Porcupine Meatballs and The Artist’s Way

 

A friend of mine has been reading and doing The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Point me in the direction of acting like an artist. Show me the way. That’s not the book’s premise but it kind of sounds like it might be.

porcupine

Another artist friend who lived on Salt Spring gave me the book in 2010. At the time, I flipped through it and never looked at it again.  But I did keep it.

A few weeks ago when I learned of my other friend’s diligence (she’s on week 12), something in me was motivated as well.

I was reading Week 3 – Recovering a Sense of Power, and a small part refers to shaming in childhood and how that can affect our expression of creativity, especially when it comes to finishing things, in adulthood.

“Many artists begin a piece of work, get well along in it and then find, as they near completion, that the work seems mysteriously drained of merit. It’s no longer worth the trouble. To therapists, this surge of sudden disinterest (‘It doesn’t matter’) is a routine coping device employed to deny pain and ward off vulnerability.”

“If a child has ever been made to feel foolish for believing himself or herself talented, the act of actually finishing a piece of art (and this means art in the broadest terms) will be fraught with internal shaming.”

There was enough resonance in that statement for me that it got me off the couch in search of a yellow marker.

One of the tasks at the end of Week 3 is to dredge up some childhood memories. Favourite foods for example. For me I thought of Porcupine meatballs and Chocolate birthday cake with pennies wrapped up inside. Not combined. I recalled the joy of having one of those gumballs that come out of those machines where you slot in a quarter and out rolls a shiny pink molar-breaking tasteless piece of perfection. (Indeed, you are correct, it’s not a member of a food group). I also thought about tuna fish casserole with mushrooms and rice with melted cheese and chips on top that my grandmother used to make. (Sounds disgusting now but I loved it then). Baked potatoes with sour cream and bacon bits and grated cheddar cheese. Num. Num.

Favourite games? Snakes and Ladders. Chinese checkers. Checkers.  Candyland. 52 Pick-Up Stix. An imaginary “quicksand” game we played in Darryl McGuffey’s basement, the one that meant you had to leap from one piece of random furniture to the other because the floor was QUICKSAND!

Now I don’t know what it was about favourite foods but when I thought about my mother’s Porcupine Meatballs, my eyes got all teary and I stopped reading. They call them porcupine, I think, because rice gets poked into them and the rice can look a little like the quills on porcupines.  I hadn’t thought of those juicy round morsels of meat for ages and I got all choked up. The feeling came so quickly.

What the heck was  going on?  It’s Sunday morning and thinking about my mother’s homemade Porcupine meatballs led to tears running down my face. Oh god. That can only mean two things. Life has become extremely dull, Weight Watchers is getting to me, and I’m in more emotional danger than I imagine. Okay, that’s three.

I knew to really lean into the feeling, to let it happen. Then I thought about it, came up with two theories that made total sense, and eventually felt better.  No, I’m not going to tell you what it was about the Porcupine meatballs that induced emotion strong enough to make me cry. That’s for me to know and you to laugh about.

The point is…what is the point? The point is that books can be in your surroundings for a long time and then one day, they become the perfect book. You need to read that book. Have you ever noticed that? You can own a book forever and when it’s the right time to read it, you will read it. When it’s not, you will stop reading it. Profound eh? You spent 3 minutes reading this for THAT! Three minutes that will never ever come again. Forgive me.

Think back to your own childhood. Does a favorite food come to mind? I ‘d be curious to know what it is for you.

Oh, and this isn’t my mother’s recipe but it is a recipe for Porcupine Meatballs. I might just have to make it and see how it holds up to the memory.

There is no such thing as writer’s block

braille

Repeat after me. There is no such thing as writer’s block. There is no such thing as writer’s block. Apparently this is the truth in spite of the state itself – writer’s block – being referenced notoriously throughout creative history.

There is no such thing as writer’s block when it comes to most types of writing. I can agree with that bold statement.

Just write the damn thing. You have all the info. You’re not writing the next great Canadian novel, unless of course you are.  In comparison to writing a novel, journalism is like the Pin-The-Tail-On-The-Donkey game at the kind of birthday parties my mom hosted for us as kids. It’s like those old black velvet paintings, the ones with numbers in them. Just pick the colour and move the brush. You’ve done the interviews. You have what you need. Get on with it. Not that there aren’t other problems associated with it.  Sorry to any writers who don’t agree. But, if you have writer’s block and you work in journalism, or corporate communications or magazine writing, you’re probably in the wrong profession.

But, when it comes to writing a novel or a memoir, I’m going to venture being slapped by those who have gone before, persevered, and succeeded in overcoming, but I do believe there is a thing called Writer’s Block and I think I have it right now. Give me a pill. A shot. Early onset dementia. Amnesia maybe, at least that way I could forget I ever thought writing anything other than email was a good idea. Put me out of my misery.

I know what I’m supposed to do to move through it. I’m supposed to just sit my butt down, like now, in front of the computer and just start writing whatever comes to mind. Stream of consciousness, get the fingers moving,  get words on the computer screen or the page. It was a surprise to me to learn that it doesn’t matter if your first draft is crap. If you don’t think it’s crap, I hate to tell you this but it probably is crap and you just don’t know it yet. Heck, your second draft might be crap as well. Just get the ideas/words down.

Right away I can feel my resistance to that advice. I’m wondering if that type of advice may have contributed to Dick and Jane readers being published.  Not that they didn’t work to teach us, the tail end of the baby boomers, how to read.

And, one more thing. