Write for 5 links past to present

gayle mavor photo taken in Thailand, 2013

I recall her from elementary school and my childhood birthday parties. Pin the tail on the donkey. Pennies in the cake. Musical chairs affairs. She has beautiful eyes. Brown sparkly ones. And a bubbly personality.  At our parties, there’d be my twin brother at one end of the table. Me at the other. King and queen. Two cakes. Our mum really did make our birthdays special when we were young.

I have this photo in an album to prove that it happened once as if I’m looking at other people, as if it’s got nothing to do with me. I wonder if other people feel that way when they look at photos of themselves from so many years ago.

I hope she doesn’t freak when she sees this photo. She’s the one in the blue dress. Dark hair. Right-hand side. A silly red birthday hat on her head.

Thanks to Facebook, she’s now words on my computer screen that pop up every day. I guess in a way she’s more in my life now than she was then. Thank you Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

I was really pleased that she participated in the first Write for 5 writing exercise where we write to an image for a timed five minutes. You can look at what image she chose, and introduce yourself to Mrs. Handicott in her submission in the comments off that blog post..

From what I’ve gleaned on social media, Jo-Anne is a more devoted coffee lover than most on the West Coast. I’d actually think she might make a pretty good guest on Comedians in Cars getting Coffee. I mean, there are regular people who could be as funny as most comedians off stage based on what I’ve seen on that show.

She’s also an avid reader, of course, and during the day while she dons her grownup attire and works as an HR Advisor for the Alzheimer’s Society of BC, you’ve got to know that when she’s in a meeting and she gets that faraway look in her eyes, it’s because she’s actually plotting her next flash fiction or poem.

Visit her blog, Going for Coffee and introduce yourself, preferably coffee in hand. Thanks so much Jo-Anne for taking part.

Only three more days until Saturday when the next Write for 5 begins at 8:00 am PST. I’m searching for just the right image and tomorrow, here, I’m going to muse about the magic of how it’s even possible to go from image to words on a page and how that spark happens for me. I’d be curious to know how it happens for you. Get mindful and pay attention to that process if you’re curious.

At a book launch yesterday in Vancouver, I ran into a friend and her husband. She was in the only writing group I’ve ever been in back in the mid-1990s. The past as present. It’s all around.

Smart girls love multitasking, and writing prompts

One of the women that submitted a short Write for 5 piece last weekend was someone I went to high school with. Her name is Marjorie Sayer. I remember her as being super smart, possibly the smartest person who went through New Westminster Secondary School at the time, (or maybe to date), very enthusiastic, and a lover of the sax which she played in the high school concert and jazz bands.

I haven’t been in touch with her very much since that time which is why I’m even more honoured that she would take the time to join in.

I love how she explains on her blog that math and physics are wonderful preparations for creative writing.

One of the interesting things I could glean from her website is that she’s written a book for Grades 4 and up called The Girl Mechanic of WanZhou. Here’s a link to a book review off a blog called Making it Sweet.

I found this particularly interesting because when I worked at UBC Computer Science 10 + years ago now, the Department was, and still is, focused on increasing the participation of girls and women in learning and teaching about computer science, and they have done a great job of that in on-the-ground representation of female undergrads, grad students, instructors and professors.

They even have a program there called GirlSmarts. I came up with that original name which they’ve changed to GIRLSmarts4Tech. The curriculum was originally created by Professor Anne Condon and managed by Michele Ng under the inspiration of Maria Klawe, current President of Harvey Mudd College.  (I hope I’m accurate in this representation of how GIRLSmarts originated).

I thought to myself, Marjorie would be such an excellent fit for them as some sort of guest speaker. I haven’t told her that and I haven’t reached out to Michele to perhaps investigate the possibility of the pairing in some way.

Many people will be like, meh, writing prompt, been there, done that. There are a million things competing for time. I get that.

But if you feel like it, you can join in this coming weekend March 4th at 8:00 am to March 5th at 9:00 pm to challenge yourself with Write for 5.

