Saturday, December 26, 2015

God rest ye, merry, gentle man.

The phone call came in the middle of Christmas evening, freeing us from a hilarious/painful card game, and bringing life and family into clear focus. My Uncle Stan had waited for two of his three sons to arrive and wish him Merry Christmas before escaping the cancer he's been fighting for two years. As with any cancer death, there is relief in the sorrow. Uncle Stan was clear-minded, appreciative of a life well-lived and grateful for the love that surrounded him. He had relatively little pain, and his wife and other care-givers were spared many of the ongoing indignities and cruelties of cancer  - the pain, the loss of bodily control, the dwindling self. 

And still, he is gone. My cousins will again bury a parent taken by cancer. My mom and her surviving brother have lost the big brother who looked out for them all their lives. Last evening when my mom returned to the table after the phone call from my cousin, she said to her surviving brother, "it's just the two of us now." And my sister quickly pointed out that it's the two of them, and their spouses; their children and grandchildren; their nephews and nieces and friends old and new, some of whom grew up with my parents and uncles in the kind of small town that creates friends-who-are-family. They have lost their brother, and they are not alone. 

We will all mourn Uncle Stan in our way. I am reminded again of the circles of grief - to offer support to the inner circles and accept support from circles further out. For me, I have lost one of the several men in my family who are both traditionally masculine - provider, fixer, doer - and gentle souls - a humourist, a musician, a man who felt and loved and displayed his love. When Uncle Stan said "hi sweetheart, how's it going; how are your boys" they were never idle questions. He was the father of sons, the grandfather of grandsons, and knew what it means to raise men. He also never failed to ask, with genuine hope and interest, if I had written anything new. I thought he asked me because he was loving, but then my mom said he asked her often about my writing as well, and ... maybe it makes no difference to anyone else anywhere, but it mattered to me that he was out there waiting to read what I wrote. 

Yesterday was Christmas, and I was reminded, once again, that the best part of Christmas is still my family. An easy, laughter and gift-filled morning with my youngest son, one sister & her partner, and my parents. A small quiet interlude, then dinner at which we were joined by an aunt, uncle and cousin. Much food, slightly less wine, and even more laughter filled my parents' home.

And then the phone call we all expected and did know whether to dread or hope for came, and the voices that had rung with laughter became our comfort. Family. It is our beginning, and if we are truly blessed it is there at the end. 

And so, to my sweet loving Uncle Stan I say, God rest ye, merry, gentle man.  

Just a little video from 2014 of my mom singing with her brother - sorry my voice is louder than theirs. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Paper Towns: a book club review

If you want to write compelling characters, captivating stories, and true-to-life detail that makes readers smile, and sigh, and tear up a little - write like John Green. If  you want all that AND for me to to find it completely un-put-down-able so that even while knocked down by the flu I still read way too late into the night, weave Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass throughout your story in a way that is as illuminating as it is natural.

This is my second John Green book, and his magic is consistent. A part of me wishes his writing was a touch more developed, but since his books are considered Young Adult, I guess that wouldn't work as well for the actual target audience. While The Fault in Our Stars verged occasionally into the morose, Paper Towns suffers mainly from its unrelenting middle-class privilege.

The assumption that all children get a car on their 16th birthday or at graduation, and high school students with their own credit cards, reveals more about the author than it does about the reality of most children in America, let alone the rest of the world. The American middle-class may be culturally dominant, but they are not even a majority in their own country.

I enjoyed Paper Towns - not quite as much as TFIOS, but Paper Towns comes earlier in Green's career, and he's definitely developed his craft. There were a few draggy spots, some of the characters are annoying (being teenagers often has that side-effect), but as I mentioned before, I found it un-put-downable despite its minor flaws. I almost missed my bus stop one morning with a bad case of 'I just need to finish this page.' Ha.

The real magic in Paper Towns are the occasional sparks of wisdom that stick with you. In the mouths of 18 year old they are sometimes slightly contrived, but the Greenian perspective on the world is one worth being exposed to.

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Yay, book club! Especially, yay book club's December Potluck. So much great food. So much fun. And Christmas hats for everyone. What more is there to say. :)

Monday, November 30, 2015

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?: a book club review

This is not a review so much as a string of adjectives, much like Mindy Kaling's book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me is not a book so much as a collection of stream-of-consciousness ramblings barfed together inside a 'cute' cover. I think you can see where this is going. On to the adjectives:

- vapid
- completely devoid of mirth
- self-indulgent
- poorly edited
- racist
- sexist
- privileged
- dull
- disjointed
- a vanity publication

I was disappointed when this book club selection was announced and only forced myself through it because I was hosting this month. My only hope was that since Kaling makes her (ever-increasing) living as a comedy writer maybe it would be funny and/or well-written. No luck on either front. To perfect the stupidity, it's sloppily edited - I counted at least 6 missing words and one sentence that just ends.

The nicest thing I can say about this book is that Mindy looks cute on the cover. The second nicest thing is that because she has all the depth and complexity of thought of an adolescent it is over quickly.

--------------------

It had been more than the usual length of time since I got to host book club. Things have been a bit ... different ... since I got home and the original club structures seem to have fallen away.

Still, it's pretty special to have the ladies in my home, and really fun to change things up and have brunch instead of dinner. I do love a good Sunday brunch, from the classic welcoming mimosa to French toast, frittata, steamed asparagus, crisp salad & mini baked goods. Yum yum. There wasn't a lot of book talk, which I normally find frustrating, but given what a waste of paper and ink this book was, it was nice to just connect instead.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See: a book club review

Even book club reviews have fallen by the wayside of late, but there is so much food for thought in Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See that I wanted to try to get a few of those thoughts sorted out (full disclosure - I have 20 pages left to read, though really the story is over and the rest seems kind of ... pointless). 

All the Light We Cannot See is rich and poetic and annoying and stilted and incomplete and brimming with the horror of war and the wonder of life. As I said at book club tonight, I don't think I've ever had such a complicated relationship to a book before. It is compelling, but is is not a page turner. I fall asleep every time I try to read it in bed (though that may be due to some other things going on right now), but it holds me rapt when I'm able to focus on it. 

The story takes place, mainly, in the Breton town of Saint Malo during WW2. The young protagonists are a blind French girl - Marie-Laure - and Werner, a German orphan who sees his invitation to the army training school as a way to avoid the otherwise inevitable life and death in the coal mines of his German home town. Both are inquisitive, intelligent adolescents with a curiosity that has questionable benefits. It doesn't pay, in war, to be overly clever; far safer to be unquestioning and placid. Through twists that only the surreal worlds of war and novels can support, Marie-Laure's and Werner's paths inevitably cross, though to say more would be unfair. 

As I said, there's a lot to unpack in Doerr's 500+ densely-written pages. A running reference to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, repeated playing of Claire du Lune on a phonograph. The interplay of French civilians - collaborators or resistance or neither, German soldiers, and nominally but irritatingly "movie-star handsome" American soldiers to the rescue. Electronic engineering. The unleashing of man's inhumanity to man. The annoying and expected over-statement of America 'rescuing' Europe. Truly magical explorations of sea life and birds.

