Perfect happiness

My little sister saved me today.

She’s good like that.

She saves me all the time. It’s new, this. Since my dad died, everything is different. I have always loved my baby sister. But I haven’t always needed her to save me. We haven’t always known how to help each other. I didn’t always know how to ask. Or what to ask for.

No one’s life is easy. Everyone loses sometimes, and loses deeply. Everyone has fear. Everyone struggles. The most perfect people are filled with demons… and maybe one of those demons keeps yelling at them to be perfect.

I was raised in a 100% home. Be perfect, or lose love. (Or receive anger.) 97% was not good. 97% meant questions about “where the other 3% went”. It distorts your mind and makes it difficult to find joy. Makes it difficult to appreciate creation over regurgitation, showing you’re already good at something over exploring something you’re not. Whatever you’re exploring, you should already be good at. Not good… perfect.

Trying to be perfect fills you with constant fear. There is only one place to go from perfect. You can’t enjoy success when you’re already scared of next time.

My brother and sister and I all came up in this. And so most likely did my parents. My mom’s own struggles with perfection aren’t something she invented to be hard on us. They were part of something which shaped her too, and we can all get trapped in the toxic puzzles that get passed along. Parenting ugliness that gets watered down, maybe gets a little better every time, until finally it’s watered down enough that it’s safe… or someone dumps it out.

I’m not having kids. So I can’t try to dump it out before it gets to them. But I can reach sideways to my siblings, when we feel this vice of perfection, and we can say it’s okay. You’re doing okay. You’re not lesser. You’re not failing, you’re living. Be kind to yourself. Don’t try to be perfect, try to live your life with curiousity and kindness. You deserve to be happy and be loved, as you are. You don’t have to earn it — first and repeatedly — with 110%. I love you. I am holding your hand. We are going to figure this out.

I live here now, in this beautiful perfect place I have always wanted to live in. I belong here. I should no longer feel fear. And I’m still afraid. Of course I am. Are you kidding? Fucking terrified. My life is still as always full of unknowns. Full of ways I’m not perfect. Full of things to be afraid of. I’m afraid of money — another lingering puzzle — I’m afraid of losing people, of instability and uncertainty, of aging and my body, of people being mad at me, of failing, of having no idea what comes next, of losing what I’ve gained here…

I anticipate (anything bad), and I am filled with worry (over losing anything good). There is no template for life here. Even if, with all my occasionally paralysing fears, it still feels… perfect.

I try now, to leave more space. I try now, to make mistakes. I try now, not to beat myself up. I try now, to be less afraid. I try now, not to worry. Especially not about being perfect.

And when I am afraid, and when I am struggling, when I worry, and when it gets dark, I try to remember to reach out to my sister. Who is so good at reaching back. So good at saying it’s okay, you’re okay. Be curious. Don’t be afraid. You are loved. I am holding your hand. We are going to figure this out.

Thank you little one. Thank you for saving me.

Ideas are notoriously difficult to erase.

From August Spies and the labour movement, but true of most any movement. Read in the About Haymarket Books section at the end of Rebecca Solnit’s truly excellent book Men Explain Things To Me:

“If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labour movement,” Spies told the judge, “then hang us. Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere, the flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.”

Marital Status

I keep opening this book and gems keep falling out.

marital status can be relevant, but no more so for women than for men; if you are doing a profile or takeout on someone, such things are part of the total picture along with her skill at snooker and his superb lemon pies, but avoid gratuitous references like the group is led by Hortense Hamhoks, a divorcee; the rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t make the reference for a man, don’t make it for a woman; see: SEXISM

Smooth lillies and gilt rainbows

The Toronto Star Stylebook has more to teach me.

It seems that “gilding the lily” is a broken telephone excerpt from Shakespeare’s King John. The actual and perpetually misquoted passage is: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily“.

As the Stylebook puts it:

gilding the lily is not only overworked, it’s wrong. The quote, from King John, is, ‘To gild refined gold, to paint the lily‘ cited by Shakespeare as examples of wretched excess.”

Here is the full thought on “double pomp” from King John:

To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

I think The Bard might agree though, that to explore rainbows, and discover they contain colours beyond easy counting — and beyond us — now that may be a noble and humbling pursuit. See: Radiolab on Colors, and Why the Sky Isn’t Blue

mantis_shrimpMantis shrimp, photo by ursanate/flickr-CC-BY-2.0. This little guy has 16 color receptors. I bet he could write a heck of a poem about rainbows.

