Welcome to the New Blog

lilacs

Hello, friends, and welcome!

After more than two years with the same old blog, I finally got too annoyed to stand it, in much the same way as one does with a living room or kitchen. Actually, considering the number of times I have switched around the furniture in my apartment during this time, it really a wonder that this is the first I’ve felt inclined to move.

A blog is kind of like a room, if you think about it…

In any case, please feel free to look around my new digs. Let me know what you think!

Most of the posts from my previous blog, Living the Dream, can be found in the September archives of this new blog, Lilacs in October. Everything else to follow will be brand-spanking-new, I promise.

Enjoy!

Arwen

The Neighborhood Corner Store

Recently, I took a trip down Memory Lane, strolled through the old neighborhood to see what’s changed since the lazy days of my capricious youth. Street names almost as familiar as my own; tree-lined avenues dotted with elaborate stone houses built in the nineteenth century; a willow weeping at the edge of a hushed inlet. I must admit, the local high school looked so much less daunting from this new perspective, meandering down the street with four small children in tow, finally grown up and comfortable in my own skin. Well, mostly.

In contrast, the sports stadium, with its high-gloss makeover, made me feel like Alice in some kind of freaky modern Wonderland. Everywhere I turned, it seemed, another landmark small business had fallen prey to some faceless international franchise. It felt like a whole new world, one that didn’t belong to me anymore, and although it makes perfect sense for things to have changed, it seemed strange to realize suddenly that a place can still feel so much like home, and yet paradoxically, so unfamiliar. I pointed out my old bedroom window to the kids as we passed, but when I noticed a short, blonde girl scurry around the corner ahead of us, my mind drifted to another girl, another place in time…

“I think I’m melting,” Cress groaned.

“Me, too,” I whined. “I’m about to spontaneously combust!”

Summer vacation, 1989. In the park across the street, Cress and I had been sitting for hours, cross-legged and barefoot on a patch of grass, arguing over who was more likely to marry Joe McIntyre from New Kids on the Block. Heat rose from the concrete in lazy waves. Green leaves wilted on drooping trees. Even the younger kids, usually robust and energetic, dragged their feet in the sand beneath the swings, or sat in small clumps inside the playhouses around the climbing structure, hiding from the sun’s angry glare.

“I’ve got about ten bucks leftover from babysitting Donny Goldstein on Friday night. Wanna get a Chipwich or something?” I asked.

“Sure,” Cress agreed. “You don’t have to ask me twice!”

On the way, we resumed our conversation. “So, anyways,” I inquired. “Say I do marry Joe… who’s your second choice?”

“What makes you think I need a second choice?” Cress joked. “You first.”

“Um,” I hesitated for a moment, “River Phoenix. You?”

“Slash,” she replied, matter-of-factly.

Laughing, we entered the air-conditioned store at the corner. The cold floor was a balm to our burning bare feet. At the chest freezer, just to the right of the ancient cash register, we pressed our sweaty palms to the glass and allowed the coolness to seep into our bones for a moment before retrieving our treats: a Chipwich for me and a red Jumbo Mr. Freeze for Cress.

“Hello,” the store owner, Mr. Patel, greeted cheerfully. “Back so soon?”

Before we could answer, Mrs. Patel, her pretty face framed in the small pass-through behind the cash that led to their adjoining apartment, chirped, “Hi, girls! Staying cool today?”

Cress chuckled, “Barely.”

“Trying to,” I said.

Mr. Patel handed back my change. I counted the coins and nudged my friend, “Hey, want a few Swedish Berries and Sour Keys?”

“Who says no to penny candy?” Cress asked, smirking.

“No one that I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Patel replied, handing over two tiny paper bags.

As he wandered to the back of the store, armed with a clipboard, we counted our sweets.

“There’s 50 cents on the counter, Mr. Patel,” I called out. “We took 30 Swedish Berries and 4 Sour Keys.”

“No problem,” he mumbled, back turned.

After dinner, Cress and I reconvened at the park. A group of familiar boys tossed a worn football in the fading light. As dusk descended, we watched Stan and Jack argue over a play, a pulsating cloud of hungry mosquitos above their heads.

“Wanna rent a movie?” Cress asked. “I saw Clue at the store earlier.”

“Did you?” I slapped my leg and blood smeared across my calf. “Yeah, okay. Let’s go.”

Mrs. Patel sat on a burgundy cushioned stool watching a small TV mounted on a shelf above the cash register. Smiling warmly, she waved us to the VHS movie section, and returned to her program. After we’d chosen a film and collected our junk food (two freezies, two bags of chips, a banana Popsicle, an orange Mr. Freeze, and another Chipwich), Mrs. Patel rang us up. “That’ll be $14.73, please. Nice to see it has cooled down some, eh?”

Nodding, I scratched my leg, a bump already beginning to form where I’d been bitten. Cress pulled out a ten dollar bill and three quarters.

“Oh, dang. Got any change, Arwen?”

“Sorry,” I shrugged. “Didn’t think to bring it.”

“How much are you short, honey?” Mrs. Patel inquired.

“About three bucks.”

“No problem,” she offered pleasantly. “You can pay next time.”

“Are you sure?” Cress looked uncertain.

“Of course. Life is short. Enjoy your evening, girls!”

“Thanks, you, too,” we answered in unison.

Strolling through the vacant park one last time, arms linked, we sang at the top of our lungs in that unabashed way only pre-teen girls can muster, then headed over to Cress’ garage to get high on sugar, while watching Clue: The Movie, followed by countless reruns of old SNL. Just another endless summer night.

You can’t buy a Chipwich around here anymore. I discovered this sad fact in 2006 when I was pregnant and craving a sweet connection to my childhood. I suspect it has something to do with Nestle’s bottom line, I don’t really know, but I do know that you also can’t buy a Swedish Berry for a penny these days, and even if you could, pennies have gone out of circulation. The corner stores we frequented as kids—no shirts, no shoes, no problem—run by families who knew our names, had children our own ages, and permitted a tab, are vanishing. All we can do is shake our heads in disbelief, as the places of our youth disappear, and brand-spanking-new condominiums or franchises rise up from the ground like alien lifeforms to take their place.

As the sun slowly began to set, dripping golden honey rays, I suggested we stop at the old park. All four kids bounced and shrieked for joy. As we approached, I couldn’t help but notice everything looked pretty much the same, but the trees were taller, and some of the tired moms looked a lot like girls I used to know. After an hour and just-one-more swing, we decided to stop at the corner store. At Patel’s, we found a “For Sale” sign on the right, the front doors completely bricked over. Chest constricted, tears burning the back of my throat, I pulled out my cellphone to quickly snap a photo, and quickly posted it on Facebook, as one does now, for nostalgia’s sake. Then we headed back across town to the place we call Home.

*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*

All Systems of Oppression are Interconnected

“No one is free until we are all free.”

Martin Luther King

It has been an unusually dark summer in many ways, particularly for our friends south of the border, with racial tensions and class issues casting a shadow over what might have been an otherwise brilliant season, and Donald Trump announcing his Machiavellian intention to run for President (insert shudder here). Already, Trump has offended countless individuals with his bigoted, borderline-sociopathic remarks, abusing every opportunity afforded him to spew poisonous venom at women, breastfeeding mothers, Latinos, and anyone else within his reach. I pray nobody is listening.

In June, a young, male, white supremacist brutally mass-murdered nine black men and women during a bible study meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. At least eight black churches have burned to the ground across the southern United States since. July turned our attention to the devastating case of Sandra Annette Bland, a young black woman who, upon being pulled over for a minor traffic violation, subsequently found herself arrested, and later died under suspicious conditions, alone in her jail cell, in Waller County, Dallas. On Monday, authorities declared a state of emergency in Ferguson, Missouri, due to ongoing civil unrest, one day after the first anniversary of the death of eighteen year old Michael Brown who, while unarmed, was shot and killed by a white police officer. On Thursday, Radazz Hearns, a fourteen year old, another unarmed and non-violent black male, was shot by another trigger happy policeman. Seven times.  There have been many other cases of violence this past year, of course, far too many to name in one essay.

Here, in Canada, racism and classism permeate our culture, too, although the vast majority of us would like to pretend it is not so. First Nations women and girls, who struggle daily to survive and thrive amidst ever-increasing levels of violence, continue to be silenced. Sadly, the Highway of Tears has yet to run dry, and the voices of those who fight for justice in these matters remain unheard. Countless missing Aboriginal girls and women remain overlooked, often falsely and unjustly stigmatized as runaways, prostitutes, and/or addicts, by the Canadian authorities.

Across North America, many Muslim people continue to experience increased negative stereotyping and discrimination since 9/11, based on unfounded negative associations with violence and terrorism. To be clear, Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim sentiment, is “a term for prejudice against, hatred toward, or fear of the religion of Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force,” and is not only terribly offensive, but also incredibly destructive (Wikipedia). Bear in mind, phobias, defined as “an extreme or irrational fear or aversion to something,” are related to anxiety and mental health disorders. Note: use of the word “irrational.”

Child abuse, sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence permeate our everyday lives. From Baby Jane Doe to Emma Sulkowitz to Jian Ghomeshi to Bill Cosby’s multiple accusers to Janay Rice, we have heard about some truly horrendous crimes over the past year. And let us not forget how many of our children are anxious and depressed, self-harming or taking their own lives, because they look around and find no place—no language, even—for themselves. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and two-spirited teens, as well as those questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, experience increased rates of bullying and suicide compared to the already exorbitant rates among youths. Too many of our kids feel devastatingly unloved, rejected, and all alone in the world.

In every instance, several systems of oppression have intersected to create an explosion of violence and trauma. It’s hard to make sense of it all. Even harder to understand how we can allow ourselves to be so fucking complacent when people are being victimized, raped, beaten, bullied, sodomized, and even murdered, just for being who they are.

We need to take a long, hard look at ourselves. Not a simple task. But if we are to be awake and aware human beings in this world, we have little choice. Often, we find that we have been complicit in the oppression of others when it has served to fortify our own security. If we honestly want to tear these archaic structures down, we must be willing to start with those nearest and dearest to us. Once we understand how these systems organise, like parasites, to destroy us from the outside in, we will be able to create change.

We are not taught to think in multi-dimensional, intersectional terms, but instead, tend to lean toward a singular perspective. We like to separate things, keep them apart, boxed in, neat and tidy, tied up in a big red bow, and dichotomies, binaries, and hierarchies help us achieve this. One or the Other. Good vs. Bad. Us and Them.

Yes, sadly, Us needs Them to define Us.

Every system of oppression in existence today, based on socially constructed categories of difference, is held in place by every other system of oppression. Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, is a concept used to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions, including racism, sexism, classism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, the intense fear or aversion to anyone or anything perceived as foreign, are interconnected, and cannot be examined separately from one another (wikia.com).

All systems of oppression are interconnected.

If I want to truly make a difference, I have to first be willing to acknowledge some difference, such as the privilege afforded to me in our society by my blonde hair, green eyes, and light skin. Representation counts for plenty, and anyone not represented in our culture, fairly, equally, and accurately, is Othered.

Friends, we need to remember that difference is okay, even vital.

We have to stop being afraid.

Our goal should not be to whitewash the world and achieve a sense of colour-blindness, but rather, to embrace the glorious rainbow that we are. We are different. Let’s celebrate that. If we are to be a true Sisterhood, we need to encourage all of our sisters to use their voices, then shout their stories from the top of our lungs until we all are heard. (Note: my Sisterhood includes all the boys and men who have also been, and continue to be, oppressed and silenced by a system designed to keep them in chains).

Ultimately, these are not black and white issues, or gay versus straight, and they do not centre on women or men, or who identifies as male or female, however you define those terms. It is not about rich or poor. Racism, classism, ableism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, homophobia, and xenophobia hurt us all. They are interconnected building blocks in a system specifically designed to restrict, suppress, separate, dominate, and control the socially-constructed Other. Every one who does not fit a mould.

We need to stop pretending to have it all figured out. It is okay to say ‘I don’t know’ once in a while, to acknowledge that we still have plenty to learn. There is simply too much at stake for us to continue to act like sassy, petulant teenagers, rolling our eyes and insisting we know-it-all, while simultaneously waiting for somebody else to come in and take charge. We need to take charge, to accept responsibility for the current state of affairs, because every one of us has a vital role to play in creating the world of tomorrow.

Every choice we make, each action we take in our own lives, affects the entire course of humanity. Now more than ever. Although we have individual lives and experiences, we also share a collective, and the collective determines the fate of humanity.

Humanity, as far as I can tell, grows in ages and stages in much the same way as a single human life does, evolving from birth through maturity, to death. (Let’s say Humanity was a baby in the Stone Age, reached toddlerhood at some point in the Iron Age, and became a young child during the Middle Age. The Renaissance saw it through late-childhood into the pre-teen years in the Victorian Era. By the time Humanity had arrived at the Space Age, it was a full-bodied, hot-blooded youth, an egocentric, passionate teenager).

In the throes of the tumultuous Adolescence of Humanity, we are all more than a little jacked up these days, hormonal, raw, and edgy. But maybe we are also finally growing up. I have no doubt that, as we continue to evolve, Humanity will enter into its young adulthood a little more mature, responsible, and ready to begin the real work.

At this stage, I have far more questions than answers. But maybe that is okay for now. Perhaps one of the best things we can do at this time is to ask as many honest, thoughtful questions as possible, then just shut the hell up, be quiet, and listen. We ask, and knowledge we seek is drawn through the ether, inevitably toward us. Shame and fear will not help move us forward. Only love can do that. Love will allow us to safely confront our own complicity, and we must do so, because, truly, “no one is free until we are all free” (Martin Luther King).

*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*

Some great references:

Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga and Gloria. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1984.

Davis, Kathy. “Intersectionality As A Buzzword: A Sociology of Science Perspective on What Makes a Feminist Theory Successful.” Feminist Theory (2008): 67-85.

Fellows, Sherene Razack and Mary Louise. “The Race to Innocence: Confronting Hierarchical Relations Among Women.” Journal of Gender, Race & Justice (1998): 335-353.

Lorde, Audrey. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider (1984): 114-123.

Noble, Jean Bobby. “Our Bodies Are Not Ourselves: Tranny Guys and the Racialized Politics of Incoherence.” Sons of the Movement: FtMs Risking Incoherence on a Post-Queer Cultural Landscape (2006): 76-100.

Razack, Sherene. “The Gaze From the Other Side: Storytelling for Social Change.” Looking White People in the Eye (1998): 36-55.

Spelman, Elizabeth. “Gender & Race: The Ampersand Problem in Feminist Thought.” Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (1988).

In Memoriam: Carolyn Smart Remembers Bronwen Wallace

Everybody wants to live forever. Failing that, most will settle for leaving their mark on the world, a footprint, something enduring that says: I was here. I did something worthwhile. And I mattered. Mothers and fathers raise their children to believe that they can achieve anything they set their minds to. Architects build skyscrapers. Engineers design airplanes. Artists create sculptures or songs, and writers craft great works of literature, while poets enter the perfect darkness of the void, the deepest silence, for the sole purpose of illumination. In contrast to engineers who use metal and machinery in their pursuits, however, poets seek to illuminate through words and offer immortality of an entirely different nature: the elegy.

An elegy is a song or poem expressing sorrow, typically a lament for the dead, a memoriam. A way of honouring that which has come but is now gone. In words, a poet reveals her inner life: what moves and shakes her, or makes her want to break into a million tiny pieces; what she loves and what she hates; what she seeks to take from any communion with the world around her; what she wants to change; what she longs to discard, or refuses to release, and what will not loosen its ghostly grip on her. A poet writes to touch the throbbing life in our own veins. When she confronts the shadow of death, she faces her own mortality, but also becomes a witness to the life—the light—that has been lost. A poet writes, not only to preserve a memory, stored like jam on some long-forgotten shelf, but to keep the beloved alive. The poem, an elegy, becomes an Actual Thing in the World. Manifested, it lives on and on, as people can never do.

Innumerable examples exist of poets who have honoured those they’ve lost to death in verse. For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on the friendship between Canadian poets Carolyn Smart and Bronwen Wallace, and the legacy of their connection. Following Wallace’s “untimely and brutal death” of cancer in 1989 at the age of 44, Smart founded the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers with assistance from the Writer’s Trust of Canada, and released a volume of poetry, “The Way To Come Home,” which included a collection of poems written for her late friend. I cannot impress upon you enough, dear reader, the importance of friendship and sense of community between women writers, and the inherent value in the elegy form: evidence that a life—a light—continues to shine long after it has vanished from sight.

Recently, I had the good fortune to be in contact with Carolyn Smart. During our exchange, she spoke passionately about her friendship with Bronwen Wallace, and shared some deeply personal memories about their time together. It was both an honour and privilege for me, in some small way, to bear witness to the great affection between these two strong women.

“Death may indeed be the last great foe of writing, but writing is also the foe of death.” (J.M. Coetzee)

And so begins, “The Sound of the Birds,” a “moving re-creation of the painful last phase of Bronwen Wallace’s life from the perspective of one who suffered through it with her.” This particular quote by Coetzee, a South African writer, was chosen by Smart not only for its eloquence in sentiment, but also for its relevance to her own life. After a brief, six-week whirlwind courtship, Smart married the young South African man she had met on a blind date orchestrated by Wallace, much to her friend’s chagrin. Wallace, confides Smart, was distressed because she “never believed in marriage.” But, Smart adds, “She forgave me after a few weeks and was closely involved in my subsequent pregnancies and my second baby, Daniel, offered her much comfort in her last days… to include John Coetzee’s quote about death and writing made perfect sense to me: she will be remembered long after her death because of her excellent writing; she was stopped from continuing that writing by the fact of her own death.”

Carolyn Smart and Bronwen Wallace met in the early eighties at a poetry reading hosted by Wallace in Kingston, and the pair became “fast friends,” often sharing their work privately or attending public readings together. “Bronwen Wallace was my closest friend for nearly seven years,” Smart states. “Not only was she a close friend, she fulfilled many roles in my life, including mentor, editor, and role model. She was both the wisest and funniest person I knew.” Wallace, known for her “kindness, honesty, righteous anger, humour, and deep sense of social justice” was well-loved. In the final months of her illness, several women, including Smart, organized a care schedule in order to be available to help however she required.

It was during this time that Smart grew inspired by the sound of the birds outside Wallace’s home. “Three days a week I went to her house with my baby Daniel, born in April of the year she died in August,” Smart remembers. “Bronwen would be up in her room in bed, and Dan and I would spend a little time with her until she tired, which she did easily in those last weeks, and then we would sit downstairs and wait for the sound of the bell she would ring for us to return. Dan would mostly be sleeping; I would be looking out the window at the birds that came to the roof of the garage next to Bronwen’s house where her partner would throw birdseed every morning. Birds would flit here and there all day looking for food. Many of those birds, and in particular the cardinal, were my focus during those long and sad days.”

A poem titled, “Cardinal and Lunar Eclipse,” is the second in the selection dedicated to Bronwen Wallace in “The Way To Come Home,” which also includes “Owl, Loon and Thunderstorm,” “A Dream and a Turkey Vulture,” “Eastern Phoebe,” and “Cockatiel.” Beginning with the soft, full silence of friendship and one’s ability to hold space for another, Smart writes, “The red bird/and then silence, while I sat/and watched all you endured.” Throughout “Cardinal and Lunar Eclipse,” Smart bears witness to the private details of Wallace’s final moments, noting with care the failed treatments and white eyelet nightgown, the sheer terror, and the very words written in Wallace’s journal as she faced certain death, the clock on the wall, bird calls, and the red blood beneath the pale flesh at her throat.

Expanding further, Smart explains, “The cardinal’s colour is explained in the poem to match the blood that one could see building in Bronwen’s throat. I had been told a massive burst of blood would mark her death. That’s not what happened, but I was aware that it might.” Smart saw her friend’s life slip away in the darkness of a lunar eclipse. The excruciating heartache and sense of unbearable loss she felt at that moment is almost palpable as she writes, “while all others round about me/watched the marvel in space/I watched you die/gripping my baby to my chest/I let you go over and over/still breathing the possibility of a miracle.”

In, “The Sound of the Birds,” Smart includes an additional untitled poem that I will, for the purposes of this essay, refer to as “Whip-poor-will.” Whip-poor-will has two sections, each placed at either end like bookends, and reads almost like a love song. It speaks to the longing for the sounds of a friend, their particular voice, and the loss of “intimate acquaintance” through death—the deepest silence. Smart laments, “even the stars seem aloof/and you are not here, dear night bird/you are gone/the stillness is a room I’ve moved into/like the clothes I will wear/to ward off colder weather/a cape of loneliness/the dark heart of a night without song.”

Canada—truly, the world—lost an incredibly gifted writer and passionate social activist when Bronwen Wallace died, but Carolyn Smart also lost a dear friend and confidant, colleague and trusted mentor. Smart’s efforts to keep Wallace’s memory alive in her continued involvement with the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award, and through her own speaking engagements, writing, and poetry, speaks not only to the testament of friendship between these two incredibly gifted Canadian poets, but also to the unfailing support to be found within the Canadian writing community, and the deep commitment women writers often have to each other, both privately and publically.

Bronwen Wallace “wrote about ordinary women’s lives in a way that uplifted and revealed what to me had always appeared ineffable, and she appeared to do it with such ease,” Carolyn Smart confides. “She was on the verge of a massive career in literature, likely through extended fiction as well as poetry, and to see that stolen from her through a mismanaged and extremely painful illness was a heartbreak I will never recover from. I cannot NOT write about her; I cannot NOT honour the woman for whom over 800 crammed a theatre in downtown Kingston to remember and weep for her, a woman who had changed so many lives, a few days after her death in 1989.”

As both a woman and a writer, I understand this impulse, the urgency to record, honour, and remember through words. For myself, sometimes the only way out of the pain, fear, and anger involves the act of writing it out in verse. Poetry happens when pain meets pleasure, sorrow meets joy, life meets death, heart meets mind, soul meets page. It’s a language all its own, private and personal, yet simultaneously universal. A poet, sensitive to the nuances of everyday life, feels the loss of death deeply and seeks to release the dark shadows in order to reveal the light. The sense of community and friendship among women, among writers, and especially among women writers is crucial, because it is through support, encouragement, and love that we find the courage to use our voices and the strength needed to persevere.

Perhaps nobody can live forever. But I would say that, if you’re lucky enough to be loved by a writer, there is a good chance you will be immortalized in some way. For there is no other choice available, no other veritable way to heal and face the future for someone who builds their entire world on words, than to write about their love and loss.

“Some people are a country/and their deaths displace you/Everything you shared with them/reminds you of it: part of you in exile/for the rest of your life.”

(Bronwen Wallace)

Note:

The author wishes to extend a deep and heartfelt “Thank You” to Carolyn Smart for her generous and invaluable assistance with this project. Find out more about Carolyn at: http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/smart/index.htm

*This essay first appeared on Living the Dream blog*

References:

Faulkner, Arwen. Interview with Carolyn Smart. Interview. Ottawa, 2014. Document.

Smart, Carolyn. “The Way To Come Home.” Smart, Carolyn. The Way To Come Home. London, ON: Brick Books, 1992.

Wallace, Brownen. Common Magic. Canada: Oberon Press, 1985. Book.

Youtube. Carolyn Smart on Keeping Brownwen Wallace’s Memory Alive. May 2014. Online.

liminal

I live in-between.

( )

In-between moments, stitched together so tightly

I can’t breathe, and urgencies

strung together like turquoise beads

fashioned by hands older than time;

in-between pages,

words on pages,

letters on words on pages; in-between

neither one thing or the other. I live

in-between doorways,

portals, gateways, stained-glass windowpanes,

the decision to go, or maybe, to stay

inside or out, it’s all the same, one way or another.

I live

in-between silence and sound,

light and dark, sky and sea, open

& closed

twelve/thirteen. There are

a thousand faces in-between

me and my true self. I see them all

strung together like amethyst beads

fashioned by hands older than time;

in-between

everything and nothing, rhythm/rhyme,

there is

( )

I live in-between.

*liminal was published in Anthem Magazine 1.2 Fall Edition in December 2014*

Note from the Author:

My personal life has seen great upheaval leading to incredible transformation over the past year. In fact, while 2014 was arguably the best year I’ve ever had as far as achievements go, it was also one of the most challenging and painful, personally.

Growth and change sure are uncomfortable, aren’t they? Just ask the butterfly.

A year ago, if you’d asked, I’d have told you I didn’t like in-between places or spaces where things weren’t clearly marked and defined. I needed, if not bold black and stark white, than at least colour tabs, labels, and brightly-coloured highlighters to mark what was what, minutely detailed maps to tell me where I was. Now, I believe I’ve changed my mind.

The liminal has many hidden gifts… it just takes some time to find them.

I wish you all the gift of some time in-between and out of your comfort zone. May the treasures within hold the answers you seek or, at the very least, the questions. All good things.

Poppa’s Beach

When my mom and her siblings were children, they believed that my grandfather was Superman. Jim Doyle was a hard-working man in thick glasses who took life very seriously. But the moment he walked through the battered screen door of the cottage at Kettle Point beach, the starched shirts, pressed trousers and polished shoes vanished, and in their place: plaid shirts, wrinkled shorts and bare feet. To his young children’s innocent eyes, the instant transformation was nothing less than magical. His superhero status seemed indisputable. Plus, he told them it was so. And you just didn’t question anything my Poppa said.

As a child, growing up on the sandy shores of Lake Huron, I found it easy to believe in magic also. Poppa told the most enchanting tales. One star-filled evening, as I sat perched upon his knee, he explained that, a very long time ago, an exceptional honour had been bestowed upon him and, from that moment on, he’d become a guardian of Kettle Point beach. I saw no reason to doubt him. And so it was.

Absolutely delighted with my newfound sense of entitlement, I became a little tyrant. In my defence, I was only five years old, but there you have it:

“This is my Poppa’s Beach. So, if you don’t do what I wanna do, then you’re gonna have to go home,” I’d shout, blonde pigtails bobbing, tiny fingers wagging. A heavy foot stomp just for emphasis. My wide-eyed playmates were rendered speechless with no choice but to concede. Remember, they were only five, as well. They loved the beach. No one wanted to go home.

Nana and I spent most weekdays at the cottage together while Mom stayed alone in the city to study, content to bask in the peace left in my wake. Every morning, we rose early to walk along the beach and watch the pale sunrise. Nana would pick up a newspaper from the beach store, always leaving a few coins at the top of the pile for Betty, while I ran along the water’s edge and tossed stale breadcrumbs for shrieking seagulls. Later, we’d pick wild raspberries for jam or curl up on the sun porch to read, side by side; take a picnic lunch on the beach, a good long swim, an afternoon nap. We always woke up slow and stayed up late. Night-time was for star-gazing and lightning bugs, corn roasts on the open fire and Aesop’s fables—I absolutely loved “The Tortoise and the Hare.” In fact, it’s still my favourite.

Poppa worked all week in the heat and lived for those lazy summer weekends. After dinner, we’d walk to Betty’s store for ice cream, and then leisurely stroll down to the Point. Skipping ahead, my sticky fingers collected bits of coloured sea glass, pale pink shells, and thin, black shale to paint on rainy days. I always filled that bright yellow bucket to the top while Nana and Poppa strolled behind me, holding hands.

As the sun set over the horizon, we’d stand side by side and watch the glistening water roll over the backs of these majestic spheres—kettle rocks. Nana told me they were magical. Poppa said that nobody knew for sure how they were formed but, explaining their significance in terms of spirit rather than science, he added, “Kettles are one of the natural wonders of the world. They are believed to be sacred by some, so they’re protected on this reservation. Nobody’s allowed to remove or destroy them. God willing, they’ll be here for your own grandchildren to enjoy.”