Happy Tuesday, the day of the week that gets kind of left out. Personally, I’ve always really liked Tuesdays, and smart girls.

Join in. Write for 5 for fun

Dear friends,

Thanks for joining in today in this little experiment: Write for 5.  

I will say, it was a wee bit of a challenge choosing a single image! So I decided to choose 3. Pick just one to write about.

Whenever you’re ready, start the timer. (We won’t include choosing/examining the photo in the 5 minutes of writing time. Take your time for that.)

Write for 5. That’s how it’s going to work. At least for this first time.

We can complete the Write for 5 exercise any time this weekend so if it doesn’t work right this minute, then later. But if you’re just procrastinating, don’t! Do it now if you can!

We’ll all be brave and agree to post our Write for 5 submission in the comments of this post when we’re done.

I’m arbitrarily choosing 9pm on Sunday, Feb. 26 as the cutoff for submitting to this week’s Write for 5.

The first person to post their Write for 5 result gets a subscription to Geist Magazine (6 issues) courtesy of me for one year.

I’ll respond to some of the writing throughout the week on the blog and we’ll do it again with a new image next Saturday. That’s the plan. The universe may have other plans. We’ll just see. baby steps!

If you want to say anything about the experience for you, that would be interesting. Only if you want to.

Go!

Using Imagery as Writing Muse

Rummaging through some papers, I found this image from a magazine stapled to something I had written on July 18, 1998.

I was in a writing group then that met monthly – or tried to –  and re-reading it brought me right back into the small living room in the house where we’d meet. It was an old house, up rickety stairs, rooms all chopped up.

I was thinking how much fun it used to be to sit in that group, a bunch of magazine pages ripped out haphazardly, each of us taking turns choosing which image to pick so that we could scribble away during a timed writing exercise, letting whatever words come to us as they came. It was a form of writing meditation.  I think 5 minutes was what we settled on back then.

I was thinking how much fun it would be to let other writers look at a photo on the blog and see what they could come up with. It’s kind of a nice idea, a way to share. And then, you could post what you’d written after your own timed five minutes at home. No cheating!

If you feel inclined to try and time yourself and write to the above image, and then add what you ended up writing into the comments, it would make things a million time more interesting around here. I could then add a new image every week with whatever I’d managed to come up with in my own timed 5 minutes.

Here’s what I wrote back then although I will admit, I changed a few things after sitting down to type it out before posting it here. I changed her name. I decided this woman was Turkish and so Isabella didn’t seem like the right name.

Gülçin, a name bestowed eighty-nine years earlier, reveled in the spicy warmth of the nicotine as it streamed through the shriveled opening of her throat, lingered for just a few seconds, and was then expunged, pushing its way against the afternoon’s hot wind like an apparition.

She was safe in her chair, her favorite place. That same chair that had balanced her when the roundness of her thighs had not crept round the wooden corners of the frame but had fit snugly, like foam, atop the smooth wooden cup of the seat.

Her cane, carved by her grandfather over a few months the summer she turned eight, had been her most constant companion in the last few years. She had remembered him sitting near the red rocks, and bits of grass at the cliff edge near their home, the sparkling sea like a rug as far as the eye could see to the horizon.

She’d sit on her porch, perched above the dusty street in that town she’d lived in since she’d married more than 70 years ago now, and she’d watch the youth pass by in the way a factory foreman might watch assembly line workers. She never barked out orders or even greetings. 

When a neighbor or familiar face passed, she’d remove the cigarette and blow the smoke between the space where her two front teeth used to be and in that subtle shift, they’d know they’d been acknowledged, they’d been seen. And it was enough.

Most of the time she would not even notice the strays barking, the wrestling of small boys whose bare feet raised the dust to feather their ankles, or the bustle of women, beautiful full girls, and slap-dashed-together mothers hurrying back from the market in preparation for another day of the cooking, washing, feeding, cleaning cycle. She was there and she wasn’t. She was with all of them and she was with the images of her past that greeted her just as real as company, adding excitement and grief, love and energy to what would turn out to be just another 12 hours, like the 12 hours before that, wrapped in heat and routine.

