dec 21It snowed yesterday. From the sky, millions of snow flakes fell and covered this city in a blanket of white.

It was the kind of snowfall that makes you want to curl up by the fire with a good book, and venture no further than your couch all day.

I had woken up early for an appointment, and on my way home to put on my pajamas to do just that, something told me I should go to the Vancouver Art Gallery instead.

The gallery is a three story building of white marble in the heart of the city’s downtown. It’s steps are a gathering place for people from all walks of life. In the warmer months, men and women in their suits and ties eat their lunches on the steps leading up to the cafe. Throughout the year, there is a gang of leather and spike clad folks perched high on the front steps. They intimidate the crowds below with their stares and pierced lips. Year round, crowds of activists, protesters, engaged citizens and the occasional flash mobs stake out in the art gallery’s courtyard to protest varying causes and have their voices heard.

It is a building where art meets life and life meets art.

Since I moved to Vancouver, my mom has gifted me with a membership each Christmas. And on days when I’m in need of a little inspiration or simply seeking an escape from a hurried life, I venture inside the gallery’s walls.

Apart from the seawall, it is my most treasured place in this town. Just like the ocean path I love to run, it is wild and peaceful all at once.

But where I go to the seawall to stop thinking, I go to the gallery to think about everything.

Each exhibit (and they’re always changing) is a conversation between my own thoughts and the mystery and magic of this world.

On any given visit, I can in one moment find myself lost in the forests with Emily Carr and the next be transported to a boardroom where I engage in a silent discourse with contemporary religious figures and politicians.

It is a place where the dreamers mingle with the realists and the historian looks into the future.

It is the intersection of what is known, and what is possible.

There is currently an exhibit that features a selection of works by renowned installation artist Antoni Muntadas. Displayed outside the gallery is one of his pieces most famous slogans “Warning: Perception Requires Involvement”.

I think, to some extent – and I say this because I’ve felt it – that we are all a little bit afraid of art.

We are afraid of what it might conjure up.

What if after bearing witness, we’ll have to get involved?

I feel it every time I enter through the gallery doors. I hesitate and take a breath, for I never know what I will be confronted with.

What if I won’t be the same person when I walk out?

It is in some ways frightening to think that a work of art might transform the way I interact with the world.

That I may witness more honesty on a canvas than there is on the news. That a line on a totem pole might shift my perception of history. That watching a projection across an armchair might make me vulnerable in the face of radical thoughts and violent ideals.

But it is for that reason that I go.

To shake up the way I see the world.

To open myself up to mystery, to beauty and to truth.

 

 

dec 20Taking a ‘snow day’ to spend some time with the one I love. Because that’s what this season is all about.

dec 19Do you ever have those days where you count down the hours until your head can hit the pillow, only to find yourself staring up at the ceiling until the dawn starts breaking?

As if all those thoughts, after having been pushed out of your head all day, suddenly make their attack the second they sense peace and quiet?

Do you ever have so many thoughts buzzing around in there that you can’t even decipher what they’re saying?

This has been the story of my brain as of late, so tonight, I took a moment and shut my thoughts off.

I poured myself a glass of wine, toasted a delicious dinner of gluten-free waffles, topped them off with maple syrup and turned on the Netflix.

Tonight I took a little thing called “me time”. And it was magical/terrible.

The magic part was that I heard my own laughter as it bounced off the walls of my empty apartment. It was the kind of laugh where you snort and a little bit of food comes out your nose.

The kind of laugh that suddenly transforms into ugly sob until you’ve cried every last particle of makeup off your face, even though you specifically chose the movie you’re watching because it was labeled comedy.

The kind of off sob that makes you realize that this ennui you’ve been feeling might not have anything to do with the fact that it’s a week ’til Christmas, a full moon or because of your raging period.

The kind of ordinary night that suggests you may have a little bit of “soul stuff” going on.

Which is terrible because it confirms that I haven’t been listening to my heart for a while. In fact, for quite some time, I’ve been kindly requiring it to shut the H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks Up.

Which means my head has been putting in some serious overtime and now it’s all backed up.  That’s what happens when you stop the flow between the two.

It’s terrible, because there are no detours. All that traffic in my head? It’s gonna have to go through my heart too. It’s where all those thoughts get sorted out – and I think I’ve been avoiding using my heart to direct the traffic, ’cause I know there’s some real talk going on in there that I’m not quite ready to hear.

I heard someone say once that the furthest distance they’d ever known was from their head to their heart (Okay fine, it’s lyric from the Runaway Bride Soundtrack) and I think they were on to something.

Cause tonight, the distance feels a little daunting. Like driving across the Lion’s Gate Bridge during an epic rainstorm when your windshield wipers are broken.

The thing is, I know there’s something really beautiful on the other side of that bridge. That after that traffic jam, there’s the life I want to be living.

So it’s probably about time I take the trek.

dec 18There is something about winter, more than any other season, that pulls the memories out of thin air. A whole childhood rises up unexpectedly, a piece here, a piece there.  Sometimes it is the sound of snow crunching beneath my feet. The memory of frost gathering on my eyelashes as we left tracks in the crystalline fields on our way to the public library. Sometimes it is the scent of incense burning – the way it tickled my nose as we entered the church on Christmas Eve. An evening drive and the memory of heavy eyelids as my sister and I scanned the night sky in hopes of catching a glimpse of Santa and his sleigh.

The flicker of a flame in the windowsill reminds me of the day they sat us down and explained in some complicated way that involved a number of candles and an explanation that assured us that though mommy and daddy could no longer live together, it was not our fault.

I remember asking Santa that year if he could please, please, please make mommy and daddy get back together. I wrote him that a number of times, but woke up on Christmas day to a Barbie playhouse and a pair of gloves that chimed a carol when you pressed the thumb and kept my fingers warm on the trip down the hill to mommy’s new place.

There was also my six year old excitement that we would now have TWO Christmases. But for the first few years after the divorce, we celebrated them together anyway. We would sleep at one house and in the morning, still bundled up in our PJs, the four of us would join together over eggnog and cookies and open the colourful parcels under the tree.

In our teens, as the lives of our parents changed, our Christmases became separate entities. Dad got Christmas Eve. Mom got the late night and early morning. Dad’s again for brunch. Then we were back to Mom’s for a Christmas Day feast.

This was my memory of Christmas: carting gifts to and fro, trying not to make a big deal out of any of them so as not to hurt any feelings. Exhaustion. Guilt. Keeping my mouth shut about how it felt like part of Christmas got left behind somewhere. My grief over the flame of those stupid candles they’d sworn wouldn’t ever burn out.

There were many things about Christmas that remained intact though. There was still love. There was still joy. There was still laughter. It was just compartmentalized. Placed in separate rooms without an adjoining door. There was a room for dad and a room for mom and I lived in the hallway in between.

For a long time, I was angry every time the sights and the sounds and the cold of winter came around. I hated to be reminded of all the thing that changed without the consent of my sister and I. I didn’t know how to face the fact that no matter how many boxes I opened or letters to Santa I wrote, the people I loved most in the world would never be sitting together around one singular Christmas tree.

This year will be the third Christmas I’ve spent away from home. Working retail doesn’t allow for trips home over the holidays. I’m grateful that I’ve once again been invited to celebrate Christmas with J’s family. I am blessed by their welcoming of me – and thankful that time with them has begun to feel like home.

Still, I would give anything to be back in the winter wonderland that is my hometown on Christmas morning. I would give anything to be with my family – in all it’s chaos, in all it’s rushing between houses, in all it’s endearing dysfunction.

I am missing my mom and my dad and my sister and all our friends and relatives more than ever this season. Maybe it is because I just saw them all and felt that kind of deep love that wraps me up and reminds me of all we’ve come through. Maybe it is because Vancouver has become home to me – and I know I’ll never return for longer than a hectic week’s stay – trying to fit everything and everyone in without ever feeling like we have enough time.

The anger that I used to feel over the holidays doesn’t feel so justified anymore. Somewhere along the way I made my peace and accepted that Christmas doesn’t have to look the way it did when I was little. Things change and even our most beloved traditions evolve and grow.

