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Motherhood: A Not-So-Subtle Art

It’s a crazy thing, really. A miracle that any of us survive.

The first words I uttered to my newborn son were, “Good Dog”, gestation having involved copious alone time on that derelict farm on the backroads of Armstrong, waiting with my dog for my ripeness to complete, listening to Peter Gzowski on the CBC, craning for the sound of tires on the gravel in the driveway. My selective memory tells me the tire sounds were happy tire sounds, not angry, gravel-spitting preludes to accusatory bar venombabble. I said ‘Good Dog’. Not ‘Good Boy’ or ‘Howdy Kiddo’ or ‘Gosh You’re an Almighty Force of Love in a Tiny Slippery Package’.

But, really. It’s a miracle no matter how you look at it.

That our vessels flop about, then Lo and Behold: intact, breathing, perfection. Born from meager whims and ill-controlled urges: man and woman hotly united, coolly disengaged. We settle in to poach helically entwined nucleotide memories made deep within, nourished with our breathed-in air and hard-sought sustenance, for 40 weeks and create rapt perfection.

Then the body bursts open.

Bloody, ripped, and glorious, with the emergence of a fully-formed human being. Of course it was to be expected; we were, after all, expecting. Yet the urgency of simultaneously multiplying and dividing, forever altering the course of a life by creating new life, both devastates and scintillates.

Back down the windy driveway at the farm, the questions about creation and peril endlessly percolate, and stark are the contrasts which brew. How can this state of absolute grace exist in the same realm with What the Hell Have I Done and, moreover, What Now?? And: How do I protect something this small? How do I keep them alive? Provide for their future? Not mess up their mind entirely? Magically, inside of me, I could protect my child by covering their skin with vernix, so as to not damage them with the amniotic waters in which they were held. Now, they’re on the outside. What cover will protect them from me, my world, or this world?

We fumbled and flounced about.

On any given day, who was to know what was working and what was not. We moved between art camp, soccer practice, talked about goals and fears; we kept an open mind, practiced spelling, and avoided gravel. Thank goodness for courses, books, adages, idioms, wives’ tales, and foreboding myths of assured doom. I took it all in. It began with my first parenting course, taught by a lovely couple of small town gals, later showing up as my child’s kindergarten and grade two teachers. That course:what an eye opener. The other moms did not know the difference between happy gravel and angry gravel. I kept my examples of parenting challenges strictly on the up and up, whitewash: paramount for small town survival.

And I watched you.

…Your face lit up with joy when your first pea plant sprouted and burst through the crusty spring soil, crushed when that the bumble bee you patted turned its stinger on you.

I listened to you.

Stories never ending of civilizations shaped and shattered, reflections of your small world captured in your daily musings: my heart bounded to your heart forever.

I fretted for you.

You: fraught with tenderness, acuity, and potency, reeling in the undercurrent of a family stitched together from modest amusement, bloated ideals, that never intended to stick, only to start. Fretted until your dad and I could no longer see eye to eye on the sound of gravel. With a final spew, we watched as he extricated himself from our lives …all that lingered was the shadow-sound keeping us on edge, ever-wondering.

Then they do it. They emerge.

From utter dependence, from cellular entanglement, my blood running in your veins, to intact and independent entities. Carrying around their own shells, thinking their own thoughts, making themselves into whomever they choose to become. I’ve witnessed four of them following this same pattern, and every one of them kept bits and pieces of my heart, my soul, and my essence tucked in amongst the lobes of their liver or mixed in with photographs in taped-up moving boxes. Sure, they started making their own blood cells and decisions long, long ago – I mean, the human body replaces its entire cellular complement every seven years or so, but I still feel like they are me walking around.

But that’s the rub of motherhood.

Like mycorrhizal network under the soil, you give life and nourishment to the forest but remain unseen, underground. You help them stand strong, battered by the elements, yet reaching far into the sky soaking up sunshine and rain. The best testament to your job well done is their absence. As they move on, confident, intact, even brazen sometimes. It’s shocking to witness—and heartbreaking and enthralling.

That first born, she is now my daughter. Unfathomably courageous, confident, and intact. She steps boldly into life, creates community, tends the daily fires, and holds hearts so softly – perhaps the vernix worked after all.

With the lavish murk and emotion accompanying motherhood on any given day, it’s a miracle we don’t bust wide open, and mimic that first wrenching moment of selfhood, divided. How funny it was of me to have fantasized how life would return to normal once I had completed my parental work. How I’d pick up all my old passions and pastimes with my obvious glut of free time (parental work is a consumptive obsession chewing through scads and scads of time). But it changes us, spreading our cells and our selves around the world. We birth new humans not just in our offspring but in ourselves as well. Those old passions and pastimes were fine back then, but now I’ve a forest of beings to watch in wonder.

The Pretenders

I am shaken
by the familiar and turbulent racket
awakening in me,
Shaking dreams from my hair,
scrubbing them from my skin.

Stale, I stare
At the gentle curves and crevices of my nakedness
At every pimple, spot, and dot
Every freckle, mark, and scar.
Every imperfection
Every breathing piece of art.

But to the others, the oh-so perfect others,
who swarm with their so-called wisdom,
I’m just a pretender and
To survive, I conform.

I lay silent and adjusted,
But I am just too fucking loud.
I am the familiar and turbulent racket
A pretender with an eggshell mind,

Afraid of the limp and the cane
The deaf listening for love,
The trans without a dress,
The addict without a needle,
The sad without a blade,

We are all the pretenders, we are all
The turbulent racket.

Facing the Dread of Editing

Finishing a piece of writing makes every writer’s day.  Finally, all the hard work and effort has paid off and there’s something to show for the hours spent typing away at the keyboard or scribbling into a notebook.  It’s in the first few moments after completing a piece where fantasies of publication and talk show appearances flood into the mind. These, however, are often halted by thoughts of editing.

