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Tag: memoir workshop (page 4 of 6)

Never too young

Kid writing.

Kids like writing their memories too. Photo source: http://www.mi9.com/640×480/cute-kid-writing_18063.html

“You don’t have to be famous or old to write a memoir. We all have life stories to share at any age.”

This is what I told Grade 5 students in Calgary last Wednesday.  I was giving a memoir presentation to five Grade 5 classes thanks to the 2014 Writers In Schools Program (WISP). It’s an initiative by the Canadian Authors Association – Alberta Branch that connects authors with young writers in schools across the province. I filled out an application in the fall and was chosen to go to Chris Akkerman School and talk about memoir writing.

Giving memoir writing workshops are no big deal for me – when I’m talking to adults. The adults who attend my classes are there because they want to write their life stories. They have paid for the course and are interested in learning the tools in which to write their personal tales. Kids are another matter.

Since I don’t have children I was a bit nervous about what to share and what to say. It’s been a long time since I was in elementary school and the world has changed a lot. Students these days live in a wired world. They’re plugged into computers, mobile phones and games. They’re constantly in touch with friends through a variety of social media and always looking for the next greatest thing online. They don’t want to a miss a thing. How do I connect to them and have them think about forming a relationship with the past?

Easy – through their memories.

Asking a simple question made the kids’ hands shoot up into the air.

“Who remembers one of their best days ever so far?”

Of course I couldn’t call on every student to describe their fun-filled moments but the ones I did point to had lots to tell me. And the stories weren’t about TV or the latest game. The anecdotes were about when their baby sister was born or when they travelled to a different country, the country where their parents had been born and raised.

All these experiences and memories were bursting to come out. The energy from the kids was positive and they were excited and bouncing around. But when it came to the last writing exercise — write their own memoir — they became so quiet and reflective. Some children took a minute or two to think about what they were going to write before putting pencil to paper.

It’s too bad I didn’t have time to hear all the stories but the ones I did hear were well-written and interesting. There was a happy story about going to Calaway Park on a summer day; there was a sad story about being sick on Halloween and almost missing trick-or-treating; and there was a scary story about a possible ghost sighting.

The students had such diverse experiences and everyone wanted to share their accounts of life from the perspective of a 10 or 11-year-old. I don’t think we need to worry too much about these students losing sight of history. They’re going to be a strong voice in the future with a definite connection to the past.

First snow

Snow-covered tree.

A snow-covered tree branch sticks out over downtown Calgary, November 2013.

When the snow starts flying in fall, it’s the most beautiful. The light outside turns silver. Not that thin autumn sunshine or grey-tinged gloominess. The air surrounding Calgary turns moist for a few hours and chases the dryness away.

Everything becomes quiet. People scurry inside to get away from the snowflakes falling from the sky. Pets aren’t walked. Vehicles are parked and left until the next day.

Street signs and grassy bits collect the snow at the beginning. Then the roads and sidewalks get a coating of the plush frozen carpet. In Calgary not much accumulates with the first dump but in the Maritimes – the beginning of snowfall means a heavy one and is as normal as the sun rising. I remember those storms of my childhood.

A Maritime snowstorm also has snow and wind. Terrible wind. Gusting here and there and everywhere. Leaving the snow in high impassable drifts in the middle of roads and causing white-outs so bad you’d think you were stuck in a cloud.

When inside the haven of home, comfy and cozy by a wood stove, you can hear the wind blasting at the door. Trying to get in. It strikes at the windows too and wants to push them open. And then take its cold hands and grab you by the throat so you can’t breathe.

The snow and wind sometimes fight each other. Which is stronger? The snow, with its hardened, chill-to-the-bone ice flakes, keeps coming steadily. Hoping to outlast the wind. Hoping to exhaust the wind. But the wind, the wind keeps at the snow. Pushing it around. Toying with it. Sending it here and there and everywhere. Hoping to force it to a standstill. Hoping to batter it into submission.

Falling snow.

Snow falls swiftly and heavily in Nova Scotia and it’s (almost) always accompanied by a wind.

