Family Lines

stories for you

Tag: memoir (page 1 of 15)

It’s not a race

Swimmers racing in the pool.Recently, I was a guest blogger for Melissa Forziat Events. Melissa is a small business marketing coach and event manager who is engaged in supporting small businesses. I wrote about going at your own pace when growing your company – you don’t have to keep up with the Joneses. Read my piece here.

To learn more about Melissa, go here.

Writing is work

A person writing in their notebook.This morning, my spin instructor said December was for wrapping things up and January is for starting new things. Hmm. I’ve never thought about it that way before. I do know a lot of people start going to the gym this month – part of their “New Year’s Resolution” regime.

According to this article, one in three Canadians make resolutions — and out of those numbers, over 70 per cent won’t keep their promises. I have seen a few writers resolve to finally finish their books. I’ve also fielded many questions from aspiring authors about how to start their books. In fact, as a writing instructor, that’s the top question I’m asked. My answer is always that writing is work.

Writing takes time and effort. You can have a great idea but if you’re not writing it down, then you just have an idea. You’re not a writer unless you’re writing and shaping your thoughts into a story with characters and events. To be an author, you need to approach writing as a job.

Start your writing job by scheduling time in your day to write. Some people write best in the morning while others prefer late at night. Whatever your preference, try to keep to the same routine (day and time). As well, you’ll need to tell your family and friends to leave you alone during the time you’ve set aside. If this can’t be done at home, go to a café or the library. Sometimes the lively atmosphere of a coffee shop can add colour to your own words.

If you don’t have an hour or four, take any time you can get. You’d be surprised at how much you can write in 10 minutes. Use the dead time while you’re commuting or waiting for an appointment to jot down some things on your mobile phone or scrap paper. Speaking of phones, turn off your notifications. Other distractions like e-mail and magazines can wait until you’ve written 50 words. Then you can reward your hard work with a peep at Facebook.

There’s no magic pill that’ll turn you into a writer. As I tell my writing workshop participants, no one cares about your idea. You have to care enough about it to make it into a story. That’s only going to happen if you do some work and start writing.

If you’re in the Edmonton area and looking to start writing your memoir, I’m teaching at the North Edmonton Seniors Association. Memoirs by You starts tomorrow, January 9. For more information and how to register, go here: http://bit.ly/2lVMcIM

I’m also teaching Memoir Writing, Your Story, Your Way at the West Side Seniors Activity Centre starting Thursday, Feb 22. For more information and how to register, go here: http://bit.ly/2CFAGLP

Gift of Christmas present

A Christmas gift from the heart.

A Christmas gift from the heart.

Christmas is a few days away and I hope you’re not scrambling to get last-minute presents. If you are, I have a suggestion: Instead of fighting the crowds at the mall, write a legacy letter. Instead of shelling out megabucks for this and that, you’ll have a Christmas gift from the heart.

A legacy letter is a collection of your thoughts to a loved one. You can write anything, from how much you appreciate him/her to an experience you want remembered. You can even add a favourite recipe or attach photos and songs. Here are some step-by-step directions for you to get started.

Get your laptop/computer/tablet/phone/pen and paper.

Go somewhere comfortable — ideally, somewhere you won’t be interrupted. (That means putting your phone on silent and/or telling others not to talk to you for half an hour.)

Here are some prompts to get you going:

  • What is your earliest memory of this person?
  • How has this person impacted your life?
  • Which of your parents are you most like?
  • How is your family unique?
  • What is so fantastic about your significant other?
  • How are your children blessings?

Those are only suggestions. You can write whatever you want. The next step is, well, writing. Writing is work but don’t let that deter you. You’ll be surprised at how much you can jot down in half an hour.

Don’t worry about spelling mistakes and grammar in your first draft. Just get your thoughts on the page. Let the words spill out and fill the empty space. Don’t edit yourself by thinking you have to use big words and long sentences: short stories are great too. You don’t need some giant, fantastic event to make a compelling letter. Sometimes, the simplest moments are the best – moments like your family sitting around the supper table trading stories or the smell of your grandmother’s scones cooking on the griddle.

Once you have your thoughts and stories down on the page, leave it for a couple of hours. Then go back to it and see if you need to take anything out or add anything.

Next, spell check your document. Once that’s done, read your piece aloud. That’s really helpful when looking for missing words or words that are spelled correctly but aren’t supposed to be there. (I always type “clam” instead of “calm.”)