But even knowing that I’m creating new traditions with the a man who I hope to one day have a family of our own, (and that I can wake up on Christmas morning and run along the seawall), doesn’t make the longing less, or the missing of the people I love any easier.

So I’ll close my eyes and remember. The crunching of the snow, the laughter. All the memories from years of celebrating two Christmases on the same day. I’ll hold them all in my heart, because that’s where my family – regardless of whether they’re in separate houses or separate cities – belongs.

dec 17“…If there is no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”   – Mother Theresa

Before I moved to Vancouver, each Christmas my sister and I would make our way downtown the shelter where my mother worked to interview clients for The Christmas Wishlist. The Wishlist is an annual project that shares the stories of those living at the shelter in the hopes of connecting them with a personalized gift made possible by the generosity of more fortunate Calgarians. Our job was to interview the clients so that their stories and wishes could be posted to the website.

The first time I volunteered, I was unsure of what to expect.

L and I gathered in the volunteer office with a handful of other interviewers. We were given a sheet with a list of questions.Name? Birthdate?  How long have you been homeless? What are the reasons you are on the street? What are the biggest stresses of being homeless? What are your interests? What gives you hope? What would lift your spirits? What would you like for Christmas? And then a list of acceptable items: Work boots, phone card, transit passes, jackets, etc. The program coordinator instructed us to divert wishes away from gift certificates and expensive electronics which could easily become gifts for dealers instead of clients.

I was unsure of how some clients would react to some of the questions and worried that I wouldn’t be able to connect with the interviewees. But before I had the chance to change my mind about volunteering, I was handed a stack of forms and given a place at a table.

A long line of clients waited at the door as staff guided the first in line to an available volunteer. My first interview was with Donna*, a blonde woman in her forties. She smiled tentatively as she sat down. I could see the harshness of the street on her beautiful face.

She spoke of the relationship that ended five years ago. She’d been left her with nothing. She spoke about her 18 year old daughter. Her angel. How she didn’t like her coming down to the Drop In. Its too dangerous for her there, so instead, they arrange for times to meet. Her daughter will call and leave a message at the day office. Sometimes Donna doesn’t get them. It hurts that she cant be there for the girl whose name she has tattooed across her shoulders. A permanent reminder of the gift she is in her life.

What gave Donna hope? The dream that someday she would be able to have her daughter over anytime in a place all of her own.

A young man sat down next. Born a year after me – but we were both Gemini. The light is missing from his eyes. He’d lost contact with his family. Made some poor decisions. “What would lift your spirits this christmas?” I asked him. “A gift from somebody…anybody.” was his reply.

More men sit down. One with a black eye and a quiet smile who wanted nothing more than to see his kids that Christmas. They were in New Brunswick. Its was a long way home.

I heard no requests for gift cards or fancy electronics. The wishes were simple. Boots, overalls, a back pack – if possible a new one that didn’t have holes.

An older gentleman pulled up a chair. I asked his birthdate. 1955. He looked nearly 70. His face weathered and cracked by the years slipping by. He was attacked 12 years ago and made legally blind. He made his living driving machines. He cant have a licence anymore. He was thankful everyday for the eye doctor who gives him hope pro bono.

I asked what would lift his spirits. His voice cracked and tears welled up in his eyes. He spoke so softly I had to lean in to hear him, “peace on earth and goodwill amongst men”. He shruged as he conceded to the fact that that wasn’t about to happen anytime soon.

He marked down an am/fm radio. The music, he told me, helped take him away from this place.

As he got up to leave, before I knew what I was doing, I stood up too. Not normally one to embrace strangers, I surprised myself and asked if I could give him a hug.

Years later, I can still picture him, speechless as his hand went to his heart and he nodded a silent yes as tears began to run down his cheeks.

If there is no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

As we stood in an embrace in the midst of the chaos of the shelter, we belonged to each other. I held him and hoped that maybe he felt some of the peace and goodwill he so desired.

I think of that man often. About all the people I met at the shelter in the years after.

