Friday, May 31, 2019

Locating The Keystone

My father in Canterbury, England, May 2002
Ten years ago, my father died.
Ten years ago, I started writing the story of how I ended up leaving a life and a marriage in Vancouver at the same time my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
That's always how the story started: with my misery and the early hints of Dad's problems while I lived in Vancouver.
But I couldn't sell that story -- not one of the six versions I ended up writing, including one version through a university writing program. In September 2015, a publisher said, "The writing's fine but the story doesn't grab me," and that was the last straw for me. I couldn't go any further with the story. I couldn't do it anymore; the time had come to put that memoir aside, and write something else.

For two days, I cried my heart out every time I walked the dog. I bent over and cried. I let it out because it was so hard to let it go.

Two months later, I signed a contract for Field Notes.

BUT first, I had coffee and cake with one of my writing mentors, the one who has been part of my writing life in Nova Scotia most consistently: Harry Thurston. I told him about the collection of essays on submission with Nimbus but he didn't want to talk about that; he wanted to talk about the memoir. He had some suggestions and I wrote them down on a napkin. Despite those suggestions -- or really, instructions -- from a cherished mentor, my brain couldn't wrap itself around them, couldn't find the way out of my original thinking about the story and into a new one.

Start with arriving in Pugwash, Harry told me. But I couldn't let go of believing the story started in Vancouver.

This is why some books take decades to get published: Because there's a kind of writer's block that keeps a writer from seeing her project in a new way, especially when she sees a particular pattern unfolding in a particular way. But since Dad's birthday in early March, knowing the tenth anniversary of his death was approaching, I've been thinking about him, about taking care of him, and about how I learned so much about him after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and then after he died.

And sometime in the middle of April, it hit me: the story starts in Pugwash. The story starts with my arrival at that old house on the hill that I'd never been inside, and the story isn't about me and my failed marriage; it's about my father. It's about his life and his living and his dying. And it's about the man I barely knew but came to know through the memories of other people.
I'm a better writer now and I know how to weave in the back story, those little sentences that link Vancouver with Pugwash so that it enhances the story rather than distracts from it.

You see, even though I stop thinking about the memoir, I didn't stop thinking about what Harry advised. I didn't stop turning it over in my brain - start in Pugwash, start in Pugwash - until I finally dug up what was buried underneath my failed marriage story.

I emailed Harry earlier this week to tell him that he was right, and that I would tell the story as it starts in Nova Scotia. I told him that not only have I found the overall point of the narrative, but I found the story that starts the book and that I can write my way towards in the book (the second instruction he gave me that I wrote on the napkin).
He responded most kindly: "Each story requires its own method of telling. There is a keystone which, once found and dropped in, seems to hold the structure together-- first, however, one must find it. I'm so pleased to hear that you have done so. I think the book about your father and the father/daughter relationship will be wonderful in the end. You are a wonderful writer and this is a story worth telling."

So on this, the final day of May, I am looking forward to this project for the month of June.
Sometimes, you have to give up in order to not give up. Or, as early 20th century French writer Marcel Proust once said, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes."

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Early In the Morning

When I wrote the title of this post, a tune entered my head and attached itself to the words. It's from  an old, familiar church hymn, so I let it weave its way around  my brain until I caught the common phrasing that let me know which hymn it is:
"Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee..."

I'm not a Bible literalist; I'm a Gospel, be-kind-and-merciful Jesus follower so I don't believe in the Biblical creation story. I don't think I'm walking in world created by God. I don't think I'm walking with God but with the energy of those who have left us, like my father and my dogs Stella and Maggie. The truth is much more fascinating and I don't have a problem with the truth.
Jesus was all about a new truth, a new way and a new life -- that's all to do with ethics and how we live our human lives in relationship with each other (and failing miserably at). There's enough scholarship and research about a new truth and a new way of viewing our world -- that's all to do with science and energy. (We're also failing miserably at taking care of this creation we believe God entrusted to us.)

I don't see God in a sunrise, but I see hope and peace and joy. Dawn reminds us that every day, we get a chance to start over, try again, keep going. Every day, we get a chance to change our behaviour, change our minds, change the path on which we're walking. Every day, we can face the truth -- whatever truth we need to hear and accept -- and become free because of it.

It's been a difficult spring for getting out and walking. A lot of rainy days. So I appreciate mornings like this one all the more, with the rising sun shining through what will be likely one of only a few gaps in the clouds today. It helps to calm my doubts and focus my mind, and heart, on what I want to accomplish during the next 12 hours. It permits me to let go of all that -- the worries and the wishes and the To Do list -- for the one hour I'm on the road. It reminds me that what keeps me awake and worried at 3 a.m. isn't the truth. Or at least, isn't the whole truth.

It's up to me to achieve my potential, to fulfill whatever purpose I have in this life, my "one wild and precious life" as poet Mary Oliver put it. Walking, doing yoga, sitting in stillness are my ways of opening up space inside me to hear what my spirit, my energy wants me to know. Sometimes there's a new truth, a new way and a new path that opens up when we give ourselves a chance, and the courage, to listen to our inner voice.

