Debunking Fame as the only legitimacy

When I saw the callout for proposals for workshops for LitFestNewWest it was on a whim that I began to create it the very same day. It came together as if I’d been writing proposals forever. Once it was accepted, Esmeralda Cabral and I fine-tuned it and fleshed out how we might do it together prior to the actual event, and that took more time.

The initial idea was easy because the kernel for the idea was found in J.J. Lee’s book, The Measure of a Man. In 2014 I was in a workshop led by Wayde Compton, writer, author, Associate Director of The Writer’s Studio. At some point J.J. Lee’s book came up. The book was published in 2011 to acclaim and as a finalist on many nonfiction literary award lists. I was amazed that an entire book of multiple story lines could arise from the artifact of a simple suit jacket that had belonged to his father.

I couldn’t think of a single thing that I owned from my father’s life that I could imagine building an entire book around. One day I walked absentmindedly into my bedroom, stared up at the open closet’s top shelf and immediately spotted this caramel-coloured, leather camera case. I took it down, the roughness of the weathered leather felt good in my hands. Inside was my father’s 8mm Paillard – Bolex movie camera.

My father took home movies of my twin brother and I when we were babies and toddlers. I was shocked when I saw it. I had always said that I was the only photographer in the family. I’d forgotten about him, the camera, and the home movies, regular intervals of us gathered round, eager to see ourselves on the grainy screen in the living room and the laughing. Family as foreign tribe revisited.

At the time, I’d started to write a story that made reference to my father’s emotional absence from our lives and when I saw the camera, the shocking realization between my observation about his emotional absence, and yet his consistent focusing of his viewpoint onto us from behind that camera’s lenses opened up all sorts of questions about him for me. And all because of thinking about J.J. Lee’s approach to his book.

But just a minute. Who was I to give a workshop on memoir? I haven’t published a memoir! And I’m getting the distinct feeling that there is some unspoken code that one must not give writing workshops about subjects where they have not achieved publishing success. I thought about that and eventually, in a defiant manner, rejected it because it is my pet peeve that “fame” seems to have become the criteria for the legitimizing of the sharing of, well, just about everything – knowledge, bullshit, sexist, racist, homophobic blah, blah blahing. I know you get it!

I thought back to Mona Fertig’s project that arose from her late father’s life-long work as an artist who received little, if any, recognition.  In 2008, when I’d moved to Salt Spring, I interviewed Mona and wrote a feature on her as she was embarking on her Unheralded Artists trade book project, a focus that many others said she was crazy to embark upon. Still she did it with many books now published under her MotherTongue Publishing.

And I began to think that we all need to find a way to fight the idea that we are only qualified to share our knowledge if we become “famous”. Because that is not how most of the world learned throughout history. They learned from elders, though storytelling. From trial and error. Through persistence. Via sharing in small groups, from a teacher challenging them from the front of the classroom.

And it is that kind of quiet sharing, one person to another — a grandmother teaching her grandchildren to knit, a fisherman showing them how to tie lures inside a wobbly boat on a lake with an Aurora Borealis of greens and browns highlighted on the lake’s surface by the sun’s first rays in the early morning.

And it is this form of sharing that is the way of The SFU Writer’s Studio which was started by Betsy Warland. It’s a commitment to relate as equals, mentor-students, one not more important than the other, that makes the SFU Writer’s Studio community a bonded one, person to person and then via social media for those who choose to stay connected after they move on.

So, as a bit of a stretch, I consider putting on our workshop, Mining Personal Artefacts as the Foundation for Memoir Writing, to be a very small political act specifically because I haven’t published a memoir. And yet, I do have something to share with others (as Esmeralda does) who may be farther back on the path than I am when it comes to writing overall.

Maybe you could assess your strengths and decide whether you have some level of knowledge and or passion, regardless of whether you’ve received notoriety from it or not, that you could share. Consider it a circumvention. That’s surely the attitude that self-publishing arose from.

And in that sharing, you might just help someone else think differently about something that they’re wrestling with personally, and maybe that’s enough. At the very least, it’s a start. It’s what J.J. Lee’s book did for me.

