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 exercising as much as possible.

The acne on my forehead, chest, and back mutated from a small community garden patch, into 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 post-recovery.

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 to 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, realy 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.)

Say something I’ve giving up on you

Okay.

Some things.

First.

I made this:

jedi meme

In light of the Seahawks’ absolute dismantling of poor Peyton Manning (and what I can only surmise to be the entire collective Coloradean consciousness), I figured post-game we all needed to bring a bit of levity to the situation.

Because, and I think we can also all agree here, that a slightly more entertaining game, and not just a blow-out of every tire on the Denver semi-truck heading to Nowheresville, would have made for a much more enjoyable three hours of football.

(And to all the glorious, gloating – totally deserved, and encouraged gloating – Seattle-ites –  yes, I too am including you in that sentiment.)

Just saying.

But seriously though, what is wrong with this man?

Why does he look like this?

(Also, WHO IS HE?)

And why doesn’t he know that, in the end, the light side always, ALWAYS wins?

Second.

This quote:

“A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.” —Charles Peguy

I have been thinking about this a lot of late..

I came across this text in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death this past week.  Someone commented that, although he was not a writer, he was often reminded of Mr. Peguy’s word when confronted with Hoffman’s seamless, and yet soul-wracking transition from one character to the next.

And of this, I agree.

I cannot say that I have ever been disappointed by any of his myriad performances. Whether disgusting, or delightful, there was always an innate (and oh-so important) humanity to his characters; one that was never forgotten, nor manipulated, or abused.

But truly, for me, Hoffman will always and forever be The Big Lebowski’s Brandt, the most amazingly sycophantic suck-up to ever grace the silver screen. An absolute perfect foil to both the Dude’s lackadaisical, anti-hero, and Walter’s neo-conservative, Vietnam vet (and owner of Sobchak Securities.)

Just listen to this laugh:

I love this movie more than I can properly communicate, and although only a supporting role, Hoffman’s brilliant portrayal of the Big Lebowski’s assistant is the linchpin, of what I believe to be, the best movie I will most likely ever watch.

And I think that’s why I’m thinking about the quote – everything about the film feels as though it is the sum of months, and months of meticulous preparation, culminating in pitch-perfect performances by absolute masters of their crafts.

It is gut-wrenching in its simplicity, and perfection.

You truly can always tell when an individual, or individuals, put everything they have into their art. (I use the term “art” loosely, and define it as anything from dance, to sculpture, to ultramarathon running, to public company auditing.) It doesn’t matter the medium. Gut-wrenching transcends boundaries, or definitions.

It, as I believe as shown by the outpouring of grief over Mr. Hoffman’s death, transcends life.

Third.

For my part, I’ve been doing some light crying all evening long.

Not for any real purpose or another.

I watched this video a couple of hours ago, and all I’ve done in the interim is listen to incredibly sappy, emotionally destructive songs, and read about all the insane human rights abuses occurring at this precise moment, all around the world.

Sometimes I think the world is void of anything good.

There is no other way to describe the sensation of emptiness I feel when confronted by such ignorance and inequality.

I want to run away and hide and have Marc’s strong arms wrap around my weak little body and then we’ll just lie that way until our bones rust, and our smiles turn to stone.

This could, of course, never happen.

Because a.) I know how to turn off Youtube.

And b.) because I am, as some of you know, a proper LOVE WARRIOR and if nobody else is going to champion the betterment of this heaving cesspool of a planet, then I bloody well GET ON IT.

Plus my body is jacked.

JACKED.

Fourth.

I am writing a book.

This is exciting.

STAY TUNED.

Fifth.

For my birthday I did this to my hair:

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I have been wanting to do something blondy-blond for a while now, but haven’t been able to muster up the appropriate level of courage to commit to the follicle colourization process with gusto.

(AKA I am a giant wimp.)

But I figured I am only twenty-nine once – I might as well do it now before the aliens arrive and I spent the next sixty-odd years of my life making origami toilet paper swans for our six-legged, intergalactic overlords.

They’ll probably want me bald as a baldy thing.

(Egg? Cue Ball? Bruce Willis?)

Yippee Kai Yay.

The pen is mightier than the sword

Hey kids!

Now, before we get down to business, you’ll all be happy to learn that I’ve redone my nails, and that they now look only look fifteen per cent terrible. (As opposed to their usual ninety-five percent.)

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I really must learn how to take my time and not do dishes when the polish is still drying…

But either way, progress!

It has been a terrific last few days here in Halifax, filled with great food, lots of family, some great runs, and tons of face time with my mum’s kitty cats.

Simon has really been practicing his best sun-god impression

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What a cutie!

Yesterday afternoon my cousin Bridget came over and coloured, cut, and styled my hair.

Talk about superior service!

It was a brilliant way to spend a couple of hours and I absolutely love the end look.

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The chestnut look is in folks.

SO IN.

If any of you live in the HRM, hit me up and I can give you her deets.

NO CREEPERS PLEASE.

Anyways, what got me thinking when she was blow-drying my hair, was how growing up, my mum would always tell my sisters and I to never go outside, nor go to sleep with wet hair lest we wish to catch a head cold and likely succumb to a tragic, early death.

(My mother in-law actually told me the exact same thing last weekend, horrified as she was to feel that the ends of my ponytail were still damp from my earlier shower.)

I’m pretty sure this was a thing that many mums have told their kids (as I’m sure their mums told them, and theirs, and theirs) and I started to think about all the other old wives tales I grew up with, and how they’ve shaped me to be the bonkers young woman that I am today.

For instance, every time I eat raw batter I am sure that I am going to contract worms.