“It can be hard to remember what one’s anticipatory image of something was once you’re on the other side. I’m no longer sure exactly what it was I was waiting for, but I do know that it was something wholly unfamiliar and thrilling. Like a new color. Not a mixture, no trace of blue or yellow or red. What would that look like? I have some basic understanding about light — how it can only be broken down and refracted into its seven constituent hues — and even though I know that the physical world makes the existence of such a thing basically impossible, I’d still really like to see that.”

~David Rakoff, in Don’t Get Too Comfortable

Me too David. Me too. Though I am happy with violets unperfumed and lillies unpainted. And when it comes to colour, I’m deferring to the shrimp.

The Toronto Star defines “gay”, in 1983.

Over Christmas a friend of mine gave me a copy of The Toronto Star’s Stylebook from 1983. I started paging through it yesterday. Wherein I learned a new word for stripperecdysiast (from ecdysis, the process of a snake shedding its skin) — and a deeper definition for the word echelon (a military formation where one unit is ahead and to the right of the next one back).

They also have this entry on use of the word gay, a linguistic before-picture. The last line is my favourite.
gay and gays are not yet permitted terms for homosexuals; it is true that homosexuals do refer to themselves as gay, and there is a distinguishable gay community, so the word is in common use; but it’s still not quite accetable to the majority of people who think gay, with its connotation of carefree joy, has been usurped; so don’t, at least not yet, use the word in copy outside of quotes or — and this, admittedly, poses problems — in headlines either; and consider, finally, whether your subject’s sexual orientation is relevant anyway.

“You should see the lake today Kate.”

I learned today that people can still give you good advice, even when they’re not here anymore.

Dad would regularly phone me as he made his way into the city, and give me status reports on the lake. On calm days, blustery days, windy days, sparkling clear days. The breakers, how incredible the waves were, how tumultuous or still it was.

“You should see the lake today Kate.”

I was a little sad and lost today. There are too few green things near me, and sometimes I forget what they’re meant to remind me of.

So I went to see the lake.

And now I am not so sad and lost.

You’re right dad, I should see the lake today. Thank you.


If I had it to do over again, I would do it over again.


Does it seem like I post about death a lot here? Yeah. Me too. I do other things with my life than go through losing loved ones. But with the world death rate still holding at a whopping 100%, the odds are high that death… it’s going to keep coming up.

We had to put our little furry friend Ruaridh (“Rory”) to sleep yesterday. Which, in unminced words, means we had to decide it was time to ask someone to kill him. The euphemisms, putting him to sleep, letting him go, are fairly clear, but, having gone through it a couple of times now… they miss the weight of what “owners” have to bear. The bright harsh-edged skin and soul-burning reality of it.


In the time leading up, we stare at and cuddle our friend, our little fuzzball, and we have to try and figure out if his life is worth living. We can’t ask him how he feels — or we can, but he can’t tell us. Perhaps he can show us. Although with cats, they’ll hide it from you until they can’t. And by the time they can’t, “bad” is well behind them.

On the day it happens, we have to make the decision that today is the last day of their life. And we have to keep making that choice, over and over. We have to choose their last meals and experiences, pack them in their carrier, take them to the vet, sign papers, and choose the “whens” over and over again. Are you ready to move him onto the absorbent pad, are you ready to begin the sedation, are you ready to give him the final injection… are you ready to say goodbye. There is no going back. He will be gone forever, and you have to decide when.

And you want to scream over and over. No of course I’m not ready. No of course I don’t want to do this. Can I just decide not do this? I don’t want him to die. I want him to live. I want him to stay with us. I want him to stay.

Can’t he just stay?


The loss of a pet hits people severely not because they don’t realize their little friend was a little animal and not a person. It hits us so hard because we love so hard. The volume of love creates the volume of grief. If you felt an ocean of love, your grief can drown you.

tumblr_nll1reznai1uqt7e5o1_500Day one. Explore. Scout potential nap spots.

tumblr_nnzzbnAMJI1urdxmfo1_540Like this one.

We chose Ruaridh with great care. It had been so painful to lose our Chelsea so suddenly, so soon after my dad died. Skittish, we waited over three years before getting another cat. We looked for a young cat, with lots of miles in him, so that we’d have many good years before going through saying goodbye again.

basketrory“I’m fairly sure you have other places you could keep the napkins.”

The best laid plans.

