Friday nights are for books and cheap wine

Last Friday night, I took the bus downtown, and when the friendly bus driver asked where I was headed, I told him I was going to the library. He said “That’s how you’re spending your Friday night? At the library?!” But you know what? Hell yes, I was. Also it was a licensed, 19+ event, and glasses of wine were five dollars. FIVE DOLLARS. Where else can you get a glass of wine – and it wasn’t even plonk – for five dollars? Nowhere, that’s where. Plus a lovely spread of cheese and crackers, Roma pizza (I firmly believe there is a bylaw that states you cannot host a party in Hamilton without at least one Roma pizza in attendance) and then a table of desserts. COME ON. Best deal in town, honestly.

And while the wine was very attractively-priced, we were also there for the reveal of the Hamilton Reads One Book One Community choice for this year, and for the lovely Jane Urquhart, who read from her new book A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through 50 Objects.

I will admit to being skeptical of the entire concept of A Number of Things, because there is this tendency, among Canadians, to focus only on the stereotypes when compiling lists of “Canadian” things. Toques and moose and hockey, amirite? And I still haven’t read the book, so I’m withholding judgement, but from what Jane read on Friday night, I feel I might be pleasantly surprised by the insight and depth of research, by the thoughtful inclusion of important, culturally significant objects, as well as some of the ones that may more generally spring to mind. I mean, she’s Jane Urquhart, after all. I suppose I needn’t have worried.

Worries aside, the entire evening was a delight. A packed house, standing room only for books and authors on a Friday night? Hamilton, you never disappoint. And of course, the big reveal of Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People as the choice for Hamilton’s One Book One Community!

HPL has organized a season of programming designed around the OBOC pick, and there are some amazing events lined up. I’m not sure the details are available online yet, but you can pick up this little booklet and make your plans for the fall. There’s even a series of workshops by me! Pretty sure I’ll have a lot more to say about those later this summer. Other than, you know, “Eeeeeeeee! I’m running some writing workshops, you guys!” I promise, ok?

HPL staff were also there to offer book talks for those who were interested, and listening to two book talks meant you were eligible to be entered into a draw. 12 tote bags with books were up for grabs, as well as a large bucket o’ books. I didn’t win, but my friend Jessica won one of the tote bags, which made an already great night even better.

Finally, HPL is also running, for I believe the first time EVER, an Adult Summer Reading Club! It will surprise virtually no one that I consistently OWNED at summer reading club as a kid, and over the years I’ve wistfully watched from afar as other library systems began advertising their own adult versions, so I’m happy HPL is finally on board! Grab your card at any library branch, or download from the website, and print your own.

So to recap, wine and cheese, door prizes and authors, book talks and cupcakes. And all for just 10 bucks. Friday nights at the library? Absolutely, and let’s do it again soon.

Love your library system, folks. Hamilton truly has one of the best.










Juror #3 Reports for Duty

I’m not sure if you noticed, but I was gone for awhile. I mean, I’m not the most prolific blogger, I’ll give you that, but for three weeks in May I was basically out of commission, and doing my civic duty, participating on a jury which really took over my life.

The trial itself wasn’t all that interesting – civil trial, one dude suing another dude kind of thing – but if you’ve ever been on a jury you’ll know that it can be exhausting because you spend the whole day just listening and – and here is the really tough part – PAYING ATTENTION. TO EVERYTHING.

And you’ll likely know that I am a pretty good listener, but we’ve all had those conversations where we might drift a bit, or we’re thinking of something we want to say to move the conversation along, so we’re not 100% engaged, 100% fully focused. And that’s normal! But in court, you don’t get a chance to interject or voice your opinions (lawyers really don’t like that) you just have to listen. And you can’t zone out for a bit, because you might miss something ultra important. Then, once all the talking is done you have to go away for a few hours to determine the course of someone’s life, based on what you heard and listened to for the past 12 days. NO PRESSURE.

The other thing, of course, is that you’re not permitted to talk about the case, and my dudes, that was kind of the hardest ever thing for me. Because while I am a pretty great listener, I am an even better talker, and more importantly, I am a person who likes to talk things through in order to better understand them. So having to come home and just not talk about what had been going on all day was rather tortuous.

It’s kind of a humbling experience, to be part of a jury. For the first few days, we sat, we listened to witnesses, experts, the plaintiff, the defendant. As the trial went along, when it became clear that things were starting to wrap up, I became more and more nervous. Would we be able to do this? To do the right thing? To look only at evidence, and not let emotions take over? Once both lawyers had presented all their witnesses, we had only closing arguments and the judge’s charge to us left to hear. And then it would be up to us.