Print your letter and put it in an envelope and you’re done. If you want to e-mail your piece, you can schedule it to arrive in a mailbox on Christmas Day. You won’t be just giving a gift, you’ll be leaving a legacy that will make the recipient feel loved any day of the year.

A great tradition

What has zero calories, no price tag and is a great holiday tradition? Sharing stories of Christmases past.

Non-fiction fiction

This is fiction. I don't snowboard. Only ski.

This is fiction. I don’t snowboard. Only ski. Revelstoke, 2011.

Sometimes memories aren’t serious. They can be silly, too. Here’s one from my Revelstoke days in 2011.

Smushed dreams

I lean my bicycle against a snowbank outside of the Revelstoke post office. The sun is shining with all its strength, which isn’t much in B.C. in early December. It’s not too cold, but it’s not warm enough to melt anything other than some icicles hanging from the building.

Inside the post office, I stand in a long line up. We’re all waiting for something. I look at people ahead of me and invent a story for each one. The woman carrying her ski poles, maybe she’s a ski patroller. Maybe she found two people who skied off the resort and found themselves stranded in the drainage – no way out? They could have spent a freezing cold night in the snow but they didn’t have to – thanks to her.

Oh, my turn! I head to the counter and pay for a stamp. Then I put it on the Christmas card to my parents. I turn to go but the clerk calls out.

Revelstoke post office.

Revelstoke post office.

“Why did you do that?” she asks.

“Do what?”

“Put the stamp on sideways.”

“I don’t know,” I say, taking a step towards the door. “I didn’t mean to do it.”

I don’t mean to squish the ant crawling past my boots either. Oops.

Perhaps this ant was on its way to his or her friends. Perhaps she was at her tiny mailbox and found out some good news. Perhaps this ant was about to tell them about it.

“I’ve won that language scholarship,” she would have announced. “I’m going to Paris to live for a year.”

“You can’t speak French, Antina,” says another ant. “Formicidae are strictly English and chemical communicators.”

“Well, I speak French and I’m going to France.”

Little Antina has always dreamed of going abroad and learning to speak the romantic language better. In Grade 4, she wore a blue beret to school. All her classmates laughed at her. The wasp students especially stung.

“Hahahaha!” they sneered. “Hahaha! Antina thinks she’s French. She’s nothing but an insect.”

“Shut up!” cried Antina. “One day you will see. You will see me going to France.”

She tilted her blue beret at a jauntier angle, stuck her antennae high in the air and scuttled away.

“The nerve of those Vespoidea! Jerks.”

From then on, Antina made it her mission to excel in French . She got top marks in school all the way through and she graduated head of the class. It didn’t hurt that she lived in the Canada Post office, which is bilingual, so there were many things for her to read, translate and learn.

Mount Begbie in the distance.

Mount Begbie in the distance.

University was in the cards for Antina. She thought seriously about her career options. There were a few she was interested in. She could see herself involved in sciences: stuff like research or fieldwork. However, she didn’t like the isolation of being in a lab. How about something in social science? How about a Bachelor of Ants degree?

“Je sais! I’ll be a French teacher.”

Unfortunately, before Antina had a chance to attain higher education, her whole family was eradicated one day in July. She came home to the colony and no one was there.

She searched and searched and searched. She found her brother and father withering and dying in a corner. They told her that her mother and two sisters had first escaped the dusting of pesticides but ended up breathing in the noxious fumes when they ran inside to help the rescue.

“Antina,” sighed her dying dad. “Go to Paris. Live your dream. I love you.”

“Oh papa! One day I will. I will go to the City of Lights. I will climb the Tour Eiffel. I will mange fromage et pain et vin et beaucoup des choses. Bien sur.”

She never did. How could she? Antina was all alone now and needed to make her own way. With no money for food, how could she pay for school?

Antina took up a labour position in the post office. Her job was to travel the line of customers and pick up anything they dropped. Well, not everything, but items of value such as bagel crumbs, cookie pieces and the occasional apple core. She was vital to rebuilding the population.

The work was hard. The work was dangerous. Often during a single day, she was almost smushed. She stayed because the pay was good. To reward herself, she applied to language programs. It helped keep her dream alive, it kept her hopes up.

When she got the reply about the scholarship in the mail, she was ecstatic. Finally, finally all her aspirations, hard work and desires were coming true. Antina was off to tell her supervisor the good news. Anthea was a good friend and would share her happiness.