In my opinion, the revision process is where writing really begins.  It forces critical evaluation of a piece and ensures every word is placed with purpose.  Given a chance, revision can be a lot of fun, perhaps even more than the initial draft. Unfortunately, the revision stage is often where enthusiasm drops and self-criticism kills a writer’s pride and love for their piece.

Perhaps the hardest part about the revision process is starting. It becomes clear the “completed” project is nowhere close to done and its flaws seem to fly off the page. Revision can be discouraging and many pieces of writing never make it past this stage, but this doesn’t have to be the case. If approached with the right mindset, self-editing isn’t just beneficial writing practice, but enjoyable as well.

As a rule, I never attempt to revise writing I have just completed or am currently proud of. When I’m in the honeymoon face with a piece of writing it’s hard to be critical and know where it’s successful and where it may fall flat. Having to remove sections or pages that took hours to write is demoralizing and makes writing feel like a waste of time. This is why it’s important to create distance with a piece before approaching it to edit. This may mean waiting a few days between drafts or starting on a new project so the last doesn’t seem as precious.

If self-editing becomes relentless self-criticism, then the revision process is futile and more discouraging than anything. Being able to look critically (but fairly) at personal writing is a skill that like all other aspects of writing takes time to develop. If self-editing does nothing but discourage a writer, then perhaps it’s best to begin by leaving the editing to others. This is where writing workshops are invaluable as they promote encouraging discussions on how a piece is successful and where it can be improved.

The revision process can come across as the “boogeyman” of writing. It’s the area where hesitation loves to take hold and self-doubts run rampant. Not every writer will enjoy editing, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be painful. It’s a matter of finding what strategies work for you and using them to transform a good piece of writing into a strong piece of writing.

In the Land of Dick & Honey

When I became fatherless at twelve years old due to Daddy’s intoxicated joyride that led to his wrapped around a telephone pole death, my fate became clear. I would grow up as Honey Paterson, absentee of father-daughter dances, punchline of prostitute and stripper jokes, and likely future gold-digger with an unshakeable daddy complex. Of course, my first name didn’t help with the stripper jokes, but Mom and Dad were baby-boomers and still had waves of LSD and tie-dye pulsating from their inner cores when I was born. It was only obvious that they would name me after the succulent nectar created in bee hives or something equally as hippie.

“So, what’s your name?” says Dick, or John, or whatever the hell he said his name was five minutes ago. Let’s just call him Dick. He puts his glass mug to his hairy lip and inhales lots of foam and some beer. His older friend’s eyes flicker from my breasts to my eyes, then right back down to my breasts. Apparently, he’s searching for some erotic secret embedded in the large milk-sacks that are biologically fused to my chest.

“Honey,” I say, crossing my arms over my cleavage to block his pervert vision. I catch myself right away, uncrossing them quickly. Don’t wanna give him the pleasure of knowing he skeeves me out. Old guys at the Drunken Fuck always seem to get off on female discomfort. (Really called the Drunken Duck, but this name seems more accurate, don’tchathink?)

They both look at one another, then back at me, Dick stares into my eyes – I didn’t know real guys actually did that – the old one looks back down to my milk lumps, and then they look back at each other again. After a minute, my two new friends shrug, laugh, clink glasses, and chug their beers.

I turn my stool towards the bar. In front of me is a row of bottles – Sourpussy, Captain Blow’s, Swearnoff, Go-Down Royal, and the likes. Each potion holds a special power. Want a fruity drink that’ll satisfy your sister without getting her annoying-blackout? A mini jug of Malibu and pineapple juice will keep her busy and just a little dizzy! Wanna get the broad you’ve been flirting with to take you home and drop her panties? Buy her five shots of Milagro and her mouser is yours! Think you need to take ‘er easy because you work at eight the next morning and can’t be puking in front of your new superintendent? Order an Extra Spicy Caesar for added kick without the chack! But, if a girl wants a man to meet her, love her, and stay with her, what potion can she mix for that? I have yet to find that mixture for Honey’s Book of Spells and Potions, but I guess I’ll continue searching.

“Can I get two shots of Absolut?” I yell, loud enough so that the bartender can hear me over the blasting Shania Twain. Party for Two? Nah. Honey Paterson would never be so lucky. For three? Sure. Both of my new friends scoot their stools closer to me so that our bodies form a delightful triangle of suffocating proximity. Beer spills onto the counter and my black Walmart heels.

“Actually, make it four shots,” I say, rubbing my wet foot on the back of my calf. “And give me a slice of lime.”

Agh! The taste of hand sanitizer burns the back of my nose. Luckily, that was the fourth shot. I’m done. And I’m feeling less anxious, thank God. Sticking the meat of the lime between my lips, I suck on the sour juice. The sour dilutes the sanitizer taste, but not completely. My mouth is still stale.

The Old Pervy Guy left his seat in our threefold of suffocation to go prey on a group of librarian-looking college girls (not the sexy kind). Dick is still here, though. It’s somewhat easier to breathe. Somewhat. Dick’s doing that thing where he stares into my eyes with his own cocoa-brown eyes, but unlike the fun and flirty female lead of the current most popular RomCom, I just get weird about it. I start picking at the hole in my jeans to avoid the whole situation. When I bought these stupid things at the Sally Ann, the hole was about the size of a quarter on the centre of my knee. Now, the hole’s extended towards my inner thigh and stops about three inches away from my crotch. The pants shriek class.

“So, what’s your story, Honey?”

I assume he’s using my first name, though he could certainly be using the pet name. Guys at the Thirsty Fuck are famous for their “baby”-, “honey”-, “sweety”-, and, really, “anything that ends in a Y”-nicknames.

“Mmmm. It’s not very interesting. What about you?”

“Ohhh, I’m not gonna let you off that easy.”

“Oh…?” I say as more of a question than a statement. I’m obviously aiming to charm him with my lack of confidence and slight hint of idiocy. Good one, Hon.

“No way!” he says, not letting up. “C’mon…Tell me your story, you mysterious-beautiful-dark-haired-and-kinda-mean lady!” He sets his beer down on the counter, making a real point that he’s not moving from his barstool anytime soon. I flinch when he says beautiful.

