Spin, spin, spin, and breathe, you silly woman!

I’m actually catching up on some marking tonight (it’s a miracle!) but the price is I haven’t gotten to work on the snowmobiling story. Yet.

I really need to figure out a title for that WIP.

Been having that hamster-wheel feeling again. The world turning without a break, no time to stop and catch breath. I do anyway and end up wrestling with guilt over what I haven’t accomplished. I’ve made some lists and few items get checked off before more gets put on. The pile of stuff to get done grows like the layers of clean laundry thrown on top of the dog’s cage, waiting to be dealt with and staring me in the face.

And there’s a divide between work stuff and home stuff. Some of it blends — I can make phone calls for appointments on my lunch break or prep period, and I can bring marking home or plan lessons on my computer. I know of some professionals who leave work at work, and concentrate on home at home. I don’t seem to be able to do that a whole lot. I’ve been marking my Writer’s Craft students’ flash fiction horror stories since they were submitted on Feb 9, and I’m still not done. It takes me an average of an hour to an hour and a half per story, going through it for constructive feedback on how well the story communicates the genre and theme, how effectively the writing process and collaboration were used, and the degree to which the individual reflected on his/her process. After one or two of those, I just can’t do any more for the day, or even the next day. Editing fatigue, perhaps. Right now, I’m taking a break on multiple-choice quizzes from my grade 9s, on conflict in literature and points of view, making sure they understood the concepts before we move on. And all three classes have progress reports due on Monday, with summative tasks being submitted on Friday. Plus Friday is my daughter’s skating show in the afternoon and evening, which means I have to run to her school on my lunch to pick her up and deliver her to the skating rink, make sure she’s in the right place (I’ll be asking some friends I’ve made, other parents whose children are in the skating lessons, to supervise her for the duration), and then dash back to the school for my afternoon class.

Even though the 24 Hour Playwriting Challenge is done, and video posted, nothing has really slowed down. The next projects were lining up even before that was finished. (Breathe) I started looking into accommodations for the Ottawa ComicCon trip, only to find out that the ideal location — Carleton U — doesn’t take school groups until after the date of the convention. There’s also Sears Drama Festival, which I’ve committed to helping with (I said I’d organize the maps and goody bags for each participating school, and assist / supervise training the stage manager and the technical needs of the play being done), and I was asked last night if I wanted to run a drama program for a summer day camp in the area, in July. (Breathe) On top of that, I still have to sign off on my students’ IEPs, submit my emergency lessons, assess my students’ blogs, and run off the progress reports.

And Bridget still needs me to help her finish her sewing project.

And Jack needs a shelf for his room.

And the house is steadily declining in the clean we had achieved for my mother-in-law’s visit.

There is good news in all of this, though. After many weeks of waiting, our snowblower was finally returned to us, fixed, and Hubby used it today to smooth and enlarge our parking area. I’m enjoying my new purses — the Bag of Holding Con Edition, and the white bowling-type bag — plus my new Book Bag came in today, along with a Book Pillow for my desk at school. And it hit me the other day just how much I’ve done so far in this school year.

And there’s still my third novel to come out. I’m just waiting for the edits to come back to me, and the final copy of the cover, so I can delve into publicity once more. (Breathe)

And that’s why I’m a bit frustrated at myself for not getting back to the Snowmobiling Story tonight. Writing is one of my escapes. This one is particularly important, as I’m using it to reach those struggling grade 11 readers. (Breathe) I’d really like to know, one of these days, why I keep putting these things on myself. I am a glutton for punishment. An auteur of overachievement and guilt when I want to back away from being an overachiever. Maybe I’m trying to assuage some guilt by doing things, or maybe it’s just that doing things gives me an excuse to avoid housework.

One thing I do know: the things I put together with my students make a lot of people, including myself, feel pretty damned good.

Childfree vs Parenting: the endless debate

What do you do when someone makes you feel vulnerable, judged, and that you have made the wrong choices in life?

If you’re like me and are prone to anxiety and depression, you take it pretty damn personally.

It’s all you can think about for days.

I am working on this, learning to stand up for myself in a more articulate way and consider other people’s comments from a logical standpoint rather than purely emotionally.

