Who Will You Love?

Two gold fish in bowls, side view

When it comes to empathy, I was late to the party. I arrived to find the presents opened and the cake mostly eaten.  I was embarrassed at my inexcusable tardiness.

Lately, empathy has been occupying a significant chunk of space in my thoughts. How do some of us, even the godless heathens, come to empathy so early and so naturally while others, even the good Christians, struggle with imagining ourselves in the shoes of others? Why is empathy innate in some and hard-learned by others?

I look at my life and ask when my own empathy developed. Not all at once, that much I know. My empathy came by millimeters at times, a painfully slow awakening.

Those of us cursed with vivid memories of childhood can probably look back at one or two cringe-worthy, empathy-lacking moments. For me, the earliest involved fish. For some reason, bugs and fish never really felt like animals to me as a child, at least not the way cats or dogs or birds did. Fish, to young me, were soulless, unfeeling creatures. And, yes, I still kill and eat fish but I endeavor to do so humanely. This incident was not humane.

How old was I? Nine? Perhaps? Younger? I’m not sure. I’d traveled to Victoria with my friend “R” and her mother, to visit someone who may have been a grandmother or an aunt—that part of the memory fails me. My friend R and I were bored, as kids often were before tablets and smart phones and 24 hour entertainment. We walked to the beach, collected a bunch of small fish in a bucket, and brought them back to the house where we performed scientific experiments on them. We set out several jars and put a single fish in each jar. The “test” was to see how the fish reacted to varying levels of salt in the water. Some of the jars had regular ocean water, some had fresh, some had a combination of salt and fresh, some had ocean water with extra salt added. It was all very fascinating to us then and all quite stomach-churning to me now.

I don’t have to tell you how most of the fish fared in the end, do I?

I’m not trying to squick you out, I only want to show you what a person lacking in all but basic empathy is capable of. I wasn’t a bad kid. I was nice to other humans and pets. I was the kid teachers would ask to show new students around or look after the class gerbil for winter break because they could trust me to be kind.  In fact, as kids go, I bet I was pretty average in the empathy department.

And, because I lived a safe, quiet life in the ‘burbs, I stayed average.

My first big leap toward greater empathy didn’t occur until the end of my first marriage. How, I wondered after it was over, had I ever asked of abused women, “Why don’t they just leave?” These people I had seen as pitiful weaklings, cowards unable to do something as simple as pack a bag and walk out a door? Well, now, at the age of twenty-five, I was one of them. The answer to the question, “Why don’t they just leave?” is a thousand shades of complicated, answers upon answers, twined together like the worst fishing tackle mess you have ever seen. The answer is also simple and boils down to “Because they do not love themselves enough”.

I was a tough young woman. I regularly stood toe-to-toe with men much bigger and stronger than me and traded punches and kicks without flinching, but that was easy compared to packing a bag and walking out the door. I did not love myself enough. Even after I had finally worked up the courage to leave, it would be several more years before I could look at myself and really like what I saw—inside and out.

That first big leap toward empathy was awful, humbling, and, yet, it gave me strength. You see, empathy connects us to others. Like the Force, it binds us. There is strength in connection and community.

My mom’s death pushed me further down the empathetic path. So this was loss? What a horrible feeling.

I back-slid a bit once my stunt career took off and I was suddenly flush with cash and frequently the subject of awe and admiration. But then there were more failures and struggles and I was back on Empathy Road once more.

The combination of peri-menopause, loss of my father and sister, and uprooting from my Nelson community was as a gate being closed behind me. There is no other way forward now but with empathy.

If there is a silver lining to human suffering it is that, usually, it makes us more aware of and sympathetic to the suffering of others. I am proud of my empathy not because it makes me superior to others but because of what I endured to acquire it.

*

I’ve been thinking about empathy in the post-Trump, post-truth world. What a struggle we face—and by “we” I mean many of us in the western world at this moment, not just Americans. It is so easy and so tempting to shut off our empathy and dehumanize “the enemy”, whoever we imagine that to be, depending on which side our loyalty falls.

And yet, I cannot deny what is right in front of my eyes—those spewing hate and those turning a blind eye to that hate. How do I reconcile the reality that there are people in my circle of friends (some who occupy the inner circles) who I know to be decent, kind and intelligent but who also support or voted for a fascist? These people in my life may be a distinct minority but that doesn’t change that I have laughed and traveled and shared heartaches and broken bread with them.  Their willingness to overlook such blatant lies, dangerous doublespeak, and violence-inciting rhetoric chills me. I want to grab them by the shoulders and shout, “If someone spoke this way to your wife or sister or daughter, you would punch them in the face! Why is it acceptable simply because it’s not directed toward you?”

The morning after the election, like so many others, I was caught in the gyre of shock and disbelief.  What could I do? Nothing. Not my country. Powerless.

Later that day, talking with one of my dearest American friends, we discussed the results and he explained how Trump’s promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act would mean my friend would once more be without health insurance. I remembered how relieved he had been when he had been approved, and I’ve watched as his health has benefited since that time. He was pragmatic about the sad possibility of an end to that insurance; I was not so stoic. As we typed back and forth, my eyes grew hot and a knot of dread cinched in my gut. I brushed away tears. How could they do this to my friend? How could they even think about it?

I have other friends who now exist in a state of fear. Regardless of which promises Trump keeps and which fall by the wayside (next to the stacks and stacks of other lies), the veil of civility has been ripped away and the worst aspects of human nature have been encouraged to run free. I feel my friends’ fear. I feel their uncertainty. I feel like a small fish in a jar, looking out at all the other fish in their jars, wondering what will become of us.

*

In the friends department, there are a few who rest at the other end of the empathy spectrum from Trump supporters. This year, two sets of my friends have organized and carried out sizable humanitarian projects in Nepal. I can’t begin to state the enormity and complexity of these endeavors, the innumerable pieces that had to be put into place to bring help to people on the other side of the world.

Becky Rippel of Peak Freaks, working with First Steps Himalaya, headed up the Earth Bag Build project. Her husband, Tim Rippel, led a group of local and international volunteers to build an earthquake resistant school for Nepalese children. The devastation wreaked by the 2015 earthquake in Nepal was staggering and many areas have still not recovered. Many Nepalese still live under “temporary” tin roof structures. Becky and Tim have spent decades working and traveling in Nepal and wanted to do something to help the people they’ve come to think of as family.  After a successful build this year, they plan on continuing the good work in 2017. (Want to join them?)

peak-freaks-earth-bag

The new kindergarten under construction. Photo: Tim Rippel

Amy Stevenson had planned on volunteering on the Peak Freaks earth-bag project in 2015 but her plans had to be put on hold at the last minute because of a fuel crisis that cancelled flights in and out of Nepal. Determined to pitch in despite this obstacle, she looked into opportunities through her local Rotary Club in Campbell River, BC, of which she is a member. Over the course of a year, she put together and secured funding for a women’s reproductive health project that would bring much needed medical care and education to rural Nepalese women. A little more than a week ago, she and her husband Derek Marcoux flew to Nepal to oversee the project and volunteer. The project just wrapped up, with over 15,000 people (women, men and children) receiving medical care in rural Nepal.

amy-and-nurse

Amy Stevenson with a nurse volunteer in Nepal. Photo: Derek Marcoux

While some shout about building walls, my friends are building schools. While some shout about taking away health care from the poor, my friends are bringing health care to the poorest. If I remain sane and optimistic in the face of this new wave of cruelty and callousness, it is because of these humane, caring and empathetic friends of mine.

Empathy is infectious. Surround yourself with people who care about others—not just people who look like you, share your beliefs, and speak the same language but ALL others—and you will have a difficult time not feeling what they feel, not caring about what they care about. Learn to really love others and you may be surprised at how much easier it is to love yourself.

*

I have decided to keep the doors of communication open with my few pro-Trump friends as long as they will let me. Perhaps they will change their minds. Perhaps their empathy will win out in the end. I remain hopeful.

Empathy doesn’t develop from turned backs, lectures or finger wagging. Empathy comes quietly, in face-to-face discussions with real people. It comes when we share our suffering and are comforted by others. It comes when we see it at work in people we admire and respect.

But that doesn’t mean I will bite my tongue or withhold my opinion. When I see wrong, I will call it out. Gently, yes, but honestly.

Most of all, I will continue to share stories of good people like my friends, shining lights in dark corners of the world. I will continue to ask myself…

What will you build?

What will you give?

Who will you love?

earth-bag-3

One of the Nepalese children who will use the new earth bag school.  Photo: Wanda Viveguin

Posted in Family & Children, Friends, Health and wellness, News and politics, Travel, Women's Issues | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Seeds vs Nails

Planting a seed

Raise your hand if you think you are racist.

I can’t see you but my guess is your hand is down. My guess is most people, when asked if they are racist, would say no. I would say no. And maybe I would be just a tiny bit wrong.

For the past thirteen years, I have regularly engaged in some form of self-examination. If you’re a long time reader of these Coconut Chronicles, that will come as no surprise. Constant uprooting and reinventing of one’s self tends to inspire some degree of navel gazing.

Over this past decade-plus-three, I have faced my flaws, stared them dead in the eye. I have learned the difference between bad habits, which can be changed, and ingrained character, which is a more stubborn beast. I’ve also come to accept, as perhaps you have, that some of my less desirable traits are probably my burden for life. None of us are perfect; the best we can hope for is to find friends and/or a partner, or partners, who will accept us as we are.

The unexpected reward of my forties has been self-acceptance and I have been walking around feeling comfortable in the knowledge that I am, when you get down to it, an okay person.

Then, she happened.

My car radio is always set to CBC. I have become my parents; I like listening to talk radio when I drive. On the day she came into my life, I was driving to work. A flip of the knob (my car is old, very old) and I was plopped into the middle of an interview on the show “Q”. The host, Shad, was talking with the winner of the Fresh Gardens category of the Chelsea Garden Show, Juliet Sargeant.

I know, not exactly a topic to make the blood race, but the guest had one of those voices that captivates. In a posh British accent, Sargeant talked about the display that had won her gold—The Modern Slavery Garden—and about the world of gardening. Eloquent and passionate, she made the case for more diversity in gardening and for gardens as a tool to bring difficult issues, such as modern day slavery, to a wide public audience.

So there I was, listening, feeling very comfortable in my approval and in my choice to listen to this remarkable woman instead of some brainless pop radio station, when she said the words that shook me out of complacency. Shad mentioned that after she had won gold at Chelsea, Sargeant used the platform to call for more diversity in garden design, and then he asked why she felt that was important. This was Sargeant’s answer:

“Well, it actually happened by accident because it hadn’t occurred to me—I was just delighted to be at Chelsea—and it hadn’t occurred to me that I was the first black designer. But a journalist picked up on it and when I was offered the chance to speak about it I thought, ‘Well, actually, given the chance, I ought to say something.’”

If you’re thinking, So what? Nothing earth-shattering in that answer, you are right. What was earth-shattering is that up until that moment I had seen Ms. Sargeant, in my mind’s eye, as white. Why? Because of her voice. Her voice sounded as if it belonged to someone wealthy and well-educated. Without any conscious effort on my part, I had decided that someone with that voice must, by default, be white.

