this floor: memory lane

this floor: memory lane

The other day I was on a crowded elevator and someone asked me to hit the button for their floor. Another person asked for a different floor. Then the occupants started joking about how I was an elevator operator. The usual discomfort of close quarters with strangers evaporated.

Funny thing, I once was an elevator operator.

My first job out of high school was working an old elevator at Eaton’s in downtown Calgary. I had a strict (white shirt, black slacks, white gloves) dress code.

third floor, children’s clothing, women’s washrooms”

After a few months, I was moved to the information desk. Eaton’s had decided to automate the elevator.

I had quite a few jobs as a young person, starting with a paper route at 11 (that photo? me at 11). Delivering papers in Calgary at 5 a.m. in the winter was absolutely not a good time. Sometimes I could drag my brother out with me, but he was well into teenage-hood by then, so that was rare.

When I was 14, I had a job working at Sears in the hardware department.

I was part of something called the Teen Council: a group of girls of every size who would “model” the latest “fashion” twice a year. I say “model” because we basically walked an elevated aisle in the mall, and “fashion” because Sears was not exactly leading edge. Basically an animated catalogue for teen girls.

Every Teen Council member also worked in the store and the assignments seemed to be given out based on size: the girls representing size 0 and 2 worked in jewellery and lingerie.

As the girl representing size 14 teens, I was deemed suitable for hardware – which if you’ve ever seen me wield a hammer, you would know was not the wisest choice.

Best part of the gig (she says sarcastically), they had HUGE photos of us placed at an entrance, laid out, you got it, according to size. The size 16 girl and I were on an opposite wall to the others – almost as if we needed more room.

I definitely enjoyed the sound of my feet walking away from that job.

I once filled in for a friend at her job during summer vacation. She worked in a floral shop which also carried household items, like placemats and cloth napkins. I was given free rein to rearrange displays to my heart’s content. I did/do not have any designer flare, but I loved creating little place settings using all one colour but different patterns. Or putting teddy bears in big chairs with tea cups and funny hats.

The job I treasured in those years was babysitting. I played Barbies and board games and coloured and sang songs for days. My mom had lots of friends with small children and there was never a holiday season that I was not busy every night. Summer afternoons were spent pushing kids on swings and catching them on slides.

In the evenings, I loved the fully stocked pantries and fridges and the bookshelves full of novels. My absolute favourite place to babysit had an incredibly rich library of show tune vinyl. And I am pretty sure I wore out their copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge over Trouble Water.

Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled
water
I will ease your mind

I’ll never tire of hanging out with small humans, playing dress up or looking at clouds or, most especially, reading out loud.

 

 

let me hold this memory with gentle hands…

let me hold this memory with gentle hands…

Let me hold this memory with gentle hands, the moment the room erupted with joy and love, the moment they lay you, my first-born, on my chest.

The fears of unknown futures and anguish of weeks of  bed rest – gone. You were beautiful and noisy and healthy. The relief was complete.

You changed my life forever, in ways of wonder and joy.

You had made quite an entrance, with people coming and going and layers of schedules meaning double the staff and it was chaotic and noisy and then, everyone, you included, were gone. And all I could think of was I needed you. We had not been apart in more than eight months.

The years ahead were ones in which I wondered and doubted and faltered; everything was new, and I forgot too often to listen to my heart. I wanted to recapture that moment, when they lay you on my chest, and I knew exactly what to do.

When I think of that memory, the memory I hold with gentle hands, I am propelled forward, when you turned the world around back to me, and emboldened me to find a new path of joy and fulfillment. You encouraged me with your loving, gentle heart.

*

Let me hold this memory with gentle hands, the moment you, my baby girl, lay within my arms, newly born.

Your appearance in the world was slow and fast. Ten hours of labour, too few minutes of pushing for the doctor to ‘glove up’. I wanted to see your eyes, but you were not quite ready to greet the world.

You came to us with very little sound, very little effort. You slept and cooed and stretched in the new space of the world. That moment was opposite to the future. Everything ahead was noisy and wonderful and arguments and hugs and baking and colouring. Haircuts with craft scissors. Books and bobby pins. Your smiles and other spontaneous, exuberant expressions of joy.

When I think of that memory, that first day memory which I hold with gentle hands, it was not until last August at your wedding when the world stood that still again.

I felt your breath when you were born, up against my cheek as I pulled you close.

I felt your breath as you walked down the aisle, up against the love surrounding you.

*

These are the memories I hold of my children, with gentle hands and an open heart.

 

end of the beginning

end of the beginning

Today signals the end of my first writing course through U of T. When I began, I decided I would see how this one went before deciding to sign up for another.

I signed up for two courses for the spring. Obviously it went well.

It’s not about marks here; you get a pass/fail. It went well because I started down a path with guidance. I have walked the writing path many times throughout my life – writing stories and poems. I have often worked through issues by writing, but usually came up short to really working past anything. I continued to be stuck.

This course has been good in keeping my hand moving and my writing and understanding of the craft has improved.

What more could I ask for?

Coupled with this has been the time I spend at my writing sanctuary run by a wonderful collective every Friday afternoon. This is a workspace tucked in a storefront on the Danforth. I had to do an errand a couple of weeks ago on a Friday which put me two hours away by bus and subway – but it was completely worth the effort to carve out a few hours of silence and writing.

This wonderful group, Firefly Creative Writing also have a subscription service where they send you a monthly snail mail package full of inspiration and activities. My response to this month’s ‘play’ activity is above.

When I gift myself the time and space to follow this writing dream, I’m never sorry.

I decided to unearth my voice and my stories and the paths I’ve chosen have been fruitful and rewarding.

I cannot help but reflect back on my dream to return to university. That was the same pathway, and it was different. It’s the same because I wanted to do both for as long as I can remember.

The difference was that I had to prove something to myself by returning to university. I had to prove I was capable of doing academic, intellectual, tough, demanding work and not give up. Honestly, I often think I could have done courses like that forever, with regularly scheduled breaks, of course!

Then I started to write and take courses and focus on that, and I know I’m on the right path and it is a path that is much richer and productive because of the university experience.

The other way the two experiences – writing courses and university courses – are the same is that I never knew what I would do with my degree when I was done (other than put it on the shelf over the television where it remains to this day). I don’t know where this writing adventure is taking me. I have a fiction idea I am writing small pieces about and may put them all together. I have loads of nonfiction things I have written over the years and more in my head.

I do not know where I am headed.

So today is the end of the beginning. Let’s just see where it goes.

 

Undermining resiliency

Undermining resiliency

Every day, it’s something new and, most often, detrimental coming from the Ontario Education Minister. It’s hard to keep up with what’s happening in education in Ontario, but to date, I cannot think of anything that’s been done in the true interests of students. I understand that education is a heavy draw on the financial makeup of a province. That being said, it does not even make good business sense to make cuts which will end up crippling the system. This is a poor business model and an even worse social program model. (I cannot even touch the issues around funding for autism programs. It will have absolutely devastating effects on children and families.)

The Education Minister yesterday, on a CBC morning program, stated that making high school classrooms bigger would make students more resilient.

High school classrooms – all classrooms – are not the place to download the mental health skill development for resiliency while also making significant cuts in both supports and funding.

What parents, teachers, industry specialists or university educators specifically said, increase teacher to student ratios so students are better prepared for university and the world? Is it like the ‘sex ed’ consultations where in reality a small number of people were opposed to concepts like consent, but the Government said the majority wanted it out?

Maybe people who believe in 1960s education models – where kids come to school, learn by rote and had significantly fewer pressures, distractions, and expectations than today’s students – also believe that schools should be solving all the woes of the world while providing exemplary education using limited resources. (That was a time when teachers gave the strap regularly – hopefully that’s not part of the next announcement.)

Again, I encourage the Minister (and anyone else making these decisions) to spend time in a classroom. Work in it. Spend a week, a month, a year.

Teachers do everything they can to create environments which nurture independence and build resiliency in students.  Classrooms are currently dealing with huge differentials: in learning abilities and disabilities; mental health strengths and areas for development; family dynamics; economic variability and instability; and a host of other impactful factors.

Ask any school social worker, teacher or counsellor and there are a significant amount of circumstances which can thwart the growth of resiliency. As parents, we are instrumental in the growth of resiliency and we also need to accept that being a helicopter/snowplow parent (guilty) is counterproductive to this concept.

The Government has a responsiblity in the mental health of all citizens. They need to lead, not chase after savings in the budget without fully understanding the trickle down impacts. They need to stop speaking off the cuff and making statements that are unfounded or based on facts. When children are surrounded by a 24 hour news cycle in which the elected leaders are not leading with any conviction or substance, this negatively impacts resiliency.

We all play a part in building environments to set up student success and the place where students spend the bulk of their waking hours – schools – should be supported and funded. The decision to increase classroom sizes will have the opposite effect to building resiliency and coping skills. And, if history is any indication, the blame will be also be downloaded onto teachers and schools.

don’t give yourself away

don’t give yourself away

The final assignment for this course was to write in any genre. I worked with two pieces, one fiction, one non-fiction, wanting to leave my options open. In the end, I went with the non-fiction, for one simple reason: I had something I needed to work through. And the only way to do that has been to face it, head on.

And I can honestly say, I did.

Perhaps it was best that hubby was on the other side of the world cycling up incredibly high mountains (like 3275 m mountains). I have never believed in my ability to survive without him to catch me whenever I tried to work through my past.

I was wrong.

This was a REALLY hard week of emotional work. I could not get comfortable in my own skin. Midweek, the tears came: sadness, joy, victory. It was all there.

It was such a relief.

Back in the early 1990s, I testified in court, in support of another victim who was suing the Calgary Board for negligence. After testifying, I stood outside the courthouse, looked up at the sky, and felt like a superhero.

A man who had sat through my testimony approached me and asked me why I didn’t just tell someone.

My super powers left me, my super hero cape flew away.

I found those powers and the cape again this week because the piece I wrote was different in a fundamental way. I acknowledged the ways in which systems and people let me down.

Self blame is an exhausting way to live and as unnecessary as assholes confronting witnesses on court house steps.

I know that there will still be days ahead in which the past comes back to bite me.

It’s okay; I’ve got a cape for that.

***

As is often the case for me, I had a song rolling through my brain all day, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. The most important line:

if you care, don’t let them know, don’t give yourself away

Both sides now
Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all
Moons and Junes and ferries wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way
But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away
I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all
Tears and fears and feeling proud,
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way
But now old friends they’re acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day.
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

 

 

some things the world gave

some things the world gave

I am presently spending a lot of time on my final assignment so I give over this week’s posting space to Mary Oliver. Again.

Some Things The World Gave

1
Times in the morning early
when it rained and the long gray
buildings came forward from darkness
offering their windows for light.
2
Evenings out there on the plains
when sunset donated farms
that yearned so far to the west that the world
centered there and bowed down.
3
A teacher at a country school
walking home past a great marsh
where ducks came gliding in —
she saw the boy out hunting and waved.
4
Silence on a hill where the path ended
and then the forest below
moving in one long whisper
as evening touched the leaves.
5
Shelter in winter that day —
a storm coming, but in the lee
of an island in a cover with friends —
oh, little bright cup of sun.

this life has taught me…

this life has taught me…

Recently, in my snail mail subscription package from @hellowriter (part of the wonderful Firefly Creative Writing group), there was a prompt to write about what life has taught me.

This is far from a thoroughly exhaustive list, but here goes:

This life has taught me that raising my children was the greatest gift to myself.

This life has taught me that friendships are hard work. Beauty lives in the time you spend together; carving out that time is the work.

This life has taught me that I need to examine all assumptions (labels, prejudices, beliefs) I have towards others and about myself. That includes assumptions about “right” and “wrong” and what any one person’s life (including my own) should look like.

This life has taught me that my past is something to embrace – or at least carry more lightly; it is what made me who I am and placed me where I need to be to experience all the stellar moments of today.

This life has taught me that art and photography and words can bring clarity and acceptance and compassion and create community – if people engaging with the works are open to those gifts.

This life has taught me that writing about the hurts and disappointments and the trauma is healing yet so hard that it makes me hurt all over.

This life has taught me that writing brings joy – that all the characters living in my head have a place in the world, too.

This life has taught me that there is still much to learn.

poetic license

poetic license

This week in my introductory writing course we covered poetry. I am not much of a poet though I tried my hand at poetry in junior high and felt pretty sure I was the next…well, good poet (I didn’t actually read poetry so there was no one I was aspiring to be). I occasionally wrote mushy or cryptic poems the year I met my hubby.

At that time, I was all of 18. In 1982, when I was 20, I wrote A LOT of poetry. Apparently I REALLY loved my (now) husband.

One poem (pictured above) I wrote in junior high garnered some attention from my teachers. It’s not because it was well written, but because I used the word “caressed”.

Now, this is 1974 and apparently that was not considered a 12-year-old student’s type of word.

My dreams of being a great poet came to a crashing halt. I recall having a very intense discussion with my English teacher about that word and explaining that my mother owned a rhyming dictionary, a regular dictionary and a thesaurus (she was/is a writer/broadcaster). Words were a big thing in our house.

I was one of a very, very small number of children that came from single parent families at the time; as a matter of fact, I cannot actually recall any one else whose parents were divorced. I always felt our family was under scrutiny. A few years earlier, at this same school, my brother had been suspended because he (and my mother) refused to have his hair cut – it was below his shoulders at the time. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised about the line of questioning from my teacher about my word usage. It did crush me that he questioned my ability, though.

(That being said, a year or so later, when my marks plummeted and I withdrew from all extracurriculars, not one teacher asked why. I’m not sure I would have told them that one of the coworkers was sexually assaulting me, but it would have been great if their concern was at least consistent.)

This week, I wrote a ton of poems. The criteria for the assignment was that it had to be focused on our senses, full of descriptive language. I realized, through this process, that my writing is not particularly descriptive. And, also apparently, I am very stuck on the experience of drinking tea.

Let me explain.

At least 5 of the 10 or so poems I ‘shortlisted’ for submission were about tea. Mainly about an experience I had a month or so ago.

On Fridays, I go to a writing workspace in east Toronto. A group of anywhere from 3 to 10 writers go to this space and write in silence for 3.5 hours.

I mean silence.

The kind of silence that when I poured my tea, I could hear the tea pour into the cup. I could hear it swirling. I could sense the motion from the sound. It was striking.

It was crazy loud in this quiet space. And every time someone else poured their tea, I heard it again. I was so enamored with this sound, I wrote about it that day and it became a bit of an obsession with all my writing.

I am working on a longer fiction piece and I put it into the piece. I wrote about it regularly in my daily freewriting. Finally, I put it into my poem this week. I even called the poem awoken because I felt like that tea experience was a bit of an awakening.

Tea and writing – a good pairing.

awoken

my breath
enters my body
cascades like a soft wind
down my throat
fills my lungs
then departs
with the unwanted
residues of the night

a chinook
clearing winter’s chill

the tea
pours into the cup
a sound unheeded
in the thousand times
I brewed before
ears attuned
to the soft spinning
of liquid in the cup

an eddy in
the hot current

the beauty
of snow on the path
crisp, glistening
filling my heart
my waking and
sleeping selves
spirits lifted
burdens displaced

fireflies illuminating
the direction home

sometimes I need only to stand

sometimes I need only to stand

all italicized quotes by Mary Oliver, poet, 1935-2019

Sometimes I need
only to stand
wherever I am
to be blessed

Many times lately I have said to hubby, we have such a great life. That’s not new; ups and downs have been happening for 56+ years, but attentiveness to those waves has been a more recent practice.

These past few years, there have been a lot of moments in which I only needed to stand where I was to recognize the blessing – and then I voice it, to myself, or to whoever is there with me. I “over emote” on social media, unapologetically.

Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

Life is not always rosy and paying attention to that is also important. I have shared about loss, fears, anger, frustration, and trauma.

I find the down drifts easier to deal with if I remember to be swept away by the beauty of a sunny day, or a sunset, or a giggly baby, or an elderly couple holding hands, walking slowly down the street.

Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.

The beauty of art, well, that is a whole other wonderful wave of emotion. A photo, a story that takes me somewhere – all are things that make you stand still and be astonished.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

to share or not to share

to share or not to share

A friend of my daughter sends out an email weekly with “insights, info, thoughts and other things”. I really enjoy the emails; they are funny, thought-provoking, and candid.

This week, the author, Jess, spoke about sharing. Not in the “here’s half my bagel” sharing, but the kind that comes from telling people the real deal in your life. That you’re struggling or confused or sad, or…whatever.

When it comes to writing, I believe that sharing is a big deal. I have literally hundreds of pages of stories and poems and thoughts. I have rarely shared them. One of the reasons is simple, and probably something lots of creative types experience: I don’t know if what I write is of interest to other people. (You’re reading my blog, so obviously I put that concern aside on occasion.)

The biggest hold back comes in two forms. I don’t want to throw my burdens onto those I love. Working out certain issues or problems or trauma through writing has meant thoughts or experiences I have not previously shared in-depth are starkly put onto paper. Sometimes though it’s as simple as me not wanting to embarrass those loved ones. I grew up with a mom who is a broadcast journalist on radio and television and occasionally she said things I would rather she hadn’t.

The second hold back is an old comment another mom said to me. I was answering a very pointed question about my childhood and after I responded, this person said, “You know what? Get over it. We all have stuff in our lives.”

It’s interesting because in the email from Jess she addresses this second hold back. She stated that others can benefit from you sharing what you have gone through. And she’s very right. I know that I have found reading something in a book or a magazine or an email that I can relate to, or that eases a burden – well, it’s a game changer. I’ve never been sure my experiences have that kind of value to others.

This type of thinking has kept multitudes of people silent and was core to my thinking around sharing my #metoo story – and I definitely was not alone as the thousands of stories flooding out proves.

“One should try to write as if posthumously. Because then you’re free of all the inhibition that can cluster around even the most independent-minded writer. You don’t really care about public opinion now… You don’t even care what your friends, your peers, your beloved think. You’re free. Death is a very liberating thought” -Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens definitely followed his own advice; as a very controversial writer (once claiming that Mother Theresa was a fraud, for instance), he wrote whatever the hell he felt like, consequences be damned.

As I mentioned last week when I wrote about submitting my work to a writing contest, putting things out in the world has become something I’m doing for myself. I am not interested in being controversial or having a hate fest arise on twitter. I am interested in sharing, in hopes of lifting burdens, mine included. And if, down the road, my fiction stories bring some happiness or entertainment value, that will be great, too. I don’t think I’ll ever write like I’m dead, but I think that ‘putting it out into the universe’ without any expectation of approval or accolades is a doable action plan.