Tick Tock

Time’s deceptive des/ascent is chaotic, but I think I’ve managed to nail down a pattern in amongst the madness.

Coming up on a D-Day, whether it’s moving, starting a new job, or a much anticipated concert, Time is that age spotted, balding man in the broke down 4×4 Chevy, petering along in front of you when you’re already running late. He taps the breaks, he waits for invisible cars at intersections where he has the right of way, he stops for every little old lady wanting to cross in the middle of the block.

But once the old guy finally, blessedly turns off to putt and sputter his way down a side street, you suddenly realize “Holy crap. I’m here.” In other words, once you get there, the getting-there doesn’t feel as long.

I’m six, “short” days away from hopping a plane that will take me to the other side of the country. Farewell – at least for now – to the city I have considered my “heart home” since I was 13.  Oh, it’s not the city’s fault. I’ve come to the conclusion that one should never attend university in a city they love, or expected to love. Inevitably, some of the stress of schooling seeps out and soaks into the fabric of city itself, leaving it somewhat tainted, worse for wear after all the studying and sweating and late nights finishing assignments.  As far as I can see, it’s unavoidable. The only surefire way avoid such a conundrum is to attend school in places you already don’t like.

I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek, of course.  I certainly don’t hate Halifax – far from it – and if I’m being completely honest, the unexpectedly cold winter probably has as much to do with my fleeing as does the demanding course work. But I do think that moving somewhere for a motive besides pleasure can put a bit of a damper on the locale after a while.

That, however, is neither here nor there. What is here, is the painfully front-and-centre fact that I am wading through the final three minutes of my fourth-to-last day of work, closing in on eight hours that feel more like twenty seven. And I have work to do, but my eyes seem demonically possessed, drawn to those fateful digital digits in the bottom corner of my computer screen.  Since when are there thirteen minutes between 3:47 and 3:54?

But when I get home, I can cross another day off a calendar now heavy with the thick, black ink I’ve been scratching across its surface for 43 days. I’m into the final countdown. I’m on the home stretch. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Funny – it’s shaped an awful lot like Life.

 

My Life light is more like an explosion...

My Life light is more like an explosion…

 

The Busyness Factor

I’ve been reading this new book – Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte – for a book review.  In it, the Washington Post reporter studies our impressive (or depressing) ability to overwork ourselves into a state of exhaustion for no identifiable reason.

It’s an entertaining book, the statistics expertly interwoven with personal anecdotes, and it’s making me feel kind of lazy.  That’s silly, because I assume her ultimate point is we shouldn’t feel eternally rushed and stressed and unfinished. But even with that fact solid in my mind, I can’t help feeling like a less productive and useful member of society because I can easily bookmark 30 hours of leisure time in my week (something a sociologist known as Father Time says everyone is able to do, even if they don’t know it).

To be fair, I did just come out of an intense, eight-month post-graduate program and currently work as an intern for a magazine where “chill” is built right into their title. I guess I probably earned a regular 9 to 5-style gig, at least for awhile. Furthermore, Schulte seems to be focusing on corporate mothers and I’m about as far from being one of those as I am from being a gorilla. Nevertheless, busyness is something generally so smiled upon in our modern culture that those of us “lucky” enough to have time for back-to-back episodes of Revenge end up feeling guilty about the time we aren’t spent tearing out our hair and doing seven things at once.

It’s sad, isn’t it?  Nothing against people who live insanely hectic lives (an accurate adjective, since that’s pretty much what busyness leads to), but shouldn’t those of us who legitimately have time for ourselves be proud of that fact? Instead of spending group lunches outdoing each other with our crazy schedules (something Oliver Burkeman calls busy-bragging), shouldn’t we be patting ourselves on our collective head for leaving work at the office, or excelling at recognizing what is dire and what can wait?

Everyone says they wish they had more free time, but as Schulte points out, often we don’t even know what to do with those minutes when they present themselves – often because they are precisely that: mere minutes.