Memoir: Nobody wants to hear your half truths

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Photo by Duncan Hull off Creative Commons

In order to write a memoir, I’ve sat still inside the swirling vortex of my own complicated history like a piece of old driftwood, battered by the sea. I’ve waited — sometimes patiently, sometimes in despair–for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself to me.Dani Shapiro

I often think about how much writing a memoir is like therapy.

Nobody wants to hear your half truths. That’s the polite word. Now I’ll say it the way I would offline: Your therapist doesn’t want to hear your bullshit. Your readers don’t either.

But more often than not, we don’t even know we’re fooling ourselves, do we? And that’s always where the work begins.

I think that’s the most interesting part about trying to write our own stories and trying to figure out what it is exactly about the story we want to tell that might hold any relevance, hold the kind of universal truths that great writing often unearths, in a show AND tell kind of way. How can we truly get to the truth, the ugly, vulnerable, messy truth that’s at the core of what can make writing so challenging and inevitably sets it apart.

It is the exploration and the analyzing that reaches into the pithiness of your most sublime or challenging moments. It’s the wrestling with what it all might mean through an introspective process that becomes explicit on a page.

You’re aiming to translate those times when you’re (ironically) rendered speechless, forced to stop what you’re doing because the ache of wistfulness mixes with glory and rises up like a crescendo of awareness into a hyper awareness.  At that moment, you realize that one fleeting moment will never come again, not quite like it did that first time and you feel overwhelmed in a happy/sad way. This is the stuff and the understanding, I think, of the kind of memoirs that we’re all wishing we could write (and read), if we have any inclination to write (or read) a memoir at all.

It’s this type of treatment of a subject that can quell the concerns about why others would have any interest in our little lives. Because you’re not writing about your whole life. You’re crafting the experiences of your life, or an experience, into a story as unique as a work of fiction by examining the realities as you experienced them. It’s a feeling that comes from a keyhole inside your heart that gets unlocked because you are able to access the emotion that was present when you were touched in a way that almost never happens or you “get” something like you’ve never got it before.

Being able to transform the ordinary into wonder is the work of poetry, through words, written as prose that germinates from the muck that is ever evolving self-awareness. And with any luck, that self awareness leads to honest revelation and your unique journey from A to B that happened as a result which you’ve miraculously (and I consider every published memoir a miracle) deposited onto a page.

At least that’s one aspect. A start. My current understanding. For me. Yours is likely different.

Esmeralda Cabral and I, are offering a workshop as part of LitFest New West called Mining Personal Artefacts as the Foundation for Memoir Writing on Saturday, May 14, 3:15 pm at Douglas College, Room 4247.

Hair Crazy: Mothers and Daughters and Hair Obsessions

Lemonup from MORE Magazine

Shampoo from the 1970s from MORE magazine

For as long as I can remember my mother was obsessed with the hair of her four daughters.

For my identical twin sisters that obsession seems to have infiltrated their hair follicles, and gone straight into their brains like a yet-to-be diagnosed brain disease. Even in their sixth decade, they are still obsessed with their hair.

They live 500 miles apart and have for years, but until recently, when one of them let her hair go completely white, they were always colouring, cutting, wondering how the other cut it, suggesting they needed to cut it, wanting to colour it, wishing they hadn’t used THAT colour. Sometimes because they are identical twins, they got the same haircut on the same day, unknowingly. Sometimes, even now, when they greet after months and months apart, one of them is likely to say, “What’s with your hair?”

The one who has let her hair go completely white is, I think, emulating my mother whose thick, black, wavy hair turned into a beautiful silver-white sheen in her elder years.

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Ginger head as a baby

I am the only person who had strawberry blonde/red hair in a family that consisted of six black-haired people. I think I got the ginger gene from my dad’s side. My paternal grandfather had light auburn hair.

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Circa 1981. With Lilian, a friend from that time.

I’m just going to say it, and it took a lot of therapy to be able to proudly utter this: I had, and on some days still have, beautiful hair. I didn’t think about it and wouldn’t have described it that way back then but I used to have the kind of hair colour where middle aged and senior women would come up to me at a bus stop in my twenties to admire my hair, to comment on the golden-copper light of it in the spring sunshine. I’m not making this up.

That reaction was surprising to me, and nice. It was both of those things because at home it was always, “Gayle, what are you doing to do with your hair? It’s just hanging there!”