This revelation of a bias I didn’t even know I had was a slap in the face.

But…but…I’m not racist! my mind sputtered, desperately trying to defend itself. But what defense is there? Over the years, the message that upper class, intelligent people in the western world are almost certainly white had been driven into my brain, driven so deep it had disappeared.

In one sentence, Ms. Juliet Sargeant peeled away the layers of liberal dogma that had grown over this festering bias. I felt betrayed by my own self. I felt like a hypocrite.

Of course, it’s not as bad as all that. And yet, at the same time, it is. Because I wonder what other deeply driven bias nails lurk inside me. What other prejudices do I not recognize? I’m not being hyperbolic, I am sure there are more.

Chances are, you have some too. Biases are tricksy. Biases about race, about gender, about sexual orientation, about religion or lack of religion, none of us are immune to the message-nails society hammers into us from the time of birth onward.

Not only do we frequently not see our own biases, but also those of others around us. I recall a conversation I had with a friend a few years back. He was familiar with military tactics and, since I was co-writing a novel series with a military element and possess little knowledge and no military experience, I asked if I could hit him up with questions if they arose. Graciously, he agreed and offered assistance. He then began to speak about combat, specifically hand-to-hand combat, and I jumped in to explain that, no, I was good with that aspect of things—as a black belt and former stunt person—it was the larger military strategies and such with which I needed help. Misunderstanding cleared up, the conversation continued.

I didn’t give that conversation a second thought until that friend told me, months later, that he had brought it up on a SFF conference panel to illustrate his bias about women and fighting. He had, he explained, assumed that because I was female I didn’t understand hand-to-hand combat. Odd. This was a person I saw, and still see, as fair and equitable when it comes to matters of gender. I hadn’t even considered his reaction as biased but once he pointed it out I knew it was true.

To be clear, I wasn’t angry or offended in the least. In fact, I was impressed that he had possessed the objectivity to recognize the bias in play. Furthermore, I was grateful that he had brought it to my attention and the attention of a wider audience. I am more aware, now, of how women are perceived when it comes to the martial arts and combat. I hope some others are too.

The events of this year have dragged racism, sexism, homophobia and a lot of other nasty biases into the light, and that’s not going to settle down any time soon. While I am frequently disgusted and shocked by what I read and see, I also work to temper my indignation with a hefty dose of humility. Yes, we must fight hard to change the systems that feed the worst aspects of our nature, but on a personal level we must recognize that not all biases come from a place of evil. We must not dehumanize and shame others if we honestly desire change. And we must not underestimate the power of a few simple words, delivered without spite or animosity, as a light and a path to self-awareness.

Something as simple as a garden—seeds planted instead of nails hammered—can open our eyes and our minds, and bring beauty to dark corners. Plant your seeds wisely.


Listen to the full CBC interview with Juliet Sargeant. (It’s worth it!)

Posted in Hobbies, News and politics, Women's Issues | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

By the Numbers – Beyond the World Fantasy Convention

Psychology Of Human Love

150

My friend Helmi introduced me to this number more than a decade ago. 150, also known as the Dunbar number, is the maximum number of people a human can have in their social group. Of course, like any sociological or psychological science, this rule is not hard and fast, nor does anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar assert it is so. More accurately, the number ranges from 100 to 200, with the more social types at the higher end. The number also refers to those we would call “casual friends”, not exclusively close friends, and not those folks whom we’ve met once or twice and know only well enough to wave and say hello.

Dunbar has more numbers, which correspond with the varying types of relationships humans typically experience, right down to 5—our best friends and family members.

My Dunbar number is high. I would guess close to 200. In part because I’m outgoing and like people, in part because my husband is a raging extrovert, in part because I have moved many times and have to make new friends in every new location. The last reason is bittersweet. I have been enriched by diverse geographical friendships but saddened every time I’ve had to say goodbye.

There is also an irony to my Dunbar number. Yes, I have many friends, for which I am grateful, but because of the off-the-beaten path places my husband and I choose to live, I am seldom able to connect in person with my “tribe”: SFF nerds. Specifically, SFF writers, editors, and artists.

Well-meaning friends go out of their way to point out the writing groups, events, and organizations that await me at my new destination but it’s not the same. Imagine telling a diehard football player not to worry because the town he’s moving to has an excellent tennis club.  Both sports, sure, but worlds apart.

Which brings me to my salvation: SFF conventions.

When I attended my first SFF convention in San Antonio, Texas, in 2013, I felt like every fictional character who is transported to a secret and fantastical world. Here was my Narnia, my Hogwarts, my Oz. Here, at last, was my tribe.

Have I mentioned that I am the queen of bad timing?

No sooner had I found a means by which I could satisfy that part of my soul that yearned for connection, then I found myself in the middle of a tempest. The SFF community is going through some growing pains that threaten to divide a group of people who were once relegated to the fringe of the literary world, people who came together  to celebrate and promote the often-maligned genres they loved and support one another in their struggle against the mainstream.

Until the US presidential election moved in to claim the spotlight, it felt to me as if there was a new reason for outrage within the SFF community every other week. Sometimes the outrage was justified, other times I couldn’t help thinking that folks on both sides needed to step way back and put things into perspective.  There are issues in the world today that genuinely deserve our outrage; your book not winning the award you wanted to win is not among them.

