Count Your Blessings

gratitude

I cannot lie. This has been a difficult year in many ways.

For starters, I quit anesthetising and got stone-cold sober. And that was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life, because once I stopped numbing, all those emotions I had tried so hard to escape for so many years came flooding in like a tsunami. Maybe it’s different for everyone, but that’s how it was for me. I had a lot of feelings about a lot of things and, suddenly, no way to avoid them. I had to stop running away from my demons and start to face them. I’m still working on that.

Then, I lost my closest friend of twenty-five years to cancer. My heart is still broken, and, to be frank, I’m not sure the wound will ever fully heal. But that’s okay. Glennon Doyle says, “Grief is love’s souvenir. It is our proof that we once loved. Grief is the receipt we wave in the air that says to the world: Look! Love was once mine. I love well. Here is my proof that I paid the price.”

Well, I paid that price, and I’d pay it again and again given the choice. Because, as difficult as it was to say goodbye to Cameron, I wouldn’t trade one second of the time we had together for anything. The grief I carry is my souvenir of the love we shared.

There were other things, too, of course. Other ways I found this year to be really tough. But I’m not here to talk about all the things that went wrong or caused me countless sleepless nights. In fact, just the opposite.

I’m writing because, despite all the pain and heartache, fear and frustration, there is still much I’ve got to be grateful for. And so, without further ado, here is my list of blessings for 2017:

  1. Sobriety.
  2. Life.
  3. Love given and received.
  4. Four healthy, happy, well-adjusted children, who love and accept me as I am: eldest, my firstborn son, a gentle giant, who is respectful, smart as a whip, and kind to everyone; middle son, who reminds me so much of me at his age, and always has some interesting tidbit to share; youngest son, who is honest and authentic, funny as hell, and always up for trying new things; and my daughter, a little spitfire, who is deeply sensitive, intuitive, and wise beyond her years.
  5. Shelter, food, clean water, electricity… all those things taken for granted that not everybody has.
  6. My mom and dad and family and friends-like-family.
  7. Alaska, Story, and George, my goofy pets.
  8. The opportunity to thank my beloved, Cameron, for a lifetime of true friendship before he passed away from leukaemia in the spring (God, I miss you, kindred).
  9. Every moment Cam and I spent together. And there have been many.
  10. Visiting with old friends at Cameron’s memorial/Celebration of Life.
  11. All the new friends I’ve made this year through my recovery program, who inspire, encourage, and uplift me on a regular basis, and help me to stay sober.
  12. Online friends who, although we’ve yet to meet in person, always have kind words, gentle wisdom, humour, love, and support to offer when I need it most.
  13. Writing (has saved me more times than I can count).
  14. Sunset walks at the beach.
  15. Counting stars on clear nights.
  16. Morning runs under blue skies.
  17. Spring rain, bright summer sunshine, fiery autumn leaves, and the snow of winter’s wonderland.
  18. A few good laughs.
  19. Other sexual abuse survivors, who share their stories and work hard to shine a bright light in the darkest of all dark places, which makes me feel less alone. Every single #metoo matters.
  20. Solitude—because being alone is balm for the soul.
  21. Companionship—because being together is soul food.
  22. Flashes of inspiration.
  23. Poetry.
  24. Hot baths: essential oils, flower petals, and crystals.
  25. Cleansing tears.
  26. Naps.
  27. Difficult people who challenge me (even though I don’t always feel grateful at the time).
  28. Great books.
  29. Being alone without being lonely.
  30. Perspectacles (perspective).
  31. Change and transformation because, while it’s often uncomfortable, there are always blessings.
  32. My cousin’s safety while in the Dominican Republic during Hurricane Irma.
  33. Renewed faith and a deeper connection to Spirit, the Soul of the Universe, God.
  34. The gifts of acceptance/surrender.
  35. A family trip gifted by my parents.
  36. Synchronicity (meaningful coincidences).
  37. Serendipity (making fortunate discoveries by accident).
  38. One extraordinary essay written by my dear friend, Laura Parrot Perry, which ended up being the catalyst for a major transformation in my life.
  39. A set of gorgeous collages by Canadian writer, Diane Schoemperlen, that found their way to me.
  40. Courage in the face of the Unknown.
  41. Wisdom gleaned in hindsight.
  42. Divine intervention.
  43. Lessons in radical self-care.
  44. Progress (not perfection).
  45. Time alone at the end of this year to reflect and write a Gratitude List.

I hope that wherever today, the last day of 2017, finds you, you find a little time to reflect on the abundance in your own life and what you are most thankful for.

HAPPY NEW YEAR 2018, friends!

All Good Things,

Arwen

 

 

 

 

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Love Makes the World Go ‘Round

love makes the world

Twelve years ago, this month, I moved into a shelter for abused women and children.

Pregnant and scared, already the single mom of a three-year-old boy, it was hands down one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Making the decision to leave behind our home, the city we lived in, friends and family, and pretty much all our belongings was extremely difficult, but it was also necessary. I wanted my children (and myself) to live a life free of violence and I knew that wasn’t possible if we stayed.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Father Mike, my Poppa’s priest, for helping us to escape what was a very, very bad situation. I couldn’t have done it without him. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to tell him as much, and to thank him from the bottom of my heart, at Poppa’s funeral a few years ago.

I have not considered myself Catholic (or religious) in many years, despite my upbringing and love for my creator, but I will never forget the kindness I received that early December morning when I turned up with my son at Father Mike’s office, significantly underweight, broke and broken down, belly full of fear and guilt and shame. After making sure my boy was happily occupied with some paper and a pack of crayons, Father Mike sat across from me silently, and listened intently as I poured out the whole awful story.

When I had finished, he gazed into my eyes with a depth of compassion I was convinced at the time I didn’t deserve, and spoke words I never thought I’d hear from the mouth of a holy man:

“You have to get the fuck outta dodge.”

As I contemplated what he’d said, Father Mike excused himself for a moment. When he returned, he handed me an envelope with two hundred dollars or so inside. Then he told me to book the train tickets I needed, and return to his office the next day, so he could give me enough money to cover the fare.

Three days later, as streetlights illuminated the falling snow that shimmered like diamonds in the sky, my young son and I stood on the doorstep of Maison D’ Amitié in Ottawa.

I rang the bell.

Once inside, we were ushered into the small but cozy office at the back of the home to complete some paperwork. Finally, we were led to the room that would be ours for the foreseeable future, where I was given a Welcome basket containing a pair of slippers, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a few other basic necessities. After the on-call counsellor had explained that I could come to speak with her at any time, she left us alone, closing the door softly behind her. I sat on the bed and looked over at my son, who looked back up at me with absolute trust, and for the first time in a long time, I smiled. He toddled over to me for a hug. I buried my face in his blonde curls and sighed.

We were safe.

It wasn’t easy. Many nights, after I’d tucked my little one into bed, I went back downstairs to talk (and cry) with one of the on-call counsellors. Or I’d sit in the tiny Smoking Room with some of the other moms and chain-smoke, one after the other, as we shared our war stories and tried to figure out what the hell came next. We had chores to do every day and took turns cooking dinner. Some nights, we had group meetings, where we could air any grievances or make requests. Occasionally, we played games.

Every Wednesday evening, after the kids were settled down for the night, we would gather in the main room for Donations. Big, black garbage bags would be brought in from the garage, opened and dumped on the floor, and we would rustle through them for the items we required as we started our new lives: blankets, bedding, pots and pans, cooking utensils, second-hand clothing and toys, for example.

The holidays were tough that year. It was hard to be away from the familiar, and I was traumatised, drowning in fear (of the future), shame, and guilt. Luckily, we were able to spend Christmas Eve at my parent’s house, so my son was surrounded by people who loved and cherished him on Christmas morning.

I spent the next several weeks running around, going to appointments and getting things organised and, by Valentine’s Day, we had moved into our new, government subsidised townhouse.

A dozen years have passed since those days. A lot has changed. But I have never forgotten the kindness shown to my son and I, nor the generosity of spirit of the women who worked tirelessly to keep that shelter running smoothly on a tight budget, who navigated conflicts between various residents, and who provided wise, gentle, honest counsel for those of us who felt so afraid, so lost and alone, so ashamed.

This morning, as I loaded up the car of one of the shelter workers with bags of donations for the women who are currently in the same position I was in all those years ago, I felt incredibly blessed to finally be able to express my most sincere gratitude, and to pay forward the love I received when I needed it most.

Sometimes, in life, we are Givers. Other times, we are Receivers. I believe that it is an honour, a true blessing, a gift, to be on either end. Give when you have something to give and be open to receive when there is something you need. This is the circle of life. Love makes the world go ‘round.