 She’d think back to her best friend as a child and the hours they’d spent playing in the back alleyways, listening to adults they knew only by the first names their mothers used to refer to them as they gossiped. Mostly they watched. Anything to escape the one room they each shared with three generations who had perfected the familial folk dance, weaving around each other, ducking anger, ignoring bodily functions and even the tears everyone would have preferred to have kept hidden if they’d had the luxury of privacy.

Usually around midday, she would sometimes feel the phantom lips of her deceased husband as if they were grazing her forehead. A tear-dropped wet bead of sweat would seep from beneath her white headscarf and slip over the band of folded skin that decorated her chest like a handmade necklace.

She had loved the memory of his lips. Not just because they had become as familiar as her own but because they embodied everything they had shared together; framing the rite of two-as-one even though he’d been gone for decades.

Elevating the Ordinary

Creative Commons photo

One of my intentions this year is to do something that lifts the day out of the ordinary every single day. It doesn’t have to be anything big and let’s face it, most of what I find interesting doesn’t typically cost a lot of money. It’s usually related to the Arts or being in a natural environment or dredging up questions and memories, if not stuff, at thrift shops.

It might be as simple as going to a different library. It could be cooking a new type of soup. Maybe I’ll visit a natural space in the Lower Mainland that I haven’t yet been to, or have been to and would like to visit again. I merely have to find enjoyment in the thought of doing it and then, here’s the tricky part, I actually have to follow through on those original intentions.

So yesterday on CBC Radio when I heard that it was PWYC (PayWhatYouCan) Wednesday at The Firehall Arts Centre and that there was a play there called And Bella Sang with Us by Sally Stubbs, I walked to the train for the requisite 35 minute sit into Vancouver and got off at the Chinatown station.

I walked down past T&T, past the Sun Yat Sen Garden, up past the Chinese grocers and herbalists and turned left at Gore Ave crossing Main Street, then walking back across the street to The Firehall.

The play is a glimpse into the lives of two female constables showcasing a part of Vancouver’s early history that I knew nothing about. That alone made it interesting. The cast was really good and the script was interesting.

I sat down and a woman sat down beside me in a small audience of mainly retired folk. It was 1pm. We chatted a bit, enough for me to learn that she’d recently graduated from Photography at Emily Carr. That little bit of info was enough for me to know I wanted to chat more with her.

After the play was over, we talked briefly before she asked if I’d like to go for a walk if we picked up her dog in her nearby co-op. So, we walked a little deeper into Strathcona and she returned with a curly-haired poodle named Bodhi. He was more than ready to get some fresh air.

We walked into Strathcona Park, passed a professional dog walker, watched as some other millennial dog walkers chased Bodhi around. “He loves to be chased,” she said, as we watched him scurry the way happy, fast moving dogs run, back slightly arched as his little legs took him on a big excited swath of a circle, the smile on his small black lips almost discernable.

We continued down a street near Union Market and then back up a street past Strathcona Elementary. Another woman walking a small cream-coloured poodle stopped to let the dogs interact before continuing on her way.

“Do you know who that is?” asked my new acquaintance.”

“No, but she looks familiar,” I said.

“That’s Daphne Marlatt. She lives around here.”

“Oh, I love Daphne Marlatt’s long poem on Steveston,” I said, a poem I’d read years ago and I’ve never forgotten its effect on me at the time, way back in the early 1980s. Long poems still amaze me in their complexity.

We talked about the challenge of being the age we are and finding work. We talked about art and photography and we made a plan to meet again, to revisit the Walker Evans exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery before it ends on January 22nd.

And there you have it, a fine example of elevating an ordinary day.

Finding love and finding meaning, the human reasons to keep going

buddhaWhen we entered the temple last week we were told that we couldn’t go into the Hondo because a family was grieving and we’d have to enter in a little while.

Later we learned that it was actually the family of that young woman , Natsumi Kogawa, from Japan who had gone missing in September. Her body was found on the grounds of that mansion on Davie Street in Vancouver’s West End. They had come from Japan to plan her memorial service. It’s impossible to comprehend the sad reality that her family is now facing.

All I could think of was the excitement this young woman surely felt in coming to Vancouver, in improving her English. In thinking about all the new friends and experiences she imagined having before stepping onto the plane from Japan, and how unlikely it was that something like whatever transpired and that led to her death would happen to her here. 

As my attention focused back on the room, I wondered what had motivated all my fellow students to take an introduction to Buddhism course. I wanted to know their real motivation, deep inside, not the sanitized reason they shared about being interested in Buddhism and wanting to learn more.

For myself the past few years have all been about seeking, some people might say to my detriment. They would say that I just need to find a way to accept my life where I’m at. But I think I’ve finally recognized that it goes against my temperament to ever be satisfied for lengthy periods of time if things just stay the same and if I know I could be doing so much more, and I can’t seem to make that work where I’m at.  Isn’t that what “life” is about – experiences and moving through change?

Some things haven’t worked out, in fact, sometimes it feels like nothing has worked out very well in the past few years, and with  Salt Spring as the contrast where everything just felt like it was seamless and worked out with ease and little effort, the opposite has been a shock, another disappointment, an ongoing frustration and endless questioning about what I’m missing that surely must be right in front of me. 

On the other hand, the trying to make things work have led to the meeting of many people I wouldn’t have otherwise met and learning, and yet, I’m missing the key ingredients it seems: love in the way I feel I need it or would like to share it (which may be the problem and I’m smart enough to recognize that)  and meaning.

Zen Buddhism was the topic on our last week given by Reverend Michael Newton of Mountain Rain Zen Community at 2016 Wall Street and a professor in religious studies at SFU.

There were two things that really stood out for me from his words. The first was about how when we wake up from the stories we’ve been telling ourselves, stories that others have told about us since we were children that may or may not reflect who we really are, and we let go of those stories from the past, we can begin to step into the beautiful, clear presence, that’s the essence of Zen.

Each person according to their past and their uniqueness finds unique truths and that is why the truth cannot be told. Someone else cannot tell you your truth. You must find it within. Truth comes from your own experiences, your own practice.

That really resonated with me in the moment because I feel that looking around, looking at others isn’t giving me the answers I need, isn’t showing me my own very personal path. Their answers, their way of living, is not mine. So it requires that I get to the heart of what matters as my own very personal truth about my own life.

Yesterday as I was driving to a friend’s place to hear about her recent trip to Morocco, I was lucky to catch a radio show, Meaningful Man, on CBC Sunday Morning. It was about Viktor Frankl, the former Holocaust survivor, a brilliant man, and the author of  the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, a book that apparently poured out of him in nine days, and one that he had to dictate into a recorder to capture the manic stream of thoughts.

Today on Twitter, I’ve learned that Oct. 10th is World Mental Health Day, and I think some of the ideas spoken within the above documentary have the potential to bring comfort, or at least food for thought, to anyone who is struggling.  Please set aside about 50 minutes to listen to it.

Buddhism for Dummies at the Vancouver Buddhist Temple

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Vancouver Buddhist Temple altar with Amida Buddha

I was at the Powell Street Festival in August when I walked across Oppenheimer Park and noticed the Vancouver Buddhist Temple at 220 Jackson Street.

I climbed the steps and walked in. A gracious man whose name I would later learn to be Patrick [Couling] was taking questions from the few people dotting the pews. Yes, pews! In a Buddhist temple. Go figure.

In my brief visit, I learned of a 5 week course offering a very elementary introduction to some main types of Buddhism by knowledgeable speakers. At $30 for the five weeks, the opportunity was a no brainer.

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At San Fran temple

I’ve been interested in Buddhism ever since I set foot in a Buddhist temple in 1988 in San Francisco during a walking tour that began in Chinatown. I still have a photo above my desk that I took of the smoke wafting up from the incense sticks into a space that had a great view of the nearby Transamerica Pyramid. 