Well, guess what? Fifty years later, it’s still just hanging there, thick and coloured to try and match my former natural colour. I comb it once in the morning and that’s it, done, and that’s how I like it.

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Permed beyond recognition

What is hair is supposed to do?, I wondered, especially after the fail of hairstyles through the decades. Can you even spit out the word “perm” (left) without inducing a bit of a PTSD reaction?

Then there was my absolute favourite statement, favourite for its astounding level of unconsciousness on how not to speak to a girl child, as in, “I like you better with long hair!” And this was after I’d finally caved in and agreed to a shorter haircut.  Crazy making!

When I was a teenager I’d get so mad whenever my mother even dared get that look in her eye, eyeing me up, and I knew she was about to mention my hair because by then I’d figured out that she had some weird hair fetish in general, but only female hair, the hair of females that she had birthed.

I never could quite figure out why it made me so angry, and I hadn’t really thought about it too much in the past decade until I heard about this book:  Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession.  It turns out that when it comes to daughters and their hair, my mother was in good company. If only I’d known I wasn’t alone back then. We could have started a support group. And the issue, of course, is that another human being is focused in a critical way on a personal characteristic of ours and most importantly, that personal characteristic in the big scheme of who we are as a person, seems rather innocuous.

Herbal Image 1970s

1970s version

There is an entire chapter written by Deborah Tanner,  Why Mothers and Daughters Tangle Over Hair.  In one of the stories, a woman describes how after she appeared on television standing behind the president of the United States in a bill-signing ceremony, and her mother’s comment later was, “I could see you didn’t have time to cut your bangs.”

The author goes on to acknowledge that any choice a woman makes around hair (and other personal choices) is “marked”, that is, it says something about her. This is not true for men. (Well, before man buns it wasn’t true).

Manbun

Don’t even think about it from www.manbunhairstyle.net

Hair, said Tanner is a secondary sex characteristic. Our mothers were desperate for us to be the best reflections of themselves (not ourselves) that we could be, because inevitably THEY felt they were being judged by how WE looked.

I find that really sad but it explains a lot.

Repeat after me. You are not your mother. You are not your daughter. And have a happy upcoming Mother’s Day.

Got any hairy stories about hair? I’d love to hear whether you had the same type of experience in your house growing up.

Point Roberts day tripping leads to tiny adventure

On a somewhat regular basis I get an almost bubbling up of a need to get out and about. I want to go somewhere different, see new things or go back to places I’ve seen but I haven’t seen for quite some time.  More often than not, a whim hits me and I find myself headed out, alone, to seize the day, just wander, my camera in tow.

Now I know many people would find this unappealing. They wouldn’t have any desire to do such a thing on their own.

I’d been thinking about Point Roberts for a while. It’s a place I used to go many years ago with a friend on a semi-regular basis, especially on beautiful weekends in August. We’d drive across the border, unload our bikes and ride a regular route past the golf course, to the lighthouse park on the ocean, then on to the marina, and farther along to that great little South Beach enclave down Crystal Beach Road. There’s a bench there with two flags painted across the back — a maple leaf and the stars and strips. Or there used to be.

We’d linger a while on a beautiful summer day under the reach of a lone Arbutus growing almost horizontally out from the cliff and we’d eat our snacks. We’d jump back on the bikes and head down the big hill to Boundary Bay, meandering along the beach and then finally head back up the ginormous hill, weaving across the road back and forth, all our effort required to not have to push our bikes up the hill, jubilant if we reached the top intact.

We’d usually stop at the end of the day for a drink at the little place with the great patio called Brewsters.

Now, perhaps the idea of a middle aged woman just wandering and not having a specific reason to be going anywhere, especially in this day and age where every minute of the day is prescribed with deadlines and activities and usefulness extraordinaire is just too strange for border guards. Maybe it was the fact that I was alone and when they peeked into my passport it showed that I’d been to Thailand and Cambodia a few years back. Maybe it was just completely random. I got handed a gold sheet that had the letters NNS written on it and was told to report inside. I got asked a few questions, the border guard typing madly as I answered. I’d love to know what he was putting in there. “Needs to dress better.” “Looks like a hippy”. “Crazy chic on a walkabout?” Whatever.

He wanted to know when I had last been to the U.S. He wanted to know what I did for a living. Good question, I thought. “Was I picking up a package?”  I answered them all with appropriate humbleness all the while wondering, if I was up to no good, why couldn’t I just pick a package up in Canada? I’m so innocent in matters of criminality that I can’t even figure out how it works.  Would I stand on the shoreline while someone in a boat threw me a package? Crazy! Least likely person to be up to no good. Put that in your computer.

colddayAnyway, with my passport handed back, I wandered a bit down at the beach. It was cold. I decided to check out Brewsters. I was seated beside a couple and the wife immediately started to talk to me.

Turns out they’d been high school sweethearts in Whittier California (they’d met at a youth center and he had to dump his girlfriend at the time AND he still felt bad about that). Imagine. He still felt bad. Fifty years later. That part was the most amazing to me.

They now reside in Bellevue,Washington. They are selling the place they’ve owned in Point Roberts for 10 years. He has a heart condition and at some point had to be airlifted back to Bellingham. I learned there is such a thing called helicopter insurance in case you’re in need of a helicopter to airlift you quickly to a hospital. I wonder if they have that in Canada.bluedoor

We chatted throughout lunch and she invited me back to see her garden. Of course, I took her up on the offer and got the full tour, including of the house. I learned they make garden ornaments from old china they collect and that they sell those in the summer at the Point Roberts Market, vendors totaling about five. I learned she’s a thrift store, garage sale aficionado.beeplate

Because they are selling their place – two bathrooms, three bedrooms – for $169,000 (US) she has begun putting prices on all the stuff she wants to unload in preparation for a big garage sale.  And as we toured the house, I came across this beautiful little oak dresser with a swivel mirror and instantly fell in love. She has put my name on it. dresserIn the meantime, does anyone want to buy  a pre-fab house in Point Roberts that’s in great shape? If not, perhaps you have $899,000 Canadian to purchase the waterfront property of their neighbors, Canadians who live in Tsawwassen, but who are selling their 10 acres on Pender Island.

It was the kind of day I love. I ventured out on my own feeling a little melancholy and in the venturing, I managed to find myself a little close-to-home adventure and that was exactly what I was hoping for.

PS: I didn’t feel like I wanted to ask them for a photo, so that’s why there isn’t one.

Just being should be enough

MarjorieOn a quick trip to Salt Spring this past weekend, I visited my friend Marjorie. She will turn 93 on April 16th.

She is as mentally sharp, if not sharper, than anyone you’d ever hope to meet. Give her a once over and she looks fantastic, years younger than she is.

Most people, however, will not discover her humour or how quick she truly is, mentally, if they didn’t already know it, because her greatest challenge is that she has lost her hearing. The result is difficulty communicating with others and a great sense of isolation. Even with a hearing aid which, apparently, brings its own problems.

It doesn’t help that she is in fact isolated because she lives on a rural property. One of her sons lives on the grounds. It’s a property that was owned by her parents and that she moved to upon her late husband’s retirement in the 1970’s. I can’t say for sure, but I sense that she wouldn’t have wanted to move elsewhere, even on island. Her home is her home. Nature is her company. Until recently, so was her cat Duchess. She has a cleaner who has become a friend who comes once a week. Another son visits from Victoria often. Her daughter comes when she can from Alberta as well as grandsons and great grandchildren.

I have always been around older people. My parents were 39 and 43 years older than me when I was born. My sisters were 11 and 14 years older. In my forties, I watched my parents’ aging and then, and it seemed to happen quickly, they were gone. But, in fact, it didn’t happen that quickly because, relatively speaking, they lived long lives. My mother lived to 84, my father to 93.  Somehow, especially with my father who remained healthy for so long, long never seems long enough.

Aging is challenging in so many ways. Hearing loss is just one of them. But what isn’t always apparent is that when you lose your hearing, even if you’re wearing hearing aids, it’s challenging to participate in conversations. People can’t be bothered. They have to repeat themselves. They hate repeating themselves. They don’t want to yell. Maybe they feel embarrassed.MarjorieatHarbourHouse

In the car driving home, Marjorie claimed that it may actually be easier to be blind than deaf because if you’re blind, people will know it, they’ll help you, they’ll feel sorry for you. Not that THAT’S a piece of cake. I’m sure she wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

I saw for myself what happens when she tried to explain that she was hard of hearing. Having to say it immediately shuts down conversation with most people who don’t know how to respond. They’re embarrassed to shout back. They’re shy to take the time to find a way to communicate. They can’t be bothered.

