The Quicksand of Dona

In the quicksand of Dona, he waits. Saer sees nothing, though, as he tiptoes close by. Still, Saer searches the sand. He’s heard about the monster.  Today, the creature made things personal.

Saer stares up to the grey marsh tree where rope-like strings hang from it. The ropes would entice anyone to climb up its limbs, and temptation for a child is difficult to ignore.  Hands clasped into fists at Saer’s side, the marsh tree is the only one he’s ever seen. Gods, laugh, it’s almost as if the Creator placed it beside Quickie on purpose. 

Saer’s fear is trampled by rage.

He knows what his grandson wanted: Just a look at Quickie. One evening, when they’d stared up to the golden starred lights, his grandson had told him his plan to climb the marsh tree to see the monster. The child said he’d be safe from the beast. The grandfather did what any grandfather would have done—he told Ron not to do it. But as little boys are prone to do, he discarded his grandfather’s advice and did what he wanted. Or, that’s what Ron’s stricken, shaking friend Astrid said when she returned and told the people in Gerstar what happened to Ron. Still, Ron’s only six-years-old and should be allowed to make some mistakes—

No! Shaking his head, Saer won’t believe itnot yet.

“Where are you, Quicky?” Saer shouts. The old man stomps his feet on the river bank as he unpacks his forty-five-pound salamander shark from his bag. It was Saer’s prized catch, the one that would feed him and his son’s family for the next month. His son was always a quitter when he faced obstacles. So, of course, he’d begged him not to come.

Saer shakes his head. Is that fair? Jacob wept when he asked him not to risk his life because he was convinced Ron, his only child, was dead. After all, no one had ever survived a taking.  

Saer huffs, swears, and hisses between breaths. Saer is an old man, with more life behind him than in front of him. He came anyway. Old men and little boys are both the same. Stubborn. And yes, right now, fish are in short supply. Still, his grandson meant more to him than a full belly. They would find other ways to feed themselves. 

“Quicky!” the man barks.  

Red dots move in the sand. If Saer blinked, he wouldn’t have seen them. But Saer’s determined, and that makes his mind sharp. And there’s something else—something, no one else knows. He heard a word said today that he’s never heard before. The phlegm-filled gargled voice croaked one word, trade, and it was said when no one else was around. And before Saer knew his grandson had been taken.

Is it a trap? Does Quickie want to turn him into his dessert? Or does the monster really want a trade? More importantly, if the beast can talk to people, why has Saer never heard of this before? Was it even Quickie? Or is he an old man who now hears voices? “There are no guarantees,” Saer whispers to the mud. 

The hairs on Saer’s arms stand up from the northern wind. His feet sink into the mud, and sniffing once, he catches the increasing stench of rotting food.

Saer squints at the spot and watches the red dots circle. Moving in closer, Saer swings the shark across his shoulder. One black dot flutters back and forth, up and down. Then the white-bearded, white-haired man runs with the fish across his shoulder and jumps into the sand with the heels of his boots slamming down on a gel-like round form.

The serpent screeches! His thirteen tentacles rise up, and then the rippled, suction-cupped arms shake as if they’ve been jarred by a hard object. Something from ol’ Quickie is flung high into the air and lands on to the muddy, moss-laden embankment. 

“Here!” Saer says. “Take this! You wanted it!” Then Saer heaves and swings the shark at Quicky. A tentacle rises up and snaps the fish up in one sweeping motion. Saer jumps from one of Quickie’s arms to another, riding the limbs as if they were marbles on the floor. The grandfather shifts, lurches, and then finds the steadiness of his feet, only to lose them again when he leans to the right. Swaying, Saer moves closer to the quicksand’s edge, and then he jumps and dives next to whatever Quickie had thrown.

Ron lies on the embankment. Black webbed saliva drenches the child’s still body.  The six-year old’s chest rises and falls.

Saer hears a hissing from behind him. The red dotted with black pupil eye stares at the grandfather and the boy. One of the thirteen tentacles holds the shark. Then, Quicky recoils his limbs and slinks backward before he sinks beneath the sand. 

The grandfather doesn’t see this, though. His skin pricking with excitement, he runs towards Gerstar with his grandson in his arms.

The Optimist

A few months ago, when the world descended into the pandemic realm, I believed I could be a beacon of light in the COVID-19 world.

Yes, among the fear and anxiety of shuttered businesses and deaths, I would persevere and remind others and myself that people had lived in dark times before and survived, and in later years, thrived, and at some point, they found joy in life again.  With my last post, which was meant to be part of a series of positive posts in a shadowy dark world, I wanted to be the person who remained optimistic and hopeful.

How quickly I was crushed. My fingers every morning would frantically swipe through news headlines that showed mounting cases that were then followed by rapidly accumulating deaths. Obsessively, every morning, I clicked on the world data and checked each country to see if the infection rate was slowing, hoping each morning, and multiple times in the day that the numbers would descend as quickly as they had accelerated. I wished for a quick death of COVID-19—either through social distancing and self-isolation—or praying that high temperatures might kill it. (Yes, I wanted to believe that theory too, which has since been, from what I’ve read, been debunked by science.)

