Every weekday, Canadians pour their hearts out in our First Person column. Here, editor Catherine Dawson March selects a few pieces to help lift spirits in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. If you have a story to tell, see our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
TP free: Why I stopped using toilet paper (and you should, too)
I am well aware of the irony of raising such a complaint in a newspaper. But consider: toilet paper is not even close to being effective at what it is meant to do. We wouldn’t wipe any other part of our body with dry paper and deem ourselves clean, yet somehow this is what we expect from toilet paper. (And no, sewer-clogging wet wipes – which were labelled “the biggest villain of 2015” by The Guardian, are not a more desirable alternative.)
This is why four months ago I decided to remove toilet paper from my life completely. I now step into the shower after using the toilet and use nothing but water (a miraculous cleaning agent) and my own hand, which I wash afterward with soap. The process adds maybe 10 seconds to my shower. Since making the decision to quit, I have not used a square of toilet paper on my body, and I have never been more clean.
The airbag bike helmet: game changer or foolish splurge?
Let’s be honest, no one really wants to put on a bike helmet. So much so they actually had to make it illegal not to wear one. Still, many people break that law and literally risk their lives to avoid it. You either don’t care how a helmet makes you look, or you ignore it on purpose. My dad is a good example of the extreme of indifference – his helmet has flashing hazard lights on the back and a fluorescent yellow rain condom over the top. For the first part of my life, he was the one in charge of making me wear head protection. But eventually I had to take over.
The stage where you’re the one ensuring you’re putting on a helmet creeps up on you. The freedoms of youth drift away gently, like silt floating down a stream, until you suddenly find yourself gazing up at a Grand Canyon of accountability. If you’re a cyclist, that moment comes when you glance in the mirror and catch yourself fully decked out in luminous spandex with a mushroom-shaped hard hat on top. Then you hop on your bike, hunch over into the position you would take were you forced to relieve yourself in the forest, and you’re off.
No one likes getting a mammogram, but this one provided me with an unexpected lesson
Her warm fingers lift my right breast. She cups it in her hand, squeezes and stretches it onto the cold steel plate. I clench my lips. Her other hand pushes my shoulder back then turns my chin to face my shoulder. The muscles in my neck tighten, I feel a stretch run down across my shoulder and into my tricep. I debate practising this pose in my next yoga class.
“Stay still,” she says.
The visual of me going anywhere makes me grin.
“We don’t want to get a blurry image.”
I roll my eyes at the wall. Of course, no one would want a blurry image of my flattened, 60-year-old boob. Since I’m naked from the waist up, posed like a nude model and have nowhere else to go, I do as she says and remain still.
How I came to love the patience, generosity – and terrific sense of humour – of the people of the North
I’d moved to Northern Ontario to teach and thought I’d spend three years there before returning to the South. That was the plan, but eight years later I found myself at the Sandy Lake First Nations Reserve (a 3.5-hour flight northeast of Winnipeg, there are no roads), housesitting a cabin on the shores of a river that led to the school. It was not just the North that I had become attached but the people who lived there; their patience, generosity and terrific sense of humour.
Despite the fact I was in my early 30s, I think the locals regarded me the way you would a slightly dim adolescent, someone who needed minding lest they fall through the ice during breakup. Unless you were a complete jerk, one of the families would take you under their wing.
Life hacks I’ve picked up from the death notices
I spend Saturday mornings with a coffee in one hand and my newspaper’s death notices in the other. I have turned my obsession into an art, scanning for ink that lures with promises of quirks and vulnerabilities. Stuff that gets to the grit of a person, rather than the window-dressing of their professional titles.
Various shades of yellow newsprint in my “obit inspiration file” reveal that I have held this ritual for the better part of a decade. I give permanence to the most delicious details with a highlighter so that I can visit them again. Sometimes it’s a lesser-known hobby that catches my interest. Other times it’s an everyday act of love cleverly spun into a heroic tale. My favourites are the colourful examples that illuminate the tiny imperfections that make me want to invite the person for coffee.
Tree planting has been the best (and the worst) time of my life
Tree planting is piece work, and where I plant – mainly on the coast of British Columbia – I generally get paid between 25 and 45 cents a tree. If you work hard enough, the job can be lucrative: It gives planters the opportunity to lead a nomadic lifestyle, spending a few months filling their bank accounts and then pursuing whatever they want to do till next season. But there are many challenges that get in the way of these potential profits.
In the early hours of the morning, we join our crews – usually six to 12 men and women dressed in long johns, spandex, dress shirts, straw hats, headbands, ripped up jeans, hard hats and whatever it takes to mitigate the hardships of planting. Some of us will be covered in duct tape (sometimes I have to duct tape my nipples to prevent painful chaffing), bug nets, sunscreen, baby powder, bug spray and dirt, lots of dirt.
There is beauty and joy at the end of life, too
When I tell people I work at a hospice, they often say “that must be so hard.” But my favourite thing is hearing people’s stories, their experiences, their successes, their failures – the things that life has taught them. I love helping them share these stories with their family members. It helps the family members keep their loved one alive in their memories after he or she dies.
I had a husband of a resident come in six months after she had died to say that he received a Christmas card from her, written to him while in hospice. He was tearful, but so incredibly grateful for this gift. He said the card helped keep her alive for one last Christmas.
Hospice workers encourage conversations about things that want to be said and heard. We create time for families to connect, laugh and cry together. Mostly, we help create a legacy of the resident that will remain with their family.
The cat that wasn’t supposed to live taught me so much
He arrived in my life at 12 weeks of age, a tiny black kitten, stunted by the effects of a congenital heart condition.
A woman from the SPCA called just after I’d brought him home. “We gave you the wrong kitten.”
“What do you mean, the wrong kitten?” I asked. “I paid for him. I’ve got the paperwork.”
“We got him mixed up with another black kitten of the same age,” she said. “He has a bad heart murmur and won’t live for more than a year or two. We didn’t intend to adopt him out.”
I remembered how he’d tumbled to the front of a cluster of kittens at the shelter, eager to explore the hand of a stranger. So friendly. He was the one I wanted.
We just got a husky: challenging dogs really are more fun
We called our daughter to tell her that we might be getting a puppy and she was all for it. She thought we needed disruption in our lives. “All you guys do is play Scrabble,” she said. I placed my tiles on a triple word score and told her she was being very hurtful.
We puppy-proofed the house with barricades, crates and blankets. I was a little disheartened when Kayla instantly jumped over the new kitchen gate to join us in the living room.
But love happens really fast. That night when I kissed her good night I was done for.
We had some worrying reactions to our new rescue. “Oh, dear,” said one of my sisters, as I learned that, apparently, we weren’t the first adoption call. “That’s a lot of dog,” said another friend, ominously.
Are there lies we tell our kids out of pure love?
“I wish junk food was good for you,” grumbled my daughter Lilia the other night. I watched as she stabbed at the broccoli with her fork, her head propped up in the other hand.
“Well, Mommy wishes cigarettes were good for her,” I quipped back. Inside my head, of course.
It’s in moments like these where my mind screams, “My God, what kind of mother are you anyway?”
That I used to be a light-the-next-one-off-the-last-one smoker – mere months before conceiving my children – is the secret I’ve guarded with my life. I felt scandalized that I’d even thought the incriminating thought. What if Lilia suddenly developed the ability to mind-read? Keeping the smoking secret has become as important as protecting Santa’s existence in the North Pole, or of ensuring that not even a whisper of doubt exists over the Easter Bunny’s ability to poop chocolate on demand.