 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone!

All good things.

Much love,

Arwen

 

 

On the Death of a Marriage

 

Ash Heart

The death of a marriage is a slow, bumpy ride down a dark, lonely road in the middle of hell, full of unexpected twists and turns, sudden detours, unforeseen potholes, rickety old bridges, extreme weather conditions, and all sorts of other things beyond our control. No guideposts or streetlamps light the way. Accidents happen. Roadkill happens. Innocent people get hurt. Sometimes, we take the high road, other times, we go low. Either way, every day, we try to move forward, forward, forward.

Don’t look back.

It is a minefield, full of hidden explosives, ready to blow at the slightest provocation.

A wasteland: barren, uninhabitable, grey.

(I’ve done my best to navigate)

 

The death of a marriage is a festering wound; raw, puss-filled and infected, nerves dangerously exposed.

It is a phantom limb, severed flesh remembered on a cellular level, a painful ghost of what used to be.

A charley horse: uncontrollable, intense, spastic.

A broken heart fighting to survive.

(I’ve done all I can to heal)

 

Nobody gets through completely unscathed; the death of a marriage changes us.

But while it is the end of a story, to be certain, it is not the end of the whole story.

It is, in fact, the germination stage of another.

(I’ve planted so many seeds).

 

It’s over.

We bury the dead, because ritual matters and, honestly, decaying matter just stinks. We gather with loved ones to reminisce and remember, and we mourn, we grieve. We may even scream at the heavenly stars over the injustice of it all until our vocal chords give out…

But then, one day, it hurts a little less. No tears fall, and we laugh—we actually laugh out loud—at something funny a friend says. Finally, some pressure gets released, a small pebble tumbles out of the pile we’ve been carrying on our backs and, miraculously, a massive weight is lifted.

Bit by bit, stone by stone, we can breathe again.

(I can breathe again).

 

It isn’t easy to let go.

We often hold on hardest to the things or people we most need to set free, forgetting that we can’t be open to receive what we truly need if our hands are clenched in fists of fear, desperately clinging to something we don’t. No, letting go is not easy, but it is often necessary. Even when it’s scary. Probably most especially then.

The death of a marriage has altered my vision of the future.

The life I move toward isn’t the one I’d imagined, but it’s the one I have been called to.

I must answer.

(Maktub).

 

 

 

Days of Auld Lang Seine

fireworks

 

I’ve never been so glad to see the back of anything in my life.

I mean, honestly, this past year really kicked my ass, and while I’d love to say something eloquent and truly meaningful about it, all that really comes to mind is, “phew!” And good riddance. Goodbye, 2015. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Hoorah!

Oh, it wasn’t all bad.

I learned a lot about myself on this last trip around the sun, it has to be said, and matured in ways I never could have anticipated, all vital and necessary, even if the growing pains were a real bitch. (Ouch.)

I chased a dream and caught it. Another slipped through my fingers.

I loved and lost, succeeded and failed, gave everything I had and then some, only to realize the wisest choice involved finally giving up. Some amazing things happened, and some pretty horrible things, too. Life wrestled me to the ground on more than a few occasions, but I got up stronger than before. Every fucking time.

Kahlil Gibran wrote, “For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.” Well, I think the same applies to the seasons of our lives. Some are for growth, others, for pruning. Some crown you, others crucify you. That’s just the way it is.

For me, January through to December were particularly brutiful. I got crucified.

As always, I have an abundance of blessings to be deeply grateful for, and I am, but I’m grieving, too. Not simply the typical losses one sustains in any divorce, although that’s tough enough to cope with, but more importantly, the loss of my old self. In order to find new life, first we must die and die hard, and death—or change of any sort—is often excruciatingly painful.

Ten years ago, I lived in a shelter for abused women and children over the holidays. It was really tough, but I survived, and I will survive now. Maybe, in another ten years, I’ll look back on this time of my life with a fondness and appreciation only to be gleaned in hindsight. Perhaps I’ll even sing and toast the memory of this year among the cherished days of Auld Lang Seine.

Right now, however, I’m thoroughly relieved 2015 is over, because I’m more than ready for a clean slate. Bring it on, 2016! Show me what you’ve got.

Instead of New Year’s resolutions, which I rarely make or keep, I’ve decided to set some intentions for the upcoming year. To keep it simple, and therefore doable, I’ve chosen two words to focus my attention on: Intuition and Discipline. Basically, I need to trust myself and write something every day.

