Walking and chewing gum

Ever since my brain decided to go a little haywire, it has been my aspiration to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Well, yesterday I did it! I didn’t even mean to, but I had a regular dental appointment, and afterwards they gave me some sugar free gum to chew, and before I knew it, I was walking and chewing gum at the same time!

Why is this a big deal? For starters, in the hospital I was told that I was not able to swallow properly. A speech language pathologist came to my home to watch me eat–that was awkward–after I got out of the hospital. She pronounced my swallowing improved enough that I could eat and drink and even take pills without restriction. Since I love to eat, that was a great day. She also told me that swallowing requires the coordination of hundreds of muscles and nerves, which makes it one of the most complicated things that a body does. And the stakes are high because if you don’t swallow properly, food can go into your lungs, cause pneumonia, and kill you. Fun fact, as La Neige would say.

(So when I say that I inhaled a piece of Mexican chocolate cake at my favorite restorant, I may not be speaking metaphorically.)

I love food, I love the way that it sustains us, I love it as an outlet of creativity. For the past several years, I have been following the blog Smitten Kitchen because

  1. I like her chatty style
  2. She shows that you can cook anything in a tiny, unglamorous, urban kitchen.
  3. She is a former vegetarian and is vegetable-forward
  4. You can find a recipe for pretty much everything on her site, including great brisket and my go-to latke recipe, which has a little too much  salt, FYI

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I took a hard look at my diet and gave up alcohol and also went mostly-vegan. That was not hard. My deal with myself was that I was going to eat healthy, but if things went badly, I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted. Because, really, no one has eaten more raw kale in their lives than me, so I feel that I deserve any chocolate that comes my way.

But then I had to think about what I wanted to eat. Turns out, I don’t care about alcohol much, but I have a very sweet tooth, and I looove fruit.

So if I’m craving carrot cake, I’m going to make the carrot cake. What is not a good idea is eating a slice of carrot cake, having your husband say, “Is this carrot cake cooked all the way through?” then putting the carrot cake back in the oven and forgetting about it for two hours. If you do this, you will not have edible carrot cake.

But there’s more! When I was up at 5:00 (because steroids) I had time to make an apple/pear/cherry crisp that was still warm for breakfast. This recipe is a keeper. You might think that you don’t need a whole stick of butter for breakfast, but you would be wrong. Also, you can make it with any kind of fruit you like. I used Cortland apples and bosc pears and some frozen cherries that I had on hand.

So there I was in the dental chair yesterday, and the dental hygenist said to me, “So what’s your prognosis?” OMG. I have tried to be grateful for anyone who is brave enough to engage with me around a difficult subject. But don’t do this. Don’t ask anyone what their prognosis is unless you are prepared for the answer that you don’t want to hear. I was not in the mood to make the nice dental hygenist feel better about my cancer prognosis. I think I said something like, “It’s not good.” And I managed to say this while she cleaned my teeth, with poor speech and swallowing.

THEN she said, “Did you catch it early?”  OMG, OMG. Don’t do this. “Catching it early” is part of the narrative around cancer that I hate more than anything. And there’s a lot to hate about cancer. So let me just put it in writing–it seems when someone says, “Did you catch it early,” they’re really saying

  • It’s okay, because you caught it early!
  • Did you do what you were supposed to do? Because you’re supposed to be vigilant enough to catch cancer early. And if you don’t, it’s your fault, so I don’t have to feel bad for you. After all, notice that I asked if you caught it early!
  • Did you exercise control where you could? Because I cannot deal with the fact that illness strikes randomly.
  • Were you paying attention to your family history, like you were supposed to? (Fun fact, I have no family history of breast cancer.)

In fairness, we are trained to ask this question, so there should be no shame around asking the question that we are trained to ask. Lately there is a small literature that has arisen around training people to ask new questions. But that seems exhausting–not everyone has the wherewithal to figure out what the right thing to say is. Honestly, there is no right thing to say.

