Love is in the Details

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 10.30.34 PMYou’ve been gone a month. Everything I’ve been through in that time, I think, what would you do? How would you react? What decision would you make? The only answer that ever comes is that you wouldn’t hesitate. You would pick a path and follow through. Turn on your blinker, close your eyes and move the wheel. Never look back.

A bad way to drive but a good way to live.

I remember when they told me you had a bad heart. We were sitting in the hospital after they had drained your lungs of fluid the night before. I was wearing a blue silk blouse and brand new white jeans that I had spilled chocolate shavings on that morning from a protein bar. The stains are still there.

I almost laughed, because the statement was so ridiculous. You were all heart. You worried about the fact that I was missing work to be there with you. I held your hand and told you it didn’t matter. I could work from anywhere.

But I didn’t. I downloaded episodes of Golden Girls for you on my iPad and shared sections of The Globe and Mail and pretended not to notice when you fell asleep in front of both. I dealt every hand of 31 because you couldn’t remember how many cards we were supposed to have or what rules to follow. I had a boss who cared and colleagues who understood that I was exactly where I needed to be. There’s a lot to miss these days.

We waited for tests to tell us again what the doctors already knew. That valves were leaking and it was only going to get worse. I was already losing you.

You cried when I left most times. You didn’t understand what was happening and why you couldn’t just come with me. I felt like crying right along with you, because all I wanted to do was walk you out of there. But they told me I couldn’t. Not yet.

I couldn’t then and I couldn’t less than a year later, in a different hospital, in a different city, halfway across the country, when we thought the same thing was happening again. That it would be bad, but you would fight through it. This time I watched you struggle to breathe and see and take a sip of water. I held your hand and told you that you mattered. I told you that I loved you. I wondered if you knew I was saying goodbye. I tried to keep a smile on my face so you’d see only happy things whenever you would, could open your eyes. But I was falling apart every moment they closed because I was afraid of what I realized was coming next.

This isn’t what I want to write about. It’s not what I want to remember. Because the heart part is just bullshit. Because you were the best person who ever lived and loved and touched my life. Because I am better to have known you and worse to have lost you and I find myself somewhere in between, lost and wandering around. I can’t make a choice. I can’t close my eyes. I can’t turn the wheel.

“The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive. I understand this. Nonetheless, I sometimes find it hard to bear.”

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 10.30.50 PMAll I do is go back over the past. What I said. What I did and didn’t do. How we laughed and when we cried. Words are not enough these days, so anything I try to write down about you seems like some cheap Coles notes. The kind that races over the beauty of the original work. You get the gist but not the impact. You can’t reduce a life to fit on the page.

I know this. Nonetheless, I sometimes find it hard to bear.

Here is how I tried, anyway:

(April 8th, 2017. St. Stephen’s-on-the-Hill United Church. Funeral service of remembrance for Irene (Renie) Phyllis Krook nee King. Four loved ones speak. I am the last.)

These are difficult times. The understatement of the year.

I make my living as a writer, so one might assume that figuring out what to say today would come naturally. But, I have never experienced a writer’s block like this. The desert hasn’t gone dry. The ground is flooded and I’m drowning in too much of everything, unable to feel which way is up.

Though I asked to be up here today, the task at hand seems impossible for many reasons. Three in particular come to mind. One is that none of this feels real. My grandmother seems as vibrant and alive in my mind as she did in every room she occupied—so much so that I haven’t been able to grasp her absence. I knew I would be without her one day. But knowing and understanding are very different things.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 10.32.48 PMReason number two is that her presence in my life was constant, my memories of her woven so tightly into the fabric of my being that it’s difficult to pull them out without the whole thing unraveling. Her home in Mississauga was a sanctuary for me and, I would assume, my siblings as well. We grew up there. This is the place where we fought over who got to sit beside Grandma at dinner, in the car, around the high-back chair for story time. She brought in bunk beds for us to sleep in the kids’ room, with a race car bed for my brother. She had porridge ready for me every morning, with raisins and brown sugar, and she always made sure it wasn’t too hot or too cold. In the summertime, she’d show us how to pick berries from the Saskatoon tree and lettuce from the garden, which we’d use to make little wraps (before gluten-free was ever a trend). She’d play games with us in the pool, pretending we were mermaids (my brother, a sea horse) that she would capture and put in the dungeon, from which she always let us escape so the chase could begin again. She told us stories about “the old days” and sang songs with lyrics she couldn’t quite remember, so for the longest time I thought most of the music from that era had “da-da-da-da” in it. She taught me to play crib, and every time her pegs passed mine, she’d say, “I’m rooting for you to win.” She played Pictionary with us, and Scrabble and Boggle and hide-and-seek. Summer vacations meant we’d each get a week at Grandma’s house—which, when you grow up in a family of six, is a really big deal. I’d have seven whole days with her, all to myself. We’d go shopping and to the movies, play mini golf and cards, then curl up with her to watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy at the end of a day. But whether you spent time with her one-on-one or in a crowd, she always had a way of making you feel important, like you were the only one in the room. You were special.