Reading this book was like having a rough tag in the back of a cashmere sweater. The chapters are annoyingly short and choppy - generally 2 pages, often shorter. The result is a limping story that jerks back and forth between characters, countries and time periods. It lacks flow. There is a surfeit of characters; I can't say who I would edit out as they are all interesting enough on their own, but they drop away and we lose their stories in a way that is unsatisfactory and incomplete. 

One thing I loved about this story was a thread throughout it that valued a desire for and appreciation of both art and science. Much is made of the Natural History Museum in Paris; Audubon's book of American birds is mentioned repeatedly, and the gathering of knowledge for its own sake is celebrated by the characters. It is not pedantic in the least - it simply and genuinely displays a love of knowledge. And that makes me smile.

I have at least two more blog posts I could write about this book. It seems unlikely that I will. In case I don't, remember this,
“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don't you do the same?”

“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.”

A book club review isn't a book club review without a discussion of book club, and - generally more to the point - a discussion of book club dinner. A book set mainly in Brittany is always going to inspire a fabulous meal, and Mrs. S. did not disappoint. In the story itself both fish stew and bread are mentioned. In fact, bread has an important role in carrying messages for collaborators.

Mrs. S asked the local gluten-free bakery if they'd bake a message into a loaf to recreate that, but they were unobliging. It was still delicious bread though, especially paired with a rich, tomatoey, sumptuous halibut stew. Halibut may not be an Atlantic fish (nobody seemed to know), but when your hostess is from the north tip of Vancouver Island and she has access to fresh halibut, you better believe we were too busy chowing down to dock her points on authenticity. 

And the coup de grace ... the piece de resistance ... chocolate eclairs. I kid you not. Oh they were creamy and the pastry was light and the chocolate was so rich. I could live on those chocolate eclairs - not for very long as that shit will kill you, but ... oh they were perfection. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

autumn ramble

Yesterday was a perfect afternoon for an amble. At the end of a pretty steady week at work and multiple evenings of meetings, a stretch of the legs seemed like the perfect transition back to life. And it was. 

Autumn on the west coast doesn’t have the same vibrant intensity of the Eastern maples, elms, and … whatever other deciduous trees they have that we don’t. It has it’s own beauty though. A softer beauty, perhaps, but one alive with texture, soft colours. In my twenty-minute meander I saw more life than I’ve seen in a long while. 

A tree at the edge of a school yard is bright with green leaves and red apples. This neighbourhood was once farmland, and the reminder of those days makes me smile and wonder what life was like then. Across the highway the hillside is singing with frogs. I can’t see them, but their voices transport me back to the soggy rainforests of Jamaica when rain has eased the heat of the day and the treefrogs are rejoicing in the wetness. 

I enter the trails of Cuthbert Holmes Park and am struck by the wide variety of berries in white and multiple reds on high trees and low shrubs, not to mention the late purple black stragglers on the blackberry brambles. I imagine the Thanksgiving centrepiece the red and white would make. I am not the only one captured by the berry bounty - a fat grey squirrel is munching down on a bush of crimson globes that look to be bursting with juice and flavour - when I stop to photograph him he pauses in his meal, but quickly decides that the reward of the pincherries(?) is worth the risk of my presence. 

Cuthbert Holmes Park is popular with dog walkers so there are always people and pets to greet on their way. One gentlemen had two of my dream dog - the most perfect golden retrievers. Well behaved, beautifully groomed, friendly, but not overly so. 

From the bridge crossing Colquitz Creek I’m surprised to see a male mallard duck, though he’s far enough away I don’t stop to watch for long. Around the corner and through another abandoned orchard I startle a feral bunny. This part of the city is full of them, though oddly you are more likely to see them on from the highway than in the park. I suppose the park is their territory where they usually move before I get near enough to see them. This was a small one. And fast. The poodle approaching from the other direction missed out on a good chase. 

With that kind of life to observe, the walk passes quickly. I run my errands, head back to the mall entrance, and see the day has turned from bright sunshine to steady rain. That is another feature of the westcoast autumn - as a trade off for the duller foliage we avoid the flooding, freezing downpours of the east coast, though our weather changes in a moment. I could wait it out, but - as my dad? mom? grandpa? - used to say, I'm not made of sugar - the rain won't melt me. Other walkers, mostly still with their dogs and much better prepared for the weather than I am, continue to greet me on the paths. 

I get back to the bridge, and Mr. Drake has been joined by a small group of friends who look happy with the rain. Personally, I don't have the same ability to let water roll of my cotton-clad back and by the time I near home I’m looking forward to flannel pjs, a hot tea, and a quiet evening in. And I can't stop smiling. Even here on the edge of the city the healing powers of nature are able to weave their magic.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

the good news is, there is no muse

I’ve begun reading Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and it, more than any other writing or creativity book I’ve read - and there have been many - has me at my computer at 6:30 in the morning committed to “developing the craft so I can master the art” (yes, that’s a rough quote from Patchett). 

This is the first morning of what I intend to have become a habit*, and already I can see it will take some forethought. It will take getting to bed earlier and not reading late into the night. And it will take remembering that in this game, writing every day is more important than a few extra minutes in my warm soft bed. My warm soft robe, on the other hand, is just one more reward for getting up. 

I never think of Ann Patchett when people ask me about my favourite writers, and yet when I look at the list of her novels that I’ve read, I’m struck by how much I enjoyed those stories. Enjoyed is the wrong word. I savoured them. I re-read passages not because I’d missed something but because I wanted to spend more time in that scene; more time with those characters and in that setting. It shines through that she started out to be a poet, learned the skill and craft of story in short stories, and grew into being a novelist. Her skill with language and plot marry beautifully - perhaps even happily. 

While This is the Story of a Happy Marriage might be the worst title ever for a writing book (from a marketing stand-point), it’s still a great book. And I’ve only read the introduction and the first few chapters. Oh, and the version I am reading happens to be large print. That’s the version that was in the bag of books my parents lent me last spring, so that’s the version I have. It turns out a large print book is about what I need right now. Ha. At least early in the morning on the bus in a day that has not quite burst into full bloom the large print makes a difference. Of course, I’d sort of rather that no one on the bus notice that I’m reading a large print book, but … what does that really matter? 

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage makes me want to call in sick, brew a big pot of tea, and curl up on my couch all day. I guess I can do that Saturday. It’s also clearly the kind of book that makes me want to get up and write, which is not something that has seemed like a good idea for the last several months. Patchett makes really clear in her first couple essays that she practised her craft. She actively learned it. She sought teachers she admired and trusted and respected, read from them, and worked with them. She doesn’t espouse getting an MFA or doing a summer writing workshop (although she’s done both and then some) so much as getting down to it. Being disciplined. Doing the work.