I don’t know much. I’m a fool on a fool’s journey.

But I believe with all my heart that, if I listen to my soul and follow my passion, I’ll find my way through the shadows and into the light where I’ll be crowned once again.

I wish you a bright and happy New Year!

May 2016 bring much love, laughter, and an abundance of blessings for all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ghost of Christmas Past

ghost

In the classic Dickens’ tale, “A Christmas Carol,” cantankerous old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited overnight by three spirits who help him remember the true meaning of the Yuletide season: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and my personal favourite since childhood, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

The worrier in me has always appreciated the notion of being shown a glimpse of the future. But in my story, rather than a fortune-telling entity from beyond, a memory appeared instead—my own Ghost of Christmas Past—and changed my anxious heart.

I crawled into December, distressed and depressed, but even more than that, I was starting to drive myself crazy with all my rules about what a “real” Christmas “should” include. It had been seven years since I’d last spent the holidays as a single mother, and I hadn’t counted on such intense Mom Guilt. It’s potent stuff.

Seven years doesn’t seem too long in hindsight, but even so, I must have forgotten how difficult it is to go through the holidays alone, because this Christmas caught me by surprise. I was totally unprepared for the unexpected, uncontrollable waves of grief, fear and anger, the painful and frustrating urge to overcompensate for what is legitimately beyond my control, and the unsettling impulse to achieve some sense of normalcy in the midst of divorce dysfunction through maintaining family traditions, many of which I can’t even afford anymore. It hit me really hard. I was a nervous wreck. My mind looped the same track, over and over:

 

Our family is broken. I’m falling apart and the tree looks bare compared to previous years because there aren’t as many gifts and I didn’t even have the time or patience to bake any shortbread cookies with the kids! I’m a terrible mother.

 

I declared myself the World’s Biggest Failure.

During a season specifically set aside for blessed moments of peace and joy, I couldn’t scrape together five minutes of peace, and joy? Joy came in short, spastic spurts, not unlike the frantic gasps for air from a panicked swimmer. It was never something solid I could grasp firmly and hold in my hands. A snotty, sputtering mess, I sobbed on the phone with my mom when we spoke on Tuesday afternoon. Bolted out of bed at six o’clock on Wednesday morning to vomit and barely held on by a thread throughout that night. But then, at some point on Thursday, while sitting alone in the office at my desk, moping, I remembered something I could hardly believe I’d overlooked.

Life could be, and has been, a helluva lot worse.

Ten years ago, my toddler son and I spent Christmas in a shelter for abused women and children. I’d just left an abusive boyfriend—the first man I’d dated since my marriage ended in domestic violence two years prior—who had physically assaulted me as my son looked on. There was nowhere else to go. Pregnant with my second child, broken down inside and terrified, I thought I’d been forsaken by love itself. But I was wrong. It took some time, but I finally realized that love, much like Dorothy Gale’s power in L. Frank Baum’s, “The Wizard of Oz,” had been there all along. Right inside of me. Love was, is, and always will be, the source of my power.

I was lucky to be where I was.

Shelters serve an extremely important purpose, beyond the obvious, although it doesn’t get discussed very much. I’d lost almost everything, for the second time in two years, and for the exact same reason. It was devastating on a number of levels, and I had some shit to sort out, you could say. I’d hit my rock bottom. And as much as I hated living there, for what it was and all it meant, I was smart enough to understand that it was the best place for us; not only the safest, but also the most supportive environment we could hope to inhabit while going through such transformation.

Nobody decides to work in a domestic violence shelter with abused women and children for the money. You can take that to the bank. Any person who chooses to give their lives to this kind of labour has been called—by their hearts, or their god, not their pocketbooks—to make a difference in the lives of others, even if it means slugging away most days for next to nothing, unappreciated and overworked.

I’ve witnessed the miracle.

I went into that shelter lost, afraid and uncertain of what the future held for my little family, and came out on the other side strong enough to find an apartment, provide for my kids, and build a good life. I leapt forward and never looked back.

It feels like forever ago.

It’s easy enough to “forget” those days now, to choose not to remember how tough the holidays were that year without a home of our own, how guilty and ashamed I felt to be in that situation, how few gifts I could afford for my child, and how difficult it was to live in a house with a dozen other women I didn’t know and their own distraught children, each one of us forced through fear to flee our homes. It was horribly traumatic. Maybe that’s why I don’t call it to mind very often. But looking back, I can see that it was not only painful, it was also an incredibly sacred time, a period of major transmutation, a necessary metamorphosis.

