Micro-fictions for short attention spans

Posted on January 16, 2014

Do you do your best reading in 30-second intervals? How pleasant. In that case, I have some micro-fictions for you.

Micro-fictions are exactly what they sound like: tiny bites of stories that give you a glimpse into a world. Just a glimpse! I hope you like this sample of work from my recent journaling. 

Chester: Chester is nine-and-three-quarters years old. He lives with his mom and dad and sister in a century home in Halifax. He has a dog named Judy – a golden retriever – and a bearded dragon named Spike. By all accounts he is a regular-seeming boy, and his parents would tend to agree. But Chester is more interesting than these quick facts would let on.

Chester is a thief.

In alphabetical order, this is a list of things Chester has stolen: apples from the grocery store, bananas (also from the grocery store), feathers from a stuffed bird at the Museum of Natural History, gum, marbles, newspapers, purple running shoes, video games.

Nothing major, you understand, but perhaps much more than the average nine-and-three-quarters year old should be hoarding in a child-sized chest of drawers at the back of a closet. Chester doesn’t know why he steals but he is already old enough to suspect this detail will one day be revealed to him after many hours of court-ordered therapy. He’s okay with this, and when he consults Judy on the matter she also seems unconcerned.

Until he is anticlimactically arrested at some point in the future, at least he has video games.

Olive: Olive lives in a house that looks, from a distance, like it’s floating. Perched halfway up a mountain in southern Appalachia, the front half is on stilts and the back half rests wearily on the rock and dirt that were there thousands of years before her. Olive’s front porch overlooks a beautiful valley filled with the most colourful flowers she has ever seen. 

Olive is a painter, so it’s her job to capture these colours, these flowers, in a way that could make even a desert-dweller feel like he’s right there with her on her lookout. Her scenes inspire heavy sighs and heavy eyelids, such are their calming effect. 

In all Olive’s years and paintings, she succeeded in finding a new colour – a peculiar mix of red and pink she, at the time, thought could only be native to her house’s south-facing vista. She saw it one morning on the horizon, tucked away in a patch of honeysuckle – the devil – and successfully transferred it to her canvas a mere hour later after much blending and smudging. 

She named the colour Ned after her late husband. Or, rather, her ex-husband. 

Olive likes the world of canvas and paint better than the one of flesh and bone. In her two-dimensional world she can edit. In her three-dimensional one she can merely lie. 

Peanut: Peanut is a chihuahua who one day, out of curiosity, left his humans’ house and went for a very long walk. He walked from San Francisco to Miami. The journey took the remainder of his spindly legged life.

It was a nice walk with only the occasional fright or stressor. Peanut met many friendly people and a few trustworthy animals, but for the most part he was a lone wolf. A lone dog. His favourite human was a man named Ernie who drove a very large truck for a living. Ernie, like Peanut, was on a long journey. So when he met Peanut somewhere outside Houston, he knew Peanut was hungry and maybe a little scared. After eyeing each at the doorstep of a gas station convenience store, Ernie scooped up Peanut using his one big, baseball mitt-sized hand.

He took him back to the cabin of his truck and fed him bits of hamburger while Elvis played over the truck stereo. Then they had a nap.

When they woke up, Ernie lowered Peanut onto the cement, walked him to a patch of long brown grass away from traffic, and said goodbye. Ernie drove off and waved until he was out of sight. 

Peanut kept moving too. From that day on, any time the dog heard a truck horn blare he suddenly got a craving for hamburger. 

What the husky taught me

Posted on September 16, 2013

Angel the Siberian husky came to live with us a month ago. At nine months old and 35 pounds, she was a gangly and boisterous girl. She needed to gain some weight and find a calm house where she could learn some manners. She had glossy white fur, one blue eye, and one brown eye.

Everyone said they liked her brown eye best, but her blue eye was so icy and clear. It was my favourite. It reminded me that Angel was a blank slate. She needed a new start. Then, when I realized she so blindly threw her love at anyone who came her way, it reminded me that she was pure and good, like her name.