If you’re deaf, there are no signs. You look perfectly fine. Nobody knows you’re deaf until they try to speak to you.

On Sunday, we went to two galleries and when I engaged in conversation, she couldn’t hear what was being said between me and the other person that I was speaking with so she just kept looking.  She was on the outside. And in our society, getting old and being on the outside is the norm. I was guilty, I suppose, of not trying to ensure that she was included to a greater extent.

In a world where productivity and materialism are the Holy Grail, people who are not producing or consuming in large quantities are no longer seen as valuable. It no longer seems enough just to be. But actually it is.  Because your being is your only authentic wealth, your legacy.

It’s not necessarily easy to be the kind of person who recognizes this and looks for it – in the wonder of children, in the other of homelessness, in the wisdom of the elderly, in animals, in plants and flowers and in natural beauty and sounds.

Diverse/City exhibit at Anvil Centre

DiverseCity posterThis is the poster for the community art exhibit I’m involved in with the opening night set for April 15th, 5-7pm, at Anvil Centre in New Westminster.

From a 200 word excerpt (185 words in my case) taken from a much longer story that I wrote,  visual artist Eryne Bea Donahue dove into the project, interpreting and conceptualizing my words through visual art.

I was allowed a preview, not the completed piece, and Eryne has created a very interesting interpretation that in the process of her conceptualizing, creating, and producing the art, touches upon the diversity of spaces – geographical, physical, psychological – that run through my longer story, a 2,500 word piece of narrative non fiction.

Looks like there are nine written pieces accompanied by nine visual art conceptualizations.

Consider this your invitation: Anvil Centre. April 15th, 2016. Everyone welcome! 5-7 pm. And afterwards, there’s always that fabulous new Mexican place down the street, El Santo, to go for a drink.

Check out the blog post I wrote after I first met Eryne.

Writing desk as home

mydeskThis is my desk.

A lot of famous writers or published authors have taken to showing where they work. I’m positive they clean it up and manipulate it. I didn’t even bother to dust.  I wanted to give you the authentic experience. Oh the glory!

Of course, I’m neither famous nor published (at least not in book form), but as a tip of my hat to all writers who spend hour upon hour alone with their thoughts, music or not playing on a DVD, and engrossed in a story they want to tell, I pay tribute to you, my friends. It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re published or not. I have a small sense of what’s in your hearts and how much of yourselves go into what you’re creating out of nothing but your memories and your imaginations. You are the experience. The experience is you.

I have a relationship with this space that’s as every bit as real to me as those I have with people in the flesh. Even though in the past four years, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve spent way too much time here in this five foot rectangle. I’m not denying that being out in the world, interacting with people, seeing places near and far is a good way to live and explore. It’s the best! But there is a world so rich and so deep inside that Dr. Seuss got it right even when he didn’t mean for the expression to encompass what I’m talking about: Oh the places you’ll go! The people you’ll meet! Even inside your own head. ha ha.

Like most people, the things I’ve chosen to have around me hold meaning.

Clay mask

I have this weird mask that I bought in a small art gallery called Marigold Arts on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was made by Allan R. Bass. I spent more money on it than I’ve ever spent on a piece of art. The pamphlet that came with the piece says he “developed a style of firing that combines Raku and Pit-firing techniques to achieve an Ancient yet contemporary expression.” He lives in a Kiva-styled pit house in rural New Mexico. In other words, he’s my kind of guy! But I bought the mask because it was just so different than anything I’d seen.claymaskArbutus Tree

I took this photo of an Arbutus tree on Salt Spring, of course, on a visit in 2007 with my friend Lisa Wolfe. She was recovering from an operation and still chose to come camping with me. I was being interviewed for a job at the Driftwood which I didn’t get. Gotta love rugged women! I just loved the patterns and the green bark. This tree is in a special place in Ruckle Park that I go to where few people ever are, and it takes me back to so many times of happiness and peace. The first time I ever saw it was with Will Gerlach whom I am eternally grateful to for introducing me to Salt Spring.

arbutustree

Buddhist Temple

In 1987 or 1988, I went to San Francisco with a friend named Pam Melnyk. She was a quintessential hippy, a few years older than me. Pam had been to San Francisco many times and was the perfect person to travel with, especially for me a newbie to the city. We stayed at a hotel in Union Square. She took me through Haight Ashbury and because she was such a music buff, I got the whole history. At the end of a most memorable few days we got bumped from the plane and got paid to stay. We were so HAPPY you would have thought we’d won Lotto max. One more day! This Buddhist temple was at the end of a fantastic walking tour of China town and it was high up in a building that overlooked the financial district. I still recall the experience of lighting those incense sticks.sanfranbuddisttempleElephant

I have a little gold elephant in front of me bought by my dear friend Colleen Eaton on her trip to India. She has a fantastical story about getting on the back of a motorcycle to go back to this shop to have these little prints framed. I love elephants and elephants with trunks up are lucky. Did you know that? Never buy an elephant print if the trunk isn’t up!

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Ruckle House

Below elephant is Ruckle house. This photo taken by a very dear friend Tom James while I lived on Salt Spring. I just love the reflection through the window and the photo of original Henry Ruckle with his wife and baby. I have peered into this window so many times, a ritual whenever I visit Ruckle farm, and it never changes. It hasn’t changed in 30 years. There aren’t many places or things you can say that about and that really appeals to me.

Ruckleportrait

BC Women Artists

A poster I purchased at the Art Gallery of Victoria on a week-long trip to Victoria in 1986. I used to look at this poster and wonder about it, not really understanding the second to last shape. Now that I am that shape, I get it. Damn! I have always loved this poster. There is something profound in those five shapes representing the five phases of women which is its title. By the late Victoria artist Margaret Peterson.

MargaretPeterson

Paper weight

A paperweight with raspberry’s inside. Takes me back to a simpler time, a time in the country. I imagine this lying on a half-finished quilt in a small house with a wood stove and I just love it. A Value Village find.

paperweightIdog

Hey, it can get lonely here. Sometimes as a distraction I press the nose of my little yellow Idog and he shakes his head and barks. Often he’ll be silent and then out of the blue he’ll let out some robotic yelp and scare the hell out of me. Bad dog! Unpredictable! He wants attention but he’s so much less fuss than a real dog, if not quite as unconditionally loving. idogPhotos

A picture of Colleen and I on a trip to Salt Spring way back in 2001 to visit her sister who owns a house there in Vesuvius Bay. A particularly nice weekend.

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A saying

Whenever there is a problem repeat over and over. “All is well. Everything is working out for my highest good. Out of this situation only good will come. I am safe.” A gift from Colleen, probably at a time when I wasn’t feeling very good.

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Another card, hidden behind the one above. A card from Catherine Bennington, a woman I shared a workspace with at UBC in the basement of the David Lam building when I worked at UBC Multimedia Studies between 1995 and 1999 and she worked for Teaching and Academic Growth. She still works there. We’re Facebook friends and I know she would probably be amazed that I still have this card. But it was perfection and she captured what really matters to me in this simple handmade card. Thank you Catherine.catherinecardThere’s also a photo of the house I grew up in on Hamilton Street at Canada Way across from Moody Park in New Westminster that was ripped down in 1980 to make way for condos after my parents sold and moved to Langley. mavorhouse

A photo taken by me inside the old barn at Burgoyne Bay.  I love the colours of the wood and the beautiful vines across the window. I used to go there on my own with my camera and the enjoyment I got from that old run down place is impossible to describe or perhaps even understand. The sound of the starlings. The aroma of the grass in summer. Those moments are embedded inside of me and this photo helps to remind me of how special my time on Salt Spring was; how much contentment. It almost makes me cry now thinking of it.DSC_0746

I could go on but this is already way too long. Suffice it to say that our things are special to us. And this tiny space, my desk, so easily dismantled, is also a reminder of how little is truly required to feel at home when the richness of life inside of us is equal to that all around in the world.

Maybe you’d like to tell me about your writing space. Or show me.