I wrote an essay about navigating romantic love after cancer treatment and it was published in The Globe & Mail Newspaper (Canadian Newspaper). Here is the link:
This morning as I was tidying up, I briefly entered our laundry room/office which is our “crazy room.” I think most of us have one of these, or the equivalent – a crazy closet, drawer or cupboard. It’s the place where everything you don’t want to deal with goes to die. And I found myself thinking that the crazy room is very similar to that space in our psyche where we dump all of our emotional crap that we can’t deal with at the moment.
I keep telling my partner, “we need to deal with that room, it’s out of control.” And it’s true, it is out of control. For someone like me, who likes keeping the house clean and organized, the room makes me anxious. But the crazy room is actually more representative of my true emotional state than the rest of the tidy house. The crazy room has unopened boxes, piles of cords and computer stuff, unfolded clean sheets, my partner’s plaid shirts hanging from an IKEA shelf like little headless Grunge creatures, a dead plant, my ileostomy supplies (thank you cancer), a giant box of small catheter tubes (again, thank you cancer) and various other randomness.
And just like I side-step and avoid the issues that I don’t want to deal with, I also breeze right past the dead plant – sitting on the floor – to put in a load of laundry. Why not just pick up the plant and put it out in the green bin? That is what an emotionally healthy person would do, I think to myself as I breeze out of the room again. But somehow that damn dead plant and the rest of the crazy room has come to symbolize all the ways in which I am emotionally stuck, frozen, paralyzed.
I am extremely lucky in that I can afford to see a therapist, it’s a luxury many needy people don’t have. So in a sense I have an ’emotional cleaning lady’ who helps me clean up my personal crazy room twice a month. And yet, somehow, it seems no matter how hard I try, my crazy room never gets completely cleaned. Just as my cleaning lady and I finish cleaning one area of the room, another area beckons for attention. Its boxes need unpacking, its cords need untangling and its damn plant needs to be thrown out!
Ida sat at her kitchen table and scanned the morning newspaper. She sipped her coffee and took a bite of her honey-slathered toast. As usual the news was all depressing. “Screw this Noise” she said out loud, though there was no one around to hear her. She called information and got the phone number for the newspaper’s subscription department. When an associate named Wiley asked Ida why she wanted to cancel her subscription she said, “because there is nothing good left in this world, we have gone to Hell in a Hand Basket,” and she hung up.
After completing her morning chores, Ida put on her face, then drove to her local supermarket. With a short list in hand she walked slowly down the aisles with her cart. A young boy pushed by her on his way to grab a box of cookies, “young man, show some respect to your elders” Ida yelled. He looked at her, terrified and his mother glared at Ida. “Don’t talk to my precious boy like that” she said. “Precious?He’s hardly precious, he just about knocked me down. I could sue you!” The woman, dressed in drape-y expensive neutrals, accented by faux spiritual jewelry, grabbed her son and hurried away. “I can hardly wait to see what kind of a nightmare he grows up to be!” Ida yelled after her.
She turned down the aisle marked “International Foods.” Ida felt superior to the schmucks who just shopped the “regular” aisles, as if she were more worldly and progressive. She placed a package of Italian cookies in her cart, then added a box of Abuelita Mexican style instant chocolate drink mix. “Es Muy Delicioso” said Ida loudly to a woman standing nearby. “Good to know,” answered the woman, quickly turning her cart away from Ida. “At least I know a little Spanish,” Ida grumbled.
At the check-out counter she stood behind a young man who had several containers of Tofu, along with many vegetables. “Are you a Vegetarian?” Ida asked him accusingly. The young man eyed her, smiling slightly. “Yes Ma’am I am,” he answered. “That’s why you’re so thin and pasty, you need to eat some meat. But you have good manners, so that’s something I guess.” The young man sighed, paid his bill and took his canvas shopping bags with him. The cashier started ringing up Ida’s purchases, hoping to avoid any conversation with her. “Did you color your hair yourself?” asked Ida. The cashier flinched. “Yes, I did, why do you ask?” “Well, I think you went a little overboard on the red, it’s too bright. People are going to see you coming from a mile away. You should stick with a nice light auburn.” The cashier gritted her teeth. If her Manager wasn’t standing nearby she would tell Ida to go jump in a lake. “Oh well, to each her own I guess,” she said cheerily.
