It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

The year I turned sixteen was, for lack of a more poetic descriptor, a bit of a garbage heap.

My parents split up.

My Nana died.

I spent the entirety of my grade ten year trying to eat as little as I could, and exercise as much as possible.

The acne on my forehead, chest, and back mutated from a small community garden patch, to a GMO-modified super crop. Equal parts horrified and embarrassed, I spent as much time spackling concealer onto my shoulders as I did my face. (Thankfully, for my birthday I was gifted a prescription for Accutane, and therefore also a new lease on my teenage dermatological life.)

I had braces and was in total denial about my (very real) need for glasses. I can never be sure I didn’t cause permanent damage to my eyes, what with the amount of squinting I performed every day at school.

I had extensive surgery which saw the breaking of both of my jaws and the reconstruction of my mouth. The end result was a complete restructuring of my facial composition and profile – although this never became apparent until approximately three months post-breakage, what with the amount of swelling that I had to live down.

During this time, I ate so much instant oatmeal I couldn’t even look at Quaker package for almost six years.

That summer, I enrolled myself in Camp Potlatch’s “Leadership in Training” course, the completion of which would certify me to work as a camp counsellor.

Unfortunately, my Nana died two days before I was to start the camp and I missed the first three days as I had to fly down in Nova Scotia for her funeral and wake.

I remember feeling so utterly discombobulated flying back home by myself. I was jet-lagged and flu-ridden from the back-to-back, cross-country plane rides and the ensuing whirlwind of familial gatherings, churches and burials.

I was also livid that my parents still expected me to attend the camp. I hadn’t even had the chance to properly grieve, and here I was flying right back home, packing up my bags and pretending like nothing had happened.

I’ll never forget the car ride to the camp’s boat launch just outside of Squamish – my entire body seething with teenage rage, hurt, and indignation.

Any time my dad said anything I just ignored him while screaming, “SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP” inside my head.

Unfortunately, once I arrive at the camp things didn’t get much better.

My first three hours were spent in the frigid waters of Howe Sound, learning how to right a capsized canoe.

I also somehow lost my retainers (negating much of my happiness from having just gotten my braces off in the first place!) and then almost fainted, as I was too embarrassed to tell anyone that I was very hungry and hadn’t consumed anything since leaving Halifax the day before.

I was also subjected to the advances of the world’s worst flirter – a seventeen year-old boy named Christian, who was my partner in our canoe-training exercise.

Christian was about six foot four, weighed approximately one hundred and fifty pounds, and had a shock of white-blond hair that stood a good six inches straight up from his head.

He liked to sing to me, in particular the lyrics from Dennis Leary’s seminal work “I’m An Asshole.”

As you can imagine, I was immediately smitten.

Walking up from the waterfront, soaked from head to foot, lugging the front end of our very wet, and very heavy canoe, I felt the first prickle of a tear in my eye.

Trying my best to air on the side of positivity, I whispered to myself that “there was no way this could get any worse.”

And then it started to rain.

I immediately began to plot my escape: I would tell the director that my mourning was too great! I would “accidentally” break a limb!

No doubt reacting to my increasingly pallid complexion and demoralized demeanor, my counsellor Julie came up to me, put her arms around my shoulders and gave them a squeeze.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go get warmed up.”

As we walked up to the showers, she and Amanda (another counsellor in-training) let me know how happy they were to have another girl in their ranks.

“I really didn’t want it to be just me and five guys,” smiled Amanda.

Looking quickly back at Christian and his rag-tag group of compatriots, I silently agreed. I too wouldn’t have wanted Amanda to weather the incoming storm on her own.

As we walked into the washroom, and I saw both Julie and Amanda begin to undress, I felt a wave of panic rise inside of me.

I didn’t want to get naked in front of these two strangers.

I didn’t want anyone to see my body.

For a second I was completely paralyzed, unable to even breathe.

But then I saw how completely unmoved both of them were by the scenario; how completely at ease they were in their skin.

And in that moment I wanted this more than anything I had ever wanted anything before – more than I wanted my parents to get back together, more than I wanted my Nana to be alive, more than I wanted clear skin, and skinny legs.

I just wanted to be warm, and bare, and happy.

So I took off my clothes and under the stream of the second shower from the left, I felt some of that happiness and strength.

And in that moment I forgot about my retainers. About my parents. About death, and acne, and my body.

I just felt the water warm me – all of me.

The following three weeks were impacting, and transforming, and utterly brilliant. That time spent in the bush canoeing, hiking, kayaking, building fires, cooking camp food, swimming, fending off Christian’s advances, and sleeping under the stars was exactly what I needed to get over the trauma and drama of being sixteen years-old.

At least for a little while.

(Along, of course, with Accutane.)

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A certain place and time

It’s so crazy to sit down and think about all of the “I was there when…” moments of your life.

In the twenty-nine years that I’ve inhabited this planet, I’ve lived through a couple of these.

For instance, I (obviously) will never forget where I was on 9/11. I woke up to my regular morning DJs talking about the fact that a “small, commuter jet” had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.

I had just entered the kitchen when the second plane hit the second building.

I won’t ever forget the morning of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, the Thai tsunami of 2004, or the Boston bombing attacks of 2013.

I remember Donovan Bailey winning the 100 meter track finals of 1996 like it was yesterday.

I can close my eyes and re-live the relief, shock, and unbearable happiness that surged throughout my tension-wracked body when Sidney Crosby scored the Olympic game-winning goal in 2010.

I (oh so strangely) remember when Kim Campbell beat Jean Charest for the Progressive Conservative Leadership in 1993. I was eight years old, and had stayed up the entire night watching the conclusion of the convention (because obviously I didn’t have parents and Canadian CSPAN was the next best thing.)

I will always recall the intense flood of incredulity and glee when I found out I had been accepted into the UBC creative writing program, or when I was shortlisted for a Rhodes scholarship.

I treasure the heart-bursting joy from every job proposition I’ve ever accepted over the phone.

I remember my first kisses like they were yesterday.

For some very strange reason I remember exactly where I was when I found out that Heath Ledger had passed away. I was in the basement of the UBC student union building, checking my email on one of their truly awful PCs.

These contraptions were held together by nothing more than food crumbs, pizza grease, coffee stains, and sheer will power.

I was using a Yahoo email address back then, and when I signed out I was re-directed back to the site’s landing page. There was his face, a snap of his pre-Batman life, framed by the years of his birth and death.

I recall feeling awkward by just how saddened I was to read this news.

I vividly remember the morning that the United States invaded Iraq. It was the spring of grade twelve and I struggled to make sense of the massive print, splayed across the cover of the Globe and Mail. I can recall thinking to myself that this decision seemed so completely arbitrary and out of the blue. Where in the heck had Iraq – IRAQ? – come from? Weren’t we just talking about Afghanistan?

There are of course moments I wish I didn’t remember: emails sent; words said; secrets betrayed.

These are few, but they cut. Sometimes I’ll be out for a run, and the memory of these moments will hit with such strength that I feel as though all of the breath has been knocked from my body.

Oddly enough, one of my most vivid “world changing” moments is the night that Princess Diana died.

The detail in which I remember this evening is staggering.

August 31. 1997. Sunday night.

Patricia Beckerman was sleeping over. Jessi’s friend Emily was also staying the night.

We’d spent the entire afternoon swimming in our neighbour’s pool. Lois didn’t ever use her backyard, so she loved having us and our friends over for the day. My hands felt like two giant prunes, and I couldn’t stop brushing my fingers tips across my cheeks and nose.

Everything smelled of sunshine and sunscreen.

We’d eaten pizza for super, and my mum even allowed us to drink pop with our ice cream.

We were just about to put on a movie (Anastasia!), but we had to change the TV to channel three in order to press play.

Channel three was CBC, and the news was on.

This was strange as it was not yet ten o’clock. The woman at the news desk was looking so grim. Peter Mansbridge then entered the shot, and he looked like he’d just burst into the studio and clamoured into the nearest suit.

But really, he seemed sad more than anything else.

And then we heard the words.

“Princess Diana has died tonight in Paris.”

And for some reason this news absolutely destroyed me. I didn’t think twice about Diana prior to her passing, but holy crap did the ensuing weeks (and omnipresent media coverage – how apt!) ever throw my pre-pubescent self for a loop.

I bought every Newsweek magazine, cried fat salty tears, and stayed up the entire night through watching her funeral procession.

I was sure I would marry William and help mend his broken, broken heart (while mending mine too in the process.)

To this day it still baffles me why I had the reaction that I did.

But there are some things you just can’t explain.

There are some things you just have to say, “I was there when.”