What I have noticed is that there are two groups of people who seem to understand the cancer experience, and they are 1) people who have experienced chronic illness and 2) people who are inherently religious and whose religious traditions tell them to provide for the sick. I am grateful to these people and to the traditions that guide them.  (Edited to add: I could also include the wonderful mental health professionals in my life, but they understand chronic illness very well and are maybe even in the first category.)

Or, as I recently heard in a brilliant On Beingpodcast:

But, this is — it sounds funny — one of the great joys of working with people on the edge of life. The view from the edge of life is so much clearer than the view that most of us have, that what seems to be important is much more simple and accessible for everybody, which is who you’ve touched on your way through life, who’s touched you. 

From my recent walk around London. Have you had poutine? IMG_0818[1]

 

 

It’s Taco Tuesday, y’all. Also, the Instant Pot

The vicissitudes of life are many and are unpredictable. But one constant is that Tuesday is Taco Tuesday. Unless it’s Taco Tuesday on a Wednesday, which happens. And for Hanukkah, I even got metal taco holders, thanks to one LL.  This party is going to be off the hook, to quote Arrested Development.

If we’re honest, no one is sorry that Hanukkah is over because the work involved is not proportional to its spiritual import. I’m busy tapering off of dexamethasone, so I may have been up in the early hours gloating over my Hanukkah haul of chocolate, metal taco holders, a new Canadian wallet, twee movies, a fashion memoir, a Happy Lite.

The kids are now past the toy stage, and I’m pretty sure that all they want for the holidays is a fluffy hoodie and all the books that they can read. The fluffy hoodie is the big item this holiday season, it seems.

I also got organic cotton pjs for both kids and accessories, with an owl and narwhals, respectively. The Prophet got Star Wars underwear so that I don’t feel like I have to wash the same pair over and over. A few months ago I was like, “I like the tie-fighters on your underwear,” and he said, “Those aren’t tie-fighters. They’re x-wings and Millennium Falcons, Mommy.”  I guess he told me. Obviously, I have fully embraced my status as the annoying/awkward mom who bothers you while you are getting dressed.

In important family news, we have started Frankenstein. Much as it is a brilliant novel, Mary Shelley had a vision that she then subjected to the byzantine requirements of Victorian fiction. So we’re reading, like, letters-within-letters, in order to get to the bottom of the hubris of modern science.

This weekend I broke up with my Instant Pot. That was the worst thing that happened.

It was a Saturday like any other. I got up early, made breakfast, and went to the market. I made a lovely breakfast for myself and The Prophet of corn tortillas, sharp cheddar, cannellini beans, cilantro, and salsa, which might be much better than it sounds.

(A little digression: cannellini beans are THE BEST. They are creamy and flavorful, and you can add them to anything.)

When I got back from the market I put chicken wings in the Instant Pot Mini to make bone broth. A few minutes later I heard a “woosh” from the kitchen, and that was the sound of the Instant Pot overloading the fuse and then releasing all of its pressure and my broth in a hurry. Annoyed, I wiped everything up with a mop, refilled the pot with water and apple cider vinegar, unplugged it, and plugged it back in again.

Then it happened again!

The fuse, the pressure release, all the liquid everywhere. I went downstairs and got all the rags I could find, wiped and mopped, put the broth ingredients on a pot on the stove, and swore to myself over and over. The Historian then mopped and wiped down the inside of nearby kitchen drawers because they had broth in them.

The Instant Pot is about a year old, and I like it so much that I have given it as a gift. But no more. Annoyed as The Historian was to find the kitchen covered in chicken broth, he did not want me to have to give up a beloved appliance, but there is nothing that thing can do that a pot won’t do. It seems like nothing lasts much more than a year these days. Consider yourself warned.

So my brain is still a bit fuzzy. I can read for short periods of time, but I have been listening to a lot of podcasts. Here are my podcast recommendations:

 

Seeing Thestrals

I found this lovely write-up on Pottermore, when I wanted to find out how to spell thestrals the other day:

Manifesting as black, skeletal, bat-winged horses, but invisible to all who have never been truly touched by death, Thestrals have a somewhat macabre reputation. In centuries past the sight of them was regarded as unlucky; they have been hunted and ill treated for many years, their true nature (which is kindly and gentle) being widely misunderstood. Thestrals are not marks of ill omen, nor (their spooky appearance notwithstanding) are they in any way threatening to humans, always allowing for the fright that the first sight of them tends to give the observer.