I am also terrified that if I don’t eat a particular foodstuff that contains mayonnaise within one hour of preparation I will likely expire from botulism.

(This is probably also why I don’t ever eat potato salad. That stuff will KILL you!)

But probably the nuttiest thing of all, is my irrational fear of ever getting pen on my skin.

(Don’t even THINK of writing your phone number on my wrist buddy-boy! That offense will land you in the nearest lake.)

Let me explain.

In 1995, the province of Quebec held a referendum asking its residents whether or not they wanted to legally separate from Canada and form their own nation.

It was a crazy-close race, with the federalist supporters narrowly squeaking out a win (51.1% to 49.9%).

As a young gal desperate to see Quebec stay, I was more than relieved and exuberantly happy with these results.

Now, one of the leaders of the Parti Quebecois and chief separatist at the time was a man named Lucien Bouchard. I despised this man on principle, and was horrified to learn that he had lost a leg the year prior due to necrotizing fasciitis (or flesh-eating disease if you will.)

I remember asking my mum how someone could contract such a scary disease, and (in a likely effort to stop my sisters and I from drawing on ourselves) she told me that he was infected from getting pen on his skin.

CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT.

What a ballsy move.

Anywho, this put the absolute fear of god into me, terrified as I was to get anything close to resembling ink on my skin.

I liked my limbs, and I sure as heck was going to keep them.

Whenever anyone asks me to relay a time I felt true terror, one of the stories I share is the time in grade five when Marc Rutenschauser grabbed my right arm and drew a smiley face on my wrist.

The feeling of my blood running frigid is a sensation which I will likely never, ever forget.

I really did feel like that was game over for me, right then and there.

It’s probably also why I have a weird dislike of smiley faces, and have a really hard time whenever :) is changed to J when I write e-mails.

SERIOUSLY WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH ME?

Isn’t it crazy the things that shape us as human beings?

I tell ya.

So, what are some of the things that your parents told you as children that have stuck with you until this day?

Let me know, and I’ll read them when I get back from my walk.

And don’t worry – I took the pains to dry my hair. After all, I wouldn’t want to get sick, would I?

Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust

Last night I watched Werner Herzog’s documentary Into the Abyss.

It is an amazing film, though disturbing. In fact, I went to bed feeling very strange.

Mr. Herzog’s films often leave me feeling profoundly unsettled – their subject matter, his style of direction, his narration, his score – all of these elements combine to create a film that rattles something very deep inside of me.

It’s like something has been jarred loose, and I cannot put it back in place.

And I’m nervous – because I’m not even sure from whence this piece of me came.

If you have ever seen any of his films, you will be familiar with one of his trademark styles – how he purposefully lets his shots linger, long past the point of comfort.

Instead of cutting away, the camera will remain focused on the person, or the scene, and as a viewer, it makes me squirm; I find myself willing for him to move on.

Indeed, the longer he stays with the shot, a feeling of perverse voyeurism begins, and takes root inside of me.

I feel as though I have no right to see these moments, these snapshots of humanity – raw, stripped, debased, terrifying, beautiful, maddening, heart breaking – scenes that in any other film might end up on the cutting room floor.

But it is also these moments that – no matter what my stage of discomfort – envelope me is a perverse majesty, luring me into the film.

In fact, they transform me – from disconnected bystander, to active participant.

No longer a passive observer, disconnected from the film, its subject, and its characters, I am forced to reconcile how  my judgments, my reactions, my questions fit into the movie’s narrative.

Where do I fit in this conversation?

Into the Abyss focuses on two inmates: one is on death-row awaiting execution in a Texas penitentiary; the other is serving a life sentence. One crime; two sentences.

The film explores, in a very subtle and yet incredibly powerful way, the question why people, and the state, kill.

Why do people die? Why do people live?

Who decides who dies and who lives? And why?

The film is structured is such a way that we absorb not just the heinous, senseless crime that these two men have committed (for which neither shows any remorse, nor do either of them admit guilt) but also the broader (and yet incredibly insular) world that contributed to the crimes.

A so-called “civilized” society that is unable to tame a chaotic nature driven to seed – one that is reflected in an endless cycle of broken homes, abuse, unemployment, casual street violence – a warped world where two eighteen year old boys would kill three people for a red camero.

Where two young men are convicted of the same crime, but only one is sentenced to death.

Both have killed, but only one is killed.

Although the question is never expressly asked in the film – indeed Herzog never reveals his overall thesis statement – you cannot stop asking yourself, why?

Again and again this question: why do some live, and others die?

Indeed, I find this query arresting.

And it keeps coming back, over, and over again – presented in different incarnations, addressed to different situations, but always the same: no matter what the reasoning behind it blind rage, capital punishment, war, pre-meditation, revenge – how do you kill someone?

Why do you kill someone?

This system, the institutions we have devised to support life – call it the state, call it society, call it government, call it the law, call it civilization – these are not infallible, impartial machines.

They, like human beings, are susceptible to bias.

Sometimes they are as equally chaotic as the world they are meant to discipline and punish.

They are flawed.

And like human beings, they kill.

And by the end of the film, after conversations with lawmen, a priest, the convicted killers, bereaved family members, and a former prison guard, we can look at this unthinkable crime – these three murders, and their inherent meaningless – and at the bottom of it all, we do not see redemption.

We do not see hope or forgiveness, renewal or compassion, regret or acceptance.

We see only time and emptiness.

Chaos.

There is life.

And there is death.

Two powerful forces – forces that exist with or without us.

Who lives and who dies?

This is something we must never decide.