That first night of volunteering, I was afraid I wouldn’t connect with those who are living a life I’m so far removed from. I was, I think, feeling guilty for all that I had – scared that the clients would think of me as some spoiled kid who couldn’t possibly relate to their struggles and situation.

I learned that night, that when we are in our hearts, the things that separate us just melt away. There is no us and them. There is no spoiled girl or homeless guy.

For as the older gentleman and I embraced, I knew our hopes, our dreams, our deepest Christmas’ wishes were the same.

 

dec 16As I approach the end of my ‘Wunder Year’, I’ve started thinking about 2014 and beyond.

When I began writing last January, I assumed that by the time December 31st hit, I’d be a whole new person. Turns out, I didn’t need to become someone else, I just needed to learn to accept myself.

350 days in and I’m only just beginning to sort my sh*t out.

Yes, this life seems to be a series of quarter life crises and mental breakdowns. And I’m okay with it. Because the more things get shaken up, the more my fear and doubt and shame get broken apart, and the real me finds the space to break through.

Survival, as defined by dictionary.com, is “the act or fact of continuing to remain in existence, especially under adverse or unusual circumstances.” A survivor is then said to be “a person or thing that survives.” Or “a person who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks.”

In this sense, we are all survivors. I’m fairly certain, that there isn’t a human being alive that hasn’t faced some sort of hardship, and against the odds, prospered. (Functioning is okay too I suppose, but I prefer to prosper).

Some of us have survived earthquakes and storms. Some of us have survived divorce, illness, or war. I have, and continue to, survive myself.

Now, I may very well have no idea what it takes to survive anything other than the war I’ve waged against myself, but whether my hardships were real or a figment of my own creation, the threat I posed to my own survival was (and occasionally still is) as deadly as any raging storm.

Survival is a promise I have to make to myself every day. I make it every time I take a breath, with every bite of food, every downward dog, every step forward, every step back. I make it every time I look in the mirror and choose to love the image I see. Even today I struggle to remind myself that having an extra bite of my sushi doesn’t mean I’m unworthy of living.

Survival may have begun with me, but it has taken an entire community. It has taken the help of my physicians and counselors, the understanding of my friends and family, and courage of other survivors who have shared their stories and given me hope.

Which is why the words I write here, are really the story of how I survived myself.

And I hope, when you read them, you can see that there is a survivor in you too.

 

dec 15I was nine when I was baptized as a Holy Roman Catholic. Up until then, my mother had sided with the Anglicans. She says because the Church of England allowed women to become ministers. But I’ve always had my suspicions that choosing any doctrine other than the Holy Roman came with an added bonus of pissing off her parents.

Aside from a brief stint in an Anglican Sunday school – I recall only the orange punch they served and the sound of a guitar strumming Christmas carols – I set foot on sacred ground for the singular purpose of weekly Brownies meetings held in a random church basement.

My mother told L and I we were becoming Catholic because it was what her father would have wanted. He’d passed away unexpectedly that summer. The smell of incense, the stained glass, the rituals, the prayers she knew by heart from her childhood were I think a way of making peace with the relationship they’d never had.

At nine years old, why or how or what church I ended up in wasn’t any of my concern. Unlike my sister who questioned everything and would soon after being baptized declare that she was Buddhist, I only cared about one thing; being in a church meant I could sing!

As a girl, I looked for the wonder in most things. But no fireflies, no sugarplum faeries, no rainbows, no ice dancing could compare to the magic of a hundred voices raising up in unison.

No, I never got lost in the stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Nor did I bother listening to the Father’s sermons. But something shifted deep within me as I sung along to the hymns the congregation belted out each Sunday.

When we’d arrive at Sacred Heart each weekend, my first order of business was to check the numbers on the chalkboard posted on a marble column to the right of the altar. I’d pull out the hymn book (ah, those soft, thin pages!) that was hidden between all the bibles in the back of the pew in front of me and find the corresponding numbers.

It was my kind of mass when I knew the numbers by heart without referring to the book. It meant I’d get to sing so loud even God would hear me from his throne in the heavens.

