September 12, 2014

A Writer's Daughter

My dad and me - taken in 1970 by Reg Feuz

Five years ago this month I started my Letters to the World blog. I barely knew what a blog was, except that my dad had started one and it was like a diary available to read for whomever could find it on the internet. I started it as a way to become more disciplined in my writing, and as a way to kick off my forties with something resembling creative productivity. I remember those first few posts. They were relatively brief, generally humourous, or trying to be, and a little bit earnest. As I sent them out into cyberspace with the click of a few keys on the keyboard, my heart fluttered, my stomach lurched, and I could not rest until someone responded to them in some way. The person I most wanted to hear from was my dad.

My dad would never say anything negative about my blog posts, but if he was silent about a particular post I would wonder how I had failed. I could not help it for in writing I believe he was my litmus test. If he wrote a response it was short, to the point, and always encouraging. Even if I received no other reaction from any other person I would be satisfied, and I believe a large part of my blog was written to him.

I remember when I was in college and struggling with an essay. After wrestling with my opening paragraph for a couple of hours at my bedroom desk I would go downstairs in search of some fresh point of view. My dad, usually reading in the living room if he was not doing dishes or writing in his basement den, would look up at me inquisitively as I sat down and exhaled a tell-tale sigh. I would talk about my current struggle, but instead of tackling it head on and in an obvious way, my dad would start to tell me a story, seemingly unrelated to my problem at hand. My dad had a lot of stories to tell, about his childhood living in different provinces across Canada during the Second World War, about his family's experiences on Lasqueti Island after the war, about his work as a surveyor for a BC Hydro project in his early twenties. Sometimes his stories grew tentacles and I would begin to absorb them rather than truly listen to them, but he would always circle back to the beginning and I would marvel at his ability to do so. After the story I would excuse myself and go back to my essay to find that the ideas and the words now flowed easily. I could not at the time figure out how he managed to help me clear my mind and set it going in the right direction, but I think I might know now. Through telling me an unrelated story he was not only giving my brain a break from the task at hand, but also helping me to think like a writer who was passionate about what I had to say on a particular subject, always keeping the different aspects of the essay in play until the end. I cannot say that my essays were all brilliant, but at least I would get through them and be somewhat satisfied with the results - all a student can hope for much of the time.

My dad had been a land surveyor and a school teacher, but as the youngest in the family I only remember him as a writer. He loved teaching but gave it up to write full time when I was five years old. By living with him I learned what it takes and what it means to be a writer. For Dad, technique was important of course but what was behind it mattered more - "The spirit of the thing" he liked to say. The spirit of the thing was what I believe he was hammering home to me through his storytelling when I was in college. High grades did not seem to impress him much. My being satisfied with what I had produced conceptually was much more important to him. I will admit I was puzzled by his approach, for back then I planned to be a career academic and viewed grades as a marker of my progress toward my goal. Perhaps he knew better and was pushing me on to a life beyond the analysis of other people's writing. In any case I am forever grateful to him. He challenged his children to think hard, to reason, and to never in any case, sell out on our gifts and talents. He was sometimes hard to live with, like many creative, passionate people uninterested in compromises, but I loved him immensely. In June of this year I went to visit him and we had a beautiful time together. He was very ill but we were able to talk and laugh a bit in the old way, and at times we were silent together. The morning I left we embraced tearfully and I told him I hoped it would not be too long before I could come and visit him again.

My dad died peacefully on the morning of August 26th, between nursing shifts and before the daily round of visits from my mother and other family members, at the hospital where he spent his last nine days on this earth. The news of his death did not come as a shock because I had been expecting it for some time, but nothing can completely prepare one for the loss of a parent, especially one who played such an important role in one's life and made such an impact. A large number of people, family and friends old and new, gathered last week to celebrate my dad's life. Plenty of laughter, some tears, and plenty of talking and visiting filled the few short days we had together. At times I imagined I could hear my dad's deep voice joining in the conversation with his usual gusto, telling a story from when he was young and healthy and full of vitality. I like to think of him as young again now that he is free from the encumbrance of illness and pain. I will continue to write with him in mind and hope that he is looking down on me as I type this, and as I adjust to my new reality without his strong physical presence in my life.

I will miss my dad's quick emailed responses to my posts, those little live connections with him that I have cherished over the past five years. He never held back from giving me the thumbs up if he thought I deserved it. I know I can carry on writing without his responses because he succeeded in setting me on the right track in my writing. I know when I have 'the spirit of the thing' because I can feel it in my gut.

