Thursday, July 26, 2012


The golden puppy surrounded by daisies smiled out at me from a minty field. The decorations were irrelevant though - what mattered was the writer, and the content, of this carefully crafted letter. I was 7 years old, and my bosom friend Shiney lived a world away. Google maps says it was only 221 kilometres, but to me it might as well have been mars - there was no way I would ever get to visit. 

Each week when her letter arrived, I savoured the words. Sitting still and quiet on my bed, hearing the voice of  my first and always best friend through the carefully shaped letters on the paper. Holding my doll with the shorn head, the one whose golden tresses we'd taken craft scissors to in order to differentiate her from Shiney's identical blonde doll.

The year before I'd had to have my mom read these precious letters to me, and even at that young age I resented having to have an outsider in our conversations. But now I could read for myself. How different and yet the same Shiney's life was up the highway. She told me what she was learning at school. She talked about her horse and her brother and her parents. She expressed her impatience at having to print to me instead of using cursive - cursive is much faster, you know. Shiney is a year older than me, and always that one or two steps ahead. 

Eventually she would move back, and we'd be neighbours again for a short while. We'd have more adventures, and misadventures, and then she'd leave again. But our life-long friendship was forged on the pages of kitten and puppy stationery, ragged shapes becoming smooth cursive, etched out with wobbly pencils and smudging pens. Our secrets and dreams and heartbreak passed through the mail for many years, paper eventually gave way to electronic data. And always underneath the message was that smiling puppy on the mint field. 
Write on Edge prompt: 

A stand-alone scene, fiction or memoir, in 500 words or less, involving a handwritten letter. Come back and link up on Friday. We’re looking forward to reading!

Monday, July 23, 2012

good bye

A few months ago, Write on Edge sent out a prompt that I thought about writing on at the time, but didn't have the words for. Unlike most of the prompts though, I didn't discard it - for some reason, there was something there that stuck with me. The thing is, I write about friendship a lot - it's an important topic in my life, and thus in my blog. And so, while I have things I want to say, I also feel like maybe I've said them all before.

The nagging thought is still there though ... I find myself thinking often about how sometimes friendships just die out, and that maybe I can stop that from happening. I ponder that sometimes someone isn't who you really need them to be, or that what you had in common had faded, or ... who really knows why. When there's no break up, it's hard to really know what happened. In some ways, I understand better when romantic relationships end. 

At some point, there's nothing left to say. At some point, you have to stop pretending that what was persists. At some point, you have to stop wondering what's wrong and accept that whatever is broken is beyond fixing. It doesn't have to mean there are any hard feelings, but, sooner or later, you just have to stop fighting for something that no one else wants.

I'm disappointed - in myself, and in my erstwhile friend. I'm sorry that something I thought mattered didn't. And I'm having trouble remembering that doesn't mean that I don't matter. I wish I had the words to tie it up in a pretty bow. But ... now you're just somebody that I used to know. And maybe even that was never true.
Write on Edge Prompt:

A close friend is currently in the midst of a decision that would involve moving almost 1400 miles. While I unequivocally support any decision she and her husband make, my own emotions about the possibility of the move have given me the opportunity to really think about the role that her friendship, and friendship in general, play in my life.

This week, we’d like you to explore friendship. You can talk about a current friendship or one from your past, a friend you met over kindergarten snacks or happy hour at your first job. Examine your emotional interest in the friendship and the role it plays, or played, in your life.

The word limit for this prompt is 400 words. While that may not seem like many words to devote to a friend you’ve known for thirty years, try to provide us with a snapshot that encompasses your feelings about the friendship.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

the calligrapher's daughter: review

This was an interesting week in which to read this book: my mom & dad came to visit; we all went to see Brave, a movie that is largely about the relationship between a daughter and her mom; and in the quiet moments I finished reading this gentle, deep account of a Korean girl / daughter / sister / wife / friend whose 30 year narrative holds lessons for all of us, particularly in her strong relationship with her mother and the gentle way her mother trains her to be herself while honouring her family. 

I hardly know where to start in reviewing The Calligrapher's Daughter by Eugenia Kim. Han Najin, the titled daughter, lives in a world that couldn't be more foreign to me - Korea at a time of incredibly rapid change - from the Japanese invasion (days after which Najin is born) to the end of the Pacific war of World War 2. Japan has invaded, the impact of the invasion grows throughout the story, and the fate of Han Najin's family is intricately tied to the fate of their country. There is corruption, disruption, and hints at what will follow even after liberation at the end of World War 2. But this is not a political story. 