The wind and snow don’t realize they’re a force of nature if they work together. Thick tree branches break and fall to earth. Because of the wind? Because of the snow piled on them? Because of their combined strength. Instead of acknowledging this, they continue to wage war against each other.

Eventually, one or the other (or both) decides that’s that. That’s enough. They’re not putting any more energy into the battle. The snow slows. Then stops. The wind lessens its grip on the earth. Then floats away. Who won? In the end, I don’t know.

 

Anchorage House ghost

Anchorage House.

Mount Allison University’s Anchorage House – where Mrs. Bennett still roams the halls.

Anchorage House is a beautiful old mansion sitting like a grand gentleman on the Mount Allison University campus. The old man has a white beard, white hair, wears a black top hat on and is rather stout. He looks distinguished in the daylight, inviting enough to come in for a cup of coffee or a snifter of brandy. But looks can be deceiving and he can be quite the different sort in times of quiet, especially in the fall when the shadows of autumn grow to collect secrets.

I worked in Anchorage House for a few years. My office was on the second floor of the three storey building and it was a beaut. Hardwood floors and panelling, high ceilings and crown mouldings, windows with a view of tall elm trees and student life passing by. It was a cozy place to do business in fall. Usually.

Anchorage House was built in 1892 by a Sackville, N.B. lawyer and then sold to a doctor in 1906. In 1933 the home was bought by retired Mariner Captain Ronald V. Bennett, brother to the 1930s Canadian prime minister Viscount Richard Bedford Bennett. My office was once the bedroom of the captain’s wife.

It would have been a nice spot for a bedroom as it looked out to the landing, where the first floor stairs met the second floor. Mrs. Bennett could see whoever it was climbing up the staircase and probably watched her children nightly, ensuring they went to bed on time.

The story goes though, that her two sons died fighting in the Second World War. Their mother was distraught at the loss, often climbing the stairs to visit their empty rooms. It was said she did this even after her death many years later. I know this is true, I’ve heard her.

Yes, but Anchorage House was an office building, you say. There must have been lots of people coming and going, up and down those staircases. But not as many as you would think. One autumn lunch hour I was alone in the house. All alone. No one downstairs, no one on the second floor (except me) and no one on the third floor. There was no one else there.

My desk faced out the door with a direct view of the landing. Everyone using the stairs had to pass my office. Up and down and down and up. Even when I was busy with my work I could see all the different shapes of people treading on the steps and passing me by. Except one day.

One, two, three footsteps creaked on the carpeted stairs. Up and up and up until he or she got to the second floor.

I looked up from my computer to see if someone needed my help, as I was the only one there. But there was no one there. Oh, OK. My mistake.

Back to work.

Again, one, two, three footsteps creaked on the carpeted stairs. Up and up and up until he or she got to the second floor. I look up. No one there.

That’s weird. Maybe I’m hearing things. Maybe I’m tired. Maybe the old gentleman house is stretching his bones? There must be a reason for this. I walked to the landing and looked down the stairs. Nothing. No one.

Hmmmm. Do I let myself be scared? I don’t have to, as a co-worker rushed in the front door and up the stairs to her office, her office that’s straight across from mine. I didn’t tell her what I’d been noticing. I didn’t want her to think I was a silly goose.

One, two, three footsteps creaked on the carpeted stairs. Up and up and up until he or she got to the second floor. I looked up. And nobody.

This happened a couple more times until my co-worker came into my officer and asked me if I was experiencing what she was experiencing –  hearing footsteps but not seeing anybody.

“Oh yes,” I said. “It’s kind of freaking me out.”

“Me too,” she admitted.

Then one, two, three footsteps creaked on the carpeted stairs. There! We were hearing it together. Tiptoeing out into the landing we looked down the staircase. It was a student, my friend Pete, climbing the stairs. He looked up at us expectantly and we started laughing.

I asked him if he had been here earlier and he said no, it was his first visit.

It wasn’t the grieving mother’s first visit and I doubt that day was her last. After that I made sure when I was working evenings to turn on all the lights although it made leaving torturous. I had a million switches to shut off before I left, each light I turned off brought me closer to the darkness. But good old Anchorage and Mrs. Bennett left me alone.

