Is it possible to suffer a broken heart because of a failed relationship with the city of your dreams?
Moving home from Vancouver almost a year ago was like saying goodbye to a lover I didn’t want to leave, but with whom I knew there’d only ever be heartache. It’s not surprising then, that I would be filled with a longing that is most times very difficult to put into words.
Funny, how I keep trying…
This whole year has been a reintegration, a re-learning of sorts and I should probably keep the process to myself. But…
If you haven’t lived in a place that doesn’t get ridiculously cold and, worse, barren for 6 months of the year, then it’s hard to understand what you’re missing, or even that there are liveable, viable places like that in the world to conduct your life (that aren’t resorts, I mean).
If you have, then this would be the longest winter of your entire life!!!
Sweet and helpful people tell me that it’s been a good winter, not too many cold snaps or snow, but that’s really besides the point for me. In October when the leaves started changing colour (admittedly pretty), and then falling off (oh dear!), I knew I was in for a long lush-less period of browning grass and cold, dark concrete, dirty, slushy snow that hangs around for eons. But I never would have anticipated the impact of it on my psyche – I guess I thought, well I was born here and survived 39 winters in a kind of desolation I never named, because I didn’t know any damn different! So, what’s the problem?
Well,, I only learned to appreciate nature by waking up to its unrelenting beauty every day. It really does change your whole perspective!
Lovely Desiree, my friend in Vancouver, said last night, “well, it’s raining here.” Another well-meaning friend commented, “We have our own weather issues… it’s cloudy” Um… big flippin’ deal!!! My umbrella has been sitting under my work desk for months now, and I would kill to be able to use it over dragging on coat, scarf, hat and boots for the 5th month in a row!!! My dear West Coast friends, you probably don’t know this but RAIN and cloudiness is far better. You see, it means things are green, spring comes early and it never gets all that cold.
Vancouverites love to compare themselves to Toronto and Montreal, feeling they always come up a bit short (oh they deny this, but it is sooo true!) It seems like a pointless effort, since they are really apples and oranges. And here’s why:
Each region of Canada has a way (and means actually) of life that is based purely on geography and climate. A road trip across the country is the best way to understand this. The things that concern us here in the centre of the universe don’t even register on the radar of rural Albertans, prairie folk, Islanders or west coast dwellers. This is the main reason why both sides of the country feel alienated, to one degree or another, by a centrist government and media. Who can blame ’em?
There are differences that are so subtle it’s easy to dismiss them – except that at the moment they are glaringly obvious to me. This morning, for instance, seeing the temperature was finally a balmy 1 degree above zero, I pulled out a top I haven’t worn in ages, but that was a staple in my wardrobe in Vancouver – in any season. Why? It’s a light weight cotton long sleeve, which up until this point would have me freezing both under my winter coat and sitting at my desk. Simple but important difference – you don’t have to invest in four seasons worth of clothing!! (good thing in a city as expensive as my beloved)
Folks in Vancouver have impeccable shoes, hair and very clean cars. Nothing is weather-beaten. It’s one of the first things I noticed, with pleasure.
By the time I left Toronto 6 years ago, I had grown to hate winter and that fact was a big influence on the decision to live in a part of our country that pretty much skips that season.
I guess I forgot that part!
Last week I spent a day at Canada Blooms, a gardening trade exhibit. We were shooting stories for the tv show I work on and it sure felt strange to have to go inside at this time of year to see trees, waterfalls, streaming rivulets and flowers. It was so out of context for me that some of the displays looked downright funereal. At first struck by the crowd, I soon realized I was one of them, desperate to see green, growing things; willing to drop any amount on whatever it takes to make my 2×4 Toronto garden look lush for as long as possible (AND I DON’T EVEN HAVE ONE).
Here’s the crux of it: I never want to be a person who feels desperate for anything, least of all for want of a pretty flowering tree to gaze upon.
But there’s also a deeper psychological issue at play here. I was brought up in a household full of extremes where I perfected the art of crisis management in order to feel any semblance of normal. To step out of the spiral I figured out that the extremes in weather too closely mirrored my early life. I had to find moderation in all things – the ubiquitous balance to which everyone here gives lip service. As crazy as it sounds, for me that included weather, maybe even started with it. I thought I had succeeded , so this winter (and the horrific heat and humidity of this past summer) have been as much a test of endurance, as a barometer of personal growth.
The truth is, as beautiful as Vancouver was and is, I could never quite find a way to make it feel like home. Had I been able to conquer that I would never have left. It was truly the biggest bout of unrequited love I’ve ever experienced. Geesh, you’d think I’d be happy it’s over!