One of the most recent flares of outrage concerned the programming for the World Fantasy Convention, which I attended, in Columbus, Ohio in October.  Some of the planned panel titles were offensive, others just seemed out of touch and old fashioned, and there was a distinct lack of diversity and representation. When the planned programming was revealed, there was outrage, there was uproar, some guests boycotted the event, others threatened to boycott unless the panel problems were addressed. And while I recognized the problems, I had no intention of canceling my trip and I felt only a tinge of disappointment in the programming. As a female, I suppose this makes me a bit traitorous but I don’t care.

At first I didn’t understand why I did not feel as outraged as everyone else, or at least why I was not seriously annoyed. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I don’t go to these big, well-known events for the panels or the presentations, not really. If there happen to be some good ones, fantastic, if not, oh well. I go because of that tiny-yet-vital percentage of my Dunbar number that I’ll only get to see in person perhaps once a year.

You need to understand that, for me, getting to these big conventions requires serious planning (there are a small group of us spread all over the place whose schedules must align), saving (as a Canadian, everything costs me at least 25% more), and travel (more than once I have had to spend two days traveling on either side of the convention dates). For those who live in the US (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), who live in urban areas, who can easily fly or drive to the convention city, who can afford to attend multiple cons per year, and/or who live in close proximity to other members of the SFF tribe, choosing not to attend any given con is a relatively easy decision. For me, it not only means losing money (I try to use some form of air miles or rewards programs for all my flights and those flights are non-refundable), but also giving up the one opportunity I look forward to all year to be with my people.

At the World Fantasy Convention this year, I told my friends that the convention could be nothing but everyone hanging around a flaming dumpster in an alley, and they could call it Flaming Dumpster Con, and as long as my friends were there I’d go and I would have a great time. I was only half joking.

I wrote this post because I have been considering the outrage and the growing pains in the SFF community. The folks who were upset about this year’s WFC programming weren’t wrong. In fact, beyond the ill-chosen titles and glaring whiteness (male whiteness, frequently), the panels I attended were almost all disappointing. The panelists were knowledgeable and the topics were interesting but too often the discussion boiled down to, “I think this, you think that, here are the titles of some excellent books that exemplify our points…but we’re not going to go into any detail about why.” Some panelists didn’t even show up and in one case the moderator didn’t show up. There was also one memorable and painfully awkward moment when a panel of all white men tried to answer a question about Native American mythology.  If I had traveled all that way to actually learn something from the panels, I would have asked for my money back.

I also wrote this post because, despite my seeming indifference, I actually do care about the SFF community. I want my community to reflect my values. Part of the reason I love SFF is because the genre is creative and forward thinking. It’s awful to see parts of the community stuck in a less enlightened past. But as a microscopic fish in a massive pond, with limited time and resources, how do I help to make that happen?

For starters, not with outrage. I find anger exhausting and I choose to save it for the biggest of big problems. Not that outrage and anger aren’t necessary at times. To those who can wield that hammer well, I say, “Good work!” But, me? I thrive on positive energy.

I will continue to attend big cons to be with my long distance friends, to meet new friends, and to make the kind of connections that aren’t possible in my far off corner of the world. If I happen to also learn something about the business or the craft while I’m at it then bonus points for me. But where I can and will make a difference is locally. I’ve volunteered at the Creative Ink Festival for two years now and will continue to help out however I can. I also hope to attend (and perhaps also participate as a panelist?) When Words Collide, in Calgary, Alberta this summer. These are two examples of genre events that are getting it right and harnessing the talents of the community in the best way possible. These are the kind of events that make me excited about learning and sharing. These are the kind of events that make me proud to say I write SFF.

And I would humbly suggest that if you are also an SFF nerd and find yourself outraged at the the status quo, then find an event that you believe in, no matter how small, and volunteer. At the very least, help spread the good word.

I am small. I am a nobody in the SFF world. But I will support the people who represent everything that is best in my tribe.

One.

That is not a Dunbar number. That is the number of people it takes to make a positive change.

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What Are You Going To Do?

“I’m going to write a book.”

“I’m going to get in shape.”

“I’m going to travel the world.”

“I’m going to…”

No. Here’s the truth: Most people won’t ever do the things they say they are going to do. Not because they are incapable; we are capable of much more than we imagine. Not because their dreams are unreasonable; many people write books, fly on planes, lift weights and eat healthy food, etc. Not because they lack time; we make time for what matters most.

Why, then, do so many rarely make it past an announced intention?

Because doing things is hard.

I’m writing this only weeks after the fourth book in my and Josh’s Warpworld series was released into the world. Don’t mistake this declaration as smugness. This book was supposed to be published in March 2016, April at the latest. Five months late. Almost a year and a half spent grinding out words in a fog, wanting to quit, wanting to crawl under the covers and give in to the voices telling me my sadness was all that mattered. I even tried to talk Josh out of sending off our “final” draft to our editor (thankfully, he did not listen to my crazy talk), I just wanted it gone, out, over with. Writing, which is never easy, as any author will tell you, had become a dreary slog and I wanted to stop.

It is at that exact point, the point where you want to stop, to walk away and find something more immediately enjoyable, that you learn what your heart wants. You come to the brick wall and now you must choose: climb over or take an easier path?

To quote Randy Pausch from The Last Lecture

The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.

To be clear, wanting something badly does not mean you have to climb that brick wall alone. Me? I had Josh gently coaxing me on, refusing to stop, and insisting we follow the course I had once insisted we absolutely must follow. And then I had our wonderful, kind, talented editor, Candace, who pulled no punches but also patiently talked me through the work to be done. All that was required of me was to accept the help I was offered.

Help accepted. Wall climbed. Going to write a book becomes wrote a book. Easy? No. Satisfying? You bet your ass.