As my dear friend Tara has told me, “You made your decisions in life, and you bear the consequences, good and bad…Don’t feel bad or make apologies or even feel you have to. You have nothing to apologize for. Everyone has days the burden gets heavy, and they need to vent. That doesn’t mean they want the burden to disappear, or that they are sorry they assumed it in the first place. It just means they have stress and need to release some.”

What has brought all of this on?

I had an interesting conversation — more a friendly debate, in a way — on the merits of having children earlier in life or later. One of my colleagues is enjoying her childfree life, unattached and able to travel as she pleases. I had my children during my 20s, and I am quite glad that I did, for various reasons.

I have my moments, though, where I need to vent — when the burden gets heavy.

It was a struggle to have our children when we were broke students, instead of waiting.
It wasn’t just the lack of money; I also had terrible postpartum, though I didn’t know it at the time.

I totally understand and support women like her who are choosing to put off having children, or not have any at all. In another lifetime, maybe I would not have children either, for various reasons. But I would not choose this life without my children, not at all. They are my heart. I admire my colleague and various friends for having the guts to go against conventional expectations, to live their own lives as they wish, and sure, I’m a little jealous of the freedom to travel and go by a schedule unencumbered by the needs of small people.

But what I do not understand is how someone who is child-free looks at me and judges me because I chose a more traditional life path. Not completely conventional, mind you — I have done things in reverse order to most professional women today — but I deliberately (and with some innocence and ignorance combined) picked the harder road to travel. It has brought me both gifts and challenges.

My early marriage and decision to have babies in my twenties has made me a stronger person.

I’m not good with confrontation, preferring to avoid conflict whenever possible. When I felt like I was being told that my choices (to get married young and have babies before I became a professional) were the wrong ones, I couldn’t let it go. It bothers me too much.

My first blog on this, yesterday, showed just how vulnerable I feel about this topic. I get incredibly defensive, when I’m trying to be logical. So I’ve edited my earlier post, hoping to find my way through the murk of this debate.

The risks of waiting to have children later in adult life are equal to but different from the risks of having children early.

Having a baby in your twenties or early thirties, before you have proper job security (or what passes for job security today), means for many parents a constant concern about money. So more and more couples are choosing to put off having children until they have that security (which, in all honesty, may never happen).

Having a baby in your late thirties, forties, or even into your fifties means a greater risk to your body, higher risk of problems for the infant, and perhaps less concern about money if the family has a decent income / job security.

Attempting to conceive when you’re younger means there’s more time to get help if you have trouble with fertility. But a woman’s body tends to bounce back from the demands of pregnancy and labour much more quickly when she is younger and/or highly fit.

We all know the metaphor of the biological clock ticking for older mothers. New medical procedures added to the freezing of ovum, like uterine transplants and surrogacy, help to extend that fertile period — wonderful!

Finally, there’s that question of when to enjoy the child-free years the most: while you’re young and energetic, so you can have your own toys and enjoy them, or while you’re matured and wrinkly, after your children have grown and started their own lives.

Let’s face it: our society puts a premium on people enjoying their own lives while they are young, hot, single, independent, and able to travel. We know that the older population gets less respect because aging makes the skin sag (among other body parts), so many of the toys and experiences our consumer society wants us to enjoy are marketed to the 20- and 30-something set.

Thus, my husband and I might have chosen to put off having our kids until after we had gone on adventures, bought the material possessions we wanted, and found the perfect home. I might have been able to wear that hot Princess Leia bikini while on vacation in Vegas, or backpacked around Europe with him, with just our backpacks.

We made a trade, choosing the less popular / more traditional option of waiting until our mature years to enjoy the travel and the toys.

I probably won’t get into the bikini unless I have a tummy-tuck (which my husband reassures me is not necessary), and he has no desire to backpack around Europe anyway.

What I would like to do is take our children with us on a tour of the world. Spend a year on a working vacation, watching the expressions on our son and daughter’s faces as they view Stonehenge, the Sistine Chapel, the Louvre, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China… We’ve been waiting until they were both school-aged, though I know of some fantastic parents who have been able to do such an awakening journey with babies in tow.

I wanted to wait so that they would be able to remember.

Whether we’ll have the money (and the passports) in the next few years is the question. It’s been a while since I picked up this particular dream and dusted it off. It requires my husband to have a secure job, like mine, to be able to save at the same time as doing all of the other things we need in life (like fix our ailing home). It would also be nice if he could qualify to do some work on an international level, like teaching or cooking. (Again, working on it.) And our specific plan probably needs to be more specific, like helping to build a school in Kenya or going on a research tour in Asia.

But whatever I do in the next few years, I could not dream of doing without my children and my husband beside me. They are my cheering squad, and I am theirs. We enjoyed five child-free years before the first came along, and occasionally we miss the easy intimacy of that time. It’s coming back, though, slowly. We look forward to our older years as being a time to return to ourselves as a couple, particularly considering my husband’s health is not going to last much longer than 10 years from now.

Also, I am happier having the baby-making stage of my life over with. I no longer have to worry from month to month about whether I’m sharing my body with another being. My body is my own, to share with my spouse as I want to. Nourishing a human both within the womb and through nursing, let alone daily mothering of an infant, is exhausting no matter what. ) Not having to worry about getting pregnant is, in itself, incredibly liberating. Even on the pill, there is always that slim chance that it won’t work, but I don’t have that stress anymore. I don’t have to dread it or look forward to it — it’s done. We have our children, and we are done.

Having our children younger has also been a blessing for my parents. My mother has been able to enjoy being a grandmother through her fifties, whereas some of her friends and in-laws have not had the pleasure until they hit their early or mid-sixties, with a corresponding shift in energy for different activities. My parents were concerned, of course, with our timing, but at the same time, we had our youth going for us. They had their children under similar circumstances. The apple probably doesn’t fall that far from the tree. And since I had my children at approximately the same ages that my mother had myself and my brother, I now understand her even more than I did before. I remember times when my mother was grumpy, or short, or not really listening, and being that age myself now, I understand the reasons behind it.

I’m not a perfect parent, and I put way too much pressure on myself to live up to an impossible vision. Maybe that’s why I take my colleague’s comments so personally, when really I don’t need to.

Thy Will Be Done — Available Now!

http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Eclipse-16–Monthly-ebook/dp/B009M53KXI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349751303&sr=8-1&keywords=Dark+Eclipse+16

So proud of this one — if you’re a fan of history, witches, the Salem witch trials, or vengeance against those who commit crimes against humanity, you’re going to love this…

Available for Kindle or Nook. Tell me what you think — I love hearing from readers!

Ah, the joys and pains of starting a family… excerpt from “Tabitha’s Solution”

Eight days earlier, Tabitha had been absolutely positive that the baby was on her way. Her entire pregnancy had been incident-free: no morning sickness, no swollen ankles, no varicose veins. A few stretch marks now crossed her abdomen, but otherwise it had been text-book perfect.
“I’m so excited, I just know it’s going to go smoothly, Mom.” Tabitha grinned as she cradled the phone between her chin and shoulder. The soft pastel green receiving blanket she was folding crackled with static electricity in her hands as she shook out the fold. “Plus, if we do have the baby tomorrow — no, when we have the baby tomorrow, I’m going to think positively — I’ll win that brand-new nursery at the mall!”
“But you already have a crib, and a stroller.”
“I couldn’t resist entering that contest, I just had a really good feeling about it.” Tabitha added the tidy square of fabric to the linen shelf beside the crib, and picked up a cotton one printed with yellow duckies. “It includes a bassinet with a lacy lining, so Victorian and adorable, plus a changing table. I don’t have a changing table.”
“Do you really have room for all of that?” Her mother cautioned. “We talked about that. Until you move, you’re pretty crowded as it is. That’s why I got you that rail-riding changing thingy.”
Tabitha suppressed a sigh. “I’d make it work, Mom. I’m creative. I play Tetris, I like rearranging things.” She refused to look around again at the small bedroom holding the old double-bed, one long dresser, a side table with a lamp, and for the baby, the linen shelf she had converted from an old plant stand, and the crib squeezed into the only space left, nearly blocking the bedroom door.
“I wish I could be down there with you, dear,” her mother sighed.
“I know. I do too.” Tabitha hoped she sounded sincere. On the one hand, having her mother present during her labour would be a comfort. On the other, she wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea. It was going to be hard enough being exposed to the midwives again! Tabitha never even let women in a change room see her naked, always putting on her swimsuit in the bathroom.
Still, she had imagined her mom waiting just outside the delivery room, and being one of the first to hold her new grandchild. That would have been wonderful.
“Did your washer and dryer ever come?” Her mom was asking.
“Yes, just yesterday.” With great relish, Tabitha described her new appliances as though they were toys. “They’re really shiny, Mom. So much better than going to the laundromat. I can’t believe we lucked out on an apartment with a laundry room, let alone that we were able to buy the set on sale. It’s going to make using cloth diapers much easier.”
Tabitha didn’t care that her mother was probably was rolling her eyes; this was a debate she had often gotten into with her. No, she did care. “I know you think it’s silly, but it’s really better for the environment.”
“All you’re doing is using more electricity,” her mother argued. “Why else did they invent disposables? God knows, if they had had disposables when you and your brother were babies…”
“There are mothers in India who never put their babies in diapers,” Tabitha pointed out. “Babies have survived being put in cloth diapers for thousands of years. It’ll help him to toilet train faster, if he feels the wet.”
“Tabitha. This is a baby. You’re looking at a year before that is even close to happening.”
“Yeah, well… I want to try it, anyway.” A lump pushed at her hand, to the left of her navel. It was most likely a foot. She prodded it back, and the foot abruptly struck her lower rib. “Ow. Besides, it’s a lot easier than it used to be, with the velcro Kushies instead of pins.”
She’d never be able to convince her mom, Tabitha knew.
“When will Dad be back from his business trip?”
“Oh, in about a week.” The tone of her mother’s voice changed from wistful to bemused. “He’s been trying to get me to fly out and join him in Vancouver, but I’d rather be closer to you. Maybe I should take the train down, what do you think about that?”
“Mom, you’d have to sleep on our couch. It’s just not practical.” Not to mention the single bathroom they’d have to share! “I’ll be fine. I can take care of a baby.”
“Mm-hmm.”
“Really, it’s going to be great!”
“Okay.”
“I mean, Alex is going to take a few days off, and the midwives will be doing two home visits, so I won’t be completely alone. I can take care of the baby.”
“What about the rabbit?”
Tabitha glanced down at the black-and-white German bunny sniffing around her feet. “I can take care of Beatrice too; she can run around while I’m feeding the baby. She won’t be a problem. We finally got her litter-trained, so cleaning the cage is easier, too.”
“Well, if you need me to take her, let me know.”
“It’s fine, Mom.” Tabitha cringed; she didn’t want to sound like a whiny teenager. “Listen, I have to go to the bathroom. I just got kicked in the bladder again. I’ll call you first thing tomorrow, and as soon as my labour starts, all right?”
“I love you, Tabby-cat.”
“Love you, too.”
Tabitha rubbed her belly as she set the phone back in its cradle. “Your grandmama is going to love you soooo much, little one,” she reflected aloud. “We just have to be patient a little while longer. It would be nice for her to be here, but we just don’t have the space! And I read all the books, I know how to take care of you. How hard can it be? You’re just one little baby!”
Her bump shifted abruptly, as though in response.
“Yes, yes, I get it. My poor bladder is crowding you. Well, let’s take care of that.” Quickly folding the last three blankets and setting them on the shelf, Tabitha grabbed her battered copy of What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and headed to the bathroom.
And emerged, a short time later, feeling slightly disgruntled.
Where were all the signs of imminent labour? Her muscles had been scrunching and relaxing inconsistently for a week, a strange but not unpleasant sensation, but there had been no pain to suggest that it was time. Sherry, her primary caregiver, had said that she was experiencing pre-labour, and that it was a good thing. But nothing else had happened.
No bloody show. She wasn’t quite sure what that would be like, in spite of the book’s description.
No sudden gushes of fluid, or flare-ups of back pain, not that she really wanted to experience these things. Tabitha just wanted to have her baby, as quickly as possible. And if it was at all possible, it would be ideal if needles were not involved. It wouldn’t be comfortable, but unless medical intervention was absolutely necessary, no needles would come anywhere near her skin.
Admittedly, all the battle stories she’d heard from her prenatal classes, and read in her books, about the potential side effects of drugs on a baby’s brain — or on the mother, so she couldn’t remember giving birth — had strengthened her prejudice against modern medicine. Plus, the fact that even watching someone getting a needle made her nauseous made getting an epidermal completely out of the question. Absolutely nobody was getting near her spine with a sharp object unless she was knocked out, first.
Punctured spinal column. Tabitha shuddered at the thought.
Alex was completely on her side. He attended as many appointments with her as he could, and understood her fears. “I won’t let anyone touch you, unless there’s a problem,” he promised her, over and over.
She was relying on that.
Her mother had reminisced often enough about Tabitha’s own introduction to the world. In the late 1970s, she had had to shave, and have an enema at the start of the labour. Ick. Thank goodness hospitals no longer did any of that — Tabitha did not relish the picture her mother had painted of a woman who had just given birth running to the toilet. Sherry had laid those fears to rest in one of her early appointments.
“Enemas? No, no, that’s not done anymore,” she shook her head, smiling. “And you’ll only need a catheter if you go in for a c-section. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. If there is a problem, we’ll refer you right away to the obstetrician-gynocologist.”
“How quickly could the OB-GYN get there, if the baby’s in distress?” Alex knew all the terminology, from his years as a volunteer with the St. John Ambulance. He smiled at Tabitha, squeezing her hand as tightly as she held his own.
“He’ll be either in the hospital, or on-call, depending on how you are at the beginning of your labour.” Sherry consulted a schedule hanging on the wall. Her light brown curly hair reminded Tabitha of her mother. “In fact, the doctor has a couple of scheduled inductions and a caesarean booked around your due date. I don’t think you’ll need to worry, unless the baby is breech or something else is going on.”
So many things could go wrong, but Tabitha tried not to think about that. For over eight months, ever since she had confirmed that she was pregnant, she was only ever optimistic that her first birth would be perfect. Traditional, in the modern sense. She would breathe through the pains, using her meditation and yoga training. She would visualize, to help her body relax. She would have her favourite soft-rock or new age music playing, and a scented candle. They would be in the hospital, just in case, but Alex would be by her side through the whole experience and make sure that it was just like she wanted.
Perfect.
Twenty-four more hours, and she would be a mother. Alex would be a dad. All of this discomfort and concern would be behind them.