Still… Spring has never been more welcome, and having said that I will rest my fruitless and exhausting comparisons and just find a way to make peace with my decision to live here.
(Summer is the time of year I really feel I’ve missed out by not becoming a mother. I think I said it best in this post introducing my TVO essay on the topic. Originally published on Jan. 6, 2011)
Last year I met the writer, Molly Peacock and began, by chance, to talk to her about a piece I was trying to work out about being childless and how hard it was to a) reconcile that fact, in a world where motherhood is revered, and b) how silent the process is because there’s so little written on it, and it’s rarely discussed. What I didn’t know was that she had written an entire book on her choice to be child-free and how it had defined her life.
I devoured Paradise Piece by Piece and, though my childlessness has happened more from circumstance than choice – it would never be my choice – I still related to a great deal of what she wrote. That’s because to be a “non-mom” is still fairly undefined and misunderstood.
Here’s my TVO The Agenda essay on the topic. It’s Part 2, which began with an essay on how the advent of fertility technology makes us mistakenly believe we can delay motherhood. It struck quite a nerve and this one is a response to a question posed to me :is it really all that emotionally difficult not to be a mother?
Recently I had the great opportunity to give the keynote speech at the annual Literary Dinner at Ridley College in St. Catherine’s. In the speech, I tried to balance some inspirational words about pursuing creativity with the reality of the writing life. I’ve had some requests to read it so I’m posting it here. (there are a couple of notes of clarification, which are denoted by asterisks and explained below the text)
Good evening Ridley students and congratulations on your accomplishments this year in the literary arts.
I’ve spent a great deal of time in my career reading the work of young writers and I have to say that the stories and poems that I read in “Voices”* are among the best. Writing is hard work, but the reward is sweet, isn’t it? Seeing your name after all those hard won words, phrases and sentences is a thrill, and I hope it always will be. Making your work public is risky business, so, my hat is off to you for your confidence and courage!
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but I’ve only been making my living at it for the last decade or so. I guess I’m the quintessential late-bloomer, but as the astute essayist Malcolm Gladwell* has pointed out, late-bloomers are only people who don’t dive right in, but rather spend some time experimenting. So it takes us awhile to get where we’re going.
I’m here to share with you a little bit about my creative journey, which started when I was about your age and has culminated, at least this far, in the signing of my first book contract, with many interesting – and sometimes exasperating “experimental” twists and turns.
“In my younger and more vulnerable years…” Recognize those words? Of course, they open that unforgettable novel, The Great Gatsby. Those seven words have been imprinted on my memory since I read them for the first time in Grade 12. That was 1978. Recently, I picked Gatsby up again to read for perhaps the 5th time since then, once for every decade. It’s not that I don’t know the story by heart, it’s that the book – universally thought to be one of the best ever written – reminds me time and again that economical yet evocative writing is always the way to go.
I think I picked it up this time ‘round in anticipation of a new film adaptation set to hit screens in December, where Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby and Carrie Mulligan takes a whirl as Daisy. It’s a flashy, 3D version no less, as if the story isn’t captivating enough!
The copy I’m reading – here it is – is from high school. It’s a 1953 imprint and the beauty of it, besides the writing and ideas contained within, is my marginalia. All the notes I took during class readings and analysis. The very ones I must have used to write an essay on Fitzgerald’s themes.
Now, I have to tell you, I spent my high school years being pretty lazy about homework and essays. I got away with it with most teachers, probably because I could write and therefore pull off a decent assignment, last minute. But my Grade 12 English teacher, Mr. O’Gorman, recognized the laziness pretty quickly and one day sat me down and told me he knew I was smarter than I let on, he could tell the material we were studying affected me, and there was no doubt I could write. He said the only way I could pass his class was to show him he was right about me.
This conversation was remarkable for a few reasons:
A) I couldn’t fool him with a believable excuse and a good sentence
B) He said things like “Look to the words, they are pools that are very deep,” showing that he loved the literature he taught us and,
C) He saw my natural writing talent but made me dig deeper.
Not only did this teacher bring out the best in me, his support fostered a love of literature, reading and writing I really didn’t know I possessed. It could even be the very push I needed in the direction of the career I now have.
Then…I forgot all about it. I quit school and started working fulltime. I kept reading, I kept writing – mostly overwrought romantic poetry and always a journal, but I randomly decided that university wasn’t for me. Well, I say randomly now…I’m sure at the time I had a perfectly plausible rationale to tell my parents.
