A song from the musical “Avenue Q” cheekily asks “What do you do with a BA in English?” I’ve been asked this question since I graduated, you know, back in the day when people did research from actual books. It’s a fair question, I guess.
Okay, for starters, I’m a pretty good speller. I can write meaningful prose in short order, and I can scan text for useful nuggets like nobody’s business. I’m a source of interesting quotes, and I’m comfortable using words like bildungsroman. I like to think I have a reasonable understanding of the human condition, although it will forever be a work in progress. These are all useful things, in one way or another.
But none of them have had the impact on my life, none of them have contributed to my mental health, my well-being, heck, even the development of my career like my understanding and appreciation of…
That’s right. Metaphor is considerably more than just another item on a sheet of literary terms in grade 10 English. The creative practice of indirect comparison between two unrelated things is and has been my superpower.
There’s the obvious application- I’m a writer. A big part of the job is finding connections in weird places, seeing one thing in another, and wrapping all of this up with ribbons of pretty words (see what I just did there?). Maybe there are writers out there who don’t use metaphor, but I don’t think I’ve met any of them.
Metaphor has also been a huge part of my life as an educator. Planning lessons around it captures people’s imaginations, and reframes difficult material. It humanizes the person at the front of the classroom too. Metaphor makes me a human being who’s just trying to figure things out, just like they are. Metaphor works with wee little learners, and with seasoned, grown up scholars too.
A surprise to me, virtually all of the success I’ve had as an entrepreneur can be traced back to metaphor. Everything I’ve learned about building and sustaining a business, I’ve learned on the fly, and metaphor has kept me from crashing and burning. It’s helped me get my head around sales strategies, decide who to hire, and land new clients. Sometimes it’s the biggest, most important thing I have to contribute to an important discussion. The people I work for have come to rely on my for it.
As essential as metaphor has been in my professional life, it’s been a cornerstone of my personal life. It’s been the lens through which I’ve seen love, and loss, and figuring out who I am. It’s been instrumental in my life as a parent (holy cow, do little stinkers ever respond to it). It’s built into the décor of my house, and a centerpiece at practically every holiday.
And it’s gotten me through the fog of the past year and a half. Let’s be honest, it’s been part of everyone’s pandemic ethos. It’s allowed a lot of us to understand how a virus works, and how we keep a society going through stress and isolation. It’s been our comfort, popping up in the movies, tv shows, books and music we’ve consumed while we waited for the world to open up again. I’d wager it’s been part of how we see each other, and how we see ourselves in the emerging “new normal”.
Words matter, even the fluffy, sentimental poetic ones. Metaphor has been my constant companion since I figured out how to read and write. And now, as I dip my toes into the outside world and a new reality that I never thought I’d have to wade through, I’m counting on it to help me keep my head above water.
See what I did there? 🙂
There are different kinds of birthdays. Some years, a birthday is a blur of cake and presents, music and dancing, happy, crazy delirium. Other years are about sleeping in and giant cups of tea, a chance to read a book in peace or go for a long walk. Sometimes, a birthday is just another day at the office, maybe something nice for dinner and a handful of congratulatory emails. If you’re lucky, you’ve experienced some mixture of all three.
Some birthdays are a little more complicated. Some years, we spend this particular day taking stock, making plans, and even though we don’t really want to, coming to terms with some of the things that didn’t go as we’d hoped. Once in a while, a birthday is more like a day of reckoning, of brutal honesty, a day of “I can’t believe I’m still standing.”
I think this year, Canada is having one of these birthdays. We were undoubtedly due for it. Despite our squeaky-clean, unassuming image on the international stage, we’ve done our share of messing things up. I don’t need to give a laundry list of our trespasses here. Suffice it to say, there have been many, some of which still linger and take giant, crooked bites out of who we hoped we were.
Maybe it isn’t surprising that these transgressions are just now coming to light for many. A whole lot of us have been holed up in our cubbies for the past year or so, and we’re just starting to find our feet again. It’s been a year to sit and think, at least metaphorically. There really hasn’t been an excuse to not do so. Think of all those fellas in Plato’s allegory of the cave, their eyes watering and burning in the light of what was actually “out there”. The truth hurts. A lot. But it’s still the truth.