Being able to see Thestrals is a sign that the beholder has witnessed death, and gained an emotional understanding of what death means. It is unsurprising that it took a long time for their significance to be properly understood, because the precise moment when such knowledge dawns varies greatly from person to person. Harry Potter was unable to see Thestrals for years after his mother was killed in front of him, because he was barely out of babyhood when the murder happened, and he had been unable to comprehend his own loss. Even after the death of Cedric Diggory, weeks elapsed before the full import of death’s finality was borne upon him. Only at this point did the Thestrals that pull the carriages from Hogsmeade Station to Hogwarts castle become visible to him. On the other hand, Luna Lovegood, who lost her own mother when she was young, saw Thestrals very soon afterwards because she is intuitive, spiritual and unafraid of the afterlife.

We finished the Harry Potter books as a family earlier this fall. It was great, and hats off to Rowling’s tremendous world-building, and to The Historian’s amazing reading aloud talents. A few days later our local bookstore announced that it was having a Harry Potter event. I didn’t know if it would be a big deal, but then I walked in the door to find the store full of little kids in black capes with Griffindor scarves, round glasses, and drawn on lightning scars. We got a free Lego Snitch. It was the cutest thing ever, you guys.

The Thestrals, and the books in general, show us that kids are drawn to darkness. Probably we all are, since it reminds us that we are all so resilient and capable of handling so much. It’s something I wonder about–is it fair to bring so much uncertainty to my children? As a parent, you’re supposed to be a constant source of strength, not a source of weakness and uncertainty. Much as I don’t feel like the best mother in the world, I do my best to be there for the people that I want to take care of, and it is an honor to do so.

I’m still on this kick of thinking of Nina Riggs’ The Bright Hour. I grew up in a pedagogy that says that the more critical you are, the smarter you are. I have been trying to fight this my whole life, so let’s push back on this together. The fact that I have anything critical at all to say about Riggs’ beautiful work is astounding to me. There’s this line that people love and respond to. Of her two boys, she wrote, “Their very existence is the one dark piece I cannot get right with in all this. I can let go of a lot of things: plans, friends, career goals, places in the world I want to see, maybe even the love of my life. But I cannot figure out how to let go of mothering them.” Isn’t that an amazing line? And yet. I have a love-hate relationship with that line because Nina was clearly so much more than a mother. It is a beautiful paradox that she saw herself this way. Reducing women to their existence as mothers is one of the modern gender problems that we just haven’t solved yet.

My children got to see me at my most vulnerable, waiting for the paramedics and being hospitalized; and that is probably okay. When I got home from the hospital, I was able to say to each kid separately, “I’m sorry you had to see how unwell I am. I don’t know what it’s like to live with the stress that you live with. But if you want to tell me about it, I want to hear what it’s like.” I’m still waiting.

Before I got so sick I was reading Malignant Metaphors by Alanna Mitchell, a Canadian science journalist who was confronting her own fascination with cancer when her brother-in-law was diagnosed with melanoma. The book was brought to my attention by K, a helpful doctor friend. You know how I’m always looking for metaphors? Well, so is Mitchell. Near the end she writes,

So, cancer as an ecosystem. Cancer as a chemistry experiment. Cancer as a creative cooking recipe, or as a complex video game. I don’t mean this to be comprehensive, but simply the spark to a conversation. The point is that meaphors can evolve. We just need to give them permission.

I wonder what it would feel like if cnacer were a dance, like the example of the argument Lakoff and Johnson write about in their book on metaphor. What would it feel like then? The person with cancer would be a dancer, creating art and maybe beauty and maybe life. Dances take different forms. Some are anarchic. Some dissonant. But they are always radically personal. It’s hard to feel polluted when you dance. Hard to feel as though your very self has been erased.

What’s next for books, you ask? The next family book will be …

frankenstein

because Victorian proto-feminists!