Thank you, Dad. For everything you gave me, but mostly for your love - the true spirit of the thing.

August 22, 2014

Reading Material

Although I never actually heard my parents say, "You are what you read", I do think they believe that to be true in most cases. My mom read virtually every book we children brought into the house just to be sure of what we were putting into our heads. A book brought home often disappeared during the night and was replaced on the bedside table before we woke up in the morning. Mom would usually tell us what she thought of the book, too, especially if she didn't like it.

When I was in grade seven I made bi-weekly trips to the local library and soon became fascinated with stories about troubled young girls lacking parental support. I distinctly remember one about an overweight girl who ran away from her miserable family, and somehow got trapped on an island where she had to survive by killing and eating raccoons and such. The experience changed her, of course, and she lost a great deal of weight, which seemed to solve all her problems. While against censorship in general, my mom finally appealed to me to stop bringing home such depressing novels. I suppose they were dragging her down.

I spent many hours as a pre-teen brushing my mom's long, dark brown hair while she read to me. We made our way through several Noel Streatfield novels (my favourite), the Little House on the Prairie series and The Von Trappe family stories. When I was bored I merely had to say, "Mom, I need a book to read, and she would lead me to the floor-to-ceiling book shelves which lined the entire length of the front hall : "Here's a good one," or " You'd love the Anne books," or "How about The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe?" Mom took volume after volume off the shelf, and having read each of the books herself gave me a concise librarian's description of it. After dismissing most of the books with "Nah," I finally made my choice. My literary education then continued as I lay on the couch calling out for the meaning of this word or that, as most of the books I read were written before I was born.

Another memory lives in my mind like a short film. One afternoon I was sitting in the living room reading a magazine. My father was in the chair opposite, also reading. I soon became bored and began rifling through the rack beside my chair. Lo and behold I discovered an unfamiliar magazine: an edition of True Confessions. I picked it up and started reading a story about a young woman who goes off with a married man to a cabin in the can guess the rest. I think my fascination stemmed largely from my surprise that such smut could even get through the doors of our house, and here it was found lying cover to cover with National Geographic World and a Sharon, Lois and Bram songbook. As I soaked up the explicit descriptions of events in the story, as only a ten year old can do, I began to feel a distinct, steady sensation like a laser beam crossing the room. I looked up to meet my dad's over-the-glasses gaze which, having been a teacher and parent for many years, was a look he had perfected. He lowered his eyes slowly down to the title of my chosen literature, and then up again at me. "Don't you have anything better to read?" he asked quietly, but oh, so effectively in his deep, sonorous voice. Without a single noise from my lips, I replaced True Confessions in the rack and took up a copy of National Geographic World. "That's better," he said with the trace of a smile. The next time I went to choose a magazine, True Confessions was gone. I never saw it or its kind in the house again.

After I moved out my parents turned my bedroom into a study/library and transferred all the books into it from the front hall. The study has a lovely view of the back garden where the cherry tree of my childhood bloomed until it rotted and had to be taken down. On a recent visit I had forgotten to bring a book, and asked to borrow one. My mom brought me a thick novel - a one volume edition of Robertson Davies' Salterton Trilogy. I settled down into the pullout couch for the night and began my transport into the wickedly funny world of Kingston, Ontario's intellectual society of the 1950's... Mom let me take the book home to finish.

The photo above, while not an actual photo of one of my childhood bookshelves, greatly resembles it. 

August 15, 2014

Mourning Robin

The growth of children is truly the marker of time passing. Last week I travelled with my four children and their dad to Vancouver Island. The occasion was the 25th wedding anniversary of my husband's employers at the lodge where we lived from December, 1997 to April, 2003. When we moved to the lodge our three older children were four and a half, three years, and thirteen months. Our youngest had not even been thought of yet, although, knowing her, she had probably been planning her entrance for years before it happened.

The last time we went to the lodge was in 2009 when the owner family celebrated the lodge's 50th anniversary of operation. Our children, the older three teenagers and youngest one eight years.

The above is how I started what was to be this week's blog post. After a wonderful family holiday and reunion with friends-of-old, I was high on a cloud of happiness, floating above the earth and its cares. I sat down to write, got a few lines in before I was interrupted. When I returned to the computer I found out that Robin Williams, a comedian, actor, and benefactor admired and loved by me and by millions, if not billions, of people had killed himself. I read the news and sat staring at the screen, shocked and tremendously saddened. As details about his death trickled in over the next few hours I learned of his absolute determination to end his life - he had left nothing to chance. That was on Monday. All week I have grappled with the news and tried hard to understand it.

After my first reaction of sadness and shock I became angry. I thought of all the Iraqi people starving on that mountaintop after being persecuted and driven there by ISIS. I thought of all the people in the world who struggle daily to access the very basic necessities of life. I thought, how does someone with all the gifts and all the priveleges, all the means to do good in the world just throw it all away? I did not blame the man himself, rather, I blamed our society for collectively losing perspective of how lucky we are and how much responsibility we have inherited to try to make the world a better place. That so many people are driven to suicide seemed, in my angry phase of grief, like a giant failure. What terrible lies of the world did people believe if killing themselves seemed the only option?

When I was finished feeling angry, I tried hard to understand the pain and the depths of despair Robin must have had to endure. I remembered a time several years ago when I experienced true depression for the first, and hopefully only, time. I was lucky in that my bout was a short one, only a couple of weeks, but the experience was something I will never forget. During the time in question, I had been trying to force myself to take a job that my instincts were telling me was wrong for me. I am a fairly sensitive person and my body has always had a way of telling me I am on the wrong track. One morning I woke up and despite a cup of coffee, which usually warms, energizes and starts my day off right, I could not seem to cheer up. I could feel myself sinking down into a state I did not recognize. I began to have severely negative thoughts about myself. I began to think if only I had been a better person the world would not be such a mess. I began to assume things about some of the people in my life - I thought they secretly despised me. I felt like a failure and could not shake off my despair for days. My husband and children were baffled by my sad demeanor and gave me what comfort they could. I wrote to my parents who advised and counselled me well, as they had always done, and eventually I began to rise out of my depression. I have never felt such relief as when I could sense that I was back to my normal, relatively cheerful state. When I described my bout with depression to a friend I said perhaps it would serve to give me a better sense of what other people deal with in their own lives, and now, years later, I think it has.

When I think of Robin Williams and the various people and friends I have known who have taken their own lives, I try hard to think of them with great love and compassion. I hope they will find peace at last, although I do believe a journey of some sort awaits their soul on the other side with comfort and joy as the ultimate destination. But, more than that, I try harder to be kinder and more understanding while I am living on this side. I make time to have a cup of tea with my daughter to talk about whatever is on her mind. I write a thank-you note to an aunt who has sent me a card or a thoughtful gift. I visit my friend who suffers from chronic depression, and I give him an extra big hug when it is time for me to leave. I try to judge less, listen more, give people the benefit of the doubt, smile at strangers, say hello to elderly people I meet when I walk downtown to do an errand, thank the checkout person for bagging my groceries. I know these small things cannot conquer someone's depression if they are already suffering from it, but perhaps sometimes I, and others, can just add enough to the positive side of the scale to keep it from tipping over completely to the negative. I have to believe this or the situation seems a bit hopeless for all of us.

The other day I was in Value Village with my family. My younger daughter came up to me, beaming and holding three movies in her hands - a copy of Shrek 2, Disney's Robin Hood, and Disney's Alladin. "Look Mom!" she said.

"Cool!" I said. Then it dawned on me. Alladin starred Robin Williams as the Genie. "Alladin," I said, "especially considering Robin Will..."

She cut me off. "I know!" she said. "Did you know he adlibbed almost all his lines? I've been wanting to see this for ages." The only copy at our local video store had been stolen, and I had given away our copy years ago.

The checkout girl exclaimed loudly when she saw the video of Alladin. Apparently, she had been looking for a copy for ages, too. While I was paying for our stuff, my daughter and son searched and found two more copies of Alladin on the shelf and moved them to where the checkout girl could see them. The checkout girl gave my daughter a high-five.

Perhaps I should follow my daughter's lead and celebrate the genius that was Robin Williams through his many roles in film and television. I remember watching Mork and Mindy when I was a child and hearing my Dad laugh. I did not always get the jokes but I loved to hear my dad laugh. Robin's role in The Fisher King revealed a sympathy for mental illness which we can understand better now. And, he was my favourite Peter Pan. He brought joy to so many people, and boosted our morale, and what he has left behind will continue to do so, but perhaps now we will look with more understanding and appreciation for what it cost him and costs others like him to keep us entertained.

Here is a small glimpse at his genius. God-speed, Mr. Williams.