Not seeing any way out, I sigh and tell him, “I grew up with my mom and siblings in Nelson, graduated high school I guess, um, let me see, five years ago, went to UBCO for just over a year then moved here to get back to the Kootenays, have been cleaning rooms at the Super 8 for- for- for three years now, I guess. Huh… Three years already? Yeah. Crazy. Now you.” Exhaling, I look down at my hands. Goddammit, I wish I ordered a real drink instead of shots. Then at least I’d have something to do with these stupid gangly appendages.

“Hmm. Alright, but I’m not done with you. You said UBCO, right? Okanagan?” I nod my head, and he continues, “Well, I grew up in Kelowna for most my life. Moved there when I was four, but we moved back when I was eighteen, just after high school. Dad’s an engineer, Mom’s a nurse, and I’ve been working as an electrician here for about five or six years now. I’m surprised I’ve never seen you.”

He’s sitting close enough now that he can tap my knee. He does, but then he folds his hands together and places them on his own lap. I half-expected him to keep his hand on my knee, maybe even shimmy it up my lap a bit. But he doesn’t. Surprising move, Dick. Surprising move.

My shoulders relax a little bit.

He continues onto another chapter of his life story, saying, “Oh, yeah. So, after I left Kelowna, I studied English Lit at Mount Royal University for a while. You know, in Calgary? Three years I was there. But I ran out of money and thought, ‘Hey, why get myself into debt when I could make some bank?’ And so here I am. Twenty-eight-and-a-half and running my own electrical business. Became a journeyman through Teck and branched off into some contracting a couple years ago. Honestly, I couldn’t be happier about where I am.” He chuckles when he says make some bank as if there’s some secret, brilliant joke behind the needless idiom rather than mere capitalist-greed and insufferable douchery.

I smile with my mouth but nothing else.

I ditched Dick about an hour ago, made my rounds with the Drunken Fuck regulars, sang “Crazy Bitch” during karaoke hour with my sort-of-friend from work, Fran, ordered three Pornstars and a few different drop-shots that tasted like cotton candy, orange juice, and ass, peed about eight-hundred-and-twenty-four million times, and finally, started walking out the back door just as Old Guy, Dick’s friend from before, came strutting up to me. We’re standing by the pool table, now, he in his Ed Hardy t-shirt and me in my nips almost popping out of it leather corset. Great pair.

“Honey, is it? That your real name, baby?”

“No, I was just shitting you before. Name’s Anne-Marie.”

His eyebrows go up, then down, then up again. “For real?”

“No.”

“Hm.”

“Honey. Capital H.”

Old Guy grins with his teeth. “Alright, then, Honey,” he says. “My name’s Richard. But you can call me Dick for short.” His strong grip shakes my limp hand. Then he winks and says, “Or long.” He links his fingers through mine and doesn’t let go, holding my hand tight.

Gross. And of course his name is Dick. Why wouldn’t it be Dick? Dicky-Dicky-Dick. Dicky-Dickson. Daddy Dickson with a capital D. Devil Dick. Dicky Two. The perfect, perfect Dick for a fatherless me. I squeeze his hand as hard as I can. “Nice to meet you, too, Dad.” I say the words, but I don’t really feel them.

Dad?” he chuckles, squeezing my hand back, but only to make a point. Dick Two doesn’t want to hurt sweet little Honey Pie with the childish eyes.

“Ain’t no dads around here,” Dick Two continues. “I ain’t even have a dad anymore. You, sweetheart, certainly ain’t got a dad, and I ain’t being no dad.”

I smile as politely as I can, unlink my fingers from his grip, and say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

“Oh, baby. I’m just playin’. Come here.” He leans towards me, dragging his hand along my hip, all the way to the back to grab my ass.

I dig my nails into his wrist, removing his grip from my butt-cheek. I say, “Anyway, I was just leaving. Have a great night,” and push my way through the Drunken Fuck back door without looking back. I don’t want to see Daddy Dick’s blue eyes change colour. There’s something about walking away from a guy that makes his eyes turn black.

 

“Hey, you slut!” he says. I keep walking. Taking my Walmart heels off, I carry them under my sweaty armpits. There are blister bubbles on the heel and pad of my left foot. They squish up when I walk. Electric pain shoots up my leg. The boning of my corset digs into my hipbone. It rubs. And rubs. Keeps rubbing until the skin feels raw.

“Too good for me, huh? Just too damn good for me! I saw the way you were walking around the bar, like you, like you fucking owned the place! Little DRUNKEN DUCK PRINCESS! You drunk NOW, honey? Or still THIRSTY? I saw the way you were looking at me… HEY!”

His voice is getting louder. Meaner. I walk faster. The blister on the pad of my foot is pierced by a small, sharp rock. It pops open and blister juice squirts between my toes.

“You should’ve listened,” he whispers in my ear. “Should’ve just stayed and talked to me like a nice girl.”

His hand is on my throat. The coarse hairs of his beard scratch against the side of my face. Spit spews when he talks. My cheek is damp from his saliva. It stinks. Bad breath and stale beer. Cherry Blackstones. Rage.

I turn my eyes from side to side. No one is around. No one will be. We’re behind the Kootenay Market. There are only a few houses in this part of town. No one is up. It’s past three in the morning, maybe even later than four. Shouldn’t have stayed out so late. Nobody around. He presses me up against the cold concrete wall, digs his beard into the side of my neck, and inhales.

“Please,” I say, trying to make my voice full. “Just let me g-”

“SHUT UP,” he yells, slamming my back against the wall. My shoulder blades shudder.

Making my voice a bit stronger, I speak. “But-”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP, YOU BITCH,” slamming me again. He leans in as if to smell me again, but he just keeps his face there, instead, his nose digging into my neck. I feel moisture in my neck crease. Is that spit? Sweat? Tears?

