Yesterday I was at the Calgary library talking about my experiences teaching memoir writing workshops to participants from the Drop-In Centre, Alpha House and Women’s Centre. My presentation was one of five and part of the This Is My City Festival 2015.
I’m a volunteer with This is My City (TMC). TMC matches artists with people living at the margins of society and together we write, dance, sing and create art. I run memoir writing sessions and get to hear many different anecdotes from the homeless and those at risk of homelessness.
The festival is free and there are many things to see and hear and do this upcoming week. From art exhibits to found poetry to a photo walk, you’re invited to join us: http://bit.ly/1FN3j1R. It’s a great way to see, hear, read and listen about the people most of us have forgotten.
We’ve all had those days or weeks or months or years. When things are tough. When things aren’t going smoothly. When everything you do ends up on the proverbial floor. Today though, I’m finding humour in the unfunny. Turning the tables on the rough stuff and looking through the gloominess and into the sunshine.
During a particularly bad week, I went to Starbucks. At least here I get exactly what I want: a non-fat, half-sweet chai latte with a tart and tasty slice of lemon loaf on the side. The barista who took my order was an acquaintance. I don’t know anything about her except her name and she’s a student. We made some small talk as I hand over my loaded gift card to be swiped.
“It says zero,” she says.
Oh… My face heats up like the milk being steamed for my drink. I madly check all my pockets looking for change, for a piece of plastic, anything. Nope. Nothing. I took the wrong gift card. And I didn’t have any money or a debit or credit card on me.
“This is embarrassing,” I say to the barista as I step towards the door. “I’ll have to skip the drink today.”
“It’s already made so don’t worry about it.”
Isn’t that nice.
I grab my drink and go to put a lid on it. When I look down at the hot beverage it’s not what I ordered. It’s a caramel caffè macchiato..and I don’t drink coffee. However, I really can’t send a free latte back. Oh well. There’s whip cream on top…and I like that.
I’m missing a family member today. Thursday, our cat, died last week. I wrote about how I met her a few weeks ago but I hadn’t had a chance to post her story. Here is it now.
She’s orange and white. Yes, a female and that’s unusual for an orange cat. Her name is Thursday and she’s 19 years old. And yes, that’s old for a cat found on the street several years ago.
Thursday has a beige bump on her nose that’s a different colour then the rest of her pink nose. She wears a shiny gold collar that’s a bit bold for a senior. When I first met Thursday five years ago, she was just the guy who I was dating’s cat.
Back then, she was plump and her fur was shiny. She ran here and there and jumped up and down. In the summer, she hung out on the balcony and watched the birds. She never tried to leap into the air and catch any of them. She’s too dignified for that. She’s not too elegant to beg for cheese though. She gets a piece every morning and evening and chows down on it quickly and then looks for more.
Five years ago, she didn’t really have much to do with me. She would glare at me from her spot on her favourite chair and then close her eyes again. Blocking me from her world.
When I moved in with my boyfriend Thursday would move away from me whenever I sat next to her on the chesterfield. She didn’t like me being in her space. She especially didn’t like me sitting beside her dad. That space was reserved for her and not me.
Gradually as the months passed, she began to sit near me. Then next to me. Then on me. But only when her dad was not around. We spend many of our days together as I work from home a lot. She likes to supervise my writing and keeps me on deadline. Okay, her deadline. When it’s 6 p.m. she makes sure I know it’s time to give her treats and cheese.
Now she is having trouble springing onto the couch and is losing weight. Her fur no longer catches the light but is dull and coarse. When my husband and I sit on the couch Thursday wants cuddles from me. Even though her dad is right there. She loves me and I love her and I couldn’t imagine a day without her.
In my writing workshops, I talk about emotional writing and how to convey sentiment without using words like angry or happy. The best way to express feelings in writing is to actually describe what these emotions bring to you or your character’s face, body laanguage and voice.
Next, my participants do a writing exercise where we take an emotion word and write about the feeling without using the word. We write for 10 minutes and then share our stories. We then have to guess which emotion we each wrote about. Can you guess mine?
High up in my airplane, I can see the landing strip. But I can’t land. Every time I try to make it back to earth, the wind pushes me off course. Off to the side of the runway. I’ve tried three times to touch down.
One, two, three.
Sweat beads on my forehead. I’m getting hotter and hotter as the gusts use me as their toy. Their plaything to be thrown into the air and kept captive until they’re bored of me.
How am I going to put this plane back on the ground? Stupid wind. You’re going to be the death of me.
I saw him from across the room. A handsome guy with an intense stare. I decided to go over and say hello. That’s when he head-butted me.
It was my introduction to Tomas, a cat at the Fort Smith Animal Shelter. He knew he was going to be mine the moment he laid eyes on me. And he wasn’t about to let me go.
I was trying to pat the other kitties in the shelter’s cat room. There were a lot of them and everyone needed at least a couple of hugs. Tommy didn’t think so. He wiggled his way into my arms and told the others to scram.
This was my first visit to the shelter since I had moved to the Northwest Territories a couple of months before. Dixie Penner, who runs the shelter, also worked with me at the paper I had come to be the editor of: the then Slave River Journal. She suggested I volunteer at the animal sanctuary and so I was there looking around.
Tom followed me around, hissed at the other kitties, and mooed at me to pay attention to him only. (Tomas doesn’t meow, he makes cow noises but since he’s from the north we say he’s making bison noises.) After that day I started coming back to visit him and play with the other cats, well, if I could get near any of them. I walked the dogs too.
A few weeks after helping out, Dixie asked me if I wanted to foster Tom, a squat boy with several shades of grey granite on his white fur body. He wasn’t getting along with the other cats and needed to be on his own. I asked my landlords if I could bring him home and they said OK so I said OK to hosting Tomas for a while.
He moved in one November afternoon. When there was snow on the subarctic ground and the sun was beginning to hide for most of the day. I thought he’d be a regular guy, hang out with me, eat some food and then go to sleep at night. But oh no, he turned into a bad guy.
Tomas would run full-tilt at me and then attack whatever part of my body he arrived at first. Usually my legs. He was vicious and for the first two weeks I walked around with giant pillows so he could assault them and not me. One night I got a nasty surprise in the dark just as I turned out the light. Tommy leapt up and grabbed my arm, scratching and tearing until I managed to pull him off.
Even my friends were afraid of him. When one buddy came over Tom would hop into his lap, waiting for pats. He wouldn’t get many as my friend was frozen solid, afraid to move a muscle in case Tom sank his fangs into his flesh.
Over a few months Tommy became a sort-of nice boy. He stopped the attacks and bit only when I left him on his own for a while. He’s a very social cat. After a year I decided to adopt him because even though his poster was all over the territory, even in Yellowknife, no one has asked about him. (I’ve never told him this though.) He’s a great guy now after mellowing for 11 years. Just don’t whistle around him. He’ll bite you.
I walked past some Calgary seniors last Thursday lamenting the loss of Target. It sounded like they were truly upset. However, one woman asked, “What was wrong with Zellers? I miss that place.” I have to agree with her. While Target and Zellers are only two of the many retailers fading away, the Mom and Pop clothing stores that used to be open on our main streets are almost all gone. But not from some of our memories. Target’s closing caused a very buried story to resurface.
Living in rural Nova Scotia meant my two younger sisters and I had to take the bus to and from school. We waited for the bus to pick us up in all types of weather: wind, rain, sleet or snow and had to be prepared to fight these elements. Therefore, from November to March, we were dressed in snow gear.
In the fall of Grade 7 my mom took us shopping in Windsor, Nova Scotia. It was in a family-run clothing store that I met and fell in love with a matching ski jacket and pants: bright yellow and puffy with a faux-leather finish. The coat had a big late 80s asymmetrical collar and a large and shiny brass belt – that buckled in the front. Fabulous! My middle sister got the same suit in blue.
These were expensive purchases at the time and my mother told me the yellow wasn’t a “practical colour.” I guess that meant it wasn’t flattering. There was nothing she could say to turn my head from the sunshine suit. It was mine.
“Looking good!” I thought to myself when I got home and tried on my new winter gear again. The trousers were slightly flared at the bottom to fit over my boots and the jacket cinched nicely at the waist so I did not appear all one shape: blobish. I wished I didn’t have to take my snow and ice clothing off – ever. I wanted everyone to admire my spiffy duds.
Soon after getting my new gear, I was outside Wolfville Junior High School waiting for the bus to take me home. There was a crowd of country kids in the parking lot and I was the only one in a gorgeous and swanky ski suit. I was standing with my friend Angela talking about, what do you think? Boys. Then the guy I had a crush on, a townie, walked by.
