Why Indomitable Spirit?

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On the second to last day of school, in my eighth year, my teacher handed back the results our last assignment before graduation. A book report, which I admit I wrote about ten minutes before it was due, landed on my desk. I don’t remember the mark I received, but my teacher had gone to the trouble of writing a handwritten message to each of us, his students, at end of our “elementary school career.”

For the most part, a comment from a teacher to myself or my parents included the words “Jenny needs to focus more and socialize less with her peers,” but this one was different. He told me he enjoyed having me in his class, and he included the words that have stayed with me ever since:

Never let anyone quash that indomitable spirit.

First of all, quash is just the best word.

Spirit. That one got me too. Made me feel like I was bigger than I had ever felt, like I was deeper somehow.

Indomitable. Adjective, impossible to subdue or defeat. Unconquerable.

These words have rooted in me.  Perhaps they’ve actually become my roots. If there is a motto or mantra that I follow, it is the words of my grade eight teacher.

Words matter.  We may think that they bear only the weight of their letters, but they can hold and stay and enrich a life for years to come, or drag one to their depths.

I don’t know that I’ve ever felt as strong as the words. I repeat them constantly, but they don’t quite stick; I don’t feel like I can’t be defeated.  I think for me, for my spirit, obstinate is a better definition. I’m not the conquering hero, I’m the candle that will not be snuffed out.

You know, the joke ones.

And I think I’m okay with that.

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Falling off the wagon, among other things…

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I’ll set the scene for you.

It’s August of 2017, I am weeding in the garden and thinking about a blog. I know I have to put something together, to show others my work and try to connect with the world a little – that’s tough when you work from home. As usual, when my hands are working, my brain is focusing on the pot on the back burner, the one that is simmering with ideas that only seem to boil over when I have no chance to catch the spill. So I’m outside, I get an idea.  I run inside, start writing, and before the end of the week, I have a blog, and one official blog post.

So now I’m excited. I’m researching the best times to post on a blog, and the best content to include. I make a list of topics that would be good to include. I note that the best time to post on social media is said to be between 1pm and 3pm, Wednesday to Friday, so I make a plan to write each Tuesday, that way I have 24 hours to wait before editing.

Then, I get busy. Then Christmas comes.  Then, then, then…

And I fell off the wagon.

Don’t get me wrong, busy is good. It just tends to take over – the freelance game is downpour or drought.  And not only have I been busy, I have been busy writing articles that are centred on questions I have in everyday life: I wonder if I should have a worm composter? **Asks experts, writes article, builds composter** (I’m just going to leave this link here)

These articles are also allowing me to write with my own style. I get to include dumb jokes and puns, I can stretch my word limit to what I feel the story needs, and I’m proud of what I create.

It does take time, so of course my blog-writing is limited, but more than that, these articles have a deadline.

I love deadlines. I am a flaky, head-in-the-clouds daydreamer, and I need a deadline. If you tell me to have something to you by a certain date or time, you will have it. Just don’t ask me when I worked on it! It will be done to the very best of my ability, and to my clients on time, but it may have been written at 9am, or 7:30pm. No regular work hours for me, I work when I can.

This has even stretched to my personal life. When I have to leave the house with my husband, I ask for a leaving deadline. He tells me when he wants to leave the house, and I am ready at that time. It saves many…discussions…about how long I am taking to get ready.

The problem is though, that my own writing – children’s poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and well, blog posts – falls by the wayside. There is no firm deadline on this work, and as much as I would like to compel myself to sit and write, the work will suffer – coming out like a child forced to write lines. That and the discipline is lax; my boss is a real pushover, and she lets me get away with too much. We’re going to talk about it, but there is no set deadline for the meeting.

With that said, I’m forcing myself to write this blog post. Hope it doesn’t sound like it.

Now, back to writing about fall prevention. Because, you know, I fall. Often. So I’m writing a story about how to avoid it.**Asks experts, writes article, TRIES NOT TO FALL**

Desiderata: (Latin) needed or wanted, desired things.

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Like my father, I too have a quote board. You’ll find: the Desiderata to the left; my love for Parks and Rec., Bob’s Burgers, and The Lego Movie; my favourite kids; and an inspirational sign my husband gave me, something about horses and obstacles that is truer than I wish it to be.

My mom and I were talking about a poem this weekend, while my parents were at my house helping me finish my bathroom.  They have always helped and supported me, in more ways than I can list, but for today’s purposes, I want to mention their effect on my love of words.

