Star Sleep

I woke up outside shy of 4:00 a.m., cold and in the dark, to a chorus of wolves yipping, barking and howling far off in the distance.

I decided to rekindle the fire I lit before going to sleep. I pushed back my warm covers to a barrage of cool air hitting my face. I poked at the embers, seasoned their glow with leaves and twigs, then threw on three more logs and breathed life back into the fire that sparked, snarled and snapped back at me. Dan slid off his side of our air mattress to take a leak. Climbing back into bed, I pulled our flannel comforter over my head, peaking out enough to allow a breath of cold air in, and a small window out to see the flames, which roared sideways in my direction like a woman’s fiery orange hair come alive. An owl in the trees nearby who whooed and the loon’s wails echoed, haunting the lake until dawn. When I awoke a few hours later, the birds were chirping, a few Blue Jays squawking, but it was the sound of the busy bees buzzing to and fro, choosing their flower, buzzing off into the trees surrounding me, that filled my ears. I spotted their hive high up in a birch tree.

We were at our cottage, and the night before was calm and serene. I raked out our fire pit to create a flat surface, then laid two logs down parallel, filling the space between them with leaves, twigs and bark, arranging my kindling down across the two logs like a bridge. The fire caught beautifully. Dan fished off the dock with Penelope and Elyse, and I swam with Ariel and a neighbour as the sun sunk into the shadowed hills. By the time the swimming was done and the stars were out, one log laid nestled against the other like a burning work of art. We sat with the girls, working on a crossword together by the fire, roasting oversized maple marshmallows. Finally, bedtime for the kids, but I wasn’t ready to leave the perfect fire and still night, not yet. Dan ushered the girls into their beds, and I sent him a text.

Dan. I’m super excited. Tonight’s the night.

I looked up from the fire to find him standing at the window of our screened-in porch above me.

“I know what you want to do,” he called down, and I saw him roll his eyes, a slight shake of his head with a smile across his lips. Dan has an uncanny ability to read my mind. He knew EXACTLY what I wanted to do that night.

In the few days before, I had one of my BIG Ideas. The last time I had a big idea, we ended up selling our home and traveling around the world as a family. This new big idea revolved around a potential future book project for which I was compiling a list of experiences that intrigued me. Not a bucket list—exactly—more of a loving living life list. One of the experiences was to sleep under the stars.

Once I get an idea in my head, I have a strong desire to carry it out. Dan barely resisted the idea of sleeping outside the cottage all-night, though his initial text reply was: I don’t care to. With the temperature dropping to twelve degrees Celsius overnight, I would need his warmth and feel safer tucked into his side. I was relieved it wasn’t that much work to convince him. The last thing Penelope said to me before falling asleep was, “Don’t get eaten by a bear.”

With our plans for the night in place, we set to work.

“You get the tarp, I’ll blow up the air mattress,” Dan said. We set the air mattress on top of the tarp, and Dan emerged from the cottage with an armful of bedding. We layered up, I added a few more logs to the fire and the two of us laid side by side looking up through a window of trees at a bowl of stars. “Did you see that?” I asked him. We both had. The distinct glow of a shooting star pulsed and then faded across the sky, an astral firework. We kissed goodnight and rolled into each other for warmth, me in my hoodie, socks and flannel PJ bottoms, him in shorts and a long-sleeved tee. Dan’s light snores cast out into the night, while I laid on my side, gazing serenely at the fire until nodding off into an easy sleep.

So how did the night go? Dan slept somewhat fitfully, waking around two, three, and four a.m., while I fell asleep somewhere close to midnight and got up closer to four to mess with the fire, which, I learned, does not provide much warmth unless you nestle up fire-hazard close. While my body didn’t benefit from the fire’s warmth, my face turned toward it did, and I basked in its warm glow.

At one point, at some ungodly hour, the distinct sound of a twig snapped nearby—quite close to us. Dan tensed beside me, waking us both up. I slid down further underneath the comforter while Dan lifted his head. I thought of the mink that lives by the water’s edge in front of our cottage, and the large fisher, a bear-like creature with claws that our neighbour saw passing by the top of his driveway the other day; as well as the porcupines the Madawaska Valley is named after, skunks, racoons and of course, the bears, which I have only seen forty-five minutes away in Algonquin Park. No further sound. Within a few minutes, Dan’s breathing slowed again, and I fell back asleep to the rhythm of his easy snores and the comfort of the fire. The sound was likely a chipmunk scurrying in the rock pile above our heads where they live. In the night, every sound is amplified.

When the sun rose, I assumed I’d wake and slide right into the lake for an early morning dip, but it didn’t happen that way. The stars subsided, giving way to a cyan sky. Dan left the warmth of our nest to go fishing and I pulled the comforter back over my head until way, way after the sun came up. I sank further into daytime sleep. I wanted to hold onto the dream of the wolves howling in the night with my eyes closed a little bit longer, a little bit longer, listening to the bees and the birds, knowing it had all been real.

 

New Beginnings

From every ending comes a new beginning.

This phrase is tired, overused, cliched, but I can’t help but see a red sun sinking deep into the earth, the black of night, the moon a pearl in a quilt of stars; and then as though a God were fishing, the sun hooked and reeled back up into its perch in the sky, dressed in muted yellows and luminescent golds. Something new, ready to begin.

My MFA program has ended. I spent two pandemic years immersed in earning a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction Writing.  “We’re masters now!” my peers and I joked at graduation. Yet every master knows that only a fool would consider themselves to have mastered a subject to a point of completion. The learning has just begun, and will begin again tomorrow, and the next day, if we’re lucky. Still, the intensity of the program, the degree to which we immersed ourselves in that learning, focused in on honing our craft, applied critical thought to ideas, worked to deadlines, received feedback and tried again. And again. And again. To improve and get better. This is worth an oversized piece of paper and a pat on the back. That the learning should and will continue does not diminish the accomplishment. But, maybe, just maybe, if you’re like me, before you dress in that graduation gown and plop the cap askew on your head, tassel waving in your eyes; before you strut across that stage to fanfare and applause, smile plastered across your face; before all of that will sit a question high on your list of priorities to attend to. A big question, the one that’s constantly at my throat, clawing my insides, pushing me further into the deep thick of this life’s offerings: What’s Next?

