My Screen-free Weekend (#NotQuite)

I’ve had lots of screen-free time before, when camping or travelling, and of course, for the decade or so of my life when the only screen was a black and white tv tucked in a dank basement.

With *everything* going on and the end of my online coursework for now, I decided to have a screen-free weekend at home. Just me, cats, books, pens, notebooks, crossword puzzles and the outdoors. I told a few key people I’d be off-grid, set my phone on Do Not Disturb at 5 on Friday, and tucked my laptop away. It was a great experience – highly recommend – but it didn’t go as planned.

My Journal

Hour one: My fingers are already covered in fountain pen ink. Life couldn’t be more perfect.

Hour two (actually, first 15 minutes, just lived in denial a bit longer): I can’t wait to tweet about this. I’ll take a picture of … oh. Can’t take pictures.

Hour two (for real): WAIT! It’s not really offline if I’m thinking about what I’m going to post online.

No more journal.

Well, lots more journal, but the kind where I’m writing to sort out my thoughts and feelings (or to enjoy a new ink), not crafting potential social media posts.

Lessons Learned

The funniest lesson was that I have no way of knowing the weather forecast without a screen and that my ability to read the clouds and wind is, um, less reliable than I’d imagined. Laughing out loud is good for the soul though, so every time the snowflakes hit my sunglasses and bare ankles, my soul (and the occasional dog walker) got a treat.

Sleep

It came as a great surprise that I could fall asleep – and wake up! – without playing spider solitaire or boggle on my phone for an hour. I turned out the light, got comfortable, and boom, eight hours of the good stuff. I do usually sleep alright, but without the game playing my eight hours started and ended earlier, so there I was, up and raring to go at 5:30 a.m. (Truth is, it was before 5 a.m., I’m just embarrassed about how early I go to bed.)

From now on, the only games I’ll play in bed will involve another person! (post-pandemic, sigh)

TIME

Ridiculous amounts of time. So. Much. Time. I’d had no particular plan to get a lot done, no big projects to tackle, but I was full of energy and there were no tweets or YouTube rabbit holes to get expend it on. I did a full day’s worth of chores around the house and, oh look, it’s 8 a.m.

It was all the extra time that did me in. I’d done more writing, reading, cleaning, walking, cooking, yoga, laundry and crossword puzzles than I imagined possible over the span of a week, and it wasn’t even dinner time. Maybe I had a lot of pent-up energy, I don’t know, but I ran out of things to do. I wasn’t bored, just done with the activities I’d been doing. Reading and writing need time to marinate, to float around in my head before I jump into the next world of words.

Focus

Every task I did got my undivided attention. Time stretched out, so there was no fluster if I needed to go back down to the basement or up to the attic for something or start over when things weren’t working out as planned. All those little mistakes I make when I’m rushing? Gone.

I use the Notes app on my phone to jot down random thoughts about what I need to do or check or buy. This weekend, when I had one of those thoughts, I wrote it on a sticky note. No big deal, right? Wrong! The first time it happened, I was making fudge and thought of a great christmas gift for my brother (non-fudge-related, no spoilers here). I wrote it down and … went back to the fudge. I didn’t see a bunch of notifications and click through to find out who was messaging me or liked an old tweet, no googling, I just made fudge. Using paper for quick notes is another change that’s going to stick. The fudge, by the way, is not complicated to make, yet somehow turned out way better this time than usual. Focus.

Cats

Our cats are not the stand-offish sort. They expect (demand?) constant attention and affection, and only settle into their hundred hours of sleep a day when they’re near (or on) a person. They were unsettled by my pottering around. They are 100% enablers of a couch-potato lifestyle. They’re also unused to being left alone now because I work from home a lot and my daughter’s school hours are less than half of usual. I did all my outdoor wanderings in one long trip to minimize their trauma, but it meant I was exhausted and hungry when I got home. Their neediness and my hangriness were a rough combination.

We found our balance again (we all had treats). But the tears in my perfect day had started, and I worried at them, pulling threads of dissatisfaction and regret. Why did I try to DO so much today? Why didn’t I just let myself BE?

Avoiding Avoidance

Almost every time I thought of reaching for my phone or laptop I realized it was because I was trying to avoid something. An unpleasant emotion? Let’s take a picture of a cat. Task I want to have done but am not really thrilled about the ‘doing’ part? Online window-shopping seems so appealing. This played out over and over again. I can still avoid things without technology, really I’m a master at it, so the interesting thing to me was the noticing. Reaching for my phone is a sign I can use to notice active avoidance.

I Gave In

Almost 24 hours to the minute from when I turned things off, I desperately wanted them back on. I’d finished a great novel (The Long Call by Ann Cleeves, also highly recommend) and wasn’t ready to start a new one. I couldn’t do more exercise, my butt was already screaming every time I shifted my weight and I’ve learned that overdoing it physically lands me in a bad mood. My writing needed to percolate too. It was getting dark outside, the cats were relaxed for the first time all day, and I thought, I’ll do a jigsaw puzzle! Except I thought it without that exclamation mark.

I tried just sitting, savouring a glass of wine. I wrote in my journal. After an hour of distracting myself from my obsessive thoughts about it, I convinced myself that the only thing I could possibly do was read the non-fiction e-book I had started on my laptop. It was on loan from the library after all, and the sooner I was done with it, the sooner someone else could enjoy it.

Without google, I couldn’t find out if there was a way to turn on my laptop without seeing all the messages and notifications because I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist checking them. I’ll tell you, it took me a long while to come up with the brilliant idea to turn off the internet, just unplug my router. No wifi, no worries.

I read my ebook (but couldn’t return it to the library without the internet, oops). I have many other books I could have read. I don’t know why the pull of opening a device was so strong. It wasn’t social media I missed, and certainly not the news, it was the familiarity and comfort of sitting with my happy MacBook. I used it more on Sunday too, to type up and edit the work I’d done Saturday on my own book and a freelance job.

I went to bed without spider solitaire and woke up with a paw in my face at 6:20 on Sunday. I loved not having my phone there as I started the day.

What next?

Experiencing the shock of time and focus available to me when I’m offline means it’s a no-brainer that I’ll make this a regular habit. Maybe every Saturday? One evening a week? Two?

As an exercise in intentionality, I used to say out loud (yes, my kids laughed at the awkwardness of it) my reason for turning on my computer or picking up my phone. I might try that again, or simply remember the joy of single-tasking and pretend no internet exists whenever I can.

Having used my laptop Saturday so already “failed” at being screen-free, there was less sense of testing myself Sunday. I again enjoyed baffling amounts of free time. There was pretty snow falling, so I left my weather app untouched and bundled up for a walk in the winter wonderland. The cats lay on top of me for ages when I returned, and we all did nothing more than watch the snowflakes fall.

Until I decided the weekend ended at 5 p.m. Sunday, returned my library e-book and spent the evening writing this post and watching Netflix 🙂

Big Thoughts and Belly Laughs

In a recent text exchange about my potato of a cat, I told a friend “I am a (sometimes) very happy large potato of a person and have never felt more myself than in this big body.”

I’ve been small and large to extremes, on and off throughout my life. My weight sometimes changed dramatically in a short period of time for no obvious reason, while other times, the yoyo was due to pregnancy and breastfeeding, exercise, disordered eating, stress, and menopause. The longest I’ve ever stayed the same size was three years, and that was only once; I’ve always kept a drawer of clothing that is the next two sizes up and two sizes down to switch into as the yoyo did its thing.

Fear ruled my life for decades. Being overweight was a disgraceful fate I was warned about from childhood. At my high school for gifted students we were told, “smart people don’t get fat.” As we broke up, an ex-boyfriend cursed me, saying, “I hope you get fat!” (And I did, shhh don’t tell him about his powers). Too many people to list gave me advice about changing my size without knowing anything about me and my body. I was always praised for having the self-control to starve myself.

“I am a (sometimes) very happy large potato of a person and have never felt more myself than in this big body.”

My no-longer-disordered eating habits are nothing dramatic. I eat regular healthy meals of simple whole foods and occasional junk food. People sometimes comment on how little I eat (the “considering how big you are” part goes unsaid), and a doctor told me he’d never seen anyone with such a slow metabolism. I have no health issues, but my natural muscle tone is quite low. One consistent way for me to get smaller is by building big muscles through heavy weight training. I don’t do that right now, I mostly do yoga and walking. I ran marathons in the past (for fun, really), but that made me hungry and I ate more so it didn’t affect my size one way or another. When I worked out a lot (as in, a couple of hours every single day, as in, before I had children), I was slim and toned but also self-obsessed. I couldn’t relax because any change to my routine might lead to instant obesity.

My recent path to this big body was gradual, mostly related to going through menopause. And the neatest thing happened! My large pregnancy belly came back. I rest my hands on it all the time, half expecting to feel a kick ❤️ Rather than being upset about it, I find it nostalgic and heartwarming. I remember being in the shower with my daughter when she was a toddler. She touched my little stretch-marked pooch of a belly and lost herself in giggles at its funny movement, like jello. We played the game often because I couldn’t get enough of that belly laugh.

The odd thing is, I don’t feel shame or disgust at my big body this time around, I feel comfortable and home. During the times I was slim, I often felt like I was playing a part, pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I “carry my weight well,” meaning I feel like an impostor no matter my size (a boyfriend’s mother would buy me size S clothing and I’d cut my size L tags off for fear she’d find out the truth). I didn’t like the constant worry that whatever magic combination of exercise and hormones led to that small size would disappear as unpredictably as it arrived, which it often did. This time, though, no fear. This is me, full of belly laughs.

I don’t post many pictures of myself online because even as a middle-aged woman with only a headshot showing, I get more than enough random creepy guys in my DMs. Not to mention, the natural world is beautiful, and I have cats and kids to take photos of, why worry about selfies? Today I remembered destroying all the pictures of my previous large-self each time I got small again (yeah, messed up, I know) and thought, I want to celebrate my don’t-give-a-f*ck menopausal body. I have nothing to hide, I love this body and have never felt so comfortable in it, so here it is 😊 [and thank god I got rid of those pregnancy bangs!]

Size 2 or 2X, I’m always Karen.

Ritual of Reflection

My mind can be so easily fooled, I rely on its gullibility. My brain shifted from stress to comfort with the change of a single word.

My old list of monthly tasks = chores. Weight on my shoulders. Adulting. Responsibility. Burdens.

My monthly ritual = soothing. Calm, comforting self-care. Aaaaaaah.

I look forward to the time I set aside each month to reflect, tidy up loose ends, and plan ahead. My ritual evolves as life changes (not sure about you, but things are, um, chaotic? here) and it shifted from being a list of things to do into a reassurance that at least once a month, I’d be tending to things that matter to me. I no longer worry about whether I’m ‘behind’, I rest easy knowing things won’t fall through the cracks or get lost in the whirligig of life.

I attend to the parts of my ritual over a few days around the end of each month, ideally with at least one weekend day in there to give me the s p a c e and stillness I need to reflect. I take as much or as little time as suits me.

And because it’s a ritual, I can make it as fun or woowoo as I want! I play music, say mantras, light candles, you name it, I OWN my ritual ❤️

Caring for my heart

  • Reread my journal entries and planner pages from the last month, noting anything I want to keep. 
  • Ask myself a list of questions to reflect, to help me remember the good stuff and choose how to spend my time the next month.

Caring for my kids, friends and family (and cats!)

  • Look through the month ahead and build in celebrations, down time, school time etc.
  • Check-in with my regulars as well as someone I didn’t connect with in the month before.
  • Go through photos (SO MANY CAT PICTURES), delete lots, share the best ones.
screenshot of many pictures in my camera roll, mostly cats
Cats and kids, welcome to my camera roll.

Caring for my home

  • Notice a neglected chore that’s been nagging at me and take care of it.
  • Declutter and take a load to goodwill or the women’s shelter.
  • Digital declutter: bookmarks, downloads, emails in my pending list, random things saved to my desktop
  • Fill in my planner with dates for bills due, garbage pick-up (ours is every 6 business days … not the easiest to keep track of), and anything else of note.
a view of a residential street on a sunny day with vines and trees and blue sky
the view from my porch ❤️

Caring for my business

  • Send out friendly messages and invoices to freelance clients, play with my financial spreadsheets (yes, I enjoy this, always have, lucky me 😊).
  • Update my resume and portfolio if I did anything exciting. Find something exciting to do if not.

My ritual involves pens and notebooks that bring me joy. I might trap myself under two snoring cats, away from my phone or laptop, or sit outdoors with coffee or wine (or gin! a friend recently re-introduced me to this delight).

a shelf unit with many dozens of pens
a few of my pens

I still take pleasure in checking tasks off a list (who doesn’t?) but for this, I just remember what matters and attend to it. Month-end went from being busy and burdensome to a time I eagerly await. (I mean, I’m writing this post to pass time until my next month-end).

I wonder what else I can trick my mind into? 

Chapter 1

Being accused of murder sure makes it hard to enjoy new-found freedom from an abusive ex.

Escape Artist

I’m writing a book! Wanna teaser? It’s a mystery so you might have to sit in suspense for awhile … while I write the rest of it, lol. The link to Chapter 1 of Escape Artist, set in my beloved Newfoundland, is below.

I drafted a couple of novels before, but one didn’t work plot-wise and the other didn’t work character-wise. I borrowed bits and pieces from both and put together an outline for this baby that is SO MUCH FUN to write. I’m taking a course in writing mysteries right now and I *live* for mysteries so, whee!

Have a read, let me know what you think. Neil Gaiman said,

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Neil Gaiman : https://neil-gaiman.tumblr.com/post/22573969110/for-all-the-people-who-ask-me-for-writing

Comment here or email me (karen [at] karenlowry [dot] ca) and tell me what’s working for you and what’s not – don’t worry about how it should be fixed, I’ll have fun sorting that out myself 🙂

Click here! (or go to EscapeArtistBook.com)

Chapter 1

Let’s circle back to buzzwords because they’re holding you back

A dictionary of ways to avoid annoying readers

Early in the pandemic, many of my friends laughed when they heard their partners talk in zoom meetings for work. One friend said, “I didn’t know they were bilingual.” It turned out my friend’s partner was fluent in Management Speak. On zoom, they engaged stakeholders in paradigm-shifting dialogue to elucidate considerations for the forward-facing journey. With their family, they talked.

Linguists have a term for this: “code-switching” describes the changes you hear when a teenager turns from talking with a teacher to chat with their friends, or when a person alternates between two languages in one conversation. It’s a great skill – being able to get your point across well in different ways with different listeners. If you’re talking differently to your staff and customers than you do to other people though, you risk sounding inauthentic. 

Why not use buzzwords?

  1. They are hard to understand. They can be common words used to mean something different within the business world. “Appreciate” often means gratitude, but when a manager says they “appreciate this is a difficult time, but you need to work harder,” they are not giving thanks.
  2. Staff and customers may understand what you say, but not trust you because of how you say it. The longer the words used and the more jargon-y they are, the more negative the reaction. Readers or listeners think there’s a hidden message trying to be softened through indirect and vague wording. They can feel put down too – as though the one using the fancy words thinks they’re better than mere mortals who don’t utilize formality in dialoguing. They use the word talk. (Honestly, could we please just strike the word utilize from all documents everywhere? I made a macro in Microsoft Word to do just that. It’s very satisfying.)
  3. Buzzwords tend to be exaggerations. This Ricoh media release for printers (yes, the machines that put ink onto paper) calls them “key enablers of agility and innovation,” and well, that seems less likely to encourage sales than “they put ink on paper well”.
"Business leaders identify print as a key strategic asset for growth and innovation. ... European business leaders have identified new printing technologies as key enablers of agility and innovation." from www.ricoh-europe.com.

What words do people hate the most?

Utilize. I think I covered this above 🙂

Paradigm. Send me your sentences that you feel MUST have this word in them. I’m happy to make them simpler and less annoying.

Capacity-Building. I hear from many people they’re tired of asking for help only to be told they’re going to have their capacity built up. What does that mean? Are you teaching a skill? Say so. Are you doing something else? Please tell us what you’re doing. I’m at full-capacity for BS at the moment.

Think Outside the Box. In a 2017 survey, Workfront asked which buzzwords were most overused and this one topped the list at 47% of respondents wanting the box to please be banished. (https://www.workfront.com/sites/default/files/resource/file_pdf/2018-05/2017-2018-state-of-enterprise-work-report-u-s-edition.pdf)

Synergy. This was reported as the second most-overused word in the survey mentioned above. It’s a shame because it was a lovely word before the business world discovered it, but I see immediate eye rolls when it’s used in meetings. It also topped the list of hated buzzwords in a survey done by GetResponse (https://www.getresponse.com/blog/the-most-hated-business-jargon-corporate-buzz-words).

A Doom of Zooms

A cat with its mouth open in front of a computer screen.
my zoom companion

Like everyone, I find it hard to sit in zoom meetings all day and tend to check-out mentally, so I play mind games that keep me focused. I’m me, so they’re word games. One day, I decided to write down all the buzzwords used in my zooms. First I had a team meeting, and except for me saying I’d “touch base” with them later that week, everyone spoke in plain English the whole hour. I was oddly disappointed.

Luckily … I had a management meeting next! It wasn’t even called a meeting! It was a Huddle. I carefully wrote “huddle” at the top of my page. I need not have been so tidy because the next hour was a riot of sloppy handwriting as I tried to keep up with the deliverables, alignment and leveraging points. Whew!

Why does this happen? The people I work with are doing great work in a friendly environment. It’s not a competitive place where people need to ‘signal’ their superiority by using the jargon of the day. I think it’s a mixture of habit and fear. Fear of having hard conversations.

On a town hall zoom in my community, I paid attention to the function of the buzzwords used and found most of them were roundabout ways of saying, “I don’t know,” or “I disagree.”

Q: “When will this project be finished?”

A: “We’re thinking outside the box to find synergy with our external partners for capacity-building.”

Ouch.

How can I change?

Pretend you’re talking to your family or friends. If they asked you, “What are you hoping to tell people at today’s meeting?” What would your answer be? Use those words. (Except maybe the sarcastic or swear words that slip into your personal conversations … a little code-switching to basic politeness is always welcome).

Show your written work to someone outside your usual circle at work, or better yet to someone you hope would be a reader – a customer, client or random member of the public. Say, “Please tell me how this looks to you. Is it understandable? How do you feel reading it?”

Practice kind, direct ways to say hard things. Practice saying, “I don’t know,” and “I disagree.”

Buzz

My shaded face looks back at me from the zoom screen with the start of a scream invisible to others.

“While I appreciate all players aren’t on the same page, we need to circle back to our core strategy with stakeholder engagement informing our paradigm.”

As toddlers learn to talk, they use the same word for asking, telling, and protesting. Understanding is noticing which it is.

She said, “I don’t know what that means.”

Women are taught to take up as little space as possible. Living out loud is dangerous.

It is easy to say, “I disagree.”

This is a poem I wrote for a writing class exercise with instructions for each line. The last line is a lie.

What jargon do you love to hate?

Spelling Rules Only a Canadian Can Love

Frustrated by your spell-checker? Learn to laugh at those squiggly red lines under our Canadianisms.

Whether you’re a Canadian writer or someone who comes-from-away writing about us, you need to know these spellings and vocabulary unique to canucks (the people, not the hockey team).

We start with a combination of British and American spellings. Then we mix in our own quirks and a heavy dose of Québécois French and Indigenous languages. We welcome newcomers and their languages. No wonder spell-check is confused!

a maple leaf of mixed fall colours on a boardwalk
Fredericton, NB

Canadian school kids enjoy these built-in excuses for mistakes on spelling tests – for you it may be a double-double load of extra work. 

Read on to lighten that load.

The basics: British or American spelling?

We consume American books and online information like a two-four at a bonspiel and never shifted fully to the metric system. Our english language roots are distinctly British though. I mean, I live in a city called London, with a Thames river running through it.

We differentiate ourselves from our neighbours to the south by writing cheques from our chequing accounts and doubling our ll’s in constructions like travelling or cancelled. The most common difference from the US (aside from an imperfect-but-functioning-democracy) is that we include “u” in words like colour, favourite and neighbour.

Not to appear too tight with the British, however, we use the American z in words like analyze and proselytize. We also have programs not programmes and if forced to choose US or British English in a spell-checker, we do better with the US.

But what is correct?

It depends. Both American and British spellings are commonly accepted. You can spell grey or gray, pyjamas or pajamas, and meter or metre. (Not center, though. We cling to our centres.) Large organizations have their own Canadian style guides, as do the press and the government. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary1 features highly in most guides, but it doesn’t have all the answers. If it’s vital that you get it right, hire a Canadian copy editor.

Unique to Canada

The Loony Bin

We have the queen on our money, but our system is dollars and cents not pounds and pence. They’re not American dollars though, the actual bills are a rainbow of Canadian pride.

We are (very!) fond of our one- and two-dollar coins called loonies and toonies. The loonies were named for our national bird, the loon, pictured on the coins. We spent beaucoup de time talking about what to call the two-dollar coin. I voted for doublooney, and the twooney faction put on a good campaign, but we landed on toonie. YES, the singular is spelled toonie. The singular of loonies is loony. Of course. In the interests of national unity, I will avoid ranting about this. Oh, the word rant specifically refers to a famous Newfie, Rick Mercer, wandering through an alleyway speaking truth.

“More Than Meets the Eh” 

(that’s the clever subtitle of Editing Canadian English2)

Our quaint inflection is spelled, eh, and pronounced ay as in hay. It’s not to be confused with aye which you’ll hear in the Maritimes, rhyming with b’y (bye) and meaning yes. B’y (plural, b’ys) means a whole raft of things, often used as “boy” or “guy” but also used in place of eh at times in Newfoundland. Bit of a kerfuffle, eh?

two wooden chairs shaped like fish
Witless Bay, NL

Words about booze have their own category

two-four is a case of 24 beers (some of us pluralize beer), while a twenty-sixer is a bottle of liquor that’s about 26 ounces (typically 750 mL now but the word stuck from our pre-metric days). A twenty-sixer is the same as a fifth in the U.S.A. We also love to sneak a mickey into a hockey game or curling bonspiel – it’s a small flask that fits into the inside pocket of our parkas.

a turquoise lake with trees and hills
Kalamalka Lake, BC

More beverages and food

Mmm coffee is almost as popular as booze. Timmies is what we call the ubiquitous Tim Hortons (there’s no apostrophe in it) coffee and doughnut shops (no donuts here). It’s where we’re likely to order a double-double, a coffee with two sugars and two creams. It’s not where we’d usually go to get poutine, a delicious mix of fries (chips to our British friends), cheese curds and gravy. For the good stuff, we might go to Vieux Montréal, though to be honest, most cities will have a fabulous version – ask the locals, I promise they’re friendly, eh.

Montréal, QC

Who knew?

If you’re a Canadian, don’t use the items below in your content unless you’re flaunting your nationality, which to be honest isn’t very Canadian of you. I was in my fifties and well-travelled before I learned that the rest of the world doesn’t know what a kerfuffle is, so who knows who I confused with it. If you’re not Canadian, enjoy this little cultural exchange, b’ys.

the CN tower and a lamppost
The 6ix
  • The 6ix
    Our famous b’y Drake made the term 6ix equally famous. It refers to Toronto (pronounced Chrawna – that’s a whole other post), the only part of Canada you’re allowed to say bad things about. You can spell it #TheSix but it will seem like you come-from-away – which is okay, we welcome newcomers with open arms.
  • Toque
    Bob and Doug had excellent toques. It rhymes with Luke and is our national hat. 
  • Stagette
    Not sure who came up with this spelling, but it refers to a stag (or bachelor) party, for women. A bachelorette or hen party.
  • Toboggan
    I once unknowingly put a mansplaining European in his place by using this word, forcing him to say he didn’t know what it was. Let me tell you, I SAVOURED spelling it out slowly. I didn’t know then, but it has roots as Canadian as maple syrup, from French and Mi’kmaq origin. It means a sled.
boy on a toboggan
Northern Ontario
  • This isn’t a spelling rule so much as just odd. We call coloured pencils pencil crayons, I don’t know why.
  • Serviette
    I personally love the spelling of this word for napkin. The -ette ending gives it a bit of sass by pretending to be full of class.

What else?

What quirks of Canadian spelling did I miss? What are your favourites? Comment below.

If you’re looking for a local editor, send me a message or read about my services. Take care, eh!

people in a swinging carnival ride against a sky with clouds
Western Fair, London, ON

1 Barber, K. (2001). The Canadian Oxford dictionary / edited by Katherine Barber. Oxford University Press.

Virag, K. (2015). Editing Canadian English: a guide for editors, writers, and everyone who works with words / editor-in-chief: Karen Virag. (Third edition.). Editors’ Association of Canada.

Photo Credits: All by Karen Lowry

Focus

I’ve spent years advising people to declutter their life because it will enhance their ability to focus. Clear away the nonsense and you’re left with what really matters, right?

I started out this pandemic with heartbreak about a writing and yoga retreat I’d looked forward to for months. As I realized it would need to be cancelled, I asked myself what I’d hoped to get out of it so that I could find another way to do that, to take the edge off my disappointment.

Oh, I’d put so much weight on it, so much expectation! I expected nothing less than to come out of it knowing who I was as a writer. What I wanted to write about. How I wanted to write. How to find my voice. What did I want out of the workshop? Focus. (And a complete self-identity, but that’s a bit much to explore here today.)

Expecting to be full of motivation and wanting the skills to achieve my yoga-fuelled writing dreams, I’d also applied to an online creative writing program to start later in the spring. Boosted by an encouraging response to my application and an encouraging friend ❤️, I fast-tracked my coursework and started just before COVID-19 gained a foothold in Canada.

It turns out that working in a pandemic at a full-time job made much more demanding by the pandemic, as a single mother of two kids trying to figure out their schooling and make future life decisions, and adjusting to the realities of staying home while people were getting sick and dying… is not an ideal time to find focus.

We all cluttered the house with our work and art and noise and music and puzzles (so very many puzzles; my daughter, one of our cats and I are obsessed). My son moved out of his dad’s and brought his second household full of stuff to add into the mix, along with the part my heart I lost the first night he slept under another roof more than a decade ago.

In time, we settled into new routines, new stillness and relaxation. I did online workshops about writing and gained new insights, if not quite a new identity. I took the first course in my writing program, on copy editing and proofreading, and WAIT A MINUTE. 

Wow, do I ever get a buzz from editing and proofreading. I dabbled in it for some freelance jobs, was already a member of Editors Canada and knew I liked the work, but I thought I’d chafe at the formality and rigidness of grammar pedants. I was so wrong. No pedants in sight, I dove into the ins and outs of the profession and spent all sorts of ‘leisure time’ soaking up more and more and more about it. I asked my contacts to send any work they had my way and landed a part-time job copy editing academic articles. I get a thrill with each project that lands in my inbox.

What about my writing? No worries on that front. I integrated creative non-fiction into my day job: I started a (hilarious, if I do say so myself) column in our staff newsletter and again, wow is that ever fun. I started writing a new book too, because of course I did (no, I haven’t finished my other two books, I was counting on the workshop to make that magically happen). I’ve got two overlapping writing courses through the summer, including one on digital content, so watch out for a whole whack of experimental posts in this space.

Really, this is a long-winded way to say, I’m changing up my website. I’m removing the references to my consulting and workshop services – those completely dried up with the pandemic anyways, and: FOCUS. It’s all about writing and editing now. I think of editing as decluttering the page to let the message shine through, and I’ve decluttered enough to know where my passions lie.

I Need to Explain my Search History

This story has nothing to do with anything, just a twitter thread reminded me of this hilarious saga so I thought I’d share. There’s no lesson or point other than it still makes me laugh years later 😊

My daughter Julia loves animals and always says she can’t live in a house without them. I’m a little sensitive to the idea of her not living here because of a traumatic custody battle years ago. I also carry a lot of guilt for accidentally killing one of her hamsters. So, yes, I drove ninety minutes (each way!) to buy her two baby Russian Dwarf Hamsters for her twelfth birthday. They were $10 each. Free hamsters are pretty easy to come by, but Russian Dwarf Hamsters were the only kind she wanted because they can share cages and not eat each other, unlike other hamsters. Animals that don’t eat each other seemed a reasonable birthday request.

She named the little darlings Twilight and Dawn before we even got back in our car for the drive home. I had to admit they had beautiful colouring, these baby boys from the large hamster habitat in the kijiji lady’s home (kijiji = Canadian version of craigslist). It was sad to take them from their family, but kijiji-lady assured me that they were old enough to be weaned at two weeks. It was after my daughter’s birthday already so we didn’t want to wait any longer and made the drive on their 14th day in this world. 

There’s a signal, like the bat signal but with high-pitched squeals of delight, that goes out through neighbourhoods when small animals are brought home. It’s only twelve-year old girls who respond to the squeal, though we all friggin’ hear it. They arrived in gaggles, fawned over Twilight and Dawn, and squealed some more to summon other tweens who may have been underwater or in outer space the first time. I overheard my daughter tell them, “Mom loves these ones so much more than the other ones,” which surprised me because she didn’t even know about my earlier hamster murder. But I did love them more; for some reason I felt very maternal towards them. 

To clear things up about the murder, it was an unfortunate fluke and it took at most a few hours or days off the little guy’s life. He was an elderly, lonely, ill hamster. His brother had died a couple of months prior, and he was nearing the end of his lifespan (which was approximately eighteen months, according to the stacks of hamster books that grew like weeds in Julia’s room). I struggled with the idea of paying a tiny animal vet to look at the growths taking over his body, but he was clearly in pain while also clearly staying alive, so I didn’t know what else to do. Julia understood the vet would probably ‘put him down’ so she said her goodbyes before going off to her dad’s house the day before the vet visit. She left and I picked him up to see how he was doing. His body spasmed in pain, I spasmed in surprise – my grip tightened, and that was the end of his pain. I told my daughter he died quickly but spared her the details of exactly how that happened.

Maybe that’s why I was so motherly with these little guys, maybe it was because they were so young and so very tiny. They grew quickly – their father’s name was Tank and he’d been the biggest dwarf hamster imaginable. After a few days of adjustment, they started eating and growing huge right before our eyes. We laughed about them being tanks like their dad, one of them in particular was round like a ball within weeks. We’d put him in the hamster ball and enjoy the awkwardness of this roly-poly creature trying to roll. 

I no longer have a facebook account, but when I did, this was one of my most popular posts:

Sunday, June 11, 2017 at 5:54pm EDT
Karen Lowry is celebrating baby shower.
I am now the proud grandmother (aunt? cousin twice removed?) of an undetermined number of hamster babies. Since we got our two (adorable) male hamster babies just over a month ago, I was a little surprised to find a litter of newborns (actually a week old... should clean it more often) in the cage this morning. There are so many hilarious things about this, I've been laughing all day - while finding fascinating websites like "3 Ways to Sex a Hamster"
hamster on girl's shoulder
This is a BIG dwarf hamster. Possibly pregnant.

Yes, one of our boys was a girl. At the tender age of barely-weaned she got pregnant by her brother. The weeks following were a blur of revelations: Hamsters shouldn’t be weaned until they’re three weeks old, they shouldn’t be ‘allowed’ to get pregnant until about three months old, and incest is generally as frowned upon with hamsters as with other animals. Oh, and also, females are highly fertile right after they give birth. Which would be before oblivious owners even know they’re female.

So, another day, another unexpected litter of hamster babies. This poor little mother was still nursing her first litter when the second was born. Luckily, we hadn’t put her in the hamster ball to roll around during this pregnancy, small mercy. 

tiny hamster bodies in their nest
babies!

We also knew how young females can get pregnant and I got a bit frantic about separating out the boys from the girls. For the first time, I appreciated the elaborate set up of cages and tubes we had (we called it Hamsterdam) because it made it easy to create segregated living arrangements.

I would like to point out that telling the difference in genitals on baby dwarf hamsters is a near-impossible task, and is how we ended up in this predicament in the first place. I turned to the internet for help. For the love of all you hold dear, please don’t ever google “hamster sex” without a few other words – “differentiation” would’ve been a good idea, or “determining” at the start, wise. I had revelations I can’t unsee. Why on earth would so many people think to put a hamster there?!? And why would they post pictures of it? 

There may be a difference in the squeal emitted when there are extra baby hamsters, but it’s been too long since I was a twelve-year old for me to tell. The gaggles congregated again, this time doing their own googling (Supervised! So supervised!) but they’ve been raised right, they didn’t care about gender. They were looking up “ways to convince your parents to let you have a hamster”. Some were successful, despite our now fourteen young critters being a bit of a warning to most rational adults. 

We were also saved by a reply to my desperate-to-give-away-hamsters kijiji ad. A woman who does small animal rescue offered to take the mother and her new litter of babies. It was such a relief. This stressed-out young mother was exhausted and the noise/smell/gawking gaggles were getting to be too much. Did I mention that Hamsterdam was in the dining room of our small hundred-year old house? That room is our main living space and our hamster village was consuming our lives. 

Before we got back home from dropping off Dawn and her newborns, the small animal rescue lady texted to tell us that one of the babies only had three legs. We weren’t sure if she was asking us if we had the missing one? But she found a special home with a friend for the three-legged babe, she just wanted us to know about it. She wanted to know the mother’s name, too. ❤️

We gradually gave away all but four males. Their lives were not without drama, but they were indeed all males and there were no further litters. Two of them lived long lives – one maybe setting a record for Russian Dwarf Hamsters, but we don’t know for sure because we never could figure out which was the father and which the sons, so we didn’t know the exact age of the father-brother-son who lived the longest. Anyway, by that time we had a firmly ingrained household ban on googling anything remotely related to hamsters.

We now live with two wonderful, male, fixed cats and have a whole lot of hamster cages and tubes available if you’re interested.

Dear New York City

My passion for the outdoors, for the truth of nature, is matched by my love for a city where the truth of people is on full display, vivid and syncopated. I was disappointed to cancel my upcoming trip there, but it was a small sadness, an excuse to rebook for a longer visit another time. “The city will still be there,” I said to my travelling companion when we made the decision a month ago, “it’s not going anywhere.” I watch now in horror as the city contracts, pulls into itself, trying to hide from this deadly virus. This is my love letter to a place I’ve never lived where I feel completely at home.

I’m writing to you both: The people who live in New York and the city itself, you’re inseparable. I miss you. I’ve been there amid the chaos of Christmas preparations and on hot days doing nothing more than laying in the grass in Central Park. I’ve been caught in rain (often!) and surprise snowstorms. Even with all the serious ways our lives are disrupted by the pandemic, I struggle to accept the insignificant fact that this will be the first year in many that I’m not with you for Easter weekend.

I crumple in pain when I hear details about the nightmare you’re living. Fear and death fill your small spaces that were never meant to be your only living space. The city that was your living room, library, playground, and kitchen lies empty, coming alive with noise at 7 each evening to acknowledge your heroes. I cry for the healthcare workers everywhere facing unimaginable trauma while worrying about their own health and their families’. I want to hug the parents of small children in tiny apartments, losing their sanity from the noise, the emotions, the never-ending needs for entertainment, movement, reassurance, and food. I want to say, it’s going to be okay, somehow.

New York, you changed my life in so many ways, so many times. My travel journals are filled with personal revelations. There is such joy in being fully myself while surrounded by others expressing themselves in their own magical (bizarre, entertaining, scary, fabulous) ways. Your energy is contagious. Every trip I hit a wall of exhaustion and then find myself walking around for another few hours, each step powered by the architecture, chaos, art, music, and the people.  Thank you.

Where is all the energy now? What happens to the electricity in the air from performance art, or the hushed exhilaration in each luminous room in each stunning museum? The phone conversations and arguments filling the sidewalks, or the press of a crowd to get into a reading at a bookstore? Are men bellowing out catcalls into the echo chambers of their four walls? Who warms the green chairs in the park? Who can hear the music? Is the Rose Room truly silent now, no comforting shush of pages being turned?

When alone there, I am invigorated and brave in ways I carry with me through the rest of my life. The first time in the city on my own I went to a dance show in Brooklyn, disoriented and apprehensive because of minor confusions, and I saw a sign advertising the event as being for “Adventurous Audiences” which filled me with both pride and a bit more fear. I never once regretted the risks I took.

With others, I ran a race around Central Park (in a kilt, though a friend suggested the underwear run was more my speed), ate food and drinks in fancy restaurants and tiny diners, tourist traps and holes in the wall. It must be true love I feel for the city, because every memory brings a smile to my face. I have nothing but fondness for even the smelliest alleyway where I had a juicy kiss. The kisser is long gone from my life, but I could show you the alley in a heartbeat. I don’t have to tell you you’re special, New York, you know it well. I just thought you might want to hear how much you matter to others.

What have I learned from you about the nature of people? The value of community in facing adversity: You look out for your neighbours. That everyone has struggles, they’re just tucked away inside homes in other places while yours are played out in the subway cars and on the streets. Now that you’re tucked away inside, please don’t forget that you’re not alone, whatever you’re feeling. You also taught me that while we’re all imperfect, we can always grow and change in unexpected – sometimes adventurous – ways. Thank you for that too.

I am devastated for you and looking forward to when we will be together again. I can’t wait to see what you’ve done with the place. ❤️

van with sign saying Interesting Items
Seems legit.

Social Distancing, Yurt Edition

Like many, I was heartbroken to cancel upcoming trips, while also grateful that we got the lead time here in Canada to cancel things before it was too late (hopefully). Because it seemed ideal for the times, we did go on our planned March Break adventure: We stayed in the middle of the forest, in an isolated yurt at a MacGregor Point Park a few hours north of home. (If you’re just here for the photos, scroll to the bottom 😊)

yurt in the forest
home sweet home

It was me, my two teenagers, and my son’s friend who joined us on the same trip last year. We’d had so much fun then that we booked a longer stay this time. On our drive up, they interrupted me belting along with my oldies on the radio to tell us about a woman in our home city testing positive, and she hadn’t been travelling so it might be the first evidence of community transmission. We felt lucky to be getting out just in time.

3 teenagers
the gang

Being immersed in nature is like living in a dream. I’d step out of the yurt early in the morning… and marvel at the stars and moon still sparkling. All through the day, we were one with the wind and sky and sun and trees and water. Even inside the air was filled with the clutter of geese honking in the evenings and bird calls in the morning. We chased sunrises and sunsets, spent hours on the shore of Lake Huron, hiked endless trails, and my daughter was welcomed into a family of red squirrels (though re-joined her original family for card games and meal times…).

But.

We shared the outhouses and a central full washroom with many other campers. I don’t know how many there were, maybe twenty, maybe forty, sixty? There were many more people around than last year, when the weather was icy. Or maybe the increase was that others also felt safer away from cities. The washroom had two small sinks and three stalls, and there were almost always other people in there. It’s hard to practice social distancing when you’re elbow-to-elbow brushing teeth with a family of four.

What had seemed like the epitome of isolation started to feel like a breeding ground for a new outbreak. We used lots of hand sanitizer and had a tub with water and dish soap in the yurt, but I cringed every time someone went to the shared space. Our last full day, I talked with a friend back home and heard panic and exhaustion in their voice. People panic-shopping, hard decisions to be made about what to close, chaos of setting up work- and learn-from home options, and general fear of others – the anxiety was overwhelming and it infected me too. I was in paradise and couldn’t truly relax. What tipped me over was the noise of kids playing in the forest by our yurt (and their parents yelling at them). I realized they’d just arrived. I remembered noticing a group getting set up at a site we passed on a hike earlier too. How much turnover was there each day? How many new dozens of people would be washing their faces in my sink?

I talked with the kids about it. Was I in a spiral of irrational fear, or was I right to be concerned? There was no obvious answer. The park is in a fairly rural area, and they’d just had two cases confirmed there as well – a couple coming back from a cruise, who had no symptoms but were checked because of their contact with someone with the virus. Had they spread it to others before they knew?

We came home a bit early, after sunset on the night before we planned to leave in the morning. One last sunrise missed, though it turned cloudy and snowy as we left so it was probably for the best. We’re happily hunkered down at home now, with fewer trees around but our own bathroom, and all sorts of places we can hike here. We have oodles of pictures and I hold the stars inside me. We’ll get laundry done and see how we can help others struggling through these strange times. Be well, friends.