Patchett’s entree into writing was freelancing for magazines. Some pretty big magazines. She got to be a go-to writer for GQ and the New York Times Magazine and others. Eventually she traveled on their dime. She conducted research for her novels on their dime (during her research Bel Canto, which is about opera singers, except it isn't, she was sent by Gourmet magazine to tour the great opera houses of Italy - they got a great travel series out of it, and she got familiar with the life of modern opera). 

Patchett undeniably has talent. Perhaps she had a little luck. But more than anything what she had was productivity and willingness. She was no ‘artiste.’ She took what assignments she was given and made them into something. She did not protect her darlings but willingly cut words and sentences and paragraphs to make the article work for the editors. Yes, eventually she was able to stop that life. 

She has long since become a prolific and respected enough author to focus full time on writing novels, and she still approaches it, according to her essays, as a job. As something you get up and do every day because that’s the career you choose, not because the whimsical whispers of the muse are stirring. She has never had writer’s block, mostly because she doesn’t believe in it. She believes in procrastination, and that writer’s block is mostly just a form of mental procrastination. To anyone who has suffered greatly from the ‘affliction’ I imagine that could be an affront, but maybe she’s on to something. Maybe the solution to writer’s block is simply to write. 

That’s what has inspired me from Patchett’s story of her writing career. Nobody can predict when a muse will strike, but everyone who wants to call themselves a writer can get up a half-hour early, sit at the computer, and plunk out words from whatever is around them. This morning I happen to have a subject on my mind, and when I don’t, I’ll look at a photo on the wall and describe what’s outside the frame. Or I’ll see a colouring sheet (we’re into ‘adult colouring’ at my house right now) and share the story it is telling. Or I’ll look at one of the antiques in the room and tell a story from when it was new. Inspiration, it seems, is not in the wind. It is everywhere around us if we’re willing to see it. 

As I sit in the living room nearing the end of my first 30 minute session, I’m thinking ‘30 minutes - that wasn’t very long.’ No, not the first morning it wasn’t. Not while my sails are full with Patchett’s admonitions. But what about in two weeks. What about when I’m tired, or ill, and it’s cold in here, and I DON’T WANT TO. 

Well, I hope that in those morning when the alarm goes I’ll give myself a talking too, shrug into my soft warm robe, and get myself back in front of the glow of the computer screen with its blinking cursor. Because I am a writer, dammit, and writers write. And now I’m just stalling because if there’s one writing habit I’ve trained myself in, it’s writing things in blog-post length and I write that in under 30 minutes. But there is still one minute on the clock and I am not going to cheat myself of 60 seconds of writing time this first morning out. 

*No, I don't intend to post every morning's ramblings - I just thought that posting this one would add another layer of accountability. :) 

Monday, September 14, 2015

unqualified love

"In sickness and in health" doesn't cover the reality of that vow. It doesn't speak to catheters and enemas and cleaning your loved one and advocating with health professionals for appropriate care and comfort and an endless stream of appointments and tests and reports. 

"For better or for worse" doesn't mention sleeping for a week in a reclining chair in the living room beside your husband's hospice-at-home hospital bed so you can hold his hand, listen for his breathing, and ease his passage from your life. 

They promised and they danced and they laughed and they loved.

Diva Moe has lost her husband after seven years of living with cancer, and in the journey to this new reality she has demonstrated what it means to love. To love as a choice and an action, not just in flowering script and happy moments. Technically he was her husband (for the second time) of 15 months, but in reality he was her husband for 28 years. 

I know there were times Moe felt unqualified for the tasks before her. She had no health care training. She had her own grief and guilt and joy and fear to navigate and the journeys of their five children and son-in-law to travel alongside. 

But unqualified has that other meaning, in this case the more appropriate meaning. Moe has loved without ceasing. She has loved without reservation or condition. She has loved through terror and exhaustion and beyond herself. Moe has modelled unqualified love to her children and her friends. She has honoured her vows in ways she couldn't have imagined even on their second wedding day when her husband was already ill and 'in sickness and in health until death parts us' was in the clouds that rained on their joy. 

I am amazed by her, and by this steadfastness of her love. I am blessed to have borne witness to it, and I am blessed to have received it myself. May we all be so unqualified in our loving. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Orphan Train: a book club review

Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline is a book I approached with a certain excited trepidation. Having written my masters thesis on Victorian orphans, I knew the despicable pedant in me would be on the look out for historical inaccuracies, but it's also a topic I find fascinating and the blurbs sounded good. Of course, there is a world of difference between Dickens' "lone, lorn, creatures" and American children sent from East Coast cities to lives of servitude in the Midwest (the plot is slightly more Anne of Green Gables than Oliver Twist).

Orphan Train uses the classic (a.k.a. cliché) story-within-a-story structure. The framing story has troubled Goth teenager Molly meeting aged rich lady Vivian to do some community service. There are no surprises in Orphan Train - I can hardly even clarify for myself what might constitute a spoiler in this review since not a single element of the plot was a twist. Their friendship builds as Vivian tells Molly the story of her childhood as an 'Orphan Train rider' and ... the rest is glossed-over history. 

Kline's story-telling is pleasant. Her writing style is both poetic and fluid, and her characters, in general, are well-developed. I devoured the book like one does a meringue - in the moment it's great, but you aren't left with much at the end.

In fact, as I was preparing to go to book club, I had to check my book shelf to remember what book we'd read. What was missing was any sort of sensory input. Not just skirting the issue of 'bad things happening,' but the stench of a family of 6 living in a New York City tenement, the cold of an unheated Minnesota sewing room, the pain of soul-crushing loss, the ache of horny teenagers, the promise of spring. Given the time period of the inside story, Kline left a lot on the table.

It's a good book. On the 'liked/didn't like, recommend/don't recommend, three-word review' test for book club I'd say
  • liked
  • recommend
  • predictable, enjoyable, fails to impress

Dear sweet funny bad-ass Little E hosted a luscious summer patio dinner, and faced the challenge of hosting for this book head on. We have a tradition in the club of, when possible, tying the theme of the dinner to the theme of the book. For a book like The Great Gatsby or The Secret Life of Bees the theme can be both obvious and inspiring to work with. For a book about orphans sent to work on farms and in other forms of indentured servitude for people little capable of or willing to care for them, during the Great Depression, with references only to squirrel stew or weak potato soup well, the cooking becomes a little more challenging.

And so, in true Little E style, we started with vodka spiked rosemary lemonade. I don't know that there's a connection to the book, and I don't care. She should bottle that stuff! From there, the framing story of the book is set on the coast of Maine, and Little E wisely took her inspiration from there.

Clam chowder thick enough to stand a spoon in, with an extra bowl of crumbled bacon on the side if we wanted more (it's bacon - WE WANTED MORE!). Seafood tacos with sass and verve and succulence. Lobster salad. There was more. Much more. And sorbet in orange peel bowls for dessert were the perfect palette cleansing touch of sweetness.