I really, truly, like to know where I am going. Not everyone does.

From every ending comes a new beginning.

A month or so ago, on a day when I may have been pondering that question of what’s next, an email jumped to my attention on the screen from Alison Wearing whose newsletter I subscribe to. Alison is a writer who runs Memoir Writing Ink (an online memoir course) and facilitates writing retreats around the world in addition to the many other hats she wears. I have read her books which are enthused with life and humour and seen her animated readings. She has a charismatic theatrical personality that only the dullest of person would not find charming. I know others who’ve attended her workshops and retreats and I have long since known I have something to learn from this woman. I just didn’t know when exactly that would be or how. Other paths have bumped into each other peripherally the past few years, with her name poking up for me here and there, and about a year ago, I seriously considered attending her writing retreat in France. I looked through photos, reviewed packages. But the timing was wrong. I already had residencies to attend where I would be engaged and working with other writers, and the MFA was intensive and consuming. France would have to wait.

But the email that came into my inbox from Alison was about two magical spots that had opened up in the France retreat in June. These were truly last-minute spots due to cancellations. An end for someone else meant a possible new beginning for me. Alison was seeking out published writers to fit in with the group, and I could sense this retreat would be a good fit for where I’m currently at in my writing process. I have essays to edit. The timing was right. The exact week of the France retreat, I had planned to be on a self-imposed writing residency with a friend anyway. My writing friend is a world traveller. Literally, she has been to every continent and over a hundred countries. We had planned to meet in Barry’s Bay, Ontario, where my cottage is located to get some work done. “How do you feel about going to a writing retreat with me in the South of France instead?” Reader, there was no hesitation. I reached out and applied to Alison Wearing’s retreat right away, and by some stroke of magic, within hours of receiving the invitation (because that is exactly what that email was, an invitation from the universe) I had a confirmed spot, and my friend too! And we were on our way to France.

What’s next?

You could argue that a trip to France is nothing but an elaborate distraction; that travel, in general, is simply a way to pull yourself away from the responsibilities of real life. But if I’m going to keep writing and moving on to the next thing, I need to recharge, to feel invigorated in my life and have things to look forward to. I need space and time to myself and with other creatives. I need to experience the world outside of my office window. Why not surround myself with beauty and do this in the wide open air countryside of southern France?

What’s next is a writing vacation, the rest of summer, and the business of real life. Trying to find an agent, secure a teaching job as a writing instructor, finish editing my essays, continue writing and running my own retreats and believing in myself. What’s next is more family life and visits and house cleaning and cottage maintenance and the plethora of usual adult responsibilities.

But first, we celebrate.

How many trips across that stage does one get to make? Visiting my in-laws, my brother-in-law asked me, “So when are you going to get your PhD? He was partly joking, goading me on, knowing it’s an avenue I’ve considered. What’s next? I have no plans to pursue another degree as of now, but who knows? What’s next is clearing the space in my mind for future plans. What’s next is being pulled by the tides, not adrift, but not fully in control of my final destination either.

But for this moment, I see myself holding a glass of something red, the sun a slow melt into distant hills, sinking deep into the earth, eventually folding into the black of night; the moon ever a pearl in a quilt of stars.

The Archway

Our covered front porch is accentuated by three brick archways. From the viewpoint of standing on the porch, or arcade, each archway is like looking through a window.

I found a new place to write. Sitting on a blue cushion in a wicker rocking chair on my covered front porch, my red dog at my feet. We’re overlooking the garden and perched where we are in the elbow of the street, we can see the comings and goings of our neighbours. Two squirrels squabble in the tree of my neighbour’s yard; Atlas’ ears perk up, but he doesn’t budge—not yet. We are suspended in this peaceful moment together. Even a six-month-old pup knows a good thing when he’s got it.

A van drives past, the squirrel hunting his nut at the curb lifts his frame, shifting the bulk of his weight back onto his haunches, and high tails it in the other direction. Good decision. The whirl of a helicopter cuts through the peaceful chirps of birds, disrupts the gentle breeze. With the hospital nearby, the helicopter signals emergency. Like a cat stepping onto piano keys, the whoosh of the helicopter compresses my heart, plucks each string; the helicopter a harbinger of tragedy, or rescue—or both. Rescue or tragedy or both. I recall the friend of a friend whose newborn needed new lungs to live. The mom waited for lungs for their newborn to arrive by helicopter. For that baby to live, another had to die. Perhaps a car accident, where the baby doesn’t make it, but the lungs remain intact. And that mom, just waiting, waiting, for the sound of the helicopter chopping at the air. Wondering how much longer her baby will survive without the lungs. Reconciling what it means for the lungs to arrive. Reader, they do arrive. As if such impossible longings could ever be reconciled.

A mama robin has built her nest into the vines on the side of our garage leading to our main entryway. I noticed her this morning after I shut the door and peaked behind me through the door’s glass window. The robin held a juicy worm between her beak, and something about the posture of her body, the way she stood erect, alert, puffed breast, on the sidewalk in front of our house, not far from the nest, said “mama”. And that’s how I noticed the nest. The worm disappeared, and soon she was carrying a mouthful of twigs and dry grass and up she flew, into her nest. Around she twirled making herself cozy on top of her eggs.

I haven’t seen her since—it’s worrisome.

Atlas has decided to explore. He momentarily gets himself locked behind the side gate, after I have to scurry across my driveway after him. But he complained almost instantly at the separation of the gate, so I grab him a hunk of wood to chew on, and now we’re back in our spots, me on the blue cushion of the rocking chair, him lazing on patio stones the pinkish-blue twinge of granite, gnawing on wood.

Two dwarf-sized daffodils in my garden are vibrating in the breeze. And the thought occurs to me how much the backs of flowers are like the backs of people, the backside of a flower. Our faces, flower-like, open or closed. I don’t finish that thought because Atlas catches sight of a silver cat, the bell on its collar tinkling, taunting. I warn him a few times—“Atlas!”—but once he sits up, ears perked, any hope of him paying attention to me is lost. He springs to four paws from his place beside me into a crouch position at the end of the porch, then quickly cuts across the grass and onto my neighbour’s driveway. He makes it to her fence, the cat safely on the other side. The silver feline easily slips away in the time it takes me to get my puppy’s attention, which isn’t too long. He comes back to me now, wagging his puppy hips and tail, like wasn’t that fun mom?