Also, for a recipe, La Neige and I made spaghetti and meatballs last night. It was not at all kosher, since I used some pork and buttermilk in the mix, but it was delicious. I used this easy marinara sauce recipe, and I can and did eat the leftover marinara sauce with a spoon.

Healing

A useful bit of information to squirrel away is that the body does not necessarily respond to your commands. No matter how much I lie on the couch and say, “Okay, brain, time to regenerate: Go!” It does not go, and I get up just as wobbly and inarticulate as I laid down.

I came home from the hospital on an increased dose of dexamethasone, the high-impact steroid that I prefer not to be on. The good news, dear reader, is that I believe that being on dex makes me write more because 1) I sleep less, and 2) I believe that I have important things to say that you need to read. This latter point is probably as harmless as it is dubious.

So I’m tapering off the dex, a prospect that makes me lie on the couch extra and hope for the best. I get up to cook and do whatever, but I am lucky enough to have few demands on me.

In other news, R/The Historian took me back to Hamilton on Friday, where the radiation oncologist pronounced me to be responding well to treatment. Last week I saw the medical oncologist, who adjusted my treatment schedule to try not to stress my system with a new drug until after the holidays, when I will probably move on to TDM1, which is the second-line treatment for HER2+ breast cancer in Ontario. Moving to a second line is a bitter sweet move, but it makes sense for where I am at. Honestly, being on a first line treatment for as long as I have — more than 2 years — is pretty great, I think.

This brings me to a burning question that I have had, and that is what is it that oncologist hope for? And do they dream of electric sheep? As Nina Riggs wrote,

Whatever it is in oncologists that makes them want to be oncologists — that crazy mix of fierceness, optimism, arrogance and compassion — I get a contact high from it. It’s like love at first sight, or touching something on fire. It’s like making a choice and refusing to look back.

Much as I’m told otherwise, I try to be the good patient, and I am grateful for the expertise of the excellent oncology team that I see regularly here in London. I wonder what is “good enough” for the team, especially in a bewildering time when we’re told that patients should be the ones to lead with their conception of quality of life, etc. I do my best — who has two thumbs and maintains a weight of 120+ lbs?  

It’s winter again, here in late November. I hate the short days, the bare trees, the icy sidewalks. I hate that I have fallen into some sort of pattern where I feel good during the summer, when it’s nice to be outside, and I feel especially rotten in the bleak winter months. It just exaggerates the normal order of things around here, except that many of the smart Canadians escape to Florida or the Caribbean. Fly away, Canadians!

My favorite new recipe recently is this white bean recipe that I snaggged off the NYT while they were offering the recipe for free to their Weeknight Recipe Newsletter subscribers. I will reprint it here for free, in protest of the NYT policy of no longer giving recipes out to their digital subscribers.

Cheesy White Bean-Tomato Bake

YIELD 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1/4 c extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 fat garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 3 Tbsp (or more!) tomato paste
  • 2 (15-oz) cans white beans, such as cannelllini or Great Northern
  • 1/2 c boiling water
  • kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1/3 pound mozzarella, coursely grated (about 1 1/3 cups)

Step 1–Heat the oven to 475 degrees. In a 10-inch ovenproof skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Fry the garlic until it’s lightly golden, about 1 min. Stir in the tomato paste (be careful about splattering) and fry for 30 seconds, reducing the heat as needed to prevent the garlic from burning.

Step 2–Add the beans, water and generous pinches of salt and pepper and stir to combine. Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top, then bake until the cheese has melted and browned in spots, 5-10 minutes. If the top is not as toasted as you’d like, run the skillet under the broiler for a minute or two. Serve at once.

That time I woke up and found myself staring at a radiation gun

Honestly, when the best news that you have to share is, “It turns out, I didn’t have a stroke, probably!” it’s not been the best week.