And here are a few truths:
- The truth is, July 1 isn’t really even a proper birthday. Human birthdays are for celebrating when someone arrived as a someone, when the universe hit play on their personal history. Papers were filed in 1867, but that’s not when Canada started being a someone. That all happened sometime about 12,000 years ago, when a bunch of brave people crossed a glacier (a glacier!) and learned to make things work here. I want to celebrate that far more than I want to pay homage to a legal document being signed.
- The truth is, you can love, love, love something, and still be critical of it, still see all the little thorns sticking out of it, the ways in which it sometimes sucks. You can see everything that’s gone before, acknowledge that you didn’t make the mess yourself, and still want to help clean it up. You can hold the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” in your head and your heart simultaneously. This is how I love most things, and most people, and how I love the country that raised me. Being aware of flaws doesn’t diminish true love, it validates it. I love Canada enough to want it to be better.
- The truth is, Canada isn’t done. Never has been, probably never will be. Perhaps we all got too comfortable resting on our laurels as “the good guys”, and settled into the idea that this was the way things would always be. History has shown, in many cases, that entities that get stuck, that don’t change, tend to die off, or worse, get caught in a pattern that’s detrimental to many living within it. There’s absolutely no shame in being a work in progress, as long as there is actually progress.
The very best news, I think, is that we have what it takes to actually be “the good guys”, not perfect, but good. Mixed in with some shameful acts have been triumphs. We have innovators, inventors, artists, poets, and humanitarians in our midst- lots of voices and minds, and there is room for so many more. We have breathtaking natural beauty that’s just waiting to be praised and protected. Canada is home to the biggest multicultural festival, the biggest pride festival, and the biggest film festival. For the love of Pete, we produce over 80% of the world’s maple syrup. We can get there, to a place where we actually live up to the sunshine-and-rainbows reputation we’ve been pinning to our backpacks for a long, long time.
So, it’s going to be one of those birthdays this year, and that’s okay. If you’re lucky, those birthdays mark turning points, motivational sparks. We can have our red and white frosted cake, wave a few flags, and spend some time thinking of real, practical ways that we can be more aware, more peaceful, more inclusive.
As of today, I have been a published children’s author for a decade. What started as an idea I had while I was teaching big kids to ask big questions is now 13 books (with #14 in the works), 14 apps, a bunch of videos, and a big pile of parent/teacher resources. Along the way, there have been conferences, workshops, and a handful of awards. It’s been a good ride.
I’ve got 10 years of learning, and deadlines, and fretting over typos. I’ve got a 10-year stockpile of stuff that never quite fit into our plans, and stuff that should never see the light of day. And yes, I have 10 years of friendly, writerly, publisher-ly advice to give to anyone who’s willing to listen.
After some careful thought I’ve distilled it down to one key thesis, with a handful of footnotes. There’s one thing I need you to know about this line of work.
Making books is really, really, really hard.
I’m not interested in turning anyone off the act of writing, but there’s this weird and, quite frankly, damaging mystique around it that is just begging to be dispelled. I’m not sure if there are very many professions that are quite as misunderstood. So, as a show of reverence and respect to wordsmithing, I’m going to take this anniversary as an opportunity to throw in my two cents.
First things first: a writer is someone who writes. You don’t have to be paying your rent with your words in order to be a writer. You don’t have to have critical acclaim. You do, however, have to do it on a regular basis. You are not a runner if you don’t run. You’re not a chef if you don’t cook. A writer isn’t someone who has an idea for a book, or who thinks it might be cool to have a bestseller on their CV. “Writer” is not an honorific or the expression of a wish. “Writer” is a verbal snapshot of someone in the act. This may sound pretty obvious, but I’ve had to explain it to a lot of people over the past 10 years.
