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.

Think back to when

Tonight, I am electric to the touch. A wriggling, giggling eel. A lamplighter in the dark.

A wicked wick.

Today, I wrote. My lower back, a crooked crick. My bum, an indent. Bad posture, and too much tea.

Today, I ran with legs a fire.

Tonight, I walked. My cheeks, poppy flesh.

My lips, stung from a kiss.

That no matter how hard I try, I cannot forget.

Sometimes when I walk, I dance, and sometimes when I dance, I dance to this:

When I was eighteen, I walked to a photography studio on Quinpool Avenue to have my headshots taken.

When I was eighteen, I quit my job at Safeway and got a job as a server.

When I was eighteen, I read Crime and Punishment and learned to spell patronymic.

When I was eighteen, I dyed my hair red from box.

When I was eighteen, I didn’t like beer.

When I was eighteen, I wrote a part of a story to my boyfriend Marc:

Now, abandoned by his companion and in a nightclub which owed a lot to the whole early 90’s Goth/Vamp movement, Kevin wandered silently. His mind wrote great fantasies of blood, violence, and justice and he strode, unheeding, between the stares and the gropes of the dissolute dancers. He flexed the powerful muscles of his back, his unfolding wings eclipsing the strobes and casting great shadows over the denizens of this room.

His body shuddered as he inhaled the acrid sweat of the hallucinogenic, hormoned populous, hopped up on substances comprised of equal parts narcotics, equal parts expectation. Kevin’s mind began to elongate and expand – he felt a growth from within; his vanity extinguished, his interest peaked. Could these chosen adolescents, fueled by social malaise and suburban boredom be the reason he was brought back to life? What did he have to offer, to enhance their drab days of big bucks and fast cars? 

Although quite weak, Kevin noted in some form or other, a disgust and distrust of the environment he freely strode through. Banking on his good looks, flashy clothes and nine foot angel wings to distance himself on any would-be bloodsucker, he monitored the group.  

But he did not dance.

Eyes firmly on the prize

Here’s a weird thing that I did once.

Last November I got eyelash extensions.

The impetus behind this decision?

“The Holiday Season.”

And just to try something different.

The process of getting them done was more bizarre than anything else. Beyond being uncomfortable, it was also weirdly vulnerable. Lying on a bed in some woman’s 400 square foot bachelor apartment, as she slowly separated each of my eyelashes and glued monstrously fake lashes to their roots, I was acutely aware of how little room for error there could be in this procedure, what with her disproportionately sized tweezers so close to my eyeballs.

I was sure that one rogue sneeze would see them forever lodged into the base of my optic nerve.

Halfway through I remember thinking, “THIS ISN’T WORTH IT.” This reaction is, of course, my modus operandi when it comes to all aesthetic services. At some point I always find myself wishing I hadn’t committed to whatever hair I am having removed, or roots I am having having dyed, and had instead bought a big muffin and went for a walk in the sun.

But getting back to eyelashes – as I studied myself in a small hand mirror (passed to me after the glue had hardened on the last lash) I marveled at how many of my natural lashes it seemed I had lost in the process. Eyelash extentionists (and their proponents) claim that eyelash loss during the procedure is a myth, because all they are doing is attaching a longer lash to the ones you already have. However, I am suspiciously sure that I had way more eyelashes walking into that apartment, than I did walking out.

Of course, this didn’t matter in the slightest, because what I did have in their absence were synthetic masterpieces so utterly grand that they not only took over half of my face but gave me powers of flight every time I made the mistake of blinking too hard.

Once I got used to the heaviness of the lashes during my normal day to day, and the utter wretchedness of not being able to scrub my face in the shower, I really did start to enjoy them. Of particular note were the reactions they solicited from both friends and the general populace. People seemed to think they were pretty neat.

Because the lashes were so big, I wore my glasses almost exclusively, under the belief that my large black rims would tone down some of their impact. Whether this was the case, I have no conclusive evidence either way.

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In the end, the biggest problem with my lashes was how long it took my normal set to grow back once they all fell out. The extentionist had guaranteed that as I shed my prosthetics, my regular lashes would grow in at their normal rate, and the transition back from fake to real would be seamless and unnoticeable.

This was a big old lie. For weeks I was terrified that my vanity-driven decision to try out absurdly giant eyelashes had resulted in permanent, spiky, stumps, where once my lovely, natural lashes had flourished.

I even bought some stupid tube over the internet that advertised itself as an “all-natural, pharmacist approved growth serum“. A small part of me believed that I was fighting fire with fire, sure that I was going to end up both blind and eyelash-less; but I was desperate, and succumbed to the temptation.

I used that tube until the serum ran dry.

And in the end, my eyelashes did grow back – longer and thicker than before. Now, whether this is due to the serum, the fact that I had lost them all, or just luck of the draw – I don’t know.

What I do know was that I enjoyed my one exercise in tempting ocular fate. I won’t be getting extensions again, and have almost completely stopped wearing eye makeup. I figured best to lay low on the windows to my soul, and just let the sun shine through the way it was intended.

Plus now I can just fully commit to my lips.

Because there is no way that I would ever do anything to make them bigger.

And I like lipstick more anyway.