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Sick Day

August 11, 2015

gatorade

My bed

Dear Reva,

This week’s letter is serving as proof of life and not much more, I’m afraid. I’ve had a nasty flu for over a week. I thought I’d outrun it, ‘got fancy’ as my people would say, and then got slammed. So here I sit, drinking Gatorade and sipping soup and leaving only to drive my kids to and from camp (because moms don’t getting to be totally sick, as we know).

I did want to note in passing that we’ve been writing these letters for 6 months now, the halfway mark of our initial promise. And I wanted to say that I’m glad we’re doing it. It’s a nice moment of reflection for me each week in a life that doesn’t offer much of that.

Before I go back to bed, I do have one recommendation for you – take your kids to see Inside Out. Charlie and I went last week, and it’s one of the smartest films I’ve seen in ages. It’s also the first one that has actually assisted me in my parenting. It’s given me a common vocabulary to talk about feelings with a kid who, well, hates talking about his feelings. And it gave me a lovely visual image to explain how happy memories of the past become tinged, permanently, with other emotions in the aftermath of a marriage breakdown. All of that from Pixar!

Thanks for letting me mail this one in, so to speak.

Yours,

Kate

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I Am Titanium.

July 28, 2015, my office

Water gun of choice for young pirates
Water gun of choice for young pirates

Dear Reva,

Your last letter got me thinking (again) about emotional health, and specifically about resilience.

I am, as it turns out, a remarkably resilient person. I suspected this, but hadn’t really been tested until this past year. And in fact, one of the true benefits of surviving an emotional trauma is discovering that you can.

A divorce, I appreciate, is a garden-variety trauma in the big scheme of things. But, for example, I know a person whose daughter was abducted, raped and murdered, and who then had to relive the experience in court ten years later when the murderer was finally identified and prosecuted. Without question, she has survived one of the worst things, if not the worst thing, that could possibly happen to a person. And yet, she is one of the most inspiring, joyful and interesting women I have ever met.

What do we make of this? Why is it that some people who experience negative, even horrific, life events manage to bounce back from them, while others never do?

My own view about the past is that it is not something we ‘get over’, but something we integrate, and in that sense it is always with us. Resilient people seem to be able to integrate past experiences into their present sense of self in a healthy way.

To some degree resilience seems to be innate, but research suggests that it can also be learned and nurtured. The Canadian Mental Health Association has a list of 11 mental fitness tips that boost resilience: daydream, ‘collect’ positive emotional moments, learn ways to cope with negative thoughts, do one thing at a time, exercise, enjoy hobbies, set personal goals, keep a journal, share humour, volunteer, treat yourself well.

Do you know what struck me about this list the first time I read it? How many of the tips I would have thought were ‘flaky’ five years ago (everything except exercising, setting personal goals, volunteering and sharing humour), how many of these strategies I now use regularly (all of them except keeping a journal, although an argument could be made that this correspondence is a form of journal-keeping), and how well they work (incredibly well).

(It is interesting here to note in passing that the study of positive psychology – focused on human strengths such as resilience – is a relatively new field. Apparently, up until twenty years or so ago, psychology was entirely focused on human dysfunction, an admittedly large tent. All of which is to say that even psychologists themselves have struggled with the notion of taking positive mental health seriously.)

Coincidentally, when I found this list, I had just started ‘collecting’ happiest moments of the day, inspired by this Elizabeth Gilbert clip. I wondered what my collection would reveal over the course of a week, and if it would square with my beliefs about what makes me happy. And you know what? It did. Here’s my week:

  1. Cuddling my kid while watching Green Lantern cartoons.
  2. Watching my kid open his birthday present and knowing I got it absolutely right.
  3. Laughing with my mom and my sister.
  4. The satisfying mental ‘pop’ of figuring out a plot problem with my book.
  5. Watching my kids play pirates with water guns and inflatable boats.
  6. Listening to my kid read a bedtime story to his little cousin.
  7. Having a long conversation with a girlfriend over dinner.

What’s the source of my resilience? It’s all right there on the list: family, friends, creativity, connection and belonging.  Good to know.

Yours,

Kate

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My Midlife Reading List

July 14, 2015

My office

Dear Reva,

You made my week by asking me for a midlife crisis reading list. It has been a pure pleasure to spend time thinking about the books that have helped me navigate this life stage.