Unfortunately, Antina was in such high spirits she let her guard down. This one time. This one and only and last time. Because that’s when I took a step from the counter – towards the door.

If only I had put the stamp on correctly, then the clerk wouldn’t have stopped me. I would have walked past Antina. I would have walked out the door and hopped back on my bike and spun off through the piles of snow.

Au revoir, Antina.

Chipping inn

A matchbook - The only image I could find of the Colonial Inn.

The only image I could find of the Colonial Inn.

A Facebook meme went around last week asking people what restaurants they remember from childhood and if the joints are still around. I remember the usual because they were unusual in many Nova Scotia towns in the 80s. (There was no McDonald’s in New Minas in the Annapolis Valley until the mid-eighties.) The other night, another restaurant popped into my head, a place that has almost been eaten away by my brain.

The Colonial Inn was on Main Street in downtown Wolfville. It was a 10-minute walk from Wolfville Junior High, where I attended Grades 7 to 9. As a student who was bused to town every day from the countryside, I always brought my lunch: a nutritious meal prepared lovingly by my mother. However, sometimes I didn’t want my milk or apple or sandwich. Sometimes, I wanted to go to the Colonial Inn.

For two dollars, my friend Angela and I could get a hot and greasy plate of fries to share. At 14 years old, two bucks was a lot of money. It was such a treat when one of us had the cash or we each had a dollar to chip in for an oily mid-day meal. Off to downtown we went.

My parents had never specifically told me that downtown was off-limits. I was probably told to stay on the school grounds. While town students got to home for lunch, rural kids like Angela and I had nothing to do for an hour. We were allowed to eat lunch in our classrooms and then we had to go outside, rain or snow or shine. That often meant walking around Wolfville.

Wolfville is a quaint and cute university town (home of Acadia University), and the Colonial Inn wasn’t a seedy bar or a filthy diner: it was a nice brick-faced restaurant. The servers wore long mustard coloured skirts, peasant blouses and “Colonial-style” white caps. I only remember women as servers and one in particular because she used to ride the bus with me. To me, she was an adult but she would have only been at most, 18. Her name was Dora and she often brought Angela and me our one plate of fries that we split down the middle. Angela smothered her chips in ketchup while I liked mine plain.

A modern scene of downtown Wolfville.

A modern scene of downtown Wolfville.

We hoovered down our shared lunch, always aware that time was ticking away and we had to go back to class. After the last chip was gone, we’d run up the hill to school, wondering where we’d get two bucks for tomorrow’s fries.

When we moved on to Grade 10 (high school), we moved schools and communities. I didn’t go back to the Colonial Inn and one day, it wasn’t there. There was a new restaurant in its place. Angela and I had moved on too and met new friends. We’ve never lost touch though and I see her when I go home. Maybe next visit we should go get some fries.

Reptile recall

Four rings resembling snakes.Did you ever go through a phase as a young teenager, then look back, and ask, “Why did I do that?” Well, my snake jewelry is a product of one of those times. Why did I like reptile rings so much?

I don’t know. I must have had a reason when I was 13 but it has slithered away now. The rings on the picture on the left are only a few pieces of my large-scale collection. I also have earrings and at one time, a golden snake belt. It had red fake-stone “ruby” eyes and its mouth clipped on to its tail. It was awesome. (I found it at Frenchy’s – a second-hand clothing franchise in the Maritimes.) I gave the belt away but I wish I still had it.

I came across the snake stuff after unpacking some boxes that had been sent from my childhood home in Nova Scotia, to my new home in Edmonton. I laughed out loud when I saw the rings coiled in a handcrafted wooden box my dad made for me. The snakes have been hibernating for over 20 years and awoke many memories. I remember how I got each piece: one I bought at the Olde Curiosity Shoppe in Port Williams (the store no longer exists). Another – a Christmas gift from my family. (My parents indulged my reptile fascination.)

I was only charmed by the snakes for a short period. Snakes shed their skin when they grow. I shed my rings.  What do you remember leaving behind?

Surfing NS

Surf boards on the beach.

Ready to hit the waves!