So, spoiler alert, we did it, and according to the judge we did a fantastic job. She praised us for being so attentive, so thorough, for taking our time and working through the questions we needed to answer in such great detail, and that was a huge relief. We’re still not really supposed to talk about the case, but honestly, if we’re ever out together having a few drinks, I might just have to give you a rough outline of this trial that consumed me for practically the entire month of May. Because me. Listener. But also talker. Actually, mostly talker.

I learned a lot from sitting on this jury, sitting in that courtroom for so many hours just listening. Listening is a true skill, a real art. We were permitted to take notes – the judge herself is an avid note taker – but what I found was that I was better off watching and listening. I did jot down the occasional fact or concept, but I mostly relied on observation. In then end, my memory of the proceedings was just as good than that of the note takers. For me, head up, watching everything was better than head down, writing furiously on a pad.

It’s a very good lesson, learning to listen more actively without wanting to jump in and add your own two cents to the conversation. To process and reflect, and make decisions based on evidence and fact, and not always just emotional response. It was an experience I’m glad I was able to have. But I’m still quite happy they can’t call me back for three years.






I Had a Body Wrap With a Vichy Shower, AMA

When I turned 50 in January, I was pretty adamant that I didn’t want a big fuss. I’d thrown myself a birthday party two years earlier, when I turned 48, and I figured that was probably enough. I wasn’t thrilled about turning 50, although now that I’m here, I should mention that I’m getting used to the idea. 50 is fine, I guess, and as a friend of mine suggested, “50 is the new fuck you.” I can kind of get behind that as well, so thanks, Claudia!

So, as I warmed up to the idea of entering my 50s, I decided maybe I do want to do something fun, maybe I want to make a fuss after all. But what? I consulted my usual partner in crime for fun ideas, my friend Vivian, and we came up with a plan to spend a few nights in Prince Edward County, touring wineries, eating well, and perhaps even visiting a spa. This seemed like a very solid and exciting plan. Especially the spa portion of the weekend.

I am a regular visitor to a spa, for services I like to call “maintenance.” Waxing, eyebrow tinting (now you all know!) etc. The occasional pedicure or manicure, for special occasions. I have had two facials in my life, which I always feel are extremely decadent, but for this weekend, I wanted something even MORE, something extra, something that screams “Extreme Ladies Who Lunch and Country Club, Bitches.” So I decided on a body wrap. Vivian booked us at the spa about 20 minutes from where we were staying, and off we went.

Have you had a body wrap? I had no actual idea what to expect, but I was ushered in to a dark room with a large rimmed table in the centre. The walls and floor were tile, and a 6-head shower arm was suspended from the ceiling. It honestly was a bit ominous looking, but since I was already there, I got undressed and climbed on the table.

The first step in body wrapping is dry brushing, which feels like someone taking a layer of skin off your body, which I guess they kind of are? This was followed by a salt scrub, which was pretty great. And then, they rinse you off.

The shower, as I mentioned, is on a big arm, and the aesthetician pulls it along to rinse the salt off you. You don’t have to even move, which is pretty amazing. After the salt came the actual body wrap. We chose chocolate because why not? Apparently chocolate has a lot of ingredients that are good for your skin, so take that, MOM.

So you get wrapped in chocolate, and then you get to lie there for awhile, and then the big shower thing comes at you again to rinse you off, and I was marveling at the fact that I was having a shower, without even moving, and thinking “wow, it’s so cool, the table itself drains right on to the floor, and…” and this is when my brain started making comparisons to being in the morgue.

My brain is the reason I can never have nice things. Maybe I’ve watched too much CSI or Law & Order over the years, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this Vichy Shower thing was basically a fancy schmancy version of the apparatus used to wash corpses prior to autopsy, or to prepare the body for embalming and other funereal preparations. I mean, just type vichy shower table into any search engine and you’ll see what I mean. Or, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll see potential for a lovely, relaxing, spa treatment. Because you’re normal.

To be quite honest, these thoughts didn’t tarnish my experience at all. Which…says a lot about me, perhaps. And when we were safely upright again, and driving back to our hotel, I told Vivian my musings about the body wrap, and the body’s final journey, and to her credit – and the fact that she knows me better than anybody else – she was not overly shocked that I had made that connection. She did laugh at me and say “OF COURSE YOU WOULD THINK THAT YOU WEIRDO” like the excellent friend she is, but surprised? Not really. I am, after all, the same person who considered – while having a massage – how easy it would be for my massage therapist to kill me if she wanted to. Think about it. You’re pretty vulnerable lying naked there on that skinny massage table. Just a good neck snap is all it would take, really.