I certainly remember his name because Angela began yelling it at the top of her lungs.
“Steve! Steve! The girl in the yellow ski suit likes you!”
When he turned around she pointed at me. Which she didn’t have to do, as I was the only one in a bright yellow, top to bottom, snowsuit. My face was bright red.
The snowbanks around the school were piled high and I wanted to dive into one and bury myself. But shame still would have found me, as my yellow snowsuit would have been a beacon to light the way. I wanted to rip off the garish trousers and throw the stupid jacket to the wind to be carried far, far, far away from me. Oh the teenage humiliation!
Angela finally shut up and Steve kept walking away. But I was left with hatred for my previously glamourous outfit. From then on I dreaded wearing it and being identified as “The girl in the yellow ski suit with the crush on Steve.”
Of course my parents weren’t going to let me buy something else and I was too big to trade suits with my sister. I just made sure every time I came and left school Steve was nowhere in sight. Even though you could see me coming from a mile away.
Time travel boggles my mind. Yet, as a memoir writer I do it almost every day. One thing different about my continuum is physically I stay in the same place. But sometimes something happens and I’m transported, both body and mind, to a different era.
My husband gave me a book about Alex Colville for Christmas. Colville was an artist famous for his stark and muted everyday images that seem to have something hiding in them. He spent a lot of time in the Maritimes, in and around the areas I know well. He lived in Wolfville, Nova Scotia and while I was growing up near the quaint town, I used to see him and his wife, Rhoda, at church, walking down the street or in friends’ parents’ homes as supper guests. It wasn’t until I graduated high school did I understand that Colville was one of Canada’s prolific painters.
I didn’t know him but I feel like I do. My parents have a few of his prints and I have one too. When Canada Post included Colville’s Church and Horse work as part of its “Masterpieces of Canadian Art” stamp series, Colville autographed special envelopes for the Wolfville post office. I bought five of the envelopes for my family and kept one for myself. Now I have a whole book to look at, at any time.
Flipping through his photos and images many of them are scenes from places I’ve lived and even include people I know. Seeing these paintings I enter a different world. A world that existed yesterday and still exists today. There are scenes of Blomidon, a prominent landmark that sticks out like a pot handle into the Minas Basin. When you’re driving down Highway 101 into the Annapolis Valley from Halifax, you see Blomidon. Then you know you are home. Also along the same highway is Freddy Wilson: “The Waver” who stands on an overpass welcoming travellers to Kings County. Colville’s painting of Freddy is included in the book.
On the page next to Freddy is a work that many people might puzzle over. But I know it’s the Acadia University physical plant and a former professor. Once in a class that I forget now, we were told a story about that painting. But it’s an unsettling one that I won’t repeat.
Main Street Wolfville is featured by Colville. As a background to the main image of a woman and a vehicle, is the war memorial and post office and in behind these landmarks, houses where I went to parties filled with vodka and youth. Grand Pre and the dykes are caught in brush strokes too. In another painting, my friend’s sister rides a horse. And another, there’s Waterville Municipal Airport; where I got my pilot’s license. Today, the airport is in the midst of closing but Colville captured it alive and buzzing. Is one of those planes the one I flew?
Colville went to Mount Allison University and I worked there long after he left. Some of his images remain though for all to see as murals on buildings. I’m wondering if his Milk Truck piece is set in Sackville in the late 50s. I think I recognize the curve in the road.
Because of Alex Colville’s art, I have a tether to another world. I didn’t know him but I feel he knew me.
I usually don’t make resolutions but I’m making an exception this year. It is: in 2015 I will notice the small stuff. Those little and small things that don’t really matter but in the scheme of things, really do. Things that make up the big things like the pink floating in the red and orange of a sunset. Or sunrise. Those lines of pigment that blend together and colour the start, and end, of a day.
I resolve to feel the wind on my skin and through my hair. To taste the food I eat. To savour each morsel on my tongue and not just chow down. I promise to listen to each word spoken to me. To speak with words thought out. To see the ants on the pavement and wonder where they’re going. To watch flowers open. To follow birds until they disappear into the clouds. To remember the small things are part of a bigger picture and give us a better description of life as a whole.