WhacAMole

The whole thing probably started at the end of September. That’s when I had my last brain MRI. There’s this thing that every cancer survivor knows about called “scanxiety,” and that’s the feeling of unease that comes over you when you have to be scanned for new signs of cancer. My usual way of dealing with scans is to dissociate and tell myself that there isn’t anything there that wasn’t there before, but for some reason I was extra uneasy about this round of scans because it had been too long since I had gotten bad news–not especially functional, I know. Anyway, when the nurse from my oncologist’s clinic called and wanted to set up an appointment to talk in early October, it didn’t come as a big surprise. The scan, it turned out, showed a new tumor in my cerebellum and two tiny, tiny tumors in my brain stem, where you really don’t want tumors, apparently. The good news is that there are some excellent developments in radiation therapy, and now we have radiation robots that are as good as surgery, offering cyber-knife and gamma-knife, if only one’s long-suffering husband and friends are willing to drive one to Hamilton for the treatment. What a time to be alive! And so that is how I found myself in Hamilton for treatment the week before last.

The picture above shows the scene that awaited me when I got off the elevator on the second floor of the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton. I do not recommend sending any patients to a place that has a big sign that says, “Supportive Care.” For one thing, as a doctor friend pointed out, all care should be supportive. For another thing, for me, “supportive care,” is a euphemism for palliative care. But the doctor was young and enthusiastic. I quickly agreed to come back for the new scan and the appointment to have my face fitted in a new plastic mask to keep my head still during the radiation treatment.

And so I was scheduled for 4 radiation treatments. I did 3 that last week of October, and I felt pretty terrible each time, coming home to moulder on the couch and watch tv. The radiation technician assured me that I shouldn’t be feeling symptoms so quickly, and it must all be in my head. Now, I’ve gotten through a lot by just breathing deep and shutting my eyes–going under for surgeries, countless IV placements, MRIs and CTs, accessing my port-a-cath with a big old needle, spinal taps, etc–but that moment of waking up from a nap to find myself face-to-face with a big radiation gun pointed at my face was up there with the weirder of moments. It probably wasn’t pointed at my face as much as it was pointed at my brain stem, but still.

I had a normalish Saturday and then collapsed on the floor on Sunday morning. I had been feeling weird and went to go lie down on the couch. Next thing I knew, I was on the floor, and The Historian was trying to help me up, having hit my head and lost consciousness on the way down. I helpfully said, “Nwaaa! Nwa! Ma jouwnawu!” R helped me onto the couch, which I was clutching at and told me to look at him, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I was hot and cold at the same time and clutching at my fleece. La Neige held my hand while R called the ambulance because I couldn’t walk to the car. The Prophet hovered anxiously for a while and then disappeared. In just a few minutes the ambulance arrived and the paramedics decided to take me to the hospital across town with the excellent neurological ward. I got to be on the stroke protocol! They tried to put an IV in in the ambulance, failed thanks to my tiny veins, and plopped me into the CT when I got there a few minutes later. It turns out that the CT was not conclusive, and I had to stick around for the MRI. The symptoms I was feeling were not to out of the ordinary for someone getting high doses of radiation to a sensitive and small part of the brain, but they were not typical or a best-case scenario, either.

This was the beginning of 2-3 days in hospital. It wasn’t so bad, but I did have doctors and nurses coming around on a regular basis to assess my progress. I had double vision and slurred speech. The speech pathologist put me on a special diet because my swallowing was not great. I could not read or speak or drink tea – OMG, who was I, even?

R brought the kids to visit every evening, and that was nice. In fact, their cuddles made everything better, as you can imagine it would. On Tuesday evening of last week I got to go home. My parents were kind enough to drive up on Monday, and did everything they could to take care of the kids and make sure that I was comfortable. I am mostly better, although I can’t read much and my speech still sounds pretty terrible. I went home on increased steroids, and the MRI seems to show that I did not have a stroke, so, again, great.

It’s been a tough week for all of us, and I am still shaky from all of it. I went to see my medical oncologist yesterday, and he assured me that I am in the best hands that I can be, so I went back to Hamilton today to get my last dose of radiation. That was tough, I even came home with my radiation mask as a souvenir.