Part of the problem with going to is that we always see results, the end product of years, sometimes decades, of hard work, but we seldom see the drudgery and sacrifice it took to get those results. I think often of an interview I heard with Eddie Van Halen. He talked about how young boys looked at him and saw a rock star, so they went out and bought guitars and rocker clothes, grew their hair long, and went out to parties to drink, do drugs and get laid, all in the name of being a rock star someday. But when Eddie was a boy, he explained, he wasn’t doing those things, he was shut up in his room playing his guitar, playing and playing and playing.

If you want to be a rock star, or just famous, then run down the street naked, you’ll make the news or something. But if you want music to be your livelihood, then play, play, play, and play! ~ Eddie Van Halen

And there is another layer to peel back: love.

Most parents understand the bond between sacrifice, work and love. When a parent says they love their kids that doesn’t mean they love everything about parenting. I’ve seen the look on parents’ faces in the grocery store as they try to cope with a toddler meltdown—frustration, determination, despair, embarrassment, anger, but not a lot of love. Even so, I know they love their child. Nothing about raising children is logical to me but, even so, I get it. The people you see on the other side of going to are there because they love the thing they chose to do. Eddie Van Halen isn’t a rock star because of long hair and tight pants, he’s a rock star because he spent all those years practicing, and he spent all those years practicing because he loves to play guitar.

I’m writing this today because tomorrow Prez and I move to Quadra Island, to a beautiful house looking over the ocean, thanks to an opportunity offered by a generous friend. While this move may seem like a no-brainer, we’ve lived on enough small islands and in out-of-the-way places to know that there are logistics and expenses that come with living in paradise. We looked at all of these brick walls honestly, talked things over with our friend and soon-to-be landlord, and weighed the pros and cons. In the end, the pros won us over.

Every time I think of our new home, I want to Snoopy dance. It still hasn’t completely sunk in that this is really happening. I’ve posted some photos on Facebook and you can expect more to come, knowing my penchant for enthusiastic sharing. But I’m writing this now as an antidote to that. I’m writing this, not as a cautionary tale exactly, but to show that the end result is not the whole story.

It is easy to look at someone’s life, especially through the heavy filter of social media, and see only luck and happiness. I’ve had more than one person tell me, over the years, how lucky I am and how wonderful my life is. Yes, I am lucky and I love my life, but I also want to show those people the stacks of failures, all the times the risks came with no rewards and sometimes a good dose of punishment. I want to show those people my sad bank account and non-existent retirement savings. I want to take those people job hunting with me and let them experience the frustration of trying to make an unconventional history fit into a conventional work world. I want those people to sit with me at 3am when I wake up in a panic about my future. I want to introduce those people to all the good friends and family I’ve left behind, some whom I will never see again, casualties of a nomadic existence. I want them to feel the ache in my neck and back at the end of a day of writing, and to read a list of all the fun activities I’ve missed in order to finish a work in progress. I want to show them that every going to I’ve turned into a done came with a price.

I love my life, it’s worth climbing the brick walls, it’s worth the stress and uncertainty…at least, to me it is.

Only you can decide whether your going to is worth the effort and whether you love whatever it is you dream of doing enough to climb the walls in your path. But it is worth taking a hard look at all your going tos and asking yourself what’s stopping you from doing the things you keep saying you’re going to do.

Me, I’m going to live on the ocean. Maybe I’ll see you there?

photo-from-house

Posted in Family & Children, Friends, Ocean, Travel, Warpworld | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

I’m Not Over It…and That’s Okay

Sliced red onion. Background close up red onion

Wow, has it ever been a long time since I’ve talked to you! You can blame whales and Warpworld in equal parts, as well as the occasional visit from friends.

So, I was in the kitchen one morning not too long ago and–

Oh, did you think I was going to do some kind of catch-up Coconut Chronicle? Sorry. Where was I?

In the kitchen. Chopping onions for a slow-cooker meal. (Basil chicken curry, a recipe I found on Facebook).  So, there I am chopping and sniffling, with stinging, onion-cutting tears running down my face, and suddenly it hits me: I can’t remember the last time I cried.

This revelation was right up there with the day I realized I could finally drive a standard transmission vehicle without having to think about the mechanics and the movements. One day you’re grinding gears, the next you’re downshifting instead of braking and not even aware you’re doing so.

One day you can’t stop crying, the next you no longer buy Kleenex in bulk.

Or so it seems.

The final one year anniversary passed quietly. I spent July 25th on Cortes Island with the California family, and there was lots of love, laughs, and life. I blinked and the day I had dreaded was over. One year without my dad.

Back to the onions.

As I put the tear-inducing onions into the crock pot, I asked myself how I was feeling. I’d been so busy, it had been a while since I had last checked in for a status update. The short answer was: better. Not “I’m completely back to my old self!” better, but better than I had been. I was sleeping well most nights, my appetite had stabilized, my desire to write was coming back, I experienced moments of genuine happiness, colour had returned to the world, and of course I was no longer frequently weeping at random intervals. Perhaps my writing partner Josh summed it up best recently, during one of our online production meetings, when he wrote, “I see you’ve rediscovered your exclamation points.”

Yes! I have!

The next question I asked myself was: How did I get better?

Time was the most obvious assistant. Without a lot of fanfare or hoo ha, time did what it does best and filed off the sharp edges of memory. Honesty had also helped. Writing about being in a depressed state, admitting that I was struggling, felt like someone giving me a big push on the swing set. Friends and family played a vital role–thank you all! Being busy and productive kept the momentum of that swing set push going. My Real Job was a massive help in this regard. Just knowing that I had to be at a place outside my house at a certain time, for a certain number of hours, and had to at least pretend to be cheerful, almost every day, prevented me from getting mired in my sadness. Exercise! (Which has been sadly lacking since the whale business got busy and the push to get book number four out the door intensified). I went to yoga, I went to the gym, I went for walks–happy body, happy mind. My husband–both from his emotional support and his new business, which went even further to alleviate the financial stress. Sunshine, the ocean, good books, keeping my visual entertainment on the light & fun side. (Yay, Kimmy Schmidt!)