Thirty-six hours later, Tabitha had to stop herself from grinding her teeth with impatience.
“Honey, what are you doing with that shovel?”
Tabitha huffed and puffed, her breath coming in little clouds of condensation. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m shoveling.”
Alex approached her with the caution of a bomb defuser approaching an unknown container. “I can see that. But sweetheart, you’re nine months pregnant. Why don’t you let me do that?”
She glared at him over her muffler, without breaking her rhythm. “I’m fine. It’s just a couple of inches of snow.”

Close to My Heart (a work in progress)

    The silence on the other end of the phone revealed more than words would have communicated.  
    “I’m sorry, Mom.”  She held Anthony’s eyes as she spoke, willing her voice to stay steady.  “It’s just not going to happen.”
    “You can’t miss any more family events, Nina.” 
    She watched her husband set the baby in the playpen.  He came around behind her to rub her shoulders, kneading the hard knot that had grown beside her spine.  “I appreciate how you feel, but our kids have been through enough.  They hardly get to see their dad, I don’t feel comfortable leaving them with strangers in a strange city.  They need routine, not upheaval.”
    “We could take turns babysitting, during the wedding.  Instead of hiring a sitter they don’t know.”
    “That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.  I’m sorry, but I can’t do it.  We’re not going.”
    “Then I guess that’s that.”

*

    Nina wandered alone through the crowd of happy holiday revellers.  Although her husband’s encouragement and her friends’ cajoling had convinced her that coming out for the last night of the Dark Lake Festival of Trees was better than hiding out at home, somehow she felt more empty among the smiling, flushed faces than she would have if she’d stayed curled up on the couch.  Pausing to look over a tall Douglas Fir sprigged with blue silk bows and pearl swags, Nina hugged herself as waves of conversation rose and ebbed around her.  Conversations not involving Nina Bradford.
    Three months had passed since that last, tension-filled conversation with her mother.  Three months, and not another word had been spoken between them.
    Curling up under a fuzzy blanket on the couch with a cup of tea and a book would have been infinitely preferable to feeling sad and invisible at this holiday party.
    She drifted past a lovely spruce, decked out in traditional Victorian fashion, with tiny battery-operated candles, burgundy velvet bows, lace garlands and spicy scented balls of potpourri.  The hall was lined with six-foot Christmas trees decorated in styles ranging from futuristic to conventional, under swags of cedar boughs and plaid ribbons.  It was simply breathtaking, but Nina couldn’t see it.  She fingered a prickly branch sprinkled with fake snow, gently touched a palm-sized pink feather wreath on the breast cancer awareness tree, trying to arouse some holiday spirit.  Even though it was nice to have a break from the children, she half wished that Anthony had come with her.  No-one else appeared to be alone.  This was an event meant for sharing with a partner, family, or friends.  

