Putting my best foot forward

I wrote this story with my momma in the Fall of 2016. All names have been changed to protect the innocent (and barmy).

After a panel interview with seven senior administrators – at an unnamed Maritime University – I said to the headhunter, “So are you hiring me for this position? Or are you hiring me for the job of campus president?”

I nearly fell off of my chair when, instead of answering my question, he told me that the next step was providing him with nine references.

Nine references!

Three from people who were in superior positions, three from my peers, and three from individuals who were my junior in the professional world.

I said to him – “This is paranoia gone crazy.”

At this point, I didn’t even know if I even wanted the job anymore, so I told him, “I don’t know if I want this job anymore.”

You would think that was the end of the line, but you’d be wrong.

After providing nine positive references and a blood sample, (I’m kidding but I wouldn’t have been surprised), I was told that the person to whom I would be reporting needed to speak to my current boss. Flabbergasted, I asked the headhunter how he thought that would look to my employer.

“There is no way this is going to over well,” I said. “Where is the win-win for me?”

It’s also at this point that I should point out that everything about this process had done a complete number on my self-esteem. I had begun to think that the university had discovered some hidden malfunction within my character, and each step down the rabbit hole was one new way of checking to make sure that I was indeed a legitimate candidate.

The whole experience was so stressful that after I received an offer of employment (and accepted it), I literally had to flee the country.

In an effort to relax, and mend my frazzled nerves, I booked a holiday cruise around the Caribbean.

Unfortunately, my imminent, sun-drenched relaxation was immediately railroaded by an emotional breakdown at Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport – the catalyst being watching every flight take off for Florida, except for mine.

My healing process had been usurped by a crash course in full-blown disfunction – courtesy of Air Canada.

As I stressed about missing my trip, some hapless flight agent told me, “Oh don’t you worry. Cruises never leave on time.”

I asked her, “Wanna bet?”

This did not make my flight leave any earlier.

Because of my tears, Air Canada did bump me up to business class – probably out of fear that I would completely fall apart in coach and traumatize everyone within my immediate flying radius. Never mind that the reason for my distress was Air Canada’s awful and unreliable service in the first place.

I spent my entire flight worrying about my cruise.

Unfortunately, upon my arrival in Florida, insult was immediately added to my misery. Even though the airline literally ran me off of the plane, I couldn’t get to my luggage because the baggage carousel had broken down. The cruise van was hustling everyone to get be on board, but I steadfastly refused to get on the vehicle. Instead, I stayed behind, defiant to get my clothes. There was no way in heck I was going to wait two days for my stuff.

After half an hour, I got my bag. Upon exiting the terminal, I could see that the ship hadn’t yet left the harbor.

I threw twenty five dollars to the nearest cabbie and ordered, “GET ME TO THAT SHIP.”

The guy was pretty happy as it was only about a two minute ride to the dock.

When I got to the boat, there were six cruise personnel waiting for me. Each one of them practically carried me up the gangway and threw me onto the boat. As I brushed myself off, I heard the captain announce our departure, apologizing for the delay that was due to a “rogue passenger.”

Four thousand people delayed because of little old me!

Once I put my luggage in my room, I went to one of the ship’s bars and ordered the biggest drink the bartender would give me. This ended up being gin and tonic the size of a milkshake, filled right to the brim.

I met some people and they told me, “Oh! You were the one that was holding us up! We kept getting announcements.”

My claim to fame.

The thing about that trip was, I had never before been on a cruise and I was concerned about getting seasick. A friend had told me about the gravol patch that you wear on your arm, so I went out and bought a pack.

Turns out, that stuff really threw me for a loop and I was stoned for the entire trip.

I would go to the gym and couldn’t move my legs. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was going on!

It wasn’t until I returned and started my new job at said aforementioned unnamed Maritime university that I finally figured it out.

After recording my out of office answering machine message, a colleague told me, as diplomatically as possible, that “it sounded a little strange.”

I listened to it and was horrified to hear that beyond strange, I sounded completely out of it on the other end of the line!

There I was – the candidate that survived three interviews, nine references, one reference from my immediate boss – unable to string together a coherent sentence.

And I am sure they were wondering, “Who have we hired? And how didn’t we find this out sooner?