I love my morning walks. It's a legacy from my father, walking the dog early in the day, and it's another way I stay connected to him -- through our shared energy -- and find the courage to keep walking through each day with hope and peace and joy in my heart.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Making New Friends

It's that time of the year - writing my Field Notes column for the summer issue of At Home On the North Shore. Along with an article about labyrinths. It's a challenging spring to be creating pieces for a summer issue; with more rain than sun, nothing has greened up or bloomed out enough for decent photos.
Everyone's covered in mud and wearing rubber boots.
But what a great photo! There's something so sweet about this child in her rain gear looking at her baby goats (whose names, I can tell you, are Beans and Boots).
This is the daughter of a young woman named Shannon who, along with her husband and daughter, moved onto a property along the River Philip and are working hard to create a property that will support them. The goats are for milk, cheese and butter.

Inside the house, I was green with envy over Shannon's sour dough starter. Right next to a rising loaf of sour dough bread! At some point, there is going to be a sharing - I just have to come up with something with which to barter.
After our conversation and a flurry of messages from Shannon of all the answers she thought of after I'd left, I gave her some unsolicited advice: Document everything! Journal her gardening, journal her chickens and goats and working pony, journey the baking and the cheese making. Write it all down, even if it's just brief notes in the busy months -- she can spend the winter filling out the details.
I think she could publish a book about homesteading.
Of course, I start to think, "Workshops!" but for once I kept my enthusiasm in check. She's a busy woman, building gardens and greenhouses, milking goats and collecting eggs. To be self-sufficient means working every day to build up the resources.

This is Schmidt, her cat. Not only is he big and handsome, as well as polydactyl, he's SNUGGLY. My favourite kind of cat! On my recording of my interview with Shannon, there are periods of me chatting to Schmidt.
Really, I'm a terrible interviewer. Not at all efficient. But come on, look at that face. I'm a shameless snuggler of other people's cats.
I couldn't work Schmidt into the column so let me tell you that he was found under a bushwhacker as a one-week-old kitten. His eyes weren't even open! Lucky for him, Shannon and her family found him -- and that little girl is his best friend.
I love happy endings. So does Schmidt.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Time To Sit and Watch the Osprey

Thank you, Odette Barr, for this gift of your beautiful artwork.

Or rather, that title should read, "No time to sit and watch the osprey." If I'm that busy, I need to pause and relax, right?
The weather, however, is utterly NOT conducive to sitting outside watching anyone, so I'm fine with keeping on keeping on in my sunny yellow office. Yep, even me, who doesn't care about the weather and LOVES rainy days for writing, is finally noticing how much it is raining -- mostly because it's keeping me from walking.
Ice all winter, and rain all spring. Definitely growing a Writer's Butt this year!

But that butt is in the chair where it needs to be to get things done. I'm going through a period of intense creative output which is extremely exciting. Although only my magazine writing is for "now", I really feel I'm laying the foundation for a lot of accomplishments in the future.

Speaking of ospreys, this is actually the point of this overdue post: Odette Barr is one of a trio of writers responsible for bringing to literary life a Canada Goose named Camelia Airheart who flies all over the Maritimes, not so much seeking adventure as falling into it purely by accident.
Great fun! I love these books.
Odette, in fact, is the illustrator of the Camelia Airheart books and when I saw her drawing of a pair of ospreys in the latest book, Follow the Goose Butt To Nova Scotia, I knew I needed a print of my own. She dropped it off on Sunday afternoon while out for a finally-a-nice-day jaunt with her partner and their pup.
I'm going to get it reframed behind that special archival glass so I can hang it in my sunny yellow office without ruining the print over time. These are not "our" ospreys, by the way.

And like an osprey with her eye on a fish below the surface of the river, I must dive back into work. The interview for my next Field Notes column needs to be transcribed.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Ten Years Ago Today

Ten years ago today, my father died. It's hard to believe it's already been ten years. I wanted to write something profound and eloquent about these years, what I've learned, what I've been thinking about but to be honest: It's far too long for a simple blog post. It's mostly about guilt and regret, and that makes it mostly about me. 
Yet what is truly meaningful for me is that, looking back on the last decade, what stands out for me most is what I learned about him after he died. Here is just one story, and it goes with the above photo. The italicized opening is the story my mother has always told about how they got their two cats:

I don’t know why we went to PetSmart. We went on a Saturday and your sister later said, ‘Mother, you never go to PetSmart on a Saturday because that’s when they have all the adoptable animals on display.’ We walked along and looked at the animals. There were two cats in the same cage, a grey and white cat and an orange cat. The sign said they were brothers and had to be adopted together. Reg looked at them and he wondered if we should adopt them. I didn’t think we needed cats so he wandered off. I stood and looked at the cats; they were handsome. When I found him, he looked at me like he was a six-year-old boy who really wanted something. ‘Couldn’t we get them?’ he said to me. ‘We have to get them both. Otherwise, they’ll be put down.’ We went back and adopted them. We didn’t like their names so we agreed to change them. Reg named them Pickens and Percy. 
Pickens was his mother’s family name and the family lived in Percy Township. 

In the fall of 2014, my husband went through a partridge shooting phase. As we sat down to our first meal, and my first-ever taste, of partridge, along with potatoes, acorn squash, carrots and parsnips, I said, “Dad should be here for this.”
When Dwayne and Mum looked at me, I said, “There’s a photo of Dad as a young man and he’s holding a live partridge in his hands.”
Mum laughed at the memory. “He brought it into the house! I said, ‘What are you doing?’ What if it had gotten loose...” She was still smiling as she began eating.
A thought hit me: If my father hadn’t moved to the city to become a funeral director or at least, if he hadn’t lived above his funeral homes in town, if he had lived in the country with lots of land, a pond, a barn, I think he would have collected animals. He would have kept them as pets. He wouldn’t have turned any away.
“Call Reg,” I said. “He’ll take it.”
Mum laughed again, knowing exactly what my non sequitor meant.
This was a nice thought to have, this alternate life for my father, a different way of envisioning his love of animals. 

Dad on the front porch of the Pugwash house, 2002

Friday, May 10, 2019

Measured In Decades

Painting by Norene Smiley

Today is my birthday.
Ten years ago, I was celebrating with my friends, and my mother, in Ontario -- and my father was dying. May 13 is the anniversary of his death, three days after my birthday.
In a few days, it will be ten years since he died. Time for a story.

Shortly after my father passed away, around 5 o'clock on a Wednesday, I called my husband's cell phone to let him know. He was on the road, coming back from Pugwash, he said.
Turns out, this watercolour rendition of my favourite photo of my father and me was wrapped in brown craft paper and sitting on the passenger seat of his truck.

That photo was taken above the small harbour at Deep Cove, British Columbia. It was May 1999, the year my father came out to Vancouver by himself for a visit. It was during that visit he offered me money for a down payment on a condo, and said, "When I die..." and I interrupted him to say, "If you die, Dad..." 
Three years later, he would be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

In February 2009, my husband asked for a copy of that photograph, to put on his desk at work, he said. I remember going into his office a month later and not seeing the photo, thinking of asking him if he wanted me to get him a frame, but at the time, we were trying to get me in for surgery on my herniated disc and I forgot about it.
I had the surgery, went home to Ontario for my annual visit a month later, was at my father's side when he died, then flew home with Dwayne a week later after the funeral.

That's when he gave me my belated birthday gift: this painting by Pugwash artist Norene Smiley -- that's why he'd wanted the photo in February, to have the painting done for my birthday.
He kept asking me if I liked it but I couldn't speak yet. When he said, "If you don't like it -- " I finally spoke.
"It's perfect. How could I not like it?" I said, incredulous that he would have any doubt. How could this not be the perfect gift at the perfect time? What made him, way back in February, think of doing this? What voice whispered the idea to him? Thank goodness he paid attention. 

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Chicken Delight

Finally hung the chicken paintings by my friend, Archan Knotz. Aren't they delightful?
My friend, Bruce, built the frames for me out of barn boards.
Original art by a local artist hanging in my office -- that's gotta boost the creative writing vibes, right?

(I interviewed Archan six years ago for my "In Conversation With..." column. A lot has changed in her life since then, including a change of address, but here is that column.)

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Riverview Wildlife Report #4

I wanted to start this post with a drawn-out expletive but my mother would object and since she stands in the doorway of my office with that look on her face, and I can't escape because she's blocking the only exit, once you've read this post, you'll say the drawn-out expletive yourself.

A week or so ago, I snapped these photos of the fox family living on our riverside lot across the road. Foxes are such beautiful creatures, and they live in families -- fox fathers are very devoted to their kits -- but my first thought was: Too close to the road! I understand the appeal of the river but really, it's not the best real estate for any animal. Every time they go hunting, the foxes have to cross that fast and busy road; add two playful kits to the mix? Dread.

And this morning, that dread found a place to rest. Alongside the light little body of one of the fox kits lying on the edge of the road.

If you've read my book, you know how I feel about "road kill" -- how it guts me, how it haunts me. The body of that pretty little kit was the size of my forearm. I bawled as I moved it off onto the shoulder. I cried, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," the way I always do when I have to walk by an animal killed by a vehicle.
After I'd moved the body, and its intestines, I noticed an organ -- its liver? -- tiny and red, on the asphalt.
All of us gutted.

And I don't think we'll have any foxes around by the time spring turns to summer because the adults raid our neighbours' property -- where there are roosters and rabbits and geese -- so I expect they'll be shot. We're wondering if one of the parents has already been shot.

This is the part of country living that breaks my heart. The havoc wrought by humans -- by our vehicles on the roads, by our machinery in the woods, by the garbage filling our ditches and rivers and oceans. Garbage, asphalt and concrete instead of trees, wild flowers and water. Who are the truly wild and uncontrollable creatures on this earth?