I cried in the parking lot and even during my last radiation session, after the technician assured me that crying would not get in the way of the radiation. Now, probably at least half of you who have managed to read this far are thinking, “You’re allowed to cry every day, if you want to!” But it’s a funny thing, it doesn’t actually make me feel better, so I don’t do it all that often. It’s just all so much to put my family and friends and body through. It feels like this is not supposed to be our lives right now. It reminds me of The Bright Hour, the memoir by Nina Riggs about her experience with breast cancer. I’ve written before about how comforting her beautiful prose is for capturing this difficult experience and her amazing attempts to be herself through all of the horror of it, but there is something else, too. And that is the feelings of sadness, of shock. of betrayal, that lurk beneath the surface as you read. She doesn’t come out and say it, but it’s a difficult road to be on, and not one easily put into words.

In search of codpieces in Stratford

At the beginning of last week I came across an article about a sale this weekend at the Stratford Festival’s Costume and Prop Warehouse. Already a huge fan of Stratford, I decided that I needed to go.

My husband, The Historian, was not convinced. “So you’re not going to come home with an armload of codpieces?” he asked.  N, who enthusiastically came along with her family, announced, “I make no promises regarding codpieces!”

Early Saturday I told the kids, “Time to get dressed! We’re going to go shop for codpieces.” When asked, I explained to The Prophet, “It’s a piece of a costume that covers your penis!” Then we sat down for breakfast, but every time we caught each other’s eye we giggled. There was a lot of giggling. Penis, penis, penis.

La Neige asked, “Mom, have you been taking marijuana again?” I hadn’t! First of all, you may know that recreational marijuana was legalized last Wednesday, and, true to Canadian form, nothing dramatic happened. Future historians may note that I received 3 emails from the kids’ school informing me that cannabis is prohibited on school property. Also, there was a spate of articles handwringing over the impact on driver and workplace safety, and there were noticeable disruptions in the supply chain for those of us who acquire it for medical purposes. It prompted some discussions with our children, leading me to conclude that cannabis is simply not at all alluring when you know that your mother takes it for her cancer.  Whew, crisis averted.

img_06691.jpg

The sale was so great! We waited half an hour in a giant Disney-World-length line to get in, but we got to see costumes and props from many of their productions. We didn’t find anything that we needed, and I deflected the temptation to come home with a costume just because I wanted a piece of Stratford. We got to see the racks upon racks of clothing divided by gender, time period, and article of clothing.

 

 

I am suffering a little bit of non-buyer’s remorse for not coming home with a crazy helmet, those ship masts, or a piece of the floor from that play about the Bronte sisters that I liked so much. Our friends bought a giant–like crib-sized–foam piece of toast, and it was the talk of the sale. While utterly useless, we were told that the company did not fully want to part with it.

The plum torte that we had for breakfast before we went is the New York Times‘ most requested recipe of all time. We also had (it for dessert the night before with vanilla ice cream. It is delicious, gorgeous, and dead easy. According to Smitten Kitchen, the recipe was first printed in the Times in 1983. For the flour I used mix of Bob’s Red Mill All Purpose Gluten Free Flour and almond flour, and it worked fine. I will not link to the original recipe because I’m mad at NYT right now for putting up a paywall for its recipes. Instead, I will reprint below.

(Edit: I’m not opposed to paywalls in general. I believe in paying for media. However, I have been paying for a digital subscription to the NYT for as long as they have existed, and I am mad that my basic digital subscription does not include access to recipes.)

IMG_0664[1]

New York Times Plum Torte

INGREDIENTS

    • 3/4 cup PLUS 1 or 2 tablespoons sugar
    • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
    • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
    • 1 teaspoon baking powder
    • 2 eggs
    • Pinch salt
    • 24 halves pitted Italian (aka prune or purple) plums
    • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, or more

PREPARATION

1. Arrange a rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

2. In an electric mixer, cream the 3/4 cup sugar and butter. Add the flour, baking powder, eggs, and salt and beat to mix well. Place in a 9- or 10-inch ungreased springform pan, or you can use a pie plate or a cast iron skillet. Cover the top with the plums, skin side down. Mix the cinnamon with the remaining 1 or 2 tablespoons of sugar and sprinkle over the top.

3. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the center tests done with a toothpick. Remove and cool to room temperature or serve warm.