Running through it: The story of my eating disorder

In act II, scene i of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the character Quintus Ligarius turns to Brutus and says, “Now bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible.”

I love this quote.

I love this quote because it is an excellent description of my life.

I have been running since the moment I started to walk. Growing up, I would careen about our neighbourhood, setting up races between myself and other kids, flying until I was winded, and only resting until I was ready for more.

It was like a tiny little flame had been lit inside of me, and the more I ran, the brighter it shone.

The summer after grade five was when things really began to kick off. I was pretty obsessed with Donovan Bailey and his amazing gold medal run at the 1996 Olympic Games. I would race around my house whispering, “9.84, 9.84.”

I begged my parents to let me join a local track team. They did. And I continued to fly.

Two years later, half way through grade seven, I grew eight inches and something happened. I didn’t recognize, didn’t understand my new body. At a sleepover one night with my friends, we all weighed ourselves, and I was horrified to see how much heavier I was then them all. I didn’t matter that I was almost a foot taller, I hated it.

I hated being heavy, because to me, heavy meant bad. Ugly. Wrong.

That week, I threw out my lunch for the first time. I started going to bed with ropes and scarves tied tightly around my waist, thinking it would stop me from gaining weight while I slept.

And then two years after that, at a family dinner, I forced two fingers down my throat and made myself throw up. I felt like my eyeballs and my heart were going to explode.

I did it again.

I threw up again, and again, and again.

And I didn’t know how to reconcile my running – my running that made me feel strong and unstoppable – with my now constant need to control and dominate my body.

I didn’t know how to stop. Didn’t know if I wanted to stop.

So instead, I hid. From my friends, my family, teammates, coaches, and eventually boyfriends and employers. And I took my running and did everything I could to marry it to my eating disorder

Tame it, mold it. Innovate it to something that could help me exert that control.

When I was in high school, I used to eat and then run, stopping midway to force myself to throw up.

In university, I would binge and purge first. Then I would wash my face. Blow my nose, dry my tears, and smooth concealer over all of the blood vessels that I had broken under my eyes and along the tops of my cheeks.

Running after purging is scary.

Everything in my body would scream out that what I was doing was wrong. My legs rubber, my head a haze; my digestive tract a battlefield.

The spastic lurch of my heart, as if it might actually punch its way out of my chest; as if it might stop, at any moment.

Break.

The long hours it would take for it to finally return to a normal, constant beat.

And I did all of this for fourteen years.

But try as I might, I could never fully extinguish that childhood flame. Every so often I could feel it flicker, warming me, from a deep part inside of me. It was a light in the darkness that helped me believe it wouldn’t always be like this.

And it helped me start talking.

To my partner. My family. A counsellor that I trusted, after meeting many that I did not.

The thing that you need to know about eating disorders, is just how insidious they are. Even when I wasn’t restricting food, or throwing up, I was thinking all of the time: how much have I ate? Have I gained weight? Do people think that I’ve gained weight? How well can I feel my hipbones? Are my clavicle more prominent than they were yesterday?

And I would run, and run, and run – through parks, up mountains, across cities on little to no food, and then I would see how long I could last post-run before I needed to eat.

I signed up for 10kms, half marathons, and marathons and would train without water or food.

Two years ago I met a friend running a MEC trail race. We began training with each other on the weekends and he began encouraging me to look at ultramarathons. I had done everything else, so why not try a new challenge?

The Tenderfoot Boogie was a fifty-five kilometer race from Squamish to Whistler, along highways, through fields and up mountains. A feat that would likely require 6 hours of running and 6 months months of training.

Training that included learning how to properly fuel my body – pre, post and inter-race.

“You’re going to have to eat while you run,” my friend told me.

And here’s the part of the story that I want to tell you that this happened. That training for this race made everything simple and easy for me. But it didn’t. I trained exactly the same as I ever had. I may have drank and ate marginally more, but never enough to properly fuel my body for training runs that would regularly take me from my house in New Westminster, right to the tip of UBC.

Truthfully, I ran that race on sheer grit. Across fields, down valleys, through fields and up mountains – literally, kilometers forty to forty-eight were straight uphill – on nothing but jellybeans and a some peanut butter.

At kilometer forty-nine I wept into my husband’s arms, horrified that I still had six more kilometers to go. As he gently encouraged me, whispering how well I was doing and how far I had come, I stumbled over to the food table. I picked up a chunk of fried potato, dunked it into a vat of salt, and shoved it into my mouth.

It was the greatest thing I have ever tasted.

And I ate another. And another. And about twelve others, washing them all down with a can of coke.

Eating that food brought me to life. I ran those last six kilometers in thirty-six minutes. It was the first time that I properly understood what it felt like to give your body what it needs, in order for it to do something you want to do. And every time I think about going out for a run without eating, I think of that moment. I remember.

And I’ve realized that I had it wrong all along. I couldn’t innovate my running into being an agent of my eating disorder, because it was the antidote, all along. And I’m proud to say that I haven’t thrown up since that race.

I choose recovery every day.

I know will always struggle with my impossible. But I will always run so that I can strive with it too.

We do this thing. We open our hearts to the world around us.

I am crying tonight because Stuart McLean died today. He was 68 years old.

I don’t remember the first time I listened to the Vinyl Café. If I had to wager a guess, I would put myself somewhere between the ages of nine or ten. Growing up, the CBC was one of the few constants in my ever-chaotic world, and my mother and I would listen to its programming non-stop.

Careening from highland dancing competitions, to piano recitals, to badminton tournaments, we listened.

One of my most favourite memories is of driving back from Antigonish, Nova Scotia, together with my mum. I want to say that it’s Christmas, because we are listening to a Christmas story. But I remember the weather outside to be classic Maritime June: warm and wet.

It was a rain for the ages. Blanketing the world in a ceaseless, soft grey. A grey that stretched for as far as the eye could see. Fat drops breaking against the windshield, the radio turned loud to drown out the sweep-sweep-sweep of the hard-working wipers.

It may have just been a re-run.

But I can’t be sure.

The story that we were listening to followed the same trajectory of so many Dave and Morley tales: an innocuous start, a holiday to be celebrated. Plans that quickly turn into the absurd.

Dave never knowing when to say, enough. Mary Turlington, his long-suffering neighbour, frigid and uptight, ever suckered into giving him a second chance.

Upon being invited to Christmas dinner at the Turlington’s, Dave is so nervous that he eats Mary’s potpourri, thinking that it’s homemade chex mix.

It was at the point that he realized that he was, in fact, eating potpourri, that my mum and I laughed so hard that we had to pull over.

Sitting on the side of the highway, tears streaming from our eyes, my body, palsied. My mother screaming, “Oh noooooooooooooo!”

Her facial expression, equal parts horror and amusement, set me off all over again.

And we sat there, until the conclusion of the story.

I never, ever wanted that moment to end.

This past Christmas, as I lay recuperating from the flu of the century, reeling from cancellation of both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Marc wrapped our bodies in our biggest blanket, and we listened to Stuart’s Christmas stories for hours.

Dave cooks a turkey.

Morley and Dave’s first Christmas.

The year they tried to make it to Sidney, but got trapped in the snowstorm.

The winter pageant.

We listened, and we laughed, and we cried, and we laughed.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

We listened to tales of a family. A family that was both defined by,and shined together under simple truths: laughter, loss, and love.

Always love.

One summer, I was cleaning out our spare room. Deciding what tennis rackets to keep, re-reading my first year essays on Milton and Donne, wondering if I’d ever again wear my wedding shoes, I listened to Stuart.

He was reading from the Vinyl Café story exchange. Listeners would write in, and he and his editor would pick different stories to share at their live tapings.

The story that afternoon was about a young man who had joined a teenage musical theatre troupe in his small town home on Cape Breton Island. The group had worked on a production over the course of the summer. Staging would take place right before they went back to school.

The writer recounted how he immediately took a disliking to one of his fellow cast mates. His rival was everything he was not: good looking and cool, at ease with the women in the troupe, and excellent on stage.

But try as he might, he couldn’t stay angry. He soon realized that, as well as a wonderful actor, his rival made a wonderful friend, and they became very close over the next two months.

On the opening night of the performance, the entire cast found out that the writer’s friend had been killed in a car accident, along with his girlfriend. The performance was cancelled, and the whole town mourned.

I was so caught off guard by the tragic ending that I just melted to the floor.

I wailed.

And then Stuart’s musical guests – Madison Violet – began to play their song “Small of My Heart”, and I felt as though I might never be happy ever again.

Today, it’s one of my most favourite songs.

In grade twelve, I bought my favourite English teacher a copy of Vinyl Café Stories in an attempt to tell her how much she had meant to me – she as an incredibly caring educator to myself, a weird and anxious student, who was really trying to just figure it all out.

One night in our old house, I was cooking Marc and I a tofu stirfry, and we listened to the story where Dave and Morley accidentally destroy a cabin in the Laurentian mountains.

I laughed so hard that I burnt the rice. And then, like always, at the conclusion of the story, I burst into tears.

Because that is the magic of Stuart McLean.

His stories are truth and love and light and death and everything that exists in our hearts and our souls. They are small towns and big cities; they are the chords that we all hear, and they are the cords that bind us together.

That help us realize that heck, we’re not all that different.

And in today’s age, where division and fear and hate are king, Stuart’s passing is a huge loss.

So it must be up to us to carry on his legacy.

To tell our stories. To relish and revel in them.

Because stories are how we know how to live.

How to love.

They teach us every day, how to be.

2016: A year in review

So much already has been written about 2016. By almost every account, the year has been a raging dumpster fire – a hate-filled inferno consuming everything and everyone in its path.

And yes, a lot of really, really bad things happened this year.

But a lot of really good things happened too. And because life isn’t one giant binary, a lot of good and bad things happened all at once – sometimes at the exact same time.

My year has definitely been one of nuance. Sometimes black, sometimes white, but always very colourful.

Far and away, however, 2016 will be known as The Year That I Ran.

By my rough calculations, I ran around 3,000 kilometers in 2016. Much of this can be attributed to my marathon training and the fact that I ran every single day while living in Halifax. In fact, it has only been since falling ill over the past two weeks that I’ve actually slowed, and for the first time all year, ceased my endless striding.

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Besides my marathon (my 3:35 marathon!), I ran three trail races put on by MEC, and medaled in each. My first, a 15 KM trail race where I came third; my second, a 10 KM trail that wove its way along the old Musquodoboit railway where I came first; and my third, a 10 KM around Shubie Park in Dartmouth, saw me place second.

I take strange comfort in the asymmetry of it all and think of the many kilometers I will clock in 2017. Maybe I will finally clear a sub-40 minute 10 KM. And as Marc keeps patiently reminding me, maybe I will also join a running group.

For three months I lived in Halifax – a dream world where summer never ended and I wore sundresses and jean jackets every day. Where I rode my bike to the public library and read historical fiction and ate warm kale salad and peanut M&Ms by the handful.

I bought a pair of boots and I jumped on a plane and flew to Toronto where I stayed in a haunted hotel just so that I could see Christine and the Queens in concert. I sold raffle tickets at a Moosehead hockey game in benefit of the Canadian Breast Cancer society and watched Steve Patterson read from his memoire The Book of Letters I Didn’t Send.

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I slept poorly, save for the nights when I took lorazepam and my mind was forcefully quieted. I learned to hate the sounds of early morning bathwater.

In June, my mum and I travelled around the Baltic Sea, visiting Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Latvia, Estonia, Russia and Finland. Together, we bore witness to exquisite and individual beauty, etched in cobblestones and brick towers, public gardens and street cafes, war memorials, and palaces, and parliaments. Everywhere, a narrative of passion and purpose, and above all, perseverance. We marvelled, atop our rickety bicycles, at each living history, and we reached out so that we might touch and see, stopping at every street corner, so that that we might also breathe.

I also slept restlessly for most of the trip, and would nightly slip out into the quiet of our cabin’s deck, staring endlessly into the dim light of the longest dusk. And there too, I would breathe.

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This year I read too many books and watched too many TV shows. I quit my job and began a new one. I told a lot of jokes at the expense of rape culture and performed the most important stand-up set of my life in front of a sold-out crowd at the Rickshaw Theatre.

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I also told a lot of stories about periods and told one story about my mum at the North American premier of Listen to Your Mother Vancouver. On The Storytelling Show, I interviewed a lot of really cool women who are doing really cool things and who make me want to do cool things too.

Marc and I celebrated eight years of marriage on June 28th. Thirteen years together in August.

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I have no idea what next year will bring.

My heart wishes for adventure and love and laughter, with many good times with friends and family. Great runs, and a lot of time spent in the outdoors. Nights cuddled with Marc under heaps of blankets, eating olives and cheese, listening to Stuart McLean stories and reading aloud from our favourite books.

Warm summer days riding my bicycle. Bathing at the beach. Pulling weeds from our backyard and growing a small vegetable patch to call our own.

Maybe I will even write a short story or two.

I will try to breathe more. Sleep better.

And reach for the exquisite beauty in everything.

I’d say please (please). I’m your man.

When we were young, my parents would take us on long winter road trips to Red Mountain and Silver Star. We didn’t do much as a family, but we skied.

The five of us would cram into our Toyota Turcel, packed to the hilt with equipment, clothes, blankets, pillows, and enough mandarin oranges to stave off scurvy for one hundred years. These trips also marked the yearly détente in my parents’ hard-lined approach to all things junk food, and over the course of the drive, my sisters and I would patiently await our gifts: a big bag of plain Ms. Vicky’s potato chips, Turtles chocolates, and homemade gingerbread cookies.

If heaven could be defined.

Other than the lingering smell of sea salt and a constantly queasy tummy (as the middle child I was forced to endure the middle seat), the thing I remember most about these trips is the music.

The wonderful music.

My family I would listen to tapes and tapes and tapes of Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and The Beatles. The Rankin Family and Stan Rogers. Boney M and Enya. Our tastes were eclectic as they were magic.

Because with so little to define us, they did just that.

I campaigned constantly for The Commitments Soundtrack, but my musical candidate was a consummate loser to Leonard Cohen. And every time I lost, I would beg the powers that were to “please.”

Please stop playing Leonard Cohen.

Unfortunately, they didn’t, and I suffered in silence.

I hated how his songs were too much. Couldn’t stand the way they made me feel. Drained of all emotion, and yet somehow still full to bursting. Slightly sweaty. Squirmy and shirty. Filled with a restlessness. An energy that was only exacerbated by the car’s hot and cramped quarters.

It was music that made me want to run away.

The only song that I could stand was “I’m Your Man.” I liked the synthy keyboards and the other moody instruments that, try as I might, I could never place. How it was more spoken word than song. The slow raspy voice. I liked how it had an immediate and sobering effect on my fellow passengers, forcing us all to pause.

To stop our frenzied fights. Breath life into our suffocating silences.

It made me feel warm. Cozy. I imagined dancing, slowly, as a grown-up.

But after grade seven we stopped going on ski trips.

After grade ten my parents divorced.

And I don’t know when I stopped listening to Leonard Cohen. I didn’t even think about him until after I started dating Marc.

We were up at his own parents’ cabin on the Sunshine Coast and we were looking through their record collection. We were trying to decide what to play next. We were slightly drunk and eating peanut butter sandwiches.

“We need something that we can dance too,” I said.

He pulled out Songs of Love and Hate.

“Not Leonard Cohen,” I heard myself say. I didn’t even stop looking through the other albums. “I hate him.”

Marc looked at me dumbfounded. “No one hates Leonard Cohen.”

“I do,” I said. “We used to listen to him all of the time on road trips. He’s depressing.”

Marc looked me in my eyes. Long and hard. And then he put the album away. “Okay,” he said. “We can play something else.”

And we did.

For years and years, we always played something else.

The Faces. Cat Stevens. Bob Dylan.

In the spring of 2010, I defended my thesis and bid adieu to graduate school. Marc and I celebrated on the Coast. Driving along the highway, I closed my eyes to the late afternoon sunfall. It felt like, for the first time in my entire life, I was no longer worried about school.

The next morning, I crawled out of bed and, alone, slid into the quiet of the house.

I tiptoed to the record player. Paused. Took out Songs of Love and Hate.

I held the cover lightly in my hands. Stared at the cover. Turned it over. Took out the record and placed it over the spindle. Set the needle.

And listened.