Admittedly, writing is something you can do without a specific degree or period of professional training. There are some excellent writing programs out there, but it can be self-taught. This does not, however, mean that writing is easy, or that anyone who wants to can do it on a whim. Writers, good ones anyway, are able to produce evidence of their skill, some sort of credentials. If someone walked into a law office and announced that they were certain they could be an excellent lawyer because they’d gobbled up a TV series, they’d be shown the door. No one gets to do surgery because they’ve always found blood and guts fascinating. Airplanes are not piloted by people who think it might be fun to play with a big metal toy. Like any profession, writing requires study and practice, and if you’re looking to be taken seriously by anyone in the industry, you need to be familiar with the process, well-versed in the lingo, and able to cough up some work. Good work.
It’s also essential to recognize that a finished piece of work is not the same as a good piece of work. A great deal of any writer’s portfolio is garbage, and will/should never see the light of day. All writers need to be honest and brave enough to let some things go. Everything we write is useful practice, but it’s not all worth sharing. I have a giant backlog of old writing, and I see most of it as a collection of souvenirs. Been there, done that, got it down on paper, cried a bit and said some grown-up words while trying to make it work, moved on.
Over the last decade, I’ve been in both a writer’s and a publisher’s shoes, and I need to share a very important insight. The publishing industry may be mean and nasty, but publishers themselves (as in the people who make decisions) really aren’t. I used to stare at each rejection letter (and there are always plenty, by the way), and try to picture the face of the person who wrote it, so I could imagine the sorry so-and-so who turned down my masterpiece. I wondered what a complete stranger could have against me and my work. Now, I’m over it. This book stuff is more expensive, and time-intensive, and mind-boggling than anyone outside the industry could ever imagine. The powers that be don’t have the resources to publish every good piece that comes their way. In the case of indie publishers, it might be one or two things a year. Success means being really picky and focused. That’s the reality, and it sucks. No one’s trying to be a snob or a jerk. Pinky swear.
I sound like a royal downer, don’t I? The truth is, I’m sharing all of this because I love books. I love reading them, I love writing them, I love publishing them, and I love transforming them into other stuff. It’s a common affliction for writers that they can’t not write. I don’t feel like myself unless I’ve got my hands somewhere in the process. Kafka wasn’t kidding when he said “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” It’s this profound affection, this ever-looming insanity, that makes me desperate to have others understand the mad, loving scramble that goes into producing each work, the complex tangle of tasks and ideas. It would be such a disservice, maybe even a betrayal of my profession to let anyone think that it’s easy, or that a book just shows up. This or that book didn’t have to be here. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it was pretty unlikely that it would be written, let alone polished up, noticed by someone in the right place at the right time, and then published. Knowing all of that should take our breath away.
So here I am, a decade in. I’m a little scuffed up in spots, a little bit proud, admittedly a little bit smug, but still enamoured and in awe.
Given the chance (and I hope I’m given decades’ more chances) I’d do it all over again, with minimal revisions.
Lilies and Onions
They’re of the same ilk,
the golden-haired child and the black sheep
who parted ways after adolescence,
who deliberately forget to send Christmas cards.
One decided in favour of pungency.
A source of dutiful tears
Breaded and deep fried with ketchup
Relegated to the cold cellar
To Saturday afternoon barbeques
To thick, alkaline wedges among lettuce leaves
To hang on a lover’s breath
and in the kitchen curtains.
The other made only carefully-calculated public appearances
Freckled, but majestic
Sensual orange and scarlet
Bowing before blushing brides
Spreading lacy fingers among trellises.
One should be so lucky
as to be appreciated layer by layer
to have world’s beneath one’s skin
to be devoured to one’s core.
Fools, we dream of expounding our importance.
Petal by frivolous petal,
we trade stoutness and semi-permanence
for two weeks of frantic glow.
Copyright Amy Leask 2021
No one’s 100% sure who said it, but it translates into “It is solved by walking.” It acknowledges the profound effect of going places, of travelling, of movement. There are a lot of us who have chronically itchy feet, who think better, learn more, and feel more like ourselves when the scenery changes.
Thinker Rupert Sheldrake has much to say about pilgrimages. He speaks of the journeys we make to sacred places, for all kinds of reasons. We journey to places of significance to soak them in, to find meaning and clarity that we can’t find in our everyday surroundings, to feel the residual energy of the many who’ve visited there before. The journey alone is an experience, the elation of putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that there’s a purpose to it, something significant at the end. Pilgrimages aren’t always long and arduous. They aren’t necessarily religious in nature. They do, however, always leave an indelible mark on the one undertakes them.