Kate's bookshelfAs an aside, I would add that part of the challenge of these years seems to be the struggle to chart your course while being battered by external storms that rise unexpectedly. Take my tennis group, for example. I play tennis with a small, much-loved group of friends every week. All of us, of course, are grappling in various ways with professional ambitions, and often we talk about our work and the manifold frustrations inherent in it. But over the past six months, personal events have overshadowed professional concerns: my husband left me, R’s mother had a stroke, M’s sister fell into a coma from a brain tumour, and K had to stop playing for a few months to do intensive physio on her shoulder.

All of that to say that while planning is essential for all kinds of professional and personal achievement, my own midlife experience has forced me to grapple with the problem of how to carry on when life refuses to conform to any plan you’ve ever made. At this stage, my midlife journey is primarily an interior one, about letting go of perfectionism, and accepting impermanence, and being in the here and now, and looking within for support and validation, and knowing that the only thing I actually control is my own behaviour. All of which is, for me, really, really hard.

There are a few approaches to reading as a cure, or bibliotherapy as some call it. One approach is to read fiction about people going through their own midlife crises, which will either cause you to nod in recognition, or feel better about your life in comparison to the lives on the page. Some books in this vein that I deeply love include Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You.

Another approach is to read memoirs by people who have soldiered through midlife and emerged as stronger, wiser and more authentic humans. I spend an entire week on vacation last year reading nothing but memoirs by funny women. It did more good than the sun and margaritas. Here I recommend Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck (and also Heartburn, which is supposed to be fiction but isn’t), Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please.

And lastly, there is the nakedly self-help category. I was never a big fan of self-help books, but have read more of them in the past year than ever before. I still wouldn’t describe myself as a self-help convert, but I have huge admiration for Pema Chodron and Brené Brown. In particular, Chodron’s The Places That Scare You and When Things Fall Apart, and Brown’s Daring Greatly have prompted me to have some useful and enlightening conversations with myself.  And I love Brown’s famous TED talk, which describes her own midlife crisis.

While you are loading up on reading material, don’t forget that every midlife crisis needs a playlist. I – surprise! – favour power songs by women. Try Sara Bareilles’ Brave, Natasha Bedingfield’s Unwritten, Alanis Morissette’s You Learn, Katy Perry’s Roar and Rachel Platten’s Fight Song for starters. With the right soundtrack, anything is possible.

Yours,

Kate

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Read Reva’s last letter here.

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Relaxing is not my strength

June 30, 2015

image
Miami Beach

Dear Reva,

Guess what I decided to do? After emptying the final cardboard box, and before launching into some very serious work to meet my deadlines on The Book, I decided that some head-clearing was in order. So I have retreated to the beach for a few days, where I am doing yoga classes, eating kale and quinoa, and listening to the ocean. All this relaxing is hard, distracting work, so you should recognize, in today’s post, the intensity of my commitment to The Pen Pal Project.

Relaxing…have I mentioned that this is one of the few things that I can’t seem to master, no matter how hard I try? My whole life people have been telling me to relax, and I am constantly disappointing them. I’m intense. I’m high-energy. I’m sensitive. I’m ambitious and driven and hilarious, but I’m not relaxed. Sitting still bores me, unless I have a book in my hands. My mind is never quiet.

This is an excellent quality when it comes to generating creative ideas, or moving house, or navigating a crisis, or multi-tasking your way through life. It is, however, an obstacle when it comes to sustained creative work. Writing requires a kind of emptiness that invites the story in to fill it. Opening up that space has always been harder for me than the writing itself. I once dropped out of a mindfulness meditation class because I found it too stressful.

Anyway, I wanted to respond to your letter about race, which I found fascinating and brave, and also challenging, because I think that educated, left-leaning white people, people who believe in equality, people who have a vocabulary for talking about discrimination in all of its overt and subtle forms – people like me, in other words – have absolutely no idea how to talk about race.

We have non-white friends and colleagues, and we are glad that we do. It comforts us to feel that our non-white friends are exactly like us. The fact is, though, that our non-white friends are not exactly like us. They have experiences that we will never have, like being stopped by security guards at the mall or in their cars because of their skin colour, or being taken aside by airport security because of their surnames.

We. You see how I did that?