 

 

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May

dyke

Dyke along Port Williams, N.S.

“You can’t change the weather,” says one of my aunts, “so why bother complaining about it?”

Yet I really feel like raging about all the thunder and lightning and rain that Calgary’s been treated to this spring and summer. I usually enjoy storms. Being cozy and safe inside while the elements boom, thrash and splash outside. But enough is enough. I want sunshine.

It’s been officially summer for a while and with this season usually comes warmth and freckles and leaving windows wide open. Before I was old enough to get a job, summer for me meant swimming outdoors, camping trips and bug repellent. All great things.

Then, when I was older and had to take more responsibility for myself, summer meant a summer job. From strawberry picking, to instructing swimming, to being a lifeguard, to picking rocks, to making tires, work filled my Nova Scotia summer days with learning about accountability and making a buck. Summer nights, however, (when I wasn’t on a midnight shift at the Michelin plant) were filled with other things. Things that meant being young and free and not having any concerns except who was going to bring snacks to the fire.

Dyke near Port Williams looking towards Wolfville.

Dyke near Port Williams looking towards Wolfville.

My friends and I had bonfires on the dykes near Wolfville. The dykes were built by the Acadian people hundreds of years ago to keep the waters of the Bay of Fundy at bay. The barriers still exist and work today and make a nice place for a sea of flames and a gathering of friends.

We played word games and sang songs. None that the Acadian ghosts would know. At the fires crushes among my male and female friends were lit. Some burned out over a week and some blazed until school started again. None went further than September.

During our summer fires we watched satellites in the sky. Counted the stars and talked about our futures. What would we be doing? Who would we turn out to be? Who would we be with?

After the evening we would go home, smelling of smoke and dreaming of what’s ahead. It was always good stuff. Because when you’re young it’s important to think the sun is going to shine forever. That it’ll always be summer.

When you’re older, 20 years older, you know that rain falls and thunder crackles when you least expect it. But there needs to be some time for summer. For those days when you kick off your work shoes and go barefoot in the grass. Or ignore that last office e-mail because your bike is calling. So when the sun starts to shine over Calgary, do yourself a favour and enjoy a moment or two in it. You’re always young at heart.

Memoir as poem

Mount Begbie.

Mount Begbie in Revelstoke, B.C. on a rainy day.

Memoirs aren’t strictly a written record of events. You can use poetry instead of prose. Both are expressions of creativity but poetry gives the writer, and reader, licence to use words in different ways.

Robert Frost, a renowned U.S. poet, used verse to remember certain moments in his life. His work, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, is one such example.

I am certainly not in any league with Frost but I do like to create rhythmic literary memoirs. One day while living in Revelstoke in 2009, I was waiting for a summer storm to crash into the afternoon. Here is how I captured the moment.

Storm

Mountain rain storm

No thunder

Or lightening

Just the resonance of drops hitting the

Metal

Roof

A natural on unnatural sound

I want something amazing to

Happen

To see electricity reach out from the sky

to strike out from the

Grey

To collide with the green peaks

A fragment of magic in the

Midst of ordinary

There it is

Finally

A crack, a peal, a shard of a noise through noise

Thunder

So deafening it splits the clouds

They break

and I can see a perfect hole of

blue

Burned into the dark sky.

Summer, summertime

Bonfire.

Bonfire in August: Pictou, Nova Scotia, August 5, 2012.

It’s a smile, it’s a kiss, it’s a sip of wine … it’s summertime!
~Kenny Chesney

Memoirs don’t always have to be short stories or masterpieces. They can be a simple list of things you jot down in a notebook or compile on a blog.  Here are my top 10 memories of summer. What are yours?

1. Butterflies in the woods

2. Strawberry shortcake for breakfast

3. Swimming in the lake

4. Thunder storms over the ocean

6. Strong sunshine on the side deck

7. Gardens in bloom

8. Fires on the beach with friends

9. Taking all day to mow the lawn

10. The smell of our family’s canvas tent

Flooding Calgary with a sense of community

Rushing river over bridge.

Bow River on Saturday, June 22, 2013. For a video of the river a day earlier, click here.