Here we are months later, and we’ve slowed the spread of it. But nearly every day there are new cases in most countries and the death toll climbs. And the fear, the concern about what could happen, haunts me. So, I’ll wear a mask whenever I go out to the grocery store to protect others as I scramble down aisles to collect the items on my list.  

A simple grocery run, has turned into some epic battle with a mask and hand sanitizer odyssey. Something as simple as dropping an apple on the grocery store floor will allow me to come up with at least three different options on how to correct the problem. With each choice though, my mind will conduct a risk assessment for each decision. Some options include:

Option 1: Place the apple back with the rest of the apples. Then, I’ll realize, no, I can’t do that.  Because there’s a chance that someone may have had COVID-19 stuck to their shoe, stepped right in that exact spot, and now the little Macintosh that I’ll place back on the shelf, may get picked up and taken home by another shopper, and they will get COVID-19 because they missed a spot when they cleaned the apple. The unknown shopper in my horror movie will become sick. And I will be responsible.

Option 2: I can take the red apple with me. Except then there’s a risk of getting COVID-19 on my hands if the apple has the virus on it, and if I touch my steering wheel, and forget to clean my car…. Well, now I have a COVID-19 trail to clean that’s draped on my hands, on doorknobs, and oh god, if I touch my face, I can become an asymptomatic carrier that can kill my closest family members, not to mention, total strangers! Because now I might be the nose-dripping from the cold, one-time allergy sneezing COVID-19 girl who doesn’t know it, and I’ve left nose drips on the sidewalk that got glued to someone’s shoe and an unsuspecting neighbor will carry it into their home. 

Option 3: Leave Mr. Apple on the ground. Of course, that will make me look like a jerk to fellow shoppers and to the sleep-deprived, ten times more stressed out grocery clerks, who have had to deal with customer’s temper tantrums about not having bread flour in the store in eight weeks. (Okay, that was me. However, my poor husband, was the only person who had to deal with me snarling about hoarders. Recently, I found out at least in Canada, it’s not a hoarding problem. Oops, my bad.)

Those are my top three scenarios. If I think about it long enough, I’m sure my brain can come up with other ways how one small, free-spirited piece of fruit, can kill everyone in my neighborhood.     

I promise you, that’s how my mind plays things out.  When the virus came to Canada, I thought that if I did everything right, protected the people I loved, and everyone did the same, we could escape the virus (mostly). I thought it would be eight weeks, COVID-19 would be dead, and we would return to the life we had before.

What I didn’t expect, and didn’t anticipate, was the overwhelming grief I felt when I watched the news that showed the death toll mounting around the world. Every country was impacted, and every day, the number of cases climbed. When a Navy hospital ship arrived in New York to house the influx of patients and a convention center was converted for the same purpose, I was stunned, and my mind went blank. Numbness, consumed me.

In Canada, our long-term care facilities, that houses the most vulnerable in our population, were and continue to be the epicenter with the most casualties.  The absolute failure to protect seniors from COVID-19, and then the negligence in caring for them after they contracted the illness, highlights our systemic ineptness in caring for the elderly. 

It turns out I’m not the ray of sunshine I thought I would be for others. I’m more along the lines of:  If someone falls, I’m falling with them. It’s been a struggle. I have many days when I’m emotional and hopeless. Even as the cases diminish, I’m terrified of a second wave that might be more deadly than the first because everyone’s exhausted from the last three months of stress. And I worry about this, even as we wait to be released from the remaining restrictions that were ordered by the government in mid-March.

I accept I’m weaker than I once believed. At the same time, I’m still hopeful of a future that doesn’t include forbidden hugs, unauthorized shared drinks and meals with family and friends, and a time where I can say, “Hello,” to my neighbor, Jennifer, where I don’t have to stand six feet away from her.

As for those uplifting posts? Sorry, I just can’t do it right now. That’s okay, though. I’ll wait. Someday, maybe even sometime soon, I can write something more uplifting—perhaps, what it was like to take my mother out for dinner again.

The Sound of the Band Playing

I’m grateful for the whirl of the microwave humming that is followed by the smell of silky butter in the air. As if the microwave and air popper are creating some song, the popcorn thumps to its own beat and produces white puff balls that roll into an awaiting bowl. Once I combine the popcorn, butter, with a dash of salt, the crunchy taste of my movie meal lifts my mood, and I’m ready to settle down to binge-watch almost anything.

Superwoman’s Trashed Cape

Personal upheaval is something that happens. It can come as a drizzle of raindrops, or it will come as a deluge of water that will send rivers rising, roads, and highways flooding until homes are submerged in water and are swept away by the current.

The year of 2018 was a year of personal change that came all at once. Some of it was planned: my mother’s move to Ottawa that neither went smoothly or swiftly. I longed to quickly place a checkmark in that box on my to-do list, but it lingered incomplete for several months. Part of the reason for this was that unknown to me at the time, Ottawa was in the midst of a housing crisis that continues to this day.