My dad’s word influence was indirect. My dad loves to play with words. He loves to rewrite song lyrics and sing them over the originals in the car – eliciting dad-joke groans from his kids in the backseat.  He also loves quotes; but not just any quotes.  There are no inspirational, motivational ‘we can do this’ signs hanging around my dad’s work bench. There are verses, playing again with word meanings and irony. If you want to get technical, he likes poetry.

The signs read “Join the march against regimentation,” or “Who cares about apathy?” One of my favourites has always been, “You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.” I may have taken that one to heart, much more than my mother would want, I’m sure.  A very proud day for me was when I shared: “JESUS IS COMING, look busy!” and it was put up on the wall, written with a sharpie on a piece of cardboard, just like the rest.

My mom’s influence was direct and intentional. She is a reader, a lover of words, stories and poems, and she knew the importance of creating that love within her children. I still fondly remember evenings spent on my parent’s bed, my brother and I cuddled up with Mom while she read a chapter from books she brought home from the library.

The poem we spoke of this weekend was one she saved from the horrors of the garbage when someone in her office was about to dispose of it.  She saw the framed copy, grabbed it and brought it home to us.  I’m still sure, to this day, that it was divine intervention that brought it to her.

The poem, Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, is my favourite, though poem seems too small a word for it. If a mantra can be 28 lines long, that is a better description.

I repeat it to myself often, more as life lessons and calming chants, than a piece of art.

I think to be human is to second guess yourself constantly. I hope it is anyway, because man, I do not think much of myself. I’m usually pretty convinced that everything I do is terrible, especially writing, and that my worth to the universe is about that of a tapeworm.  Every time my husband tells me he loves me, I think, “Really? That feels like a poor choice on your part.”

As a person who struggles with low self-worth and anxiety, I love a definitive statement. Tell me to do something exactly this way, or to follow perfect instructions, I’m there – I’m your girl. But what part of life ever gives you that certainty? When are you ever sure of your choices, sure of your ideas or sure of your relationships?

This is where Desiderata has always helped me. I have included it below this post.

For all the lines I consistently quote to myself, and believe me I have the poem memorised from repeating its wisdom, there is one that has stayed with me more than the others – more so around my birthday.

“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;

You have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you,

No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

When I say it, I feel my heart slow. My brain stops kicking into anxiety overdrive, and if I take a nice long walk, I feel like the trees and the stars.  I feel like I just might be a beloved child of the universe.

I already know I’m the beloved child of my parents.

(And my brother is too, probably, but this is my blog, so I get to be the favourite!)

 

DESIDERATA by Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,

Even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.

  Continue reading

Winter Weakness

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A look out my window tells me the snow has arrived, thumbing its nose at our belief in autumn.

It’s not that I dislike winter; I genuinely love the outdoors, and if dressed properly I could spend hours ice fishing, snowshoeing, and my favourite, tobogganing.

It’s just that winter doesn’t seem to love me.

For the most part, I’m as graceful as a baby deer. I could trip while standing still. My mother once told me that as a child I came crying to her explaining: “I hurt myself on myself.”

Last year winter officially recognized this fact, and happily watched as I fell in glorious fashion having taken one step out my front door, requiring wrist surgery, a plate, 5 pins, six weeks in a cast, and eight weeks of physiotherapy.  The poor dog didn’t even get to go for her walk.

(It is at this point I once again thank the universe for Canada’s socialized medical system.)

But winter and I have had a strained relationship at best, and it has something to do with my love of the sun, my garden, and the inspiration that they both bring.

This year, summer seemed to give one last push, with the hot weather arriving late, just like all my crops did. I was able to leave the tomatoes to ripen a little longer, put a cover crop on the beds to compost for next year, and plant my fall garlic on a warm sunny morning (and according to the article I wrote – Growing Garlic – Why yes! I am self-promoting!)

But now, it’s officially here. And it’s not the cold – although I do not love the cold – it’s the light I am missing.

I worship the sun. The complete opposite to my husband who suffers the heat from April to October, I am never happier than when I am warm to my bones.  If I could lay in the sun all day without turning into fine Corinthian leather, I absolutely would.

But it’s the bright I miss too. I miss opening the curtains in the morning to the light that starts my day. I miss seeing the laundry flapping on the clothes line, and the colours of every plant radiating from a sea of green. I could sit on my back deck, in my favourite chair, and write for hours.

Right now, if I curled up into my favourite chair, I would fall asleep. Or, turn into a blubbering mess who watches Harry Potter over and over and then becomes more upset that I will never get my Hogwarts letter. Basically, I turn into an overly-tired, overly-bored toddler, who cry-whines every word and stomps her feet in a grand tantrum.

So I hop on the Vitamin D train and I set up my sun lamp – which, though I hate using it, really does help – but I still find that the joy I need to come up with new ideas is elusive. I can no longer head out into the garden and be so happy I may burst. Now, I have to head to the file.

I pretty randomly get ideas for stories.  In fact, my husband and I have a signal for when I leap from my chair and run to my office.  If I speak I will lose the idea, but I also have to let him know that I have not lost my mind. (Although, after so many years, I’m quite sure he knows I have completely lost my mind.)

My mother fills my stocking each year with post-it notes, and I have an overflowing file of them with ideas that I have written down.  Some intriguing, ones I immediately begin work on.  Some are, well, terrible. Others are absolutely undecipherable.  One I found said, “Ping pong guy, but kitchen?” Don’t worry, I feel suitably ashamed.

The thing is, all of this comes down to self-care, something not all of us remember to do. It took me a long time to not only come to terms with having the ‘winter weakness’ but to actually recognize that I need to focus time and energy on making this time easier for me. (What I mean is, it took my husband a long time to help me see it…)

That is why I have a sun lamp, vitamins, and a file full of post-it notes.  It’s also why I have a support system in place, and a very warm winter coat.

Ain’t nuthin gonna stop me now.

Okay, that sentence was written for effect, but it may give me a migraine.

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Mourning the words of Chris, Tom, and Gord.

In late December of 2016, I remember think pieces coming out about what an awful year it was. Of course the election of Trump, but the world lost some amazing people: Alan Rickman, Prince, David Bowie, George Michael, Gene Wilder – even the young Anton Yelchin – and one of my idols, Carrie Fisher. (If you have the chance to read her writing, do so immediately.  She was honest, dry, witty, and lived by her motto, “Take your broken heart, and turn it into art.”)

Each one of these articles looked to 2017 as the year that would make it all better. Instead, it feels like the continuous burn of a tire fire.

Adding more tires to that fire? Chris Cornell, Tom Petty, and Gord Downie. (Among too many others, I’m sure.)

The reason I put these men together is, in my mind, the way their gift for lyrics was hidden behind, well, rock.

For any band to be successful, it has to have both great lyrics and great accompaniment. The instruments drive the force of the song, the lyrics create the meaning.

I find that songs often get more recognition for the music than for the lyrics. It makes sense though: even if you do not play an instrument, you can recognize great music by the way it makes you feel, makes you move. Unless you move into the higher echelons, like jazz, you don’t really need to think too much about the music, just about whether ‘there’s a great beat and you can dance to it!”

But lyrics, anything written specifically to convey depth of emotion using symbolism, is often hidden, unexamined, or often ignored – especially if the song has a great chorus hook. This happens often, ask Bruce Springsteen about Ronald Regan’s use of ‘Born in the USA’ – a song about sending men to die in Vietnam – for his campaign’s official song.

It often happens that music is written first, with lyrics thrown in later, the way Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters writes phonetically while listening to the music; but often it comes out full formed, the way Petty describes how he wrote my favourite of his songs, Wildflowers. Most often though, Cornell and Petty would sit and write both at once.

With Gord Downie, they were often poems with music added.

Poetry is so much about sound and rhythm, about using the sound of words as much as the meaning of them.  To add the sound of a voice to that, the emotional wail of Cornell, the simple modesty of Tom Petty’s voice, or the way Gord’s voice emanated directly from his diaphragm, makes it all the more meaningful and beautiful.

I think that all three of these men had their own, completely distinct effects on music and how it is made, but in much the same way. Hidden beneath amazing riffs and hooks and power chords were these deep and affecting lyrics, lyrics repeatedly sung without knowledge of just how beautiful they are.

Though it reveals my age, I have to say it make me miss the booklets from cds and vinyl. That was half the fun for me, listening and going through the lyrics at the same time.

It could be that anyone other than a diehard fan listens to music in the background, when you are not able to truly listen, or that the song has become so much a part of your life that you sing it out loud without knowing what you are saying (See – me loudly singing Under the Bridge by the Red Hot Chili Peppers because it was the song my first boyfriend and I danced to, not because it is about heroin addiction.) The song Bobcaygeon is the story of two police officers falling in love, one that Downie would refer to in concert as “A song about two gay cops in love.” But I, like many, sang that song’s chorus as love for the city, and not, as he mentions, the word that rhymes with ‘constellation.’

Chris Cornell, Tom Petty and Gord Downie all wrote the most amazing lyrics, and they are worth studying not just for the symbolism and emotion they so effortlessly imbue within them, but for the way they sound.

And now, as the nation mourns, is a wonderful time to take a look back at the beauty and depth of the Tragically Hip. There have been many pieces published since his death, many encapsulating much better than I could the lasting affect he will have on Canada and it’s peoples; I imagine many people learned more about Bill Barilko, David Milgaard, Canada’s war history with Britain and the location of the Hundredth Meridian (it’s where the great plains begin…). Or what about the 12 men that broke loose in 73’? (Though, it must be said that it was 14 men who broke loose in ’72, but meter is important, and three rhymes with ‘security’ – so we’ll let it go)

But for me, I have always loved the song Fiddler’s Green, and mostly for the story behind it. Downie’s sister lost her five year old son Charles, to a heart condition.  In a tragedy that could break a family, Downie hoped to help, and found the only way he could, through music. He wanted to ease her fears that Charles would be travelling through the afterlife alone, and so he looked to the fable of the Fiddler’s Green. Though they didn’t play the song live for many years, Fiddler’s Green invokes the tale of the place old sailors would go when they were done with the sea, to a place where sailors would be given a seat in the sun, a mug of grog that never ran out, a and could relax while the fiddlers played and maidens danced in the sunlight.  Fiddler’s Green – The Tragically Hip

Next time you are listening to music, listen carefully to the lyrics. You might just be surprise with what you hear, even in songs you’ve been singing along to all your life.

(And just for a bit of fun: What do you get when you mix The Tragically Hip, The Trailer Park Boys, Don Cherry and ‘Something Greasy?” Well, you get possibly the most Canadian thing you’ll see all day.) The Darkest One – The Tragically Hip

 

About Me, About Us: Bios and Self-Deprecation

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Writing about yourself is a challenge for everyone, including writers. Whether it is a short bio for work, the ‘about us’ section of a website, or even the thirty-second-summary used when you meet an important person in an elevator, it can be really hard to, well, sell yourself.

Many of us are self-deprecating by nature.  I often feel like I need to point out every fault I have to others, so that they can’t use it against me.  Somewhat like breaking up with a partner before they can break up with you. But pointing out my flaws has never gotten me very far, and there truly is a way to find that balance; to speak of yourself without sounding egotistical, and without down-playing every achievement you’ve earned.

But again, this isn’t easy. At the first meeting of the Sudbury Writer’s Guild, it was decided that a least a portion of one meeting should be spent discussing author/writer bios, and how to create them. They are used whenever the writer is discussed, on the backs of books, in journalistic descriptions, query letters, and now, featured within the ubiquitous social media outlets.  I have written my own, though as usual for me I believe they are terrible. I have written a great many for clients, and I am amazed at how much easier it is to write someone else’s story, rather than your own.

If even writers have a hard time writing about themselves, it means the act is difficult. Luckily, if you are reading this, you know of someone who can help – easily and affordably.

If you are having trouble with your biography – either for work or personal use – your ‘about us’ section, or any time you have to talk about yourself, let me know.  Writing about yourself is a difficult task for even the most prolific and accomplished writer, and I can help you tell your story, giving full acknowledgement to your achievements.  You deserve it.

 

Reading, Writing, and Crippling Self-Doubt.

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Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Irises’.  Painted in 1889, during his first week of voluntary admission to St.-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy, France, and one year before his death. 

The most common advice given to new writers is very simple, and very effective. Two words: read, and write. The writing part is self-explanatory; in order to decide if you have a good piece of writing, it needs to exist in the first place. (However,  it occasionally becomes quite clear that the idea you had in shower was much better in the shower than on the page!)

The reading part is easy for me – I love books.  I try to read from different authors and different styles, fiction and non-fiction, and in theory this reading informs my writing.  I’m learning, almost by osmosis, and the amount and variety of words you read begin to come through in your own writing.

But reading, seeing the words of others far more intelligent than I, rarely gives me inspiration. In fact, after reading an especially wonderful piece of writing, I am the opposite of inspired. I become entirely convinced that everything I write is garbage, and not worth pursuing.

Writers receive common advice, and have a common personality trait: crippling self-doubt.

When I became a member of the Sudbury Writer’s Guild, I immediately felt better. A group of intelligent and creative people looking to better their work, and willing to let me have a sneak peek at their work in progress.  That helped immensely – to see that no one started with a perfect piece.