It was not long before Ruaridh showed signs something was wrong. And we have spent the months since the spring and summer — nearly half of our time with him — trying to make that elusive awful something (cancer, most likely) as easy for him to bear as possible. To give him pain-free days and cuddles and brushing and deep fluffy naps and treats, and, thanks to Neil’s dedicated syringe-feeding, a comfortable belly full of food even once he couldn’t eat without help.

tumblr_ny2rbsEClq1urdxmfo1_1280“Your water tastes better.”

sleepycatEvery morning.

He was a little fighter, but some fights you cannot win.

tumblr_nxk76eBha61urdxmfo1_1280“This is for me, yes?”

majesticcat“I’m a majestic bastard.”

I wonder, maybe, if December is bizarrely the best month for awful things to happen. Christmas already has so many big emotions in it, that these giant feelings are somewhat less outsized. So much of the world agrees to try and be kinder to each other. There are softer edges than, say, some Thursday in June, when everyone just has their lives to get on with.


But whenever loss happens, even knowing it is coming, it is no less heartbreaking. We are no less shattered. For us, now, we’ve cried ourselves into dehydration and exhaustion, and we can’t put the pain down.

ruaridhbloggingBut Ruaridh also helped us to believe and understand that we had so much room still in our hearts and family. That after we lost our Chelsea, there were other wonderful cats in the world who could use a good home with a couple of softies like us. And that they could be completely different from her, and we could grow to love them just as much. And we learned that the absolute worst thing can happen, everything we fear can (and might) come true… and we will handle it. And that, if we knew then everything we know now, we would do it all again. Because we loved him and he loved us, and as much as he was lucky to have us, we were lucky to have him.

Because he was a charming little gentleman with a furry belly and a gentle heart.

Tomorrow, we will go and visit some other cats who could use a better shake at life. I won’t say “new” cats, because that makes it sound like we’re making a replacement. And when you have to say goodbye, that is the last thing you feel. You know, deeply, freshly, and correctly, that you will never replace what has been lost. That is was precious, and now it is gone.


“Love is wonderful in that it can never be wasted or used up.  We can never replace the people or animals we have loved, but the love we feel for them can be expanded.  I like to think of love as being stretchy.  It is easy to feel guilty when you start to love a new pet – like somehow that means you love your old friend less.  But when you think of love as being stretchy and able to expand, you can see that there will always be room for everything.  You can love as much as you want.”

~Hyperbole and a Half.

We will go and we will find another little animal who could use our love. A furry someone who might like to come live with us. And we will grow our family again. Because the only way out is through. Because we loved Ruaridh very much. Because he taught us to keep going and keep living. Because he taught us that we have more love to give.

Because love is stretchy.


ETA: When we put Chelsea down, we did it at the vet’s office. With Ruaridh, in part because he was so sick, and in part because he hated being in a car so very much, we found Midtown Mobile Vets.

I cannot recommend them highly enough. Dr. Karen Stekel was outstanding and went well above and beyond to make a horrible experience as unhorrible as it could be. The care she took, the attention she paid and her thoroughness in going through Ruaridh’s medical condition and the decision we were facing were all exceptional.

We are very grateful to them.

Pain is for suckers (not women).

I’ve taken some blows. For sport. Punches, kicks, being thrown. Though I’m (hopefully) always braced for what is coming. I’ve fallen off a motorcycle, and had it fall on me. I’ve broken bones and sustained injuries. I’ve messed up a variety of muscles and joints, and worked through their recovery. I’ve had my body go squirrelly on me, and had it get worse before it got better.

And I’ll tell you, the pains that only the women humans experience? Those ones feel the worst… and are treated the most lightly.

Not all women-humans experience the women-specific pains. But for those women who do (mind-meltingly awful periods, labour, IUD insertions), the response to these extraordinary and intense pains is not nearly far enough away from “bite down on this leather strap”.

We don’t have to bite the leather strap, or our tongues. It is stupid of us to suffer silently. It is a waste of our time and our lives.

We don’t have to bear pain. We don’t deserve pain. We shouldn’t put up with pain. Pain is not our lot in life, it is not our cross to bear, and it doesn’t have to be a big part of our lives.

Many women have experienced an IUD insertion. Including little ol’ me. So it’s my ‘for instance’. It is not clear exactly how many women experience pain during the procedure. A fair estimate is that 33% of women reported pain of 5 or more on a scale of 1-10.

But even something like this post, which is better written and more comprehensive than most of what’s out there, largely boils down to a pain strategy of focusing on the positive — that the outcomes are worth it, and that you won’t be one of the 1/3.

“It probably won’t happen to you” is not a pain plan.