Click to view on Amazon
Korea in the early 20th century is still a largely Confucian society. Confucianism informs social relations and behaviour, it determines class, it shapes family life in macro and micro matters. And while Confucianism and its loss of influence are a consistent theme, so is the rapid and organic spread of Christianity in Korea. According to a note at the end of the novel, Korea is the only country in which Christianity was accepted widely without the influence of a central church and major incursions of foreign missionaries. Najin is raised Christian by a mother of strong Christian belief and a father who tries to merge the forms of Christianity with the forms of Confucianism to the best of his abilities. Faith, belief, and the expressions of religion - Christian faith in particular later in the story, is a major and important theme. But this is not a religious story.

Han Najin is foreign - a mostly traditional Korean woman with a long black braid, clad in Hanbok, shod in slippers, deferential. She lives in a culture in which her existence is, almost entirely, only worthwhile in the service to her father, her brother or her husband. And yet, she is as familiar as a smile, a pout and a dream. She strives to be different than her mother and father, thinking them hopelessly old-fashioned, as we all do, and comes to understand their beliefs and choices and lives, as we all do. She falls in love, though not through a route we might recognize. She yearns. She falters in her faith. And, in the end, she is restored to herself. 

Initially I wasn't sure I was enjoying this book. The Han family's life was so ordered and calm - so Confucian - that I had to keep myself moving forward. I don't like to quit on a book, and I was sure that it would get more exciting. I don't know that exciting is the right word for what happens in the story. The 30-year span of the novel makes for an increasingly full plot.

But what really pulled me forward through the slow spots was how much the author Kim made me care about these people. About Najin certainly, but also about her parents, her husband, her friends. About the royal family, ousted before the story begins. About Korea and what it endured. About the tragic loss of culture that so often accompanies the relentless march of progress. It mattered to me that Han Najin was happy. But it also mattered to me that her father could practice his traditional arts. And that her mother could practice her deep Christian faith.

The Calligrapher's Daughter is a late-blooming page turner - not because of high drama and shocking twists, but because the themes and the people become so important. And yet, throughout the entire elegant story, after each reading I was left at peace.

Reading for me is a calming, insular, meditative activity. It's how I escape, and how I self-soothe. Eugenia Kim honoured that time for me, and gave me something to read that calmed and lead me through a meditation that restores. And for that I am so grateful. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

i won't do that, part deux

I'm thinking that maybe something in my last post missed the mark, since I got these replies from AliKat & Freckles (the first being one of my oldest friends, and the second my sister) who both left me thinking 'what we have here is a failure to communicate:'
AliKat: Loved it, Shan.
I have often thought about where I ‘should’ be in life at my age. Having started over as a ‘mature adult’ has meant a lot of sacrifices along with a pile of joy. Then I came to realize this is not productive for me. You know, there is nothing wrong with just enjoying the people you love and the place you are in right now. I often think that maybe all of the 'travel' and things we dream for are right in our backyards, but we are blinded by the trips to Hawaii and big incomes that get us around the world. Don't get me wrong, I think travelling to other countries is a great thing as it exposes us to diverse cultures and experiences, but sometimes it isn't the dream that is defunct, it is how we see ourselves fitting in within an ideology that values the pool, fancy house, at least three yearly vacations, and a host of other things over just being satisfied with sitting on your front stoop with a buddy and a cup of minty water (mint grown in your very own yard, of course). I think perhaps it isn’t the lack of motivation, but perhaps we are exactly where we should be right a dream that has some big assed bumps in the road, but none-the-less a great place to be.
Freckles: Well said <AliKat>; we'll never be happy or even satisfied if all we do is look outside of where we are. Being in the 'now' allows us to enjoy now and look forward to what is coming. It is certainly tough sometimes, but wishing your life away seems like such a waste of what we've been given.
To both of these fine ladies I say TOTALLY, and let me clarify:

I am truly grateful for my life right now, and am sorry that isn't always clear. Although I fight with depression it does not cloud my awareness that this life I have right now - the partner, the job, the awesome home with the great garden, the sons making strides to create their futures - is exactly what I wished for. I'm grateful. And relieved. My favourite times are sitting on the back porch with STG looking at our garden or giggling with BB2 as he refuses to let me help with his English homework & just enjoying the incredible miracle that those simple moments, that garden, the homework exist.