I love surfing. It’s amazing. I am amazingly bad at it. However, that doesn’t stop me from heading out on the water. At the end of last month, my middle sister and I took a day to carve the waves in Nova Scotia. I was home from Alberta on vacation and my sister was home after a year of working in Iraq for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

We made the two hour drive from the Annapolis Valley to Martinique Beach Provincial Park, where I had surfed about 10 years ago. It’s a nice and relatively isolated spit of sand west of Halifax. When my sister and I arrived at the beach, the expanse of Atlantic Ocean looked like a city parking lot – concrete grey. There were flecks of white froth as a strong wind churned the sea into rolling waves. Perfect for hanging ten.

Paddling out into the Atlantic.

Paddling out into the Atlantic.

Grey and white clouds matched the Atlantic. The month of August was almost up and the weather decided to be more like autumn. The beach was almost deserted when my sister and I put on our wetsuits. We picked up our boards and put our bare feet into the water. I shivered but it wasn’t because of the cool temperature of the water. I couldn’t wait to hit the waves.

While my sister had recently spent a few weeks surfing big waves in Sri Lanka, I hadn’t been in awhile. A long while. I waded deeper into the ocean with my board on my hip. Strong gusts tried to lift it away from me and set it on the water. The swell was around 2 ft. – easy for a back-to-beginner like me. I put my board in the water and started to paddle out to sea.

My sister catching a wave.

My sister catching a wave.

Smash! Salt water slammed me in the face. Smash! It happened again. But I loved it. I didn’t mind being hit by the ocean. I kept going. Moving farther from shore. I looked at the swell gliding towards me and I tried to gauge the wave. Should I go for it?

I turned my board around to face the shore. I paddled as fast as I could. I felt the crest of the wave start lifting me. I jumped up on the board. Then…

I’m falling into the dark green cave. I’m plummeting towards the bottom of the Atlantic. My body goes limp as the ocean sends me spinning along the sand. During the briny chaos, I cover my head with my arms as I’m pushed into the silt. I don’t know where my board is and don’t want to be whacked in the face. The Atlantic doesn’t care about my watery confusion and keeps me upside down. I’m suspended in the drink with no way of knowing which way is up and which way is down. I can’t breathe.

So I kick. Kick again. Kick at the water until it loosens its grip on me. I kick. Kick. Kick until I exchange smothering saltiness with clear air. I float on the skin of the Atlantic and heave oxygen into my lungs, replacing what I had lost.

Heading back to the surf shop. Kannon Beach.

Heading back to the surf shop. Kannon Beach.

What a rush.

I stand up, looking for my sister. There she is, riding a wave. Relaxed and poised. Until she too bails. We laugh and paddle out together. Waves smash us in the face and seagulls hovering over us laugh at our surfing abilities. Despite this, we don’t stop. We surf until our hands are red and our lips are blue from cold. That day, even though I didn’t catch many waves, I got to hang with my sister and catch up with her.

Swimming again

Mist rises in the cold air at the Queen Elizabeth outdoor pool.

Mist rises in the cold air at the Queen Elizabeth outdoor pool.

I used to be a competitive swimmer for Ryerson University. Swimming is great exercise and the water always feels like home to me. It’s because no matter where I am, pool water never changes. It’s always wet in South Korea, The Gambia, Fort Smith and Calgary. Since I just moved to Edmonton, I thought I’d head to something familiar in this unfamiliar place.

I decided to go to an outdoor pool. Even though it hasn’t been that warm here, the pool remained open up until yesterday. I walked to the pool in the cold rain and cursed myself for not wearing mittens (it really was that cold) or bringing a tuque for the stroll home. I started hemming and hawing about continuing.

“It’s raining and it’s cold,” I said to myself, “why are you doing this to yourself?”

Really, there was no argument. I knew why I was going. I wanted some exercise and I wanted to do something regular – routine, in a day that had started differently from the last seven years in Calgary. I wanted to focus on my breathing and stroke count and seeing if I could beat my 100 freestyle (four laps of a 25 metre pool) time from last month. I didn’t want to think about unpacking and what went where and what didn’t fit there. I wanted a break from new spaces and spots and streets with strange numbers.

Despite the icy rain, the gate to the pool was wide open. As I walked onto the deck, the chlorine struck my nostrils. I took a deep breath in. Ahhhh! (I liked it.) That strong chemical smell of the water never changes either. The wisps of fog swimming over the pool didn’t make it look inviting. I shivered in the mist and then picked up a flutter board.

I headed to the edge of the pool. There was someone in the lane already splashing up and down the 25 metres. I jumped in beside him and said hello when he surfaced for air at the end of the lane.