I know I’m not currently the poster child for it, but burnout is a very real thing. Arianne Huffington (yes, that Huffington) wrote a book about it. And it pretty much always starts with an inability to stop. An inability to breathe in fresh air, to watch a squirrel on a tree branch or an episode of Real Housewives. To do whatever makes us calm down, and re-centre, and feel well (that’s emotionally well) enough to get up tomorrow and run our butts off again.

So hey – take time.

 

photo (5)So much to do!

Minding the Moment

Have you heard of mindfulness?

It’s becoming a rather hefty trend this year, though I hesitate to call such a movement the nasty “T” word, lest it be grouped next to denim onesies and spectacles with clear glass. But you know something has some clout when within months of one another, Huffington Post calls 2014 the Year of Mindfulness, Time puts the word on their February 2014 cover, and Esquire hails it something to give up in the new year, along with “liking things ironically” and “chillaxing”.  (Though four months earlier they published articles entitled “The Mindfulness Project” and “Meditation: A Call to Action,” so I think they’re saying it ironically.)

My introduction to mindfulness came almost accidentally.

A few months ago, while trying to figure out how to classify the kind of magazine I want to work for (and, more immediately, intern for), I came up with the phrase “mindful living.” I don’t know if I actually knew what mindful meant, but to me it implied holistic health, incorporating Eastern teachings and body/mind practices into our Western existence – that sort of thing. Most likely, I had glimpsed the word here and there in recent weeks.

Incidentally, what came up when I typed this term into a search engine was a magazine called Mindful, which happens to be published in the same city I attended school, and is where I am currently doing my internship.

But my internship isn’t the point of this post.

Mindfulness is basically the act of being in the moment, of not dwelling on past or future events but focusing on the now.  Integrating that celebration of the now that some Eastern religions follow, but without any of the religion bits. Mindfulness is all about secular accessibility for everyone.

So I’ve been dabbling in this idea of improved contemplation. When it comes to dredging up past events and reliving them, complete with all the feelings they caused at the time, I’m a pro. All I have to do is flash back to that time I was … oh no. I’m not going there. Suffice to say, I’ll live it over and over again – one of the joys of having a really good long term memory.

And yesterday, when I was thinking this would make a suitable weekly blog post, it occurred to me that mindfulness is kind of exactly what My Transient Reality is going for. Noticing the little things in a big picture world. That big picture world seems to be all “rush, rush for the future and nostalgia for the way it was.” So, in that sloppy metaphor, isn’t mindfulness noticing the little things?

So far I’m doing 10-minute meditations each evening, and just trying to remember to appreciate where I am, when I’m somewhere. Anywhere.

I’ll keep you posted.

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Hey look: Life!

You know when you’re reading the first book in a series and you’re really, really excited to get to the last chapter so you can start the second book, but you’re also a little apprehensive because it means you’re that much closer to the end?

This week feels to me like the snail’s pace turning of that page just before the epilogue, and while part of me is straining to flip it! Flip it!!, another inside bit is scrambling to backtrack, re-read the chapters before, start all over again – anything to avoid having to close the back cover.

Chapters in our lives are as multitudinous and inescapable as they are unpredictable. We might be expecting a brief, ten-page foray into the world of post-secondary school, only to find ourselves riveted within one hundred pages of post-grad, and thesis, and doctorate. We may assume our current romantic entanglement will be one book in and of itself, only to find the next page a blank, all future installments suddenly erased.

Alright, the book metaphor has burned itself out.

I think most people are at least a touch afraid to face the next step in their lives – at least on those occasions where the Next Step is one clearly delineated by, say, a graduation or a resignation. But we have to remember that we’re always taking next steps, even when we aren’t dwelling on them.

Add to that the fact that everyone’s big next steps are different. To one person, moving in with their partner could be absolutely earth-shattering, while to another it could be the most natural progression in the world. One guy might start new jobs every six months and think nothing of his latest relocation, while the other suffers weeks of sleep deprivation leading up to the change. Our individual reactions to specific situations don’t alter the fact that life moves forward at some pace or other.

Sometimes those changes happen in quick succession, until that banging becomes a thudding tempo in our heads we’re absolutely desperate to quell. Bam! Finished classes. Bam! Start internship. Bam! Finish internship. Bam! Fly home. Bam! Drive to the other end of the country.

Bam! Hold up, before my hair starts turning white and my dreams become an indistinguishable mass of realizing I’m not wearing pants. It’s disconcerting, and unavoidable, and tantalizing, and exhilarating – all at once.

And I’m certainly counting down the days, and feeling my stomach knot at random moments. I’m definitely planning to eat whole bags of chips and find little opportunities to separate myself from the inevitable by getting lost in a novel or a tv show. Those are my ways of dealing, and while some of them are small works of escapism (Houdini I am not), they’re all normal and I’m accepting them as such.

So – deep breath in, because that’s all we can do. And deep breath out, because it’s not worth losing hair or sleep over. It’s just life.

Yeah, it’s coming on faster than Keanu driving city transit, but at least you’re alive.

Thoughts on Walks

rain-for-web

On the streets of Halifax, there huddle a fair number of panhandlers, extending their Tim Hortons cups and repeating “Spare change? Have a good day,” like a mumbled mantra, over and over. I walk past, saying “No, sorry,” if I’m in the mood, or nothing, if it’s been that kind of day.

I don’t give change on principle. First of all – I don’t have a lot of money. Sure, I could part with my loonies now and again, but if I gave change to one person, it would be difficult to say no to the next.  Secondly – I know it’s a generalization (and perhaps an unfair one), but I’m concerned with where that money is going. My own tea money could be buying coffee or soup from the nearest and cheapest shop, but it could also be going toward a mickey of rye or a box of cigarettes. While I understand that for some people, smoking is their one, final tendril of joy, I take issue with supporting that.

But donate or not, the journalist in me wonders how these people got where they are. Are they literally homeless, hoping to up their meagre take before slinking into the alleyway best keeping the wind at bay? Are they on social assistance, just enough to pay rent in their waterlogged and peeling-painted apartment, hoping to subsist on more than just rice this week? Or are they either of the above, coupled with some heartbreaking habit or disability, and for whatever reason overlooked – and ultimately failed – by the systems put in place specifically to help them.

I won’t know, unless I go around asking, and even then the factuality relies on general human honesty. It doesn’t matter, in the end. Each of those options describe someone deserving of assistance. Unfortunately, it’s not assistance I feel I can give, at the moment.

Yesterday, a youngish man approached me, seeking spare change for bus fare. I use a pass, so I could quite honestly say I had none. The kid next to me answered in suit but, perhaps because this second option was of the same gender, the applicant was a bit more insistent, adding it was for coffee, actually. He moved on upon receiving a firmer negative, and I rummaged in my bag until I found the Tim Horton’s cup rim I’d won a coffee on few days ago. I had been holding onto it until someone asked me for change.  It wasn’t that generous of me – I don’t drink coffee, so I would never have used it.

The man wasn’t terribly grateful – either he wasn’t sure what I’d given him, or he had wanted real money for something else – but I’d done something, and that felt good. Maybe I’ll walk around with a thermos and cups some chilly day, or cheap umbrellas on an evening like this one. (I saw a man on my way home from school, cup out, resigned to the rain. They probably get their lowest amount on such days, when everyone’s watching their feet.)

Someday, when I have money, I’ll donate to a worthy charity. Someday, when I have time, I’ll volunteer at a shelter or a soup kitchen. Someday, we’ll all do something to help those in need.

Procrastination is a disadvantaged person’s worst enemy, I’d imagine.

 

*Lou

A New Leaf

There’s a tendency – and I hesitate to claim myself the only victim – to start out gung ho on a project, only to have enthusiasm taper off until whatever it may be – regular journaling, a photo a day, a young adult novel – is relegated to a very occasional time-killer practiced as desperate filler once every miniscule surface in the apartment has been dusted.

I do this with many, many things. When I was a flaky kid, I took a mere, single season of children’s choir (in my defense, it was very religious, and the director was not nice), karate (I think I broke my baby toe on a bench and it never properly healed), and gymnastics (how was I supposed to know I’d one day become yoga-obsessed and could have really benefited from the ingrained flexibility).

Now that I’m a marginally less flaky adult (quote, end quote), I’m not as eager to drop activities (since I’m usually paying for them), with the exception of gym memberships, which are notoriously difficult to utilize to th

eir full potential. But my tendency hasn’t dispersed, it has simply relocated. Now, I lose …  not interest, exactly, maybe it’s momentum – in the very examples I offered above: keeping a journal, taking regular photos, writing my book. 

When I step back from the needless floor-scrubbing, and really think about it, it’s upsetting.  I often wonder if I possess combustible passion, ever disconnecting and reordering, or if – as a friend kindly suggested – I just have so many passions that it’s impossible to keep up with all of them, all the time 

Either way, this distraction has unfortunately made its way into my blog-keeping. I was reliable in the beginning: I posted weekly, sometimes even daily. Then life kind of stepped in and took over, and suddenly I was only posting articles written for something else that might arguably apply to the loose content boundaries of my website. Or when something really phenomenal happened.

And that’s exactly what My Transient Reality isn’t about. It’s supposed to revel in the ordinary beauty of everyday life, not hang stale for months while its moderator/author waits for something extraordinarily exciting to occur 

So this moderator/author has a new goal, one that might be pushed aside when next the dust settles on the windowsills but, alternately, might just be fastened like a sticky note on the mirror, now that it’s been verbalized.

One post a week. A quandary, a query, a musing, whatever pops to mind. But with regularity, and with gusto.

Always with gusto.

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Questioning love, in 126 minutes

I recently saw the new Phoenix/Johansson movie Her, and I’m feeling particularly introspective.

I generally shy away from the dramatic genre.  When I actually sit down to watch one I often enjoy it, but until until I’m suitably drawn in I maintain a preference for a light comedy where I can zone out and laugh, or an action flick where I can imagine I’m rescuing Tom Cruise.

Her is funnier than I expected, which in itself says something.  There’s so many trailers these days that I watch almost as shorthand.  Oh wonderful, now I don’t have to see the movie.  A real time saver.  But I was surprised by this movie, which I find doesn’t often happen anymore.  I had no idea what would happen next.  What a groundbreaking concept!

So the funny got me through the first fifteen minutes without regret.  The story, the characters, the acting, and the artistic effects got me through the rest.

This movie is beautiful.  Colours play some intimate role that my overtly practical mind hasn’t been able to grasp. (Maybe I’ll sit straight up in bed at three am with all meaning perfectly clear.)  Long-held close-ups of inanimate objects evoke the sense of something still, something deep, something you’ll take away later and think about, which really, any movie claiming any kind of profundity should make you do.

The movie is set ever so slightly in the future.  My constant eye-out for fashion was rewarded by interesting, subtle shifts like a return of the high waist, flat-fronted men’s trouser of the late 19th century (I’m thinking Oscar Wilde here).  In the feminine wardrobe, a little bit of the sharp, geometric shapes we often associate with futuristic, though nothing blatant.

Throughout the movie, I kept thinking that the tag line could have (but shouldn’t have) been “what is love?”  Because that’s really what the movie explores.  How do you define love, and how does love define you?  Is love what everyone else thinks is acceptable, or just what you think? Does love require the physical to be real and – metaphorically – tangible? Is love the same for everyone, at the root of it?

Her doesn’t seek to answer these questions for viewers, it just poses them.  Different characters reactions to the unconventional relationship in the story outline the options, but don’t force them.  Each reaction is believable and understandable, and some viewers will lean toward one or another simply on account of human nature.

The question of “human” comes up as well.   What makes us human, and what separates the traditional human concept from the increasingly realistic simulations cropping up within our intensely technical world?

In a time where actual, physical, face to face interaction is rapidly being replaced by IMs and DMs and voice messaging, do our concepts of humans – and thusly human relationships – begin to change? Should they?  And if physical closeness in general is fading, mustn’t intimacy inevitably change as well?

So – what is love?  And if we do figure it out, for just us or universally, who’s to say it isn’t going to change with the next system upgrade?

her

No hearth, but it’s still home.