As a student at St. Mary’s Highschool (even after it became quite clear my own beliefs didn’t line up with any one religion) like many students (my sister included) I never skipped the masses we were forced to attend. I didn’t even care that most people warned me that joining the school choir was akin to committing social suicide. I cared only for the moment in which my voice would blend into the collective and waft upward towards the sky where I imagined the angels were listening.

In a childhood where I was always trying to be and say and do the right thing, singing in that Cathedral was where I felt free.

This past Sunday, I stepped into a church for the first time in a decade.

No mass was being held, there were no rituals or sermons. We were there only to listen to the music, and sing when it was our turn.

It was the second year of “Christmas at the Madison” a benefit concert organized by my mom (hence why I was on the program) to support a local shelter for formerly homeless veterans.

At the culmination of the evening, the minister of the church who’d so graciously offered their space got up to play some of his original songs.

An Anglican minister with an electric guitar – things were about to get interesting.

As his first notes rang out, I began to feel it, the old familiar lump in the back of my throat that appears when I’ve been living my life off-key. All the things I try to stuff down, all the truth of me threatening to dislodge. I willed the hot tears not to make their escape, but something in his words was shifting up the landscape deep within me.

“The soul is gonna bust out whether you want it to or not” he said as he tuned his guitar to prepare for the next song.

Busting out is exactly what it feels like my soul has been attempting.

That part of me that I try to lock down and cover up with the practical is trying to break free. What used to be a whisper is becoming a scream.

And it’s terrifying.

“We’ve all got that something within us that will eat us up until we let it out,” and he began to sing.

His words spoke more truth than any gospel. I’ve witnessed it in the people I know who’ve taken big leaps of faith to answer their soul’s call.

I’ve also seen the toll it takes when we ignore the things we are meant to do. When we hide the people we were born to be.

I thought that I could extinguish that flame that’s been telling me to live this life at the top of my lungs. That the embers would become ashes and I could keep playing things safe and small.

But the soul will always break free. And all that passion and all that light that’s pent up within you just keeps getting hotter until you find tears streaming down your face while an impromptu congregation of atheists and believers alike sings Silent Night.

I don’t think I’ll ever get lost in the stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John or align with any one particular denomination. But maybe I don’t have to have faith in any one doctrine to start having faith in me.

dec 12I am a pacifist.

Though I understand violence – I have felt the uprising of anger in my own soul, I have felt the desire to kill- I do not condone any kind of war.

In my mind, there is no cause, no belief, no revenge that is worth killing for.

This world does not have time for peace though. There are too many things we deem worth fighting for.

I would do things differently than our presidents and prime ministers, but then, I’m not a world leader. Those are not my toys in the sandbox. I don’t have that kind of power.

I am a pacifist.

I don’t play with guns, I don’t believe in borders.

Still, I am not so naive to think that my belief in resolution will stop the thousands of soldiers marching off to fight wars there are no reasons for.

I am not so naive to think that my prayers for peace will generate a harmonious world.

I can only be here when they return.

I can only be here when those soldiers march back from battle.

My grandfathers fought in the second world war. They were told they were fighting for our freedom. But I don’t think they knew what they were fighting for.

I think they fought because history told them that war was the only way of defeating the “enemy”.

I don’t think our enemies are ever who we think they are.

But I cannot condemn them for the men they killed, they were only seventeen years old. They were only doing what they believed in. And given the circumstances, I would probably have marched into battle too.

Years later, all I can do is imagine a different kind of world.

I can imagine an entire planet finding a pathway to peace that doesn’t require assault rifles and the threat of nuclear war.

I can imagine a world in which the military is rendered obsolete.

A world where we don’t have to send our children off to war.

But until that day, I envision a country that respects the men and women that do serve. I envision a humanity that recognizes the impact of war on the people who are out there on the field. Who see things and do things no human being should ever have to.

I don’t condone war. I likely never will. But I can’t let my beliefs get in the way of my compassion for the men and women who fight for my freedom – even when I don’t want them to.

This week, I sung at a benefit to raise funds for a housing-first initiative for veterans who have been left homeless. Men and women who fought and were left in the cold by the organization and the country for which they served.