Today in Ottawa, a small bachelor apartment will cost nine hundred dollars. When I graduated from University over a decade ago, a bachelor cost me close to six hundred dollars. I struggled at the time to pay my rent on a salary that was a little above the poverty line. I don’t know how a person who makes a similar income today can live in this city. Nevertheless, I know our housing crisis isn’t limited to Ottawa; nationally, for years, Toronto and Vancouver have both struggled with the same issue. As well, from reading various news articles, I know it’s become a wide-reaching problem across Canada; and in many other countries such as the United States and in the United Kingdom.

These two obstacles (the move and the housing shortage in Ottawa) were not insurmountable hurdles to overcome. But there was also the new monumental experience of selling my mother’s house.  The endeavor left me terrified, anxious, and frustrated in a sweeping sandstorm of emotions. As well, while I’d coordinated office moves early in my career, the relocation of my mother across hundreds of kilometers left me wide-eyed at night with terror.  I attempted to reassure myself the office moves I’d coordinated had ended, well—relatively smoothly. Surely, if I’d managed those, I could blow the cobwebs out of my brain and figure out how to move my momma to a different city.

Easy-peasy.  

It wasn’t easy-peasy though—it was damn hard.

Adding to this flux of tasks, I’d also committed to run a half-marathon at the end of September of that same year. A long time ago, I was a woman that would run, run, and run, and I wouldn’t let anything stop me. Pain in my knee? The solution was physiotherapy. Not enough sleep? Don’t care. I’ve got a training schedule to do! Busy week at work? Fine, I’ll get up extra early and punch out seven kilometers before I jump in the shower and get ready to go to work. Snowstorm? I’ll slip and slide along the packed snow, jump over three-foot snowbanks, and if I encounter a snow wall at an intersection, I’ll climb over it.

I was so dedicated that when my father died in February 2009, I still planned to complete a scheduled half-marathon in May of that year. My last long run of nineteen kilometers occurred on a Tuesday night less than two weeks before the half-marathon.  (Ahem, that is not when your last long run should happen.) I remember the next day well because one of my co-workers looked at me from across the room as she engaged in a conversation with a colleague, stopped mid-sentence, and blurted out in my direction as only telepathic grandmothers have done in the past with these words: “You look tired?”

Yes, I was. But nothing was going to stop me from running that race. Who cares if I missed most of February’s training, due to frequent trips across hundreds of kilometers by car to my hometown, because my dad was hospitalized due to complications from lung cancer? That was no excuse. Or, that’s what I told myself.

Then my adorable, fluffy, chocolate lab tore some ligaments in my shoulder when we were playing ball-ball eight days before my race. It wasn’t his fault, but mine. I didn’t trust him. When I threw the ball, and he bumped it with his chubby black snout, the nose-bump caused the ball-ball to roll a little further away from him. He did what a good Labrador does—he chased it. I hung on to the retractable leash as my thirteen-month fluff-bum Pup tugged and launched me into the air. A second later, I crashed to the ground and landed with a thud on my shoulder. This was followed by a yelp of, “*insert common expletive here that starts with F!*” as an explosive pain swept through my shoulder that caused me to become nauseous and dizzy.

I lumbered towards an unknown neighbor who happened to be on her phone at the time, gave her my husband’s number with instructions to tell him he needed to pick up me, and Mr. I Broke Mommy. Even as I collapsed on the grass and continued to clasp that retractable leash tightly in agony with MIBM’s butt in my face, I already began to plot my next move and reassured myself with: I can still run.

I didn’t run that race though because when I walked, rolled over in bed, tried to reach for anything, the pain would tear through my shoulder and across my back as if someone had stabbed me with a nine-inch blade. That was the first race I ever missed.

Skip to a few years later, when I dropped out of races as a regular occurrence. My top five reasons might include:

  • We really can’t afford to go to Toronto so that I can run (another) half-marathon because one of us is out of a job, and the other person is now under the threat that their position has a ninety percent probability of going the way of the dodo. Pass
  • I can do a Ten Kilometer Race in my sleep. Pass
  • Here in Ottawa, on a frigid February day, it’s snowing. Again. Pass
  • Someone’s dead: mother-in-law, brother, friend… Pass
  • Not feeling it today. Pass

Family and friends called me out on my commitment to sign up for races, and then my non-commitment to actually run them. In response to a few comments made to me, I put my common sense aside and started to run again. This time I would swing back in the other direction. Nothing would stop me from running a race.

When the mercury soared in May 2016 on the day of a scheduled half-marathon, and I’d barely done any training because I’d lost a friend in April, (Hey, what do you want? It’s a daily battle when you lose someone you love.) I laced up my shoes. My husband bounced around me and said, “Maybe, it’s not a good idea? Maybe, you should sit this one out?” With my head held high and a laugh, I pinned my race bib number on my shirt, grabbed my car keys, and headed out the door for my race.

At two kilometers, I was surprised I was already tired. I rationalized with myself it was only another nineteen kilometers and change to go.

Ugh.

At the ten kilometer mark, a bitter taste swept through my mouth as I felt the blood drain from my face. The heat and humidity scorched me that day. I rubbed my hands over my temples in a miserable attempt to smooth out a headache. I brushed the salty sweat from my cheeks. I remember two volunteers stared at me with a smile of pity on their faces as they said, “How are you doing?”

I rolled my shoulders back, straightened my spine, and pushed my legs forward as I hobbled briskly past them with a huff of, “I’m doing fine!” I ran as fast as I could (I believe the tortoise past me) before the volunteers had a chance to call the paramedics and yank me from the course.

I did not die that day. You would think I would have learned something. I did not.

I should have dropped out of that scheduled race in September 2018. Truth is, the echoed words of the Quitter Ghost I was, haunted me. As well, I never completed a “sanity check” on tackling a new goal because my mind was already too busy problem-solving while I folded laundry, drove, bought groceries, and—on training runs.

The first day I ran and fell on my face (literally), it was post-appointment with my Cardiologist in May 2018. I was angry with him because I’d spent six months worried about my heart, received a couple of conflicting test results that he explained as “inaccurate,” and then he announced, “Enjoy your summer.”  The implied meaning: Stop worrying. You’re all good.

I decided on that run the Cardiologist was partly right: because I had low blood pressure and normal cholesterol levels, I wasn’t a candidate for heart disease. However, I also realized that if he’d missed something, I needed to fix my eating and exercise habits.  At that very moment, I decided running was no longer an “optional” hobby—it was a requirement for my health.

Then after I made that decision, I stumbled over my feet at my six-hour marathon pace. My body leaned forward. I wobbled. In a final, brave attempt to protect myself, I stretched both hands out as this thought surged through my brain: Holy sh*t! This is going to hurt!

I hit the paved road and skidded. My sunglasses flew off my face and fell ten feet from where the rest of me landed. Finally, the right side of my forehead smacked against the concrete. Pain ricocheted to my neck. Blood poured from both knees and elbows. Chunks of gravel that were mixed in on the road tore a piece of skin off my palm, and it flopped around. I did what any reasonable adult would do—I pushed on the loose skin. It bled. It also—hurt like hell.

That was the first time I fell down on a training run. It was mid-May.

Not long after, my hubby and I faced new problems. We went to have dinner one night with my husband’s father and noticed a yellow tinge coated his skin and the whites of his eyes. My husband and I blinked at him. He was jaundice and had failed to see it. A few months later, my father-in-law would be diagnosed with bile duct cancer—an aggressive and rare form of the disease.

Around the end of July, while my brain worked on moving around all the pieces of my puzzling life, I stumbled again on a training run. I managed not to hit my head on the pavement. But those barely healed elbows and knees dripped with crimson again. As I peeled myself off the road at a three-way intersection and limped away, I muttered for a bit, before I threw my head back and erupted into snorts of laughter. I decided at that moment that if there were a third fall, I might not be so lucky. Once I was home, and after I tended to my bleeding bits, I transferred to the Ten Kilometer Race.

It took two falls for me to realize that I may have over-committed myself to that half-marathon. Yet, throughout the final part of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, I still missed the bigger picture.

My pace sped up to supersonic speed as I attempted to help my mother settle into a new city; support my husband after my father-in-law passed away following an operation meant to extend his life a little, ended up taking it instead; walk that same tendon-pulling lab on at least two walks a day; keep our house tidy so luggage-packing vermin don’t make it their new “home”; work on my writing; meet with my friends so they know they’re important to me; maintain some level of exercise, and on, and on it went….

I tried to keep the pace up by multitasking more often, by doing three or four things at once as opposed to just two, by getting less sleep—by using every second of the day as efficiently as I could. My body in response to this non-stop to-do list responded: I would get chest pains and tightness in my throat when I thought about being late for work; my left eye twitched at random times; when I forgot to do something I would (or wanted to) cry; when I sat down to write, my stories were littered with run-on and incomplete sentences, common spelling mistakes, and I struggled to remember how to spell simple words. One evening when I attempted to write a query letter to a literary agent, I blinked at my monitor after I typed the word quankered.  I shook my head in frustration. I googled the word, but it took some time because I didn’t even have the first letter right.

The word I meant to type was—CONQUERED.

I realized something in the summer of 2019: I couldn’t do it all.

I know some people will say they can do more than me, and they don’t understand what my issue is. Some will also say, “I need to employ better time-management skills.”

Those people are correct. 

What I also know is that I need to make choices. Decisions, that are neither easy or ones without consequences. Some of the changes in my life revolve around applying better “time-management skills”; others require me to be more assertive and say, “Sorry, I just can’t do it.”

In the fall of 2019, the most significant decision I made was to leave my full-time position. For me, I realized that after eight years of working full-time and writing on the side, I couldn’t do both anymore. If I wanted to improve in my craft I needed to take courses, commit more time to edits, market my blog, attend writing conferences, create more short stories, and build other manuscripts. I already didn’t have the time to do the things I had to do. Where would I find the hours needed to do all the other tasks that would allow me the smallest chance of success in a very competitive industry?

