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?

This moment. This.

When I was thirteen years old, I started going to bed with ropes and scarves tied tightly around my waist, believing that it would stop me from gaining weight in my sleep.

I would tie them so tightly that they would cut into my skin, forming a ridge of angry red scars along the tops of my hipbones and the small of my back.

I don’t know how my mother found out about what I was doing, but she did.

Obviously horrified and desperate to get me to stop, she was sensitive enough to know that depending on how she broached the subject, I might shrink further inside of myself.

So her approach was simple.

Instead of getting angry with me, or throwing out all of the things I used to harm myself, she would wait until I had gotten ready for sleep, and then gently knock on my bedroom door.

Sitting on the side of my bed, she would stroke my hair and softly ask if I had wrapped anything around my waist.

I would squirm and fight, never wanting to admit that I had, or confess how ugly and hated I felt on nights when I couldn’t bring myself to bind my skin.

Sometimes she would ask to see my stomach, although never in a confrontational or accusatory way. In a way that ached with a stark and simple love and sadness. The heartbreaking futility of knowing that your teenage daughter finds such monumental faults in the skin that you helped make and shape.

After I had either showed her my bare skin, or grudgingly removed the ties, she would take my hand in hers and ask me to tell her one thing that I loved about myself.

For many nights I dreaded this moment. A slight, cold sweat would break out on the back on my neck. I would push my face into my pillow and half-heartedly murmur something into its folds; gnash my teeth and force out a canned answer.

“The A on my math test,” was my garbled response.

But she would sit there, patient as a stone as I wrestled with the question, until finally, exhausted, I would whisper a truth.

“I love my hair.”

“I’m funny.”

“My friends.”

Even after I stopped going to bed with the scarves, my mother would come see me. Stroke my hair. Hold my hand. And ask me:

“Tell me one thing you love about yourself.”

As I grew older, I forgot about this nightly ritual. I left home, adopted new routines, and practiced new methods of self care.

But every so often, when my anxiety is particularly high, and I wake in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, I lie in bed, and breathe deeply.

And I imagine my mothers hand on mine, the tone of her voice, soothing.

And I tell her.

My hair.

I’m funny.

This moment.

This.

 

An (east coast) Christmas story

Christmas in the Maritimes is something special.

There’s lots of dancing and singing and great food and drink. But chiefly, Christmas, or winters in the east coast of Canada – and by east coast I mean the true east coast, none of this Ontario east coast fakery that people in Toronto are always trying to pull off because they think that they’re living in New York.

(They’re not.)

Winters in the true east coast of Canada are defined by freezing wet snow and lots of it.

It makes it hard to get places, so people who move away rarely go back and people who stay, don’t ever leave.

In 2007, I was flying home to see my family.

For the first time in years and years of going home for Christmas, I was travelling through Ottawa – a true mainstay of central Canada  – and the weather was terrible. Every flight was grounded.

Every flight, weirdly, save mine.

It was strange to see an entire list of cancelled flights, while right at the very bottom, shining like a beacon of Christmas hope was: WestJet – Halifax – on time.

I thought: I’m either very lucky or my pilots are daredevils with death wishes.

Turns out – a little bit of both.

As we began our descent into Halifax International, the woman sitting next to me proceeded to throw up the two mini cans of Pringles potato chips while breaking every bone in my right hand, to which she was clinging for dear life.

I too definitely thought we were done for. I distinctly remember being so sad that I was never going to get marry Marc, as this was to be our last Christmas apart before we were married the next year.

Luckily, we pulled through. (The plane, Marc, and I.)

Leaving the airport, I marveled at our surroundings. Halifax, like my airliner, had been completely buffeted by winter. Snow, ice and fog were everywhere. Driving into the city, the snow banks lining the streets were the highest I had ever seen them, as if the fallen snow had been parted by a wintertime Moses, and not the city’s plows.

“They’ve got to be like 9 feet tall,” I said to my mum.

