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Breathing Space

Self Portrait, Ottawa, March 2015
Self Portrait, Ottawa, March 2015

There is an alarm clock on the nightstand by the bed. It’s an old model—it has been there for as long as I can remember—,one of these clocks that double up as a radio so that the first song you hear in the morning will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day or until something more catchy and more annoying makes its way to your brain.

The clock is a “Durabrand”, or at least that’s what it says on it. But “Durabrand” has started to fail me. The seven-segment display’s red lines are fading, dead pixels I guess. It started with the last digit so I didn’t even notice the issue at first. I’m not a lawyer, minutes are quite irrelevant in the big picture. But now, the hours are affected. So I can’t tell whether it’s 8:02 or 9:46.

The clock has been wonky since we came back from South America. I haven’t replaced it yet. I could have. But I didn’t bother because no matter what time it actually is, I wake up startled, with a sense of urgency.

It’s late. It has to be late. It’s always late. We are late this morning, Mark will be the last kid in, again. It doesn’t matter, daycares don’t grade pre-schoolers on attendance and punctuality. When we step it, most days, the class is eating breakfast—most kids arrive early, around 7:30 a.m. Mark has just eaten, he can skip the first school snack of the day.

“Good morning everyone!” I say, dragging Mark who may or may not be happy to be here—depends on the days, some mornings he wants to go to “Harvey’s” or “museum” instead, his two favourite places lately, and he rebels when he realizes we are parked in front of the daycare building.

“Mark’s mom,” one of the kids observes gravely while spilling yogurt everywhere.

The teachers barely glance at us, they are busy cleaning a fruit-pureed mess. I wonder what they think of me, strolling in so late—late for Ottawa, at least, where people start work early in the morning. “I worked until 2 a.m. last night!” I want to say. But I just smile and give Mark his sippy cup because frankly, I doubt anyone cares about our schedule or lack thereof.

What they think is also irrelevant because despite appearances, I’m late.

Or I will be if I don’t hurry, but rushing Mark is impossible. The fastest I want to get things done, the slowest and crankiest he is.

At the daycare, I take my time, but I bolt out as soon as I sign the attendance sheet.

There are only so many hours in the day and they are always booked by two main tasks—work and Mark. In between, a myriad of small duties, a series of minor events and a plethora of incidents will incapacitate me here and there, as if I was in a videogame—you know, when Super Mario shrinks after bumping into a poisonous flower.

If it’s extremely cold, walking from point A to point B will be a pain, so I may have to take the bus, which may or may not be on time—lose energy. I have to do a load of laundry today—lose time, because doing the laundry isn’t just about throwing stuff in the washing machine, you have to gather said stuff and sort out the clothes, put them in the machine, add detergent, put them in the dryer or hang them in the basement, come back up with a full basket, sort, fold, put away. A meeting with a client, usually inconveniently located where I cannot go by bus and too far from home to walk. A cheque to deposit at the bank, where I’m stuck behind the old lady who has a giant paperwork trail and twenty questions.

And work, of course. As a freelancer, my load is completely unpredictable. It follows the “ebb and flow” pattern, but I never know when I will be swamped.

“Life is busy,” everybody says. Everybody is right. And this is not a competition, we are all busy, kid or no kid, work or no work.

Some days, I feel trapped. There is just so much to do. I know exactly what needs to be done and how to do it—it’s the many steps to achieve the process that kill me. Making dinner means filling the fridge, taking the food out, cutting, chopping, cooking, seasoning, washing the dishes, mopping the floor. Going out means grabbing phone (is it charged?), hat, gloves, jacket, putting on shoes. Putting Mark to sleep is… okay, I’m not even going there. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Everything is a process.

And I need breathing space.

Once in a while, the airline safety procedures play in my head: “in case of an emergency, put your oxygen mask on first before helping other people.”

For the past couple of years, I did the exact opposite. Admirable, you may think. So selfless.

Yeah, so stupid too, burning myself out.

So now, I actually try to give myself breathing space, to escape craziness, for my sake and for other’s sake.

A thirty-minute walk can help. Just closing the door on chaos and walking fast, around the neighborhood, where there is little traffic and where I instinctively know where to turn. Sometime, in the evening, I see people’s living space if the curtains aren’t pulled, and I imagine their own chaotic and busy lives. Makes me feel better—hey, we are all in this together!

Sometime, I head to my beloved Starbucks and I read for a little bit. A cup of burning hot coffee, a couple of chapters. If my book is good, when I leave, my life feels much easier compared to what the characters were going through—shit man, investigating a murder? Phew, I only have to wash dishes and invoice a client, thanks God.

Sometime, I clean the house. “Why don’t you just rest?” Feng moans. Why? Because when I clean, I feel like I’m unfucking my life. Vacuuming upstairs, the rug in the living room and the stairs takes about 20 minutes. I have it down to a science. Seeing the carpet clean after is priceless. Wiping countertops in the kitchen makes a difference. So does doing dishes.

Sometime, I think of my happy places. I have a series of snapshots in my head, moments of happiness that I will always have with me, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. It’s -20C but I’m not cold, I’m sweating, we are in Uruguay and we are laughing. Bleak days? Who cares. I’m wandering around a busy night market in China. I’m having fish and chips on an island in Queensland. I’m riding a chicken bus. I’m at the museum. I’m sampling exotic food. I’ve just climbed a volcano, a mountain, a pyramid, and I’m sore but proud. I’m playing with sand.

I can also close my eyes under the shower and let the hot water untangle my muscles, or listen to a podcast while grocery shopping. I can read a magazine or going through my favourite tunes.

And I’m breathing again.

All I needed was a bit of time.

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