There’s no guarantee of success. I know that. But, dropping down to one full-time job was the right decision for me at this point in my life. I’m one hundred percent certain of my choice for this reason: This Superwoman’s tired—and that’s why I’ve decided—to trash my cape.

Perspective

When you see me, what do you see?

On a snowy, icy path, on a frigid day, a white-haired woman with her back curled forward leans heavily on her walker up a hill in the direction of Sam’s Grocery Store.

He takes a drag from his cigarette, sucking on it a little too long. His tearful eyes shift as he leans against the wall. Searching his jacket, he fumbles for his phone. When he pulls it out, he dials. The phone rings. There’s a click and he says, “Sorry, can you help me?”

She drops a plate. “That’s coming out of your paycheque!” the man at the counter shouts with a raised hand in Lucy’s direction. Nodding her head, she slowly walks away. Then, a piece of bacon slips from the plate she’s still carrying.  “And clean that up!” he barks at her as she heads towards the kitchen.

***

The Birth of “Dragon in the Mirror”

I’ve read that readers like to know how authors come up with their stories. And for this reason, I planned to reveal where the concept for my original short story, “Dragon in the Mirror,” was created from that was released in 2016. I planned to write this blog post in late December and then found I had better things to do like break down old boxes, clean the fridge, and work on new projects.

Procrastination took over me and then the non-existent post haunted me. I finally attempted to write this post again in earlier January and found that I started several times, stopped, and then threw out multiple versions. As time passed, I found that I snapped at my husband more frequently, began to forget things, and was distracted as I combed through my memories and drudged up events to include in this post. One morning, I sobbed in the shower as I considered whether a YouTube video might be easier. I realized at that moment, it wouldn’t.

This blog post was difficult for me to write on many levels and I know I can’t address all the reasons in a single post. The overwhelming reason though, is that slithering in the back of my mind a question will always haunt me and it’s this: Did I do all that I could to help my family?

Let’s first go back to the original question about where my stories come from. Short stories for me will sometimes appear out of nothing.  I will begin to scribble into a notebook (or sometimes with fingers tapping on my keyboard), and the words will roll into each other that will form words, sentences, characters, and a plotline.  Occasionally, a novel may begin this way too.

However, other times, the ideas are a combination between reality and fantasy; a mixture of traits molded together to manifest a quirky character or in the case of “Dragon in the Mirror,” a terrified and powerless seven-year-old girl who watches as her parents sink into financial and emotional depression who’s named Jayden.

My childhood was riddled with both high and low moments. We were comfortable as far as I remember, for much of my preteen years where my father worked as a Construction Worker and my mother as a Poultry Farm Manager. Then when I was sixteen-years-old, our situation changed when a recession strangled Canada and hit the area I lived in with high unemployment.

The fallout was that my father, the Construction Worker, lost his job. I was not Jayden, the seven-year-old girl we first met in the short story, “Dragon in the Mirror,” who was helpless and couldn’t do anything to ease her parent’s financial burden. Instead, as a teenager, I walked along the thin line between teenager and child that resulted in me flipping back and forth between helping, whining, and being angry about how unfair life was. To this day, I have moments when I’m proud of the teenage girl I was; while at the same time, preferring to hide my face in shame at some of the words I said to my father.

How did my father’s job loss impact me? There were times when our fridge was nearly empty and basic toiletries were depleted.  I remember on paydays, there was a sense of jubilation in the air when my dad, mom, or I got paid because it meant we could buy a few groceries. When the muffler on the car went, my father would fall silent, or would sometimes explode in a fit of frustration. There was also a time when my parents lived without heat in their house.  There were many days my father sat at the dining room table and counted the money he had in his wallet and then would turn and stare blankly out the window. Repeated attempts at asking a question would be met with continued silence from him, and when he finally answered the question, it was a meager reply.

The recession ended eventually but for my parents, their financial worries never went away. For them, financial instability lingered and swelled like a boil over time and was compounded by other events that happened later.

I would like to say I was the perfect teenager. Truth is, I was, at times, exceedingly selfish. Embarrassingly now, I remember one time we went to the mall to go shopping and I stared at a dolphin poster for some time as I contemplated whether I should purchase it. My father looked at it and said we couldn’t afford it. I snapped back, “I can afford it!”

Then there was the time I accused my father of purposely preventing me from getting my driver’s license because he didn’t want me to drive. (I was playing the girl card because my family wasn’t always very liberal towards females. But my father always supported me and encouraged me to pursue a university education. So even back then, I should have realized this wasn’t the case.) Somewhere along the way, either that day or another day, it came out that my father simply didn’t have the money to pay for my driving lessons like he did for my brother a few years earlier. Those are just two examples. I’m sure if I thought about it long enough, there are many more situations that would make me want to run away and hide.