July 29, 2014

Books for the Armchair Traveller

I have not travelled to many places far from home in my life. I have not been off the North American continent, in fact. Most of my exotic travel has taken place in my imagination through the writings of gifted authors who can bring the very dust alive of a country where I have never set foot. Most of these authors are transplants from North America or England and their stories are relatable, often funny, and full of love for their adopted homeland.

Peter Mayle and his A Year in Provence books was the first transplanted author to really get my attention. He and his wife, Jenny, vacationed in the Provence region in the south of France in the early 1980's. In 1986 they moved to the area and began renovating an old stone farmhouse. Mayle's lighthearted and often comic descriptions of the food and wine, the Provencal characters, the landscape and the lifestyle opened up the world of armchair travelling to me and I happily return to Provence at least once every couple of years.

American Chef, Julia Child wrote a beautiful memoir, My Life in France about the years she and her husband, an American diplomat, spent living in Paris and Marseille. Needing something to do in a strange country, Julia took cooking lessons and discovered she had an aptitude for the art. With her trademark candid style, Julia describes with delight all the sights, sounds and smells of her adventures in France. She absolutely fell for Paris, fell for cooking, and fell for the French people.

An artist friend loaned me a couple of books by Hungarian-Canadian cum Tuscan author Ferenc Mate. The Hills of Tuscany and A Vineyard in Tuscany lept to mind when I was viewing the Facebook photos of a friend who is presently travelling in that part of Italy. Mate, a true Renaissance man, and his wife Candace, a painter, moved to Tuscany from New York (although I am happy to say they met by chance in Vancouver) to make a life there. Mate writes with a great deal of warmth, love, humour and self-deprecation. Between the lines one can sense his innate talent at making lifelong friends and succeeding at anything he turns his hand to. In the second book, he and his wife and their young son Peter, buy a former convent and turn it into a beautifully stunning, award-winning winery in the Montalcino region of Tuscany. Reading his books was like making a new friend, one for whom you feel an immediate appreciation and look forward to visiting again. I have a feeling I will be rereading Mate's sun-drenched memoirs this winter when the coastal weather here is particularly dreary.

I must confess that non-fiction has not always been my thing. I am a fairly dedicated reader of novels and short stories, but if a writer can entice me with true stories, I become a life-long fan. I can do plenty of armchair travelling through novels: Rumer Godden wrote exquisitely of India, Mary Stewart of Greece, Michael Ondaatje of pretty much anywhere, but there is something unmistakably wonderful about a writer who can write truly engaging non-fiction. Gerald Durrell and his My Family and other Animals, about growing up a junior naturalist in Greece, M.Wylie Blanchet and her The Curve of Time in which she takes us along with her family on their adventures by boat in and along the fjords and coastline of Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast are two such books. Their stories have an immediacy to them which scoops up the reader and takes them along as a guest on the journey, and I have a true appreciation for that quality in a book. Especially when long-flight travel is not on my real-life agenda any time soon.

Have you any recommendations of similar type books for me? Let me know in the comments, please!? Thank you. 

July 22, 2014

Things I Wrote as a Kid, Part 2

Our local Arts Festival just ended on Sunday night with a wonderful concert with Ricardo Tesi and Banditaliano from Italy. Our festival is a bit of an endurance test. Ten days of music and art bookended by jam-packed weekends of the same makes for an exhilirated yet exausted family and a messy, neglected house. Never mind, after a day of recovery I spent this morning cleaning and doing laundry, while this evening I will enjoy attending my regular yoga class. almost makes me appreciate returning to regular life.

As I said in my previous post, Things I Wrote as a Kid, I have been reading my teenage diaries. One day last week it occured to me to share my entries regarding the Winnipeg Folk Festival which I attended the summer of 1987 with my sisters, Monica and Clare and Clare's husband, Brent, along with some of their many friends. I had taken the train to Winnipeg after graduating from high school (I was seventeen) and was staying with Monica and her husband Matthew and their little daughter Anna. When rereading my diary entries I felt so blessed to have such close relationships with my sisters and brothers who were so generous and kind to me, their youngest sister. We had so much fun! I will include some highlights of my trip and time spent eating and cycling my way around Winnipeg. I hope my readers enjoy them.