A few years later, Nana got sick. Really, truly, devastatingly sick. And in order to care for the love of his life, to keep her at home as she left this world, Poppa had to sell the cottage. He didn’t hesitate. I haven’t been back since.

Poppa’s much older now. Stooped in stature, he no longer wears suits, and his once agile mind has become weakened with dementia. He’s forgotten the enchanted tales of my childhood, the ones that made me believe in magic. I still believe. But something deep inside of me changes as I watch as my grandfather’s life fade before my eyes, and finally realize that time is my superhero’s only kryptonite. My kids haven’t been to “Poppa’s Beach” yet, nor have they seen kettles at the Point. But I still tell them that he was Superman. And they know better than to question what I say.

*

(I wrote this story about my grandfather. In November 2014, he passed away, so I wanted to share this in honour of him. I take great comfort in the knowledge that nothing remained unsaid between us, he knew how much I loved him, how grateful I was to have him in my life. Rest in peace, Poppa. I love you forever. Love, A.)

*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*

Bob Marley Bar

We were a diverse group of seven, my crewmates and I.

Three friendly Canadians, two boisterous Aussies, one tall American and a very gentle soul from Dominica. Renegades in our own right, we were all rebels who had, for whatever reason, shaken off the shackles of conformity and restraint to run towards a life of freedom on the open sea. Looking for adventure, we’d driven across the island in cheaply rented VW Beetles, as far as we could get from our jobs onboard the MS Voyager and the crowded, noisy Port of Cozumel. We’d discovered this perfect little strip of sand and sea quite serendipitously in our quest to escape the absurd demands of cruise ship-life for a few hours.

The area was deserted, but for a small beach-side bar that stood nestled among the shade of a few palm trees and several sandpipers hopping around small piles of driftwood. Under a glaring noon-day sun, we walked barefoot, sipped cold drinks, and lounged around in hammocks as though we had all the time in the world. The roar of waves, the greedy cry of hungry gulls, and the ship’s horn sounding in the distance became a lullaby. Some of us dozed, some talked. Some watched waves crash on the rocks, thinking of home. I did a little of everything. I’ve always been a bit of a chameleon, I guess.

Bob Marley’s Bar was more of a shack than anything, hardly more than a few planks of white-washed wood nailed together. I got the impression the place had weathered more than its fair share of storms. Reggae music drifted from a small stereo sitting on a shelf above a battered counter and brightly-coloured Mexican blankets covered the walls among old license plates, sombreros, and hand-painted signs. An ancient bell hung from a rotting wooden post. There were few seats, even fewer tables. We ordered our “cervezas” and deep-fried clams in broken Spanish, and ate standing up, high on Mexican beer and sheer excitement.

“Hola, amigos,” the friendly Mexican server asked with a huge smile, setting down another round of drinks on the scratched table. “Mi llama—my name—is Jose. Esta bien? Everything is okay?”

“Si, Senor,” I replied. “Muchas gracias. Esta bien—mucho delicious. Yum-yum!”

“Can we get another plate of fried clams, por favor?” Yvette asked.

“Si. Of course, mi Linda,” Jose responded. “You like? I will make good for you. Muy bien.”

“Jose! Amigo,” Noah called. “Otro cervezas, por favor. For everybody.”

Jose laughed, slapped him on the back and said, “Of course, of course, mi amigo. I be right back.”

After lunch, the group broke up for a while. I strolled to the water’s edge alone. Sea mirrored sky in some grand cosmic reflection as I stood barefoot at the shoreline, foam rushing over my toes and felt something inside open up, something wild that refused to be contained. The pull of the ocean drew me in. Forgetting about my friends on the beach, I peeled off my clothes and ran into the sea, diving underwater when the cold water reached my hips. Swoosh!

I dove underwater like a dolphin. Glistening water rolled off my back like some living, breathing metaphor, and I went deeper still. The world was silenced for a moment but for the gentle rush in my ears, a faint pressure, and the slow, steady rhythm of my heart. When I resurfaced, laughter greeted me. Yvette’s voice carried across the waves.

“Hey! Where ya goin’, babe?” she joked. “Back to the ship?” Yvette looked over and said something to Marcus, then added, “Wait, maybe I’ll join you!”

Seconds later, Yvette was in the water, followed by Noah, Dave and Luc. Marcus and Donovan stayed on shore. Taking a deep lungful of air, I swam underwater to join my splashing crewmates. After a quick swim, the boys headed back to shore, thirsty for a few more Coronas, but Yvette and I weren’t ready to leave just yet. Side by side on our backs, Yvette and I drifted, faces to the sun. We talked about our lives at home, what we ran from, who was left behind. There was always someone left behind. Finally, as the gulls overhead began to scream hungry cries to their gods, Yvette declared she was going back onshore to dry off. I decided to stay a bit longer, to let the waves rock my body and soothe my soul. I closed my eyes. That was my first mistake.

A shadow crossed the sky and I opened my eyes again.

Looking around, I quickly discovered that I’d drifted farther out than I had intended. I couldn’t hear my friends’ laughter anymore. The sky had grown just a shade darker; the waves were beginning to swell. Panic set in, and that’s when I made my second mistake. I started to swim inland, but the rip-tide tugged me back. I got nowhere fast. Every muscle rigid with exertion, I pushed forward. It was like climbing a rockslide, for every three steps forward, falling two steps back. Exhausted, I could feel my body wanting to stop, my mind refusing to let it.

Swoosh! An enormous wave smacked me in the back of the head. Choking on seawater, I barely had time to catch my breath before another—and then another—washed over me. My belly, my face, my knees, my face scraped the sandy ocean floor. I truly believed I was going to die. So this is it. I thought. This is how it ends.

Then I heard Yvette’s voice float across the water. “Don’t fight it,” she said. “Just go with the current, not against it. We’ll pick you up down the beach. It’s gonna be okay, just go with it!”

So I did it. I surrendered. Absolutely terrified for my life, with no other choice but to trust, I surrendered. And moments later, blood pouring down my arms and legs, I staggered onto the sand, breathless. My friends came running over, their faces awash with concern, as a scorching, indifferent sun glared down on us from above. I lay there for a while, warming my bones beneath that bold sky, and finally began to understand, at long last, that sometimes it really is better to just go with the flow of things than to struggle. Eventually, we hopped back into the twin VW Beetles, and headed back to port for sail-away. I went back to the MS Voyager feeling exhausted, but more alive than ever before.

Adventure.

That’s what I’d come for, above all else, and I was having the time of my life—full stop. Most nights we fancied ourselves sailors, lounging in the Officer’s Bar, drinking cheap beer chased by shot after shot of Jager. We smoked our stale Marlborough cigarettes with jukebox music throbbing in the background and played darts. During the day, in various tropical locales, we were more locals than tourists. We visited these places week after week and, in getting to know their secrets intimately, they became our own.

Sometimes we travelled in packs, wild wolves exploring new territory. Other times, we broke off into pairs in search of adventure, Noah’s animals leaving the ship two-by-two. Often, I found time to sneak away by myself for a few hours each port. One of the first crew members in line to disembark, I was always one of the last to get back onboard.