“You should have seen them last week,” she said. “Before it warmed up.”

I checked the temperature gauge in the car. It read -12 C.

It was in this moment that I realized that British Columbia had forever ruined me and I could never again move back to Halifax, lest I die immediately from frostbite due to -12 C somehow being defined as “warmer”.

But, nevertheless, we made it home to properly set off the Christmas celebrations.

My family and I – that is my sisters, mum and I – are really big on traditions. Baking and decorating gingerbread men, holiday concerts with lots of singing and dancing, setting up the tree – it’s all a part of how we make this time of year special.

In terms of Christmas Day, it’s fair to say that we like to keep things simple: Stockings. Gifts. Cooking. Eating.

Which is why as soon as I arrived home, we set out to prepare everything for the big day. We trimmed the tree and helped decorate the house. On the 24th my older sister Kate and I traipsed over to the Organic Earth Market (the very broke Halifax equivalent to Whole Foods) so I could load up on tubers and cranberries and chestnuts and so she could get our free range, organic turkey.

“We only have frozen ones!” yelled the guy behind the counter.

We looked at each other and shrugged. SOLD.

Home we went, to put everything in the fridge before going to bed.

The next morning we opened our stockings, opened our presents and then set about getting ready to cook our dinner.

I’ll never forget my mum opening the fridge door, pausing and then exclaiming:

“THIS BIRD IS FROZEN TO ITS VERY CORE!”

Kate looked up from the stuffing.

“Oh,” she said, quizzically. “I…I thought it would defrost in the fridge over night?”

My mum’s right eyebrow arched so high it hit the ceiling.

“Defrost? In the fridge?” She shut the fridge door and began pacing.

Jessi, my younger sister, sauntered into the kitchen, picking up a piece of one of the carrots I was chopping. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s never going to work.”

Kate glared at her.

I dropped my carrot and looked around at the metric tonne of vegetables I had left to peel and chop and yelled out: “Let’s just order pizza!”

I was already imagining us hanging out in our sweatpants and watching a movie instead of slaving away for the next six hours.

The looks I received from my family immediately withered my enthusiasm.

“We are NOT ordering pizza,” they all yelled back at me.

We were going to eat Christmas dinner on Christmas Day if it was going to kill us.

My sisters and my mum immediately set out trying to find a place where we could get a booking.

Unfortunately, trying to locate a space available on Christmas day for four people was hard. Very hard. Most places weren’t open and those that were had booked up months prior.

I was really starting to believe that my pizza wish was going to come true when Kate yelled out from the living room: “I did it! I found us a place! The holiday Inn Select will take us! It will take us tonight at 7pm!”

I nearly fell over.

The Holiday Inn Select? I had been making fun of that place since before I even know what sarcasm was.

“BOOK IT!” yelled my mum.

We were in.

At 6:30 pm we started the walk over to the hotel. In truth, it was probably only a 5 minute walk, but it had gotten so cold and windy that we budgeted a lot of extra time. We all huddled together as we exposed ourselves to the freezing night. Swirls of ice and snow flew across the abandoned expanse of the city.

Walking up the deserted street, I stared ahead at the glowing, fluorescent sign at Cruikshank’s funeral home, which advertised both the time and temperature of the day.

The numbers glowed eerily cold against the dark of the night: -26 degrees.

As I contemplated my life, walking to the Holiday Inn Select on one of the coldest Christmas Days I could remember, I ruminated aloud on how weirdly poetic it was to be walking towards a funeral home, as this was something of a funeral march.

“That’s not funny,” was my mother’s response.

We arrived at the hotel right on time for our reservation.

The Maître D immediately perked up when he saw us, mostly because my mother, despite her insistence on coming to the hotel, didn’t want to be confused with any of the other people who had really planned on being there for dinner. She was wearing a full-length ball gown that had been made for her a few years prior when she and her friends had gone to a gala to ring in the New Year.

