubt do all of us a solid.

 

 

More Accolades. I’ll Take ‘Em!

“Zoom In, Zoom Out” is the little book that could. What started out as a fun project I did with some very cool people at work has taken on a life of its own. In the past few weeks, we’ve been awarded a bronze medal from IPPY and a Nautilus silver medal.

Being a writer can be a lonely business, producing interactive media even more so. You spend a lot of time shouting into the void and sometimes the only response you get to your shouting is trolls telling you that they don’t like your shoes, or critics who make comments like “This book is too bookish.” I can’t tell you how amazing it is to have three separate entities tell me that the thing I pour myself into is useful, and good. I’m feeling lucky to have a voice, to have an amazing team that helps me shape it into something presentable, and now, readers responding from the other side of the void.

From this humble word nerd, a heartfelt thank you.

Feeling Very Zoom-Y

Now, this is how you start off a week! I opened my email this morning to find that “Zoom In, Zoom Out”, my latest book for kids, is on the winner’s list for the Reader Views Reviewers Choice Awards! I just wanted to say thank you to the wonderful team that helped me make this wee book, and to all the readers who’ve loaned us their eyes.

If you haven’t yet, definitely check it out. Here’s a peek:

It’s the (Really) Little Things That Matter

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I spend a non-trivial amount of time worrying about losing my ring. I have a whole whack of them (I’m a die-hard magpie), but there’s one I wear every day, the one that was given to mark a milestone, the one I wear on my left hand and whose twin lives on someone else’s left hand. Once in a while, I take it off and put it somewhere it shouldn’t be, and then there are moments of panic when it isn’t in its usual spot. It has its own designated zippered pocket when I travel, and its own special drawer beside my bed. I’m fickle about the rest of my jewelry, but I have anxiety about losing this particular ring.

I have a theory about rings, be they friendship, promise, engagement, wedding or anniversary, and the anxiety they cause us (I can’t be the only one who worries about losing mine). We could say that humans chose the ring as a symbol of love and commitment because it is an unending circle, an infinite loop to represent that which must not be torn asunder. We can talk about wearing rings on specific fingers, the fingers whose veins have the most direct route to our heart. There’s something to be said for them being forged of elements as precious as our bonds with others, or that they’re adorned with jewels that have been around for thousands of years. It could be the people who give them to us, or the words that are spoken over them. There’s a whole lot of  metaphor tied up in these little bands of metal, but I don’t think that’s what makes them mean what they’re meant to mean.

I think we put so much stock in rings because they’re little- really, really little, and really little things get lost really easily. Think about it. How many other things that are the size of a nickel get so much attention from us? Why on Earth would we pin our romantic hopes and dreams on something small enough to fall down an air vent, get eaten by the dog, or slide unceremoniously off our fingers and down the drain as we do dishes? I think it’s because of their tiny size, because of the likelihood that they can be misplaced, that rings are so important to us.

When someone gives us a ring, whether it’s 24 karat gold or a twisted up gum wrapper covered in glitter glue, they’re asking if we’re capable of and willing to take care of something that will slip away if not properly tended to. They want to know that we’ll periodically, if not regularly, twist it on our finger to make sure that it’s still there, that we’ll be a little nervous when our hands get sweaty or slippery. They want assurance that we’ll freak out a little when we can’t find it. They want us to recognize that something small, something whose value (let’s be honest here) is almost entirely symbolic, can still be a priority. A ring isn’t just pretty and sparkly, it reminds us of how fleeting and fragile important things (like love) can be.

So my anxiety over this wee sparkle slipping into oblivion without my notice (come on, you have it too) isn’t just me being weird and obsessive. It’s me being devoted and loyal, attentive, and caring. I’m head over heels for the person who wears its twin. We designed these together, we wear them together, and we rest in the notion that we, like our rings, will be on each other’s minds at least a little bit at all times. That’s how it’s done, and it’s good.

Here’s to the little things, and to the lovely people who trust us with them. May we take good care of them.

Appy New Year!

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I’m going to play the role of old Luddite lady for a moment and wax nostalgic. 20 years ago, I wrote with a pen and paper, and then I typed it all up on my crummy computer, and then, if the occasion called for it, I printed it out. That was about as digital as my writing got.

These days, words I write usually make it onto a screen first, and the page second. What’s more, readers get to play with them, in addition to reading them. My characters aren’t just drawings, they walk and talk, and explore. I still use a pen and paper for initial drafts, but that’s about it, and to be honest, I don’t miss the paper-only days at all. I love this brave new world, in which people hang out with language and ideas in amazing ways. I’m the luckiest writer in the world, having smart people around me who know how to conjure this sort of magic.

And on that note, here’s my latest project, twenty-plus years in the making, and currently the digital apple of my eye (no, that’s not a nod to iOS fans). Please enjoy playing it with your kids as much as I enjoyed writing for it.

 

My New Little Book

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Humble brag…nah, just regular brag. I’m really proud of this newest creation. I partnered up with a wonderful photographer, a super-cool illustrator, and for the first time, I wrote something for little kids, and I wrote it in verse. It was something a little bit different for all of us, and the process of bringing it to life was a joyful one.

“Zoom In, Zoom Out” is a guessing game that challenges wee kids to question what they see, which I think is a pretty important skill to develop as early as possible. It’s light and fun, but also visually rich and thought-provoking. I’m hoping it finds its way into bedtime routines, cuddles on the couch, classroom discussions, and family vacations.

Authors don’t generally go into projects with the expectation of becoming rich, but we do rely on book sales to help pay the bills. This one’s really good, and I think you’ll like it. You can find it here in print form, and also on Google Play and iTunes.

Now, I’m off to dream up my next one…

More: A Holiday Story (and a Request)

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Warning: (somewhat) gushy holiday story ahead.

A few years ago, just a little before the holidays, I was stomping through a grocery store parking lot. It was chilly, and it was crowded, and I was in the festive, stressed-out state many of us find ourselves in this time of year. As I was heading into the store, another woman was heading out, and for a split second, we made eye contact. So I smiled. I do that sometimes, for no particular reason. I reckon my parents done raised me right.

The woman then stopped me and said thanks, leaving me a little blindsided. She said she’d been duking it out with grumbling holiday shoppers for hours, and was relieved to have someone show some sort of human warmth. She told me I’d made her day. I wished her well and we both went on our way.

Before I let this story dissolve into a Hallmark movie of the week, I’m going to tell you that when I look back on that brief, positive encounter with another human being, I don’t feel all warm and squishy inside. I don’t feel like I make the world a better place, one smile at a time (ugh, hurts to even think stuff like that). To be honest, I’m a little disappointed and dismayed that a smile was all it took to make her day. People around her were acting so crappily that me turning up the corners of my mouth for a few seconds was the highlight of her afternoon. It’s not life-affirming, it’s just an indication that we’ve set the bar pretty low for our fellow human beings.

Have we really reached the point as a species that we hold a smile as a gold standard of kindness? Are we really so divorced from one another that anyone who acknowledges our existence in a polite way is seen as doing us a favour? Forgive me, but I don’t think we should be settling for smiles.

Humans, I am holding you to a higher standard. I expect you to stop honking at each other in traffic, and cutting in line at the drive-thru. I expect you to get over this fascination with dumping all over one another online. I expect you to stop uttering phrases like “those people.” I expect you to share what you have, be honest, be sensitive, to listen to what someone else is saying and to try and be reasonable. There will be no more marks for participation in the world. Your perfect attendance counts for nothing. You’re going to have to produce some decent work once in a while.

Okay, yes, keep smiling at other people. Smile at cute babies in strollers. Smile at old men playing chess in the park. Smile at joggers racing past you, and the lady who delivers the mail, and complete strangers who walk past you on the street. It’s all good. It’s just not enough anymore. Not even during the holiday season.

#Enough

The best hashtag I’ve seen in a long time is #enough. It’s short, it’s poignant, and it expresses what a whole lot of people are thinking this week. Enough violence. Enough discrimination. Enough hatred. We probably reached the “enough” point thousands of years ago. According to a couple of famous political thinkers, history is littered with moments of “enough”. It fuels great literature, music and film.