Years of full-time retail work does wonders for conjuring up a longing to be back in school. So at the age of 25, I entered York University in Toronto to study Creative Writing and English Literature. Not only did I remember what I love to do – read and write, but I began to see writing as a vocation, a compulsion – something I simply had to do as often as possible, maybe even every day. Writing was pure joy. Some of you are probably already feeling this sensation. Writing folds time. It carries you away. It’s both a journey and a destination. For four years I dedicated myself to the craft, and still, after graduation, I veered away from it.
Why did I discover such pleasure and then turn my back on it? It’s hard to say, except that creativity is sometimes a difficult thing to accept into your life. Although I knew I had the sensibility of a writer – the tendency to stand back and observe, the need to, as Anais Nin says “taste life twice; in the moment and in retrospect,” the impulse to share my impressions of the world with the world – I also had a fear that the writing life would be a struggling one, and a lonely one. Plus, I finished university at the age of 30. I had some catching up to do and had to earn money!
So I put my skills to work in PR, writing great press releases and marketing copy, and spent ten years being the wind beneath the wings of many creatives – musicians, writers, artists, actors. I saw, first hand, what that life was like, and as much as I may have been enamored of it, I still wasn’t ready to try it.
During this time I became the publicity manager for the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront in Toronto. Mixing and mingling with some of the biggest authors from Canada and around the world became my norm. Weekly, I spent one-on-one time with them, taking them around to their media interviews, having lunch with them, driving them to and from the airport. So, I got to see them on and off-stage.
On stage, they were super stars, no matter what their level of achievement in literature. I was in awe of them AND I felt strongly I could never be one of them. Oh the tenacity, the patience, the confidence and sheer talent they possessed! But off stage, in casual conversation – anything from helping calm Alice Munro’s nerves backstage at a reading, to passing the time with William Golding and his wife on an their first trip to Niagara Falls during a festival, or taking a parallel parking lesson from Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) – I felt a kind of affinity with them. No matter if we talked about mundane topics, or engaged in deeper conversations, I slowly began to realize that I shared their lens on the world – asking questions, analyzing everything, and of course, those deep powers of observation so common to writers and creatives of all stripes.
Many times, one of them would ask me if I was a writer. I always said no, mostly, because during this time I really wasn’t writing that much. I had no inclination in the face of so much genius. Then one day a young poet told me I must be kindred because he felt I had a writer’s personality. Encouraged by what I considered a compliment, I reluctantly confessed that I did write, and in fact had a creative writing degree. “I knew it,” he said!
After that I gave myself permission to openly revel in the company of writers. AND, I began to pound the keys again!
But it wasn’t until I approached my 40th birthday, and the ten year mark in my PR career – the one I’d been growing increasingly tired of because… well, it wasn’t my vocation, no matter how well it paid the bills – that I decided to throw caution to the wind and try to live on my creative brain. In order to do this, I felt I had to move clear across the country! I wanted to start fresh, way outside of my comfort zone and I had the idea that the West Coast Mountains and the Pacific Ocean would ignite my muse.
It was an experiment.
I should tell you that I attribute some of my false starts in a writing career with the desire of both my parents that their children have solid, full-time jobs with benefits and a good pension. If there’s any creativity in this picture, it should be a sidebar only. You can’t fault them for that; they lived through some hard economic times when good jobs were hard to come by and hang on to. My first ever job was at age 13 in a public library and I’d never been without a job since then, so I was taking quite a chance- as many creatives feel compelled to do.
During the first few months, I remember experienced two competing feelings: one of guilt for not getting up and going to work every day, pulling in a regular pay cheque, and the other pure bliss, for living on my own time for the first time, which gave me the space and freedom to let ideas percolate and words flow. Despite the ups and downs, and the feast or famine that seems to characterize this line of work, I haven’t really looked back.
The thing about the writing life is; you have to love writing. You sure do always have to harken back to the joy you experience when you’re in the thick of it, because much of what surrounds it is hard work. As a freelance writer, a good deal of time is taken up with the business of writing; finding ideas and people with interesting stories to interview, designing the perfect pitch to editors, writing to tight deadlines – forgoing the natural inclination to sit and stare out the window while the story unfolds in the brain – invoicing, waiting for money, waiting for money, waiting for money…
But… on the gorgeous plus side: After many years of practice, I’ve finally found my truest voice and have begun to be recognized for it. I’ve reached many goals I never thought I would, I’ve met and interviewed some amazing people with fascinating stories that have enriched my life, and some very unexpected opportunities have come my way. Speaking to you tonight is one of them. Paying it forward by mentoring young writers and new writers of all ages is another.