It stood in stark contrast to not only the majority of the other clientele but to my sister Jessi’s low-rise jeans.

“Reservation for Gillis?” I asked, making one final wish for an Italian, wood-fired Christmas.

He escorted us to our table.

The dining room was huge – probably not the full length of a football field, but it certainly felt that way. And despite it being a ballroom, my mother was the only one who had dressed the part. Everyone else was sticking to Nova Scotia classic – jeans, running shoes and a hooded sweatshirt that’s just a little too big.

It wasn’t five minutes into our arrival that my mother had garnered her first fan.

A woman with a very thick Valley accent (Annapolis Valley, not California) came up to her and exclaimed, “YOU ARE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN I HAVE EVER SEEN. Can I take a photo of you?”

Over the course of the evening, my mother posed for no less than nine photos for this woman. To this day, I always wonder where those pictures ended up.

The dinner was a buffet so we all set about getting to our food. I’ve never been a big fan of buffets, so I mostly picked at a very large piece of cheesecake that I had topped with about a quart of cranberry sauce to give it more flavour. My sister Jessi on the other hand has always loved buffets and exploded the button right off of her low rise pants, effectively making them no-rise pants.

I laughed so hard I almost peed mine.

Kate, the most steadfast of our group, spent a lot of the night asking my mother to “keep her voice down” as she proceeded to provide colour commentary on all of the other guests and “what part of the province they had to be from.”

I wanted to say something about the bird not being free range, or organic, but I kept my mouth closed.

We sat, ate, talked, laughed and made plans for how to properly tackle our Christmas feast the next day. And despite the commotion of the ballroom all around us, and the cold of the outside night, I felt a distinct warmth between us.

On our slow, bundled up walk back to the house, my mum began humming one our favourite east coast Christmas songs and I immediately began singing along. Together we all linked arms, and began two stepping down the street – without any cars in sight, there was enough space for us to dance together.

Our voices rang out into the night.

And that – that more than anything, is a maritime Christmas.

Dear Momma: Here’s what happened in 2018

Hi Momma.

I know we talk a lot, but I wanted to take some time to lay out everything that’s happened since the beginning of March. It’s been such a busy, heartbreaking, extraordinary time.

Most mornings I wake up and forget that you’re not here.

Sometimes you’ll have visited me in my dreams – your way of stopping by and saying hello. I get glimpses of your life in New York or you’ll tell me about the old classmates of yours that you’ve decided to haunt.

I see your smile and hear your laugh and I when I touch you, it’s real.

Woznow04

Momma, I feel like I could pull you back into life.

Your magic, it burns brightly, everywhere.

You died on Thursday, March 8th. International Women’s Day.

I was holding your hand while Suzan Maclean held the other. I think that she, like me, doesn’t really believe in a world without you.

The day I flew back home, I took a lot of your clothes. I took your light blue jean jacket and your tight black pants. That striped heart sweater that you bought in Brooklyn and your gray crop-top turtleneck.

A few of your sweaters still smell like you. Sometimes I hold them and breathe deeply.

Because I wear your clothes every day, all of my friends are obsessed with your style.

Many of them also have your postcard pinned up in their offices. They tell me that you inspire them to take risks, to wear colour, to try something new.

Hearing this and writing this makes me cry.

In April I joined a gym to learn how to get strong. You would have laughed because when I went in for my assessment, I couldn’t even do one squat. But working slowly and intentionally with my trainer Jules I have developed a new-found respect and appreciation for my body.

And I am getting strong.

Last week I deadlifted ninety kilograms. That’s one hundred and ninety-eight pounds! I know you’re probably thinking, “I just got her to stop running marathons through the mountains, and now she’s doing this?”

But you know that it’s your spirit that drives me.

Thanks for that Momma.

I am sorry to say that I’m still not doing yoga but I do keep your beautiful bag in my office so that I see it every day. When I do start a regular practice, you will, of course, be the first to know.