What I meant to say, really, was that *I* will never have these experiences. I’m horrified that my friends do. I’m sickened by the grotesque displays of racism that play out in the nightly news. I’m hideously disappointed that racial discrimination is still so relentlessly present in our lives. And yet I am so wary of embarrassing myself, of giving offence, of putting a foot wrong in the political minefield of race, that I tend to avoid the topic altogether.

But that doesn’t help anyone, does it?

Yours,

Kate

Read Reva’s last letter here: http://www.revaseth.com/penpalproject/passing/

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Woman’s Work

June 17, 2015

New office in new house

Dear Reva,

A day late again, with my apologies. Moving is woman’s work, at least the tedious parts of it (the packing of the innumerable Lego pieces, as opposed to the negotiation of the mortgage), and this woman has been working. Of course, this move was different from past ones, as I did the man’s work too: the mortgage and the lawyers and the insurance and the barbecue hook up.

It turns out that you don’t need a Y-chromosome for those. It also turns out that the woman’s work is harder and takes much longer.

Moving is stressful, but also boring, both to do and to talk about. Stories about moving don’t generate conversation, just other war stories: “You think YOUR handyman took a long time? Mine took four months to assemble an IKEA unit!” As I said, not interesting.

But all of this (Water in the basement! Raccoons on the roof! Wall unit too tall! Furniture too big!) got me thinking about a woman’s work in the context of the modern working couple. I ran into a friend from law school the other day, a litigator at a prestigious firm, who said: “I had to take a week off to attend all of the end of year events for my second grader! Write about that!” Her husband – and perhaps this goes without saying – had not missed an hour at the office.

It is, obviously, the end of the school year, that time when the organizational zeal has leached out of every cell of every mother, and all that is left is a hollow shell of a person who drives up to the front door of the school each morning after the bell, rolling down her window long enough to shout at her child, “RUN!”

When was the last time you checked the homework folder? Or tried to make your kids try a new food for dinner? Or wondered whether or not their shoes still fit? Does your child still have homework, even? Who knows? Who cares? You’ll deal with it when you pack them for camp. After you deal with the raccoons.

And in the meantime, if you a cogent thought in your head, you might wonder why you are the one forgetting to remember all of these womanly tasks. Or remembering to forget them.

Yours,

Kate

Read Reva’s last letter here.

Follow the Pen Pal archive hereRaccoon.

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Turning The Page

http---www.pixteller.com-pdata-t-l-107820

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

My office

Dear Reva,

Moving day is on Thursday, and I am sitting in a half-empty house. I’m moving to a lovely but much smaller house, and I’ve given away a lot of furniture, all of which was picked up over the weekend. New, appropriately sized couches and chairs and tables will start arriving once we move, but for now, we are rattling around in mostly vacant rooms. We are all adapting surprisingly well to this physical evidence of a turning of a page in our family’s story.

I am thinking, of course, of the events of the past eight months that have brought me to this moment. I remember the shock, bewilderment and searing grief of a husband’s unexpected departure. I remember the blur of months spent putting one foot in front of the other, of just surviving to do it again the next day. I remember the agonizing conversion of a longstanding partnership into a set of legal obligations. I remember my children’s pain and my own. I remember the friends who drifted away, compounding the loss.

But I remember, too, everyone who swarmed around, who called, who let me cry on the phone and in restaurants and in the car and on the tennis court – everywhere, basically – and who acted like it was no big deal that I was leaking constantly, and who fed me dinner and wrote me notes, and who told me that I was fabulous and that I would heal, over and over again. I remember who picked me up when I couldn’t get off the floor on Boxing Day. I remember who took me to the park and found a patch of sunlight to warm me in the dying days of autumn. I remember who left a week of dinners on my doorstep. I remember who took me out for my birthday, and made sure I had a lovely present. I remember each and every act of kindness and love, and I am so grateful. I can’t tell you.

Which brings me to a subject I’ve thought quite a bit about over the past year: the difference between joy and happiness. No one, least of all me, would say that this has been a happy year. But it has been full of moments of unadulterated joy.

I am a big proponent of the cultivation of joy. It seems to me that joy is the great casualty of working motherhood, and of modern life more generally. We treat joy as a frivolity, a distraction from the real work of securing solid, foundational happiness. And that is a great pity, because, as the late, great Maya Angelou observed: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

I’ve come to appreciate the value of joy this year, so much so that I made a video about it.