Up to about a year ago, I was a consummate pilgrim. I’ve journeyed to see works of art that shook me. Sometimes it was to be where someone I admired had been, to touch something they had touched. If I’m honest, I’ve gone on pilgrimages that revolved around food. In every case, I loved getting there, and I really loved being there. There was clarity in it, inspiration, connection. I came back a little bit different. Great chunks of who I am have been built on these trips.
There haven’t been that many (or any) pilgrimages this past year. The means to get around, to explore other places, are designated for emergency use only. The far away wonders feel like they might as well be on the other side of the universe. The ones nearby are closed. I take the dogs for a walk, sometimes even on a scenic route, but I’m just as much on a leash as they are. These days, I do my pilgrimages on Pinterest, amidst the sound of groceries being delivered and email notifications.
I wonder what pilgrimages will look like when the world opens up a little. I’ve been stewing in my own wanderlust for more than a year. When the time comes, will I hastily pack a bag and bolt for the door, or will I be like one of those elephants who’s been chained to a post so long that they don’t know what to do when someone lets them go? I’ve been travelling by air since I was an infant, but I find myself wondering if I’ll ever trust the space inside a plane again. Will I confront my aversion to long car rides? Can I still trust the journey?
And what about the destination? Will I care about seeing the same things, soaking in the same sights? Will the same monuments feel significant, the historic figures worthy of admiration? Will the pictures and the souvenirs hold the same place of esteem?
Here’s how I cope with this particular fuzzy end of the proverbial lollipop: I remind myself that part of what I love about being a pilgrim, what many love about it, is the palpable sensation that I am treading where many before me have tread. The places and things I long to see are also monuments to posterity. They’re still there to see and experience because humans, despite our many flaws, know how to hang in there for long periods of time. Many of them were built during tough times.
And here we are, trying to persist in the face of something awful, just like pretty much every batch of humans who’ve gone before.
In the past, getting to the end of a pilgrimage had a particular feeling. I wore my journeys like a sash full of girl guide badges, with pride and nostalgia. They affirmed to me, and anyone else who happened to notice, that I was unafraid of putting in the effort to get somewhere. A pilgrimage suggests patience and determination. It means you recognize that some things are worth persevering for, that the end sometimes justifies the means, and that you can put up with some hardship, even learn from it, if it means you’ll get someplace wonderful later.
This is, by far, the longest pilgrimage I’ve ever been on. I have no idea when it will end, or even what I’m aiming to see when it’s over. But I have to think that the endless walks around the neighbourhood, the mad dashes to the post office, the quick trips to drop off groceries, are all part of a journey so long and so slow that I sometimes forget I’m still moving. More importantly, I need to believe, like every good pilgrim does, that it will end in somewhere amazing, and that I will be a little better for it. I have faith that much will be solved by walking.
I am writing to inform you that I have
inadvertently misrepresented you
and your situation.
As it so happens, it is not you who is rolling
but rather the rock that is rolling you
selfishly barring you from floating away
aimless balloon that you are.
the rock is not in fact a rock
but rather an enormous dung ball
and one that has grown wiser
than the lowly scarab
that moves it.
Thought you should know.
I heard a great line while binging “The Queen’s Gambit” this week:
“Anger is a potent spice. A pinch wakes you up. Too much dulls your senses.”
Anger has been my seasoning of choice for at least a few months now, and I don’t think I need to go into a whole lot of detail as to why. There’s this pandemic thing, for starters, coupled with a heaping helping of political unrest. I’m angry at the changes I’ve had to make in my life, in the lives of my family, for all of the parts of ourselves that we’ve had to put on ice. I’m angry on behalf of all of those who are really struggling right now, who don’t have security, or even their health.
But this isn’t a post about COVID19, or the state of the world, or human rights. We hear a lot about those things, and presently, I don’t have much to add to the discussion. I am decidedly against the first, very concerned about the second, and passionately in favour of the third. That’s about it for now.