Angel used to live with her sister, Willow, well north of Calgary. The girls mostly roamed outside with few rules and not a lot of attention. That’s why they got into trouble. The breaking point for their family came when Angel and Willow got into a neighbour’s chicken coop. Let me just say that I don’t think their goal was to have an impromptu tea party, nor were the results that civilized.

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The original plan was for us to foster Angel until an adoptive family came forward, but we were open to adopting her too. So right from the beginning there was this tug-of-war going on in our hearts. Should she stay? Can we afford to keep her? What’s best for her and our family?

Sometimes having options is harder than not having options.

It’s an understatement to say that we fell in love with her, each of us in our own ways. Ruby, our sassy French bulldog, was slow to catch on to the novelty of a 24-hour playmate. Initially the pair of pups didn’t care much about each other, but eventually came to be good buddies. They playfully fought constantly, slept close to each other in the patches of afternoon sun that dotted our living room, and looked for each other when left alone. They licked each other’s faces with sandpaper tongues. I didn’t love the chaos that their friendship-slash-rivalry brought to our calm household, but I didn’t not love it either. It was pretty cute.

Ian was Angel’s bigger playmate. He would pick her up and throw her over his shoulder, or hold her like a lamb, and she wouldn’t care. She loved him in the serious way a little [human] girl loves her dad. I think it’s because Ian has no pretentions. He’s Ian, he’s easygoing, and he likes dogs. So they got along.

Ian is much better at playing with dogs than I am. I related to Angel like a friend, a furry companion. I took her on almost all of my runs. You could tell she was born to be a sled dog. Once you got her into a groove, all of the squirrels and cars and noises of the world disappeared and she was free. I liked being free with her, and sometimes when we were moving along it was like our minds were connected. She would know when I wanted to turn left or right, speed up, or slow down.

I liked the way her fur felt, the way she was almost liquid. Light on her feet, sometimes she would just show up beside you undetected. It was scary and hilarious. I was glad when she would sneak up on me early in the morning when Ruby and Ian were still asleep. She was happy to see me and full of energy despite the ridiculous hour. And that’s what I mean when I say she so blindly threw her love. We hadn’t known her for a full 24 hours before she attached to us like she’d known us her whole life, and her affection never wavered.

Angel’s stay with us did not come without its challenges. Early on we faced her shocking separation anxiety. The insecurities that caused her to latch onto us also made her hard to care for. Left alone, she would howl and cry so loudly you could hear her from the sidewalk – even when she was crated at the back of the house and we closed all the windows. The volume of her cries lessened as the days passed, but she could never be described as an easygoing lady. She was terrible on a leash. She was afraid of so many things: bus stops, Asian men, Asian men at bus stops. Her fur coated every square inch of our house and, sometimes, consciousness. She dug a giant hole in the backyard. She was an escape artist.

But just like loving a human, loving an animal is sometimes not logical or rational. Handling all of these challenges sometimes had us feeling very frustrated, but there was never part of us that said we didn’t love her. And we were ready to accept all of these roadblocks if they meant we could spend our fur-covered lives (no, seriously, there was so much fur) together, all four of us.

The decision not to adopt Angel came about three weeks into her stay with us. Though we had bonded with her and knew she would make an amazing pet, we had to admit that financially and logistically a second dog was just too big of a challenge for now. Maybe a few years down the road we could manage. But for now it would be unfair to Angel and Ruby to try to keep them both in our lives.

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So yesterday we said goodbye to our sweet husky girl. A local man adopted her, and the rescue association has a strong hunch that they will be a good match. Before she was taken away we buried our faces in her fur and said goodbye. She, as usual, rolled onto her belly and slapped us with her front paws out of excitement. We cried and she just looked at us with her big stupid dog smile – the kind of smile that she wears for all occasions, even the ones that involve her getting into trouble or feeling anxious. She walked away wagging her tail, with a little bounce in her step.

At one point before Angel came to stay with us, I told Ian that if we welcomed a foster dog into our house I wasn’t sure I could let him or her go in the end. Ian sometimes has this magical way of sounding like a prophet or guru, so in a way befitting a prophet or guru he told me that if something’s hard and you’re not good at it, you should probably do it. So we did it; we let her go. But we will be sad for a while. I know I’ll miss her prancing beside me on my runs. I’ll miss her husky mischief. I’ll miss her mismatched eyes and her crazy-long tail that puts Ruby’s to shame. I’ll miss her joy.

Loving Angel was a scary and wonderful experience. It taught me that sometimes I can’t control what goes on in my own house. Often problems – like a howling, crying husky – can’t be solved by sweetly requesting to have your way. I learned that love for someone or something can be more important than a thick layer of fur all over your house. But mostly this experience has encouraged me to welcome all of that love into my life, exactly like she did.

Sometimes the world can knock you around in a way that makes you close yourself off, to reserve your love for special people or occasions. But I think if we carried ourselves more like Angel we could be more liberal with this love-sharing business, even if it sometimes leaves us howling. We could wear our big stupid dog smiles and be better for it; pure and good.

I can see the whole thing

Posted on August 27, 2013

In the seven years that I’ve been friends with Natalia I’ve known that she has a certain love for weddings. This girl has firm opinions on what she wants in a man and how she’s going to marry that man.

For your information, Natalia’s future husband is a career-oriented family guy who doesn’t cry very often, if at all. He will know how to dress himself for every occasion. He will be good-looking and emotionally strong enough to manage her severe germophobia. To this end, when they live together in joyful matrimony one of his household duties will be to quietly empty the fridge of any decaying grocery items before she even lays eyes on them.

The couple will be wed in a traditional church ceremony with a guest list that will no doubt approach the two- or three-hundred mark. She can’t imagine getting married without her sister as the maid of honour and keeps a running list bridesmaid candidates.

Natalia has a secret Pinterest board that serves to display her many wedding ideas gleaned from attending dozens and dozens of these events over the years. I know one day the time will come for her to give me access to this secret board so we can begin to plan her nuptials, the Biggest Wedding in History. Until then, she remains a veritable wedding expert – a true treasure trove of wedding wisdom.

I am not like Natalia in this respect, and for years I never planned to consult Natalia regarding my wedding. As a young girl I repeatedly dreamt about getting married, and those dreams were just awful. I would wake up in a cold sweat with my heart beating wildly. The idea of getting up in front of dozens of people – anyone at all, really – in a white dress was terrifying to me. It’s not that I had a fear of commitment; it was more of an acute fear of weddings. The idea made me squirm. Beginning in high school I joked that I would be eloping to Vegas when the time came for me to tie the knot. My wedding cake would be made of hot dogs. I considered a gold sequined dress.

When it came to weddings, I was the anti-Natalia – a wedding dodger.

Three winters ago, I was running a race in Ottawa with my good friend Ian. The event was a triathlon fundraiser wherein competitors (1) skate the length of the Rideau Canal, (2) run to a bar, and (3) drink a beer.

For the run portion of this event, I threw my skates over my shoulder and laced up the hiking boots I’d hoped would protect me from the ice and snow. Shuffling down the canal’s dimly lit pathway, I started uncontrollably huffing and puffing. My winter layering regime clearly needed work. Gosh, I was hot. Uncomfortable. The opposite of cute.

Just as I was wiping a full stream of winter snot off my face my running buddy asked me to go on a date with him. Still panting heavily, I could barely manage a reply. I don’t even remember what I said – only that it wasn’t the most enthusiastic response. Once we’d parted ways for the night I had to confirm with him via text message that I would love to go on a date with him. It was the truth.

Over three years later, we’re still running buddies. We’re also partners, homeowners, and co-parents to a sassy bulldog named Ruby.

This past winter, my love and I began training for the Calgary half marathon, which would be taking place in May 2013. I was aiming to run a personal best time with Ian at my side to push me along. We ran diligently through Calgary’s coldest months, leaving our house and puppy on Sunday mornings for long runs and returning – red-cheeked and sweaty – to drink our protein shakes and get into bed for a nap.

As work obligations and physical stress took a toll on me I explained to Ian that I was going to race a 5k instead of the half marathon. I needed to take it easy. We agreed that he would still sign up for the longer race (which was to be held on the same day) so his intense training wouldn’t go to waste.

When race day came at the end of May, we woke up very early to get downtown for the start of Ian’s half marathon at 7 a.m.

Ian raced so well. He is naturally fast (an understatement) and looked so strong whenever we saw him out on the course.

A few hours later, feeling tired and cranky after waking up so early, I lined up for my race. I put on my headphones and touched my toes, fully ignoring the group stretching demonstration going on in front of me because I’m somewhat of a race snob. As I got into my “race zone” I became jealous of Ian for having already finished. I had left him on the sidelines standing peacefully with his parents.

When the gun went off a hoard of small children immediately boxed me in. Ah yes, apparently this race is called a “Family Fun Run” for a reason. Clearly I was surrounded by families, all of whom were having fun stopping me from getting to the finish line. Kids were all around me, zig zagging with each breath – cutting me off in the process. I had a such a hard time settling into a pace and resigned myself to slowly plodding along if need be. This wasn’t going to be my day to break the tape. I grew irritated.

About five minutes into the race I felt someone brush against my arm. Figuring I had cut someone off I hurled an apology from the side of my mouth, but when I took a closer look at my fellow competitor I realized it was Ian. Ian! Ian?

“What are you doing here?” I asked, removing one earbud and tucking it into my shirt.

“Well, I figured if I had asked you on our first date while we were running a race, I would ask you to marry me while we’re running a race. Will you marry me?”

I proceeded to heave a bunch of breathless “ohmygod, ohmygod”s into the air, excited and completely oblivious to anything going on around me. For poor Ian, this ordeal had to be at least vaguely reminiscent of our time in the canal triathlon.

“Is that a yes?” he asked, remaining calm.

I managed to say yes (somehow) and he presented me with a beautiful emerald-topped gold ring. We kissed quickly… and kept running. Our engagement was important, but so was finishing this race ahead of the army of small children. Ian raced 26.1 kilometres that day.

On the day of our engagement I couldn’t get in touch with Natalia. Her phone was out of service and she wasn’t returning my text messages. I suspected she was visiting her grandparents in Georgia and I cursed these international family ties. When we finally got on the phone a few days later I gave her a full recap of race day and I felt all of my previous wedding-related anxiety melt away. I had known when Ian proposed that saying yes was undoubtedly the right choice, but somehow talking to Natalia about it I felt this wave of peace wash over me. Talking about the day I’d had and how thrilled I was to be heading down this path with Ian, I could understand why she was so in love with weddings. I made plans to start a new Pinterest board.

I guess I’m different now. Somehow in between making plans for a hotdog cake and running a kid-filled 5k race, I fell in love with an amazing person and became the kind of girl that can host a wedding without experiencing heart palpitations and night sweats. But I’m not too different: Early on in our engagement we had the realization that our wedding didn’t have to be anything like the weddings of my childhood dreams. It could be absolutely anything we wanted it to be. So next year Ian and I are hosting a party where there will be cake and a white dress and all our favourite people – but not a lot of other things resembling a traditional wedding.

I knew I was committed to the idea of a wedding when I was walking to the bus stop after work and a favourite song started playing in my headphones. I got this feeling that it was the song I wanted to play at our ceremony, and I was suddenly overcome with emotion. I began tearing up at the bus stop, like a real dope. I don’t know how my transformation happened, but I have a theory. For so long a wedding was this abstract thing – this thing that I had no real idea about. Now a wedding is this fun event I’ll get to experience with my best friend, someone who makes me so happy. And when I close my eyes I can see the whole thing.

Country mouse, city mouse

Posted on August 15, 2013

“Those shining stars, he liked to point out, were one of the special treats for people like us who lived out in the wilderness. Rich city folks, he’d say, lived in fancy apartments, but their air was so polluted they couldn’t even see the stars. We’d have to be out of our minds to want to trade places with any of them.” Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle

I grew up in a pine forest in rural Ontario, about 15 minutes away from the nearest town of 1,400 people. My backyard consisted of neat rows of towering trees. The ground was thick with many seasons’ fallen pine needles, which seemed to make you feel like there were springs under your feet when you walked on them (especially if you were a tiny person wearing Pocahontas running shoes).

Our house was a bright bungalow nestled into the side of what amounted to a sand dune. We had a fenced-in area where our schnauzer, Duke, liked to rest in his doghouse or dig holes to the outside world. There was a well-loved homemade swing. A playhouse. An open area where my dad taught my sister and I how to golf with our junior-sized clubs. Two toboggan hills – one in front of the house and one behind, each equally thrilling. Horses in the field down the road.

I know I can’t romanticize the woods, though I’d certainly like to. There are a lot of things that aren’t ideal in the country – my 45-minute bus ride to school comes to mind – but looking back I think that time in my life was special.

The best part of the forest was something called the Bright Spot. This was my dad’s name for the part of the woods that was filled with maple trees and open space. It was a break in the pine-tree maze. You’d be walking through the dense, dark forest and all of a sudden come into this almost-clearing. The sky would appear again and there were so many things to look at: fallen trees covered in moss, giant rocks, bugs, and an old hunting perch high up in a tree. To me it was overwhelmingly green – as if even the air was green.

I loved the Bright Spot. It was a safe place that I thought was ours, even though we didn’t own the property. You’d rarely see another person walking through, so it was ideal for all sorts of little-girl adventures.

Living in the country like this – with so much natural beauty for amusement – taught me how to be alone. When there are no streets bustling with neighborhood children (and no ice cream man!) your social calendar is greatly limited. I spent a lot of time with my sister. We were pretty good at watching TV, investigating the kitchen’s snack inventory, and arguing. (In fairness to my sister, it is highly probable that I started all our fights.)

We were united in our pine-forest life, but I would also be perfectly fine taking off alone, announcing: “I’m going to the Bright Spot! See you later!” I’d leave through the basement, avoiding all the resident spiders and making up lengthy songs as soon as I was out of earshot. (About the songs: I was really talented.) My Bright Spot activities usually involved balancing on things, gathering rocks for my collection, and making forts. I had several invisible friends for a long time, but I think after a while I was cool with just hanging out by myself; just me, my jeans and jean jacket combo, and the whistle I could blow if anything went awry.

As an adult I think it’s crucial to be able to spend time alone without getting antsy. Sometimes I’m my own best friend, and I’m not sure I have the ability to feel real loneliness. I thank living in the woods for that.

It’s quite possible that if you haven’t known me for very long you would be surprised at my early upbringing. I suppose that at first glance I don’t look like I’m too familiar with forests or bugs or rocks. I like my creature comforts. I like wearing nice clothes and putting on make-up. I don’t think there are very many circumstances under which I would ever consider camping. And I’m not ashamed of any of this, because I know there is a time and a place to get messy. The time and place to get messy is not on my morning commute, after I just did my hair. If I want to commune with nature I’ll schedule a time and place to do so. I’ll probably even get dirt all over me, and you just know I’ll be sweating like a boy. But I’ll want to go home soon after this adventure, and I’ll definitely want to have a shower.

This division between my “country mouse” and “city mouse” selves is so perplexing to me. I don’t think such obvious compartmentalization was conscious or sudden; maybe it was always there. Wherever it came from, I know I need to treat it with reverence because it’s not going away anytime soon.

Lately I’ve been partly joking about wanting to live on a ranch – some sort of giant acreage where I can run a hobby farm, plant lots of flowers and vegetables, and sit on a wooden porch reading all the best books. I can only say “partly joking” because I know I would really love to do all of these things… I’d just want there to be an amazing coffee shop nearby, along with a few boutiques and a place that will sell me the exact pair of running shoes I need. I need some sort of life where I can be country mouse in the morning and city mouse in the afternoon.

Part of growing up is learning about yourself. I used to think these lessons involved listing your qualities, like you would on a social media profile so your Internet friends can distinguish you from their other Internet friends. I could say I’m 24. I live in Calgary. I am going to marry Ian. I don’t eat meat. I like to exercise. But beyond that… there is so much explaining to do. I’ll need to clarify that my house is in the middle of a big city, but every chance I get I head to the park so I can be near trees and water. I’ll have to tell you that a bad hair day can seriously ruin my entire day, but I think I’m most beautiful when I’m running for miles and miles with bedhead and a bare face.