IMG_3942Oh, and kittens. Two litters of foster kittens followed by two little furry munchkins that I fell utterly in love with and could not bear to give up. After eight years, Fred and I have finally re-catted and every day is now filled with spontaneous joy-gasms! #catnerd

The final question I asked myself was: Are you over it?

No.

The depth of my grief has surprised me. I always believed that grief was a thing you experienced and then “got over”. That’s how it had been with every other person I had lost in my life, including my mother. I had been sad, and then I’d gotten over the sadness and moved on. Not this time.

And that’s okay.

See, what I’ve learned through this experience is that you can move on, be happy, enjoy every second of the incredible journey that constitutes being alive, and still grieve.

I’m never going to be my old self again. That Kristene is history. I will still laugh, tell bad jokes, drink martinis, talk about cats too much, devour chocolate like a boss, liberally use exclamation points in my online conversations (Josh!!!!), and share my cranial gumballs with the world, but I will always feel the absence of my sister and my father. I will never forget the profound sadness that settled into my bones when they died (it is still there), nor will I forget the people–those beacons of light, those Ridiculously Kind Persons–who were there when I needed them, who carried me when I could not carry myself.

I don’t think you ever “get over” something like that and why would you want to?

Despite all the delicious-sounding ingredients, the curry turned out bland. I won’t make that recipe again. That’s okay. That’s what life is after all. Not everything is good, not everything is bad, you try new recipes, you cry sometimes and then you don’t, you gain, you lose, you rejoice and you grieve, you learn, some things you get over and some things you don’t.

And that, my friends, is absolutely okay.

Sisters sleep.JPG

Ripley (front) and Serenity, making life better one purr at a time

Posted in Family & Children, Friends, Grief and Mourning, Health and wellness, Warpworld | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

On Failing

Kristene Perron stunts Millenium

Sometimes down but never out. *

No one talks about what happens when following your passion leads you off a cliff.” ~ Twitter user whose name I cannot recall

I suspect, because humans are creative and curious by nature, that we have been dreaming big and failing with equal bigness since the first primitive human decided hunting mastodons just wasn’t his bag and he was going to give it all up and become a cave painting artist. Some of that ambitious cave man’s friends and family applauded (or grunted enthusiastically) at his decision, while others thought he was making a colossal mistake. Sure enough, when our artistic ancestor realized–no matter how well he had captured the joie de vivre of the hunt in ochre on the cave wall, and how transported he felt in that moment of creation, and how he knew that this is what he was born to do–that nice paintings don’t fill an empty stomach, he despaired. Sure, he could still paint after mastodon hunts and on weekends (as soon as weekends were invented) but it wasn’t the same. He had dreamed of a life of art and he had failed.

Or maybe it didn’t happen quite like that but art, as a full time occupation, has been tempting innocent victims throughout the ages. The handful of famous writers, artists, dancers, and musicians that we remember are a dot on a flea compared to the hordes who passed into obscurity. And even many of the artists we call famous today were not appreciated (or paid well) while they lived.

Making a Living is the artists’ holy grail. It is that to which we aspire and when we summon the courage to seek that grail, to follow our passion, we do so accompanied by two big fears:

  1. That we are not good enough and we will fail.
  2. That we will have to display our failure to the world by getting a “real job” once more.

I am an old hand at following passions off cliffs. It feels great to tell everyone I was a professional stunt performer for 10 years but I was about two weeks away from giving up that pursuit forever in favour of a Real Job when I lucked out and snagged the final credit needed for my union membership. In fact, I was so broke and so frustrated that I had already started sending resumes out to veterinary pharmaceutical and food companies in the hopes of a lucrative job as a sales rep. It would still be another three years before I made enough at stunts to give up my part time job as a veterinary assistant, but union membership opened up enough opportunities to keep my hope and bank account afloat while I waited.

I got lucky. Make no mistake, it was pure luck. Yes, I know, I know, “the harder I work the luckier I get”, but I could not have worked hard enough in that two week window to generate any more luck than already existed.

Other passion following has not gone so well. My permanent move to the Bahamas with my husband…wasn’t. Obviously. (I’m still with my husband, we’re just not…well, you get it).

I haven’t put much thought into my recent transition from full time writer to part time writer and part time Real Jobber. Given the circumstances of the past year, I was simply happy to find employment with a decent wage, fun and friendly employers, and a healthy work environment. There was no time to angst or feel like a failure, there were only bills to be paid and a driving desire to overcome the state of depression and inertia into which I had fallen.

Then my artist friend Andy stopped by for a visit.

Luck was on my side. I had the entire day off to spend with my Alaskan Breakfast Squad-mate and the sun was shining. I made sure we did as many touristy things as we could fit in but that we also had plenty of time to catch up and talk.

Of course we talked about art. A lot.

At one point, Andy very delicately asked me how things were going and how I was feeling about returning to the Real Job world. He’s not only a mega talented artist but also a kind friend who has made his own crossover–from Real Job to full time writing–in the past year.

I assured him that everything was fine and here’s the strange part: it is fine.

Strange because for so long I felt as if the worst possible fate that could befall me was to admit defeat as an indie author and face big fear #2: my failure on display.

When my financial stress started getting the better of me in 2015 I fought an internal battle and after much metaphorical hand wringing went out in search of a regular paycheque. That felt like defeat. That felt like failure. That felt like shame.

Luck had passed me over this time around. Oh well.

And then my annus horribilus happened and I had other worries to occupy me. Bullet dodged but stress still 100% intact.

It was during that year, however, that magic happened. This magic came, as magic so often does, in the form of a book. Not my book, a book by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Big Magic played on audiobook as Prez and I drove home from California and I was transfixed.

I have recommended this book to many creatives and if you are a creative I recommend it to you now with my whole heart, liver, kidney and spleen.

Books with subtitles like “Creative Living Beyond Fear” usually sending me running for the hills, sometimes throwing up in my mouth a little as I do. I am not a “woo-woo” person. I am a hard work person. Thankfully, writer friends I trust and respect had read and recommended this book and so I took a chance.

Gilbert has many good things to say about creative living–some I already knew, some that I needed to hear again–but the section that resonated with me concerned money and debt. There was no “follow your dream no matter what!” rhetoric here. Gilbert was clear about the need to remove financial stress, even if that meant creating your art in tiny slices of time away from your Real Job. This was not about success or failure, this was about giving your brain the space to create without stress or pressure. One line in particular slapped me awake:

…debt will always be the abattoir of creative dreams.

Exactly. I had come to a point where the moments I usually spent daydreaming and playing with stories in my head had become moments where all I could think about was our bank account and how we were going to make it survive once we hit retirement age. I hated that my husband carried the  weight of our financial responsibilities almost entirely on his shoulders. I hated feeling as if I was a leech, not a partner. Day by day these feelings eroded the joy that had once come with my creative life.

By the time we made it back to Campbell River, the word failure had vanished from my thoughts, as had the two big fears. A Real Job would not mark the end of my creative life, it was the only means by which I could continue to have a creative life. Having a Real Job didn’t make me a sell-out and didn’t relegate my writing to the realm of the dreaded “hobby”, it was the path to longevity, the magic potion to enable persistence.

My Real Job, which is seasonal and will end in mid-October, makes me happy on several levels. The money isn’t huge but it’s enough to cover rent and some groceries. Stress is relieved and I can once again hold my head up high as a contributing financial member of my marital partnership. My Real Job empowers me within my marriage. Now that I have my own income again, I feel as if I have a right to speak up about how our money is spent. (And I can buy a few extra kitten treats without feeling guilty). My Real Job is fun! I get out of the house, meet new people, and talk about some of my favourite things–the ocean, whales, dolphins, eagles, bears.

If you are a full time creative struggling with the decision to “give up” and go find a Real Job or to keep banging your head against the wall of debt…stop. Take care of your finances. Tell those two big fears to take a flying leap and do whatever you need to do to alleviate the stress that kills your creative joy. If you are a creative who feels inferior because you still can’t make enough to leave your Real Job…stop. If your art is important to you, if creating is what makes you feel like a better person, then it doesn’t matter if your art is paying your bills, only that your bills get paid and your art gets made. If you are a creative preparing to leave your Real Job and pursue your art full time, good for you! (But remember it doesn’t have to be a one way trip).

My friend, the ridiculously talented author and publisher, Mark Teppo, in his most recent newsletter (you should subscribe–worth it!) talked about the frustrations he has dealt with in the past few years. He talked about thoughts of giving it all up, walking away to punch a clock and disappear, but came to the conclusion that he could never give up his writing.

…all of the whining and stress and rage has nothing to do with failing, and everything to do with being disconnected with who you are and what you truly desire.

This is the heart of it: Who are you? What do you truly desire?

I am a writer. I am happiest when I’m writing, even when I’m completely miserable (writers, you know what I mean). I am fulfilled when I write. I am a better person when I write. Anything that stands in the way of my writing must be dealt with–including money or lack thereof. When I clear the obstacles from my writing path, that is success.

Perhaps one day I will find myself in a position to write full time again or perhaps I will always need the help of a Real Job but, no matter what, I will always write.

*Photo: On the set of Millenium

Posted in Entertainment, Friends, Health and wellness, Indie publishing, Life at Work, On Scribbling, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

All My Culture is Stolen

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Crushing grapes in California

“Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture. Cultural appropriation is seen by some as controversial, notably when elements of a minority culture are used by members of the cultural majority; this is seen as wrongfully oppressing the minority culture or stripping it of its group identity and intellectual property rights.” ~ Wikipedia entry for “Cultural Appropriation”

I’ve been watching the rise of this topic lately with great interest, primarily because I have no culture. That is to say I was raised without any specific cultural references, without religion or beliefs of any kind even atheism, and have only the barest awareness of my genealogy and biological history.

I understand the premise of cultural appropriation and respect the outrage felt by minority groups who see elements of their culture taken, distorted and even used for profit, but I don’t know how I, a cultureless being, fit into all this.

Every bit of culture I have or was raised in, by virtue of my adoption, is not mine. As for the rest, let me explain.

Religion and Belief

In the short time I spent talking with my dad after my sister’s death and before his death, I asked him if he had been raised in any particular religion. You see, religion was simply never mentioned in our house. My parents, to the best of my knowledge were neither believers nor atheists nor agnostics. When I went through my brief “born again” phase, after returning from a heavy-on-the-brainwashing Christian summer camp, there was a lot of smiling and nodding but I don’t recall any member of my family agreeing or disagreeing with me about God, Jesus, the bible, etc. Eventually, without the daily peer pressure and happy Jesus sing-alongs, I returned to my normal state of “whatever”.

The story Dad told me was fascinating and makes me kick myself for not delving into his history much earlier.

Yes, he said, he was raised to believe in God and his parents dragged the whole big Marrington clan to church every Sunday. I’m pretty sure it was a Catholic church but I could be misremembering.

