Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Now Available

The Malahat Review's issue focusing on creative nonfiction is now available! The cover is simply gorgeous.

The contents include my essay, "Dripsody (Reprise)," plus many other types of creative nonfiction, including book reviews. It's an honour to have work appear in this august company.

In it, I refer to "Dripsody," a musical composition by my uncle, Hugh LeCaine. You can hear a sample at here.

But seriously: the cover! By Jeffrey Veregge, it's entitled Nothing Can Hold Us. And it's beautiful.
Wednesday, January 20, 2016


I'm thinking about paperwork these days. Maybe it's because the first of the year always brings paperwork (year-end income and expense statements, for starters), or maybe because these few months have required both my passport renewal and the renewal of my permanent residence card.

In any case: documenting one's whereabouts, one's activities--it can require keeping paper, and knowing where you've kept it.

But there's also something a little spooky about paperwork defining you. A trip through my strongbox this morning was a wee trip down memory lane. Marital status, residence, church membership, university transcripts, work status information--all of it requires paper, much of which could be kept. But should it?

This past weekend was the memorial service for Margaret Phillips, feminist, activist, and the personality and energy behind the Northern Woman's Bookstore. She was an important part of the region's recognition of art and literature, and we'll miss her. Estella Howard wrote a poem that she read at this memorial service (full text here). My favourite part of the poem is the line about "respecting the gentle woman privacy," because, of those people--100+, maybe 200?--in the ballroom celebrating her life, I wondered who among us knew more than one or a few parts of Margaret.

Today I ran across an envelope with the obituary my father wrote for himself, along with his directions to his minister for his funeral. They were handy in 2007, when he died, but do I need access to them now? I also found an envelope with deeds to the property where I'm sitting, bearing the strong signatures of my mother and grandmother, written 60 years ago in blue fountain-pen ink.

Technically, none of these documents are part of who I am--but technically, they also are. Will I keep them? Of course.

So I sort and pitch and shred. I list other items that should go into this box, with copies kept elsewhere. But I also remember my right to "gentle woman privacy," and I treasure that, too.
Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Whose Story?

A really neat element of country living is sharing your life with animals. We don't keep livestock (on purpose--don't get me started about supporting squirrels and/or other rodents) just as we don't really garden. However, we share our place with wild creatures: eagles and a lynx as well as the more prosaic (though still interesting) ravens and crows, foxes and otters.

This morning, we noticed eagles screeching and soaring unusually close to our house. It was cold enough (-5F) that we didn't expect their persistence. Now that our bay is beginning to freeze and the shoreline is mostly snow-covered, they often do a fly-by or two, then climb thermals and go off to hunt in open water.

This morning, the eagles and many ravens seemed to linger a few hundred meters to the right of the house, near the shore but out on the (growing) lake ice. I couldn't tell from the house, and I wasn't comfortable going out *too* far on the new ice to get close, but some type of animal had met its end and was serving as a cold-weather buffet for scavengers. The carcass is too big for a fox, but it's possibly a young deer and possibly a wolf or coyote.

Then on our way out to run errands, we noticed the body of a young fox near the driveway. It's a recent addition--probably from this morning. No scavengers have been around yet, but it's within clear view of the house, and they may be nervous about coming so close. Or they may not have found it yet. We're giving it an evening before moving it to an open area where birds can't see us.

Naturally, we're curious about what happened. Are the two bodies linked? Did a larger predator both take down the first animal and wound the fox? Or are they two stories that just happened to play out within the same couple of acres?

And there's nothing like a window into the natural world to make me understand the importance of who's telling the story. The fox (and the unknown animal) likely have a different perspective than the eagles and ravens, who are no doubt thrilled to have food.

I'm revising a novel (and gestating a short story). And now I'm asking myself, in each case, what the story would be if the antagonist told it.

Stories are everywhere, and it's fun to look for them. And kind of neat to think, "I'm learning from eagles."
Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Facts and Nonfiction

Welcome to 2016! Here's a story about facts and creative nonfiction.

Recently, we took a long car trip. My husband has this love for our (now antiquated) GPS system, while I'm a paper map kind of person. I find the GPS annoying, and sometimes "she"--we have the voice set to an American female--doesn't know what "she" is talking about, in spite of her authoritative tone. Meanwhile, my husband finds paper maps confusing and likes "her" detailed instructions.

One day on our multi-day drip home, I was driving--out of a city, an interstate stretch, and then a shortcut to a different interstate. My husband was "navigating" with the GPS, though I'd also looked at the map earlier before I stowed it somewhere, and I was pretty confident that I knew which routes I wanted to take.

We enjoy car trips--the time together, the scenery, the chance to think aloud to a sympathetic audience of one--so we were relaxed and chatting. Then my husband and the GPS announced that our turn, the one to cut the corner to the other interstate, was coming up soon. I thought it seemed early, but hey, maybe time and miles were passing faster than I had thought.

We took the turn and continued our relaxed morning. After some time had passed, I realized that we weren't where I thought we were. I suspected that this genius GPS was taking us on a longer, "scenic route." In winter. A few days after a snowstorm. In a national forest, in the mountains, on twisting roads with dramatic gains and losses in elevation. A route that I knew would add two hours to our already full day of driving. A route that I didn't particularly want to take in summer, much less winter, when we had several days of driving ahead of us.

The map that would have confirmed my suspicions was "stowed somewhere," and the shoulders of the road weren't big enough to pull off comfortably to search for it. I couldn't begin to tell my husband where it was, and he wouldn't have been comfortable reading it if he'd found it.

So I kept going, fuming the entire time. Yes, the scenery was beautiful, and I'm glad my husband got to see it and that I, control freak that I am, was driving those hairpin turns.

But I was furious with myself--I should have known better than to trust the GPS. Just that morning, the GPS had taken us out of the city on a route that I didn't like. After that, I should have stopped somewhere to dig out my map to be sure I knew the rest of our route.

Nevertheless, there we were. And even I was navigating the narrow turns and hills, dusted in salt mixed with red sand, at turtle speeds, I knew what was supposed to happen in the essay I (of course) was mentally writing about this experience.

Here's what was supposed to happen: At some point, we would come out onto a vista that was so breathtaking that everything--the extra two hours, the nerve-wracking white-knuckle drive, the infuriating sense of being taken off-course by something mechanical instead of my own decisions--would be worth it. I'd have this serendipitous moment of incredible beauty, insight, and understanding. My own loss of control would become the important lesson--it's all small stuff, let go more often, life is a journey so enjoy the detours, blah blah. I'd emerge from the national forest a finer, gentler person.

Here's what really happened: I stayed pissed off about the whole thing. To tell the truth, I'm still mildly annoyed at myself. I should have known better. I should have been more responsible--I had investigated routes and made decisions, but I hadn't followed through to ensure that I accurately remembered the correct turn. Sometimes controlling situations is okay; sometimes expressing preferences, making decisions, and supporting those decisions are ENTIRELY APPROPRIATE activities. I'd done the first two without the last one.

I still enjoyed the scenery--the desert at the bottom to pine forest near the pass, the trunks scarred by a previous fire sticking up at awkward angles from the snow around their roots. Near the end of our descent to the other interstate, we did stop to stretch our legs, and the view really was beautiful--a humbling perspective. I enjoyed it thoroughly. But I still wish we hadn't done that route--it extended our day beyond the pleasant limits we'd carefully chosen. It frazzled my nerves and used up energy that I wanted to spend in different ways.

My personal "lessons," if I'm forced to have some, are that it's okay to trust my own instincts, and that I need to be sure to support my own decisions. Other lessons may emerge, or not, and that's fine, too. Not every experience needs to be an essay. (Another lesson.)

But the whole experience made me realize why what I think of as good creative nonfiction can be hard to write: we have to be vulnerable and admit that we didn't respond the way we knew we were "supposed" to. We have to go beyond the expected outcome, the "meaningful" "uplifting" perspective that makes a shitty situation (illness, death, loss, grief, even a minor loss of direction) "all worth it" and makes readers comfortable.

Because here's something I've learned: Life is often uncomfortable, with anger and loose ends and no way to wrap it and tie a bow on top. In my experience, truth emerges when we're honest about hard facts. That truth may not be palatable or popular, and that, too, has to be okay.

It's good to be home from our vacation, and writing, and challenging myself. Here's to honesty in weathering 2016's inevitable twists and turns, climbs and descents--wherever they lead.