The stories and images and feelings from my childhood are still important, and I’ll always carry them with me. Things like the Bright Spot help me come to terms with the endless contradictions that pop up in my daily life, and they link me to so many of the things I value: nature, health, family… rocks… forts…

I’m happy with the way I spent this day in the city, but if I could pick any way to spend tomorrow I’d go to the Bright Spot. I’d climb up into that hunter’s perch and take a survey of all the things I could see around me. I’d turn a fallen log into a balance beam, then hike through the forest with a giant walking stick. I’d put some neat rocks in my pocket. And, just for fun, I’d make up a new song.

On asking questions

Posted on August 7, 2013

When I was a little girl in the fabulous mid-1990s, one of my most dreaded summer vacation activities was grocery shopping with my mom. Too young to stay home by myself and gorge on daytime Nickelodeon classics, my sister and I would load ourselves into the family minivan and head into town to our bustling metropolis’s only grocery store.

The reason I disliked this activity so much wasn’t because it was a chore, per se, but because it was a chore that would take us several hours. It would take us several hours because my mom would see so many friends and acquaintances, and from what I can remember she would stop to talk to each one. (As a family of four, when your town consists of only 1,396 other people there is nowhere to hide.) But you don’t really even have to like these people; convention says you have to talk to them anyway. Such is the reality of the small-town retail outlet.

Rest assured, though, that on the rare days my mom didn’t see anyone she outright knew, she would quickly make new friends. People would need to be consulted by the meat freezers, and comments would need to be made on the week’s ice-cream sale.

Once we’d get to the parking lot, I knew we were still not safe. Sometimes familiar faces would be coming as we were going, and greetings would need to be exchanged.

I can recall one particular afternoon when we had loaded the groceries into the car and it looked like we were going to make a clean break. Not so. My mom spotted the mother of two girls that took the same school bus as me, and one of them flagged the other down so they could “shoot the breeze” (as they say in the country).

While our mothers were catching up on mother-type things, I was well into my usual ritual of trying to get my peers to like me by way of giving them food. I was just digging into a box of pink and orange Nerds, and offered a small handful to Leah, one of my bus mates. Leah thanked me with a smile, and then nonchalantly dumped her handful of Nerds onto the asphalt.

“Oops,” she said. “Can I have some more?”

I poured a few more Nerds into her palm. Looking me straight in the eyes, she tossed them onto the ground again.

“Oh darn. Can I have some more?”

I don’t want to think about how many times this charade occurred before I ran out of Nerds and dignity. And our moms were still busy shooting that humid summer breeze. It was hot, I was confused as to why my Nerd-sharing failed to earn me a new friend, and I was probably missing a great Boy Meets World re-run on TV. It was the worst.

This episode, which is etched forever in my memory bank, hinged on one critical quality of my mother’s – one critical quality that has likely sparked every conversation she has ever taken part in. My mom, Rosemary, is a certified question-asker.

Over the years I have been able to witness my mom putting her question-asking prowess to good use. I have noticed that she asks questions of just about everyone: big shots, not-so-big shots, friendly people, not-so-friendly people. I think my mom could enjoy a conversation with an apprenticing plumber as much as she could enjoy a conversation with an Oscar-winning actor. She doesn’t have a standard set of questions, per se, but nonetheless the general lists can be exhaustive. All of the information she gleans from these conversations is considered valuable, and no topics are off limits. For better or for worse, she is a natural inquirer, and I think it is her single most defining character trait.

With several thousand kilometres between us now, I no longer go grocery shopping with my mom on a regular basis and actually quite enjoy the anonymity of big-city life. For me, a recovering small-town girl, life in Calgary is positively serene, not to mention efficient. Given a choice, I prefer to not talk to anyone in a grocery store, mall, or park. As such, I really get things done at an impressive rate. I will even resist conversation to the point of being a snob.* One time I even took a serious detour on my commute to work to avoid speaking to a colleague before business hours. I am not ashamed of this. Please be happy for me.

When my family was in town over this past long weekend, I felt so many familiar feelings throughout our touristy adventures. Please rest assured that my mom’s curiosity has not diminished with time. Nor is it restricted to her home province.