Adventures in literacy

Someone wrote kindly to ask how my kids liked sleepaway camp. Basically, they loved it. They got to water ski and mountain bike. They faced down homesickness and had complete freedom over what to eat and were in a beautiful wooded setting. The Prophet is now taking archery lessons with 10 other future Katniss Everdeens. Camp is awesome!

Now we are transitioning to a new school year, and it is clear that you can say anything you want in my house as long as it is related to the Marvel Superhero Universe. We are working our way through a confusing litany of loud, interrelated movies. I need to go to the library and pick up the next one, whatever that is.

We are also reading the seventh and final Harry Potter book. It’s very good. No spoilers, please. Everyone here is technically on Harry’s side, but we really care about the more complicated and interesting characters–Luna, Neville, Snape, etc. I SAID NO SPOILERS.

Obviously, we take our literacy seriously. To this end, I have been making a nuisance of myself by investigating the state of cursive in my kids’ school. The state, it turns out, is confusing. You see, cursive is listed as a skill that students should be able to draw upon in grades 3-5 in the Ontario language curriculum. However, it is treated as “optional” by teachers, principals, the school board, and the provincial Ministry of Education. I know because I have spoken with all of them.

But wait, it gets more complicated. When I spoke to the principal, she explained that there are too many “mandatory” elements in the curriculum for teachers to be able to spend time on “optional” ones. Hmm, that makes it sound like it’s not even an option.

To make matters more confusing, the curriculum dates back to 2006 and has not been officially updated since then. It’s almost as if some people are trying to take cursive out of the curriculum without bothering to actually take it out of the curriculum.

The recent literature that I found seems to suggest that learning cursive helps the brain to develop and makes kids better writers. What literature, you ask? Why, this literature, as summarized below:

  1. Writing notes by hand has been shown to support better learning than taking notes on a keyboard.
    Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science, 25(6), 1159-1168.
  2. Other types of writing cannot be substituted for cursive, as far as the brain is concerned. Writing in cursive uses parts of the brain that are distinct from what you use when writing in print or when typing on a keyboard.
    Berninger, V. W., Abbott, R. D., Jones, J., Wolf, B. J., Gould, L., Anderson-Youngstrom, M., … & Apel, K. (2006). Early development of language by hand: Composing, reading, listening, and speaking connections; three letter-writing modes; and fast mapping in spelling. Developmental Neuropsychology, 29(1), 61-92.
    James, K. H., & Engelhardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in neuroscience and education, 1(1), 32-42.
  3. Handwriting instruction results in better writing. Writing by hand has been linked to higher order writing tasks, such as word selection and the organization of ideas. When handwriting is automatic, the cognitive load of writing is reduced so that students can focus on composing their ideas.
    Berninger, V. W., Abbott, R. D., Swanson, H. L., Lovitt, D., Trivedi, P., Lin, S. J. C., … & Amtmann, D. (2010). Relationship of word-and sentence-level working memory to reading and writing in second, fourth, and sixth grade. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 41(2), 179-193.
    Medwell, J., Strand, S., & Wray, D. (2009). The links between handwriting and composing for Y6 children. Cambridge Journal of Education, 39(3), 329-344.
  4. Kids must achieve automaticity, or fluency, in basic skills before they can go on to higher order thinking skills. If they do not do this, their working memory will be burdened with basic skills.  Achieving automaticity requires direct instruction and supervised practice.
    Santangelo, T., & Graham, S. (2016). A comprehensive meta-analysis of handwriting instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 28(2), 225-265.
  5. Cursive writing has noticeable benefits for people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
    Berninger, V., Wolf, B., (2009) Teaching students with dyslexia and dysgraphia: Lessons from teaching and science.  Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, Publishing Co.
    Montgomery, D. (2012). The contribution of handwriting and spelling remediation to overcoming dyslexia. In Dyslexia-A Comprehensive and International Approach. InTech. Available at http://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs/35808/InTech-%20The_contribution_of_handwriting_and_spelling_remediation_to_overcoming_dyslexia.pdf.

My dear husband is concerned that I may turn into some back-to-basics nutcase. “Don’t you have more important things to worry about?” he asks. More important than whether my children’s school teaches reading and writing? No, not really. Sure, there are other important things to worry about, but more important?