On her way back to her car, Ida saw the most adorable little black dog tied up to a pole outside the store. “Unbelievable!” she exclaimed. She hated people who tied up their dogs while they were busy running errands. It was too dangerous, anything could happen – the dog could break free and get run over by a car, a mean kid might tease the dog, the dog could eat something and get sick…She would like to tie the dog’s owner to a pole and see how she or he liked it! Ida put her groceries in her car and then went back to the dog. She bent down and petted the dog and spoke to him lovingly. The dog seemed to take to her immediately. “Your owner does not deserve you,” she cooed. And then, just like that, she untied the dog, picked him up and when he didn’t resist, she carried him back to her car. He rode shotgun with her back to the house, not seeming to mind one bit that he was with a complete stranger.
Back at the house Ida found an old frisbee in the hall closet and she and Sammy – the perfect name for him! – played in the backyard until Sammy was tired out. She then set down a bowl of water and made him a cozy bed from old comforters and pillows, though she knew she would let him sleep with her tonight. She figured he deserved a special meal, so she would cook him chicken and rice for dinner. Sammy, exhausted from the exercise and sudden life change, immediately passed out. Ida made herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and watched him sleep. He snored like her long dead husband, Earl. But Sammy was much cuter than Earl. Earl had had a face that not even his mother could have loved, but he had been a good man. Well, he had been a reasonably good man. Ida lay down on her beige chenille couch. Actually Earl had not been a very good man at all, what the hell was she thinking?! He had been mean as a snake! Ugly and mean – there’s a winning combination for you! Ida chuckled to herself. She had been so happy the day Earl died that she had gone out shopping to celebrate. She had bought herself a pair of blue sandals, a matching purse and a perfume called “La Vie Est Belle.” Ida closed her eyes and was soon fast asleep. Sammy eventually joined her on the couch, jamming his face under her left armpit.
Is it just me, or does it feel like we are all starting to Brand Ourselves? Through social media we each curate our lives and reveal in mostly filtered perfection, (or sometimes purposely non-filtered perfection), images and witty sound bites creating in essence our own brand. The Brand of Me. I am part of this trend too, I post regularly on Instagram: there is Mary Ellen the Pit Bull Advocate, Mary Ellen the Living with Cancer Through Humour Gal, Mary Ellen the Vintage Loving Stylehoader. Is this a bad thing? I don’t know, but it does make me a bit uncomfortable.
It used to be that creating a brand was done primarily by companies in order to sell a product. To this day fashion retailers continue to be focused on creating a desirable brand in order to make money: “Understated elegance for the woman who knows true luxury.” “Affordable classics with a twist!” “The only watch for the man who works hard and plays hard.” But now that we are all self-branding, are we in some strange way selling ourselves? And to whom and for what reason? Many successful fashion & lifestyle social media wizards are actually selling items, often through sponsored ads, so that makes sense. But what the hell are the rest of us doing? I realize I am probably just overthinking all of this, but it still kind of freaks me out.
The other issue with everyone becoming a Branding Queen (or King), is that – at least for me – it can lead to increased depression & anxiety. If I see one more perfectly decorated home with that damn fury IKEA bear rug thrown casually but not casually over a mid-century chair I am going to stab my eye balls out! Or another reclaimed wood dining-room table, sparkling with glitter and pastel food and champagne bubbling over in mis-matched but perfect vintage glasses with an incredible floral arrangement in a milk jug bought for just $2 at a garage sale! I can’t take it! This past weekend I actually suffered from a bout of “Insta-Madness:” I went to my favorite Leslieville bakery – Sweet Bliss – and bought myself three delicious treats (luckily for me my partner is Paleo, so I get all the sweets to myself!) Upon arriving home and admiring my goodies in their low-key unadorned box, I found myself thinking that they would look much prettier “styled” on a vintage floral China plate. OMG! What has happened to me?! Thankfully I am not THAT insane and I happily enjoyed my sweets on a regular, almost ugly plate. And they were damn tasty!
I guess for now I will just cut back a little on social media so that I can remain sane-ish. But then again, I did just buy my dog a new bandana, so I might have to Instagram that as part of my “I’m a Pit Bull Advocate” Brand. #stopthemadness
Helena moved quietly through life. Disturbing no one. Being a model citizen. Always towing the line. Then one morning Helena woke up and thought, “I don’t want to be quiet anymore.” She called in sick to work, something she had never done in her twenty years of working for the Brexam Accounting Firm. Her boss was shocked and offered to send someone over with food and medicine. “That won’t be necessary,” said Helena with a faux cough, “I had the drugstore deliver everything I need.” Helena was struck by how much she enjoyed lying, the sensation was arousing.
Usually Helena began her day with ten minutes of stretching, followed by a luke-warm shower, a bowl of granola and yogurt and a cup of green tea. But this morning she skipped the exercise and shower, got dressed and headed out to a swanky hotel restaurant for breakfast. She ordered a Mimosa and Belgian waffles. The combination of maple syrup and the champagne’s bubbles were perhaps the best thing Helena had ever tasted. Her waiter was extremely handsome and she flirted shamelessly with him. As she left the cafe – after leaving him a 50% tip – she whispered in his ear, “you are just delicious.”
Helena grabbed a cab to her local upscale department store and headed straight to the Personal Shopping Department. A woman named Rika, with a severe black bob and thin red lips, asked Helena what she needed help with. “I need to find the real me. I seem to have lost her. My budget is $3000.” Rika nodded approvingly and motioned to a clothing rack filled with a multitude of styles, colors and fabrics. “Choose one piece that speaks to you, there is no right or wrong. Just choose the piece that makes you feel alive.” Without hesitating, Helena followed her instincts and quickly chose a silk, floral dress in shades of eggplant, fuchsia and black. “Thank you,” said Rika. “This dress will serve as the inspiration for your new wardrobe. Also, you need a new hairstyle, you cannot find the real you with that hair. That hair is heavy with regret, bad memories, a life half-lived. Joseph at our Salon will cut it, Joseph knows.”
Helena left the store with two garment bags, four shopping bags and something called “a Lob,” which was a silly way of saying a long bob. At home, after carefully putting away all her new clothes and accessories, she poured herself a glass of red wine. It was an expensive bottle, given to her last year by her boss for Christmas. She filled a bowl full of pita chips and got in bed. She turned on the television and watched one of those vacuous Home Hunting shows. This one featured a woman about Helena’s age starting a new life in Paris. Helena crunched away, taking in the beauty of the architecture in Paris. “My God,” she thought, “such a beautiful city.” She licked the salt off her fingers and took a long, slow sip of wine. Then she grabbed her laptop off of her bedside table. She started typing. Air France. One way ticket, first class. Date of departure – tomorrow. A sudden wave of panic overcame her – “my passport!” She frantically looked in her filing cabinet and there it was – updated and sitting in a pretty red leather case – in a file labelled “Identification Documents.” Helena exhaled, took the passport and went back to her bed. After typing in her passport number, credit card info and other information she pressed “Purchase.” She was not being quiet anymore. She and her “Lob” were going to Paris.
Gloria fished out a dime from the bottom of her shoulder bag and called Marty. He picked up on the fourth ring. “Where the hell are you?!” screamed Gloria into the phone. Marty sounded groggy, like he was still in bed. “What time is it?” he asked, yawning. It’s 4:15, the movie starts in fifteen minutes! This was supposed to be a date Marty – you were supposed to be taking me on a God Damn date! Fuck You Marty. Fuck you!” She slammed down the receiver.
Gloria pulled out a Menthol and started walking towards the movie theatre. Two teenage girls passed by. They were dressed in ripped black fishnets, mini-skirts and black leather jackets. One had painted her lips black, the other had drawn a huge spider web on the left side of her face. For The Love Of God, thought Gloria. She walked a few more blocks then took a final drag of her cigarette, tossing it on the sidewalk and flattening it with her Candies clogs. She went up to the box office where a chunky lady sat snapping gum. The lady’s hair was teased into a tall rounded pouf, where Gloria imagined she kept hundreds of sticks of gum. “One adult ticket please,” Gloria said. “No date with you honey? How come ya don’t have a boyfriend? You’re a pretty little thing. You should find yourself a nice man and settle down.” She handed Gloria her ticket. Gloria glared at her and said a little prayer that the woman would choke on her stupid gum.
After buying a large popcorn, pop and box of Jujubes, Gloria found a seat towards the back of the theatre. Gloria took a big sip of Sprite, then tossed a couple of Jujubes in her mouth. “The problem with Jujubes is that they get stuck to your teeth and then you have to kind of scrape away the gook with your fingernails, which is hard to do in public.” Gloria turned to where the voice seemed to be coming from. Behind her, two seats to the left, sat a tall shaggy haired young man. He smiled at Gloria and showed her his own box of Jujubes. Suddenly Gloria was very aware of all the Jujube-ness squished down into her teeth. “When I take a girl out on a date I never get Jujubes, because you know, you gotta be cool, you can’t be sticking your finger in your mouth during a date.” Gloria laughed, “black and red are my favorite,” she said. “Really? I’m more of an orange and green guy myself. My name’s Mike by the way.” Gloria looked at Mike, noticing a large but beautiful gap between his two perfectly straight front teeth. Gloria wondered if Jujube muck got stuck in the gap. Mike moved seats, so that he was one seat closer, but still behind her. “It’s a good thing that we’re not on a date,” said Mike, “because this way we can both enjoy our Jujubes. Feel free to stick a finger in your mouth, I probably will. What did you say your name was?” “I didn’t. It’s Gloria. My name is Gloria.” Gloria was smiling like a demented clown, a huge, wide smile, she couldn’t control it. She was sure that Mike could see Jujube muck in her mouth. The theatre lights went down. “Pleased to meet you Gloria, I feel like this is my lucky day.”
It was 5:00, Frannie’s husband Gus would be home from work soon. Frannie checked on the pot roast in the oven and set the table. She added a little more butter to the mashed potatoes on the stovetop, then poured herself a glass of wine. Frannie kept a giant box of Chardonnay in the fridge. Every evening at precisely 5:00, she poured herself a large goblet-full and continued to re-fill it throughout the night. As Gus would ramble on about his day at work, Frannie would sip from her glass and respond appropriately. When needed she would gasp, other times shake her head, but more often than not she would simply nod approvingly at Gus.
From 7:00-10:00 pm Gus watched television, back-to-back episodes of those cop shows featuring tough talking NYC policemen solving heinous crimes. At 8:00 Frannie would bring Gus his dessert, which he would eat while lying down on their brown leather couch. He would balance the plate on his soft round belly and slowly shovel forkfuls of sweetness into his small mouth. On more than one occasion Frannie had asked him to eat his dessert while sitting up, she was afraid he would choke. He always refused, saying he worked hard and deserved to relax when he was home. Frannie didn’t know the Heimlich manoeuvre and she had no intention of learning it, so he was on his own.
Tonight’s dessert was fresh pecan pie and vanilla ice cream. The pecan pie was fresh because she had bought it fresh from the bakery. Although Frannie knew how to bake, she didn’t see the point. A man like Gus didn’t know the difference between a home baked pie and a grocery store one, so why waste her time? Sometimes Gus would even comment on how sweet the house smelled: “nothing like the smell of freshly baked brownies!” he had said last week. The brownie smell was actually from a Vanilla scented home fragrance spray. Frannie had several home fragrance sprays which she kept under the sink and rotated using: apple spice, berry delight, peach breeze, tropical coconut and one that was called sweet bliss which smelled like caramel.
While Gus watched television Frannie would tidy up and lay out clean clothes for him for the next day. Then, after refreshing her wine, she would go to the desk in their spare room and turn on the computer. Frannie collected garden gnomes – she currently had 39 gnomes displayed throughout their backyard – and she put aside an hour a day for searching online for new and unique ones. Last summer Frannie had suffered a horrible loss to her gnome collection. A few days before July 4th she had put out her Fourth of July gnome on their front lawn and someone had stolen it. It had taken Frannie days to recover from that loss. What kind of a low-life steals a patriotic garden gnome? The world was clearly going to Hell in a Hand-Basket.
Frannie was busy scrolling through various websites when she heard Gus call out to her: “Frannie, a little more please! It’s one of your best pecan pies ever!” Ha! thought Frannie. She went and retrieved the plate off of Gus’s belly and re-filled it with another piece of pie and a large scoop of ice cream. She then placed the plate back on Gus’s belly. “Thanks Frannie,” he said with his eyes glued to the television screen. Frannie returned to the computer and was delighted to find a bright turquoise gnome on sale for $19.99. She quickly typed in her credit card information and address. The turquoise would be a lovely pop of colour in the back left hand corner of her garden, which was mostly a green leafy area. Satisfied with her purchase she shut down the computer. “Frannie, I’m finished!” yelled Gus. Frannie went and took the empty plate off of Gus’s belly, rinsed it and placed it in the dishwasher. She then went outside, turned on the sprinkler and watched as her gnomes enjoyed their nightly bath.