Lots of memories were made this past week in Calgary…and many weren’t good ones. The flooding that hit southern Alberta will leave an indelible mark on the land, economy and in our minds. It was heartbreaking to see homes and businesses filled with water and streets gushing like rivers.

The flooding started in Canmore on Thursday, June 20 and Calgarians started to feel the water seeping into the edges of their communities the same afternoon. By evening, the Bow and the Elbow rivers had converged on the city and soaked the usually bone-dry urban centre right to its core. And it was still raining.

On Friday, Aboriginal Day, a friend and I walked down to the Bow River early in the morning to check out the situation. It was high – touching the bottom of a bridge that usually sits several metres above it. Reports said the water still had 30 to 35 per cent more to go before it crested. Mother Nature can be crushingly awesome.

So can people.

While watching the river, we chatted about the water with people – things like if they had been affected and how sad all this was. Conversations were brief but they were still conversations. It’s interesting to note that before the flood, often when I passed by people on the sidewalks or pathways I’d look at them and smile. Sometimes I’d say, “Good morning,” or “Hi.” Out of the many people I’d pass, only one or two ever responded.

Calgarians are busy. They don’t have time for pleasantries. They have a meeting to get to or something more important that voids a “hello” in return to mine. But now, as we stood by the rushing river, a sense of community in the face of all this destruction started people talking to each other.

Calgary Kijiji ads.

Calgary Kijiji ads

During this vast tragedy a few things have stood out: How people are standing up for each other. Kijiji is inundated with offers to house people and pets and offers of clean clothing. On Twitter and Facebook there are questions about how to help. What do the evacuation centres need? Where do Calgarians drop off donations? It’s becoming about community. Hopefully that will be one of the things remembered about this historical week after the water recedes.

A beast of the wild

Squirrel.

Yuck. A squirrel. Photo credit: http://www.flickriver.com/places/Canada/Nova+Scotia/Waverley/recent/

I’m not afraid of spiders, big or small (I’ve lived in Africa and seen both). I’m not afraid of mice or rats. I’m not afraid of snakes.

I’m afraid of squirrels.

Hate those fuzzy bastards. Why? I read a news clipping about 20 years ago that told the story of junkie squirrels in New York City’s Central Park. They were getting high off of syringes left behind by drug users. The squirrels would then run amok and attack people at random. Doesn’t that scare you?

It scared me. The vision of high squirrels stuck with me and I could never remove it from my brain.

The spring just after graduating from Acadia University in the 90s, three friends and I stepped into nature for a break before hitting the real world. Kat, Dan, Doog and I hiked to an old but sturdy log cabin in the middle of the forest near Liverpool, N.S. The spot was called Meadowbrook and used to be the site of a commune (or at least that’s the legend).

Meadowbrook was idyllic – far away from humans and traffic and computers calling us into the work force. In a clearing stood two buildings, a log barn and the tiny log home. They were both standing strong after many years of disuse. The cabin had two floors – the ground floor with enough room for a bench and a wood stove, and the top floor – a loft where we would sleep.

It was early June and the weather was treating us right The sun shone on the land and warmed it up, bringing out the scents of mud and growing grass. We lounged around for what was a perfect afternoon and in the early evening, prepared a great outdoor feast.

Sated after our big meal and a midnight bonfire, we hit the hay. We climbed into our sleeping bags in the loft and drifted off to sleep after all the fresh air.

That’s when I heard it.

Scritching and scratching above the four of us. Shining a flashlight around the room I caught the form of a…squirrel.

I reacted in a way I’m not proud of. I screamed.

Headlamps went on and put the creature in the spotlight. It was hanging above us, holding on to the bark-covered ceiling with its claws. I was still screaming.

Doog rushed to my rescue. He tried to shoo the squirrel away by waving a book at it. But since the rodent wasn’t interested in reading it scuttled away across the rafters, like one of those aliens on Alien, right over to me. I screamed louder. Doog was bouncing around the loft shouting at the squirrel, Kat laughed her head off and Dan silently took it all in.