I think the morals of this story are 1. No one can (or should) take me anywhere ever again, probably. And 2. I am getting darker with age.

“Functionally morbid” is how Caitlin Doughty describes herself in her excellent book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory, and I like that a lot. I think I will contact her to ask if I can use it.

Real. Estate.

Back on New Year’s Day – the first time I pledged to blog more often – I created a document about what I wanted to write about for the coming year. I cleverly named this document Random Ideas and Possibilities, then promptly forgot about it. Digging around in my Google Drive the other night unearthed it, and I can honestly say there are some excellent points. Good job, slightly hungover me! One line that made me laugh out loud, which I had completely forgotten I had written was this: Stay away from the dead parent posts. It’s been done, move on, no one cares.

Now this isn’t to suggest that no one actually cares about my dead parents, obviously, it was more a reminder to me that there are other topics out there, and for my own sake I should probably move on. I tend to dwell. And to be fair, there is a lot of processing that goes into losing one then both parents, and if you like to write, that processing might take place on the page. And it might continue to take place on the page, 5, 6, even 10 years later. And maybe that processing ultimately turns into my book! Aha, more incentive to take it outside. Or at least off the blog.

So dead parents are, for the moment, off the table. Instead, I would like to talk to you today about real estate. Specifically the batshit housing market in my city, and in particular in my neighbourhood.

There is a house on the street perpendicular to ours that is for sale. This in itself is kind of unusual, our neighbourhood is not known for high turnover rates. It is one of those “sought after” neighbourhoods that real estate people like to talk about. Close to schools, shopping, etc. And it is. And it’s nice. It’s fine. It’s a fine neighbourhood.

We bought our house in 1999 and paid the astronomical-at-the-time amount of $169,000. Granted, things change, and this isn’t to say that housing prices will always be at that level, but for quite a few years, they definitely were. About ten years ago that all started to change, when we began seeing houses like ours in the 300s and sometimes even the 400s. We used to laugh “haha we can’t even afford to live in our own neighbourhood anymore!” But wait. There’s more.

The house I mentioned that is for sale? It’s a 1.5 storey house, lovely from the outside, and nicely done inside. Three bedrooms, one bathroom. Nice yard. It’s listing price is $629,900. And, chances are, it will go for considerably more than that, this seems to be the norm in this city right now. Recently, I heard about a similar house selling for over $850,000.

I can’t. I mean. That is a LOT of money for a wee house. And yes, Toronto is much worse as far as real estate prices, and so is Vancouver, but we are talking about Hamilton, here. Great city, yes. But still. Wow.

It’s location, I get that. It’s proximity to the 403, the gateway to Toronto and beyond, and I get that too. But now – for absolute real – my family could not afford to live in this neighbourhood, should we be in different circumstances, looking to buy our first, or even our second house.

They say the bubble will burst, and that there are plans to cool the jets of this skyrocketing housing market. But what then? I don’t pretend to have answers, economics, etc. is not my bag, but I can’t imagine, in the current situation, ever recommending home ownership to anyone. A nearly one million dollar mortgage seems terrifying to me, although I get that I am coming at this from the sheer privilege of having purchased a home in a completely different housing market, a completely different time in the life of my city too.

So these houses that are selling for three quarters of a million dollars or more, where are their people going? As I mentioned, there hasn’t historically been a lot of turnover in the neighbourhood. People like it here and they tend to stay. So perhaps these are older people moving into apartments or condos. Or maybe they are empty nesters who realize the house is too big, and want to downsize. Or maybe they are thinking what I’m thinking, which is take the money and RUN. Take your near-millions, and buy something in the north or east end, where housing prices are still (mostly) normal. Or what I still think of as normal.

Six years ago I had to sell my family home. I grew up in an area that isn’t, and has never been, “sought after,” but the houses on my street are lovely. At the time I remember having a figure in my head about what it could probably sell for, recognizing even then that I was probably blinded by childhood memories, and isn’t your childhood home priceless? So I tried to be fairly conservative in my estimate. But still, it’s a 1.5 storey, 3-bedroom, 1.5 bath, with a gorgeous landscaped yard, finished basement…you get the picture. The agent listed the house for just over $100,000 and I was devastated. Surely it was worth more than that? “It’s just…this…” he said, gesturing in the general direction of Barton Street. It turns out that not all neighbourhoods are created equal.

I wondered, at the time, how much more it would have been worth, had we been able to pick it up and transport it to the neighbourhood where I currently live. And now that 1.5 storey homes seem to be worth close to a million dollars, I guess I have my answer.




The sweetest hangover

And just like that it’s over, we tend to our wounded we count our dead…

Wait, no that’s not gritLIT Festival. That’s Yorktown, from the Hamilton soundtrack.

For those of us on the committee, by Sunday night we sort of felt like walking wounded. It’s a lot of time to spend in the gallery, the hotel, running here and there, organizing, etc. But it was, as the kids say, WORTH IT.

gritLIT happens over four jam packed days in April, and while it goes by in an absolute flash, I’ve always found it takes me a few days of post-festival processing, reflecting, and regrouping, to put my thoughts down in blog post form. In fact, in looking through my drafts, I found my gritLIT wrap-up post from 2016. Partially completed, never posted. Whoops.

This year, thanks to a renewed passion for writing and blogging, I vowed I would rejuvenate this tired old girl (the blog, not me) and inject some life into it. There are multiple reasons for this, one of which involves gritLIT, and, as I said on Twitter, what better time to resurrect something than Easter weekend. This is also, in case you don’t already know, the time to watch Jesus Christ Superstar because of Jesus, obviously, but also because who doesn’t need a little funkiness during their holiday weekend? Also, last year I watched it and LiveTweeted it, and Ted Neely, who was Jesus in the film, retweeted me AND tweeted at me, so GOALS.

But back to gritLIT. This was my second year on the organizing committee and the first time I really felt fully invested and fully a part of the festival. Probably because I knew the ropes more or less, but mostly because I felt I had more of a role this year. The first year on any committee you join is kind of observational – at least for me it is – but this year I was ready to rock. And I did.

As always, the festival opened with an evening of poetry, and this might have been my favourite event of the entire festival. But wait, you say. How can the first event be your favourite, when everything else has yet to come? Well never fear, I would be heard to say after EVERY event “I think that was my favourite” so bear with me. We heard from Robin Richardson, two poets from Hamilton Youth Poets, and then from the incomparable Vivek Shraya. They were all so electric.

Another highlight from Thursday was the chance to hear Iain Reid read from I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which was a book I loved even though it confounded me – or maybe because it confounded me. Rebecca Rosenblum read from So Much Love, (now on my to-read list) and both authors joined us in the hospitality suite after their readings to chat about books and beer and all things Hamilton. It was lovely.

Friday was an action-packed evening, and I was able to join Ann Y.K. Choi, Diane Shoemperlen, Lesley Livingston, and Leslie Shimotakahara for dinner at Rapscallion prior to their readings. And honestly, what a treat to be surrounded by these fabulous authors, so generous with their time, so patient with their answers to questions they’d likely been asked a thousand times before. One of the things I love most about gritLIT and mingling with authors is the mutual respect, admiration, and engagement among them, and that was in full effect at our dinner, and then later on during the readings and the discussions that came after.

Saturday, when I try to recollect it, is a blur. There was an incredible and important conversation with Bev Sellars led by Annette Hamm – everyone needs to read Price Paid, this is not an exaggeration. Then we came to ANOTHER of my favourite sessions, a panel with author Kerry Clare, who read from Mitzi Bytes, and Merilyn Simonds, author of Gutenberg’s Fingerprint. And oh my goodness, the cartoon hearts were shooting from my eyes from the very beginning, and they just didn’t stop. I read and loved both books and adore both authors, but I think the greatest part of their panel was their chemistry, how well-aligned they were, how much they enjoyed the other’s company, how much they enjoyed the other’s writing. Truly lovely, and truly inspirational.

I also was lucky enough to host Kerry’s blogging workshop  later that day which was great, and was also the kick in the ass I needed to find my blogging mojo, so I will be forever grateful to her for that.

This brings us to Saturday night, WHICH WAS MY FAVOURITE.

I have adored Denise Donlon since she first appeared on my television and in my living room hosting The New Music, and I have always been fascinated by her incredible career, so I was over the moon to learn that she would be coming to gritLIT. Her chat with Annette Hamm did NOT disappoint, and she was as charming, funny, and wonderful as I’d always known she’d be. Denise also joined us in the hospitality room Saturday night, so now I can say I’ve had drinks with her – bucket list, check. Denise came back on Sunday for a highly emotional panel that featured Chris Pannell (Love Despite the Ache) and Teva Harrison (In Between Days), and she wowed the audience – and me – yet again. I purchased Denise’s book and she signed it for me, and as she was leaving she hugged me and thanked me for bringing her to gritLIT. And then I pretty much floated down to Mills Hardware for our final gritLIT 2017 event.

There is so much more to say – about the festival, about the incredible authors who joined us, about the wonderful committee who put it all together – but I will stop here. If you were there, thank you for being part of the festival. If you weren’t, I hope we’ll see you next year.

We have our wrap-up meeting next week, then our first planning meeting for the 2018 festival in a month or so. But first? I am just going to nurse this love hangover for as long as it takes.



The Tales of Yadda Yadda

Do you know The Tales of Hoffmann?

It’s an opera. By Jacques Offenbach. The same Offenbach that wrote Orpheus in the Underworld. No? It has that Can-Can music, you know the one. Ok, good.

Today is International Women’s Day, so I thought I would tell you the story of an opera I saw on the weekend, brilliantly performed by Opera Laurier – Laurier is the university my son  attends. He is not in the opera, but he is in the orchestra, and you can’t have an opera without a hard-working orchestra, so we were there to whoop whoop whoop for the musicians, because, as you know, they never get to dance.

But back to Hoffmann.

The synopsis of Tales of Hoffmann is that Hoffmann is a writer, a poet. He is in love with Stella, an opera singer (how meta).  Hoffmann also drinks too much (see above, writer/poet), and is struggling to find his muse. Funnily enough, his muse appears to the audience at the very beginning, and tells us she is trying to convince Hoffmann to return to her, to reject all other love, and devote himself solely to her. Noble!

Stella had written a note to Hoffmann, telling him to meet her after the performance, but the letter is intercepted by Lindorf (dunh dunh duunnnnhhh) so you know something is afoot. An intercepted letter is always the start of evil. Once Hoffmann arrives at the bar, he entertains his friends with a story, but then Lindorf asks Hoffmann to tell everyone about his three life’s loves. Aaaand here we go.

The first woman Hoffmann falls in love with is ACTUALLY NOT A WOMAN AT ALL, but a wind-up doll. Hoffmann dons magical glasses – rose-coloured glasses, actually, prompting my husband and I to have a conversation as to whether this is the first instance of “seeing life through rose-coloured glasses” or nah. We don’t have an answer, so if you know, let me know!

The rose-coloured glasses allow Hoffmann to see Olympia (doll-girl, in an ACTUAL box, but pay that no mind, H) as a REAL WOMAN and someone he promptly falls in love with. It is worth noting that she performs a fantastic aria, but mostly Hoffmann seems to like it best when she says “Oui! Oui!” Eventually things go down, and Olympia is destroyed. Hoffmann is heartbroken.

Lesson: Men like their toy women to say “Oui! Oui!” and little else, and when they break, and they can’t play with them anymore, it makes them sad.

Then there is Antonia, another singer! Her father has hidden her – HIDDEN HER – from Hoffmann, because she has some illness that will kill her if she sings – tragic, obviously. But of course her father doesn’t TELL HER that she is sick and that singing will kill her. Oh ho ho, why would you inform the girl?!? Jesus. Anyway, Hoffmann finds her, hears the news about the death singing and convinces her to give up her singing dreams but HE DOESN’T TELL HER WHY EITHER! Then an evil doctor tricks her into singing and she dies. Like seriously, maybe if she KNEW THE CONSEQUENCES, she would be all, I’m good, actually I will play that violin like you suggested after all, dad, great idea!

Lesson: Men don’t like to burden tiny lady brains with important details about their own health, even if it might kill them.

Finally there is Giulietta, a courtesan. Offenbach’s word, not mine. Hoffmann loves her (because of course he does) and he thinks she loves him too, but, oh those tricky women! She merely seduces him to steal his reflection (seriously, what?) because another dude promised her a diamond if she did. Then there is some Hamlet-grade mix-up of poisons or something, and she dies.

Lesson: Ladies only pretend to love you, but then they friendzone you and take up with douches who give them diamonds, and why can’t these bitches ever like Nice Guys(tm)  amirite fellas?

Finally, the tales have been told, and Hoffmann reveals that all three of those women – the innocent girl, the artist, and the courtesan – are all parts of the same woman – Stella. Who he now rejects because, like Alfalfa sang in The Little Rascals, he’s through with love.

Don’t you see though? Hoffmann SUFFERED at the hands of these women, by falling in love with them, and then not getting them! Never mind that they all DIED, it’s all about himmmmmm.

This opera was first performed in February 1881, and what amazes me most is how well it’s held up with society’s interpretation of what women are and what they should be!

Seriously, though. I could not stop thinking about this story and how current these themes really are. There are Men’s Rights Activists giving voice to some of the most horrific people in the world, men who have a sadz for their rights, because some ladies dare to demand some rights of their own. There is a government (although I use the term loosely) to our south who wants to remove pretty much all reproductive rights and access to healthcare from women, because they feel they know all women’s bodies better than women know themselves. There are still man-children who think women are dolls to play dress up and satisfy their every need/whim, rather than living, thinking, breathing, HUMAN BEINGS.

I’m not blaming Offenbach. Ok, maybe I am. But I’m definitely not blaming Opera Laurier who absolutely KILLED this performance. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to laugh at 130-year old themes that should be silly and far- fetched in a kind of “oh those crazy Victorians, look at the crazy stuff they used to think, not telling women what they need to know about their health and falling in love with DOLLS!” when in actual fact these things are still happening everywhere, every single day.

Happy International Women’s Day, indeed.

But! It’s not all terrible. I mean, so much of it is, but The Tales of Hoffmann is an excellent opera, in spite of its MRA themes. And if you’re one to enjoy opera, allow me to end with, while not the best piece from the score, certainly the most memorable. And by memorable, I mean ear worm. I give you Kleinzach! Enjoy. I mean, you deserve something for reading over 1000 words on my opera hot take. Love you all.


Writing, creatively.

In 2016 a couple of pretty great things happened to me. Well, if I am being perfectly honest, a couple of pretty great things happened because I made them happen. I understand that 2016 was a clusterfuck/dumpster fire of a year for a lot of people, and I am not trying to be”that guy” but I just want to say outright that I have had worse years. And sure, fuck me, right? Absolutely. But I just need to get that out of the way.

The main big, great thing was that I was able to leave my soul-crushing job of nine years to get on with my life. I had no job to go to, no real plan at all. Except that I was going to write. And I did write. Some of the writing was this blog, some was another blog that I write for a friend’s business, and some of it was just personal shiz that I wrote and that may never see the light of day. I also volunteered on a couple of committees that kept me fairly busy, and perfected my pizza dough. In short, it was a pretty great, pizza-filled few months.

By the end of the summer, I knew that if I truly, truly wanted to write, the thing I needed to do was to get myself enrolled in a course of some sort that would force me – FORCE ME – through assignment deadlines and the like, to actually spend a lot of time writing. Not just thinking about writing, but actually doing it. So I did. And then, one Saturday in early September, I found myself in a classroom at Sheridan College, eager to get started in Creative Writing 101. (That is not actually the course code, but you know what I mean.)

For twelve weeks I participated in class discussions, wrote and handed in assignments on character, point of view, setting, and more. Some assignments were easy and fun, others were a damned struggle. On some days I would think that I have written what is probably one of the best 350 word passages ever, and then the very next day I would considering burning my notebooks and jumping off a bridge. I have been told that this is actually what the writing life is like, so it would seem that I might actually fit in.

We would also read our assignments in class. Out loud. To each other. This was terrifying. At least at the beginning. It was a lovely group of people, all very supportive, and eventually I started looking forward to reading my work to them, hearing their feedback, and providing feedback of my own. We were a good group.

The final, culminating assignment had us taking the techniques we learned throughout the course, and putting them all together, to create a short story. We had two full weeks to do this, and then we read our stories to the class.

My story is below.

I’m not putting it here because I am supremely proud of it. I think it is ok. It’s an ok story. I worked hard on it, and I got a good grade, and it’s ok. I know that it is not 100% polished, not 100% perfect, and that too is ok.

I am putting it here because it’s my first story. First ever story. Hopefully, it’s not the last, hopefully it’s the first of many. And eventually, after many, many stories, I like to think that there will be one or two that I am supremely proud of, one or two that are 100% polished. The only way to find out is to continue to write them.

If you read it and you like it, please let me know. If you read it and you don’t like it? Well, I’d like to hear from you too.

Finally, please know that when I handed in this assignment, I had proper paragraph indents, but when I copied to WordPress all my formatting disappeared. Go figure.

Eaton’s Basement              

“You know you have to do it. It’s all she ever wanted.” Carol’s words come back to me as I stand in the centre of the downtown mall. Waves of people move around me. The lunch hour shoppers trying to get their errands done before heading back to their desks. High school kids hitting the food court instead of the cafeteria. People coming from the market with bulging shopping bags, quietly saying excuse me as they try to get around me, and then saying it again, not quite so quietly. I’m definitely in the way. People don’t stand still in shopping malls.

The coldest, rainiest April has given way to the hottest May in recent memory, wreaking havoc on heating and cooling systems everywhere, and it is stifling. I consider taking off my jacket, but then I would have to carry it, along with my purse and the large tote bag I have brought with me. I leave my jacket on, cursing the weather, cursing my jacket, cursing everything.

The food court on the lower level is busy, and the noise of chairs scraping across the tile floor carries up to the main level where I am standing. This, combined with the heat and the too-loud piped in music, is grating on my nerves. The container bounces in my tote bag, and the sharp corner edge bangs against my hip as I walk. There will be a bruise there later. Sweat runs down my back and the handles of the bag dig into my shoulder as I ride the escalator down to the basement level, eyes closed, trying to remember, to get a feel for the place. Memories come in flashes. I see it, and then I don’t. It’s there and then it’s gone, like a dream you can’t remember once you wake up. The more I try to force the images, the further they retreat from my mind. I hate this place.

I didn’t always hate it here. For decades, this place was not a mall, but a large department store, the grande dame of the Canadian retail world, The T. Eaton Company. Or, more colloquially, Eaton’s. I loved every bit of it. Eaton’s was six floors of magic that you were granted access to courtesy of the white-gloved ladies who opened and closed the elevator doors with a flourish, and announced the wonders that awaited you. Second floor, shoes. Third floor, ladies wear.

Or, if you preferred, you could ride the wide, quiet escalators from floor to floor. I loved the escalators because they let the excitement build as the next level came gradually into view. Each floor held something different, and as a child, it was the most incredible place I could imagine. If you had told me Disneyworld was better, I wouldn’t have believed you. I still don’t.

You could buy anything at Eaton’s, and you could do it surrounded by beauty and luxury, in the form of high ornate ceilings, marble stairs, and polished wood trim. The revolving doors at the James Street entrance made a soothing whooshing sound as you moved through them, ushering you into another world where perfectly made up saleswomen offered spritzes of perfume as they moved amid the glass-topped cosmetics counters. It was a world where jewelry and watches, leather gloves, and scarves were laid out in perfect rows, a mixture of elegance and practicality. Handbags and wallets, purses and hats. All this on the main floor alone.

It was heaven, and then it was gone. I had taken it for granted, assuming it would live forever, but almost overnight all this beauty became a pile of rubble and dust. The store was eventually replaced with another Eaton’s, half the size of the original, and attached to this generic mall decorated in the awful 1990s colour scheme of seafoam green and peach. No grandeur, no beauty. This place has not aged well, but it is this place in which I now find myself, tired, overheated, and searching for what would have been the basement of the original Eaton’s, in order to fulfill my mother’s only dying wish: for me to scatter her ashes there.  

Nine days ago I was sitting in Carol’s kitchen, the urn that contains my mother between us on the table, to the left of my large glass of red wine. Carol is my mother’s best friend. Was her best friend. It’s still so hard to think of her in the past tense. Tall, silver-haired and sharp-tongued, my mother was the polar opposite of Carol, a short, blonde, and sweet-tempered woman twelve years her junior. But their friendship worked, in spite of their differences, and the bond they had was one of the strongest I have ever witnessed.

I knew Carol was struggling through the grief of losing her best friend, grief that was different from mine, possibly even deeper. I thought of my best friend, tried to imagine my life without her, and I couldn’t. You think your friends will always be there. But they won’t. They can’t be. Everyone goes, eventually. Even my larger than life mother, who stood nearly five feet ten inches in bare feet, has been reduced to a small pile of ash. And now that small pile of ash is on Carol’s kitchen table, in an urn.

At the cremation place, while the man in charge talked about the costs of cremation and options for urns,  I walked through the room and ran my fingers over the ones on display. SAMPLE ONLY, the labels read. I casually lifted the lid of a brass one shaped like an angel, and peered inside. It was empty. The labels, thankfully, were correct.

Urns are big business and the cremation place promised a style for everyone and something to fit every budget, but none of them looked right for my mother. I told the cremation man we were going to scatter her ashes, eventually. I started to tell him about  my plan to take her to where Eaton’s basement used to be, and that this, one of her favourite places in the whole world, would be her final resting place, but he told me he didn’t need to know the details. It was probably just as well.

I don’t remember when my mother first suggested I scatter her ashes over the sales tables in Eaton’s basement. The bargain basement was her favourite part of the store, everyone knew that. Her friends, family, even the Eaton’s ladies who were always interested to see what fantastic deal she would end up with on her regular trips downtown. It started as a joke, something she would say at a party, laughing, after a couple of glasses of wine. A joke that showed not only the reverence she had for Eaton’s and for a good sale, but also illustrated her irreverence, and the way she flew in the face of expectations, and scoffed at traditions. But at some point, as she got older, it became something more than a joke, something important and more urgent. Then later, as she became sicker, the ‘scatter my ashes on the Eaton’s basement sales tables!’ battle cry became real, and it seemed I would be required to carry it out.  

“Well, for scattering ashes,” the cremation man told me, “you don’t need a decorative urn, you can just use the basic container that the crematorium provides.” This was a practical solution, and my mother would have approved. Basic black, recycled plastic, and also recyclable once we were done with it. Ashes to ashes, dust to blue box.

I finished the last of my wine, caught up in these thoughts. I looked over at Carol who was quiet, and then to my mother’s container, also quiet. So unlike either of them. I stood up and addressed the urn, arms outstretched, “Well, I guess I have to do this, don’t I? Think I can?” I smirked and raised an eyebrow. Carol started to laugh. My mother had an opinion on everything, especially when it came to my ability or lack thereof to get a job done. We stared hard at the container, waiting for guidance. It remained silent.

Carol walked me out to my car, we said our goodbyes, and I watched her head back into the house with an overwhelming feeling of loss. She was here now, but one day she too would be gone. Like everything else.

I dig my phone out of my bag and call her.

“There’s not a lot to go on,” I tell her. “I mean, I checked with the archives, looking for floor plans or layouts or anything, really, but there wasn’t much. I’m mostly going by memory, but it’s so confusing!” My voice but not my voice. Desperate, pathetic.

“I know it’s hard, but you can’t give up. You can figure it out, you just have to keep trying,” she told me. Her words were meant to be supportive, helpful. But at that moment they just made me angry.

Keep fighting. Don’t give up. You can do it. These words were said over and over to my mother, from other well-meaning friends, as she lay in her hospital bed, the cancer eating at her brain. It was maddening. There was no fight, no positive thinking that could stop the tide of malignant cells.  These friends would tell me the same thing, that she needs to keep fighting, there has to be something that can still be done, let her know we’re pulling for her. Hollow platitudes, as unwelcome as the hugs that I accepted with fists and teeth clenched. Stay strong, they would say, stroking my cheek. Like there was another choice.

When she was still conscious, and the doctors said it was only a matter of time, I told her, “We’re going to lose you.”

“I know,” she said with a shrug, “but when your number’s up, your number’s up.” “But it isn’t fair!” I was sobbing.

“Life isn’t fair, and sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want.” Practical to the very end, she had accepted what so many refused to. Shit happens.

I ride the escalator back down and try again.

The food court is quieter now, most of the shoppers have gone back to work or school, and I slowly walk the length of the lower level trying my best to remember.

Step off the escalator and the bins of records and tapes are right here, sporting goods over there. I move to the right, the restaurant comes into view, and its orange vinyl booths are vivid in my mind. I keep walking. The thin wisp of memory is close, but I am afraid to let it take over, afraid that if I let it in, I am going to lose it. Then the fog lifts and I see them. Two large, square tables, shallow bins on legs, heaped with clearance items: socks, toys, cutlery, china. Books, candy, stationery. My mother in her camel coat and pink mohair hat, peering in, shifting items to get to something interesting, picking it up, putting it down again. Picking up something else, showing it to me, smiling. And me, too warm, always too warm, dragging my coat behind me, trying to be patient until it’s time for lunch, grilled cheese and chocolate milk in the restaurant, and then maybe a visit to the toy department on the fifth floor.

The image fades, and I am standing facing an electrical panel and a large potted palm near what had been a dollar store, vacant now, a For Lease sign in its window. This area of the mall is deserted. I reach out and touch the leaves of the palm, and my fingers come away dusty. Fake. I pull out my phone to call Carol, to tell her I am successful, but I don’t dial her number.

The bus is nearly empty for my ride home so I open as many windows as I can, and place the urn on the seat beside me. The air is warm, but the breeze picks up my hair, cooling my neck. I let my arm rest on the urn, and close my eyes.