I am, by nature, quite a joyful person. And this means that even if my life turns to absolute shit in an objective sense, I can still manage to find pleasure in small things. Joy doesn’t require big plans or radical changes. Joy isn’t ambitious. And that means – listen carefully – it isn’t something we can fail at.

Isn’t that a project we should all get behind?

Yours,

Kate

Read Reva’s last letter here.

Read the Pen Pal Project archive here.

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Feeling like a ‘natural’ mother

 

May 20, 2015

My office

Dear Reva,

Happy Birthday!

I’m so sorry to be a day late with my letter this week, though it does give me the opportunity to wish you well on your big 3-9. I hope you got everything you wanted, including some time to reflect on your plans for the year ahead. The year before I turned 40 was a completely transformative one for me. I wouldn’t wish everyone the same experience – transformation is not for the faint of heart – but I know from your letters that you are ready for a new adventure. I’m looking forward to coming along on it.

Given that your last two letters have been about parenting, I think you will understand the reason for my tardiness: I took the boys to NYC for a long weekend, my first trip with them alone. It was a good moment to reflect on my own parenting style, and some of the questions that you ask about how and if mothering comes ‘naturally’ to women.

I’m not a fan of boxes and categories (I nearly listed ‘cages’ here, which tells you something about my approach to boxes and categories), and this is particularly true of mothering. I also get suspicious when the word ‘natural’ is applied to women as mothers. Good, natural mothers, it seems, opt willingly for whatever choice is the hardest, most painful and most self-denying; bad, unnatural mothers are those who opt on Day One for the epidural and continue, at every opportunity, to choose the path that preserves their sanity and a sense of themselves as distinct from their offspring. Selfish, really.

Of course I have times when I feel like a fraud as a mother (who doesn’t?) but for the most part, imposter syndrome takes hold when I am forced into a model of mothering that isn’t, well, natural for me.

For example, here is my personal word association for maternal failure: holiday meals. Getting my children dressed up against their will for a ‘festive’ meal and watching them struggle to use cutlery and eat food they dislike, while other family members watch in judgment is a special kind of torture for me. I am also bad at the following:

Playing, or feigning interest in, video games
Doing activities that involve being cold
Sports
Discipline
Sitting around and doing nothing
Going to the playground (see above)

But I am very good at:

Reading and instilling a love of words
Cuddles
Listening to what is said, and what is not
Adventures and special events
Creative solutions to any problem

And I find that when I parent with an emphasis on my strengths, I feel quite comfortable in the role; whereas, when I try to be a different kind of parent, a more authoritarian one, or a sporty one, or a chilled out one, for example, I feel like an imposter.

I was thinking of the event we did together the other night, where we got into a conversation about what we do for fun. One of the women in the audience said that she didn’t do much for fun, other than hang out with her children, and I said, “I don’t think parenting is fun.” It’s true. There are many things that I like to do for fun, and parenting isn’t on the list. Tennis is fun. Dinner out with friends is fun. Reading is fun. Talking about books and writing with other writers is fun. I could go on. I take delight in many things.

Parenting is work. Of course it is. Parenting is an ongoing act of love. And ongoing acts of love (as opposed to falling in love which takes little thought or effort, or even sense), are, as we know but don’t like to admit, work. Rewarding work. Meaningful work. Even joyous work. But not effortless. Not without struggle. Not without worry and frustration. Not ‘natural’.

And this is all good news, my Reva, because if we let go of the idea that there is one successful way to parent, we’ll be freer to find a way that works for us, either inside or outside the box.

Yours,

Kate

Read Reva’s last letter here: http://www.revaseth.com/penpalproject/real-mothers-day/

Read the Pen Pal archive here: https://www.facebook.com/ourpenpalproject?ref=hl

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Courage, my love

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

My office

Dear Reva,

I’m celebrating a big anniversary this week. Two years ago, I self-published The Hole in the Middle. I didn’t really choose self-publishing. I did it because I couldn’t get anyone to take me seriously as a writer in the traditional publishing business.

This week, my publisher is shipping a brand-new edition to bookstores across the country, with a quote on the front from a famous writer who also happens to be a new friend (we met at a literary festival last summer). It’s so amazing and weird that Kobo asked me to write a blog about it.

But honestly, when I look back at everything that’s happened? The self-publishing, and the crazy internet sensation, and the Canadian book deal, and the U.S. book deal, and the marriage breakdown – all of it connected, all of it complicated and bittersweet – do you know what strikes me the most?