After bounding about over our heads for several seconds, the confused squirrel halted for a moment. And then peed. The rodent urine rained down from the ceiling and onto Kat’s sleeping bag. It made her laugh harder and Doog worked harder to get the squirrel out of the loft. I ran downstairs and outside. Where there are a thousand more squirrels.

Finally, Doog managed to take care of the squirrel in the cabin, Kat stopped laughing and mopped up the squirrel pee and I returned to my bed. But I’ve never returned to Meadowbrook.

To laugh or not to laugh

Humour is one way to deal with tough issues. Last Tuesday, while leading a memoir writing workshop at Alpha House, the participants taught me that jokes are allowed even in the deepest and darkest moments. They gave me permission to laugh with them when I might have otherwise cried for them.

Alpha House is a shelter in Calgary that gives those whose lives are affected by alcohol and other drug dependencies a safe and caring home. I conduct volunteer seminars there through a Calgary non-profit organization: This is My City (TMC). TMC brings art and people together no matter what income bracket or social status because art builds bridges and lessens differences.

Last week’s session was my third at Alpha House. I’m instructing a class called “Write YOUR own story.” Unlike other workshops, where the same people attend every time, the writers at Alpha House are different every time. This past week I had five participants, four women and one man, who used a lot of humour in their conversation and writing.

From writing about their passions such as being outdoors or cooking, to describing what certain emotions feel like to them, the students were engaged and did a lot of work writing about themselves. In between the confessions of heartbreak and heartache, they joked about their addictions. At first I was taken aback. I didn’t know what to do. But they told me it was OK to giggle at their sometimes dirty, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes shocking — but always funny — digs at themselves.

The issues they face are no laughing matter. They’re serious. But if we fail to see some humour in our personal tragedies, then what’s the point of remembering how we got to where we are now? Or thinking about how far we’ve come.

Monsters into words

Building.

Alpha House. Photo credit: http://2.beltline.ca/community/social-environment/expansion-calgary-alpha-house-society-cahs

“Write the hard stuff,” suggests the last line of a story in a writer’s magazine. That’s easy when the hard stuff is just basic hard stuff, like what to make for supper. But what if it’s like the hard stuff the people living at Alpha House are dealing with – the stuff that turns lives upside down and inside out and lures leviathans into battle.

I had just finished reading the writing tip after wrapping up a memoir writing workshop at Alpha House. Alpha House is a shelter in the city that gives those whose lives are affected by alcohol and other drug dependencies a safe and caring home. I volunteer seminars there through a Calgary organization: This is My City (TMC). TMC brings art and people together no matter what income bracket or social status because art builds bridges and lessens differences.

On Tuesday I started teaching a class called “Write YOUR own story” at Alpha House. The participants were a lively bunch and seven people sat down with me at a table to write. There was a lot of talking and I had to start my class several times. I was expecting distractions and there were many but people were interested in what I was teaching and wrote down what I was saying.

Then, one by one, people began to leave. They needed a coffee. They needed a smoke. They needed a break.

A couple participants rejoined me and picked up their pens. In the end four people stayed to finish the class. With these four I had two writing exercises for them.

The first one was writing a legacy letter to themselves, a kind of note to remember a moment or an accomplishment. It’s meant to connect the person today with an experience or happy memory from yesterday. Participants were supposed to start the note with Dear Past Me but one man said he couldn’t write the letter.

He couldn’t write it because his past was too riddled by addiction. He had no recollections of joy and could only remember having a habit. Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to release unwanted and bad memories but he didn’t want to use the writing exercise as catharsis.

Another one of my writing exercises was aimed at helping people use description in their pieces. I asked the participants to illustrate themselves in words.What colour is your hair? What are you wearing? How do you talk?

But one woman told me she couldn’t do it. She had just had surgery and wasn’t looking her best. I suggested she write about a friend or the dog she had told us about in another story, or even her mother.

“That’s bad,” she said. “I don’t want to ever go there.”

She ended up writing about someone else. Someone who wasn’t too terrible to remember.

So the hard stuff is out there. But it’s a lot easier for some of us to put down the words on paper. It’s a lot tougher when you’ve had a lifetime of the hard stuff. Especially when it means turning the monsters into words and releasing them.
 

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