When I think of all of these things, they feel like insignificant remembrances in the scope someone’s whole life. They’re too small. But then I realize, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? My grandmother understood that to live a good life, you have to show up in all the small moments. Be present. Make space for others. Root for them to win. Never let too much time pass between a phone call, a smile, a card game or a meal. Love is in the details.

The amount of lessons I’ve learned from my grandmother is incalculable, really. I can’t always pick them out, but I see the pattern they make, one that reflects an energy and enthusiasm for what’s next.

Before she moved out to Calgary in August of last year, I pulled her aside. I told her I loved her, that it would be hard to be so far apart. And then I asked for advice, anything she could tell me about life that I could soak up and carry forward into mine.

“Marriage is for life,” she said to me. “If you pick the wrong partner, it will seem very long. If you choose right, nothing will be long enough.”

This brings me to reason number three, why I’ve struggled with what to say today. Because what’s true for marriage is true for family. With her, no amount of time would have ever been long enough. 


Seeking a Void for the Start of A New World

My last full day in London is a holiday Monday in North America, so my brother is back at work. The day stretches out before me. I reach out to grab it with a deep breath of someone who knows my own return to the grind is imminent.

IMG_4910I set out for Hyde Park, ready to run. The weather is crisp and the sky is a smoldering grey. But I’m determined to run through the rain if I need to. Once I’m through the gates, I push off, my new stride carrying me forward at a steady yet energetic pace.

The greens around me are vibrant. I make my way past the pedestrians, slow and strolling, then watch as leash-less dogs bound through the grass like this is the best day of their lives. It isn’t long until I’m lost in the steps, forging a route with no known destination. I choose paths at random until I’m lost not just figuratively but geographically as well.

I suppose that’s the point of running. At least, it is for me. But I’m not alone. While away, I’ve been reading a memoir by the bestselling novelist Haruki Murakami called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He’s completed 23 marathons at the time of writing this book (one per year) and written more than a dozen novels. Directly and indirectly, Murakami explores his writing process by discussing his running journey.

Although I found running only two and a half years ago, I’ve felt its strong connection to my writing ever since. When people ask me why I run, I find myself talking about it being the only effective way to give my mind a break. Rather than whirring through its random firings of character dialogue, plot points, hypothetical scenarios, word combinations and more, my mind is quiet. Something about the steady rhythm of my steps lulls its overactivity into a kind of trance. It’s a peace I never get with sleep, so haunted by vivid dreams that I remember long after I wake.

IMG_4746“I’m often asked what I think about as I run,” Murakami writes. “Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.”

He describes a “homemade void” that encompasses his mind when he runs. Murakami can’t answer the question of what he thinks about during his runs, especially the long ones, because the point is to allow himself not to. “I just run. I run in a void,” he says. “Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.”

The void isn’t just a break from all the inner turmoil a creative person experiences as a byproduct of their art. The mind void is a necessary part of creating. How do you paint a masterpiece without a blank canvas? You have to get rid of the noise in order to begin.

I find this particularly difficult. I tend to charge at things that fill up my calendar. I use time blocking to plan out my day at work but also at home.

On top of this natural tendency, I think our world is set up to plug every moment of time with something. When bored in transit, you pull out your phone to scroll through social media. When preparing dinner, you turn on Netflix for company. When walking down the screen, you listen to a podcast. Every moment is accounted for, swallowed up by activities that keep your mind busy. Distractions: they collect like steam on your glasses, preventing you from having those moments of clarity that exist outside the daily tasks it takes to live a life. There is no room to stretch. Before you know it, a year has gone by and that dream you have, the dial on it hasn’t moved any closer to reality.

So when I get the opportunity to run, or spend a day by myself just wandering around, I jump at it. And I need to start jumping more.

Solitude is not uncomfortable to me. It feels like a rush of air after holding your breath for a very long time. I revel in the roomy sensation that wraps around my lungs. The joys of being a secret introvert.

Time alone, with no particular task at hand, it may seem like a waste of time to some. But I know it’s quietly moving the dial by launching me into the void. I hope to bring a good helping of that home with me from this trip—along with the souvenir tea, biscuits and Turkish delight—so it can swallow me whole in the coming months. Everything is about to change.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Stories

On my fourth day overseas, we fly to Dublin, Ireland for a little euro-exploration. My brother’s been in the UK for two years and travelled extensively but never here.