Travelling to Revelstoke
I'm a little tired from the goodbye party Toni and the girls gave me last night. (They made posters of sheep for me; they made popcorn balls with Nibs as feet and eyes (sheep, a theme due to their nickname for me, 'Baa') and raspberry punch and pretzels. They made me a hilarious collage and an Ann Taylor portfolio with all my favourite pictures from magazines. Val gave me some fake Lauren perfume - cheap but a pretty fair copy. It was a really nice night). 
We started the morning with cantaloupe and me crying on Stephen's shoulder. I will miss him and Pauline (my brother and sister closest in age to me) Pauline and Steve gave me a bit more money for the trip, too. Then we packed up the Beluga (our fond name for the car). We had to use bungee cords to keep the lid of the trunk down because of my bike box. Chaos!
We rambled through the Slocan Valley (I don't know the sequence of towns) and through Silverton. We stopped at the Silverton Lookout. It was so quiet. You turn your back on the highway and look down into the lake below and across to the mountains. Nobody lives anywhere below but if I had the choice I would live right down on the cliffs. We had coffee in Silverton too and Mom madly (well not quite madly) ran around putting up museum and arts council posters. Then we stopped and ate at Nakusp on the beach. Bagels and cream cheese and pickles, tomatoes, cukes and sprouts! We didn't swim, though. We crossed the Ferry to Blanket Creek to swim. It is a small lake off the river and is quite warm. It's almost like a large bowl in that it becomes very deep in the middle. So, I couldn't stay out of the water. We got to Revelstoke and napped until 5:30 at our motel, The Swiss Chalet (tacky but clean). We ate in the motel restaurant and I had Weiner Schnitzel, which is breaded pork. It's not too exciting but with a squeeze of lemon it becomes quite good. We also had homemade chocolate cake which was excellent. We went for a long walk in the 105 degree air! The sun went down, though, as we headed back to first pack my bike in its box and then go to bed. I fell asleep around 11:45 I think. Mom had to watch the Journal Art and Music News. 
I woke up at 3:15 and had an invigorating shower and washed my hair! I felt so much better. We drove to the station and waited one hour for the late train. Eventually its whistle was finally heard. I boarded and got ready mentally for the trip. I had to sit in the smoking section until Calgary! But! Behind and across from me were two lovely Kiwis - very quiet but sweet. Right across from me was a really great Aussie named Tom. We met quickly and from then on we talked and talked! He bought me a coffee but a little while later I bought him a tea. He told me about all the food he'd eaten in all the places he'd been. His favourite, I gather, is Asia. We discussed art and everything else (Cabbages and Kings!) It was really neat to meet someone who could talk my ear off. He even seemed to enjoy talking to me. He's a dentist and is 29 but handsome (I like the 'but') and someone I could respect highly. 
The stops have been short until now. We didn't even get to walk around Lake Louise or Banff where Tom got off. The Rockies weren't as impressive as I'd imagined. They looked so old and grey. There were, however, a few majestic mountains yet even these looked ready to crumble...(I feel differently about the Rocky Mountains now.)

Monica, Clare, Matthew and Anna met me at the station. We got back to (Monica and Matthew's) funky apartment and I had a bath. Beautiful! I felt revived and sat down and had some breky (scrambled eggs and some banana bread). Then, I went to sleep for 5 and a half hours. When I got up Clare French-braided my hair...

June 29th
Got up about 8 a.m. because Anna was making a bit of noise. Matt made me breakfast and then I played with Anna who was really cute with me. Monica went to work and so Matthew and I took a drive. We brought Mon's lunch to her work and she introduced me for about 2 seconds to everyone _ I really like Alam. He is a tall, black man from Eritria who talks like, "Oh, so thees ees Moneeca's sistah."...we went to the Provincial Museum and saw the 'Non-Such'. It was neat but there is no way I would cross the Atlantic Ocean in it! We came home and relaxed and then Monica bugged me about being spoiled at home so I rebelliously did the dishes to prove her wrong. I may not do anything at home but I am able to. Clare and Brent came and got me after supper. It was really good to see Brent. He brought me a huge bag of tacky souvenirs (and some very useful ones such as a bicycle road map, a hat, and some postcards) One thing he stapled on tied with many other things such as buttons, matches, and pins was a really ugly and heavy bottle opener. Attached to it was a note, "Also good for beating off men." It was really funny...We then drove all around the city and went to a place called Osborne Village where the trendies hang out and had ice cream. I had one scoop of pistacio and one of fudge torte. Yummy! 

June 30th (Actually July 1st 3:40 a.m.) 
I am hyped on coffee! Tonight I went to the Bluenote (a dark cafe that has good music and long-haired waiters) with Matthew, John Cook and Alan Cox. They had the best coffee I've ever had and I must have had 4 cups! Ack!!!...Clare and I went to see 'Roxanne' again and generally let everyone around us know that Nelson was our hometown and that I 'appeared' in the movie. Then we walked home with Monica and my feet got sore from my new sandals and I had to be carried across the railroad tracks because I had taken the sandals off!