What I do want to do is come to the defense of anger. I keep hearing that anger is poison, that it pollutes and deteriorates. Perhaps, this far into the pandemic and all its trappings, I should be at peace, in a zen state, accepting of what’s happening. But I’m not. And I’m cool with that.
Feeling angry isn’t the same as feeling helpless. Even with our present set of restrictions, I feel strangely empowered. There are plenty of things I can do and change. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do them all.
Angry doesn’t equal ungrateful either. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel lucky to be safe and healthy and loved. There is so much good still in the world, and I recognize that I’ve had more of my share of it. I want it for others too.
Angry doesn’t negate happy either or hopeful. As I go about my daily business, I generally have a smile of my face, and a joke or two to tell. I just also happen to have a tiny, invisible flame dancing atop my head. In the right light, you can see the smoke.
Anger turns helplessness into purpose. Gratitude mixed with anger is a catalyst for change. Happiness combined with anger sparks passion and maybe even optimism. I’ve never been zen. Not even close. Trying to settle into peace feels about as uncomfortable as a pair of pointy-toed stilettos that are two sizes to small. If the past year has taught me anything, it’s that I need to stop trying to accept what is unacceptable. I can’t be at peace with it.
My anger is not main dish, but more like a condiment. My anger is a dollop of ketchup or a squeeze of lemon. It’s a teaspoon of festive red sprinkles.
“A pinch wakes you up.”
If my grandmother were alive, today would be her 100th birthday.
Her name was Dorothy, and she lived through the great depression, World War 2, and a bunch of other stuff. I’m not sure if it was just her nature, or all of the awful nurture going on in her formative years, but she was tough. Dorothy was practical, stubborn, driven, and hard-working. Her mornings never began with a cup of coffee and a reading of the paper, but with a diligent survey of all the tasks that needed to be completed before the sun went down. I don’t think I ever saw her sit for an entire meal. She was up doing the dishes before anyone else had a chance to get to dessert. She could make an entire meal out of the fuzzy things at the back of the freezer, and I once saw her scrape ants off a birthday cake and proceed to serve it (don’t ask). She broke her arm in her late 80s while throwing around cinder blocks in the yard, and on occasion, greeted visitors in the driveway with an axe slung over her shoulder.
Dorothy had no time for laziness, or complaints, or wastefulness. She was all business. The fact that it’s her birthday today is reason enough for me to bring her to mind, but with everything that’s been going on in the world this week, she’s been front and centre. She would have kicked ass at a time like this. True, she would have been royally peeved at being told what to do and what not to do, and there wouldn’t have been any camp fire kumbaya to discuss feelings, but things would have gotten done.
As it turns out, when faced with a major crisis (knock on wood, I haven’t had a lot of them in my life), I channel Dorothy. Unlike my grandmother, I’m not opposed to being reflective or discussing emotions. This past week or two have been riddled with uncertainty and fear for everyone. There’s a lot of loneliness and worry, and I’m absolutely down with sharing and caring. But like my grandmother, I’m not paralyzed by any of that. Like Dorothy, I’ve just been trying to get things done. I couldn’t care less about the state of my actual house, but my proverbial house is being set in order. I’ve cleaned up a lot in the past week, and I don’t see an end in sight.
Dorothy didn’t teach me to do my hair, or bake cookies, or any other softer stuff that grandmothers are sometimes expected to teach. She did, however, convey the relief that can be found in constant forward momentum, the pride one can have in standing one’s ground in the face of adversity. She was all about being useful and productive, and she cherished the good, tired feeling one has at the end of a busy day. These are lessons that I’ve been taking to heart lately. I’ve been feeling her presence as I ask, over and over again, “What can I do?” and then rolling up my sleeves and doing it.
I think people cross paths for a reason. In most ways, Dorothy and I were completely different people, and although I know she was proud of me, the life I lead probably seemed strange to her. But being faced with our opposites can be useful, even crucial to our development. Maybe this is the nugget of wisdom we were meant to share, the wee bit of extra strength a sloppy, sentimental type like me might need in times like these. I think the best way I can honour this wisdom is to take a cue from Dorothy, and put it to good use. Right away.
So…what do we need to do today?