Much like the present moment.

Yes, life has been particularly brutiful lately, too many lows and so few highs.

But as hard as it is right now, my life has seen much tougher times, and I have an embarrassment of riches to be grateful for.

I am.

 

Our family has changed. I’m breaking open and life looks different than it did before but that’s how we find the hidden gifts and it doesn’t matter who baked cookies because we still got to eat some and they were delicious! I’m a wonderful mother.

 

Happy Holidays!

 

Death & the Afterlife

Life turned upside down a few months ago, flipped inside out and imploded, as it does on occasion. Total nightmare.

Oddly enough, when my world came undone, I was writing about seasonal triggers and the fact that I’m not a huge fan of October, its startling shock-of-blue sky and outrageously ostentatious trees, due to the fact that so many traumatic events have occurred in my life during that particular month. Call it prophecy, or even a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will—each makes for an interesting topic of conversation in its own right; either way, my essay heralded yet another disaster, which presented itself on the high heels of October’s habitually melodramatic arrival. So predictable. But despite the inevitable sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, the constant hypervigilance I always seem to experience at this time of year, I was still utterly, hopelessly unprepared. God help me.

‘Well, isn’t that just the way,’ my Grandma H. would say. I can almost hear it now.

Transformation often comes calling when I’m doing my best to avoid it. Change never seems to arrive when I’m on the ball, all jacked up and equipped like MacGyver, but instead, it usually appears when I’m hiding at the back of the closet, shaking in my boots behind moth-eaten coats, or in my ratty housecoat, obliviously watching old reruns of Three’s Company on the couch with my good buddies, Ben & Jerry. And while it may knock gently at first, much like the Big Bad Wolf of the Three Little Pigs fame, change doesn’t typically wait too long before it huffs and puffs, and blows the whole house down…

Miraculously, I managed to crawl through the remaining weeks on scraped hands and bloody knees, until I reached the other side of October. Unfortunately, I’d survived only to be blindsided by another seismic shift a few weeks later. The earth trembled beneath my feet. Hurricane force winds of change blasted through my life with such magnitude, the air was sucked out of my lungs, and for days, I couldn’t breathe. Roots shaken, I was forced to bend so far, in every possible direction, I thought I’d break.

“I’m not bamboo, dammit, I’m a human being!” I screamed at the universe.

I had no idea how much more I could take, but I knew it wasn’t a lot, because every day, waking up to face another sunrise, I could hardly believe I was still here. It felt like death, and in a way, I suppose it was. A part of me had to die, so that a truer, more authentic part of me could finally begin to live. And here we are, at last, ready to confront the purple elephant in the room.

What happened?

But it’s not really about what happened (death), in my opinion, what’s most important is what came next (the afterlife), and since this is my story, I get to tell it however I like. So, anyways, I died—figuratively speaking—and after that, everything fell apart for a bit, as you might expect. I stopped going to class, couldn’t eat or sleep, and most days, didn’t even bother to get dressed or brush my teeth before I took the kids to school. Apparently, the dead have no pride.

Honestly, life just seemed far more bearable when I had some peace and quiet, coziness, warmth, and soft, comfortable things against my skin: my starry sky flannel pajamas, a divorce hoodie sent from a new friend, an old pair of yoga pants. The rest simply required more effort than I was able to muster. I walked a dark, lonely road at the edge of an overgrown forest, and although sensed a light in the distance, it was pitch-black where I stood. Couldn’t even see my hands in front of face, let alone two steps ahead, as I stumbled blindly into unfamiliar territory, ready to take my chances. Sometimes the unknown is better than the devil you know.

There were many moments I wanted to quit, stop moving forward, and just sit by the swamp of sadness until it pulled me under. But I refused to give up. Through was the only way out.

“The best way out is always through.”

Robert Frost

It’s taken time to dig my way out of the wreckage and build a new normal.

In the beginning, for days on end, I paced the rooms of my suddenly-too-big house, moving this or that. Scrolled social media incessantly, searching for something… I still haven’t figured out what it was. Wandered the empty beach alone. Ate too much junk food. Soaked my sorrows in a scorching hot tub, lathered my body in lotions fragrant with essential oils, and bundled up in blankets to watch sappy movies with my dog, who nuzzled my ears as I bawled into her fur.

I snuggled with my children, took time to breathe, and slowly settled into a new way of being in the world. I sat with an overwhelming sense of grief and loss, though I desperately ached to run from it, and for the first time ever, in the History of Me, I understood that the fires of pain had a purpose, not unlike fire-fallow cultivation, a slash-and-burn agricultural technique used to clear land for new growth. On a deeply personal level, I experienced a similar process of ground-clearing, cultivation for new life.

I welcomed it. Watched orange flames burn the old away. Exhaled.

Ah, quietness.

When it was over, I leaned into the stillness, and just listened. Tuned out external voices and tuned in to the perfect rhythm of my strong heart beating in my chest. Every day, even if it seemed next to impossible, I found something to delight in, because when it hurts, the best medicine is joy. Joy opens the door to gratitude, and gratitude is a direct path to love, healing, and abundance.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not happy-go-lucky in the face of chaos by any stretch of the imagination, and there have been many times I have felt terribly ill-equipped to handle the challenges before me, particularly recently. I think it’s normal. Any death is brutal. But in the afterlife, among the ruins and devastation, the little things have given me a reason to carry on, filled my soul, and kept hope alive.

On the last full moon before Christmas Day, November’s Mourning Moon, I stood outside and performed a private ritual under the stars. Ritual is important, because it adds power and gives meaning to significant occasions in our lives, and in this case, it really seemed to matter. I wrote down a list of what I intended to release and let it dissolve in a glass of water drenched in moonlight. I let go. And since that night, the light at the end of this long, gloomy road has gotten brighter. I’m almost there.

I have nearly reached the other side.

*

Inside this new love, die.

Your way begins on the other side.

Become the sky.

Take an axe to the prison wall.

Escape.

Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.

Do it now.

You’re covered with thick clouds.

Slide out the side. Die,

and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign

that you’ve died.

Your old life was a frantic running

from silence.

The speechless full moon

comes out now.

 

“Quietness,” by Rumi (Translated by Coleman Barks)

*

For My Trail Angels:

Besides the regular conversations my tribe lovingly accepted as par for the course lately, which have basically saved me, nearly every other day, a friend or neighbor has also gone the extra mile to remind me I am seen, loved, and never alone. My beloved trail angels. In her inspirational and highly acclaimed memoir, “Girl in the Woods,” Aspen Matis describes trail angels, kindred souls who leave goodies, such as bags of fresh fruit and jugs of clean water, along the path for through-hikers (another trail term for those who travel the entire length of the PCT). In my own life’s journey, I’ve met my fair share of trail angels, people who kept me going strong along the way through their generous gifts of love…

I hope every single one know how truly grateful, and deeply honoured, I am.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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*

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*

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)*

Once Upon A Time

Once upon a time…

We humans devised a construct to help us keep track of cycles in a more linear fashion.

So far, it is generally accepted that time-travel is simply not possible. However, I would beg to differ, as I have personally been known to time-travel on a weekly—if not daily—basis. I would argue that time-travel is not only possible, it is virtually impossible to completely avoid. In fact, we humans love to time-travel so much we have developed highly sensitive equipment to assist us in our exploits: Memory and Imagination.

Memory and imagination, the tools of the trade; unequivocal apparatuses devised to connect us directly to the past and the future. Some of us spend so much time time-travelling, we hardly ever land in the present, but instead consistently live in the distant past, fighting old demons, or in the future, imagining a time when everything will go our way while secretly fearing it will veer in the opposite direction. We remember, regret, feel ashamed. We envision, fantasize, become preoccupied. Some of us, never content in the moment, time-travel regularly, back-and-forth between living in the shadows of the future and keeping company with ghosts of the past.

Photographs are never enough. We don’t want to look at two dimensional pictures, we want to relive moments, or touch and transform them, change them into something they were never necessarily intended to be in the first place.

If I close my eyes, I am right there.

Instantaneously.

Simultaneously suspended

in two spaces

in time.

In between the doorway to the past and the future lies a quiet room full of soft pillows, where sunlight streams in through the window like warm butter, and a cat purrs gently on my lap:

The present.

Every time I find myself here, I am reminded of just how much I love it.

If I could find a way to stay here all the time, I know I would live…

Happily ever after.

The End.

(Or is it…?)

*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*