How to Read Minds in the Check-out Line: Hints for Parents of Toddlers

My uber-toddler. It was the best of times, it was the worst of time.

My uber-toddler. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Those social media posts and blog entries written by moms of young children, complaining about the way strangers interact with them in public spaces — I could have written those. In fact, I once wrote and voiced a five minute piece for CBC Radio about a low point in my public mothering of little kids.

My youngest child is the ripe old age of six and doesn’t attract much attention in grocery stores or restaurants anymore. However, in order to arrive at this time of life, I first had to run the gauntlet of five toddlers.

All five of my kids had monster moments but two of my toddlers – the first and the fourth – consistently and horrendously stood out when we were in public. They were what kind people called “handfuls” or “going concerns” and what not-so-kind people might’ve considered proof that there’s no hope for the future of humanity. Thanks to bad mate-selection on their father’s part, these two also out-class me in every measure of relative size and strength and I often looked more like their underqualified, overwhelmed, soon-to-be-fired nanny than their biological mother.

What I mean to say is I fought in the trenches of toddler-motherhood for as long and as hard as just about any other women ever to complain about it. I hear you, sisters. I remember. Three short years ago, I was you.

I want to show support for mothers of younger children – treat toddler-moms and their kids the way I wish people had treated us. I want to give the assurances I wish someone had given me – even if it’s going to be a few years before toddler-moms will be able to believe me.

Of course, what I have to say might not be true for everyone witnessing the struggle. I know that. I went on the radio and testified about it to the whole country. Yes, there are plenty of grownup weirdos who have no idea how to behave in public and feel they can scold other adults for things that do not concern them. I don’t know what they’re thinking.

But I can speak for myself. And between me and more than a few other parents with older kids, it’s safe to assume there are allies among the onlookers. It’s safe to assume:

No one cares about the noise and mess kids make as much as their parents do. Everyone in line at the Wal-Mart has ninety-nine problems and someone else’s little kid isn’t one. To strangers, little kids are pretty much white noise – alright, maybe beige noise but definitely not the red noise they sound like to their own parents. What might be interpreted as hostile glaring from strangers is likely just bored staring, idle bemusement, a lack of anything else to look at. We won’t remember or resent a noisy little kid. But thanks for the floor-show while we wait in line.

Wanna know what we’re thinking of that noisy little kids’ parents? I’ll tell ya. Nothing. We’re usually not thinking about them at all. Like most people, we have no trouble staying busy thinking all about ourselves. Most experienced parents are only too happy to let newer parents enjoy absolute rule in their own jurisdictions. There’s nothing we want more for toddler-wranglers than the free exercise their own good judgment. Maybe we’re jerks but compassion isn’t the only thing on our minds when faced with someone else’s struggle. Sometimes, it’s more like, “Better them than me.”

Our smiles for goofy little kids aren’t supposed to encourage them to keep acting up. We usually give frazzled moms space, willfully trying not to notice them. But kids don’t understand space the same way we do and can wind up too close to ignore. At times like these, our smiles and friendliness are meant to show goofy kid’s mom that he’s not bothering us nearly as much as she might worry he is. It’s a simple sign of good will. His mom is having a hard time and a common, deeply ingrained social reaction to seeing one of our kind in distress is to offer non-verbal reassurance and comfort with a smile. We don’t expect those moms to smile back at us – heck knows we never did – but if they did, it’d probably relieve some tension. It’d feel better than scowling and making a retort about how it’s not okay. The truth is, if no one’s being hurt, it probably is okay.

Sometimes someone is being hurt and it’s hard for moms of older kids to ignore years of well-learned reflexes and let it go. Raising toddlers leaves us with something like a post-traumatic stress disorder, hurling us into flashbacks of our very worst days – the ones when we went to the emergency room hoping the medical staff wouldn’t call the police about our kids’ bizarre but completely accidental injuries. When a fellow mom is distracted and her little kids look like they’re in danger, we might break down and squawk out a warning.

This was me, a few weeks ago. I was waiting in a slow, painful line while a mom with two young kids was paying for her purchases. She was focused on the cashier, trying to move along as quickly as possible, and her older daughter was pushing the baby back and forth in a shopping cart. It was a harmless, boring game. It was so boring the little girl added a new element. She pushed the cart as hard as she could and let go of the handle. The baby was launched toward a metal shelf. His mom was still busy with the cashier and hadn’t seen any of it. So this horrible voice called out “Excuse me, your daughter…” It was my voice. The mother whirled around, lunged for the handle of the cart, and turned back to the cashier without looking at me. She wasn’t grateful. She was ticked off. I get it. It’s embarrassing to feel like we’ve been called out in public for making a mistake. It’s embarrassing to be the one doing the calling. But accidents happen to everyone, even good parents. People jump in to help not because they don’t care about adults but because they do care about kids. That sounds sappy but it’s true.

We’re not trying to sabotage other parents. Everyone in the mall is muddling through, trying to figure out his or her own humanity. For me, being a good human means if I see a toddler standing alone screaming in a big space full of strange adults I will always rush up to him and say, “Hey, honey, are you okay? Are you by yourself?” Among a thousand reasons, I will do this in case someone who may not be such a softie steps in to take advantage of the situation. There is no way for me to know the kid’s mom is standing behind a nearby planter trying to teach him a lesson about the perils of being a doofus who won’t stop running away. I raised a kid exactly like that. I know how frustrated and desperate he can make his poor mother. But I also know how relieved and grateful I was every time my son truly was lost and someone reached out and rescued both of us. Personally, I’m happier living in a world where the “natural and logical consequences” of my kids’ bad behaviour is encountering compassion from someone with no specific duty to love and care for them who’s willing to love and care for them anyway.

Toddler-mothering sisters, we’re in this together, though maybe not at the same time. We’ve obsessed over the same little failures, exulted in the same small successes. Maybe no one has more confidence in young mothers’ abilities to overcome than mothers just a few years ahead of their schedule. We’ve lived through toddlers and emerged largely undamaged. More importantly, so have our freshly civilized older kids.

Book’s Belated Birthday

Roses we raised from a bare root. They smell fantastic.

Roses we raised from a bare root. They smell fantastic.

Goofing around on Google, I read a blog post by author Lauren Carter where she mentions a review I wrote of her debut novel, Swarm. The occasion was the one year anniversary of the release of her book and the post was a list of great, book-related things that have happened to her in that time.

Lauren’s idea struck me as a good one – a theft-worthy one, one to make me feel a little less robbed of the roses we were too frantic to stop to smell this summer when the one year anniversary of my novel came and went without my notice.

Here’s my version of the one-year celebration list. [If your Jenny-is-a-horrible-braggart-alarm is tripping, please close this tab or relax and try to read the list as gratitude – which it is and which ought to be expressed.]

  • My book returned me to Montreal and Toronto and gave me excellent reasons to leave their airports for the first time. Both cities were magnifique with cool people, great art, literary events, and me roaming around reading maps like a dork.
  • My book toured me around most of Alberta (no map required): Lacombe, Edmonton, Calgary, Sherwood Park, Cold Lake, Fort McMurray, Red Deer, Hill Springs, and a quiet homecoming in Raymond, the town where I graduated from high school.
  • Drama! In the peculiar American-Mormon book scene, my book was made a finalist for an award with one hand and branded heresy in a review in the local media with the other hand. Eventually, the review was revised (a mighty feat) and an apology made.
  • Apart from the Salt Lake City newspaper debacle, the book got great reviews and mentions in major newspapers, regional newspapers, trade publications, magazines, and online. It was awesome (in the literal sense that it inspired awe in me) to see thoughtful reviewers finding things in my book I didn’t realize were there. Making art is frickin’ amazing like that. Highlights include Publishers Weekly, National Post, and the sweetest text ever from my dad.
  • The book led me to discover my colleagues – my fabulous, generous colleagues. I wrote my novel in isolation and it wasn’t until it was nearly time to release it that I started meeting the writers, librarians, bloggers, and readers I should have been befriending all along. My book gave me a community.
  • On the merits of the book, I won a Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award. I got to take my parents, husband, and a few of my sons to a fancy ceremony in a sandstone mansion before wearing the medal inscribed with my name to vacuum my house.
  • The television appearances were challenging but book promotion also got me spots on radio and podcasts. As long as no one can see me, I enjoy speaking almost as much as writing and these appearances were great pleasures.
  • The book actually sold. It was distributed in large bookstores as well as in indies and online. In Novemeber 2013, it was a regional bestseller according the Edmonton Journal.
  • Meeting new people was wonderful but so was getting back in touch with old friends and long lost family and hearing how the book affected them. Sure, there was lots of “oh, it’s so morbid” but there were also touching tributes I will never forget as long as I have a mind that remembers anything.

Don’t mistake my list for a eulogy. There’s more ahead for Love Letters of the Angels of Death in its second year. More copies have been printed, more book clubs have been booked, and more good news will appear in due time. Thanks for your help and support. Yes, you did – simply reading to the end of this blog post is a show of support.

I’m Back — or, Someone Like Me

We — my family of seven — have moved to a new house in a new city. Though the physical act of moving is over we’re still not quite ourselves. Frankly, we never will be. We’re different now. I’ve moved enough to believe that, in time, these new differences will be mostly for the best. And I know “for the best” hardly ever means pleasant or easy.

One comfort I have as I and six other pieces of me venture into the more-than-ordinarily unknown every day is the house we have to come back to. Unlike all the other houses we’ve owned, this one was home to another family before us. They built it to suit their fancies and lived here for twenty-four years. Naturally, it’s a bit quirky — a bit haunted.

Here are some highlights.

Cold Storage!

Cold storage to delay all kinds of decay

This is the cold storage room which, as my father who was raised in a converted former funeral parlor explained to me when I was 4 years old, is the best place in the house to keep a dead person. It’s also got a rack for properly storing fur coats — at last.

Secret office space behind the furnace

Ultra-private office space behind the furnace

Behind the furnace is the secret inner office. I’m not sure who used to work here but he was probably very easily distracted. No windows, lots of white noise, total privacy. No, I’m not using it as my office. I work in the laundry room, like a normal person.

Laundry Office

I’m at the laundry room (What?), I’m at the office (What?), I’m at the combination laundry room and office

Honestly, I’m just happy to be working sitting in a chair instead of leaning against the headboard of my bed, typing on a tea tray.

The wrong wood

The wrong wood

This is what let us buy the house at the price we probably would have paid if it was truly haunted. Everything here is finished in a light, strongly grained oak. In 1990, it was right on. In 2014, it is wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s so wrong the sellers’ (very bad) realtor offered a cash-back incentive to help new buyers rip it all out. We opted for a reduced price instead and will be keeping all the lovely once-living material a hardwood tree was sacrificed to provide. I like it fine and even if I didn’t, it’d be sick and tragic to waste it.

Pin oak leaf

Pin oak leaf

There’s more oak outside in the form of a still-living tree. It’s fertilized by the carcass of a dead dog lovingly buried at its base. What was the name of that grody Stephen King book? About the cemetery, with the pets?

Unstained cedar doesn't look like much but it smells amazing

Unstained cedar doesn’t look like much but it smells amazing

Also outdoors is the virgin cedar deck. It’s never been stained or varnished and when it’s warm the whole backyard smells like a fancy new hope chest. Smell-writer loves it.

Sturgeon (yes, we know he's a goldfish)

Sturgeon is not a sturgeon

Formerly from outside is Sturgeon. He’s the sole survivor of the backyard pond. When a freak snow storm hit the first week of September, the boys couldn’t bear to leave him outside. Yes, we realize he is not a sturgeon but a goldfish (and we also realize a snow storm in September in Alberta is actually not freakish).

Her de facto name is "It's That Spider Again"

Her de facto name is “It’s-That-Spider-Again”

Here’s another new, accidental pet. This big, skinny spider has been hanging around watching the kids play video games in the basement ever since we got here. She commands too much respect for anyone to want to kill her and she refuses to step onto a sheet of paper so we can turn her loose in the outside world.

portal

The Portal

This might be our favourite thing about the new house. It’s a magic portal in the kitchen floor that sucks up dirt from an ordinary broom and hurls our filth into the void. It might be old technology to better housekeepers but I remain astounded by it.

rock

Sometimes a rock is just a rock

When my dear barely-older-than-me brother — my childhood animus — came to help us unload the moving truck, he said this towering rock in the front yard was the only thing he envied. Let’s not psychoanalyse this any further.

Tabula rasa

Tabula rasa

And last of all the quirky and darling things I could include in the tour of the house that has consumed all my time, energy, and money for the last month, here’s a 17 foot tall neutral-coloured wall I have no idea how to decorate. Leave suggestions in the comments, I beg you.

With that, here’s to clean slates and new beginnings and all things desperately optimistic.

Final Post Before Moving House: On Depression and Sadness

My house from the creek-bed below it.

My house from the creek-bed below it.

With less than a week before my family moves house — leaving the town we’ve lived in for eight years, longer than I’ve lived anywhere, ever in my entire life – I’m feeling kind of depressed. I love this place.  I love my friends here. I love my kids’ friends. I love the atom football team. I love the trees we raised from saplings. It makes sense to be sad about a departure from a happy hometown. As one of the characters in my novel says, “I’d be more worried about my state of mind if something like this failed to upset me.”

So this is not a confession of an artist speaking frankly about her troubled mental health. That artist is real but I am not her. While I’m definitely feeling depressed today, it’s not the same thing as having the disease of depression.

When it comes to mental health, I’ve got nothing to complain about. It’s not because I’m smarter or better than people who do have valid complaints. I think it might be little more than an endowment from my mother –an ability to shout or cry away bad feelings before they settle in for torturous long-term engagements.

Even so, I do get sad. Over my lifespan, I’ve probably lost months-worth of sleep to grief and worry. My personal best record for uninterrupted crying exceeds three hours. One summer, my daily routine included standing alone in my garage painting boards for the epic fence we were building, quietly weeping over them.

None of this was depression. It wasn’t an illness. It was a reaction to well-defined, acute stress and tragedy. It’s like the difference between bruising for a few days after bashing a knee on something and bruising maybe until death because there’s something fundamental missing from the blood that keeps it from clotting.

With the recent death of a famous entertainer, a lot has been said about depression as a dangerous disease. All of that needs to be said. Depression is still far too stigmatizing. I have a close friend who suffered depression after each of her kids was born. She still worries someone will find the medical records of her diagnosis and medication and use the information as prejudice. “All your history of depression really shows,” another friend explained to her, “is that you were smart enough to go get treated for it.” She’s got nothing to be ashamed of and much to be commended for.

While not everyone suffers from depression as a chronic debilitating illness, everyone (except maybe, I don’t know, people with anti-social personality disorders) feels sad sometimes. Sadness is part of the human condition. It’s inevitable and normal. There is nothing strange or sickly about the sadness most of us encounter.

Here, in the middle of my move, I was talking with another friend who suffers from depression. She saw my mood was low and jumped to recommend treatments she uses when she feels herself falling – when her disease flares up. But I don’t have her disease. I don’t need to fight sadness as quickly or as fiercely as she does. I thanked her anyway. And above my pangs of healthy-person-guilt I was surprised to hear myself telling her I don’t mind letting myself experience a bit of my own sadness. It hurts but it doesn’t damage me. There’s value in it. I can trust I’ll survive it. My preferred treatments are patience and time, love and companionship, faith, music, food someone else has cooked, fresh air, and new things I discover every time circumstances demand my character adapt and change.

For people with severe depression, sadness can be, very literally, the end of the world. They need to fight it with heavy medical and social artillery and no one should fault them for it.

For the rest of us, sadness, deep at its core, is a horrible, putrid, unwanted gift. It’s okay to unwrap it and handle it. And no one should fault us for that – trying to convince us we’re deluded or unhealthy or callous when we take our sadness into our own hands to see what we can learn from it.

Sadness is part of our life stories. Its gift to us is our stories.

Because Camping is Actually Writing

Me, arriving at camp with a bit of baggage

Me, arriving at camp with a bit of baggage

Two decades without camping didn’t seem like too many to me. I love being outdoors but I crave a proper roof overhead when it’s time to call it a night.

Then, this winter, I was asked to take over as leader of a youth group for 30 girls ages 12 to 17. It’s a great gig. It tempers the Smurfette vibe I’ve cultivated living alone in a pack of men for the last nineteen years. I’m honoured and happy to be there.

Still, I spent the spring dreading our youth group’s traditional annual camping trip. Fortunately, some of my fellow leaders are skilled, enthusiastic campers. They took over. My camp role was to sign off on expense claims, make a few rousing presentations, offer hugs to the homesick, and not sabotage the whole thing with my incompetence.

It was a simple role but I fretted anyway. What might have been more daunting than whatever challenges awaited at camp were the challenges I’d leave behind at home. Not getting things done can be just as hard as getting things done. My family is in the middle of moving house. It’s not a great time for me to flee into the wilderness. In order to take the girls camping, I left my house unpacked and unsold, left my kids, left a chance to see my commuter husband who was traveling home to stay with them. And, I left my second novel in the process of an intense unfinished edit.

For me – and probably for other writers who finish manuscripts – there’s no such thing as taking time off simply because life is busy. Activity inspires creativity and the paradoxical truth is I sometimes work best when it should be logistically impossible for me to get anything done. This summer, while single-parenting my five sons and trying to sell our house, I’ve written more, and more consistently than I have all year.

The prospect of my second novel is a bit terrifying. My first book has been well-received and part of its legacy is fear of a “sophomore slump.” I wrote the first version of my second novel before I’d found a publisher for my first book – before I knew who I was as a novelist. It was an experiment. The first version of it was plotty and funny and fairly glib. There were hardly any “that’s my soul up there” moments in it. It ate away at me a little – the secret that I didn’t love my second novel the way I love my first one. I liked it. But…

With this second book I have access to something I didn’t have when I wrote my first one. I have someone in the industry willing to read it and skilled enough to tell me what’s wrong with it. I knew the book was lacking but I couldn’t tell how or what to do about it. With good editorial feedback fueling my revision process, I hope I’m starting to understand.

The radical edits demanded I change something fundamental to the book – the title itself. Every time I opened the document I changed the title and every time I changed it, I hated it more and more.

campgroup

Me, when my hair was still clean, welcoming the campers

So I went to camp with my novel gutted, untitled. I went trusting my familiar paradoxes, sure a four day pajama party in the woods would improve everything unsettled in my life right now – maybe even my second novel.

Camp was fantastic. We should have called it “Camp Slacker.” There wasn’t much of a schedule, I kept driving the girls to the beach in the back of my pick-up truck, we stayed up all night every night, we never really stopped eating.

On the final morning of camp, I woke up underneath a brand new spider web, listening to music – not in my ears but in my mind. It was a song I hadn’t heard in a long time – one I first learned when I was a 16-year-old girl. It was Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river…
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror…

It’s unlikely LC was thinking of youth camp leaders working to convince young girls of their worth and power and potential – to “show them where to look among the garbage and the flowers” – when he wrote these lyrics. But art is sublime and it doesn’t matter what he was thinking. For a moment, the song was about me and my “children in the morning” – the ones born to other mothers but sent into the woods with me for a few days in hopes we’d all come to understand ourselves a little better.

Suzanne loads you in her pick-up truck, and she leads you to the river

Suzanne loads you in her pick-up truck, and she leads you to the river…

My second novel – the awkward one with no name – it’s always been about sisterhood. And in the early morning sisterhood of my first camping trip in over twenty years, the paradox worked its perfection and I think I learned what I will call the book.

Photos by Naomi Stanford

Fan-girling: Why You Should Go to Book Events

Cover with blurb by Padma Viswanathan

On the front cover of my book — above the title, my name, my magpies – is a blurb. Yes, that’s the technical term for pithy reviews printed on books to help readers judge them by their covers.

Thanks to my resourceful publisher, my book’s blurb is written by internationally published Canadian novelist Padma Viswanathan. Blurbs are usually written by people from an author’s network – teachers, editors, classmates. But Padma read my book and wrote the blurb without knowing me from anywhere. It was extremely generous of her and I am very grateful.

Simple reciprocity isn’t the only reason I’m Padma’s fan. Reading her first novel, I had the impression she understands family much the same way I do. She writes about families that are close, more or less content with each other, and LARGE without making them seem maudlin, boring, or trite. It’s rare in literary fiction.

She writes about people of faith too. She doesn’t do it with the heavy sermonizing of “inspirational” fiction but she also doesn’t soundly denounce faith the way a lot of literary fiction does. She acknowledges the existence and the salience of faith. She writes about it like any powerful, abstract human motivation – like love or hope or fear. This is also rare. This is also me.

After seeing my work called “strange” over and over again (which I love) it’s gratifying to recognize something like my own strangeness in someone else’s stories. It’s validating. It transforms me from lone weirdo to the ultimate form of joiner: the fan-girl. 

And fan-girl I was when I finally met Padma. This summer, the tour for her new book The Ever After of Ashwin Rao brought her back to Audreys Books in Edmonton. I was so there.

If you’ve never been to an event where an author is reading from her own book, go. I won’t say the difference between reading a book and hearing the author read it is the same as listening to the radio and hearing a song performed live. But it is significantly different enough to be worth brushing your teeth and driving downtown.

Padma Viswanathan and me at Audreys Books

Padma Viswanathan and me at Audreys Books, Edmonton

I’m happy to say that, by now, when I go to local book events I can usually be recognized without having to make a spectacle of myself. In the crowded room, I met Padma and got to thank her in person for the boost she gave my career. I met her dad too. He was greeting people at the foot of the stairs.

Padma’s new novel revolves around the Air India bombing of 1985. The scene she read aloud describes people coping with sudden, violent loss. It’s beautiful and, once again, familiar.

Within the passage she read, Padma included the Gayatri Mantra, a chant her characters use to comfort themselves. If I’d been reading the book alone, in my head, my mental shorthand would have read it as “okay, some Sanskrit” and rushed on to the English translation. But in the bookstore, Padma pronounced all of it. She sang it. And I cried.

I cried because I was surprised and touched by her commitment to the reading – the risk of it, the gift of it. I cried because the sound of scripture being sung by one female voice in that place was strange and out of place enough to feel a little like a miracle. I cried because I already knew, in my own words and feelings, the things she would read next:

The sound did not hide the void, but it filled it with a kind of light: nothing that would stop you from falling, but maybe stop you from being so afraid.

Lo, the First Foreigner on “The Good Word” Podcast

After writing, my favourite medium is radio — no make-up, all talk. Podcasting is a lot like radio — radio without all the “ums” edited out, long-form radio where guests can really cut loose and do some damage. This is a podcast I recorded last month with Nick Galieti, a book industry guy in Utah.

We talk about my accent, my family, Mormonism, literary elitism, the Republican Party (a first for me in an interview, for sure), my marriage and the lighter side of death schtick, and the mysterious geography of the second largest country on the globe.

Nick: So how is Canada today?

JQ: Canada is — is enormous.

Nick was a fine interviewer and it turns out he used to live with my cousin-in-law when they were missionaries.

Check out the podcast if you’d like to hear some unfortunate, spontaneous voice acting, a little bit of Mormon jargon, and my six-year-old coughing through a door. Must have been a good time; my final word was “Woo hoo!”

Jennifer Quist Interview with Nick Galieti