As a book reviewer, I actually get paid to read some great books and people are interested in what I have to say about them. I’ve come to know so many accomplished writers, many of whom I’ve admired for years, that I can now call friends. After so many years of feeling on the outside looking in, I’ve finally found my tribe.
Each month I present an essay on one of the most respected current affairs shows on Canadian TV, and though I’ve been doing so for 2 seasons, I still get a thrill when host and veteran journalist, Steve Paikin, a man I greatly respect, introduces my segment and thanks me for it afterwards. I’ve taught university courses, I’ve published short stories and personal essays, and the biggest goal reached to date is my first book which will be published next year.
The night I signed my contract, I didn’t get a wink of sleep. I just couldn’t believe that, after all the hard work – the disappointments and triumphs, the fussing and fretting that I didn’t have enough talent, enough time, enough confidence, I would finally have a book on store shelves (and Kindles, I suppose) that has my blood, sweat, tears and name on it!
I’ll tell you a secret, I’ve already written my acknowledgements for the book. That’s because I can’t wait to officially thank, in print, all the people who’ve encouraged, supported and helped me along the way. That’s a long list since, no matter how solitary the act of writing is, pretty much the most important required constant is care and feeding.
You better believe Mr. O’Gorman, my Grade 12 English teacher, is on that list.
What I’ve learned is, for all my revving up and experimentation, I’ve finally begun to feel like I’m making real the visions I’ve had in my head. All it takes is belief in YOU, faith in your talent, surrounding yourself with people who believe in you and support your efforts, practice and more practice, good instincts and steady steps forward.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have time to experiment.
Although you may, at times, have to put your ultimate goals aside when life gets in the way, know that the thing that compels you to pick up a pen, paint brush or musical instrument will probably always be there. Creativity is a forever thing. Keep your eye on the prize, whatever that prize is to you, and try to remember to nurture your creativity in whatever way you can. Keep working towards that final product.
You will get there. You’re already on your way.
Thanks for having me tonight. I wish you the greatest good luck with your creative endeavours and your lives.
# # #
* Voices is a publication the Ridley College English students put together every year to showcase their creative writing; essays, short stories, poetry, photography and art.
* I was referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent essay called Late Bloomers, which changed the way I think about my slow and painstaking approach to writing – as in, I don’t think it’s so bad after all!
Yes, he’s named after the character in Tempest. He’s 8 years old and for the last 6 months or so he’s been quite sick with diabetes. But he’s doing much better now. It’s been a bit of a trial for us, and very expensive. One day I’ll write about my frustrating experiences at the vet, but today my neighbour told me she saw Caliban playing tag with another cat outside and it just made me so happy to know that he’s feeling well enough to romp around with his pals again.
Another neighbour took this photo when he was at the height of his illness, so he looks a bit thin, but still gorgeous. And in case you’re wondering, his markings and temperament indicate he might be part Bengal. He’s pretty feisty, even when he’s feeling low.
For a long time it’s been my intention to write about my time spent living in Vancouver (2000-2006) but for one reason or another I never have. Since Vancouver is my unrequited love, it might have been a bit painful for awhile. But in honour of my visit there later this month, and as a primer for it, I offer these small memory vignettes.
Take That Toronto
In my freelancing writing quest in Vancouver, one magazine that I pursued had a “Take That Toronto” column. My idea was to write a short piece on how perfect everyone’s hair looked and how immaculate their shoes were. The editor wrote back telling me “Vancouverites don’t need to be told we have great style, we know we do.” Well, she told me!
But if you’ve ever lived in Toronto, with its humidity, over-treated, hard water, and snow and salt then you can appreciate what I meant.
I never understood the term “manageable hair” until lived in the land of soft water. It was softer, shinier and for the first time I could use “product” in it without worrying about buildup. In Toronto my hair was always BIG.
(to be honest my BIG hair sensitivity began in elementary school where I used to get called “mop-head” but we don’t need to go there today)
That it could, or ever would be any different is one of those happy discoveries that, while not life-changing by any stretch, certainly goes a long way to making your aging self feel better.
The shoe thing is just a matter of getting longer life out of a pair of shoes or boots due to little or no snow or salt. That means you’re more inclined to spend more on them, hence the well heeled feet of Vancouverites. (you could say the same about their cars actually).
Moving to Vancouver coincided with the first time since I was a teen that I grew my hair long, so having it so easy to take care of was a delight. In fact, I didn’t go for a haircut until about two years in. You can read about that harrowing experience in a piece I wrote called Of Human Blondage .