Given the suicides of four former members of the Canadian Armed Forces in the past weeks, peace was on my mind throughout the evening. Peace has been on my mind ever since.

It is not my duty to fight. It is not my duty to kill.

But regardless of my beliefs, it is my duty to stand for the men and women who risk their lives on the field and face the dangers of battle, long after and far from the war zone.

 

 

 

dec 11So much to say. Too tired to write.

There are days when I feel like I don’t deserve the life I have.

More specifically, I feel a little overwhelmed by the calibre of people who somehow put up with me.

I know, it’s only human. To think that I’m unworthy of this kind of love. But nevertheless, I feel an overwhelming kind of thankfulness.

That I can eff up, and it isn’t the end of the world.

That I can be all kinds of crazy, and still know this kind of love at the end of the day.

It is the kind of love that I aim to give.

It is the kind of story I’ll tell tomorrow when I’m not quite so exhausted.

 

 

 

dec 10Sometimes, you’ve got to say “to hell with all the things I should be doing” (like writing this blog for instance), and let yourself fall into the wonder of the moment.

If I think of all the wonder-filled places in the world, the one that tops the list, above the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramids, is my mother’s living room.

Now the room itself is nothing altogether special. It is the front room of a 1950s bungalow tucked into a sleepy corner of town. There is one large window that looks out onto a quiet street – but aside from the time I watched a coyote chase a snow white hare to the end of the block before they disappeared – there is little action there.

When they moved in over five years ago, my mom and her partner were talking renovations. Knocking out walls, painting over the egg-coloured walls, updating the light fixtures…etc.

Five years later, the only thing that’s changed is the configuration of the furniture and the ever-rotating gallery of my mother’s paintings.

An over-sized green velvet coach, a chaisse in the corner (my favourite napping spot) and a big armchair with an antique lamp for reading give the room the feeling of home. But those things are not what make it special.

What makes it my very favourite place in the world, are the people who gather there.

It is always one of the highlights of going home – I never know who will be there. This past Saturday night was no exception.

Throughout the evening, a steady stream of visitors took off their shoes and made themselves at home in the living room (and the kitchen and the dining room when it got too crowded). From my 91 year old grandmother, to my seventh grade best friend, to a seven foot policeman (don’t worry, unlike last year, he was invited) the revelers came to celebrate the 60th and 65th birthdays of my mom and her partner C.C.

Like all of my mother’s parties, there were some surprises. Early in the evening, after raising our glasses of champagne to toast my mom’s 60 years, C.C. got down on one knee on the hardwood floor and handed my mom a diamond ring.

Now, nobody saw it coming (we’ve called C.C. our stepdad for years anyway) but the most surprised of all was my mother.

Instead of saying the “yes” we were all expecting, she shook her head and (lovingly) called him an asshole.

Moments later when our close family friends walked in the door, we had C.C. reenact the proposal. This time, my mom was prepared and managed to give C.C. (and the rest of us) the “Yes!” that we’d been holding our breath for.

I understood her hesitation. It’s rather terrifying to say yes to something when the future stretches out in all it’s uncertainty. I get that in spite of the love that is there now, there is always a fear that one day, she’ll wake up and he won’t be there.

“Yes” is a courageous thing to say. It is a word that’s filled with hope and bravery. I know she doesn’t always think so, but my mother has those things in spades.

As the moon got higher in the sky, party-goers left, and new party-goers came.

We got cozy in the living room where the conversation flowed easy as the wine. As on most occasions, after the less committed revelers have gone to bed, the instruments appeared. Guitars, tambourines, djembes and voices steadily began to fill the air.

An invitation to my mother’s doesn’t require you to bring any food (there’s always plenty in the kitchen), but you must be willing to set whatever stories you have about your level of talent aside.

In that living room, lawyers become drummers and CEOs become drag queens. Even our golden retriever has done a dance or two.

The room itself is nothing altogether special. Hardwood floors and egg-shell walls, tucked into a quiet house, on a quiet street, in a quiet corner of town.

But somehow, it is always transformed by the people that gather there.