We worked long hours on very little sleep, but we played even harder. Carefree, unencumbered, we tried things we’d never have had the courage for at home in ‘real’ life. And while family and friends waded through endless winters and financial responsibilities, we made good money working on our tans, meeting incredible people, and seeing the world. Lifelong bonds were made in a matter of moments. Saying goodbye as commonplace as saying hello. But we loved each other fiercely. After so much time spent in close quarters, there were no secrets. We were as tight as clams dug outside Bob Marley’s Bar.

(All names in this story have been changed for privacy)

*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*

Vision Quest

Some people change our lives forever. Serendipity leads to a chance encounter and, by some miraculous twist of fate, we find ourselves completely transformed by this one meeting, one person, one particular moment in time. Everything is different. Nothing remains the same. Somehow we’re forced to move beyond ourselves and into the realm of possibility, encouraged to reach out, past fear and doubt, and grab hold of our dreams. When we find someone able to see who we are, to look past the mask and intuitively understand what we need, we are gifted with a glimpse of our true selves.

Life is full of these beautiful coincidences that nudge us towards the manifestation of our heart’s desires. It’s up to each one of us to make that connection.

I’m a writer. I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old, back when Harriet the Spy was my idol and every story I wrote had to be done by hand because nobody had a home computer. Nobody. I’m also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, adolescent date rape, and violent physical attacks perpetrated by angry lovers. I spent years trying to escape the pain, the shame, the burden and, in the process, lost sight of my dreams and myself. But, over time, I’ve come to realize that sometimes we have to get lost to be found. Sometimes we’ve got to run away in order to come back home again. And sometimes one person makes all the difference.

*

A scorching sun baked the dusty streets of Ocho Rios, Jamaica. It was my third week working in the gift shops aboard the MS Voyager, and our small group of crew members had just finished a fabulous lunch at Evita’s.  As we tumbled out of the quaint Italian restaurant, nestled in the emerald hills overlooking the harbour, Brigitte and I—half-drunk on freedom, fresh pesto and white wine—decided to break from the group and stroll through town. We walked past the dark-skinned women at the pier offering to braid hair for five dollars, and cabbies who jockeyed for position, competing for fares in the crowded parking lot. Up and down the narrow main street, countless souvenir shops sold overpriced trinkets to overwhelmed travellers, all too willing victims in the game. “Wanna stop here for coffee?” Brigitte pointed. “We’ve got two hours to kill before sail-away.”

“Sounds good.”

Café del Sol had a straw thatched-roof and a giant yellow sun hand-painted on the far wall. A grinning bartender squeezed lime juice on the counter as we entered, and laughed at some comment made by a red-faced man guzzling Corona. An ancient gate led to a garden out back where crimson tomatoes dripped from the vine beside lush green beans and wild herbs. The aroma of Blue Mountain coffee wafted through the air, and reggae music danced out of speakers hung above the bar. The place had a certain rustic charm that was hard to resist.

As we stood in the entrance deliberating where to sit, a tall Jamaican with long dreadlocks tucked under a red, black and green rastacap approached from the rear garden. Our eyes locked as he lifted the latch on the gate. A flash of recognition electrified the air between us. Hey, there you are!

I waved and ran towards him, ready to embrace an old friend. He rushed towards me, beaming, equally excited. Face to face, we stopped short. My heart was racing.

“Uh, hang on.” I frowned. “Do I know you?”

“Don’ you work at the shop down the street?”

“No, I work on ships,” I replied. “Don’t you—?”

Laughter. “No, dearie. Not I.”

“Huh. Well—okay.” I shrugged, as a self-conscious giggle escaped.

Brigitte tugged my arm, saying, “Let’s sit over there.”

“Sure.”

I waved goodbye and trailed my friend to a table. Shay, a tiny woman with long black braids wearing a vibrant sundress, came to take our order. Moments later, the warm beverages arrived. Rich, aromatic steam spiraled from the café mocha bowls. Brigitte sipped her coffee and I toyed with my spoon, as we chatted about ship-life and our plans for later that evening.

Brigitte, Kid’s Staff, worked on the upper deck with the guest’s children onboard, playing games, leading parades, or otherwise keeping them entertained and occupied, while on the Promenade, I was a Shoppie, selling expensive crystal figurines to their parents in the China Shop. We didn’t often cross paths unless we were adventuring some port together, or dancing in the crew bar on Deck 5, late at night and impossibly drunk on cheap cervezas.

The tall Jamaican had taken a seat at a table covered in white fabric. A beautiful woman in her thirties sat across from him; a flickering candle and an arrangement of tarot cards lay on the table in-between. Their voices were hushed. I tried not to pay attention as he flipped card after card while the woman listened with rapt attention, a look of open awe on her face. When she left a little while later—practically glowing—I couldn’t help but notice. After making small talk for a few more minutes, Brigitte pointed to her watch with a regretful smile, and said, “It’s time to go. Tug’ll be mad if we’re late again.”

Tug, the ship’s current Safety Officer, was a real stickler for time. The week before, he’d threatened to leave our passports with the Harbour Master if we were  so much as one minute late again. Nodding, I stood up, and tucked a ten dollar tip under my mug. We gathered our bags and headed for the exit. As we passed the familiar stranger again, he caught my eye, so I approached. “Hey, would you do a reading for me one time?” I asked, shyly.

“Sure t’ing, dearie. Andre will read cards for you—but not today. Come another day,” he said, “when the timin’ is right.”

Grinning, I waved, shouted, “Thanks!” and followed Brigitte back onto the bustling street. Arm in arm, we made it back to port, with nearly two minutes to spare.

The first time we sat down and had a conversation, Andre smiled gently and asked, “Why haven’t you been writin’, little pixie? It’s been six months or more.”

Nobody knew that.

“An’ why are you not dreamin’ of your dolphins? What’s goin’ on?”

Impossible.

Initially, I was surprised by the accuracy of Andre’s words, but over time, I learned that that was just his way. Andre knew things that others didn’t know and saw things that others couldn’t see. He introduced me to a stillness inside that I hadn’t visited since childhood, and made me feel safe and at home whenever we were together, like a father or brother would. Meditating in the café garden or wandering remote turquoise beaches on the outskirts of town, we talked about living, breathing, healing. We shared slices of fresh mango, passages of writing, and quotes from our favourite books. Romance would’ve been beside the point—we had a soul connection. I learned a lot from Andre. Most of all, I learned to love myself.

One day, I confided that my co-workers seemed to find me somewhat strange and had taken to calling me Space Cadet, due to the fact that I often sat in a corner of the bar to write poetry instead of socializing. Andre, beside me in a chair in the café garden, smiled.  “Stop worryin’ about what everybody t’inks,” he said, passing me a chunk of watermelon, still warm from the sun. “Nobody knows no’ting, anyhow.” He howled with laughter. “Jus’ be who you are.”

Look in the mirror, dearie. Every day, t’ree times, an’ say ‘I love you’ to you.

I love you. I love you. I love you.