I tuck him inside the house, where he whines for me, confused. I wait a beat then attach him to his leash before heading back outside.

Shortly after, our elderly neighbour walks down the street, slowly, slowly. Atlas yanks my arm off trying to get to him. He loves this man.

I can’t keep up with the action through the archway; my pen unable to hold pace. The silver cat comes back, and slinks across the road just as Thirsty’s Lawn Maintenance parks in front of my neighbour’s house. One gas vehicle after another is unloaded and powered up. So much for a place to write in peace and quiet. The motors scream and Atlas throws me a sorrowful glance. But this is a window onto the season and these sights and sounds of summer I gladly accept.

And in this way, we bend from one season into the next, letting go of longings we cannot reconcile. We lean into new worlds coming alive before our eyes, and live as fully as we can, as observers or participants, inside the window, or out.

On Teaching: Demystifying the Memoir Workshop

In some ways, everything I’ve done to date, my educational pathway and life experiences, have prepared me to teach memoir and creative writing. Every tiny stream feeds into the river that’s brought me here. A joint major in French Literature (language, books!) and Psychology (the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour, aka the study of the self=memoir!), followed by a teaching degree with a French specialist (language, teaching).

Working with M.G. Vassangi at the Humber School for Writers gave me the confidence to know I could write memoir—and write badly, as I mixed metaphors in the same sentence and was ignorant of the tricks and tips I know now and continue to learn. Completing the first draft of my memoir was its own education, as were the hundreds of memoirs I read and learned from along the way.

I can say with certainty my M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts) in Creative Nonfiction Writing both contributed to and inspired my creative life and endeavour to teach. The MFA revealed a new landscape in my periphery, one with literary festivals, book launches, readings, conferences, pitches, publishing opportunities and an over-arching view of how the whole industry works. I became adept, by necessity, at managing several writing projects at once, and I was forever creating something new—because I had to be. During the course of my two-year MFA program: I wrote my first play, dabbled with poetry and created the beginnings of a Chapbook. I found a home for four of my essays in anthologies, published in newspapers, magazines and online, as well as received acceptance in a literary journal for one of my poems. I wrote nineteen essays in varies stages of completion, and these form the first draft of a whole new book I cannot wait to put out into the world. I learned immensely about the craft of writing and editing from the thoughtful and diligent work of the three incredible mentors I had the pleasure of working with: Jane Silcott, Cooper Lee Bombardier, and Ayelet Tsabari.

When you are accepted into an MFA in CNF program, suddenly you are surrounded by like-minded bookish folks who tell you about the myriad great books you could be reading and the books that remind them of your project—and oh! Don’t forget the incredible books on craft. To a writer and a reader, this is a godsend. I have lists of books to read that will last me years.

And yet, still, none of this on its own really prepared me to teach memoir and creative nonfiction writing.

Some things cannot be taught, they must be experienced.

For the three years I taught grade one French immersion, now almost ten years ago, I never worried about being judged by those six-year-olds. Whenever possible, I tried to lean into my silly side. One lunch hour I stayed behind with my students as they had requested one of our infamous dance parties. I had Rhianna turned way up, which the kids loved. As the conga line rounded the desks, one of my disgruntled elderly colleagues flung open the door to my classroom and shouted at the students, “WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!” Everybody froze. I hit pause on the CD player and said, in my twenty-four-year-old whisper voice, “I’m here.”

“Oh,” she said, “okay then. Just turn it down a bit.” She turned on her heels and walked off. I turned the music back up, we breathed a collective sigh of relief, and kept the dance party going. I have never wanted to be the adult in the room shouting out directions. I just want to dance.

Becoming the fun dance party teacher is not advisable on day one when you have teaching objectives and obligations to fulfill and some semblance of class management to uphold. But I think—no, I know­—there is something that needs to be shaken loose between you and your students; a safety, a trust, a meeting of spirits, and honesty of the self that is just as important to learning as anything you will ever teach. When I think back to those days, it’s the dance parties and the hands-on, experiential learning that I remember. The silly songs and routines that got us through the day. The field trip organized by a dear colleague where the chickadees landed on my students cupped outstretched hands. Little fingers covered in dirt planting seeds, measuring their growth. Feet counting out steps down the hallway and playing imaginatively with manipulatives.

What I tried to bring to my first memoir workshop was a taste of the real world of memoir. Nothing I could possibly say would compare to experiencing the real deal. How do you explain the emotional gut punch, in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, when the poor boys’ horse is shot before their eyes; the tiny beating of the flying fists of Michael, Frank’s little brother, hammering against the man who pulled the trigger. The horse’s corpse being dragged up the ramp by three men, jagged nails and uneven boards tearing and ripping into its flesh, the pink smearing of horse blood in its wake. Their mother, coming at the man now. Better to not explain it. Better to let the scene show what it’s trying to show in the words of the Pulitzer Prize winning author.

When we’re shown a thing, then what do we want to do? Here is how you ride a bike. We want to hop on that seat and try pedalling for ourselves. What I learned from teaching my first memoir workshop, is that I need to allow more time for the pedalling. I got my students on the bike, gave them a push, but I have no idea if they stayed upright or if they ever made it around the block and came back again. I ran out of time and missed out on the exchange that is sacred between teacher and student, the sharing and the feedback. Maybe this is an unreasonable expectation in a two-hour time frame, within the confines of a workshop, but I certainly wanted to hear something of their work. As a last-ditch attempt, as my time with them dwindled down, I offered to read anyone’s scenes if they would be so kind as to send them my way. I heard back from a few, and I’m grateful for that.

A note on technology. Ideally, I would have done a dry run through to ensure the links and movies worked with someone else on the other side of the screen. Ideally. I’ve made a mental note for my future self to avoid spending participant’s break trying to get the movie sound to come on. Additionally, Zoom share screen may be some sort of sick social experiment in patience; I swear things work when they want to, screens disappear or fail to show up on a whim, while the pertinent slides whirl into other dimensions. I’m exaggerating slightly; it’s possible the errors are human.

I’m new to this form of teaching, I’m just learning the steps. Thank you to those who have the grace and patience to stand next to me as I flail and find my rhythm along the way.

You know deep down, when you do a thing, if you ever want to do it again. Facilitating women’s writing retreats, the feeling afterwards has always been, Yes please, I’ll take more of that! Accompanied by my need to learn from the experience and make the next event even better.

After the memoir workshop ended, I’m happy to report, despite my own insecurities about the minute things I said, or where the pace should have quickened, or the sound that failed to materialize, I do want to teach. Again! Said the miniature being who sits throned in the inner sanctum of my mind. Yes, more please! The sensation I got from teaching was like a pleasant dream you wake from; one you want to keep on having.

When I woke up the next morning after the workshop, the thoughts and pleasant feelings remained. A flow of new ideas came rushing toward me in a gush, as my mind raced to keep up. And so I began anew, following the river, dreaming up my next workshop.

 

 

Two Truths

women crouching down on dog to pet her puppy

“Two things can be true at once,” a friend said to me recently. Her words, meant in consolation, have helped me immensely.

I’m reeling, sobbing, sharp intakes of breath. But mostly, it isn’t like this. My tears arrive silently, unannounced, from the corners of my mind, floating to the surface like the answer on a magic eight ball. Are we really rehoming our dog, our family pet? Is this really happening? Yes.

Happy memories with Louie arrive, and then even when I don’t want them to, the tears shortly follow. He was a good dog. The best dog. So what happened? How did this happen?

My friend told me that two things can be true at once. That you can love something and have to let it go. That you can try your hardest, get the best trainers, spend all your free time, time you don’t have and more; that things can get better and then worse and then much better and that ultimately, it still will not matter. That you can hold sadness in your heart for the dog you lost, while holding hope, promise and love for the new puppy you’re preparing to bring home. Because you love dogs. You’ve always loved dogs. You’ve never not wanted a dog since the time you were a baby. “Duke”, a dog’s name—not yours—was your first word. But what you don’t want, what you can’t have, can’t keep, is a dog that bites your family. That was it. That was the line crossed. What you can’t have is a dog that endangers your children. Once that happened there was no going back. No matter how much you love him, he loves you; no matter how much of the love there is and always will be between you.

And even though time, that great healer, will pass, every morning you will wake up and hold two thoughts in your head: I can’t wait to get our new puppy and I wonder what Louie is doing? And the sadness and the joy intermingle, tap dance over my heart and I wrestle with this bit of truth. That I am holding the joy and the sadness in my two hands. That I can’t have one without the other. That my love is as infinite as my sorrow. That I will continue to hold space for both.

 

“Who’s excited to get our new puppy?” I ask. Everyone is excited, but it is Penelope who says, “I am the most MOST excited!” And then, as though recalling from somewhere deep in her little soul, she says, “I gave lots of love to Louie, and I can definitely do it again.”

 

*Louie update: Louie is currently being trained and cared for by his breeder where he is making good progress.

Give Me Change Worth Celebrating

An abridged version of this piece originally appeared in the Opinion section of The Toronto Star, October 27th, 2021.

The last week of October is Canadian Down Syndrome Week. To the average Canadian, that might not mean very much, and likely for most, the cause for celebration has not registered at all. But what about for the average family who has a child with Down syndrome? What does Canadian Down Syndrome week mean to families like mine?

Yesterday, our kids were supposed to wear red to school and last night there was an email from the teacher reminding them to wear purple today.

“Why are we supposed to wear purple?” My youngest daughter asked, confused. I take a brief moment in our busy morning to look up the teacher’s email and explain the significance to my girls. If nothing else, that brief moment is the reason we wear special colours, choose days and weeks to commemorate. By coming together, we are highlighting a need to recognize and raise issues that otherwise, in the hubris of the everyday, go largely unnoticed except by those who inhabit those experiences. By flagging days and weeks and months we are finding a way to hold space, to question and hopefully, better understand.

And I want space held for my daughter. I want others to know that Down syndrome is characterized by a tripling of the twenty-first chromosome in every cell of her body. That this genetic difference has always existed across race and place and throughout history and that people with Down syndrome have unique personalities. That my daughter needs support in many facets of her life. That her life holds value. That she is loved. That she is funny and smart and challenging. That she speaks two languages and if she spoke none, our love wouldn’t change. Of course I want you to know all of these things. But knowing, on its own, doesn’t really seem to change anything; to make the world a more welcoming place for every person in it. Knowing is only step one on the continuum of care.

I knew about people with Down syndrome before my daughter was born and that didn’t stop the ache in my heart when she arrived. And part of that ache was about my own ableism; holding onto learned beliefs, rampant in our society, that one type of body or cognition or way of being in the world is better and ‘right’ over other ways of being. And part of that ache was knowing what we would be up against.

And what is my daughter and our family up against? The list is long. Wait times for essential services, such as speech therapy, that trail into years, not days or months; services that are essential to her growth, development, and wellbeing. And when services are made available, they are scarce and so families are forced to pay out of pocket to supplement, and if they cannot, they go without. Daycare settings not equipped to support children with Down syndrome who often need one-on-one support. Any form of childcare, extracurricular activity or camp that would provide the same quality of life that every child deserves are simply not accessible or have limited spaces. If a child needs support, they either aren’t welcome or they can come as long as they can get by on their own, which often my daughter can’t, not really. Or she can, but her big sister ends up being her support person. My ten-year-old daughter does not deserve to be her little sister’s support person.

Most public schools across Ontario lack adequate support for children with Down syndrome. The supports are either not in place by the beginning of the year, and so students miss out on their schooling, or the resources available are limited and divided between other students who also need full-time support. The assumption is that kids with Down syndrome are provided with the services they need to be successful and the reality, in Ontario, is that they are not.

None of this is the fault of the therapists, or teachers or daycare workers. These issues are systemic.

Ableism is also a systemic issue. Why do we hold onto beliefs that some people’s lives are worth celebrating—truly celebrating—while others’ aren’t? The notion that ‘an abled body is better’ gets my daughter at every turn. The assumption is that because she has Down syndrome, she is incapable. I have to do the work of educating every new person who enters her life and it’s exhausting. Elyse first learned her letters at three years old. Thanks to a sesame street app on her Ipad, she took an interest in identifying her letters (make elmo sing!) before even her older sister did. In kindergarten, she learned her letters in French, and I gently, then more directly, encouraged the educators in her life to move beyond the alphabet. At age 7, when a speech therapist celebrated that my daughter had learned her letters that session, you may understand why I did not reciprocate her enthusiasm. She now reads simple sentences and at age nine, you can certainly understand why I would insist any letter work be removed from her education plan. It’s tiring for families to have to constantly educate others and insist that our children are capable and worthy. I am so over it.

Wearing coloured t-shirts is a good first step. Certainly, I applaud the determination of schools and educators in their advocacy and awareness efforts. Education and awareness is an incredibly important first step in celebrating the lives of Canadians with Down syndrome. I would encourage everyone to visit the Canadian Down Syndrome Society’s website; to read books written by disabled individuals such as Count Us In by Jason Kingsley and Mitchell Levitz who write about growing up with Down syndrome. I will forever champion books and t-shirts, but—it’s not enough. Not nearly enough to truly celebrate the lives of individuals with Down syndrome. It’s only the first step. Simply draping a t-shirt over these issues doesn’t fix the problems.

To truly celebrate, we need to provide the essential services these individuals and their families need to succeed. When children with Down syndrome aren’t being turned away from daycares because centres don’t have the supports; when kids aren’t being left out at school because of ableist attitudes or lack of funding; when adults with Down syndrome have opportunities for meaningful employment and independence because businesses have an obligation to do so; when families no longer have to carry the emotional and financial toll, that will be worth celebrating.

 

On Writing Retreats

A woman sitting on a wood deck is reading from her work on a beautiful fall day to a group of women

On Writing Retreats.

The first time I organized a writer’s retreat I did it because, as a mother to three young kids, I wanted the time and space to write. A word to the wise: if you want time and space to write, don’t organize a writing retreat and facilitate it yourself. Renting a space meant I had to do all the grunt work. I was preparing lunches and bringing in yoga instructors and providing feedback on writers’ work. With a clump of memoir writers, I was faced with participants in tears and traumas that risked repeating themselves, skipping from body to body like a virus to a host. How to manage it all, in my new-found role of hostess, chef, therapist, teacher? While still making space for my own emotions? In truth, I didn’t, I could not. I resigned myself to giving the time and space to other women to write, and when I did that I encountered a truth perhaps greater than the value of that writing time I was giving up. Hosting the retreat was a time for me to teach, and to help other women find their story, their voice, and share it with the world. There are times to write and there are times to learn. Teaching is the highest form of learning. Despite being relatively good at math, I’m reminded of this every time I try to give my ten-year-old daughter a math lesson. And it’s not that I necessarily learn directly from the writing of the writers I’m working with, though often I do, but I learn from their bravery; I learn from their curiosity and courage. I learn from their open hearts. And in return, I offer them mine.

Running a writer’s retreat has allowed me to listen deeply to the work of other women writers. And why is this significant? Why do we have to make space to hear the voice of women writers, specifically? Aren’t men and women writers treated equally now? Women writers continue to work within the context of some invisible and some not so invisible forces working against them.

Some not so invisible forces: Recently, the finalists for a Canada-wide Creative Nonfiction contest were announced and the five finalists happened to be pieces written by women. On the contest’s Facebook group for writers across Canada, an individual felt compelled to comment: “Five finalists are women, really? Have we gone too far?” Have we gone too far. The response from the other writers in the group was outrage, incredulity. Too far? The pieces were judged anonymously, irrespective of sex or gender, dependent entirely on the merit of the writing. One of the finalists identified as a trans male anyway, had the commenter cared to be inclusive. Too far? No, we haven’t gone far enough. Would it surprise you if I said the individual who made the comment was a woman? I’m reminded of a former neighbour who read an article I’d written in the newspaper, my very first. “Did your husband help you with that?” she wanted to know. When I insisted that he hadn’t, she looked at me, surprised, “You wrote that all by yourself? Are you sure?” Are you sure? Yes, I’m sure women’s voices deserve a place to be heard, a place where we can be listened to, a place where we can be believed. Yes, I’m sure, we haven’t gone far enough.

Invisible forces. Invisible forces can look like emotional trauma. Mothers are often the work horses expected to carry the weight of emotional labour in the family, of children and spouses, with little space left over for themselves to think and feel. Women need safe spaces to express those feelings, but we also need spaces where we can work, unencumbered by expectation or any other form of labour, besides creativity. Women, all women, deserve access to their creativity.

Invisible forces can look like sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, classism, and heterosexism (homophobia). These forces are invisible in that you can’t pinpoint their origin in physical form, but the effects and outcomes are real. A clear example for understanding the invisible effects of racism against black women recently came to me by way of Audre Lorde’s 1970s book Sister Outsider. She wrote, “I can’t tell you how many good white psychwomen have said to me, “Why should it matter if I am Black or White?” who would never think of saying, “Why does it matter if I am female or male?”” This struck the chord of truth. While I acknowledge my privilege as a white woman, I have experienced the sensation of being lesser than in comparison to a man based solely on the factor of our sex. It’s in the way, in a writer’s group, when a man enters the circle of discussion among a group of women, his voice holds the most importance, his voice is believed and held as the highest truth, his is the voice of authority. This isn’t to say men are always handed the easy ticket in, but more so to say that women among men pay a higher price to enter. As Lorde so beautifully illustrated, it isn’t enough to say we are equal, there needs to be a bigger cultural shift away from preconceived values of worth and who holds knowledge and who has a right to hold that knowledge. Can we, as a culture, listen deeply to the voices of women, our gatekeepers of emotion? Can we push back against ideas that women need permission to write and be heard and that what they have to say is somehow lesser than?

After facilitating my latest retreat, feelings of wellbeing and gratitude washed over me. I spent the weekend as one of fifteen women sharing stories, with catered food and a team of other professionals to share the load of running the weekend. I’ve learned a few things about how to run a retreat as the years have gone by and I continue to learn. As I drove home alone along the open stretch of road, rows of pines waving at me as I passed by, I knew I had experienced something with these writers so seldom granted to women, and especially mothers: freedom.

Tips for organizing your own writer’s retreat:

  • Know your why. I thought I was getting into organizing writing retreats because I love to write, but it turns out I also love to teach and facilitating The Write Retreat has been a perfect marriage of these skills. I find empowering and supporting women writers deeply gratifying.
  • Know your audience. I’ve heard of a doctor who runs writing retreats for other doctors. Find your niche by considering what specifically you have to offer. With a background in creative nonfiction writing, I attend to attract more memoir/ personal narrative time writers to my retreats.
  • Create a sustainable business model. Consider partnering with other writers and other businesses that can add value to the service you are providing. For example, working with a venue that can provide administrative services for you saves time and energy that can then be put back into the retreat while inviting guests speakers brings in expertise to support the work you are doing.
  • Put your heart into it. Your participants are counting on you to deliver quality programming. Are you able to meet as many of the group’s needs as possible? Consider setting up Zoom meetings beforehand to get to know participants and find out what those needs are. Send out a questionnaire afterwards and reassess how each session went and learn what you can do better for next time. Don’t be afraid to let your passion shine through.
  • Create a safe space. As writers, we know how vulnerable it can feel to share our work, especially work that’s newly formed. Create parameters around how work is shared and how feedback is provided. Focus on what works in the piece and celebrate loudly.

 

Tips when deciding if a writing retreat is right for you:

  • What do you hope to get out of it? Are you seeking comradery and community or solace and space? Do you want intensive feedback, one-on-one time, or time to play on the page? Each writing retreat is going to offer a balance of these things—a coming together and time apart. Feedback and inspiration. Find the retreat that offers the balance that’s right for you.
  • Does it add value for you? Is there a guest author you want to meet or a writer you really want to workshop with? Is the location ideal? Is the timing right given the stage of your project, or during the period when you want to get a new project going? Is it the chance to relax and inspiration that you need? The retreat needs to bring value to you and your work.
  • Does it feel right? Often, we know in our gut if something is right for us or not. Read the fine print. Does the idea of sharing a room with a stranger put you off? Are your food requirements able to be met? Is the retreat space accessible for your mobility needs? Are you attracted to what’s on offer? If not, wait for the next one.
  • Are your friends interested? While attending a retreat on our own is a wonderful opportunity to meet new people and make connections with other writers, there’s a level of comfort that comes with bringing a friend along. Also, reading past participants’ testimonials can be a great indicator of what you may be in for.
  • When in doubt, reach out. My expectations is that if a business wants my patronage, they should be willing to answer any questions I may have. If you’re at all unsure, reach out with any questions and an organized facilitator will be happy to answer them.

What Could Be: On Poetry

Something happened to me this summer. My writing is morphing into something new, taking a different shape, being swayed and pulled in new directions. Perhaps it is my emotions that are demanding the reshaping, orchestrating this coup? Whatever it is that’s happening, I’ve been writing poetry, and learning about poetry, and meeting poets, and reading poetry, too. Poetry is gathered language that evokes a strong sense of beauty and feeling. This is one definition of poetry. One that I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’ve been encountering and striving to put myself in the way of other definitions and interpretations. I’m keeping an ear out for them. Feel free to send your definitions, found or otherwise, my way.

“Poetry is not a luxury,” Audre Lorde wrote in an essay by the same name, “it is a vital necessity of our existence.” Maybe poetry is helping me to feel real, to embody the fullness of myself. And maybe poetry has been my way of surviving through a time of change, uncertainty, and upheaval.

Poetry is the song of everyday life humming. It’s my dog pawing against my husband’s closed office door for food; the soft warmth of his muzzle tucked into my hand, as I feed him. It’s a place and space to find the words to set down against experience. A re-creation of moments, a cyanotype image.

In Bahar Orang’s meditation on beauty, Where Things Touch, there is this:
“As Helene Cixous puts it: I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst—”

Maybe poetry is the expression of those luminous torrents? Of my fragile heart bursting shards of light onto the page? I say my heart, because it is my heart doing the work, the heavy lifting.

Here’s a poem that sort of fell out of me when I let my guard down. I was meaning to be doing something else. Does poetry form in the annals of our periphery?

I’m thinking of patches of dappled light I saw on the floor of Algonquin forest. How does the light even get there, in those hard-to-reach places, beneath the canopy of all those leaves? But it does. Light finds a way.

I don’t want to explain my need for this poem. So I won’t.

What Could Be
Dedicated to my daughter’s extraordinary former educational assistants: Mme. Claudia, Mme. Joanne and Mme. Catherine (“Keegan”). Also, Mme. Suzanne. Vous êtes le soleil qui brille dans le ciel. You embody everything that could be.

The best ones
Never have to tell you
How good they are

That they know
Your child
Because they’ve worked
With one hundred of them before

The best ones
Talk
To the child
And look at
Whomever
They’re speaking to
Address the
human whole
Without
Needing to
Point out
The parts
that are broken,
Perceived
broken.

The best ones
Check in
After you’re gone
To see your shine
Light up the room
Engage you
In conversation
Conjure
Your magic
Evoke colours of the rainbow
That exist beyond the visible
spectrum of light

The best ones
Call you by your name

Hold a place for you in their hearts
Find pockets of space
Where you fit in
Foster the friends
Your hand will hold

Remember
You like it best
When the music is playing
And they let it play
As you instrument yourself
A fine tune

They sway to your every scale
Past when
The final note
Rings
Because they believe in seeing beyond
What isn’t necessarily there
to the naked eye
But what
could be.