Have you ever been in a situation where you’re really pissed off at your crappy circumstance, but at the same time find yourself hyper-aware of the fact that other people have it way way worse than you?

I’m not talking about ‘First World Problems’.  When my phone dies and I have no charger, or I forget my laptop when headed for a weekend away – somewhere in the recesses of my mind I usually realize that yeah, I should be happy I have a phone and a laptop.  But that’s not what I mean this time.  To clarify:

I returned from my Saskatchewan Christmas holiday (the lesser known cheesy 80′s family show…) on January 1st.  I didn’t want to leave, but once I was on the plane, my wants angled sharply toward just getting home to my nice little apartment, where my clothes are hanging in a closet, not stuffed in a suitcase and where, when I need to get into the bathroom, there isn’t someone else occupying it!

I had turned my heat down before I left to avoid wasting it, so I wasn’t surprised or irritated by the chill in my unit.  That is, until I was part way through unpacking and realized that the chill wasn’t going away, that the thermometer was still sulking ominously at the far left of the thermostat.  Excellent.

It was New Years Day though, and 8 pm to boot, and I knew that nothing would get dealt with that night.  So I cocooned myself inside a cozy blanket underneath my duvet and spent the night in relative warmth, comforted by the thought that it was just a glitch.  When I woke up the next morning, all would be well.

Not so much.  The next morning it was still freezing.  Possibly even more freezing.   As soon as the rental office was open, I ran across the street to report my issue.  The agent there promised to send maintenance over right away.

The maintenance guy found a burst pipe in my radiator (oh, that explained the water on the floor…), and he and a plumber set about replacing it.  Long (long, long) story short, it wasn’t just a burst pipe – it was a number of iced up passages all throughout the building and I wasn’t the only one without heat.

Cut to three days later.  I’m sitting here toasty warm in my hotel room a few blocks from my apartment.  Half of the suites in my building still have no heat.   So back to the question I posed.

I am lucky to have parents awesome enough, and well off enough, to put me up in a hotel for a couple days until my apartment is no longer colder than the inside of my fridge (honest-to-goodness).  But I live in a low-income part of town, in a building occupied – largely – by low-income people. 

There has been no offer by the building owners or landlords to pay for hotel rooms, nor have any heaters been passed around. (I was granted one the second night but it was a piece of crap and, I assume, the only one.)  Most of the tenants in my building are sitting there, bundled up in every sweater and bulky pair of socks they own, shivering on the couch watching TV. 

This is how I imagine them at least, because it’s what I did the first day – it was all I could do.  It’s too cold to have your hands uncovered for more than a few minutes; forget about chopping veggies for supper, or working at the computer.  To make matters even more story-worthy, yesterday there was a massive blizzard, during which everything more than six feet away was obscured by wickedly blowing snow.  Forget running out to pick up a heater, or pizza for supper.

I’ll be holed up in my rented room until my suite is habitable.  But others are stuck in their equally uninhabitable suites with no alternative.

How’s that for lucky?  I might be seriously annoyed at my unfortunate situation, but at least I can feel my toes.

*Lou

Home for the Holidays

plane wing

At 6:36 this morning, an unmarked SUV pulls up outside the lobby of my apartment, crimping the first snowfall beneath its weight.  I wait with my collection of luggage: a big, black Jeep-brand suitcase, stuffed to the max with clothes by a someone who only excels at travelling light when she actually cares.  A black book bag packed full of a computer, crocheting supplies, granola bars and an empty water bottle.  My camera case – a carry-on all its own since you couldn’t pay me enough to put my precious camera into checked luggage (unless, mind you, you paid me enough to purchase a new and better replacement).  I miraculously managed to pack most of my purse’s contents into the book bag, throwing the near-empty grey canvas satchel into my suitcase.

A young man with a moustache he forgot to shave off post-Movember climbs out of the driver’s seat and waves.  I had expected a taxi light on top and am wary.   Even though this is a self-startup company that primarily offers cheap transportation to and from the airport for students, the car that had picked my mother and me up at the airport four months ago looked like any other taxi van.  Mind you, it had also been the type equipped with a wheelchair lift.  I fanagle my current driver into confirming his origin before I leave the relative security of the unlocked lobby.  The fact that it is still full dark and the vehicle is unexpectedly and unaccountably full of people doesn’t serve to lessen my concern.