I’ve started seeing a wonderful grief counsellor who has helped and continues to help me so much. I was seeing her every week and now go about once a month. I also have an amazing “grief community” here in New West, made up beautiful, strong and inspiring women.

You would love every one of them.

They are often who I call when I’m can’t drive because I’m crying too hard, or when I’m paralyzed by grief in some grocery breakfast aisle, or when just the thought of living in this world without you is too overwhelming for words.

Their love helps me.

So does that of my friends. And of Kate and Jessi. Marc.

They all hold me close when all of my pieces are breaking apart.

I cry almost every day.

I hope this doesn’t make you sad. Because I know that the only reason it hurts this much is because of the depth and the beauty of our love.

I think a lot about this when I run. There is a tree down at the river boardwalk here in New Westminster that I call “The Momma Tree”. It reminds me so much of you because of its vibrant colours and delicate leaves. Every time I run by it, I whisper a hello to you and high-five your branches.

Your magic, it burns brightly, everywhere.

This November I ran the Fall Classic 10k and placed ninth. It was one of the harder races I’ve run because I had just had gum surgery two weeks prior and couldn’t exercise at all in the lead up, because it might disturb my graft and slow my recovery.

Not to point fingers, but this gum recession is definitely genetic and it’s definitely from your side of the family.

At first I was so disappointed and I cried at the finish line. I’ve been chasing the elusive sub-40 time for so long and I felt so tired of trying and failing. But Marc held me and helped me.

I know you’ve always loved how delicate he is with me.

Here are some other things that have happened this year, so much with our strength and love:

  • In May, I attended my first New Westminster Community and Social Issues Council Committee meeting. That same month I also started working on my first municipal political campaign, helping my incredible friend Nadine Nakagawa get elected to city council.
  • In June, I presented at Pecha Kucha and spoke about you and grief and love and compassion. Marc and I celebrated our ten year wedding anniversary.
  • In July, I filmed my favourite story of the year at the Sharing Farm in Richmond. In total this year, I wrote over 70 stories for United Way and shot 15 videos.
  • In August, we welcomed beautiful Loic Stewart to the world, and I have loved every moment of being his aunty. I pour love into him. Just like you did with us.
  • In September, I joined the New Westminster Hospice Society’s board of directors. I was the first woman up Grouse Mountain for United Way’s Tech Grind, even though I couldn’t officially compete. (Yes Momma, I am that competitive.) I hosted a fun night of improv with a local feminist collective, MCed a wedding with twelve hours notice and managed to take another selfie with my mayor and council after presenting about United Way Day.
  • In October, I moderated the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce’s All Candidates Debate which was exhilarating and if there is just one thing I wish I could have had you there for, this was it. I started my Compassionate City Crew training with New West Hospice and hosted a very fun Halloween dinner party. You would have loved Marc’s and my costume – I was a lawyer and he was the devil, so we were The Devil’s Advocate.
  • In November, I took a stand against racism in my city, attended the annual civic dinner, completed my hospice training, moderated a panel on brand building and philanthropy, shared a story at The Flame about my absurd decision to get eyelash extensions and hiked around Whistler with Marc for our anniversary.
  • This month there are story performances and holiday get-togethers and both Kate and Jessi are making your gingerbread and I can’t stop crying whenever I sing along to the Barra MacNeils’ Christmas albums.

Just know that I think about you every day. I miss you every day. I see you in a soft rose gold sunset. In the wind that blows the hair from my face. In my dark roots that always grow in no matter how often I dye my hair blond.

You’re the blood in my veins, the green in my eyes. My smile. My laugh. My long legs and cold hands.

Momma, I carry you close.

And I will never stop missing you.

I wrote you this letter even though I know you know all of this.

Because you’re in the sky.

Sea. Land.

Air.

Mommm. Momma. Momma.

You and your magic are everywhere.

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.