After settling into our Airbnb, we hit the streets to start investigating. We discover quickly that we’re staying in the Jameson Distillery district. They moved the whiskey production out to the countryside to be closer to the barley suppliers, but have kept a tour and tasting house on the original grounds off Bow Street.

The Irish tour guide inside is friendly and generous, cracking jokes and pouring us comparison shots of Scotch Whisky, American Whiskey and Irish Whiskey: different spellings, different flavours, all with the same burning feeling down my throat. I am no connoisseur but appreciate the tasting lesson all the same.

After another glass of whiskey, this time sweetened with ginger ale, we head out again in high spirits—pun intended. We walk along the River Liffey, pass through gardens by the Dublin Castle and finish on the grounds of Trinity College. It’s beautiful, all of it, but flat. Despite the ornate surfaces, I know nothing about the people, places or plots that lurk behind the historical buildings around us.

We sleep late the next day, tired from a day of travelling, but scramble out to meet our walking tour on the steps of the Bank of Ireland. We’re a few minutes behind and grab the tail end of the group. I miss the tour guide’s name but not his warning that swear words will be used throughout the tour for comedic effect. In his mind, he says, the English brought this language to Ireland so they’re all bad words.

We walk in a huddle of twenty or so, trying to stay together through traffic lights and intersections where I’m not sure which way to look for cars. Our first stop is Dublin Castle where the guide launches into the history of the structures around us, all built in different centuries: a fortification first for the Vikings in 930, due to the ground’s high elevation; a stronghold for the Normans when they invaded Dublin in 1169, who then built more ditches and walls around the compound; an English high-security prison for Irish hostages in the twelfth century, who were kept in the Record Tower which is the only surviving structure from the original medieval castle and has walls more than three metres thick; an attraction for tourists who stare at the top trim without realizing it wasn’t added until centuries later, presumably to make the tower look more “castle-y.”

During the 1500s, Red Hugh O’Donnell, a 15-year-old Irish Chieftain, was locked in this tower to keep his clan and another from forming an alliance against the English crown. But Red escaped the prison in true Shank Shank Redemption style by crawling through the sewer.

Because of the castle’s tie to English rule, when the Irish won their independence in 1922 they decided it would no longer be used as a house of parliament. Inaugurations, ceremonies and state visits still take place here (Obama was hosted in the castle during his visit), but parliament uses a different location. “Essentially, it’s the largest, most expensive tea room in all of Ireland,” says our guide.

As he continues his monologue, what was a beautiful building yesterday transforms into the scene of several stories—Red’s and many more. Listening, I’m reminded of the reason for my storytelling passion, both for absorbing the words and creating them. Stories reveal what’s hidden beneath the exterior—of a building, a country, a person—of something maybe you always wondered about. Or maybe you never thought to beyond the first glance of assumptions. How much harder is it to judge/stereotype/ignore a person once you know their story?

Though storytelling has played a crucial role throughout human history, these days we sometimes think of the word “story” as referring to a thing you make up. Or something important only to children.

We forget that stories are about people, real or imagined, about the time and the place that forged their character and drove the path of their stars. Stories are how we learn about ourselves, both past and present. They turn a flat landscape into something teeming with life and history and meaning. Stories are what connect us all.

Connecting stones of the past, I’m lost to the present. I have to run quickly over tourist-worn streets to catch up to the group.

A New Way to Run the Race

Day three in London, I coax my brother into a morning run. Two of my siblings are regular runners, but we’ve never gone together. He’s faster, by a solid minute per kilometer or more, so I’m nervous. I’m injured, he says. I have to be careful about the impact on my legs. 

So now if trail behind, too far to even see the dust he kicks up, I can rest assured that an injured runner is trouncing me. I remind myself this was my idea.

FullSizeRender 2We walk to Regent’s Park where we’ll run. There are plenty of parks in Toronto, but I’ve never done this, walk to the start line. Unless, of course, it’s a race day.

Once surrounded by the vibrant greens produced by daily rain, we set our pace. It’s slow, steady. I know he’s holding back. But a slower gait allows for easy conversation. We start talking about running clinics. He mentions one he knows of in the city. My city. They record you on a treadmill and then correct your form with red ink.

The price tag makes me stumble, so I inquire further, seeing what tips I can pick up from someone who’s already shelled out the cash. Well, for starters, he says, your foot strikes the wrong spot on every step.

For starters? The wind leaves my lungs.

He explains further. When your heel hits the ground first, you’re forcing two to three times your weight onto a bone that’s not designed to take that much impact. It also often leads to over-striding. Striking on the mid- or forefoot helps you take smaller steps, leaning forward to increase speed rather than the temptation to widen your gait.

But that’s not all. Running toe-first keeps your knees bent, which enhances the storage and use of energy.

I make the switch and quickly feel ridiculous, like I’m prancing through the park. I watch people around us as we run, but no one is staring at the deer-in-training. I sink into our pace with my new stride, feeling energy rising from my feet and up through my legs like the red of a thermometer.

And, because this is how my mind works, I throw a fishing line out to catch the deeper meaning. Most people instinctually run heel-first (later research reveals this stat to be 95%). We get the job done but maximize the negative impact and minimize our energy for the next step. We unnecessarily risk injury, our wide strides reducing how far and how fast we can go. We choose the hard way, without even realizing it.

I’ve been running for two and half years, never once thinking there was a gentler, more efficient way to do it. What else am I approaching with the same force, thinking it’s a sign of strength but, in reality, it makes me weaker?

And there it is: catch of the day. I tend to charge at things I want or believe in with full force, sometimes with no thought to how each step should be taken. I argue easily. I don’t back down. I can be wickedly stubborn. I’m not usually a detail-oriented person. I’m a runner. I see an end goal and take off. It’s a race. And I’m in it to win it.

But, if Baz Luhrmann is right, then the race is long. And in the end, it’s only with yourself. If I could run beside a mirror, study each step and learn a kinder but faster stride, imagine how much further I could go before my body cries enough.

After a loop around the park, we race to the lights. I lose, but in so many ways, I also win.

Museums Should Be Free

IMG_4665On my second day in London, I’m wandering around the British museum in a casual attempt to pass the time. My brother is meeting a friend who’s visiting with his family and happens to be in the same area as we are strolling by. I weave my way past the Rosetta stone, turn left at the entrance to ancient Japan and walk through to the Egyptian exhibit.

I love learning about history but have never been wild about museums—it’s the feeling of being herded through a cafeteria line that irks me, with someone else’s arrangement of artifacts in one giant, impersonal line rather curating how and when and in what order you discover knowledge of civilizations past. There’s an impetus to see everything, all in one go. You need to get your money’s worth, after all. Now or never.

And so you bump along, straining against someone’s elbow to get a picture of the painting or the rock or the cracked porcelain teacup that you’ll capture once and never look at again. The kid belonging to the family behind you charges ahead and cuts off your path to the glass case of 14th century jewelry, only to be snapped back because he’s on a leash, a real one, that tethers him to his owners—I mean, parents. You step on the heel of a woman in front of you who deviated from the group’s steady, shuffling pace, but now she’s glaring at you like you didn’t apologize or you did and she doesn’t speak English, or you did and she doesn’t think it expressed genuine empathy. You try to avoid the scowling that continues a beat too long by pretending to read a blurb near the sarcophagus about how it was later used as a bathtub, which seems like a creepy way to repurpose something and you start imagining what it would feel like to soak in something that once held human remains. Someone steps on your heel. Without realizing it, you’ve also slowed your pace, continuing the cycle. You scowl at the person behind you because it feels like tradition, then pick up the pace, quickly forgetting the bathtub when the next artifact and accompanying text is in front of your eyes with only moments to skim through. You don’t want to be stepped on again. There’s so much to see. Altogether, the halls could be 100 kilometres long, stretched out end-to-end, but it’s coiled in one space like a crammed maze of intestine. Plus, it’s only open for 12 hours, so you need every minute you can.

The pressure to see it all, to pack it in tightly, means you miss the highlights—maybe only one or two—that could have more personal meaning. In a blur, you pass by the painting or sword or handwritten letter that required more time to absorb, study, learn but could have changed your perspective on a period of time—a new understanding for what came before or even what you’re approaching now.

Here, in the land of free museums, there lies the potential for this to be different. In the absence of an entrance comes the freedom to wander, to get lost without worrying you went the wrong way. You went your way. Without a fee, you are allowed to order a la carte. Savour a few rather than binge on it all. You can, after all, come back for seconds whenever you’d like.

For me, today’s order is Cleopatra. I stand in front of the decorated wrappings of her personal tomb and get lost in thinking about the girl who lived in the world once and now lives underneath the glamour we have thrust upon her. 17 years, 1 month and 25 days. In death, people are constantly watching her, this cafeteria line like a constant wake. I wonder: Did she feel so valued and seen during the 17 years, 1 months and 25 days that mattered?

The Unseen Guests of Every Room


IMG_4633On my first night in London (the real one), my brother and I went to a play at the Almeida theatre called They Drink It In The Congo about a Kenyan-born British woman trying to organize a Congolese festival to raise awareness about the Congo.

I have to admit, I knew very little about the play’s premise. My brother sent me links to a few productions we could see while I was in town, but was a busy week at work, so I didn’t have the opportunity to look into them closely. But come to London and not take advantage of the incredible theatres available? I was up for anything.