As always, the conversation was rich and far-ranging and sometimes off topic and insightful. On a sunny July deck in a gorgeous thriving back garden, with bees (okay, wasps, but they're less poetic) buzzing and a sweet baby girl stopping by to say "goodnight Mama" to our hostess, there was plenty of proof once again why book club is my favourite night of the month.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

the mother of all reviews

In the last 9 months or so I've fallen so far off the blogging wagon that I haven't even posted book reviews. Many of the books I've read I've drafted posts about - some full of notes & thoughts at the time, and some just with the title as a place-holder in my drafts folder.

My night stand on any given night. 
I thought about powering through them all - blasting out review after review until they're done. I will still post proper reviews of all the missing book club books (because I love those ladies, it's often the highlight of my month, and those posts are generally about more than just a book review).

While considering the back log recently, I had a streamlining idea - for all of the non-book club book backlog I will apply the round-robin review that we use to ensure everyone at book club gets heard at least once (we might have a conversation dominator or two *blushes & waves*)

Before our conversation turns into a free-for-all we go around the table and say 

1. Like it/didn't like it
2. Would/wouldn't recommend it
3. Three word review 

In truth, the three-word review is rarely just three words, but it's generally brief and not an invitation to discussion so much as an impression. We're not overly disciplined about that as it's hard not to jump in with 'oh really, but' or 'I know, right?,' but we do rein ourselves in if we haven't gotten around the table yet. 

So ... here are some of the non-book club books I've been neglecting to review. I won't be linking to Amazon anymore as they are now requiring Canadian associates to provide income details for the IRS. To which I say, "OH, HELL NO!" I do hope you'll instead check your local bookseller if anything I review catches your fancy.

White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
1. Liked it
2. Recommend it to most people
3. Compelling, charming, disturbing

Run, by Ann Patchett
1. LOVED it
2. Strongly recommend it
3. Redemptive, thought-provoking, comforting 

The Art of Non-Conformity, by Chris Guillebeau
1. Loved it
2. Recommend it to those ready for a different way to do life
3. Encouraging, inspiring, practical

The Measure of a Man, Sidney Poitier
1. Liked it
2. Recommend it
3. Deep, poignant, moving

One Hundred and Four Horses, by Mandy Retzlaff
1. That's a complicated question sometimes - I liked her writing, but I am SOOOO over 'poor me' stories of white Africa. Yes, what happened to the white farmers in Zimbabwe was inhumane and unjust. But can we at least acknowledge the 200+ years of inhumane and unjust colonization that came before? 
2. I would recommend it with caveats - and to my white African friends.
3. Engrossing, tone-deaf, poorly edited ('azure' 8 times in one chapter? C'mon)

There have been more, but without a place holder they've fallen away. More of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander and Lord John series. Books I picked up in the Cuso Jamaica office. Books I left behind in airports and on buses. But we've started clearing the backlog. Just a bunch of book club reviews to go and I might even start actually writing again.

Stranger things have happened.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

the crabs in the bucket

Back when K'os first emerged on the western Canadian music scene in the early 2000s (I imagine he was already known in eastern Canada before then), I thought little of his song 'Crabbuckit' other than 'It's got a good tune and I can dance to it' (some of you are too young to get that reference; get offa my lawn).


It's still a catchy tune, but lately I've been more and more aware of the metaphor - it seems in a bucket full of crabs you don't need a lid because any brave crustaceans that try to rise above will be pulled back down by the other crabs, or so the story goes. 

I like crabs. They are intriguing, adaptable, tasty creatures. But you wouldn't want to be in a bucket with a bunch of them. 

Ever since I returned home from Jamaica, I've been slipping around, having trouble finding my feet. I was light and glowing when I returned - the experience, the sunshine, the healthy diet, the fabulous friends, the freedom, the opportunity to make a visible difference. It all had an effect I thought would last. 

In fact, much of the growing and learning I did in Jamaica has lasted and will last, though the glow has gone. For the last two months I've been in one of the deepest depressions I've experienced in years -  it's acute and circumstantial. It's a lack of sunshine and freedom and pineapple and clarity. This too shall pass and is already lifting. 

But in the midst of that were the crabs. Those people who wanted to downplay my experience. Those whispers of 'oh shut up about Jamaica already.' Those accusations of narcissism and self-obsession and expressions of disinterest. And the crabs in my own head asking whether I have any worth back here in Canada, whether I'll ever be able to break out of the bucket again, whether any cute crab will want to join me on the outside. 

I was talking to my friend Mr. C a week or so ago and explaining to him how the slide had started, and what had accelerated it. What we were really talking about was my lack of writing since I've come home - here, there, or anywhere. When I relayed some of those whispers, at first he was indignant on my behalf. Mr. C is a great encourager of mine - he reads and responds to my writing, and he and Mrs. C kept me good company in Jamaica via Skype and Facebook. I like to tease him, and I love that he's in my corner. 

And then he interrupted me, as he is wont to do, and said, "and how DARE you listen to that bullshit?!" 

He has a point. 

Crabs are good for eating. And watching on the beach. And taking funky pictures of. They are not good for conversating with.

You can stay in the bucket if you want, but I've got more adventures to have. And if you're not interested in them, feel free not to read what I write. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Botany of Desire: a book club review

I thought I wrote this months ago. In fact, I remember writing key turns of phrase months ago. Maybe I wrote them on scrap pieces of paper, or on the notepad of a now dead 'smart' phone. Wherever they are, they are gone. And while my memory of writing them lingers, the actual phrases are now obscured by the dust of an unreliable brain. 

Michael Pollan, famous sibling and bally-hoed food writer, has a keen and interesting interest in the intersection of botany and culture as it shows up in our eating habits. For this exploration Pollan dedicates each of the four chapters in his book to four crucial plants in the development of western culture: the tulip, the potato, the apple and marijuana. They are an interesting lot, chosen for their appeal to riches, beauty, nourishment, and escape. 

I find Pollan's writing style engaging; his blend of science, social study and gastronomy really works for me. My only strong resistance to this book came from his rah rah Americanism in the section regarding apples. I hate jingo-ism at the best of times, and the supposed claim America has on apples strikes me as false as a starlet's buxom breasts or a Texas dame's big blonde 'do.

That said, the history of the apple in America, being grown first and foremost for cider until prohibition caused the apple lobby to invent that whole "an apple a day" thing, was interesting. I do love my cider. And it tied the apple and prohibition nicely to the intriguing chapter on marijuana, the big oil lobby that destroyed hemp as an industrial crop. and the underground growing that has resulted in marijuana plants that deliver more high in smaller plants. 

From the money-grubbing Dutch Rennaissance tulip bulb hoarders to Monsanto potato farmers, Pollan's research weaves a clear narrative of how humans have influenced plant evolution and vice versa. 