*

    “The wedding, the funeral, and the reunion — it’s an opportunity for your family to meet your children.  It’s all in one weekend, so there will be less travel for everyone.  You should come and see everyone.  It’s hard for your brother, too, you know.”
    “We just can’t do it, I’m sorry.”
    “What if we paid for the trip?”

*

    Nina rose onto her toes, scanning the crowd for the tenth time in the hopes of sighting someone she knew.  Jenn, Debra, Allison — after all the fuss they’d made about her lack of social involvement, her friends and colleagues weren’t even there to meet her.   It figured.  They’d been best friends for so many years, and Nina had only known them for a fraction of that time.  She appreciated that they were nice to her, that they had included her in their movie nights and work lunches, but in the end, Nina also understood that she didn’t really belong with them.  She was a spare wheel.  The people here already had their companions, their personal connections and special friends; the evidence was all around her.    So why was she letting it bother her, the absence of these three women whose relationship had the priority of years?  Nina understood that plans changed.  Their concern that she was becoming a hermit was perhaps valid; that they had urged her to get out and participate in a community event did speak of their caring.  It was nice, knowing that they thought of her and wanted her to be happy.  So Nina had made the effort, with her husband’s support while he was home, respecting and appreciating their concern.  It just would have been nice to see them.  To have someone to talk to.  To feel like she belonged here, among the happy people.
    The brass band at the far end of the hall wrapped up their set for a five minute break.  “Still plenty of time left in the silent auction, folks!” The master of ceremonies, a spritely little old man in a tuxedo, spoke into the microphone as the players tidied their sheet music.  “Every tree goes for charity, don’t forget!”   Clapping along with the crowd, Nina watched as a tired young mother in a cable-knit cardigan passed her sleeping infant to the man in a matching cardigan, standing at her side.  Trying to observe without being seen, she stepped into an alcove between two fragrant balsams festooned with toys and hand-knit mittens.  An older woman with silver hair and a dark red cowl-neck sweater approached with a smile and embraced the mother carefully, in order to keep from spilling the two steaming cups of cider in her hands.  The baby’s father — at least, Nina presumed that he was the father — bobbed gently up and down in time to the pre-recorded Christmas music.  Nina felt a lump grow in her throat.  Her eyes prickled.  Slipping behind the tree, she began to make her way toward the coat-check, and the exit.

*

    “I can’t justify the expense of a three-day trip, not when we have so many bills to pay.”
    “You and the kids need a break.  You need to get away, have an adventure…”
    “While we have a leaking roof, and we need new plumbing?  The car needs a new engine, the electrical panel has to be replaced…Mom, if you’re offering money, I’d rather fix the house than drive around the province for three days.”

*

    The heat was rising as more bodies crowded into the hall.  Nina felt a trickle of sweat pass between her shoulder blades.  The knitted turtleneck she’d worn because of its festive pattern of leaping reindeer felt scratchy in the warm press of the crowd.  She liked it during the long winter drives from Dark Lake to Timmins, to Ottawa, or North Bay.  It was normally comfortable and breathed nicely in the snug confines of their vehicle, but in this environment, the cheery wool was giving her heat rash.  
    “Mrs. Bradford?  Mrs. Bradford!” 
    Nina stopped, only a few feet away from the counter where two little old ladies sat and organized coat tags.  At first, she couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from in the crowd.  It sounded like one of her students.
    “Over here!”
    A hand popped up, near the cider table on the far side of the wide entrance.  A gaggle of teenage girls in her way shifted, and Nina recognized the long blonde hair belonging to Kayla Sutton.  With a sigh of regret, Nina moved away from the hope of a quick, unobtrusive exit.  Kayla had struggled through grade nine and was improving her attendance this year; it would not be supportive to avoid saying hello.  Besides, Nina rather liked Kayla.  She had a wicked sense of humour and a keen sense of insight in the classroom. 
    “Are you okay? You look a little upset, Mrs. B.”
    Outside the classroom, too.
    “Perceptive as always, Kayla.” Nina smiled wryly, accepting the small cup of cider Kayla offered.  “No, I’m just a bit tired, and it’s kind of warm in here with all these people.”
    “You have to dress in layers,” Kayla nodded, smoothing her own fitted tank top.  She tugged at the short ruffled skirt.  Nina hid a smile behind her cup. Kayla, like many of her female peers, preferred to shop for clothes that were always just a little too short or a little too small, but then ended up constantly pulling and adjusting to feel more decently covered.  As long as she didn’t bend over, Nina thought.  Kayla poured another cup for an outstretched hand.  “So, are you here with anybody, Miss B.?”
    The pang made it harder to breathe. “No, I’m alone.  I wanted to get out of the house, see all the trees, you know?” Liar.
    “I really like the one you and the other teachers made up.  It’s really cute!”
    Nina sipped the hot drink and turned in the direction Kayla had indicated.  Yes, the school tree looked terrific.  Nina had helped, picking up holiday-themed school supplies — pens, pencils, erasers shaped like wreaths and snowmen, stamps, sharpeners, etc. — and creating garlands, hanging ornaments, even a star for the top.  Small wooden apples painted a gleaming red dangled from branches, beside yellow toy school buses, old-fashioned plastic rulers, and dollhouse-size desks that Nina had made with one of her classes using craft sticks and balsa wood.  She was rather proud of it.  Someone in town was going to take home a fun, yet tastefully decorated Christmas tree.  How much he or she would pay for it, Nina didn’t know.
    “Thanks, Kayla.  I enjoyed making it.”
    “Are you putting a bid on any of them?”
    Nina sighed.  “You know, if I could, it would be that one, in the corner.  With the real popcorn chains, the poinsettias, the brass horns.  I think it has lockets on it, too.  That one makes me think of Christmas, you know?  I wasn’t really in the spirit until I saw that one.” 
    “So, put a bid on it!”
    “Oh, it’s already way past my budget.” Nina thought of the tiny foot-high tree on her dining table, the best they could do for their growing family.  “We have a little tree, and it’s fine.  It makes the presents look bigger, though.”
    Kayla leaned in. “Hey, if you want a big tree, why not go out to the highway?  As long as you don’t get caught, nobody cares!”
    Nina laughed. “Somehow, I don’t think Santa or the government would appreciate me stealing a pine tree from the side of the road.”
    “Want me to do it?  My family’s made a tradition out of it, we pick a side road, take our snowmobiles, it’s really not a problem.”
    “You’re sweet,” Nina smiled, patting her shoulder.  “Thanks, but no thanks.  It’s okay.”
    Kayla shrugged, grinning.  Nina winked at her and moved away, toward the tree she had helped to decorate.  It had been wonderfully fulfilling, especially knowing that it was for a good cause.  And a fun afternoon, one of the few she had been able to spend out of the house for a while.  She had been able to bring the kids, laughed with Jenn, Deb, Allison, sang carols — it was an experience she definitely wanted to repeat.  Plus, decorating a full-size tree to designer standards was better than attaching the handful of ornaments she’d pulled out of her collection to the tiny thing on her dining table.  Anthony had held her close when they had finished.  “It’s our Charlie Brown tree,” he’d told her.  She knew it wasn’t about the trimmings or the size of the presents, but somehow, the meagre greenery only reminded her of the eight hours distance between Dark Lake and Ottawa.  Of the bruise on her heart.
    Her eyes moved back to the tall, full pine in the corner.  The glittering filigree star on the top called to her with its graceful swirling lines.  If she had the money, she would have put a bid on it right away.  That was one of the reasons why she had put off coming to this event.  Nina tried not to let their relative poverty bother her, focusing on her gratitude for what they did have: a roof over their heads, which leaked occasionally but kept out the cold; clean water and land free of mines; good medical care, a safe community to live in, and above all, healthy, happy, intelligent children.  She knew what was important.  So why did she feel like such a grinch? If she knew that material things didn’t matter, how could she explain the pain she felt when she walked through the mall searching out sales on toys, bought the bare minimum at the grocery store, or saw colleagues lining up to bid on beautiful Christmas trees to brighten their homes?
    Nina tried to turn around before Deb saw her, but it was too late.
    “Nina! You’re here!”
    Deb finished scrawling her signature and ran over to squeeze the smaller woman in a bear hug.  Nina felt the cider sloshing around in her belly as her friend jumped her up and down.  Her normal exuberance was overwhelming, but lifted Nina’s spirits, just a little.  “I’m glad to be here, now,” she said, as Deb released her.  “I was feeling a bit lonely, though.”
    “I’m sorry, we got held up,” Deb apologized.  She turned momentarily to search the crowd. “Jenn’s taking care of our coats,  Allison’s parking the car.  I just had to get in here and put down for this gorgeous thing.”
    “Really?” Nina couldn’t help her laugh. “Deb, it’s made of white feathers.  It looks like a goose molted all over it!”
    Deb’s eyes gleamed mischievously. “I know, it’s absolutely darling, really haute couture.  My mother will just die when she sees it!  Aw, honey, I’m sorry.”
    Nina brushed at the wetness that had suddenly spilled from one eye.  “No, it’s okay.  I’m just — wishing things were different right now.”  The compassion in Deb’s expression made Nina feel uncomfortable.  “I know she would love this, you know?  I wanted to call her so many times, and tell her all about our project.  Ask her opinion.  But the longer she goes without calling me, the harder it is for me to call her.  And I need my mom.” Her voice failed as more tears threatened. “Great, just what I need.  A breakdown in a public place,” she croaked.
    Right on time, Jenn and Allison appeared, lidded containers of tea in hand.  Nina swallowed, trying to smile without much success. “Hooray for the cavalry,” she whispered, accepting a hot cup and the hugs that came with it.