So here I am, in 2016, sitting at my desk, and I really, really want to help. Besides trying hard not to be violent, discriminatory, and hateful myself, I’m not sure how my one pair of hands, my one little brain, my one squeaky, sarcastic voice can make a meaningful contribution to all of this long-needed, long-awaited “enough”.

Here’s the only thing I know how to do:  I’m adding more “enough” to the list.

First, enough pretending that being a thinker is something that can be left to academics. Enough shrugging our shoulders when asked about something important, something like justice, equality, identity, and saying things like “I dunno. Whatever.” Enough excusing ourselves from big questions because they’re difficult, or uncomfortable, or because we’re afraid that our ideas won’t matter. If there’s one thing that’s become clear over the past few weeks, it’s that the way we discuss questions about justice, equality and identity (and a whole lot of other important things) really does matter. It matters as much as cutting the grass, getting a haircut, watching TV, or the myriad of other things we spend time doing every day. It matters so, so much more than any of these things. Enough letting a day go by where it’s not important to think about these things.

Enough allowing ourselves to think things like “Well, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.” We can no longer put stock in just opinions. Our new currency has to be arguments- reasonable, well-explained arguments. I’m not saying that there are concrete, clear-cut answers to difficult questions like these, but it should be pretty obvious from the events this week that some answers are better than others. Some answers clearly aren’t working for us. Enough with the “anything goes” approach, and of being afraid to challenge what’s already there.

Enough of not doing everything we can to encourage our children to ask these questions too. I’m not proposing that we sit them down in front of gory news footage or present them with vivid descriptions of recent events. We fuss over what our kids wear, what they eat, what they play with, how long they brush their teeth, but their reasoning skills, their ability to think critically, their insatiable drive to know “Why?” are often considered cute distractions, even annoyances.  Enough putting this on the back burner because, let’s face it, we’re not sure how to tackle these questions ourselves, as grown-ups. Yeah, parenting is hard, and awkward, and exhausting. If I’m going to finish the day completely spent, I’m okay with it being because of my kid’s incessant questions. Enough assuming that these questions don’t belong in their daily routine.

Enough assuming that I’m not part of the problem too. Yeah, if I turn over rocks, I’m going to find creepy stuff. While asking these really difficult questions about justice, equality, and violence, I’m probably going to find I’ve contributed, even if it’s just in very small ways, without realizing it. But I can’t fix something unless I know that it’s broken.

Enough wishing and hoping that everything just fixes itself. We’ve had a long time as a species to smarten up, and we haven’t. In fact, we seem to be making an even bigger mess. What’s different about this particular moment in time is that technologically speaking, we now have the capability to share. Sometimes the sharing is of the bad news itself, the shock and the horror, the disbelief. Maybe this in and of itself is a good thing, at least a catalyst for change. It’s much more difficult to excuse one’s self from difficult questions when there’s video evidence that they need to be asked. Enough thinking we don’t have a means to talk to one another about these things. Enough bemoaning social media or other mass communication for being vapid or unsubstantial. Let’s actually learn to use them for something important. What’s more, enough using these tools to be violent, unjust, or hateful.

Here’s my humble suggestion: once a day, after you’ve cruised Twitter or Facebook, after you’ve read the paper or watched TV and you’re properly horrified by what’s been happening, take a few minutes and formulate a question. Make it a big one, one that begins with “Why?” and one that doesn’t have an immediate resolution. Think of an answer. Turn it over and over in your mind for a bit and see if you can find holes in it (you probably will, so don’t be alarmed). Sometime later in the day, try another answer, and another, and another. Then ask someone else the same question, and be patient and respectful when they give their answer. Patiently and respectfully turn their answer over and over, looking for weak spots, just as you did with yours. Repeat the process. A lot. Like, all the time. Share. Discuss. Listen. Respect. Keep going with all of this, knowing that even though you’ve had your fill of tragedy, when it comes to asking big, important questions, you will never reach “enough”.