I can take a punch (several actually), but I’ll tell you, when I had my IUD done, I took the 2 Advil I was given, and on a scale of 1-to-10, IUD insertion hurt “like fuck”.

“It’s over fast” is not good enough. A kick in the balls is “over fast”, but presented with a kick in the balls as an option, most men would still ask if there was another way.

Amy Poehler said, “Girls, if a boy says something that isn’t funny, you don’t have to laugh”. You don’t have to let people kick you in the lady balls either.

There are other pain medications we could try, techniques that can be refined. “A deep breath” and “mind-body” work is good and all, but it’s not nearly enough. What that does is make pain the particular woman’s problem. If you were still in too much pain, you just weren’t doing a good enough job of managing your pain, or managing your mind.

Well… that’s horseshit.

Breathing techniques are excellent. Mind-body awareness is essential to a healthy life. But you don’t fight fire with a song.

We shouldn’t have let it become a joke that women’s medical problems and procedures suck. We should be turning the suck down.

We deserve that.

We all deserve that.

3, 3, 9

Yesterday I sold my motorcycle. Today I was finally able to delete my last voicemail from my dad. The two are not separate.

I have always known I wanted to get my motorcycle license. At some point, it was going to happen. In old family movies, there is one scene of a very itty bitty me after I’d been hoisted up and allowed to sit on a cousin’s bike. I am grinning with my whole itty bitty body.


When I lived in Indonesia, I was giddy when I got to rent small displacement bikes and zip around the islands. It was the fulfillment of some very deep-seated very long embedded dreams. I’d be sat on the bikes, finally doing the driving, and still grinning with my whole body.

As I closed in on 30, I suddenly realized I had the time and means to make this happen for myself — to get my motorcycle license. I even had a parking spot, sitting there, just waiting for two wheels to occupy it.

So I got rolling. I signed up for lessons, still not sure exactly what my plan was (would I buy a bike? what would I use it for? would I ride alone, or find others to ride with?). But I started down the path figuring I’d figure it out as I went.

Then my dad, who I also adored with my whole being, suddenly had serious health problems. As I was taking my motorcycle training, he was being admitted to hospital. As I was shopping for my first bike, his was worse and worse news (though always delivered as if it were not). When I narrowed in on a particular bike, he had me tack up a picture of it up in his hospital room. When I came to visit, we would talk about how it was going. It was the thing to talk about that wasn’t the big scary thing in front of us. A redirection technique at which my dad was a master.

In my last voicemail from him, the one I’ve been resaving for 4 years, he is phoning me to celebrate the removal of his chest tube. He is proudly telling me how he got to help remove it himself, and how it means that he will be out of there in 24-30 hours (“Colour me excited”). He said he was just happy about it, and wanted to share that with me. Then he goes on to ask how it is going with shopping for my motorcycle, and hoping it’s going well, whether I’m just scoping out or if I’m buying. Then he signs off and hangs up.

Every time I listen to his message, I think of when we spoke when he first woke up from hip surgery. How he said that day, when he woke up, it was the greatest day of his life. All his Christmases and birthdays all rolled together — he was awake and alive. He’d been afraid before surgery, and all he’d wanted was to open his eyes again when it was over.

In this voicemail, I can hear his love and I can hear so much pure true dad. The happy, kind, generous and excited teddy bear of a dad. The one who calls to share his happy and excitement, and also to ask after yours with genuine interest, curiousity and support. In the years since he’s been gone, I have learned how unusual this made him, how little most of us do this for each other.

If I listen closely though, I can also hear that his voice is not right. Everything he says is cheery and full of relief and promise. But there are sounds on this call that belie that everything is not going to be okay. He clears his throat strangely, and there is a gurgling sound in it. When he hangs up, it takes a long time. He has some difficulty getting the handset into the cradle. The phone clunks around on the base for a while before the line goes quiet.

He called me and left that message on May 7th 2011. He died suddenly a couple of weeks later on May 26th.

I have not been able to handle this. I have missed him too much, and it has hurt too badly. The other day, my husband told me that after my brother called to tell me my dad had passed, I made a sound that my husband didn’t know how to describe. Then he realized that it was the sound he thought of when he’d watch The Princess Bride. The sound of ultimate suffering. The pain of your soul being wrenched apart. He said he still thinks of and remembers that sound when I am in pain now.

One of the only photographs I have of me on my bike was taken by my dad. I made my very first ride on my very first bike a trip to visit him in Oakville, shortly after he was out of hospital. He insisted on taking a photo of me. It is one of my favourites. I am smiling at my dad, and he is showing me he is proud of me.