I drag my ridiculously heavy suitcase down the concrete steps.  As he takes it from me and hefts it into the back, I see that the other four passengers – one in front, two squished into the middle bench seat and one in the back, which must have a fold-down seat since my luggage is tossed back there too – are evidently all students as well.  I figure this was alright – eco-consciousness aside, when you book as a group, you only pay $20 for the ride, as opposed to $30 when you book alone.  I figure I should get the discount, since I now have to crumple myself onto a bench seat next to a blonde girl I’ve never seen before, and fumble for the seatbelt latch while consciously avoiding  grabbing a handful of random bum.

The driver hops into the front seat and starts the car.

“Good thing your friend didn’t end up coming,” he says to the girl in front, “Or we wouldn’t have had room.”   That’s comforting.  If their friend had come, I might not have had a ride.

He starts the car.  Immediately, a very particular brand of music is pumped from the speakers.  It isn’t obnoxiously loud, but the onslaught of f-bombs and yo’mothas that emerges – courtesy of The Nortorious B.I.G., the digital faceplate announces in cheerful blue – rather catches me off guard.  Sure, none of the passengers are grannies or toting small children, but really? Blasting inappropriate music in a cab isn’t exactly the height of good taste.

Maybe he is distracted by the sweet bass beats of his tunes, but my confidence in our chauffeur isn’t increased when, a few minutes later, he slides through an intersection and nearly collides with the crossroad’s center meridian.

Other than the cabbie’s initial comment and one instance of the girl in the front seat twisting round to show a picture on her phone to the two beside me, the vehicle is completely silent.  Talking over the not-so-eloquent lyrics of the song would be uncomfortable even if everyone knew one another.

I happen to be the only one catching a domestic flight, so the driver pulls over to let me out earlier than the rest.  The less than enjoyable trip is fittingly wrapped up when he asks for $30.  I think about commenting, but decide it isn’t worth it. I give him $30.   Call me harsh, but being the lucky seat-filler, sitting awkwardly surrounded by strangers, subjection to unsavory music and still being charged the single-rider amount equals no tip, in my book.

I am grateful for the lack of stairs for the remainder of my time with the stupid-heavy suitcase.  I roll into baggage check and in a matter of a minute my boarding pass (now handily available on mobile devices) is scanned and my bag tagged.  I’m instructed to lie it wheels up on the conveyor belt behind the desk, but the damned thing is so clumsy that it slides away before I manage to topple it from standing.  A flight attendant kindly tips it for me with a sympathetic chuckle.

I go through security right away, though my flight is still an hour off.  Security is uneventful, which is somewhat disappointing.  I guess if I want a blog-worthy strip-search story, I need to work on looking more suspicious.  A security guard does earn a heartfelt smile when he calls me ‘miss’.  I get a bit testy when people call me – me, who doesn’t even look my actual (and still sprightly) age! – ma’am.

After that, there’s nothing left to do but trek down to my gate and sit tight.  Rows of grey, pleather seating stretch out on either side of the Gate 22.  Rocking chairs – an ingenious addition new mothers no doubt laud – sit between the rows near the windows.

The flight boards without incident.  I have a fleeting moment of hope that the passenger slated to sit beside me has come down with strep throat or a case of the pox before a large man trundles down the isle to snuggle in beside me.

On this particular flight – two rocky hours from Halifax International to Toronto – I learn a valuable lesson.  Once you’re past the excitement of staring out the window (usually attained after one or two round trips), always request an isle seat.  My bunkmate nods off (head tilted back, mouth wide open betwixt scraggly ‘stache and untrimmed goatee) the instant the plane takes flight.  Due to a fair bit of turbulence, the few times he awakes the seatbelt light has been activated, keeping me from leaving my seat.  Needless to say, my first stop upon disembarking is the nearest restroom.