I can’t believe how f***ing brave I was. I’m so proud of that. I’m a fairly shy person, all evidence to the contrary. I used to have a phobia about public speaking. I used to have an almost crippling anxiety about what people thought of me. The biggest obstacle to my success with the book, from the beginning, was my own fear.

Courage is a relative quality. It is quite different from fearlessness. To be courageous is to do the things that haunt you. Only you know what they are. To self-publish my book, to put myself out on social media, to tell everyone I knew that I had written something, and ask them to buy it, all the while knowing for an absolute fact that no one in the book industry believed my book deserved publication: that took every bit of courage I had, which was significantly more than I knew I possessed. (I filmed a video about it.)

And now? I feel like the old rules don’t apply to me anymore. It is scary but also truly liberating.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned: Not everyone will like you. Not everyone will value the same things you do. Not every relationship will survive forever.  People change. You will too.

These are terrifying realizations, but once you accept them as true, the rules shift. The most important questions change. What do you want to contribute? What are your greatest talents? Who deserves your loyalty and your time? Who doesn’t? What are you doing because you think you should? What are you doing because you genuinely love to do it?

On a micro-level, I’m exploring these questions while choosing furniture for my new house. My designer, who is accustomed to working with couples to identify the appropriate shade of greige, is thrilled. There is no compromise. There is no discussion. What do I like? It turns out that I like … what I like. Which is random and eclectic and colourful and creative. Who knew? Here is my new carpet, for example:

instagram carpet, rug

My point here, and I do have one, is that we spend a lot of energy trying to figure out how to fit in with other people – families, friends, and especially spouses. But maybe we ought to practice being ourselves a little now, as Jenny Joseph’s famous poem suggests? We – all of us – deserve that.

Really looking forward to our event on Friday!

Yours,

Kate

Read Reva’s last letter here.

Find the Pen Pal archive here.

Pen Pal Project

Help wanted

April 20, 2015

Dear Reva,

Thanks so much for your letter.

First off, it must be said: you look stunning in a wedding dress.

I haven’t read Anne Kingston’s book, but it is now at the top of my to-read list. It will make a nice break from (and counterpart to, come to think of it) Anna Karenina. I stumbled across a list of the Greatest Books of All Time, and was shamed by the number that I had somehow failed to read. So I ordered a stack of them and am working my way through.

I confess that the western Disney Princess Bride fantasy exercises a powerful hold on me. This is not an easy admission. I’ve been a feminist for so long that I don’t remember any other way of being. And yet for all of my no-nonsense pragmatism, my desire for self-sufficiency and my lengthy education in gender theory, I have the heart of a romantic. And not just any romantic, but a gooey, true-love-believing, soul-mate-seeking, teenaged-girl romantic. It’s slightly mortifying.

In my defence, I am also heavily influenced by my parents’ marriage, which was and still is an extraordinarily successful love match. They met by chance when my mother was 17 and my father was 19, and have now been married for 47 years. They visibly adore each other.

But, as we know, my inner romantic has taken a serious body blow in recent months, so I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations of love and marriage. In your last letter to me, you asked whether or not we would work so hard at our relationships if we truly understood that they are impermanent. In fact, I think we work so hard at them precisely because we understand their fragility.

We understand that early romantic love is a kind of dream-state, and that lasting love requires dedicated work from both partners. What frightens us is the knowledge that marriage is a game for two, and that no amount of effort from one can make the other want to play for keeps. And we are right to be scared. We put huge trust in the hands of the one we marry, and we do it in the face of poor odds.

But we put our lives, also, in the hands of other people who form a community around us, and while each individual relationship may be fragile, the web of community relationships is not. I’ve been humbled, over and over again, by the kindness of family and friends in recent months. Some people have disappointed me, yes, but the net of support has held strong. And this makes me think that no effort invested in building relationships is wasted.

On that note, I’ve been filming videos for my website, and I did one on the importance of asking for help. I’m much better at giving help than I am at receiving it, and I’ve been learning – both through my publishing experience and through my divorce – that there is real growth to be found in opening oneself to the help of others.

This spring has had a hard birth, in so many ways, but there are warmer and better days ahead. Thank you for being a steady strand in the net. Your friendship means more than I can say.

Yours,

Kate

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