The play opened with more than a few laughs. It had punchy jokes but, more importantly, a large man in a pink suit who seemed to have no purpose on stage other than to announce, “Telephone!” when someone’s cellphone went off or narrate emails as characters read them on stage. It was funny but, as my brother questioned at intermission, couldn’t that be done by a voice off-stage?

But a flashback scene later on in the play revealed his true purpose (SPOILER): the Brit organizing the festival had visited the Congo on an aid trip and ended up in the middle of a conflict between a family and the militia; the family is torn apart and the father suffers a massive head wound from a machete—the man in the pink suit. That scene, with the man’s cries for help and her inability to do so, haunts her. She carries him around. Every conversation, every interaction, he is there.

The play was fantastic. Though travel exhaustion tempted my eyes to close several times, I was compelled to stay awake. The content about the Congo’s conflict was complex and dense; the characters portrayed were vibrant and layered.

But I found myself thinking primarily about the dynamic between only two characters long past the final applause: the woman the entire play centred around and the man unseen to all the other characters on stage. The man in the pink suit was real and present to her alone, but his existence in her past affected everyone around her.

And so, I wondered: How often do people bring their ghosts with them? Who is in the room with you that you can’t see? What words do they whisper to their host that drive the action of the scene?

When we ask questions, genuine inquiries, about the reasons behind our boyfriend/brother/mother/grandfather’s actions, sometimes we see the faint outlines of these ghosts, or at least imagine we can. When they are willing to share a story, we see the past experiences of their current perspective or purpose, a past that continues to echo in the lives of these people we care about. But, most of the time, we have to ask. We have to want to see the unseen.

To The First Step

faith staircaseMartin Luther King Jr. once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

I’ll be the first to admit the lack of this quality in my life. I have it in kernels, but with people, projects, promises—if I can’t figure out both the end game and how to get there, I’m skeptical at best to keep moving forward. At worst, I turn and bail. In relationships, if I lose sight of a future together, I let go in inches, checked out and waiting for the end explosion. For professional ventures, I need to get a sense of how my part impacts the whole organization, or I feel listless and unmotivated. Promises, well, I’ve come to realize I just don’t make them. Who knows when the wind will change and where I’ll end up.

I’m the same with writing. Whether a blog post or a novel, I need to plot the entire story before I begin and follow that map with linear precision, step by step. For as long as I can remember, that’s the way I’ve been.

Someone recently pointed out how often I write about the desire for control, for a clear-cut plan (here, here and here, to list a few). So, it’s obvious I’m highly aware of this tendency. I’ve just never thought about it as a problem.

Then I headed out to California for my self-imposed writer’s retreat. (One has to be careful about the punctuation here, because many assumed it was a writers’ retreat, picturing me meeting up with others for a whirlwind week of communal time in front of notepads, computers and thick-rimmed glasses with my mysterious writer friends. Perhaps an iconic Scotch or two. Not so. It was just me.)

The idea was to get a kick-start for a new novel, enough of a boost to carry me through the busyness of a packed life back home that usually left me too tired to create for myself. I needed a targeted drive to keep me writing.

Before I left, I set out a definitive structure for each day. Starting with a 7am run and quick breakfast, I’d hammer on the keys for three hours during my first of three writing sessions, taking short breaks in between, producing no less than 1,000 words each session. In the evening, I would relax with a short work out before nestling into bed with a book.

Now, I know this would be most people’s vacation hell, but to me, it sounded like just the opposite. Surrounded by warm weather, towering palm trees and the ocean, I would finally be free to think and create in peace—as long as I had a plan to keep me on track, of course.

And the first two days went well. I was on track to meet all of my goals. I went to bed that night swelling with pride at the column of check marks I had achieved. Well, you can probably guess what happened next. It’s an old lesson. Pride. Cliff. Edge. Me.

Day number three hit me like a wrecking ball (thank you, Miley, for making that image now supremely unusable). My body felt exhausted from the early morning runs and late night gym sessions; the action in my novel was stuck in a lull, somewhere between what had happened off the page and what would happen to restart the character’s hearts; the words that did come out felt jarring and stiffly chronological—there was no flow. No natural rhythm. No poetry. It is the worst way to drag yourself through writing, letter by letter, as if crawling through the desert chained to a weight when you have just enough strength for one foothold at a time.

The infamous fish tacos
The infamous fish tacos

I decided to take a break, head to the beach, vowing to come back more inspired that night. I ended up in a local pub, eating some of San Diego’s best tacos, throwing back a couple of ciders (which I got ID’d for—so, points) and people watching. I walked back to my hotel while the sun set behind me, crossed off all the things on my list I hadn’t completed that day and crawled into bed, dejected and bogged down by a head full of the thick sludge that comes with a block. And cider.