On the first night of the course, a fresh-faced young guy was tasked with explaining the mythology of Siddhartha.  Casey Collins, a PhD student in Asian Studies at UBC, ended up being one of the very best storytellers I have heard in recent memory. He wove contemporary references into the ancient story to make it entertaining and memorable.

Think of it this way. It would be like if one of the Kardashian sisters suddenly woke up and thought, this isn’t enough, I want more, I’m dissatisfied, but not just any dissatisfied, a very specific type of ennui. I want to know the meaning of life. I want to know why we have to get old, get sick and die. I think I’ll sit under a palm tree off Rodeo Drive, night and day, and then after renouncing Mac Cosmetics, Coach bags and Pilates, gossip, bitchiness and martinis, I’ll venture out into the world penniless to see what I might learn. And at the end she’d arrive at the four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold path.

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Green Tara poster bought from the OM guy on Salt Spring

Mr. Collins didn’t use this analogy — thankfully — but as someone who has sat through many, many stories in the past few years, I found it ironic that an academic-in-training would end up being the most exceptional story teller I’ve heard in a very long time. Yay for him.

The second evening was presented by Lama Rabten Tshering. I’m guessing he might have been in his 40s. He was dressed in his maroon robe, one long maroon sleeve, one short, golden, cap sleeve. His shaved head gleamed under the lights. He did, fittingly, seem pretty darn happy. An iPad for notes was propped up in front of him. I think I saw a cell phone as well.  Not sure why I expect monks to renounce technology in this day and age but I do. If you’re a grown man wearing a robe in public, it just seems wrong that you should be carrying tech gadgets to taint your spirituality. My bias. Partly kidding. He’s associated with a temple in East Van called NalandaBodhi.  

I enjoyed taking in his presence and my mind drifted back to my time in Thailand and Cambodia. I had so much curiosity towards the monks that I saw there, all ages, wandering the streets or cloistered on a mountain top (Sampeu Hill) just outside Battambang, Cambodia.dsc_0151

Every time I’d see them, they’d elicit so many questions. What were their days like? Were they content? Did they wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘oh, if only I’d just gone into engineering when I was 21 like my dad said I should have.’  I realize that whenever I see monks, I always assume they’re happy. Maybe they’re miserable. Maybe their misery is what drove them to become monks in the first place.

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in Angkor Wat compound

Back in the temple, Lama Tshering was drawing us in with long silent pauses while he gathered his thoughts. I filled those gaps by observing him intensely. I followed the irregular cadence of his voice that accompanied his slow sentences. I tried to stay awake as he used words I’d never heard, a challenge compounded by his accent.

He explained how important lineage is in Tibetan Buddhism. The right teacher and teachings handed down generation upon generation is really important.  He spoke of the Common and Uncommon paths. The Common path focused on recognizing human preciousness, death and impermanence, cause and effect, and Samsara, circuitous change.

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favourite print of mine

All I recall about the Uncommon Path is how many times you have to do stuff – 100,000 times – which for a full time monk, could take just two months to achieve. But, for the rest of us, possibly more than one lifetime. I see a disconnect with my way of being here. Ya think?

We did some meditation. Spine very straight. The lama sat in the lotus position, “not necessary,” he said. Chin not up, not down. Straight ahead, relaxed glance. Mouth not open, not closed. Huh? How does that work? A slight smile. Relaxed focus on the breath. Tibetan Buddhists do not close their eyes when they meditate. He had a lot of eyes staring back at him that night.

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Another favourite print of mine that hangs in my bedroom

The temple is right down there in Vancouver’s Downtown East side. Ambulance sirens blared every so often as we sat inside the Hondo hearing what might have been yet another call to another fentanyl overdose, just one type of struggle in a world where wandering off the “right path” seems to have become the predominant theme. And maybe that’s why staying curious, staying open, and seeking, in a spiritual way, feels like a necessity.