July 8th
Clare, Jen and Brent came to pick me up and we headed out to Bird's Hill Park for the first installment of the four day Winnipeg Folk Festival. When we got there this gospel blues band with four rather heavy-set black women singing such favourites as 'Amazing Grace' and 'Lord lift us up where we belong'. Mmmm. Then we heard a Montreal-based band called Latin-something-or-other. We danced to them and had fun. Then! Ladysmith Black Mombazo came on! They are about a 10 piece singing group from South Africa. They sing in Zulu and English and have wonderful choreography! They were a marvel to watch - so happy and bouncy. I really enjoyed them. It rained hard, though. Then it was off to Robin's Doughnuts and then Cousin's cafe for coffee and Sleepytime Tea respectively. Mom is sending me money! Yeah!

July 12th
We went to the Folk Festival yesterday - in fact CBC is broadcasting live at the Folk Fest. It was incredible! I was very impressed. We heard real folk, rock, Celtic rock, everything! We went from workshop to workshop, food stand to food stand! The best part I think was the night concert. Maria Muldaur, a Celtic rock band (Capercaillie), and David Lindley provoked us to dance crazily and sing along to songs such as 'You-oo--oo--oo send me" and "I love freedom" (we slyly added 'maxi pads' after each 'I love freedom') We ached from all our dancing. We got cold and put on sweaters, pants, anoraks - only to take them off again when we jumped and flailed our arms and yelled and hollered. It was such a high. At one workshop - the Afro-Calypso one, we imitated everyone we knew. It was hilarious - one can only get away with such craziness at Folk Fests! At the end we decided to stand at the back - way behind the thousands so we could leave a bit early to avoid traffic. Back there the music was bouncing off every food stand and fence and coming back to us in a very strange rhythm. 

July 13th
I got up at 11 and started a bath about 12 but Monica and Clare came home for lunch so I postponed my hot, peaceful solitude to dine with my beloved siblings. We ate cream of mushroom soup after dessert, of course! (brown sugar cake with whipped cream) I was still tired so I sat down to watch TV, but I looked around and the house was a mess so I cleaned the kitchen, put out laundry, and cleaned my room. I have discovered that when I do things in the house Matthew buys me a cold pop when he goes out to get the paper. Silent and sweet - that's our Matt - well, not too silent. When he gets going about history he can tell you lots of interesting things not at all silently! I danced with Anna while Monica started a letter. I then gave Anna a bath and dressed her, shirt coordinating with socks, of course! 

July 16th
I got up at 9:00 so I wouldn't waste the day...I was going to go downtown with Cathy but Pat Pyrz dropped by. We had a huge talk session which lasted until supper, through supper, all the way (while riding our bikes) to Assiniboine Park where it ceased for 1 and 1/2 hours because we watched Shakespeare in the Park. Pat's brother Gene was in it - Two Gentlemen from Verona. It was hilarious! The talk session lasted on the bike ride to the Impressions Cafe where all the wanna-be-folkies and some actually real folkies hang out, and it sustained until 12:30 p.m. between Pat, Monica, me, and neighbour Robin. Then Pat took me to a little eatery where we talked until about 2! Ack! Every subject from travel to glue-on bikinis was covered. What a day! I'm worn out!

Little Anna and me - taken by Brent at my parents' house

And that is where the diary of my summer in Winnipeg ends. After considering many options for the fall of 1987 including attending Lakehead University with Clare and Brent I decided I was homesick for my mountains and went back home to attend my local college. And so began another series of adventures, and another diary.

Note: all of this may seem shallow and silly considering all the sad and sobering things that are happening in the world these days, but I do find that when I am feeling weighed down by sadness a good antidote is to write about something that made or makes me happy. Something innocent, something free.

July 8, 2014

Things I Wrote as a Kid

Recently, I discovered a CBC Radio show called Grown Ups Read Things They Wrote as Kids. I heard  the show for the first time a couple of weeks ago when, on a Saturday evening I was driving the ten minutes to the village where my husband works in order to pick him up. I left the radio on as I waited for him in the back parking lot of the hotel and laughed until the tears were rolling down my cheeks. I listened to the show again this past weekend and then, I had an idea. I have a lot of writing I did as a teenager and I thought perhaps I would share some of it. Of course, my idea of posting things I wrote as a kid won't have the same impact as if I were to read them out loud in front of a live audience like they do on the radio show, but my hope is that they will provide at least a little entertainment to the reader.

What I noticed about the people on the radio show was their laughter at their younger selves who wrote about fantasies of glory or teen angst or harboured resentment against the perceived unjust actions of their parents. Most of what they were reading out loud to the audience was never meant to be read by anyone else, and at the time of writing it they had been most serious. I think it is important to both laugh at our younger selves and also to honour them. When I read my diaries I laugh a lot but the feelings of the time do come back with the memories. I, like most teenagers felt intense joy, pain, confusion, and all the other more subtle emotions in between. Growing up was an often baffling experience. As I read the diaries I began at aged fifteen I realize I cared about five main things: my family, my friends, food, boys and dance, but not necessarily in that order.

Myself at 15, taken in the school courtyard

June 19th, 1985 
Hi. I did o.k. on my Math final. Tomorrow I have English. I'm not looking forward to it. I have nothing except Summer after 10:45 tomorrow. I can't wait. I don't believe it's finally here. I'm growing my nails, so far it's working. I'm glad! Toni and Val and I 'supposedly' studied today. Val is very 'trendy'. I have a nice tan! In John's letter yesterday, He called me 'Miss Popular.' I guess I'm liked by a lot of people but I wouldn't say 'Miss Popular' - sort of bitchy sounding. Mark lent me a tape of assorted artists from England. Here's some of the Weird names: Vice Squad, The Vibrators, Angelic Upstarts, Attila the Stockbroker, The Dead Kennedys, Hollywood Brats, Abrasive Wheels, English Dogs, U.K. Subs, Adicts,Cockney Rejects, Instant Agony, Major Accident, Pressure. WIERD!!! Anyways, now I'm listening to Limahl and then Don Henley. Well I should go and sleep! 
Bye, Rebecca (doodle of a heart)

June 20th, 1985
I had an English final. It was pretty easy. All my exams are finished. Summer is here and next year I'll be in Grade 11. Wierd!! Today, Toni, Tanja, Colin, and I went to my house and ate, to Toni's and ate. Tanja went home and me, Toni, Colin and Jen went to Colin's and ate. Then me and Jen sat outside her house and talked about Scott. I keep thinking he'll come here (Scott was a boy I met from another city). I miss him. I saw a Good Play on TV. John's birthday is on Sunday. (John was another boy I met at a youth function).
Love, Rebecca (doodle of a heart)

June 23rd, 1985
Well, today I went to a Youth Group picnic. It was fun but I got thrown in the lake and I also don't like organized activities like games. After the picnic I went to Sam our leader's house and she did a survey on my personality. I'm an ENFP - Extrovert (outgoing); Intuitive (go on hunches); Feeling (sensitive); Perceptive. It was a good evening. My knee really hurts right now so I have ice on it. I was talking to Sam and I said I sleep all bundled up sort of guarding myself. She asked me if I had a secret to guard. I said yes and I won't even tell you! Maybe someday but right now I'm just learning to trust a diary in the house of my family, o.k.? (I wish I could remember now what that secret was) I thought about John since it's his birthday today. My survey said I would go well with a mate who was stable or a mate with his head in the clouds and sort of scientific. John and Scott!!! Well I gotta go. 
Love, Reb (heart doodle)

Stay tuned for next week's entry in which I describe my knee surgery performed by a very handsome surgeon. If anyone out there would also like to post things they wrote as kids I would love to read them. I had to look up 'Limahl' because I couldn't for the life of me remember anything about them. Thankfully, Google delivered: Synth heavy 80's tune by Limahl I'm happy to report that my taste in music improved over the next few years.


June 30, 2014

Being Canadian: A Complicated Kindness

As our lives on this globe intersect at an ever increasing rate, the desire for us to understand each other as nations grows. When we encounter another culture we often have many questions, some of which have clear cut answers and some of which do not. For example, if one of my ex-pat British friends is asked why Brits drink so much she will say decidedly, 'because they know their country's going down the toilet and there ain't nothing they can do about it.' On the other hand, if I ask why Brits make such good television, the answers are as in depth as I choose to go. The question I would like to ask Hollywood is: why is the collective imagination in the US fixated on superhero and post-apocalyptic movies? I imagine the response to be: because America's debt and lifestyle gap between rich and poor is so off the charts they crave something drastic to happen in order to save the situation, but their own answer would probably have more to do with hero worship. However, if asked why Canadians seem so polite, the answers are not quite so clear. What is it that makes us say 'I'm sorry' every time something happens that may or may not inconvenience another person? 'I'm sorry' is the typical knee-jerk response when we Canadians bump into each other, when we set out to give an opposing opinion, even when we go for the coffee shop cream urn at the same time. As children 'I'm sorry!' is what we call out to the parent bearing down on us with a threatening look in their eye, hoping against hope those two words will stem the tide of disciplinary action coming our way - that worked for me a few times, so I included it.