The next day, I slept in. I skipped the run. But I was determined, putting only one thing on my to-do list: write the part you are most excited about.

It was the scene that had inspired the entire story: A girl, high on the bluffs overlooking the rocky coast of a lake. She waves, the movement of her hand catching the eye of a boy out in a canoe. His father paddles in the stern. The boy raises his hand to wave back, but stops, watching someone approaching the girl from behind. A hand closes over her mouth. Arms wrap around her petite frame and drag her away. As hard as the boy paddles to get to shore, to get to her, he is already too late. She is gone.

I have seen this play out in my head, over and over, for the last three years (where are the medals for writers who don’t go crazy carrying bizarre stories around with them 24/7?). My intention was to end the week writing this scene, riding out the high it would produce all the way back home to Toronto.

So, I took a deep breath and I wrote it. Out of order. Mad, rebel style. I wasn’t sure exactly how or why the characters would get to that moment, only that they had to.

And a strange thing happened. I fell in love with it, the whole process. I reveled in not knowing. In taking my writing in bites, unconcerned with the whole meal, just savouring each scene. Rather than starting from chapter one and moving through each one, I picked parts I was passionate about, ones that made my own heart race with the panic of what might happen to the characters. I chose patches to focus my energy on, unconcerned with how I would stitch them together later on.

When I stopped to wonder why, I realized that the mind isn’t linear, thinking this then that, moving only in one direction. It prances around from past to present to hopes for the future. Playing out memories, worrying about what to make for dinner, then yanking itself back to say to the customs officer, “No, sir, nothing to claim.” So if the mind isn’t linear, why should the writing process be? Letting go of that way of thinking was being freed from unnatural chains that otherwise forced me to walk backward on my hands (something I can actually manage, but not for long periods of time).

I met my 18,000 word goal. And then I surpassed it. The story is incomplete, in pieces, leading up to the girl up on the bluffs, but it’s real and alive and something I’m more than eager to keep working on.

Most of what we consume these days—movies, television, books—they’re told in this linear fashion, so we’re used to that format and writer’s often try to recreate it as they experience it. When we stumble upon a story told in jumbles or even backward (like the classic physiological thriller Memento), we find it hard but exhilarating to piece it all together.

everything I never told youLike the book I read on vacation, called Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, about a Chinese American family and the balancing act that keeps them together—but which ultimately tears them apart. I struggled with the first chapter or so. No, I struggled with the first few words. “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.”

Starting with the end, jumping time periods and perspectives, told in the voice of an omniscient narrator—I find it the hardest to read (and, I assume, to write), because it does what we call “head jumping” with a strange sense of legitimacy.

But as the story blossomed, the bare bones presented in those first few words fleshed out, I discovered the story’s beauty in tandem with the breakthrough in my own writing. The writer started with her inspiration. Her what. A scene, a thought, a seed that planted inside her and spread, never letting go. As a reader, I experienced her discovery of the why along with the writer. Non-linear, bits and pieces that came to life as I pulled them together in my mind, like following a maze of roots to the base of a tree. It seemed natural, and yet magical.

And, I realized, I need to more of that. In writing. In life. Whether experiencing or creating, I need to let go of the linear and just jump in. Even if that’s the middle and you don’t know how you got there or how to get out, or stay in, or ways to have it all make sense. There’s freedom in focusing on the bits that evoke passion and excitement, allowing the other pieces to come a little later, if they have to. There doesn’t have to be an entire staircase every time. All you need is a step.

Past, Planes and Tectonic Plates

IMG_3639I’m on a plane, tens of thousands of feet above the speeding ground of an indeterminate point in North America, headed for California to move forward with my writing, when it hits me: I spend a lot of time thinking about the past. A moment triggers a memory, and it pulls at me. I give in, let the memory play out in my head, try to look at it from a new angle. Whether it’s full of pain or joy, I experience it all over again, an echo of the original. But often with the power to steal me at length from the present and make people pause. Dana, did you hear what I just said? No—the answer is always no. I was somewhere else.

At work lately, I’ve been immersed in articles on having a healthier and more mindful workplace environment, hearing experts talk about living more in the present. Focusing too much on the future brings anxiety; fixating on the past can lead to depression, they say. Being fully present in time produces the most happiness. I used to think this was because my brain sought closure. That once I figured out what I had missed the first, second, fiftieth time I processed the memory, the last puzzle piece would click in. I would be left with a full and complete understanding of what happened, what it meant or will mean for the future. And then I could focus more on what was in front of me. But maybe not.

“They” are the experts, so what do I know, right? But as I read an article quoting David Constantine, author of the short story that inspired the acclaimed movie 45 Years, something about that plane ride brought clarity that contradicts such a notion, at least in part. “If you survive long enough then the past is extraordinarily potent,” says Constantine. “I hate the idea of closure, I think it is a detestable idea. Things don’t get closed when you are dead. It’s not history that I write about, but a person’s life. And within that life nothing is ever dead and buried.”

His words connected with what’s been bubbling in me for some time: the past isn’t static—our memories don’t exist as some finite movie, moments of time captured and preserved, put in a jar for later viewing. The past is alive and breathing, evolving and changing as we do.


Bernhard Schlink talks about such living memories in his novel The Reader, about a man who tells the story of his adolescence, growing up in post-WWII Germany. In his youth, he has an affair with a much older woman. She vanishes from his life without notice, then reappears ten years later on the stand of a Nazi trial, accused of war crimes, as the now grown man is in law school and watches from the stands. He stares at her and experiences everything all over again, realizing the deep impact that relationship had, and continues to have, on his life. He cannot shake her presence, even with so much distance.

“The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive,” Schlink writes. “I understand this. Nonetheless, I sometimes find it hard to bear.”

There is truth there, I think, truth in declaring death to closure. And yet, as a culture, we crave it. We are obsessed with endings. How bad does a movie have to be before you will turn it off? You want to see how it ends, even if you don’t enjoy the story. You feel a pressing urge to witness the conclusion.

In books, films, television shows—I feel the same. I want to know how the writer imagined that last moment for the audience. However, when an ending is too neat, it ruffles me. I stop wondering about the characters, what happens to their lives once the cameras turn off. They become flat, two-dimensional, as opposed remaining alive off the page somewhere, which is what I want them to be.

The best endings, the (slightly) ambiguous ones, give the reader or viewer a jump-off point for the brain to colour in the possibilities. You are no longer experiencing those characters in real time, but they stay with you “absolutely present and alive.” With novels, these writers are creating outlines for us to bring the rest to life, full of our own perspective and history to tilt the story in our direction. To give it personal meaning and significance beyond the intended layers.

As a writer, I strive to understand how to map the ever-evolving movement of life’s layers, in order to create characters that are present and alive, with pasts that move and evolve as they do. As a human being, I must revisit my own past in order to understand the tectonic plates the present rests on. Otherwise, I’ll never see the earthquakes coming.

Time is a Slippery Thing

blue-balloon-1193182-1600x1200I don’t let my place explode with festive decorations for Christmas, or squeal at the sight of chocolate from a Valentine or crave artificially green beer and dark, murky pubs on St. Paddy’s Day. But make plans for New Years Eve, the countdown until things are new again, and I’m on board.

While I still appreciate the stories of the past that lead us to continue seasonal traditions, I can’t help but feel less attached to holidays that perpetuate the status quo. They can be painful, good, even great times spent with family, yet it never evokes a passionate response. I know. I’m weird (and over it).

It’s been a year since I’ve written a blog on here. I can remember the last time so vividly, on the eve of 30th birthday, feeling excited about the year ahead. My fingers raced across the keys and words flowed freely, clicking into place in the best way a writer can hope for. I hit the publish button and scooted off my bed, eager to meet a boy with whom I would celebrate my last night as a twenty-something. A boy who would, later that night, break my heart and leave me standing there, watching the shattered pieces collect dust on the floor before I even realized what had occurred.

I stopped writing after that. I let life pull me away—extra work assignments, full-bodied red wine and lazy Sunday mornings. I have spent 365 days in a drunken haze of normality. Gym, desk, bar, couch, bed. Not a conscious decision, but now, a year later, it’s hard to hide the lack of progress. My life has moved forward but my writing has not.

“Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”

all-the-light-we-cannot-see-9781476746586_hrI discovered these words in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, just this past fall, a novel full of profound revelations as the characters experience each extraordinary and banal day of living through a war carving it’s way through the landscape of their homelands.

Time, writing—it’s all the same. Rather than use it for fuel beneath my fingers, I let someone else’s actions loosen my grip on the string. I took on additional work and sold my words so another could, in turn, sell ideas to the masses. The balloon rose high in the sky. I rewarded myself for hours in front of the screen in my cubicle with a generous pour of Pinot Noir. The wind carried the balloon westward. I slept late on weekends, ignoring the unedited manuscript and the unfinished story that waited in my laptop’s personal files in favour of crumpled sheets. For the past few months, the balloon has been just a dot I stare at in the sky, daydreaming about having arms long enough to reach up and grasp the string again.

But, by ringing in the New Year, somehow it feels like we get time back. We start over. A magic moment when things are made new again. Our exhausted hands regain strength and resolve and the end of the string reappears, snatched back from the sky, if only we reach. Anything is possible. Even lofty dreams of novel writing.

If I have only one resolution this year, let it be that. To reach, grab and never let go.

Waking Up 30

We’ve been taught to treat the 30th birthday like a really, really BIG DEAL. How are you going to react? Do you feel nervous about it? Will you have a massive freak out and run away to join the circus, throwing your ID into the Atlantic on your way to a brand new life?

I’m a big believer that the actual BIG DEAL moments in life are things for which you can never really prepare—they catch you off guard in a way that always brings me back to that time I fell off the high bar and had the wind knocked out of me, I lay frozen on the mat, eyes wide with fear, for what felt like several minutes. Stunned. Speechless. Paralyzed. An accepted apprehension that these moments will eventually come and snatch away my control is perhaps why I am a fairly obsessive planner for all the small things. Steer when you can. Then you’ll at least know where your boat is when the perfect storm hits.

While I know this birthday could pass without any effort on my part, I do feel like it’s important to prepare for this small moment that will give way to a decade of bigger ones. Or so I hope.

So, in preparation for the momentous occasion, I find myself reflecting on milestone birthdays. I can remember nothing about the celebration of my first decade and very little from the second—other than for my 20th birthday, while I was still recovering from a nasty bout of Norwalk, my university boyfriend gave me one of the season of Buffy on DVD, which perhaps made me smile at the time, but now I just think, Okay, all that means is that he had at least two conversations with me. Deep.

The only aspect of relevance, something that joins the two occasions, is the direction of my gaze: forward. At 10, then at 20, I was resolutely focused on what was in store for me over the next ten years: the changes, the privileges, the challenges—it all seemed very exciting. A lot gets packed into one decade.

Now, for 30, I find myself looking backward, not because the best is behind me, but because I finally understand the importance of reflecting as a way to understand what is to come. That history is sometimes our most prized possession, because it helps us to understand the present and, God willing, the future.

I’ve read a lot of articles where the person in question offers sage words of advice once they hit 30. Advice for those still rising in the ranks of age, building the rings of the tree—or even wistfully to the younger you who can’t listen, but wouldn’t even do so if the opportunity were scientifically possible.

However, I feel unqualified to do so. I feel as though I am no longer learning any new lessons. Rather, I am at last understanding the ones taught to me years ago. With every breath, I am not growing but waking up. Each limb is lifted from slumber with a dawn of realization that is not new, just underused. It has been waiting.

So, here is what I have woken up to lately, which I will share with you on this special occasion.

“Can’t” is a bad word.

photo 1 (4)For nearly a decade, I spent the majority of my free time in a sweaty gym that always smelled of chalk and disinfectant, training to be a competitive gymnast. For most of that time, I had the same coach. She seemed like an extension of my family, which makes sense, seeing as I spent 4 days a week with her. She must have been one patient woman—my curled pigtails might have been cute, but I’m sure my personality was not always. She taught me how to cartwheel and handspring and how to look graceful when not gracefully balancing on the beam. But she also taught me about possibility.

See, she made up this rule. No one in the group was allowed to say “can’t.” I can’t do this. I can’t try that. It was forbidden. Coach said so. I don’t remember what the punishment was; we just accepted it as a boundary not to be crossed. It was a simple way to teach young athletes the connection between thoughts and actions. Mind and body. When we ruminate in doubt and negativity, the outcome will follow suit. When we embrace certainty and possibility, we can do anything—even fly.

10404276_10100761177807250_8366290446009790356_nMy body still carries the memory of how to do handstands, walkovers and the occasional front tuck into a pool—like an echo lingering in my muscles—but this rule took longer to sink in. I re-learn it every day. When you remove thinking about what you can’t do, there is only room for what you can achieve.

Thoughts become words. Words become actions. Actions become character. Character becomes destiny. Start with thinking, I can.

This is how I’m preparing for the big 3-0, a small moment, really. I will cross this point in time technically while sleeping (I was born at 3am or something obscene like that). But, for me, it means being aware of both past and future, all the while trying to focus on the present. A balancing act requiring a lifetime of patience and effort.

When I get overwhelmed, when I start dwelling on the order of things, of this mad Benjamin Buttoning I seem to be doing through life (marriage to serious relationship to single life; running my own business and managing others to running things on my own to running around for someone else), sometimes I think, I can’t do this. And then I remember. It’s not allowed.

Life isn’t as linear as our birthdays would have us believe. It’s sporadic and twisted and wonderful, borrowing lessons and jumping roles, forever changing, keeping us on our toes. Sometimes I’m ready for it, sometimes I get caught completely unprepared. But always, always, in every stage and at every age, I want to ask myself, What if I can?

photo 2 (4)