If only Johnny Appleseed wasn't so wrapped up in Old Glory.
_______________________
Something weird happened this book club - which I'm really having to stretch to remember. Some of us were going to go on our annual retreat, but that didn't happen. Some met anyway but I was protesting the lack of retreat (a.k.a. chopping off my nose to spite my face), didn't go, and don't remember hearing how it went. I guess this is still a 'book club review' even though I wasn't at the meeting. I will say that of all the lofty goals we started book club with, retreat was one of my favourites and it's disappointing that we've only managed to retreat once. With the constant stream of new babies (8 in 3.5 years) it's hard for members to get away. It's totally understandable but still disappointing.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

my dad

Happy happy Father's Day xo

My dad is not the man I think I know.
He is a mystery - a much cherished, little understood ideal.
Like love.
Or what makes a joke funny.
Or how many raisins make a bran muffin perfect.

He is why my sons and I have
blue eyes and
long legs and
flaring bouts of righteous indignation.
He is a model few men since have measured up to.

My dad is not a photo I can find of us together.
Those are a few frozen moments - not even the most important ones.
He was most often behind the camera, both making and preserving the stories for us.

My Dad is not a memory of tangled fishing line on a riverbank.
Or a pink Jeep on a hillside.
Or holding hands to pray around the dinner table.
Or car trips of just us and miles filled with quiet or deep talks or Sunday School songs.

My dad is not a monolith or bunting made of adjectives.
He is superlatives and caveats and contradictions in balance.
He is as soft and as strong as leather.
He is "oh, Shan" and quick tears and being heard and "that's enough."

I have worn proudly all my life the honour of being his daughter.
I have rarely felt up to the role.
I have known to my bones he feels otherwise.

Friday, June 19, 2015

a quest for plenty: my list of 100 dreams

Well, that was more difficult than I expected. When it came right down to it, coming up with 100 things that made my eyes light up or my heart beat faster took a little thinking. I got to 50 pretty quickly, then another 10 here or there, and finally took to reading other people's lists to find my final 10. And then, because some of those lists are awesome, I ended up with 102.

One of the things that strikes me is how limited the 'Nurture Romance' section is for me. I don't know if that's because I am resigned in that area or because so much of what I do dare to dream about romance I'm too chicken to commit to paper/blog. Little of column a, little of column b and lots of room to grow, I guess.

So, here it is - my list of 102 dreams. And now for the fun part - making them happen!

FREE TO BE ME 
  • Be debt free
  • Create a generated-from-anywhere income of more than $80,000 net/year (in 2015 CDN dollars)
  • Write a novel 
  • Complete the ‘Ultimate Canadian Book Tour’ promoting my novel at independent book sellers in all 10 provincial and 3 territorial capitals
  • Win a short story or essay contest
  • Write a book with Nathan - Hungry Ghost Mom or other
  • Be paid to sing
  • Sing a song while accompanying myself on the piano at an open mic night
  • Take a week-long solo writing retreat during storm season in Tofino
  • Attend a writing course at The Banff Centre
  • Create a cozy, inviting, dedicated writing space in my home 
  • Take a year of shmita
  • Have my picture taken with Alan Thomas Doyle
  • Have my picture taken with Michael Bublé
KNOW & BE KNOWN 
  • Learn to scuba dive
  • Master a second UN working language (French or Spanish) 
  • Earn a PhD
  • Spend a day in the British Museum
  • Visit the Smithsonian Institutes
  • Take a photography course
  • Earn my own media pass to Jamaica Jazz Festival
  • Take a painting class 
  • Take a trip with Josh and really listen to who he is
  • Learn to social dance 
    • swing 
    • waltz 
    • two-step
    • others? 
  • Attend the World Domination Summit
  • Present at an official TED event
  • Be an invited (paid) speaker at a writing conference
  • Teach at a college (again)
  • Be a writer-in-residence
  • Get 20,000 Twitter followers
  • Have 5,000+ blog visits/month 
NURTURE ROMANCE 
  • Be kissed atop the Eiffel Tower
  • Get married on a beach
  • Trace my lover's laugh lines as he ages
  • Make love under the Northern Lights
HAVE GRAND ADVENTURES
  • Ski Whistler
  • Ski in the alps
  • Ski a black diamond run (on purpose ;-)) 
  • Swim with a whale shark in the wild
  • Land a jump on a mountain bike
  • Drive a convertible from Los Angeles to Las Vegas
  • Ride the Rocky Mountaineer
  • Stand up on a surfboard for at least 15 seconds in Hawaii
  • Play craps in Vegas
  • Sleep in a working lighthouse
  • Take a glamping safari in the Rift Valley
  • Watch silver back gorillas in Rwanda
  • Crew a sailboat
  • Go salmon fishing on the ocean with my Dad
  • Live in a float home (or on a boat) for a year
  • Drive the entire Pacific Coast Highway 
  • Ride a roller coaster that goes upside down
MAKE A DIFFERENCE 
  • Be Secret Santa to a children's shelter
  • Work with Habitat for Humanity somewhere in the tropic zone 
  • Work for the UN
  • Volunteer with a literacy organization
  • Teach creative writing to people in recovery from addiction/mental illness
  • Serve on the board of UNBC
  • Sponsor a bursary for single moms studying the arts at UNBC
  • Give a stranger $100 
  • Pay for the groceries of the person ahead of me in line
SHE'S SO FANCY
  • Own a pair of Louboutins
  • Fly first class 
  • Stay at the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort
  • Stay at a 5 Star hotel on Central Park
  • Live in a downtown loft condo in a major city
  • Buy a scarf at the flagship Hermès store in Paris
  • Have more original art than prints
  • Ride a gondola in Venice
  • Attend the Academy Awards - inside the building! 
SEE THE WORLD
  • Complete a 7-day kayak holiday in the Salish Sea
  • Take my mom on a trip of her choosing
  • Take Nathan on a history tour through Germany, France, Ireland, & Scotland 
  • Travel on a round-the-world airline ticket
  • Visit the Galapagos
  • Attend Bachannal in Kingston
  • Hand feed a sloth in Costa Rica
  • Have a ‘just us’ holiday with Shan - no kids, no guys, lots of wine and laughter and tears
  • Visit all of the ferry-accessible Gulf Islands
    • Saturna
    • North Pender
    • South Pender
    • Mayne 
    • Salt Spring
    • Galiano
    • Penelakut
    • Thetis
    • Gabriola
    • Bowen
    • Hornby
    • Denman
    • Texada
    • Quadra
    • Cortez
  • See the autumn colours of the eastern seaboard
  • Live one year in London
  • Tour the White House
  • Live one year in New York City
  • Live one year in Kenya or Tanzania
  • Visit Zanzibar 
  • Take the ultimate Gospel road-trip through the Southern U.S. - (Where would that take me? Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans?)
  • Live beside the Caribbean for AT LEAST a year
  • Visit Yellowstone Park 
  • Visit Stonehenge
  • Attend Carnaval in Québec City
  • Soak in a natural hot spring in Iceland
  • Swim [or perhaps just dip a toe] in all of the oceans & seas 
    (It turns out the International Hydrographic Institute recognises 66 seas, oceans, straits, channels and bays and the list hasn’t been updated since 1953, so I’m going with my own abridged version): 
    • Pacific (north and south of the equator)
    • Atlantic (north and south of the equator)
    • Arctic
    • Indian
    • Mediterranean 
    • Caribbean
    • China
    • Bering
    • Baltic
    • Japan 
    • Arabian
    • North
    • Red
    • Dead
  • Visit the ‘New 7 Wonders of the World
    • Great Wall of China (China)
    • Petra (Jordan)
    • Christ the Redeemer (Brazil)
    • Machu Picchu (Peru)
    • Chichen Itza (Mexico)
    • Colosseum (Italy)
    • Taj Mahal(India)
    • Great Pyramid of Giza (Egypt - only remaining original Wonder)
  • Visit every Caribbean Island nation/territory
    • Antigua and Barbuda
    • (The) Bahamas
    • Barbados
    • Cuba
    • Dominica
    • Dominican Republic
    • Grenada
    • Haiti
    • Jamaica
    • Saint Kitts and Nevis
    • Saint Lucia
    • Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
    • Trinidad and Tobago
    • France*
      • Guadalope
      • *Martinique
      • Saint Barthélemy
      • Saint Martin
    • Netherlands 
      • Aruba
      • Curaçao
      • Sint Maarten
    • Britain
      • Anguilla
      • British Virgin Islands
      • Cayman Islands
      • Montserrat
      • Turks and Caicos Islands
    • U.S.
      • Puerto Rico
HOTTER BY THE DECADE 
I turn a-shocking-number old on January 30, 2018 and am determined to make that decade sizzle!
  • Reach a BMI <25
  • Maintain a BMI <25 for a year
  • Maintain a BMI <25 for 5 years
  • Master all 26 postures in Bikram Yoga
    • Standing Deep Breathing (Pranayama)
    • Half Moon Pose (Ardha-Chandrasana)
    • Awkward Pose (Utkatasana)
    • Eagle Pose (Garurasana)
    • Standing Head to Knee (Dandayamana-Janushirasana)
    • Standing Bow Pose (Dandayamana-Dhanurasana)
    • Balancing Stick (Tuladandasana)
    • Standing Separate Leg Stretching Pose (Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Paschimotthanasana)
    • Triangle Pose (Trikanasana)
    • Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee Pose (Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Janushirasana)
    • Tree Pose (Tadasana)
    • Toe Stand (Padangustasana)
    • Dead Body Pose (Savasana)
    • Wind-Removing Pose (Pavanamuktasana)
    • Sit up (Pada-Hasthasana)
    • Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
    • Locust Pose (Salabhasana)
    • Full Locust Pose (Poorna-Salabhasana)
    • Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
    • Fixed Firm Pose (Supta-Vajrasana)
    • Half Tortoise Pose (Ardha-Kurmasana)
    • Camel Pose (Ustrasana)
    • Rabbit Pose (Sasangasana)
    • Head to Knee Pose and Stretching Pose (Janushirasana and Paschimotthanasana)
    • Spine-Twisting Pose (Ardha-Matsyendrasana)
    • Blowing in Firm Pose (Kapalbhati in Vajrasana)
  • Thigh gap (standing straight up, assessed by someone else – ha)
  • Michelle Obama arms
  • Bubble butt
  • 32” waist
  • Complete a silent retreat
Since I'm already undeniably middle aged, I've marked off the few dream elements I've completed - it's not much, but ... time's a wastin.' I don't like the effect of crossing out a dream, so the completed ones are bolded. :) 

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Happiness of Pursuit: Review & Reflection

I've gotten away, of late, from reviewing the books I've been reading. I have a considerable back-log of reviews waiting to be posted, but I wanted to get this one up first since I have a feeling that finishing this book is a line in the sand of what life looks like moving forward.

The book in question is Chris Guillebeau's The Happiness of Pursuit, the second of Chris' books I've read since returning home from Jamaica clear that my sleepy hometown isn't going to be enough anymore. In The Happiness of Pursuit (THoP) Chris hangs a framework of lessons from his own quest (to visit all 193 recognized nations of the world by the age of 35) and the quests of many others. Within that framework Chris inserts questions and lessons that have you pay attention to life for what your (my) own quest might be.

Amazon associate link

THoP is a relatively quick read that I purposely slowed down. I wanted each lesson to sink in. I wanted to really learn from Chris, from the woman who created a meal from every country in the world, from the man who refused mechanical transportation for 22 years, from the other creators and explorers. What about what they did called to me? What in their stories was inspiring? What might my version of that look like?  

Chris is a very readable writer - intelligent, self-deprecating, pleasantly insouciant, and very very relatable. He often answered my questions just as they were forming, and he leaves plenty of room for people to create their own lives rather than imposing his ideas of life on his readers. 

As I read I was repeatedly reminded of something that I've often felt is a weakness of mine - not having one singular passion that pulls me forward. I like variety. I am interested in many things. And the idea of hitching my chariot to one questing star feels limiting rather than inspiring. As I read THoP I paid extra attention - what in life holds my attention? Where and when do I feel myself getting excited about an undertaking? What activities make time disappear? What circumstances outrage me? The answers are a mixed bag. 

Obviously, travel is and will continue to be a theme for me. But as I pondered the various forms a quest can take, travel seemed like - pardon the pun - the vehicle, not the focus. I'm going to travel anyway, but what can that travel be about? What happens in the life I have at homebase? Where do my sons, my parents, my health fit in in a life focused on travel? 

And then, I came across this blog post on  Facebook: Don't make a bucket list; make a list of 100 dreams. I was on my iPhone, and I don't enjoy reading articles on that screen so I simply saved it and moved on. I had pondered the headline the last few days - a list of 100 dreams. I detest the concept behind bucket lists, but a list of dreams inspires me. In his books Chris calls these kinds of lists "Life Lists" and while that's an improvement, it's really the dream list idea that moves me. So imagine my surprise when I finally went back to see the article I'd saved and it links to Chris' website. Oh, serendipity, you charmer. Of course the ultimate link is not Chris' blog but this sample list.

Which is all just to say: 

  • read any and all of Chris Guillebeau's books. They are accessible and inspiring and there's something in there for everyone (review of The Art of Non-Conformity coming soon). 
  • I found my quest not in the book itself, though reading the book plowed the earth so that finding the list of 100 could land in fertile soil - this week I'm working on my creating my list of 100, and then I'll begin crossing things OFF my list of 100. A quest of plenty - what fun! 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Shmita, or easing into peace

I no longer believe in the cult of busyness. When I hear people ranting about how busy they are, I feel sad. I know I used to do that - I used to take pride in the amount of activity I undertook, not the results that activity produced. 

Jamaica was a huge opportunity to see something different. My experience of Jamaicans was that people work very hard - those in poverty have to hustle just to survive, and they sell their wares for as many hours of the day as they can in order to get up and do it again the next day. Of course I spent more time with middle-class Jamaicans, who I found similarly hard-working and with the same sense of 'hustle' about them - not the hustle of a con artist, but the hustle of a star athlete. Maybe it comes from living in a society where you don't expect the anyone to step in and rescue you. 