Dear New MFA Students: Welcome to the Program

Dear New MFA Students: Welcome to the Program

Writer’s Note: This post is inspired by the lovely buddy I’ve been paired with who is heading into the first year of the MFA program at The University of King’s College. They are taking my place as the new intrepid student I was a year ago. In talking to them, as I reflected back over my first year, it occurred to me that some of the information I shared may be useful to others, maybe even entertaining…

Psst. I’ll tell you a secret. Every student, whether they admit it or not, is encumbered by two universal experiences when entering an MFA program: imposture syndrome and the intimidation factor. Imposture syndrome looks like: I don’t belong here, or—my writing isn’t good enough. The intimidation factor is thinking like everyone will be a better writer than me, because they’ve done ‘x’, which derives from the false notion that your writing isn’t good enough. Hopefully, these thoughts come and go so that you aren’t plagued by self-doubt constantly, but I want to reassure you these feelings are normal. Some encounter them more than others. This is a well-documented phenomenon by writers of all stripes. The angsty voice of doubt whispering nasty thoughts in the writer’s ear, clouding their judgement and creativity. Banish that voice, don’t put up with it, shoo it away. You’re in an MFA program now, and—surprise!—that means you are a professional writer with your own form of talent. You got into the program, didn’t you? You are meant to be here. You have earned it, even—especially—if it doesn’t feel that way. You write and you write well. AT LEAST one other person thinks so. We’ll revisit the intimidation factor in a moment.

You’re here—now what? Get writing! Seriously, the cliché, you have no time to waste, is a thing. If you have research to do, start researching. Books to read, get reading. Pages to write—well of course you have pages to write—start getting those ideas down.

The way the University of King’s College MFA program in creative nonfiction is set up, after the summer residency in June, and a few pesky assignments, you have the summer ahead of you to do with as you will. I want to tell you to relax, enjoy the summer—I really do—and you genuinely should take some down time because the fall term is fast-paced, but hear me out: get ahead this summer. Write enough so that when September comes, you know you already have at least a submission or two prepared. Work enough that some of the assignments are off your plate. Look ahead to the assignments you have coming so that ideas filter through your consciousness. As you read good books throughout the summer, those ideas will eventually have somewhere to land. Take notes. Get organized. Write most days. Then relax. By the end of the second term (first year), many of my classmates and I had run out of gas. The work I put in through the summer got me through to the end. I did not for one second think of devoting my summer to writing as “lost time”, I thought of it as a return on my investment. You are spending an enormous amount of energy and resources to get through this two-year period. The MFA program is a once in a lifetime experience. Best to make the most of it.

But if you do have commitments, such as children, ill or aging relatives to look after, your own health, perhaps it’s full or part-time employment, do what you can, when you can. Every bit helps. I make it sound as though I toiled day in and day out, but my reality that first summer was that I spent a significant amount of time looking after my family. Your reality will demand the same of you. Find the blank spaces and fill the page when you can.

And once you do start writing, don’t stop. You will have to go back, edit, and revise when working with your mentor, but keep looking forward, ahead to the next piece, what’s the next section or essay or scene to lay out? Once you build momentum, keep the momentum going.

Remember: this is not a solo venture. The intimidation factor. Ahh, we have arrived. I mention this because you are now a part of an impressive group. In the MFA program you will encounter seasoned journalists, PhDs, MDs, MBAs, professors, editors, publishers of literary journals; writers who’ve headed up newspapers and magazines, whose writing has won prizes, appeared in The New York Times and who maybe have even published a book or two—or more. Maybe you are one of these writers with professional or academic notoriety—or maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re like me, and coming from a different field entirely, relatively “new” to the writing game compared to classmates with whole careers behind them. Writers’ backgrounds are as diverse as the books they produce. Our lives inform our writing. Have you lived? I’m guessing you have. Nobody else is better suited to tell your story than you, and nobody can tell it the way that you can. That your MFA colleagues come from rich and varied backgrounds full of experience is wonderful news! Learn from these people. You are now colleagues. And give freely of yourself in return.

Psst. Here’s another secret. A little tip from me to you. Pretend like everyone in the program is your friend. You heard me. Just do it. My husband baulks when I tell him this. “Just because you’ve met somebody, Adelle,” he’ll say, “doesn’t mean they’re your friend.” He’s right and wrong. If you adopt this strategy, everyone in the program will not, decidedly, become your best friend. But doesn’t it make for a better world and friendlier atmosphere if you imagine that they will be? And I guarantee you will make a true friend or two—or twenty in the process. Moreover, some of these folks will be your first readers, your work’s biggest champions. These people are your allies. Who better to understand the ups and downs of the writing life? Who better to commiserate with over assignments and deadlines? The pains and pleasures in the pursuit of publication?
It took a short time for me to realize that every writer in the program was a unique talent, otherwise, as mentioned above, they wouldn’t be here. What I’m getting at is that comparing yourself to others is futile. Wasted energy. You can expect and celebrate that you and your classmates will each become successful writers; what that definition of success looks like varies depending on individual goals. As you move through the program together, one writer’s success does not detract from another writer’s success. While this may be stating the obvious, rejection is part of a career in writing, so if you do feel the need to compete, race against yourself and see how many rejections you can collect (like gaining friends through manifestation—you’re bound to gain some acceptances along the way).

Oh! And you will be graded. The grading part feels weird, almost wrong. You’re going to put a mark on my heart work? The two seem at odds. My advice is just to embrace it, again, you are a student, and this part of the process can feel rewarding. When else do you get a grade for doing your work? It’s helpful to remember that if you complete the work on time, the grade range for MFA students runs from above average to outstanding. We are all above average writers. Say it with me. We are all above average writers. See? Doesn’t that feel good. Better yet, forget about the grades and use this incredibly brilliant group of individuals to your advantage: tap into their knowledge and skill sets. Which reminds me.

Becoming a part of the MFA community inevitably exposes you to the larger literary community. Make those connections too, where and when you can. Industry professionals will come talk to you. Their presence and attention are part of the perks you’ve paid for. Follow these writers, publishing professionals, editors, agents and so on on social media if their ideas interest you, or if they are someone you could learn from. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them on an individual basis, after you’ve heard them speak, and make a personal connection if you have a comment or question and feel compelled to do so. Do it even if you don’t feel compelled to do so, but know you should. What do you have to lose?

You are a literary citizen now. What does this mean? It means that you should support your fellow classmates whenever you can. Their successes are your successes. Something as small as a ‘like’ or a ‘follow’ is a boost. Many professional writers dedicate time to promoting, celebrating and actively engaging in other writers’ work from reviews to profiles to interviews and attending book launches. The MFA is a good place to get used to this culture of reciprocity, even when the act of writing can feel so singular—it’s not. We’re sewing from the same fabric of the universe, though each patch has its own sheen.

I recall being fourteen years old and openly mocked for the first time. I was a competitive gymnast, peppy and cheerful. The ponytail wagging kind. It may surprise you to find out that not everybody likes peppy and cheerful. I met a wiry looking girl my age who I later found out had a crush on my boyfriend, which may explain what happened next when I introduced myself.

“Hi! I’m Adelle!” I said in my cheeriest tone, extending my hand in greeting.

She did not, I took note, shake my hand.

Instead, she turned her head and said to the group of girls behind her, “Hi! I’m Adelle,” in a snarky mock tone.

While the girl’s reaction says much more about her issues than it does about mine, I share this story to arrive at a point: nobody is going to openly mock you or your work in the MFA program, I promise. There are rules and guidelines around giving feeding, which will come to your attention. Others will be looking to pinpoint what works in your pieces of writing, rather than what doesn’t, because that is helpful information. They will likely have questions too, and that’s okay. Your mentors, professional editors and writers, will gently guide you toward questions that will strengthen your work. Listen with an open heart and you will not be wounded. You are not your narrator, and constructive criticism will pertain to the work.

I could talk to you about deadlines and word count, but I won’t bother, because Dean is there for that.

Perhaps all of what I’m saying doesn’t fully resonate with you, and that’s okay. You get to make this MFA program your own thing. It’s quite likely that you and I are entirely different people. You may be a brood-in-the-dark-corner-of-the-bar-pontificating-and-pondering-life’s-existential-crises, fist-to-forehead, cigarette-dangling-from-your-lips kind of writer, while I’m more of a friendly-run-with-my-dog-ponytail-wagging-mom-of-three-kale-smoothie-drinking-optimist-who-loves-sunshine-and-trails kind of writer. That’s cool. I’d be happy to sit by your side in the dark for the day and learn from you too.

What matters is that we’ve come together from our various corners of the universe, thread in hand. We’re primed to create something, and this is our moment to shine. Raise your needles. On your marks. Get set. SEW!

I hope our seams will butt up against one another’s. I genuinely can’t wait to see what you will make. I know it will be beautiful.

 

Enjoyed this post? Consider subscribing to my author newsletter, The Write Page, for writing, reading and retreats that inspire—many thanks! And writers, please let me know about your author newsletters, I’d love to read them. Reach me through my website adellepurdham.ca. Questions & comments welcome.

How to get Your Kid With Down Syndrome in Trouble

Okay, I should tell you right now, there isn’t going to be anything serious about this post. When I say “get in trouble”, I don’t mean like, tell her to climb on a portable roof and then call the police, I mean it in the sense of discipline. Dear reader, I think you knew that. If you’re looking for useful tips on disciplining your child—please—turn away. If anything, what I have to say is pure entertainment. Humour. Funny, yes, because parenting Elyse is a constant reminder not to take myself so seriously.

I’ve shared this story before, but it bears repeating here.

I’m playing outside with the girls. Dan isn’t home and Elyse heads inside. She promptly locks the sliding glass door behind her effectively locking us all out. She then helps herself to treats. She flaunts the fact of the treats in my face, as I kindly mouth, “Elyse, please open the door.” She wiggles her hips side to side, sliding chocolates into her mouth, one right after the other. OPEN THE DOOR.

In the aftermath, a good reprimanding is in order.

I’m trying to be serious, to be taken seriously. Locking your mom out of the house is dangerous. “Elyse, that was very dangerous. You can’t do that again, okay? Don’t ever lock mommy out. What do you SAY to mom, Elyse?”

Elyse, eyes downcast, chin low, tries to embody the seriousness I’m calling for, but then, in her defiant way, she mutters under her breath: “Sorry…poopy.”

Sorry, poopy. Sorry, poopy? How do you not die laughing right there? How are you supposed to parent that?

Another time, this time with Dan. It’s dinnertime, and Elyse decides to knock her sister’s empty cup onto the floor. After some prolonged negotiating, Dan grows weary and attempts to be firm with her. Her outright refusal to pick up the cup and his refusal to give in is a comedy sketch in itself. Dan feels like this is a battle he can’t lose. He uses his strongest fatherly tone.

“You’re going to pick that up!”

“Fine,” Elyse says in a flat monotone voice. She initiates the slightest movement.

“Elyse. Let’s go, pick up the pace,” Dan requests. But already, he’s softening. And at this, Elyse swivels in her seat on the bench, inching her body at a devastatingly slow pace, exaggerating each small gesture like a mime under water, punctuated with a look of utter indifference. He tries hard to keep a straight face. And fails.

In the midst of moving, we’ve been making forays to ice cream parlours and friendly backyards while showings take place in our home. On one such outing, Elyse decides she’ll stay in the car eating her pizza while the rest of us pile out to grab a cone. The next thing I know, Elyse has abandoned the vehicle and is standing next to me across the parking lot. No big deal, I could see her the whole time, but the next day she does it again, crosses a road without looking. This time all kids are to wait in the vehicle parked across the street while Dan and I have a quick meeting with our real estate agent. Out of nowhere, Elyse is suddenly on the road disrupting the meeting. She comes flying at us, running across the street, arms flailing, full of vigour, yelling, “I’m BAAAAACK!!!” Dan and I look at each other, trying to keep our composure as our agent natters on.

“I guess,” I say to Dan later, “we didn’t explicitly tell her to stay in the car and not run across the road.” I guess we can’t really get her in trouble for doing it then, can we?

But maybe the whole point of this post is just to say that sometimes there’s a better way. Than anger. Than yelling at our children. Than outrage and frustration. Than parenting until we’re blue in the face. Than trying to make our kids act in a way that we consider to be just right. We have to keep them safe. Of course, we have to keep them safe. Conversations need to happen.

But maybe, sometimes, our kids know something we don’t.