On the holiday Monday my mom, dad and I went for a walk in one of Calgary’s biggest parks. This park is so big and hilly that dad and I didn’t want to lose mom for fear we’d never find her again. This meant stopping every 20 metres so she could take photos, and I was perfectly okay with this arrangement until she found someone to talk to. This middle-aged man with a pail strapped around his neck was lurking near some bushes with his bike, and while I felt the need to press on as quickly as possible my mom somehow didn’t agree.

I watched from a short distance – unable to hear their conversation – as my mom no doubt quizzed this man on his outdoor activities. I tapped my toe, checked the time every two minutes, and grew wary as I noticed the storm clouds quickly headed in our direction.

Rosemary continued to interview the stranger.

Eventually I hit the zenith of my impatience and waved at her, pointing at the angry clouds. She waved me on as if to say, “Oh go ahead, but you’re missing out. You’re seriously missing out on this great conversation and I am sad for you.”

When she finally caught up with us, she relayed all of the data she had collected from her human research subject. This man was collecting Saskatoon berries (hence the neck bucket) and those berries would probably make good jam. Perhaps they would also make good pies? His sister is a Sills from the town of Pembroke in Ontario, but it was unclear if the man is also a Sills. Given that our family is also from Pembroke, perhaps we know some of the same countryfolk. And so on. As we hopped into the rental car it started to pour rain. For once we made a clean break.

Watching the rain on the windshield, I wanted to be annoyed that she’d held up a perfectly good walk. What good was this stranger’s information to me? I might have thought. But no. See, when you’re bored at the grocery store and your mom is taking forever and a day to get through the checkout, it’s easy to think that she’s bothering whoever she’s talking to. A long time has passed since my Nickelodeon days, and now I know better than to get my feathers ruffled over my mom’s extracurricular conversations. Instead, I can now see them for what they are: day-brighteners.

As an adult I know that simply isn’t true. People love my mom. They flipping love her. She makes them feel important because she’s interested in information that others might not care about. She makes their days better because her interviews turn them into celebrities, and she’s a genuine hoot (once again, here is another charming rural expression).  I feel like if I didn’t know my mom and she happened to strike up a conversation with me in the grocery store, I wouldn’t be able to resist her quirky small-town ways. I would probably tell my friends about her.

Conversations with strangers also brighten my mom’s day. I have never seen anyone but my mom get such a kick out of these kinds of brief encounters. She talks about strangers’ lives the same way I talk about food or books or my bulldog. And I need to be okay with that. After all, one of the things I know about love is that you need to respect the things your loved ones live for, even if you don’t understand them. My mom’s curiosity makes her thrive on the grocery store-style banter of my youth. Thankfully, in many ways I can now see how she’s more amusing than daytime cartoons and even sweeter than a box of orange and pink Nerds.

 

 

* Unless you have a cute dog. Owners of cute Calgary dogs, look out. I’m probably going to talk to you.

Something I barely remember

Posted on August 1, 2013

“This is what happens. You put it away for a little while, and now and again you look in the closet for something else and you remember, and you think, soon. Then it becomes something that is just there, in the closet, and other things get crowded in front of it and on top of it and finally you don’t think about it at all.

The thing that was your brightest treasure. You don’t think about it. A loss you could not contemplate at one time, and now it becomes something you barely remember.

This is what happens.”

I am at an age where it seems that for the first time I really have things to say that begin with the phrase, “Ten years ago…”

I can remember things that I was doing 10 years ago. I couldn’t say that for a long time, because who can really remember what they were doing when they were two, five, or nine years old? Now I can remember being in school plays, running with the track team, and racing a big cross-town race at the end of the summer of 2003.

“Ten years ago…”

“When I was in high school…”

“When I was in university…”

“When I was younger…”

“When I was a kid…”

When all of these things were taking place, I remember that I really considered myself a writer. It was a core part of my identity.

These days, working in the immigrant-serving sector, I hear a lot about identity. My colleagues and I talk to each other and clients about whether newcomers feel like they “belong” in Canada. We ask about clients’ nationalities: Who are you? Where do you come from? Where do your loyalties lie? Are you an African hyphen Canadian, or maybe you’re not going to hyphenate? What language do you speak?