It occurred to me today that the 'I'm sorry' habit may be something more than what many comedians claim is the Canadian's way of getting out of a potentially uncomfortable situation.* I was in church yesterday when an elderly woman in the pew in front of me accidentally knocked the book in my hand as she sat down earlier than I. Her apology was profuse and completely unnecessary due to the fact that she had barely touched me. I automatically responded with, "Oh no, I'm sorry." We smiled at each other with sympathetic looks peppered with good humour and left it at that. Something then occured to me: the 'I'm sorry' habit is at best about having good will toward other people. Let me explain. If a man and I go for the coffee shop's cream urn at the same time, generally both of us will urge the other to use it first. One of us will be more insistent than the other and finally, after a several laboured seconds one of us will pour the cream into our cup. We will then return the urn to the counter and smile at the other person who kindly insisted we go first, and we will go back to our seats, him feeling proud of his gallantry, and I feeling grateful for it. If this reads like some sort of complicated dance, it is, but as Canadians, we learn it early in life so it stays with us always and leads to a fairly comfortable and pleasant way of going about our daily business. If I have my head down in the grocery store as I consult my list and accidentally bump someone else's cart, I will apologize immediately. If an explanation is required to calm the ire of the bumpee, I will give it and I can usually get a smile from them in the end. Like many Canadians I will do almost anything to avoid conflict, especially in public.

Why are we so eager to avoid conflict at all costs when other nations (I'm thinking France, Italy) seem to thrive on it? I have a theory about that, too. As I said above, I have a few British friends who have lived in Canada for many years, but are still a bit baffled by our social niceties. In theory I agree with them wholeheartedly when they say they prefer the Brit way of just calling a spade a spade and being done with it, rather than all this dancing around the issues. "Brits just speak as we find and move on," said one ex-pat friend after she had witnessed two co-workers in her Canadian office have a big ol' cat fight. Apparently, they had hidden their true feelings about each other for so long that eventually, and predictably, they reached the boiling point and the lid blew off.  My Brit friend who is a teacher had a hard time figuring out the parents of her students until she understood about the tendency of Canadians to avoid open conflict. She would think everything was going along fine with a parent and then one day, somehow, would find out the parent had been harbouring resentment against her for months for some action taken with her child. My friend had detected a certain chill in the air when she and the parent came in contact, but had no idea of the feelings simmering away underneath the surface. My theory about why we Canadians may act like that parent at times is essentially based on my observation that Canadians avoid open conflict because we who live in a cold climate eight months of the year place a huge value on personal physical comfort and safety, and this makes us lazy in our dealings with others. We just do not want to 'go there', but eventually we have to and by then the situation is usually beyond nasty, or at least beyond what it was originally. But, this is the 'I'm sorry' habit at its worst, and, being Canadian, I would rather not dwell on the negative.

I suppose we have historically been the Peacekeepers in global conflict because really, we would just like everyone to calm down, sit back and relax with a beer or even a doughnut. Anything pressing can usually be put off until tomorrow, and a difficult decision is generally made better by the act of sleeping on it. A Dutch man I once worked for said when he first moved to Canada in the 90's he was unimpressed by the Canadian way. No one seemed to work with any urgency, we valued our holidays more than anything, and meeting for coffee at Tim Horton's was often the highlight of the day. Mind you, he had immigrated to British Columbia, which is seen as one of the more relaxed provinces in the country. Over time, he said, he began to see the wisdom of our ways. He began spending more time enjoying life with his family and exploring the area near his home.He decided life was not just about work and making money, but that approach took some getting used to. Now, I would not be surprised if he even said to his clients, "I'm sorry, I cannot possibly fill your order today. I am celebrating Canada Day with my family," and let the chips, or rather the doughnut sprinkles, fall where they may.

*Twelve Ways to Say I'm Sorry

My apologies to author Miriam Toews for stealing her book title 'A Complicated Kindness' for this post.