I did feel guilty, though. Guilt for wanting things, for expecting anything from my parents who gave me more than they ever should have, and remorse for attending University in a city that was more than six hundred kilometers from my parents. Briefly, during my university years, I’d thought about dropping out of school so that I could go home and find a job to help my parents financially. When I confessed this to my father, who had borrowed money to send me when my Student Loan funds were gone, he said, “Help yourself first, and then you can help others.”

At eighteen, I left home to go to University, and from that moment on, I frequently cried because I believed my father would die of lung cancer. My father knew my worries and joked, “I’ll probably outlive you.”

One Thanksgiving weekend, a few years after I’d completed University and was married and settled in a different city, I’d returned home for the holiday. I remember a moment when I drove up the driveway and saw my father as he slowly walked out of the front door. There was that familiar distant look in his eye and he also held a hand to his chest. But, there was something else about that moment that left me unsettled; a concern that after years of struggle, my father might have felt no one cared about him.

So, to show our appreciation, I spoke to my mother and brother, and a plan was hatched to throw him a surprise party in the spring of the following year for his birthday. The plan went as planned; almost, perfectly so. My father, overwhelmed and grateful, shifted uncomfortably at the large number of people who gathered to surprise him made up of family and friends. It was a day to celebrate. Repeatedly he asked, “When did you guys plan this?” in his worn work clothes.

Hurrah!!! We had done it! We had shown the man we cared!

My father would die eleven months later of lung cancer.

I’m convinced poverty kills. It kills people through prolonged stress that leads to poor eating habits and results in an increased risk of cancer and heart disease. Or, it will kill more directly through the consumption of cigarettes and/or alcohol that makes it more difficult to quit because of ongoing stress. (Yes, my father was a chain-smoker.) Those are just two examples.  I’m aware, there are many more.

This is where the original concept for “Dragon in the Mirror” came from—from witnessing my parent’s struggle to choose between necessities. The full-length novel continues to address poverty through Jayden however, it tackles many other themes as well.

But if I had to summarize though, I would say “Dragon in the Mirror,” was my attempt to communicate how heart-breaking and devastating poverty can be—especially when viewed through the eyes of a child.

The Gift of Empathy

Listen.

Nod.

Listen.

Agree.

Listen.

Make someone a cup of tea.

Listen.

If someone starts crying, it’s okay if you cry, too. It means you care.

Listen.

Put aside everything that’s ever happened to you.

Listen.

Make suggestions. But accept that your suggestions might not be right for them.

Listen.

But whatever you do, please don’t compare.

Listen.

This Is Not Me = Go Pug, Polar Plunging & Paintball Welts (Repost)

Repost from my first blog Pushing Boundaries (slightly edited) that ran from 2016-2017. At the time when I worked on completing the “challenges”, it was stressful and exhausting. Now that several years have passed, I look back at that time fondly. This blog post was written, I believe in July/August 2017, best encapsulates what I learned about myself while I completed Pushing Boundaries.

Good times.

***

This Is Not Me = Go Pug, Polar Plunging & Paintball Welts

If you look to a well-manicured lawn and garden, you will see the calmness of emerald-green grass while appreciating the beauty of flowers that burst with color. Flowers that may include any number of red roses, purple chrysanthemums, pink and red peonies, white or orange lilies, to the far off and most of the time separated—blue hydrangea.

Underneath the grass and around the flowers, you will find the odd weed that grows. To those that are merely passing by, they may not notice. But for the conscious gardener who tirelessly works to keep it flawless, it’s all they see.

I began a blog called Pushing Boundaries in October 2016 with a commitment of spending half the year completing a change. This worked out to roughly four changes per week, and by the end of the blog, I expected to reach 186 changes.

At first, it was invigorating when I woke each day and considered what the next “change” or “challenge” would be. Should I swap my daily earl grey tea for coffee? (Yes, I did it a few times. And overall, I seldom enjoyed the experience.) When Halloween crept up on me in October, I forfeited the old reliable witch/ghost ensemble that I donned throughout my grade-school years and did something completely different: enter the PUG. Did I try the limited-time offered Tuxedo drinks that Starbucks featured at the beginning of this year? Yes. Eat seaweed salad?  (Yes—and NEVER again.) In February when the wind howled, and snow and ice crunched beneath my feet, did I spend one evening painting my nails red in Kingston, ON and the next morning curling my hair to best impersonate a flapper girl from the 1920’s so I could dive into Lake Ontario for the Polar Plunge? (Yes! It was fun. TBD if I will do it again.) Did I climb all 1,776 stairs of the CN Tower? (Yes, and more importantly, I did not die!)  Wear purple nail polish? (Yes.) For me, the list was endless….

I am vanilla: Otherwise, known as Routine Girl. But I don’t enjoy the routine most of the time. I like to believe that I have imagination and inclination to do different things—to live on the wilder side. (Although, perhaps, not that far on the wilder side.) The problem with me is that I become complacent with life; opportunities that are at my fingertips waste away as I fail to commit the time, money, and energy to make them happen even when they cross my mind, sometimes, repeatedly.