All of this talk about identity has me considering my own, and those kinds of internal conversations are often very tumultuous. This part about me being a “writer” is often highlighted in my day-to-day work. Colleagues ask, “You’re a good writer. Can you proofread this?” or “You’re a good writer. Can you help me with this proposal?”

But the only writing I do, these days, is at work. My writerly identity is left behind in my office every afternoon, as I run off to the bus stop in my commuting-girl flats and that commuting-girl shiny, flustered face I’d rather not think about.

I can’t get excited about my relationship with my keyboard. I don’t really keep a notebook anymore, nor do I compose paragraphs in my head when I’m in the shower or on a run. Writing and I have a purely business relationship. It’s a transaction: If I put in enough time at my desk I can leave for the day to do something I’d much rather be doing (maybe eating… running… doing laundry… anything). Put more bluntly, if I mope my way through awkward writer agony I can leave for the day to relax and not touch my computer. If I sit here long enough I can. Stop. Writing.

These are terrible feelings, and they make me so confused about this identity that I’ve carried around in my pocket for probably even longer than 10 years.

To make matters worse, for the past several months I have been gorging at a literature buffet. No longer drowning in an all-academic reading list (I still love you, academia!) I am free to fill my bookshelves with whatever I like. And I do. I am a regular visitor to traditional bookstores, used bookstores, and online bookstores. Sometimes even comic shops. I can’t get enough. I am a shameless bookworm. I have happily developed serious relationships with my new favourite authors and renewed bonds with my authors of yesteryear. When I trek through their worlds – like the world of Juliet in Alice Munro’s Runawayquoted above – I can’t help but think that maybe the universe doesn’t need any writing from me. It’s getting what it needs from Munro, Kingsolver, Irving, Hay, Hooks, Ephron, Horby, Sedaris.

The first thing I feel when I encounter a beautiful passage is joy. Joy! The kind of joy that makes me put a book down and stare out a window. I can’t believe I am so fortunate as to (1) have the time to read and (2) taste such gorgeous words that make me feel so happy. The second thing I feel is remorse. I’m sad that I feel so disconnected from my “past life” as a person who strived to create such beauty and happiness herself. Part of me wants nothing to do with writing. Writing, it seems, is something I barely remember. 

But part of me wants to confront this antipathy with the exact opposite. I want to have all the time in the world to be a writer – to sit in my little pink office all day, staring lovingly at a screen or notebook. I’d start my day by getting out of bed, making a cup of coffee, and turning on my computer. I’d open a new Word document and just start writing. I wouldn’t stop until lunch time, when I’d sit down to a happy green lunch made from ingredients I’d picked from my own garden (can you imagine?). Then I’d take my work to a nearby coffee shop and type, type, type until it was time to come home and make dinner. I’d go for a run. I’d read a good book. And then I’d go to bed and do it all again the next day.

The other day I listened to a podcast in which Barbara Kingsolver discussed her book The Poisonwood Bible. Having finished the book only last month, I was excited to hear her thoughts on what I consider to be an incredible work of art. I positively swooned when she described her research process. Apparently, in order to learn about the green mamba for the book, she spent a full afternoon at an Ohio zoo waiting for their resident green mamba to open its mouth so she could see inside. What she discovered – its mouth is sky-blue inside! – became a pivotal, juicy piece of information in the book.

Can you imagine waiting all afternoon for a mamba to open its mouth, and realizing that you can actually use the information you collect from this situation?

That’s foraging, for sure. That’s opening your eyes and ears to everything the world offers so you can share what you learn, just for the sake of a good story. That sounds like the way I want to live.

For a long time, my identity as a writer was my brightest treasure. I don’t know when I put it away, but from what I can tell it happened slowly and without much care. From here I think I have a choice. I could keep it in the closet, or I could bring it out, dust it off, and wear my identity proudly once again.

My past, I’ve learned, is just a story. It should have no power over me. For this reason I don’t care about so many things that took place 10… five… two… years ago, but some things deserve to be a part of my future. Because there is something about words arranged on a page, shared for the sake of a good story, that I can’t walk away from.

Ten years ago I was a writer, and maybe I still am.