My plan had been to learn on my bike by driving out to visit my dad. I thought it was perfect. It would be a nice ride along the Lakeshore, and I could go out and see him more often. He wouldn’t need to pick me up from the train. I’d go out on Sunday mornings, and when we’d get together for work, and we’d have coffee (mine black, his mostly milk) and we’d watch the boats.

And then within weeks, he was dead.

And everything broke. And everything changed.

And I broke too. And I had this bike. And I didn’t have him on the other end anymore. What I did have was this new sense of death. Death right up close. Death up so close it smothers you. It turns off all the lights in the world and drains all the oxygen out of the air.

But I don’t like to give in, and I don’t like to give up. And if I just sold this bike, if I did what I wanted to do and laid down and died myself, that dream and whoever I was along with it, might go and always be gone, and I might never find it again. And what would dad do. What would it mean about life before and after. What if everything really was just gone and there was no colour and no dreams and no point and no life. But what if the only way out was through.

So I dug in – hard, blindly and unrooted. I decided I would finish this, I would get my full license. I’d zip my broken heart up and put on my helmet and jacket and I would do this thing — for the little (and medium, and full-sized) me who’d always wanted to, and because it was what I had started, a piece of the path that had just been blown apart. A road connecting before and after.

I’d passed my first test with flying colours, and my instructors suggested I’d be good as an instructor. I turned visits to my dad into much further and chillier early morning visits to my aunt’s farm. I’d arrive shivering (and a little purple) but triumphant, and re-anchoring to family I had drifted away from. I practiced, and took lessons, and got good. My bike and I appeared on the cover of the riding school pamphlet.

I got better, I learned how to handle a big unwieldy bike with skill and confidence, and I remained broken.

I kept practicing. And I took my second and final test. I passed it only 2 points shy of perfect. When I found out in the parking lot afterwards, I nearly sobbed with relief and pride and accomplishment and loss. When I got home, I let that sob out.

After that, I had some moments of pure bliss while riding. Riding in the early morning, through thick sweet meadow air just north of the city, coming across a pheasant, watching the sunrise, riding a motorcycle on open quiet long roads. It is heaven on earth. I felt absolute and total joy and comfort and ease.

And when it was time, on a cold Easter weekend, for my brother and sister and me to scatter a small box of my dad’s ashes, I rode my bike back out to Oakville to do it.

And back home, year over year, every time I picked up voicemails, I would resave my last message from my dad. Usually, I would skip it. 3, 3, 9. (Fast forward, fast forward, resave.) Very very rarely, I would listen to it. But mostly, I just kept resaving it. 3, 3, 9 and go on about my day. I’d notice I wasn’t ready to delete it, but not know why or when that could change. After a couple of close calls where I’d delete a run of spam messages and nearly hit 3, 3, 7, I saved a copy to a backed-up drive. As the years passed, I was able to delete his entry from my cell phone, my home phone, my address book, but I couldn’t delete that voicemail.

3, 3, 9.

The relief and joy of riding began to diminish, and as a couple more years went by, I noticed just how hard it was to get from the thick of downtown Toronto out to the fields and birds and soft and quiet. How I was trading 2 hours of cold and busy and angry drivers to get out to those fields and that peace. And how maybe it wasn’t balancing out.

Where was the line between the pain and the pleasure? What had I set out to do? Did I have any further to go, or had I arrived there while I wasn’t looking?

Yesterday, I sold my bike. One day, maybe I will buy another one. Maybe for now, I’ll rent. Maybe I will do some more off-road riding — starting and ending in the woods. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll enjoy all the future possibilities all that pain paved for me. Maybe I don’t need to rush. Maybe I’m not sure what happens next. Maybe I’ll figure it out as I go.

But yesterday, I let go of that bike, and today I was finally able to let go of that voicemail. This bike that I had this troubled relationship with, these big ups and big downs, I let it carry some of the pain of these past few years. The struggle. The struggle when the struggle was too tough to really make any sense. The freezing cold mornings to avoid the traffic. The desperate slogs out of the city to find somewhere there was oxygen in the air. What it felt like to try and figure out a way forward into a future you couldn’t imagine, and didn’t want.

I let them go just before the calendar ticks over to another year without my dad here, another year of never hearing a new voicemail, never hearing his voice say any more words. Every year, inching forward. Every year, figuring out how to breathe, what to hold on to, and which things it’s time to let go.

I think dad would understand, and I think he’d still be proud.