*

    Nina hung up the phone and looked down at her shaking hands.  Anthony came around to kiss her forehead.  “It’ll be okay,” he told her, wrapping his arms around her body.
    She sighed, turning her face into his shoulder.  “No, it won’t.” Her voice was muffled by his shirt.  “They were looking forward to having us there, I’ve let them down.  But I know our kids.  It wouldn’t have been fair for them, driving all that way, without you.”
    “Hard on you, too.”
    “Yeah, there’s that.” Nina sniffed, moving her chin so she could breathe. “I understand where she’s coming from.  I know my dad is disappointed.  He has his vision of how a reunion should be, and I’m letting him down.  I hate that.  But I don’t have the energy to do this.  Not while you’re gone for weeks at a time, and we’re broke.  I feel badly that I’m missing my Gran’s funeral, on top of everything.  I just know that the timing is all wrong.  It’s not meant to be.”

    “They should understand that.”
    “They have to get over being angry and disappointed, first.” She pulled back to reach for a tissue.  “And that could take a while.”

*

    “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so crowded in here!” Jenn glanced approvingly around them, waving at a few people she knew.  “It’s the best they’ve done, I have to say.”
    “It’s definitely a good turn-out.” Allison was texting away. As usual. Nina was both amused by and envious of her ability to multitask. “The first few years, they had a couple of hundred people, total.  But I heard they did five hundred just on the first night, a coup for the organizers.”
    “At ten dollars a person for the entry alone, they should be happy,” Deb adjusted the spangled scarf around her neck.  “It’s still a bit expensive, if you ask me.”
    “It used to be twenty.” Jenn tilted back her tea, and her face turned red. She gestured frantically before spitting it back into the cup.  “Woosh, I scalded my tongue!”
    “At least they stopped charging for the refreshments.  Pulls more people in if they’re getting more than entrance, you know?” Nina eyed her steaming lid and blew gently into the little opening before taking a tentative sip.  “The cider’s pretty good, though.”
    “Any idea what the top bids are, so far?”
    “Allison, I have seen four figures on some of those clipboards.” Nina shook her hair back out of her face. The tea was good, but the heat wasn’t helpful. “God, I’m sweating.  You should have warned me to wear something lighter.”
    “Do you have anything underneath?”
    “Just a tank top.”
    “Here,” Deb unwound the scarf from her neck.  She shook it out, revealing its width.  “You can use this as a wrap, if you want.  Put that sweaty thing with the coats, you’ll feel better.  Your face is all red.”
   
(to be continued — comments are welcome!)