My eyes are wet. Hopefully he doesn’t look into them and notice. I blink. Three times. Eight times. It doesn’t help. Just when I think I’ve gotten rid of all the tears, more tears appear. His sweater is getting wet. Wet. Wetter. The grey material turns black where the tears hit.

Suddenly, he begins sobbing into my shoulder. His cries make me shiver. I can barely hear what he’s saying.

With a wet, gummy mouth, he continues murmuring, “It’s not your fault… I’m just taking it out on you… He did that to me, you know?” – a snot bubble forms around his nostril and pops – “My dad wasn’t just an engineer, Honey… He was a mean guy, too. Creepy, sometimes. I swear I wouldn’t be like this otherwise. I’m sorry for everything, but you forgive me, don’t you? You forgive me, and understand that it wasn’t my fault? Nothing actually happened…You forgive me, right?” He’s down on his knees now, his forehead digging into my lower stomach. He looks up. His eyelashes glisten with wetness.

I look into his eyes, trying to tap into the empathetic part of my brain. Try to see goodness, I tell myself. Try to see what you saw before. But his eyes don’t look so chocolatey anymore. They are awful things. Shitty things. They are shit. He is shit. Shit shit shit. Dick One’s eyes are a shitty shit-brown.

“I don’t forgive you,” I say, and his eyes turn from shit to black.

The Weight of a Woman

Birth: 5 lbs, 13 oz.

I was born in 1963, snuggled between the voluptuousness of Marilyn Monroe and the androgyny of Twiggy.  I didn’t know I had an insidious “weight genie” with me, one whose judgment was based on my every pound.  She was proud I had started life tiny. The less of me, the better.  She did not care I had arrived before my due date, that my start was unhealthy.  With her help, I would quickly find my place among the army of women who were burning their bras while standing on a bathroom scale.

12 – 14 years old: 90 – 108 lbs

My family moved into a new house.  Along with the luxury of a dishwasher, was an innocuous bathroom scale. My weight genie turned that scale tyrannical, forcing my mother, sisters, and I to stand stiffly at attention. At least once a day, but often more, waiting for confirmation that we were either rightly or wrongly sized.   My dad did not seem spellbound in the same way, checking his weight every so often just to remind himself that he did not need to care.  As puberty crept upon me with its added pounds, I started eating less at breakfast only to surrender to ravenous hunger by eating my lunch on the bus before getting to school.  I became a woman amongst the monthly cycle of menses and the daily cycle of hunger and satiety.

16 years old- 117 lbs (on a good day)

I decided to surprise my boyfriend.  Our love was rapturous and volatile.  Although he was sleeping, I had a key to his basement suite.  I quietly entered, turning the corner to his bedroom, only to be stopped cold by the glamourous stare of Cheryl Tiegs above my boyfriend’s bed.  I was enraged by her casual poster pose with her thumb hooked into her barely-there pink bikini bottom.  Her provocative body challenged me to compare myself to the perfect hybrid of Marilyn and Twiggy.  Unlike the fake plastic of Barbie, I knew Cheryl was all too real and must be eliminated from my boyfriend’s dreams.   In a well-orchestrated ambush, I leapt across the room and yanked Cheryl off the wall, violently tearing her into little pieces hoping to erase my inadequacy.

20-24 years old- 117- 140 lbs

I moved away from home to go to University and finally cut the umbilical cord with the scale.  It was a master I could never please. My fleeting moments of satisfaction did not justify our continued relationship.  I was taking control of my life. Sadly, throwing out the scale did not mean throwing away my judgment.  Although I didn’t know my daily weight, mirrors become my substitute obsession. Even more dangerous, new friends become my point of reference.  This was the 1980s, anorexia and bulimia were the new fashion statements on campus.

I was living with one of my girlfriends, her after supper vomiting became a ritualized point of tension between us.  I stood outside the locked bathroom door listening to her wretch and begging her to stop.  Her ability to use her fingers as a weapon against herself showed a pseudo sense of bravery I was thankfully incapable of, despite having tried a few times.  My other girlfriend was a grown woman and the size of an eleven-year-old, except for her discreet but noticeable breasts.  She was desired by men and women alike.  I knew this goddess of womanhood bore her own cross, surviving on cigarettes, carrots and apple cider vinegar.  I was jealous of her, even with her orange tinge glow.

It was during those years I hit the pinnacle of my own yo-yo dieting.  Garnering my willpower to live on black coffee and salad only to crash into packing on pounds of ice-cream sandwiches and vodka paralyzers.

Early 30s- 112-115 lbs

I met a man.  My weight stabilized. Not necessarily because I was stable but because I was active and eating right and most importantly, believed I must maintain a certain weight to be loved.

38- 41 years old- 113-140 lbs

I was having babies. For some women, this is a time to escape the chains of the weight genie overlord. Not me. I carefully counted calories over three pregnancies.  In fact, I secretly relished the astonishment of people when I told them I was four months pregnant with my second child and they hadn’t noticed.  Unlike the first and third, this baby left my body before she was born. It had nothing to do with my weight but the guilt lingered. I was more worried about how much exercise I was getting than the baby who was not forming inside of me.

44- 49 years oldweight unknown, variable               

I was separating from my common-law partner.  The burden of being alone with my young son and daughter, a full-time job, and a move to a different town plummeted my weight to the lowest it had been in a decade.  I did not have time to care. As the sadness and stress of single parenting wore me down, the weight of my life attached to my body.  I went through a daily gin & tonic phase before I brushed away the fog around me and found myself again.  There was a bit more of me than usual.

50s- 120- 130 lbs

Just when I started to feel healthy again, menopause jolted me into hot flashes and rolls of skin above my jeans which appeared regardless of how skinny the fit.  As my body slowly softened and sagged, my weight genie introduced me to her sister – the age genie.   Together, they have taunted my naïve hope of someday relaxing into shapeless clothes, wisdom and wrinkles. Instead, they have presented me with a litany of self-loathing that will add weight to my grave and survive through multiple reincarnations of my womanly self.  Hopefully I do not need to be tiny to make those journeys.

Does this Count as a Journal?

Journaling sounds like an activity free of the self-criticism and doubts that seem to flood other aspects of writing. Perhaps this is the case, but I’ve still found myself struggling with the question of what makes a proper writing journal.

I have a stack of notebooks, all bought with the intention of being my first journal. Each one I’ve finished is full of random quotes, miscellaneous observations, usually a few tea stains, and pages of ideas that likely won’t go anywhere. Is that really what a journal is supposed to be? How have the pages I’ve filled with movie quotes, disagreements with friends, or favorite recipes helped my writing ability? If that is all a journal is then, what’s the point? Seeing as I just wrote “Can this Count as a Journal?” on the cover of my latest notebook, it’s clear I still have yet to find the answers to these questions.

Maybe journaling is simply a foundation to begin a writing habit. But does that mean I need to fill each page with the best prose I can think up or the most creative writing prompts I can find online? What about those random story ideas that always seem to come at the most inconvenient of times? Is a journal too sacred to hold those often absurd thoughts?

Perhaps a proper journal lies closer to what a diary is. Maybe it’s strictly a place to share my deepest secrets, daily annoyances, current stressors, or recent heartbreaks. If the whole point is to take the time to write, then a four-page rant about uncle must be seen as a successful entry. Still, I could have spent that time adding to a short story I’m trying to finish. Besides, whenever I try to record the events of my life, I just make everything up. There goes the idea of a journal being a reliable way to look back on my past.

I have been trying and failing to write a proper journal since the age of five. Maybe this is because I have been trying to write a proper journal. I think the truth is that a journal can be whatever a writer wants it to be. For some, it may be a collection of their secrets and for others, it could it could be pages of nonsensical ideas. Like the first draft of a new story, a journal is a place where an author’s imagination is free to roam the pages without restriction. Perhaps my only problem with journaling has been failing to see that I’m already doing it.

February

February is my least favourite month.  Everything about it is wrong.  It is the runt of the calendar’s litter.  But it survives despite its’ twenty-eight, short dark days (and just to be difficult, twenty-nine in a leap year to nudge that little extra bit of winter).  As soon as Wharton Willy makes his appearance and determines whether I will be depressed for six more weeks or whether Mother Nature will bless me with an early Spring, the inescapable dread of shopping for family birthday presents starts to grip me.

My mother and two older twin sisters, Sarah and Kyla, were born on February 20th and 21st.  There was an orchestrated karmic wand that allowed this trifecta to exist.  The thirty-two-year age difference was a small obstacle for this trinity of likeness with their lithe bodies, strawberry blonde hair and hazel eyes just like my mother.   The equilibrium of my parent’s home became unbalanced upon my unexpected arrival when the twins were seven.  Not only did I arrive alone in the midday heat of August, I came out short and stocky with dark curly hair like my father instead of the preferred likeness of my mother.  I became daddy’s little girl by default. My Leo and his Libra were a formidable duo, riding bikes, playing tennis and in quieter moments snuggled in blankets on the couch watching Hockey Night in Canada, my dad drinking beer while I drank ginger ale.

Since I was nine, I have been obsessed with finding the perfect birthday presents for my mother and sisters.  My frugal offerings were received with mixed enthusiasm but I persisted in my efforts to be accepted into their tribe. When I turned twenty, I started saving money from my job as a cashier at the local grocery store so I could bestow more lavish gifts.  Acceptance was a costly endeavour. As the February that my sisters turned thirty crawled into view, I dutifully rose above my hatred of shopping and reluctantly walked to the mall.  I was welcomed by the harshness of fake lights as I entered the bright, cheery stores.

My first stop was the Dollar Store for cards.  After reading countless “Happy Birthday to a Loving Mother” and “To a Special Sister”, I found three cards which were not too cheesy, not too insulting, and not too sweet.  Next stop, jewellery store.  I had decided on jewellery, even though I did not understand the need to be constantly adorned. My sisters were both accountants in their own firm and my mother worked as the Human Resources Manager at the University of British Columbia. Wardrobe and trinkets can transform an ordinary woman into a superwoman, according to the tenets of my mother.  I have never understood what is wrong with being an ordinary woman.

As soon as I passed the threshold of the jewellery store, an overly pleasant middle-aged woman with short blond hair and a perfectly pressed black pant suit sidled up to me with a pasted-on smile and a curt “May I help you?”.

“Yes, I’m looking for three necklaces, for family birthday presents. Not too expensive and I want to be able to pick the colors of the stones”

At the “not too expensive,” the salesperson directed me to a display case near the back of the store.  “These Birthstone Family Tree necklaces are quite popular.  They have a sterling silver chain with birthstones placed on the branches of the tree, which hangs inside the oval pendant.  They are $89.99 each but if you buy three I’m sure I can give you a discount,” she rattled off with an unenthusiastic tone.  I think she doubted my ability to pay after sizing up my unkempt hair, tattered grey hoodie, well-worn jeans, and dirty sneakers.

“That sounds perfect,” I replied, proud I had stumbled upon these gifts so easily.

“What color of stones do you want and how do you want them arranged?”

“Three amethysts and one peridot. Put the peridot in the middle of the centre branch surrounded by the amethysts in a semi-circle.” I smiled at the thought of finally being in the center of my family.

I paid and left as fast as I could, almost sprinting into the outdoors. I daydreamed about my mother and sisters overjoyed with my unique gifts.

My mother had planned a birthday dinner at her condominium– just the girls, she said.  I don’t think she had much patience for Sarah’s twin two-year old boys or Kyla’s six-month old baby girl.  Mom never embraced the messiness of grandchildren.  She had also given up cooking family meals, so Chinese takeout with lots of wine became our dinner plans.  I decided to add an extra layer of surprise to my birthday presents by baking a Duncan Hines Chocolate Fudge cake with ready-made frosting.  Not fancy, but it’s the thought that counts, right?

Although I arrived on time for the party, my mother, Sarah and Kyla were already well into the festivities. My mother thanked me for the dessert as she led me through the kitchen but said she would probably freeze it as she had decided to special order a lemon sponge cake with cream cheese icing and white chocolate shavings.

“It’s ok,” I said, feeling somewhat deflated before I even ventured into the living room. Sarah and Kyla were huddled together on the leather couch, high heels off and feet tucked under them. My mother soon joined them at the other end of the couch.  I sat across from them in the worn recliner my father used to fall asleep in.  It was the only reminder of my dad in the house.

Seeing that chair always brought me back to the last time I saw my dad, just a few months before my ninth birthday. My mother and sisters had gone shopping and my dad had taken our dog and small aluminum boat to launch at the nearby dock for fishing.  It was a postcard clear, blue-sky June day.  He asked me to go with him but I came up with an excuse as I was secretly making us friendship bracelets. I was planning to give him his bracelet in September as a birthday gift.  I finished the bracelets that day, weaving his favourite colors of green and brown through wooded beads.  Neither of us ever wore them.

My mother burst through the back door of our house shortly after lunch, ashen-faced with mascara tears, my sisters silent and equally ashen behind her. She had gotten a call from my dad’s friend, Rick, who was out fishing when he heard a distress call for a drifting boat. Rick said dad must have had a major heart attack and died instantly.  I had a heart attack that day too, but instead of dying I momentarily disintegrated.  Amid the chaos of a house blown down, no one seemed to notice my disappearance.  I reappeared after tightly tying the bracelets together and placing them gently under my sobbing wet pillow.  I still cannot sleep unless those bracelets are curled together under my head.

The hurricane of grief that battered my family left me standing alone behind an emotional fence.  Even after our household repaired itself, my mother and sisters treated me like an object found among the wreckage.  Something you take home and care for out of proprietary obligation.   This did not quell my yearning to weave myself into their inner circle.  I laughed and cried with them but the subtle glances without words they exchanged did not include me.  I quickly learned lions cannot swim with fish. I wanted to hike the outdoors and swim in the lake.  My mother and sisters wanted to hike the malls and suntan on the sand with their makeup on.

My memories were interrupted by Sarah’s sarcastic greeting of “Hi twerp.”  I shot a half scowl towards her.  “Why are you so late?” Kyla added

“I’m not, I was told 6 pm.”

“Oops, my fault,” my mother piped in.  “I called Sarah and Kyla yesterday to come at 5;00 instead.  I meant to call you too, but it must have slipped my mind.  You know how that happens sometimes.”

“Sure,” I said, half-heartedly.

The doorbell rang for the Chinese food delivery.  After eating spring rolls, ginger beef and Shanghai noodles we cleared off the coffee table for gifts.  I added my store wrapped boxes to the pile.  The three of them opened their presents simultaneously, like a well-executed theatrical performance, everyone connected and in sync.  I eagerly awaited the praise for my thoughtfulness.

Sarah, as usual, spoke first, “Thanks Annie, very sweet,” she said and quickly set the necklace back inside its box, instinctively closed the lid and stacked it upon the same boxes opened by my mother and Kyla.  My mother gave me an air hug with a “thank-you,” and Kyla just smiled at me, exclaiming “how quaint.”  They began to chatter hurriedly and excitedly about the pink angora sweaters and miniature diamond bracelets they got each other.

We ate thick pieces of birthday cake while my mother giggled, clinking her glass with Sarah’s and Kyla’s, “To February Birthdays!”

“Annie, since it’s our special day, can you grab more wine from the basement?” Kyla asked somewhat slurring her words. I reluctantly left the coziness of the recliner and retrieved two bottles of white wine.  I had always preferred red, but decided to opt for a ginger ale.

I left the three of them to their merriment shortly after, when Sarah yelled from the kitchen, “Come play cards, Annie, I need someone to beat!”

That was the night I decided not to buy presents for my family anymore.  I instead started to give them standard gift cards.

Since then, those necklaces have found their way back to me.  Kyla died ten years ago in a car accident.  Her husband, disheveled with tears running down his lined face, showed up at my apartment after going through her closet and graciously laid the sealed box with the necklace in my hand.

“Please have it,” he said, “in her memory. I don’t think she ever wore it.”

Soon after, Sarah got divorced and moved to Calgary.  She sent me her necklace in the mail along with a note, “Hoping you can use it since I’m downsizing and only keeping what’s important.”

My mother now has Alzheimer’s and when I went to see her at the extended care home last week, she wagged her finger playfully at me to come closer.  She lifted the blanket on her lap and pulled out a box with the necklace.  “Happy Birthday, Annie!” she exclaimed, even though it was not my birthday.

It was only February.

I Am Mine

It had been several days since I had eaten and my hands had began to shake with a malnourished tick. I anxiously checked my phone for the 5th time in the last ten minutes. I stood downtown, beneath an awning, sheltered from the rain, holding my breath as I waited to hear from my medicine man. I could feel the cold sweats creeping up each of my limbs as my nervous system ran wild. Finally, the chime of a delivered text message rang through my ears and with absolute relief I saw that he was on his way. Waiting for a drug dealer to arrive while in the midst of opiate withdrawal is essentially purgatory since those who take up that line of work, at least in my experience, aren’t all that concerned with time management. Five minutes is usually fifteen, minimum, and twenty minutes could be anywhere from 30 to a few hours. On this particular day my guy had his shit together and got to me reasonably quick. Upon seeing his beat-up, old and dusty, Ford 4×4 pull up beside me, my heart filled with tainted warmth. A soiled sense of shadowy satisfaction washed over me as the utter relief of his arrival subsided. His car smelt of rancid spilt coffee and the back seat was filled with spent lottery tickets. He was a decrepit, aging man with a patchy beard and stains covering his ancient white t-shirt. I had come to know this man and his troubled past through many brief conversations during encounters such as these over the course of the last year or so. He often shared stories of gambling, drinking, and love lost. He reminded me of Charles Bukowski; deep wrinkles covered his face and his breath smelt of liquor. After handing over the money, he reached inside his filthy pockets and brought forth 2 pills. I noticed how disgusting his hands were. His finger nails were encrusted with dirt and I couldn’t help but think about the thin film of oily residue that now most likely coated my drugs. I took them anyways. I was sick and consumed with the prospect of temporary nirvana. The problem was that paradise had recently taken shape as basic normality and the lush jungle I once escaped to had now been clear-cut to make way for a barren wasteland. This existential sense of transparency and subsequent lust for controlled demolition had become so intrinsic to my daily life that any deviation felt like shoes several sizes too small.

I exited the cab of his mobile rust-bucket and made my way in to the belly of downtown Castlegar. My pickup truck had recently fallen ill and was in the process of being mended with a diagnosis yet to be deciphered. In the mean time, I had taken to using my long board in order to get around. I pushed forward along the rigid veins of asphalt I had traveled my whole life, in search of somewhere to take refuge and indulge. I passed my high school, a place wherein I had mastered the art of mask making in order to hide the anxious artist within me from the jocks I was friends with and the pretty girls I slept with. I still needed somewhere to melt and my legs were beginning to tire from a days worth of longboarding. Zuckerberg’s Island was no more than five minutes away and I remembered that there were bathrooms they left open during the spring time for tourists and locals out enjoying the serene island landscape. The bathroom was in stark contrast to the calm, misty spring weather. As I entered, the light flickered and hummed. The room smelled of faint cedar and commercial cleaning solution. I put down my backpack and for the first time in so long I was aware of the situation I was in… Locked inside a bathroom, with a racing heart and broken, knowing that this despair, if only for a moment, would become a little less dark once I reached in to my pocket and took the pill. I hadn’t had this sort of self-reflection or awareness in quite sometime. Even stranger was the fact that it was being met by this familiar voice telling me I deserved better. I shook loose these promising thoughts quickly as any consideration of what could be would force me to face what currently is. I returned to my inner journey towards a moment altered. From my backpack I took out a large hardcover book filled with grey-scale photography to be used as my surface. This was accompanied by a small kitchen knife as the pills needed to be chopped and refined in to a fine powder. Now pulverised, I drew a card from my wallet, and proceeded to scrape the ivory shavings into neat lines. I rolled a fifty dollar bill in to a tight cylinder and inhaled sharply as I drew it along one of the albino columns. Within less than a minute I felt a familiar wave of comfort and relaxation gently ripple me. I had been waiting for this with such eager anticipation but my previous thoughts of hope and who I could one day be began to come back. I tried to get back to where I wanted to be, but I couldn’t get away from the fact that my consciousness was hell-bent on bringing my attention to what it felt I needed to hear. I stood up and stared in to the mirror and saw a face I could barely recognize. Dark bags weighed my eyes down from restless nights spent partying and my unkept facial hair reminded me of the man I recently saw. My muscles had atrophied in to fragile paper mâché. I had become a ghost. My body, mind, and soul exhausted from the constant chase, and ever-present weight, of addiction. Who had I become?

I sat there contemplating the last few years and soon enough I was faced with the fact that the drugs were beginning to wear off. My gaze became transfixed on the book cover concealed beneath the powdered death I had purchased, processed, and consumed. Almost out of nowhere, like a match struck within a dark cave, I realized it had been so long since I had seen the photos that graced its many pages. I needed to immerse myself in the creation of something simple, yet, divinely inspirational. At some point in history I had lost track of where my priorities lay, and it felt so exceptionally sublime to know in that brief slice of time that art was the answer. In order to view those photos, I needed to sacrifice the substance that I knew would give me a brief escape from the life I had systematically destroyed. Life, it seems, is broken up in to countless, seemingly tiny and insignificant moments, where we are faced with the choices that add up to who we are and what we stand for. In this moment I chose life. I chose art. I chose, for one split second, whilst floating in the middle of a vast sea of self-pity and destruction to carefully flip open the book, covered in my soul’s undoing, and watch as the powder fell, like winter’s snow, in to the toilet. This was one of those moments where my entire universe collapsed in on itself from countless possibilities in to one singularity. I flipped through the pages and gazed upon the moments forever captured in gray-scale. I thought about the creative process and wondered about the mind behind the viewfinder; the person behind the trigger. As the pages turned, my sense of intense self-reflection grew. Flashes of monochromatic moments, the photos that made up my life, began to invade my headspace. A dam somewhere out on the fringes of my psyche had blown open and a wave of childhood smiles and teenage angst swirled around the inside of my skull. Deep-rooted feelings of self-hate began to mix alongside long-forgotten self-love. Uncontrollable tears fell against the glossy pages of the book. Everything that I had buried over the last few years had finally given way.

I packed up my things. I couldn’t stand to stay in that bathroom any longer. With bloodshot eyes and sleeves moistened with tears and mucus, I began my journey home. I felt the weight of my backpack straps as they dug in against my shoulders. A garbage can came in to view and with absolute clarity I realized what needed to be done. Without so much as a parting sentiment, I left behind the paraphernalia that had been poisoning me. I refused to look back as I placed my longboard down and began to leave. The songs of my youth sent sacred soundwaves of strength, like nectar for the soul, in to my ears. With everything I had, I pushed forward with a complete devotion to speed and found myself rushing towards a steep hill. I reached the crest of my concrete wave and began to break through to the other side. I had purpose, I had come alive.

The Writing Community

Somehow the idea of chronic isolation and the caricature of the starving artist have become attached to writing. At times it feels as though loneliness is perceived as a rite of passage for want-to-be authors. Although the act of writing itself can be quite isolating, writing as a profession or hobby doesn’t need to be.

Writing is an activity based on relationships – between readers, editors, and other writers. It is this last relationship that is perhaps most important for aspiring authors. In all artistic endeavors, but especially writing, it’s vital to create a community where beginners and those well-rehearsed in the craft can come together and support each other. The isolated writer may be a trope, but it doesn’t have to be a reality.

Writing communities are built on mutual respect for each other’s work and the communal goal of improvement. They allow for a safe environment to share work and seek new perspectives and ideas. Being a part of a community takes a writer out of their own head (and story) and helps keep them grounded in the knowledge of why they write and who they write for.

The experience of sharing a creative pursuit with others can combat much of the loneliness that often accompanies long days at the keyboard. The job of a writer is not just to construct captivating tales of heroic deeds or horrible battles, but to pass on and encourage the craft of storytelling. This isn’t something accomplished through isolation.

Perhaps writers will forever be thought of as brooding souls looking for a way to write themselves out of their misery, but writing is not a selfish art. It the process of telling stories, yes, but also of inspiring others to carry on the tradition. This is something accomplished through community.

Kootenay Creative: Mistress of Mystery, Deryn Collier

The directions were methodical: Drive down one street, turn at another, then another, then go down a dirt lane, park my car just so. Then I was to enter a gate, traverse a yard, and find a mysterious red door and announce my arrival. Moving slowly, I was nervously hoping that I would be able to complete my mission successfully – to deliver an interview with Kootenay mystery writer Deryn Collier for the Black Bear Review. Bern Fortin, a protagonist in two of her books, ran through my mind as I approached said red door. Would I find a hunky Afghan war veteran lurking about?  The door opened, and my anxiety dissipated as Deryn greeted me with a warm smile. Far from the troubled small town coroner in her mysteries, Deryn is grounded and friendly. With a great generosity of spirit, she opened up to reveal the alchemy she conjures when creating intriguing worlds for mystery aficionados.

Deryn’s open heartedness was apparent in the writing workshop where I first met her.  Held at Mir Center, “Stone’s Throw” was a collaboration between Selkirk College and Eastern Washington University to bring professional writers together with aspiring student writers. Selkirk professors Renee Jackson-Harper and Almeda Glenn Miller made this event happen, and provided this wonderful reward as part of their robust teaching magic. Deryn,  author of Confined Space (Simon  and Schuster 2012) and Open Secret (Simon and Schuster 2014), engaged a room full of student mystery writers with valuable information and encouragement. Later on, when the request came to interview a “Kootenay Writer” for the Black Bear Review, I didn’t hesitate to ask specifically for  this assignment.

The space where Deryn writes is enormously important to her, and she has worked hard to earn that space and the time to write. She led me upstairs to a bright and airy studio that was astonishingly lacking in clutter. It emanated a fresh energy that felt as though there was ample room to think and let one’s creativity flow. Deryn’s imagination gets a good work out here. She’s a long way from Montreal, where, as a young girl, she read the Nancy Drew mystery series.

Following the classic young detective sparked a lifelong fascination with the mystery genre. While attending McGill University and enduring a series of different kinds of jobs, she read voraciously, using her work experiences to inspire characters, plots, and settings. When her two sons were young, she continued her passion for reading  and carved out time and space for writing. “I  had to learn to be a real bulldog with my time,” she declared. Now that her sons are pretty much self-sufficient teens, she has manifested precisely the environment she wants for the mystical process of putting imagination to paper. Deryn constructs her writing on pages that she can lay out, much as an architect would lay out drafts for designing a building. She explained,  “For me it’s very physical –  like the having the physical paper out and stretched across eight feet of a table. It just gives my mind and my imagination a place to go. It’s much more than [what one can do on]  a spreadsheet on a laptop, I just don’t feel that same freedom. I have highlighters around; there’s lots of tape or scissors and little cups of all different colored markers. I’m constantly playing with paper to work out my ideas before they go into a story.”

As important as the physical space is to Deryn for her writing,  the places and settings for her Bern Fortin novels are woven with the culture, geography and “place” of the Kootenays. She lives in Nelson now, but previously lived in Creston for 15 years. In the Bern Fortin books, she invented a sort of hybrid Kootenay town called Kootenay Landing. This mythical creation that embodies real Kootenay themes has her readers guessing: “I love that when I’m talking with readers from Nelson, they think it’s Nelson. I had somebody write me [to tell me]  they were convinced it was Invermere. People in Creston of course have taken complete ownership of these books but then they are [asking] why am I moving the streets around? Why am I making it quieter than and actually is? It’s kind of quaint like Nelson but its geography [is]  flat .. I’m definitely playing with the place.”

Taking in the responses from her readers is part of Deryn’s process for writing. When it became clear to her that social media couldn’t provide the right venue for the kind of engagement she wanted with her audience, her solution was to set up a series of back and forth letters with fans through her website. In the letters she wrote, she shared her adventures with her research, photos that inspired her storylines,  and other writing particulars. Readers can sign up to read the archived letters through her website. She advises writers starting out to get feedback on their own writing, through writer’s groups and with those who share a love of the craft.

In addition to creating a physical space and engaging in feedback with her audience, Deryn has developed an array of other strategies to support her writing process. Once she has entered her writing studio, she has a series of things she does before actually focusing in on the project at hand. She turns off the internet and her phone, and might use a special pen.  “ [I have] little habits and little daily practices. First I free write for 10 minutes and then I light a candle and then I put on music and then I start my actual writing for the day. Sometimes those little rituals can take a long time depending on how settled and how ready I am to get into the space of writing.”

Our conversation covered a broad scope of things, including coping with disturbing events in the outside world and challenges in the competitive struggle of publishing. For Deryn, writing is a way of coping. “What the world really needs is stories, and these stories are meant for sharing and we’re all hungry for stories,” she explains. “If you’ve been given the golden ticket that says ‘writer,’ [and]  you know that you’re a writer, then you need to be writing regardless of …  whatever it is. I think it’s important to keep writing and keep getting better at writing and let that [other]  stuff sort itself out.”

As I leave her special writing space, I reflect on her description of it: “I like to think that the story is alive in here. This is where the story lives and I come and go and the stories remain here.” Deryn has several projects in process, and for those of us who can’t wait to read them, we can go to www.deryncollier.com and sign up to be the first to know.