The flip side of that was that I never heard a Jamaican complain about being too busy to enjoy life. When it's work time it's work time, but there is still room for family, for getting together with friends, for dancing and music and playing in the water. Of course my knowledge is limited by time and selective exposure, but it was enough for me to see how false and empty our claims of busyness are. 

Since I've been home - and not going to work every day - I've had a lot of time to reflect on what I want in life. I want more of some things and less of others. I have a plan for accomplishing both the more and the less, and I believe it's necessary to have one to have the other. 

I read once that having crammed bookshelves meant I had no room for new knowledge/wisdom to come into my life; that was when I began letting go of books. I still hold on to ones that I find value in, but my practice before had been to hoard every book that came through my doors. After selling off/donating the ones I knew I wouldn't look at again, new books began to slide in - different books. Books I might not normally have read. Books that showed me something new about myself or the world. Having less meant having more. That was a valuable lesson.

Havi Brooks' blog recently introduced me to the Jewish agricultural practice of shmita, which I know as letting fields lay fallow for a year. It's essential to the health of the land, and - for a commercial farmer - it's good business. It allows a period of refreshing. Just like the sabbath, shmita occurs in a rotation of 7 (on the seventh day God rested, and that practice has been instituted by most major religions). One year in every seven a field is to be in shmita/fallow to allow it to rebuild, renew, stop output and be refreshed. Generally when the field is replanted it produces more than it would have without the year off. I've been following with fascination Havi's experience of instituting a shmita year in her life. 

I landed in Jamaica physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. I'd had few days of rest, let alone reliable periods of it, in months/years. Even 'play' felt exhausting. That is not how I want to live my life. When I have space in my schedule for the people I love I also want to have the energy and the clarity to be truly with them. 

While I think about what it might take to create a shmita year like Havi, I've decided to take it on in bite-sized chunks in the meantime. I'm reinstating the sabbath. To me it is a similar idea - to be consciously unproductive and allow space for renewal, reconnection, growth, rest, peace. 

Starting tomorrow and until September 5 when I'll reassess, from 9 pm Saturday to 9 pm Sunday I am going to be offline.* I will not do work. I will not 'just fit this one thing in.' I will not do research related to a client task or a work project or a story I'm writing. If I create, it will be strictly for the joy of creating and not with another end in mind. I will not purchase anything during those 24 hours. I will only drive if it furthers recreation and connection. These are not laws and commandments - these are dams built to keep the swells of busyness and striving at bay. 

I can already see that this is going to take something. It will require a bit of thinking ahead. Instead of putting chores off until Sunday I will need to remember to do them during the week or on Saturday. I have a lot that I want to do and be and create in my life - for that to happen I'm going to have to make a little more space. Shmita/sabbath is part of that. Not that it is a means to an end, but because it is an access to living at a pace that makes sense to me. 

I'm grateful to Jamaica. I'm grateful to Havi. And I'm looking forward to the fun, challenge, and opportunity of my summer of sabbaths/shmita/peace. 

* Offline as in not browsing aimlessly, not blogging, not Facebooking, not tweeting, not instagraming, not watching TV, etc. Offline as in call me, or text, and let's be together without distraction. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

the dying of the light



When is the sunset?
Is it the moment the sun touches the hilltop and flares brightly for a moment,
as when you first kissed me
and I - weak in the knees -
had to hold you strong moments longer
until I could again stand on my own?

Or is it when the last ray dips behind the hill,
when the last email is sent and
I know there will be no reply;
when the last kiss is identified
only long after the fact?
Was it when I walked away still clinging to the last high rays pinking the clouds?

The light between one and another moment spans
space and
time and
memory and
thought.

It's here.
And it's gone.

A realist would say the sun is both always rising and constantly setting.
A realist would say the sun moves on.

And so, I suppose, must I.
At long last light, so must I.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

I have something to say

I have something to say. But first I have a story to tell. I may have told this story before - here or elsewhere - so if it's familiar to you, just bear with me: 

I started performing, in one form or another, very early in life. My sisters and I first sang a 'special' in church when I was only 4. I couldn't read the words so my mom helped me memorize them - I still remember that tune. I took a fairly immediate liking to the experience - the singing, the attention, being in front of our small church. I have never really been afraid of a crowd. 

With that early reinforcement, it didn't strike me as all that note-worthy when I was in grade 7 and my English teacher - Helen Rogers, an imposing woman who suffered no fools - asked me to join the Drama Club. I was flattered, but it just made sense in my egotistical teenage mind. I was fairly certain that she saw some spark of genius in me. 

Mrs. Rogers, mid-lecture, 1981
I acted. We were a very small school with a very small drama club putting on very small plays. We staged two or three one-act plays twice a year.We attended and hosted regional drama festivals. We went to provincial arts festivals. By grade 11 or 12 I did a little directing. It helped me hone some rudimentary assessment and leadership skills, though I doubt I knew that at the time. 

The week before my graduation from high school, Mrs. Rogers - who remained my English teacher through most of junior/senior high - and I had a private chat. I wanted to acknowledge her for encouraging me to write, for letting me write creative responses to readings not just essays (in addition to, not in place of, mind you), for teaching me critical thinking, and for helping direct my anything-and-everything love of reading into something a little more useful. Mrs. Rogers was too stern to ever be one of my favourite teachers, but I had the good sense to at least recognize her as one of my most valuable teachers. I also thanked her for that long ago invitation to join the Drama Club for all the fun it had been. 

With her trademark dryness, Mrs. Rogers said to me, "I wanted you to join drama because I wanted you to learn how to speak. You have so much to say, and much of it is worth hearing. But when we first met you spoke really fast and in a high pitched voice like you just wanted to get it out without anyone noticing, and I wanted you to speak so people would listen."

I was slightly flabbergasted - and perhaps a smidge put in my place - at both her insight and the long-range game that she had been playing. It still moves me. 


I have been home from Jamaica for 2 and a half weeks now, don't see any immediate prospect for work, and am frightened by my quickly draining bank account. Having not been out of work since 2002, I am finding the job search frustrating and, frankly, soul-sucking. It's been hard on my confidence. Chatting with my friend Cheeky last night, I admitted that part of the problem may be that I don't want a job, per se - I want contracts. I want to write and teach and let others know that they have something to say and provide them with the tools and confidence to say it. And I want to be location independent - to be able to take my work anywhere in the world. 

Cheeky said "well, are you the best at what you do?" And I hedged my answer and said it was a silly, possibly mean-spirited, question and there are a lot of great writers and teachers/trainers/public speakers in the world and ... . He interrupted. He persisted, and at first I thought he was trying to get me to be reasonable, to see that I am not the best in the world, and to go take a job like a good North American. 

Me, mid-lecture, 2015
It turned into one of those things. A few minutes later I was sitting on my couch in my flannel pyjamas proclaiming my awesomeness just to shut him up. He made me keep saying it not until he believed me but until I did. 

In that moment I remembered back to January when I lead a communications, branding and story-telling workshop for 38 non-profit employees in Kingston. I thought about being at the front of the room knowing that what I said was making a difference for the attendees, the organizations they work in, and the clients those organizations serve. 

And I remembered the feeling of also knowing that, in that moment, at the front of the room, I was awesome. Words flowed out of me, and time both flew and stood still. I may not have been the best in the world, but in that classroom at that time I was what was needed. 

I have something to say. For the longest time I've wanted to write and speak as my way to 'make a life, not a living' but I didn't think I had anything that was worth saying. Last night I realised that I do have a specialty - I have something to say. So do you. And I can help you say it. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

intentionality & the lost art of apologizing

You're playing with a sharp pocket knife when it slips from your hand and lands point down in your friend's foot. You didn't mean it. You were just playing around, but somehow that doesn't ease the pain or staunch the blood. 

Why are words different? Why do people assume that their intentions are relevant when their words cause pain or offense? If the pen is mightier than the sword aren't words something to be used with care?

There is, and has been for some time, a lot of backlash against what's wrongly labeled being politically correct, and I will acknowledge  it might seem there's a mine field of offense just waiting to explode at any step. That's a different conversation. I'm talking about direct personal insult (though I course there is overlap).

The remedy when your tongue slips instead of your knife is not 'I was just joking' - which places blame for the offense on the offended party's lack of humour. The remedy is a simple formula each one of is should have learned in childhood.

I am sorry I X
I realize it was wrong because Y
I will do Z to make sure it doesn't happen again. 

That is the simple and dying art of apology. You will notice the formula does not include spots for either blame or explanation. In business we call it crisis communications. In the rest of life I call it's called taking responsibility for yourself. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Kristiana is my child

CREDIT: KRISTIANA COIGNARD, COURTESY OF HEATHER ROBERTSON via thinkprogress.org
Isn't this girl beautiful? I think she's beautiful. She looks a little sad, but like she's trying to smile for her aunt who is taking this picture. She thinks, maybe on an unacknowledged level, that peace is a concept worth supporting. She has the glowing skin of youth. 

This is Kristiana Coignard, and until January 22, 2015* she lived in a small Texas town. That location is not really important, though we reassure ourselves with tragedies that happen 'over there.' Kristiana could have lived anywhere. A big city, either coast, Canada, my home town. As of today Kristiana doesnt live anywhere. This morning Kristiana walked into a police station and was shot 4 times by 3 grown men. 

We don't know much else. We know Kristiana lost her mom when she was 4. We know her aunt raised her and her grandmother loved her. We know she was young when she was diagnosed with mental illness. We know she was young when she died. What little I've told you I know from a much fuller story on ThinkProgress.Org. More details will eventually surface, and regardless of what those details are the men who killed this beautiful girl will return to their fully-armed work. Of that much I am certain. 

It seems like months since there hasn't been an extra-judicial police killing in the American news. For the most part those tragedies have been black men murdered by white policemen. Here in Jamaica black men are murdered by black police men and it barely makes the news (but boy did we know about Miss Universe!). There's more to all of it - more to the race conversation, more to discussions of weapon access and power and who has it and how to make them responsible for how they use it, and much much more to the mental health conversation. There is also more to people's fatigue with doing something about it. 

When I read about Kristiana today on twitter I felt nauseated. I still feel kind of shaky.  

I was 16 - a year younger than Kristiana - when I was first diagnosed with depression; it has waxed and waned throughout my adulthood. There have been days or weeks or months when I'm not sure that anything I know is true. 

My son NL* was first diagnosed with mental illness when he was 12. He has worked hard to find a variety of ways of coping with his diagnoses. He has a life and a plan and big goals. He's an intelligent and articulate advocate for himself. He's responsible for his own care and honest with his doctor. Sometimes his coping methods work well, and other times he has set backs and has to try something new. Twice it has been bad enough that he attempted suicide.

This past autumn NL had his first mental health related interaction with the police. He said something online to someone he thought he could trust but couldn't, and in the middle of the night the police came into his home, ransacked the place, took his medical marijuana (see coping methods & supportive doctor, above), and arrested him. And no, I don't believe there is a difference between arrest and "protective custody." 

For someone with anxiety, during midterms in his first semester of college, a night spent in Psychiatric Emergency is not helpful. Sitting bolt upright in a chair worried what the wandering, muttering, sometimes snoring other patients might do if you fall asleep is not helpful. Being taken from your home into the autumn night in your gym shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops is not helpful. Being left without cab fare home is not helpful, and having to take the bus in those same shorts, T-shirt and flip flops is not helpful. In the morning when the Psychiatrist - who doesn't work nights - asks 4 questions and says the whole thing was a travesty it's only slightly less unhelpful. Returning home to boxes dumped of their contents, shelves emptied, and a terrified cat is a perfect recipe for triggering more symptoms. 

NL is also beautiful. Like Kristiana has has bright eyes and a sly smile and hope for a peaceful, just world. Like Kristiana he has a family who cherishes him. NL could easily be Kristiana, and from 5,370 kilometres away that thought leaves me cold. 

We are failing people with mental health diagnoses, and more and more of those people are our children. Someday, somehow, something has to change. More children like Kristiana shouldn't have to die. More young men like NL should be able to ask for help when they need it and receive ACTUAL help, not interactions that make things so much worse. Kristiana was not nobody's child - she was everybody's child. Kristiana was my child. 

*Date corrected Jan. 27 based on new news reports.
*Thanks NL for once again letting me tell his story.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

lacuna

I have been too long out of the academic world; my mind is no longer as attuned as it was to the theories and structures of silence. What I know, or think I know, is that silences - despite the best efforts of theorists - are uninterpretable.


There is a term in manuscripts for a missing portion of text or an unfilled space - it's referred to as a lacuna. It's a beautiful word for a gap; the Latin root is the same as that for 'lake,' a body of water that for me invokes memories of childhood and peace. Of course there are theorists who will spend whole books trying to measure this missing, trying to fill it in, wondering if it is there on purpose, by accident, or worn away through the abuses of time.

In the Psalms of David, there's another word "Selah." If I remember my Bible lessons correctly, "Selah" is somewhat like "amen" but more of an invitation to pause - to sit a moment in silence and let what preceded sink in - than an affirmation of what was said.

I tend to panic in silence - to imagine the worst. Not in the silence of a quiet evening at home, but in the silence of unanswered questions; of unmeasurable canyons. I fear the unknown and want the missing blanks filled in. I think the sea bottom is close enough to put my feet down, then realize I am out of my depth. Yes, I am a strong and joyful swimmer - but panic doesn't come from reality. Panic comes from not knowing.

I would prefer the other kind of emptiness - not the void but the luftpause, to  borrow the musical term. Here you may breath - you will be stronger after. Or, here you may breath, much more is coming. Come up from the music for air.

There are gaps and spaces. Missing words and invocations to breathe. The problem with silence is you can't know what kind it is until it's over. You can't know how long it will last until it is done. You can't know where the bottom is until your feet hit sand. Words themselves have endless play; silences stand unmoving.
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