My grandad, Stan, worked a lot of different jobs during the depression since he was not exactly a skilled labourer and jobs were scarce. (When I asked Dad what he knew of the Marrington history he said all he knew was that apparently they had been chased out of the slums of London). One of Grandad’s jobs was delivery man and one of the places to which he delivered was the church he and his family attended.

According to Grandad, security was tight at the church. He would deliver shipments of food and be met at the service door by one of the priests. The priest would lead him to a room to unload the goods and then bid him farewell. Grandad was not allowed to actually put the food in the big, locked, walk-in coolers and he was never left unattended.

But one day there was a different priest there to meet him and that priest left him alone to unload the goods. Grandad opened the first walk-in cooler and was awed by the sight of stacks and stacks of roasts, steaks, chicken, and seafood. This was a banquet! It was also food exclusively for the priests. Not the poor, not the hungry, just the holy men.

Remember, this was during the depression, there were a lot of poor and hungry.

Grandad looked at the bounty in that cooler and thought about the single mother he had seen the previous Sunday–one of those poor and hungry. She and her scrawny children had dutifully added their coins to the collection plate every Sunday even though they could obviously have used every last penny. Meanwhile, here were the priests, stuffing themselves like kings.

That, my dad told me, was the end of church, the end of god, and the end of religion in his family.

And so, I grew up in a household that did not badmouth god but simply refrained from any discussion on the subject. It was as if my family, collectively, slapped their hands over their ears and said “La la la, I can’t hear you” to erase religion from their world.

Ancestry and Heritage

If I could choose to be born into any particular race or culture, chances are my choice would be food-based. I’ve spent time with Italian families, Greek families, Croatian families, Dutch families, you name it. Even though these families were legally Canadian or American, their culinary heritage was alive and well. And, might I add, delicious.

But it’s more than just the food that bonds these families, it’s everything that happens around the food. Prez’s Italian step-family in California have get-togethers for making food and drink. Pressing grapes, standing barefoot in casks that are over 100 years old, it’s impossible not to feel the thread that runs through each member of the family, across the ocean, back to the home of their ancestors.

In my writing group in Nelson, our Norwegian member wrote a long description of the Christmas tradition of making lefse in her family. She made a batch for us and even showed us the special wooden, lefse rolling pin that had been handed down in her family through generations. So much history and tradition for one dessert.

Some of my friends have rules around their food that go back over a thousand years or more.

My dad’s side of the family was British, my mom’s Scottish. What were the food traditions in my childhood home?

Sunday nights we usually ate overcooked roast beef, which meant Monday nights were usually overcooked hot roast beef sandwiches. Saturdays were reserved for takeout–Chinese or pizza. Gram occasionally made Scotch Broth, which was tasty but nothing I’d call all my friends over for. And our few “traditions” gradually fell by the wayside when my sister moved away and I got older and less excited about family dinners.

Nothing was passed down to me. I have no recipes. I’ve never cooked or baked anything that my mother or grandmother cooked or baked. It is as if our family history was written in disappearing ink that is now beginning to fade into obscurity.

And that’s just food. My family had no art, no music, no style of clothing that marked us as a distinct culture. Everything about us was new, generic, bought at a mall or Kmart.

Stealing Culture

If there is one legacy that was passed down to me from my parents, it was a love of travel. My parents were not big adventurers and seldom went off the beaten path but they loved camping, car trips, cruises, sunny vacation spots. As an adult, I took that ball and ran with it as far as I could.

Every country I have visited or lived in–and I have not visited one tenth of the places I would like to–has made its mark on me. There are wonders in every nook and cranny of the world. Oh, and the language! I love language and I love the little phrases unique to all the pockets of the planet.

Nearly seven years after leaving the Cook Islands, Prez and I still say, “It’s hot as” on particularly warm days. (We also say it in a Kiwi accent, with heavy emphasis on the “as”). My day-to-day speech is peppered with Latin-American Spanish, some French, and bits of Japanese, American slang and, of course, Kiwi-isms–remnants of my other homes.

I’ve studied Japanese martial arts, Indian yoga, and Polynesian dance. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have grown up so close to so many other cultures, to have dipped my cup in so many rich and colourful traditions.

I’m not a souvenir collector in the traditional sense but, from every place I visit and everyone I interact with, I steal a bit of culture. Is it wrong, what I do?

And what of my genetic ancestry? From what I know, my biological mother’s side of me was German. Bio-Dad’s ancestry, like the man himself, is a mystery. In any case, I feel no blood urges related to my biological ancestry.

What am I? Who am I? Canadian? What does that even mean?

If you’re a blank slate, if you have no deeply ingrained culture and traditions, then isn’t your entire life culture appropriation?

Awareness

With all the necessary talk around cultural appropriation, I have become hyper aware. My new workplace has a small gift shop area with a selection of goods decorated in First Nations art. The actual items–t-shirts, mugs, scarves–are probably made in China but the artwork is all from Pacific Northwest First Nations artists and they receive credit and payment for their work. This should make the idea of purchasing these items guilt-free for me.

It doesn’t.

I think about walking around in an obviously First Nations art t-shirt and wonder if I’m now being disrespectful or if someone will assume that the art I’m wearing has been plundered and that I’m exploiting an entire culture when, in fact, I just really dig the design.

I’ve never thought about the culture I steal before because a) I always thought what I took was done out of genuine respect and appreciation and b) I had so little culture of my own.

Now I wonder, where’s the line? Am I a thief or am I a woman patching together a quilt of identity?

 

Posted in Family & Children, News and politics, Travel | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments