Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The gift you didn't think you wanted

My mother has always been really good at gift-giving. She has a knack for choosing gifts I wouldn't have expected, wouldn't have thought I wanted, things that called out to her "she might like me!"

I'm sitting in my living room, drinking coffee (rather heavily laced with Irish cream) out of a mug she put in my Christmas stocking some fifteen years ago at least and thinking about Christmas. Thinking about my mom. I have gifts yet to buy, and twelve hours from now the kids will be in bed, the Christmas pageant at our church long over. I have Christmas baking to do and a lot of tidying and cleaning to finish up. Many things are decidedly last minute this year, a procrastinator's affliction that has rarely affected my mother. 

She gets her shit together in good time. Even last year, which, when you think about it, is amazing. All the driving and errand-running and preparations she did. And we had no idea, no clue what was happening, what was about to happen.

Christmas was odd, with her upstairs in inexplicable agony, us downstairs opening gifts and giving each other knowing glances, casting our eyes up the stairs, wondering, concerned. She was absent and later told me she had little memory of that day, but we had her prior thoughtfulness with us downstairs. Warm socks. Chocolate. Coffee beans. Her tokens of consideration that have long been my favourite part of Christmas morning: my stocking, now a gift bag as my stocking now resides alongside my husband's and our children's in our own home.

She is so good at choosing gifts. I feel very much that I have failed to develop that talent at selecting small things that declare to the recipient "I thought of you" as every gift should. It is one thing to give a gift requested, a gift that fills a known need, but quite another to give a gift that fills a need unrealized, a need or desire the recipient did not know existed until the moment the gift is received and it shines a light on the need or desire it so instantly fills. 

To show someone that you think of them when you are away from them. That you carry them, carry their needs and their wants and their wishes in your heart always. That through your day you are thinking of them, considering them, wishing them well, wishing joy for them.

That is a gift.

It has me thinking about the greater Christmas celebrations in which our family participates. It's a challenge, as people who celebrate both popular culture Christmas, with Santa Claus and a tree and magic reindeer, as well as religious Christmas, with Jesus and Mary and Joseph and angels and shepherds and stars. How to explain to our children how one relates to the other? What, exactly, can they possibly have to do with one another?

And then I thought of my mother.

It's about the gift you didn't expect to receive, that you didn't know you needed, the gift you didn't think you'd want. An infant saviour? While under an oppressive and foreign regime? What use is that? 

It's the gift you didn't think you wanted. 

Monday, February 17, 2014


I wrote this post exactly one month ago. I'm finally ready to share it with you.

::   ::

I have to write it all down. I have to write it all down before it is lost.

I cut my dreads. After three and a half years, with my longest dreads reaching nearly to my waist, I cut them. I cut them just above my shoulders and then combed them out. I have loose hair again. My dreads are utterly gone.

To be frank, I had grown to hate washing them. They were, as I said, nearly waist length, and there were a lot of them, more than average - I have a lot of hair. They weighed a lot at the best of times, but wet? Oh, wet they were insanely heavy. I had neck pain every time I washed them, and they would be wet for 24 full hours after washing them. We've been having cold snaps and I would keep putting off and putting off washing them because the thought of having long, cold, wet dreads for a whole day when it's -30C outside and only about 16C inside was just intolerable. Practically, it made sense to let them go.

And then there's the whole thing with my mother's health. I have been intentionally vague in this space because it is a public space and because it isn't really my story, in the strictest sense, but hers. Suffice it to say that her health crisis has left me in an existentially considerate state, combined with a real inclination to avoid procrastination. Add into it that I found the thought of losing her before I had a chance to return to the loose, curling hair of my youth completely unbearable (I can't quite explain it, but there it is) and I found myself very devoted to the idea that it was time to lose the dreads.

But even so...I questioned it. I questioned whether I was just reacting to an impossible, insane, unfathomable situation. I debated with myself the value of releasing the dreads rather than just waiting, giving myself some time to adjust to our new paradigm. But every time - every time! - I would consider the possibility of releasing my dreads I would find myself thinking the same thoughts:

Who will I be without dreads?
How will anyone know that I am interesting if I don't have them?
What will make me special if I don't have dreads?
How will I be anything but boring if I don't have dreads?


I know that these thoughts are, at best, unfounded and, at worst, completely ludicrous. I know this. And I kept telling myself precisely that. That my dreads don't make me anything, that my dreads are not a sole source of interest or specialness or "cool". I told myself these things over and over and over again.

And I had a remarkably hard time believing any of it.

When I first started my dreads, I knew that they would look pretty horrible for a long time. I knew that there was a process and that I needed to respect or better yet embrace the process in order to get through that initial hard period before they started to really take shape and achieve a level of maturation that would make them finally look like dreads and not like a complete abandonment of personal hygiene. I prepared myself for that. What I was utterly unprepared for was the change that would take place within me. Within days of starting my dreads I Liberated. After years - decades! - of trying to make my hair conform, of worrying about fitting in and looking "right" and feeling like a giant failure in those regards pretty much all the time I found that, with dreads, I didn't care. Smooth, shiny, controlled hair? Impossible: I have dreads. Look like everyone else? Can't happen: I have dreads. Conform to the constraints of North American standards of beauty? Nope: dreads! So I was free of it. Free of worrying about it, of caring about it, of trying to achieve the impossible and, frankly, the totally unimportant. And it was glorious, glorious, I tell you.

The challenge, when I first dreaded my hair, was to feel comfortable and like myself with dreads. And it most certainly was challenging. The feelings of liberation began within days of starting my dreads but I only really entirely cast off the shackles of conformity months later. It took a long, long time to reset my own self-perception, my own priorities. It was work. But once I achieved it, I felt more myself, more genuine, more true, and far, far more beautiful than I ever had before. I woke up every morning and looked at my dreads in the mirror and felt just plain glad to look the way that I did. For all I know, it all helped me survive the post-partum depression, because as much as the PPD told me lies about myself - that I was a failure, that I was a terrible mother, that I was worthless - I did at least feel like I actually looked like myself for possibly the first time ever.

At five weeks

At five months

At thirteen months

So for more than three years I felt challenged but comfortable, myself, beautiful, in large thanks to my dreads. I don't like to say that my dreads made it happen, because that's unpleasantly passive and takes away all the agency I had in making that change happen within myself. Instead, I like to say that my dreads created the opportunity, they created the space for that inward change to happen. They did for my outward self what my inner self needed, and the change worked its way inward. And it was awesome. Awe inspiring. And I am forever grateful.

But lately, oh, lately it's been another matter and it quite took me by surprise. I thought of releasing them because of neck pain - and, perhaps, because of a general sense of boredom - and then was met with a faceful of low self-esteem and lack of self-worth and self-identity thoughts. I was astonished, truly. And I told myself over and over how ridiculous such thoughts were but they persevered. I couldn't shake them. 

I realized that the freedom my dreads had originally afforded me had slowly transformed into a sort of dependence. Whereas when I first considered starting dreads, the nasty high school girl in my head said "But you're not cool enough to have dreads. Poseur!" when I began to consider releasing them I heard my own scared, high school-y voice whimper "But how will I be cool if I don't have dreads? I'm not cool enough to not have dreads!" My dreads had become both a crutch and a stumbling block. They were standing in my way.

Many people describe their dreads as a journey, and when I first began my journey I thought it was simply because they are a long process to get to mature, formed locks. Now, having walked that journey for three and a half years, I can honestly say that that is not the case. They are a journey because I began in one place and I have ended up in a very different, very wonderful place. I can look back and see my path and appreciate just how far I have come. My dreads helped me walk that path. But in recent weeks I felt that I had arrived at my destination, that I was standing in the dusty road outside the door but could not enter so long as my hair remained the same. My dreads were for the journey, not for the destination. I had to let them go.

Because I am special. I am interesting. My dreads didn't add anything to me, they simply created the opportunity for me to realize these things about myself and the minute I began to question my own authenticity was the minute I was finished with them. But because I needed to be finished with them, not because I wanted to be.


A photographer, fellow babywearer and fellow dreadie friend said she wanted to photograph them before I cut them. Friday afternoon she came over and we took photos in our living room and out in the fresh Ottawa snow. After she left I felt a sense of closure, that I had done what last needed doing before I could take my big step. We ate dinner. We put the girls to bed. I had a big glass of wine, my sewing shears, a giant bottle of coconut oil conditioner and some combs (including the comb I had originally used to backcomb my dreads three and a half years ago) lined up on the dining room table. I took a photo of them. Then I stood, staring at the table, playing with my dreads. I gathered them in my two hands and piled on my head and let them fall over my shoulders. I twisted them up into a big knot, one of my favourite ways to wear them. I held them and stroked them and marvelled at the twisted, chaotic mass of them, the softness of the loose, curling ends, the stiffness of them. And I loved them. I loved them

I started to cry. 

Jon stood across the table from me and I felt embarrassed because it's just hair, it shouldn't matter, my God, after the last few weeks we've all had why do I even care. He hugged me and I tried to explain - and I think I maybe succeeded - why I knew I needed to let them go but all the fear I had about what would happen to me after. That I would return to feeling unremarkable, feeling easily overlooked, feeling ordinary in the most pedestrian way possible. I cried and talked for a good twenty minutes. Maybe longer. Jon asked me if I needed help to cut them, and I said no; it was something I needed to do myself.

Then I picked up the scissors, walked down the hall to the mirror and started cutting.

I instantly regretted it. But I was committed. And yet...there was a teeny glimmer of something in that moment when I felt the shears sink into that first dread, a tiny spark of something strong and astonishing. It was powerful. I felt powerful. I stood there, hating what I was doing but with a complete sense of conviction that it was what needed to happen and a true feeling of pride that, despite desperately not wanting to do so, I was doing what I knew in my heart to be the right thing.

Still, I wept. And I mean it, I wept audibly. As the pile of dreads at my feet grew I expected to feel more calm, as the sense of inevitability grew from getting further and further into the process. But I wept harder, realizing just how impossible it was to undo what I had done. I got no sense of relief from the knowledge that there was no going back. 

But then, another glimmer. As I dropped the last dread at my feet I looked at my short, choppy dreads objectively. "Actually," I commented to Jon as I stared at myself in the mirror, "it's kind of cute." 

A big part of me still wishes I had stopped there, just left them short. I wish I could say differently, but honestly, I do.

But I didn't stop there. I slathered my short dreads up, one by one, with coconut conditioner and started combing. I sat on the couch with my glass of wine and combed. I combed for three hours Friday night.

I combed for seventeen hours Saturday. I took breaks to eat and refill my cup of coffee. Seventeen hours. And then I combed for another ten hours Sunday.

Twenty-nine hours. By midway through Sunday afternoon I was rather wishing I had just hacked them off at the roots and been done with it, though realistically I know that I would still be crying today if I had actually gone that route. Ultimately, I am very glad that I have the length that I have.

Today is the fourth day post-cut. I still feel raw. In a way I feel rather exposed, naked, vulnerable, which to my mind is just further evidence that I was hiding behind my dreads, or wearing them as some sort of armour, or using them as a sort of crutch. I was depending on them in a way that wasn't contributing to my being free and liberated anymore. I think a large part of my aching for my dreads boils down to a sense of failure: had I only been able to cast off those feelings of inadequacy without dreads, that sense of my dreads being what really made me interesting or special, I could have kept them. I could have had more time with them.

I suspect that a lot of the tears were not just fear or sorrow over letting go of my dreads, but catharsis from the past month's madness. I hadn't really let myself release everything, I hadn't allowed myself to experience my feelings. Even in cutting them, in ending my dreadlock journey, my dreads served to create a healing space, an opportunity for me to let those feelings out. Amazing.

I haven't yet adjusted to how I look now. I still feel a certain sense of shock that I actually did this. But my hair - hair that has only ever been washed with baking soda and vinegar and water and natural conditioner - is in remarkable condition. It is incredibly soft, not at all frizzy as it used to be. It turns out that all those years of struggle with frizziness could have been avoided by simply foregoing commercial shampoos and what I am left with post-dreads is soft and lovely. My daughters are already enjoying playing with my hair, and perhaps most helpful is that they aren't reacting to the change in my appearance all that much. It's reassuring: I am still me.

Releasing my dreads has thrown into stark relief some of the matters about myself that I have avoided examining. I find myself left with a feeling not of conclusion but of a whole new work to do. It's good work, valuable and worthy, but work nonetheless. Before I released my dreads I found that I kept visualizing standing in the path outside of a town gate. I felt that I had to release my dreads in order for that door to be opened to me. But now, I find that beyond that door is not a destination as I had imagined but simply another stretch of path.

The journey is the destination.

|| All watermarked photos care of  Amy Jay Photo

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

it's been real

I have a cold. It's my second sinus cold since the beginning of the new year and while it's hardly terrible, it's inconvenient. My joy in winter is wearing thin between repeated deep-freezes and repeated colds. 

Nine years ago today, Jon and I married. But I'm sick, so to celebrate he stayed home from work. He worked a bit this morning, made lunch, took Peanut to dance class this afternoon. We gave Bubby a bath. Peanut was in a foul mood through much of the day.

It wasn't the most romantic or special day, but it was real. Life is real. It's beautiful and it's ugly and it's wonderful and it is hard, hard, hard. It's colds and meals and loads of dirty dishes and stretched budgets and petulant kids and brushing tangled hair and cleaning up all manner of bodily messes and wet dogs and frustration. And it's toddlers sharing your pillow and long cuddles with a 5 year old who hasn't yet grown into her feelings and witnessing beautiful little people growing up and having the privilege of walking this road together.

Nine years. It's been real. Here's to decades more real.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

the farther shore

You trust it's there.

You trust that over, through, beyond the heaving waves there is solid footing. There is a place of rest and deep, easy breaths and calm. 

You trust that there is a farther shore. You trust that you will reach it and walk again. 

You trust you will not always be swimming. Grasping. Gasping.

You trust. 

Because there is nothing else for it but to cast yourself into the waters and swim.


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