Perhaps my experience of being an outsider - and my hard-won ability to tranform 'not fitting in' into 'being special' - is something I've held on to for too long. I've prided myself on not conforming fully to the supposed ideals of our culture. I'm not someone who is overly motivated by money or status - recognition for sure, but not money or status. If I were, I would never have left post-secondary teaching to work part-time while my boys were younger. I would never have left the private-sector to work for a charity. I would never have ended a relationship with a man who wanted to buy me things and waited instead for a man who gives me himself.

The dreams I have don't have to do with acquisitions or conformity or wealth - they all come back to freedom. And perhaps that's why they are hard to articulate. A million dollar home, doubling my income, even losing 40 pounds are all measurable, tangible goals that, with the right actions attached, are completely achievable.

But how do you pursue something as intangible as freedom? Creativity? Expression? It may be that it's possible right here and right now in my cute house and my awesome garden and my contributing-to-society job. It may be, but for all my wonder at this amazing life, there's still that something magical that eludes me.

Absolutely I am grateful for my life, satisfied to have my big ass on my stoop sipping cool drinks with the people I love, and yet I can't help looking out at the stars past the edge of the island and wondering ... what's out there ...

Sunday, July 8, 2012

but i won't do that

I've had a lot of thoughts rumbling around in this brain of mine the last few days, but the one that keeps gaining the most air time, increasing in frequency & volume is: what are you willing to do to have the life of your dreams? 

My dream body - fit, agile, reliable, sexy, roll reduced
My dream home - here? There? Where? 
My dream vocation - not just a job, but a personal expression; that elusive income without walls

I'm reminded of something my mom said a few years ago after one of her trips to Mexico with Dad. They had seen a cultural dance that included many stunning young women in skimpy costume and 'dream' bodies. Mom had thought, as we all do about something, 'Man, I'd give anything to look like that.' And then realised that no, she wouldn't. These women were professional dancers, of one degree or another. They practiced. They exercised as a commitment, not just an activity. They monitored what they ate for maximum nutrition from minimum calories. If we were willing to 'give anything' we too would have those bodies. 

I don't. 

And most days I'm not sure what I'm willing to do about it, since whatever I've been willing to do in the past hasn't worked. This conversation is fraught with historical dragons. There is no safe ground. Get out while you still can. 

So what about the other things - the life of adventure; the (perhaps) tropical locale, the flexible work that provides the opportunity and the means to work anywhere and to enjoy life where ever I land.

Am I even willing to sit down with STG and figure out what that would take? Am I then willing to do the work to make it happen? Am I courageous enough to dream my dreams so I can start to build them?

What if it means that for now we have to dedicate evenings/weekends/vacations to creating that future - to study languages or begin businesses that will eventually replace our current jobs or take on second jobs to save up or give up dairy or exercise every day whether I like it or not? 

I get inspired. I read inspirational things. I attend inspirational courses. The same message reaches me 4 different ways in 3 days and starts to reverberate in me, and I think - I am someone who is capable of creating for myself that kind of life, so let's go. 

Only, really. Let's go doesn't happen. Just like not eating ice cream doesn't happen and riding my bike to work doesn't happen. 

And what's left is, I don't know what I'm willing to do to create that life. But apparently the answer is not 'whatever it takes.' Maybe if I didn't already enjoy my life I'd be more motivated. But that's a pretty cheesy cop-out. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

the trouble with books

I've just come to the sudden & alarming realization that there's a down-side to books. As a life-long voracious reader descended from a double-line of appreciators of books, I've long been prejudiced towards books' benefits - the worlds they build for our imaginations to inhabit. The friends they introduce us to who mirror back our follies and our feats. The lessons they reveal from history, science, mythology and philosophy.

But as I lay in bed the other night dreaming of a pill to make me smaller, I remembered dear Alice's curiosity and the resultant threat of beheading.

Books never tell us how happily ever after really looks. That Prince Charming leaves the toothpaste tube uncapped. That Snow White's hair turned grey, and that Beauty sometimes got that 'not so fresh feeling.'

And, books give us things that maybe we shouldn't really have. Big ideas. Imaginations. Dreams. So what if Anne had both a bosom friend and, eventually, Gilbert Blythe - LMM had no right to make us think we should want or could have the same, really. Oliver Twist was really the heir to a fortune, once he got that whole orphan thing sorted. ... and ... well ... 

Bah - never mind. I can't actually sustain even for the sake of argument a conversation that books do anything other than enlighten and entertain and inspire me. But. Still. It'd be really nice if we could take a pill to make us smaller without having to get our heads chopped off. 
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