Until you believe it; ‘til you refuse to accept anyt’ing less. Until you know it in your bones and feel it in your soul: I love you.

It felt ridiculous at first. I’ve never believed in the so-called power of empty affirmations. Standing there, alone in my cabin, I gazed into the mirror and whispered those hollow, empty-sounding words, aware that some distant part of me felt sorry for the “me” who stood there in that bathroom. But the truth was, as I stared into my own eyes, mostly I felt hate. Fear. Then shame rushed in, hard and fast, so I turned and ran up the stairs like I was on fire, back to the bar to fill the endless void.

I love you.

Ha! What bullshit.

Eventually, something shifted inside. There was subtle movement, a slight shift, a transformation. It took practice and a suspension of belief, but after a while, I could meet my own eyes in the mirror. I could stare at myself and feel love for this lost girl. I came home. Into my body. And I stayed there.

The last time I saw Andre, we spoke about dreams. I’d come to work onboard cruise ships as part of a vision quest. An ancient rite of passage in many Native American tribes, the vision quest has evolved into a universal symbol of the search for spiritual meaning, true purpose and personal destiny. Six months into my adventure, I still had no idea what to do with my life. Andre watched in silence as I paced the tiny garden path, my hands fluttering like wild birds, and waited patiently while I expressed my angst in a flurry of frantic words and irrational fears. Finally, I sat down, and he stared into my eyes for so long I decided he wasn’t going to respond at all. Uncomfortable, I shifted in my seat. Then he leaned forward as though to tell me a secret, and said, “Jus’ follow the dream that keeps comin’ back, dearie. You already know what to do—write, write, write! So simple.”

Andre’s laughter echoed through the trees in that sun-kissed garden. I couldn’t stifle a giggle. Even the azure sky seemed to stretch a just a little bit wider. Unaware that it would be the last afternoon we’d spend together, I left that afternoon with a hopeful heart. Five days later, I was on another ship, another journey.

It’s been fourteen years since that day in Jamaica. I’m back on terra firma now, at long last, feet planted firmly on the ground. Over the years, I’ve learned to make better choices. I no longer crave self-destruction and, while I accept responsibility, I refuse to take the blame. I’ve grown to cherish that lost little girl who didn’t value herself, and love the woman she has fought so hard to become. Recovery has been a twisted, winding road—a beautiful, tragic, painful process. But as any writer can tell you with absolute certainty: it’s all about the process. That’s the vision quest.

*

(For my twin flame, Andre, with gratitude & love)

*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*

Fresh Paint: a short story

It was over.

In the pre-dawn darkness, alone with her thoughts, she let the knowledge settle over her soul. Into her bones. And she wondered, not for the first time, how it came to be that two people who had once loved one another so fiercely could become little more than strangers passing in the night. Maybe they’d never really known each other at all. Perhaps they’d lived in that Lover’s Illusion of Fate and Destiny for so long, they’d begun to believe its authenticity, to have faith in its fairy-tale ending. When in reality, a lover’s vision sees only what it wants to see and nothing more. Truth can remain hidden for decades. Lovers know only what they wish to know. See only what they wish to see.

And he couldn’t see her.

He couldn’t see how hard she had tried to be exactly what he wanted, how she had struggled to make him happy, to give him everything he insisted mattered most. She’d sacrificed her own desires until it hurt. But still, he felt no loyalty towards her, no sense of allegiance. He mocked her to others. Belittled her behind closed doors. Made her feel so small, so dense, it was as though the carbon inside her body had turned to diamond. It cut away at her heart until there was almost nothing left.

They used to argue passionately—yelling, screaming, boldly accusing—until they ran out of steam, and then they’d come together feverishly, the weight of their bodies crushing any doubt, confident that they belonged to only each other. But she didn’t want him to touch her anymore. In fact, she was grateful for the nights when he fell asleep early and didn’t ask. There were more and more of those nights recently.

She lit a cigarette, and stared beyond the frosted window to a house across the street. Red and green Christmas lights blinked on-and-off. On-and-off. In the quiet glow of early-morning, she took off her armour, once and for all, and made the decision not to fight anymore.

*

“I want a divorce,” she said.

Plain and straight, no sharp edges, no harsh undertones. Just like that. And she knew instantly that it was true. Oh, sure, she’d said it in not-so-many words before. Maybe even exactly those words. But this time was different. This time, she meant it.

“I want a divorce, David,” she repeated. In case he hadn’t heard her clearly. Or at all. She could recall countless occasions in the past when he’d tuned her out.

He sat on the couch in front of her, and stared blankly at the TV screen, feigning ignorance while he watched a hockey game. He didn’t look over. Didn’t so much as cast a glance in her direction. He refused to meet her eyes, or acknowledge in any way that she had, in fact, spoken out loud. To him.

In the old days, it wouldn’t have mattered. She’d have sighed, stomped down the hall in a huff, and things would’ve eventually cooled off. Gone back to normal. But something inside her had changed over the past few months. She no longer craved the cold comfort that accompanied the conscious decision to sweep everything under the rug. She no longer found peace in pretending to be happy when she wasn’t; there was no satisfaction in trying to make nice with someone who refused to reciprocate. In the end, she was faced with one decision: stay and die a slow, painful death of the soul—or make a change.

Not really a choice at all. It was time to start over, that much was certain, although it had taken her some time to come to that realization. A lifetime of running away had taught her to be sure before she left—one hundred percent positive—convinced there was no other way. And she was. It was ridiculous to think she’d wasted five years on this relationship. It seemed silly to call it a marriage, really, when the term itself implied two elements entwining and melding to become greater than either individually—their relationship had been anything but that.

Instead of discussion, there were demands. Instead of understanding, there was condescension. Instead of quality time, there was time in front of the TV, eyes ahead, no conversation. Instead of honesty and truth-telling, there was manipulation. Betrayal. A deep-rooted lack of trust—from both sides—that pervaded everything. There was no “talking it out and working it through.” They were on separate teams, fighting opposing battles, for entirely different reasons. It was exhausting.

“I’m going to start looking for an apartment tomorrow, David. I don’t really see the point in waiting anymore. We both know nothing’s going to change.” She cleared her throat. “David, are you even listening to me?” He stared straight ahead.

Looking around at the accumulation of years, she imagined cardboard boxes with permanent marker labels, all lined up in a row by the door. Suitcases filled with clothes, toys, and other things you just can’t live without. She pictured the kitchen appliances all boxed up, hidden behind packing tape, ready to go. She could almost smell the fresh paint on her new apartment walls, and felt a rush of sheer excitement knowing the future would unwrap itself like Christmas morning, one box at a time. Freedom. That’s what fresh paint smelled like.

The images faded. She sighed and shifted her weight, extremely conscious of the fact he had yet to reply. A scorching heat rose up from her belly, climbed her esophagus, and threatened to choke her. “David?”

Silence. The lights from the television flickered in his eyes—nothing more. She turned on her heels and slowly walked away, down the long hall, past the children, sound asleep, and into her small office. She closed the door. She sat down—hard—in the black leather chair, put her head in her hands and cried, a good long cry, until she could cry no more.

*

“I told him. Last night.”

“You did? Oh, wow. What did he say?”

“What do you think he said, Erica? This is David we’re talking about, remember? Nothing—he said absolutely nothing. Not a word. He just sat there, watching his stupid game, and acted like he didn’t give a shit.”

“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry—”

“Whatever. It’s for the best, right? If he’d made an issue of it, or put up a fight, I’m not sure I could’ve handled it. I just— I don’t know. I guess I’m still in shock.”

“Are you gonna be okay? Want me to swing by and pick you up? We could go for a drive, grab a coffee or something?”

“No. Thanks, though. I think I’m just gonna go to bed now. I’m beat. Fucking exhausted, actually, and I need to look for an apartment in the morning. I don’t want the kids to have to switch schools, so I need to find something decent nearby.”

“Well, call if you need me, ‘kay? We’ve been friends since the first day of grade four, when you took care of Jessie DiFranco for me, remember? I still owe you for that one!” Erica laughed. “I’m not gonna let you go through this alone, hon. Call me anytime. Okay?”

*

“I’m leaving in ten days, David,” she said. “I signed a lease this morning.”

His eyes never left the screen. Not once. No chance in hell was he going to let her see his surprise. Fuck that—his goddamned shock.

She was leaving? Fuck her.

“You can have the kids three nights a week, all right? Friday or Saturday, and two others, you decide. I’m willing to be flexible. They’ll take their cue from us, so if we’re okay, they’ll be…”

Was she still talking?

“…okay, too. David, are you even listening to me?”

Silence. The TV light flickered in the background. It was hard to concentrate with his heart pounding in his chest, but he had no choice—a man had his pride. Eyes straight ahead. It was only after he heard the office door quietly click closed behind her that he let himself breathe. She wouldn’t really leave—would she?

Not a chance.

*

Stacked boxes. Dismantled furniture. Suitcases stuffed with clothes and toys and books—all those things you just can’t live without. A lone toothbrush by the sink, forgotten. Floors mopped. Oven cleaned. Keys in hand. Ready to go.

She stands in the doorway of the half-empty bedroom they’ve shared for five years. A ghost of the room it once was, she thinks. And then, How fucking poetic. It sleeps silently as she gathers the few items remaining: a novel, her backpack, one pink Barbie doll shoe, and a stray seashell kicked into a corner. Just like me. She sits on the edge of the bed, staring out the window at the uncertain horizon, and sighs.

David’s footsteps echo down the hall, announcing his approach. “Hey, what’re you doin’? You okay?” he asks, gently. Ready to talk, at long last.

Slowly, she turns to respond, but thinks better of it. Fading sunlight flickers in her eyes. He goes to her, puts his hand on her arm. She flinches at his touch. No contact. No reply. No regret. She shakes her head, and walks to the door, her backpack slung over one shoulder. She doesn’t look back.

“I love you,” he calls to her retreating form. Expecting her to turn around—even in this, the eleventh hour—to change her mind. But she can’t. Or she won’t. Or a bit of both, perhaps.

*

“So, how do you feel?” Erica asks.

“I dunno. Not too sure yet. Good, I think. Surprisingly hopeful. Peaceful.”

She looks around at she says these words, and knows they’re true. Furniture is lined haphazardly against walls. Permanent marker labels—bathroom, bedroom1, bedroom2, kitchen, living room, dining room, office—boldly declare destinations on boxes, stacked three-deep in each corner of every room. Suitcases of various sizes fall open, contents spilling out all over gleaming hardwood floors. But she feels a sense of calm among the chaos.

“Want me to come over for a while? I can bring a bottle of wine, some pizza, and help you unpack that mess, if you want?”

“Sure, that’d be great, if you’re up for it. The kids are at their dad’s ‘til tomorrow night, and I probably won’t sleep much tonight anyhow,” she replies. “Too excited!”

“On my way, hon. See you in ten,” Erica says, and hangs up.

Phone still in hand, she leans on the kitchen counter and smiles. Takes a look around. The scent of Lysol and Windex tickle her nose. And fresh paint—a new start. Freedom.

*

In the small hours, between dusk and dawn, when the world is silent and still, she sits on the sofa and stares out the window at the snow-covered street below. Content. Despite the shattered illusions that lay in shards at her feet. And she considers, for the very first time, that she’s never really known herself at all. It’s time. Perhaps there is such a thing as a fairy-tale ending. Maybe it just looks a little different than expected.

She smokes a cigarette, and watches the lights in the building across the street go off, one-by-one. One-by-one. In the hazy blue twilight, once and for all, she makes the choice to live her life, unarmed.

It has begun.

*

*Originally published in Bareback Magazine’s March 2014 issue*

(online and available in print here)

A Relative Stranger

I never really knew my father. My parents divorced when I was a toddler, and Dad, caught up in the high life, essentially forgot about me. If he remembered at all, it was only as an afterthought on a rare occasion, and I paid the price for his irresponsibility—time after time. While I loved my father in the way that all little girls love their daddies, he remained a mystery to me until the day he died in the summer of 2011. I was thirty-five years old; he was fifty-seven.

Three weeks earlier, my eldest son had proudly walked me down the aisle and into a new life with my husband. Dad had been too sick to attend the wedding ceremony. Now I stood alone at my father’s graveside, apart from the small group of mourners, and said goodbye to this man I’d never truly known. A relative stranger, you could say.

What I know about my father could fit on a grain of sand. He wore Drakkar Noir cologne, rode a Harley Davidson, and loved Jimi Hendrix. And he was an addict with a brilliant mind who struggled most of his life to shake the monkey off his back, until one day, that nasty monkey killed him. A few other things I wish I didn’t know: he physically assaulted my mom before she left him, beat a murder rap in the 1970’s, and ran a prostitution ring in the 1980’s.

I cringed as the funeral home minister began his eulogy. “Rick was a loving father and grandfather…”

Is he kidding?

“…who was well-respected and loved by his community. He will be deeply missed.”

I can’t listen to this.

I looked over the gaunt faces in the crowd, and tried to meet the haunted stares of my father’s friends—the people he’d given his time and energy to, the ones he’d chosen over me. I wanted to be angry, furious. But instead, I felt intensely sad. Not for me, but for all of them, and for the people who loved them. In the downcast, empty eyes of my father’s comrades, I saw his shame and fear. Finally, I was able to acknowledge the oceans of guilt and self-loathing that had stood between my father and the life he could’ve lived. Between us. I realized then that Dad hadn’t chosen to leave—addiction had stolen him away.

That changed everything.

I’d spent my whole life believing I was unlovable. Not worth sticking around for. Insignificant. My mom had loved me fiercely, along with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends, but nothing ever made up for the fact that my own father couldn’t love me. Until that day. In an instant, I finally saw the truth: it wasn’t about me. It had never been about me. My father had loved me the only way he knew how—he just couldn’t love himself.

When I realized that I could love enough for the both of us, I was free.

*

*This piece was originally featured in CBC’s Defining Moments contest (February 2014). Fourth place finalist. Story judged by former Olympian Donovan Bailey. Please feel free to check it out (here)*