“Hi,” he said before disappearing under a wave.

I pulled on my googles. The water was warm on my skin. Not at all cold, like the air around me. I pushed off the wall and struck out for the other side. Something I’ve done over and over again in a few different places.

Firsts and forgets

Dr. Conley and I in Halifax.I love seeing people’s “first day of school” photos (especially those of my niece and nephew). While I was home in Nova Scotia last week, Acadia University students were moving into residence, some for the first time.

It has been more than 20 years since I was a student at Acadia, set on changing the world. I was going to be a foreign correspondent who would fly herself (in her own plane) to troubled regions and report the news. I would spread the word about terrible atrocities and make the world understand that it needed to help right away. I would force people to wake up and start caring. Yep, that was my plan.

I was reminded of these naïve aspirations a couple of weeks ago while visiting a professor / mentor in Halifax. Dr. Marshall Conley is a globetrotting human rights expert whom I first met when I was in his introductory political science class at Acadia. He also spearheaded a youth international internship program that paired volunteers under 30 with human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as governments. In 1998, I was one of Dr. Conley’s interns.

After finishing my degree at Acadia and then the journalism program at Ryerson University in Toronto, I was sent to the African Centre for Democracy and Human Right Studies in The Gambia as a publications officer. During my recent trip back to Nova Scotia, Dr. Conley (I still can’t call him by his first name even though we’ve been friends for years) invited my husband and I to his lovely home for lunch. When we arrived, I saw he had set out a photograph of the 16 interns he had sent around the world the year I went to The Gambia.

I blinked at the picture of young adults lined up in two rows. I had always thought that I would never forget the people in my intern cohort but here I was, blanking. While I remembered their faces, I couldn’t remember many of their names. It worried me. If I let these fine details escape from my brain, how many other things am I forgetting?

Dr. Conley came over and once he said who each person was, a light bulb went on inside my head.

“Oh, yes,” my brain said. “I remember now.”

I do remember. I remember tidbits about each person too. I remember where they all went, one to Estonia, one to Paris, two to Bangladesh, two to The Gambia (one was me), etc. I remember the excitement we all had when we were about to take off to exotic and strange locations. I remember the nervousness of heading into the unknown. I also remember trying to find a mosquito net in Halifax long before Mountain Equipment Co-op was a thing. I remember booking my flight that took me from Nova Scotia, to Iceland, to London and then to Africa. (Björk was on my plane from Reykjavik to London. She wore a white butcher’s apron as a dress and flip-flops with socks. The whole ensemble looked uncomfortable.)

Miriama from theAfrican Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies.

Miriama from theAfrican Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies.

I remember thinking that this internship would lay the foundation for my career as a foreign correspondent. In Gambia, I would get experience in human rights, NGOs, politics and policy and be introduced to new ideas and ways of life. With all these tools and insight, I would jump to an exciting and fulfilling journalism career.

I did learn a lot about human rights and statecraft and met all sorts of people from all walks of life in The Gambia. I also learned how to barter (my roommate was better, though), how to find my way through sandy streets and that unripe mangos make a tasty mango crisp. All these lessons and moments added up to a truly life-changing experience. I was on my way to making my goal a reality.

Then the real world got in the way.

When I returned home from my many months aboard, I needed a job. I got one in Calgary working as a news writer for a television station. I didn’t like working in TV and three years later, I left to be a pilot. Flying my own plane was the second piece to my world reporting aspirations. However, 9/11 happened and people were afraid to fly and the demand for pilots dropped. I did get my private licence but didn’t go on any further. I got a job at Mount Allison University and somewhere throughout the years, my dreams of being the flying foreign correspondent drifted away like clouds I flew through in my Cessna.

I'm flying a Cessna over Acadia University.

I’m flying a Cessna over Acadia University.

Last week while looking at the picture of the interns, I realized I hadn’t thought about my first life goal in a long, long time. It wasn’t that I had forgotten about it, I just needed a reminder about that “first.” But that’s why it was a first, because life isn’t linear and lots of other goals came after it. I’d still like to say thanks to Dr. Conley for giving me a step up on my way to changing the world. Because we all have in some way. While attending a pan-African human rights conference in Gambia, someone said, “’If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room.” (That quote has also been attributed to the Dalai Lama but I heard it attributed to an African proverb.) It’s true. We’re all making a difference.

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