My luck improves in the Toronto airport.  I have time to a grab Starbucks soy chai latte and discover the gate I need is the selfsame gate I just came out of.  Sometimes airlines are kind like that.  I spend the remaining twenty minutes or so marveling at the fact that Toronto’s duty-free section is like a shockingly well-stocked shopping mall.  Why would you buy anything and pay the extra tax when everything you could ever need – from Body Shop bath bombs to a vending machine-supplied iPod – is available for purchase after security.

Toronto-home is painless and uneventful.  The man to my right this time around is thoughtful enough to pass the time watching a movie rather than snoring, so I am unhindered on my trip to the bathroom (minus the usual awkwardness of having every single person on the plane watch you go by, fully aware of exactly what you’re about to do in the questionable privacy of a unisex cupboard).

We land with zero fanfare on a runway surrounded by an awful lot of snow, and the pilot cheerfully announces it’s currently a balmy -25 degrees in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

It’s a long and tedious trip, and it’s hours and days from the longest and most tedious there is.  It’s funny how all the toe tapping and sitting and twitching and window-gazing becomes momentary and absolutely worth it in every regard the second I see the smiling face I missed so much waiting by luggage claim to sweep me into his arms.

ground from plane

From the outside looking in: a foray into non-fiction

Have you ever wanted to know someone’s deepest, darkest secrets and not have to reciprocate with skeletons of your own?

You should consider a career in narrative non-fiction!

Actually, if your primary goal is to expose the dirties in someone’s closet, maybe you’d better choose a different path (burning sources, and all that).  But there is something fascinating about knowing pages and pages of information about a person, and realizing one day along the line that they know comparatively nothing about you.

I recently had the opportunity (and may I just say, the absolute joy) of spending a whole whack of time with a person employed in a rather under-discussed profession, about which quite little is known – at least as far as my own circles are concerned.

She is a music therapist.  That’s right – someone who helps people deal with issues by using music.

I know what you’re thinking – who wouldn’t want to spend their days singing and dancing and handing little plastic maracas around to happy people?

But the profession is far from light, easy sessions of sit-n-swap-songs.  Imagine how trying it is to spend your time, day in and day out, with people with development disabilities, or youth at risk, or elderly folks fading away with dementia.  I definitely couldn’t do it.

Even just spending a few sessions with this woman (who is probably one of the most amazing people I have ever met – I couldn’t say that in my impartial story, but I can tell you now), I was exhausted.  There are definite perks, like watching a silent little boy with autism smile during a song.  But there are heartbreaking sights, too, like a two-year-old who doesn’t wiggle and fuss and laugh like two-year-olds should, but rather lies limp in your arms because she was born with practically no muscle tone.

I came away from the sessions emotionally drained.  Not always negatively.  Sometimes there was just so much energy – and I’m an introvert, so I don’t get energized by mass excitement.

It’s also exhausting to spend two hours asking questions and listening to answers.  Yes, yes, because it’s difficult for me to keep my mouth shut, har har.  But honestly, in a lengthy interview you are listening so actively.  You are constantly on the lookout for a mention of something you can branch off of, something that might provide an unexpected insight into the person’s psyche, or uncover something they hadn’t meant to reveal.

And when the assignment was over, I walked away with my head and my recorder and my notebook chock full of things about her: where she grew up, her first musical memory, her mother’s former profession.  And she doesn’t even know I have a dog.

The point of all this, I guess, is to reflect on how different it is to write a narrative non-fiction story – that’s what these immersive, long-style research pieces consisting entirely of truth and zero fabrication are called – than to write, say, a 500-word article on a college food bank.   It’s not that it’s more important that a shorter piece, it’s just completely, miles away, different.

At the end of such an assignment, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling an unreal surge of accomplishment.  Maybe it’s because I’m historically dreadful at sticking with long term projects, but I scrolled through those 3000 words about a person I feel I know better than I know a lot of my friends and just thought ‘Wow.  Do you see what you did here, dude? You wrote a story – not an article, something creative and hopefully engaging to read – and you didn’t make anything up.  You didn’t exaggerate a colour, or fabricate a laugh, or make up a scene for metaphorical purposes.  You made art out of simply what you saw and heard.’

And that’s pretty neat.