To learn the process that other writers use got me thinking about my own. I have written so many 500 word articles that I don’t need to look at the word counter anymore. I know instinctively where to stop and start, what information to include. That came from practice.

But it’s hard to practice writing if that creative spark isn’t there.  What to write about is as difficult to decide as the words the piece will contain. This brings me to my love of art, and more specifically, Loving Vincent.

Vincent Van Gogh is my favourite artist. I’m even that annoying person that insists on saying his name properly – like I’m clearing my throat. Many know a few of his works, many more know of his mental illness and subsequent death by suicide. But did you know he painted for less than a decade, and in that time created more than 800 paintings?

The film Loving Vincent was a feature of Cinéfest 2017, Northern Ontario’s film festival.  I was lucky to see it (Thanks Avery!), not only because Cinéfest is a hot ticket in town, but because of the inspiration I found within it.

Loving Vincent is not just the story of Van Gogh and his struggle with mental illness, or his death; it is a visual masterpiece, just like his work.  Each and every frame was hand painted by more than 100 artists, making it the first fully painted film ever made.  A decade in the making, this film not only contains the most beautiful scenes and artwork you can imagine, but an engaging story as well. You can view the trailer here: Loving Vincent 

And rather than feeling completely overwhelmed by the work and talent, as I often do when finishing a novel, I felt inspired.  I wanted to go home and write and create – in the same way I wanted to kick and punch everything after I saw Wonder Woman.

If you want to learn and improve your craft, look to the masters in your field.  If you want to feel like you just might be able to create something worthwhile, to escape that crippling self-doubt, look at every field but your own. Whether it’s visual art, media, music – even movies – I’m sure you’ll find the spark that finally overwhelms the wet blanket of doubt.

Bears, Ears, and Acorns.

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Let’s just remember that camping is not a fashion show. Just…wow.

If you know me well, you know that the weekend after the Labour Day weekend is officially The DDCT – The Daddy Daughter Canoe Trip. At one point, it was a 22 km loop through the forest that surrounds the La Cloche Mountains in Killarney Provincial Park, but now it is a leisurely canoe ride just outside of the main campground, allowing us less work, and a few more luxuries – coffee, being my favourite.

It is a chance for us to reconnect, and to disconnect. We move from sitting and looking at stuff, to hiking and looking at stuff, to canoeing and looking, to sitting and, well, you get the picture.

My father is the absolute picture of health, and he always has been. His body works like a finely-tuned machine, and at the age of 71, the only parts of him that show his age are is knees, and his ears.

Years of tool repair and loud music have left him with a ringing in his ears, one that dampens other sounds. Most poetically he can no longer hear his favourite sound, a loon calling. Though it is a concern, I’m sure it comes in handy for him when he wants to tune out my incessant ramblings.

This year, for the first time, he acknowledged that I would need to be the ears of the trip. I’m always on alert- you need to be while in the bush – but this meant I was the only one on alert.  And that, I admit, was a bit unnerving.

We take all precautions necessary for our safety, and every scrap of food and waste – even toothpaste – is packed up and hung from a tree far from our tent. It is bear country after all, and while we have never seen a bear at camp (but several around the park) that doesn’t mean there isn’t the potential for danger.  We do have visitors of course, squirrels, snakes, birds, and as usual for the first night of our trip, raccoons. They arrived and came so close that my first view of them – yes, them – was when they were standing directly behind my dad. So much for being the ears!

When you hear animals while seated around the fire, you flash your light at them, catch a glimpse, and scare them away.  The raccoons demanded I chase them a little, but it was somewhat fun to watch them scurry off.

However.

When you are inside the tent, in silence, with no view of what’s outside, your imagination is a terrible thing. When you have a writer’s imagination, that terror is fully told.

I lay awake in the tent both nights, listening to the scratching outside, and the faint sound of my dad’s sleep-filled breath.  Not all night, as everyone tends to go to bed after midnight, but nonetheless we were visited by the raccoons again, of all things a beaver having a late night snack, and what was most terrifying of all, an acorn that fell from a tree hit the roof of the tent just as I feel asleep.  I didn’t tell my dad about the acorn.

Many of my ideas come when my brain is focused elsewhere, like a pot boiling on a back burner. As I lay in my sleeping bag, listening to the noises of the world so often obscured by my happy home in the city, I found myself writing a poem, and perhaps a prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray to Mother Nature keep

The bears from finding my food tree,

And hopefully from finding me!