Life is challenging with new jobs, financial concerns, and most catastrophically—facing either your own health concerns or the health concerns of those you love. In the past, when I’ve lost someone I loved, I felt as if I were standing alone in a desert waiting for someone to arrive; or, for something magical to happen that would transport me away from it all. In front of me, there was nothing but a sea of endless yellow sand that when it was carried on the wind, it would whip against my face stinging my skin. To me, it felt that impossibly lonely, that empty.

But what I didn’t realize is that if I turned around and looked in any direction, there were cities that surrounded me that bustled with life; friends and family that I could chat with or hang out with, new foods to try, people to meet, and new adventures that awaited me.  All that I needed to do was to turn my head and start moving again in one of those directions.

I lost two people I loved very much in less than three years. Both of them were 42 years old when they passed. In September 2016, I turned 42 years old. I started Pushing Boundaries in October of that same year.

I don’t know if the blog was tied to the number 42. I’ve always had a sense that time was ephemeral: that whatever you planned to do, do it now because there are no guarantees of what tomorrow will bring. For me, Pushing Boundaries may have been my answer to ensure that I didn’t stop living. It forced me to continue to move in some direction.

Living life to the fullest is a cliché. But we keep clichés around and use them sometimes ad nauseam because they are true. Pushing Boundaries has helped me to continue to enjoy all that life has to offer, sometimes reluctantly. It forced me to get outside and try new things: restaurants, food, or to attempt a physical challenge that I’ve never done before such as the Polar Plunge or the CN Tower Climb. The blog forced me to revaluate things that I decided a long time ago I disliked (e.g., coffee), and make an attempt to try them again to see if my taste buds evolved. (Answer: Overall, I still hate coffee. Mostly.)

I open the blog with this:

“Change happens. It can be chaotic, but it helps you expand your mind and shapes the person you will become.”

I stand behind that statement to this day. But the other thing change does: it gives you heart palpitations in both the literal and physical sense.  After a few months, I found myself waking up at 3:00 AM, worrying about what four changes I would be tackling that week. Blonde hair? Wear make-up for 30 days in a row?  Streaking 21 days straight? (Ahem, that’s running 2 KM for 21 days; NOT running naked through the streets for 21 days.)

The stress of coming up with four changes per week was exhausting. Also, I found that some challenges required me to do them longer than one day. Cumulatively, this meant I could already be participating in several changes before adding new ones. For example, at one point, I had blonde hair, was wearing make-up every day, and I was also eating and drinking things that I didn’t want to consume. The blog, Pushing Boundaries, I started to help me become less bound by routine—started to constrain me more tightly.

And I missed my routine. I missed having time to sit and read a book without worrying about how long it would take me; to inhale the aroma of that first cup of tea and enjoy each sip without feeling guilty that I wasn’t trying some other beverage; I missed running when I wanted to run and exercise in general. I missed the routine and the calmness of knowing what was coming next.

A few months ago, I decided to scale back the blog posts. I no longer held to the requirement that I had to complete four changes in one week. In truth, I decided that to try to reach 186 changes in one year was too many.  I needed time to breathe, to savor, do chores, to go to work, and to visit with family and friends without worrying about what my next blog post would be, or when I would write it.

I made another change on Pushing Boundaries. Did I feel bad? Yes. Did I feel like a failure at not meeting the challenge, I built? Absolutely. But I knew I needed to take a step backward, to regroup, and make time to do the more significant challenges that I wanted to do. To be more selective about what I was changing.

At the time I write this, the last “change” I did was paintball. It was a steamy, July 22nd  day when that finally happened a few weeks ago. I went with my hubby and friends, and we received our instructions, pulled the paintball suit up, and yanked down the mask that suffocated us in the scorching heat and sun.

I never played paintball before and was warned that when I got hit by a paintball, bruising might occur.  The very first ball that hit me exploded in a shooting pain through my upper thigh. It was excruciating. So much so that a few days after the event, new bruises appeared where I hadn’t even noticed I got hit. That first direct hit was the one that stayed with me. Despite the pain, I loved paintball. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

I learned some things about myself that day. More importantly, I’ve learned a lot about myself over the last 9 months while writing Pushing Boundaries. I’m not a gardener, never have been, never will be. (I used Google to look up each one of the names of those flowers at the beginning of this post and selected images, so I knew what the flower looked like.)   With my garden, I do what needs to be done so I can step back and say, that’s ok now.  But even I know the grass needs to be cut, flowers need to be planted, and weeds need to be pulled.

I need to tend to relationships, savor meals and drinks, enjoy conversations with family and friends; while also making time for adventure. After all, there are only two months left for Pushing Boundaries—bowling, laser tag, and indoor skydiving still awaits me. My life is this messed up bit of craziness—and I love every piece of it.

It’s Your Fault

I’m waiting in the sterile no-scent room of a reproductive clinic where chubby-cheeked babies with expectant glistening eyes stare back at me from framed photos on the wall. Everywhere I look, happy newborns and toddlers are dangled in front of me in a carnival-like atmosphere as if they were a prize I could win if I followed the rules of the game. The truth is: I already haven’t followed the rules. So, would a bouncy, blue-or-pink-clothed bundle of drooling joy escape me for the rest of my days?  Secretly, I hoped not. Publicly, I told my friends and family it didn’t matter.