When I finally did get a salon haircut it was for a makeover show on CityLine. My former work colleagues from Toronto came to Breakfast Television, where I worked and couldn’t believe what they saw. Not only was my hair way long, but I wasn’t wearing the usual impeccable outfits and full makeup they were used to seeing me don as a junior exec at Chum in Toronto. They swiftly sent me to The Lounge Hair Studio on Richards, deaf to my protests of enjoying my new found “naturalness.”
That’s where Martin Hillier let loose my curls – yes, curls, which I didn’t even know I owned – and showed me how to enhance them with product! Product, I might add, that washes out just fine!
Now that changed my life. Let’s just say, men really like curly hair.
So as I sit here with a lump of build up at the back of my head, after years of detox shampoos, extra long rinses in the shower and narrowly escaping my own threat to just cut it out and off, I am really looking forward to 5 days of great hair in Vancouver later this week! And even though I cannot afford to get my hair cut and styled for the wedding I’m attending, I do know that no matter what, my hair will feel soft and look shiny clean! No buildup!
I bake up a storm every Christmas – well, not just this time of the year, but now more than ever. In order to meet the demands of holiday parties – which is largely my own desire to share my treats – I’ve been baking in between working on journalism articles. It’s the perfect compliment to writing; when my brain tires of looking for the ideal way to shape a story, out comes the butter, sugar, eggs, flour and vanilla.
But there’s something else going on when I’m wielding the hand-mixer. It’s a comfort thing.
Baking conjures memories of how my sister and I, out of sheer boredom on a Saturday night (and also because my parents didn’t allow many store-bought sweets) would bake up some cookies, or a cake – often inventing recipes. Sometimes to disastrous results, but other times surprisingly yummy!
Recently we got together to do some power baking; cookies and cupcakes for my birthday party, and for a family brunch; one savoury (Gatto Napolitano) – a brand new recipe for us, and one sweet (my mom’s famous chocolate cake that has become my sister’s specialty). She commented that we work well in the kitchen and it occurred to me later that whenever we bake we’re unwittingly reliving those Saturday nights when we were craving sugar and trying to kick the ennui.
(Cleaning up the mess was another story altogether – some of our best fights were while doing dishes. For starters, we disputed who was washing, who was drying. You get the picture!)
These days we have the internet to help us along, and it was Google we consulted when, after decorating our cupcakes with pretty little silver balls, we wondered if they were even edible. The so-called dragees (pronounced dra-jeys) are indeed edible since, apparently a human somehow consumes silver regularly and nowhere near the amount that would be considered toxic. I’d tell you that in exact milligrams but I’m not sure I finished the article: a) we were laughing too hard at the thought that it didn’t occur to us that we might be poisoning people with our food art, and b) being the alarmist that I am, I shut the computer down – no surprise to my sister, mind you! She well knows my quirky food worries. I seem to remember that the tiny decorative candies used to contain traces of mercury and so are still banned from some parts of the US. Not here in Canada though. Good thing!
Both our baking escapades were successful which bodes well for a future business we’re dreaming up that has to do with spongy little cakes with creamy frosting and loads of dragees!
Though I’ve been baking since childhood, I still consider myself an amateur and that’s where You Tube comes in handy. I watched a good two hours of decorating techniques the other night. It seems everyone and their sister has a video on how to create the perfect cupcake swirl. Which led to yet another purchase at The Mercantile today for cake decorating supplies, this time a piping kit with oversized nozzles. Without the videos I would never have known that’s what I need to make the quintessential ice cream cone cupcake swirl!
Gotta go now though, I have Christmas baking to do. Oh ya… and that story I need to finish in between frosting my cookies and sprinkling them with – yet another handy video tip – coloured sugar!
“This beautiful, cleverly executed story gets to the very heart of the complexity of the first and most basic masculine bond, and how even through disappointment, abandonment, anger, confusion and pain, a son can still love, honour and protect his father.” – The Globe and Mail
This is the final paragraph in my Globe & Mail review of Vancouver writer, JJ Lee’s new memoir about his father.
The link to the whole review is below, but that paragraph is all you need to know to pick up the book, without ruining the surprise inside: fine, emotionally evocative and brutally truthful writing about one of the most important topics in a man’s life. There’s also a fascinating history of the men’s suit inside the pages of this book.
I’m working on a father-son anthology called Lonely Boy, stories written by men about the loss or absence of their fathers. It’ll be published in 2013. It’s an incredibly important, yet untapped topic. Sometimes I think men don’t get enough of our compassion anymore and I guess this project is my little contribution to righting that.