“He’ll see you now,” the receptionist says to me.

I enter the doctor’s office and settle into a chair on the opposite side of a grand mahogany desk. Odd to me sometimes, how the medical profession is set up that the Doctor sits over there, I sit over here, and together, we’re expected to come up with a plan to fix my problem. Yet, right from the start, I don’t feel we’re playing on the same team.

Bespectacled doc flips through his notes and says, “We have several problems. Your fallopian tubes are blocked and you’re not ovulating. We can attempt hormone therapy. But you’re not a good candidate for in vitro fertilization given your age and other problems.”

His words cut me.

Smiling, I nod, and say, “That’s alright. I didn’t want to go to extreme measures. If it happens, that’s great. If it doesn’t, well, my fiancé and I, we tried.”

He closes the file in front of him and folds his hands over the folder. “Listen,” he curtly says. “Given your age, you’re close to the end of the time when I’m permitted to help you. It sounds like you don’t care, either way. So, if you’re not committed to this, why should I invest any more time?”

My mouth gapes and my cheeks burn. I slowly say, “Uh…well…Antonio wanted to see if it was a possibility. He would like children.”

The Doctor snivels at me and says, “That’s your fiancé?”

I nod my head. I’ve lost my ability to respond with words.

“Well,” he says. “I suggest you give him the information that I shared with you today. If he still wants children, maybe you guys should think about parting ways.”

I begin to nod my head as I gather my coat and purse.  “Thank you for your time,” I manage to say as I slowly reach for the door. As I stride out of the office I gather more speed, and when I’m out of the building I run across the parking lot towards my car with tears streaming down my cheeks.

I’m embarrassed that I even tried to seek out professional help—and angry that the Doctor never asked me why I didn’t try to have children sooner.

Old Hands

Age spots, lines, and scars scattered here and there are etched into my frail nearly one-hundred-year-old hands. What do you see when you look at them? Are they only the fingers you remember from your childhood when I scrapped peanut butter and jam on to bread for your lunch and then shoved you out the door onto rainy or snow-covered sidewalks to shuffle your way to school?

Do you know these hands served other purposes?

As a chubby toddler, I used these same hands to wipe my face when my father came in with red eyes and no tears, to tell my brothers and sisters and I, that mother had died. Tuberculosis had killed her. I was young, too young, to know what that meant. My brothers didn’t cry because that’s the way it was back then. My sisters, on the other hand, howled and sobbed. Father did his best to comfort them as he wrapped his arms around us girls. This moment of grieving was short-lived for my family though; my sisters and I were expected to do Momma’s chores now; Daddy still had to put food on the table, and my brothers had to help with the farm. In that way, our family was a team.

These same fingers were intertwined in John’s hands when we walked along storefront sidewalks in the early moonlit evening. John was my first love. And, he was not your father. John’s hands slid along my clothes and I used my fingers to stroke his arms as we kissed and caressed each other by a small river not far from my house before he took me home. This was away from the prying eyes of father and my brothers because this form of affection was frowned upon back then. As well, my father who was always gentle would not be, if he found out.

When John was killed in the war, my fingers were wrapped tightly around my white handkerchief as I quietly cried in the back pew of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. I was not considered acceptable by John’s parents; a non-Catholic, poor farmer’s daughter and for that reason, I was not welcome at his service. I went and hid in the back row with a couple of my girlfriends. I needed to say good-bye to the first man I had ever loved.

These hands were my instruments when I was young too and made love for the first time. Sure, you shift uncomfortably in your seat when you hear these words because all you see is an old woman who would never have had such desires. However, I was more than just a mother. You, my son, have never seen that. Or, you’ve always kept your blinders on to it.

But I am not resentful for my role as your mother. I love you. I hope it showed when I placed the back of my hand to your forehead to make sure you didn’t have a fever; or, if you had a fever, the way I gently placed cold cloths to your forehead and read to you until you fell asleep.  Indeed, terrible fear washed over me every time you were sick or injured because I didn’t want to lose another son. When I lost your three-year-old brother, Michael, because of measles it was by far the worst day of my life. (John’s death years earlier, was nothing in comparison.)

There are other things I could tell you about: the time I worked as a nurse at the end of the War and comforted and tended to injured soldiers beside doctors; or the one time I pulled your delinquent childhood classmate James (who skipped school that day and yes, I also knew he bullied you) from the river after he fell in and was almost swept away by the current. But I did not tell you that, or your father. I kept the secret. Terrified, James confessed to me that day he was frequently beaten by his parents and worried about what they would do to him if they found out he had walked too close to the embankment. After that day, you and James became friends, and our house became his refuge.

Did James tell you that before he died in a car accident in his fifties?

You do not know me, my son. But I suspect no one knows another person completely. We are complex and emotional, with things we want to share with others, and other things we don’t. But I wish you would ask me more questions, instead of believing you already know the woman I am.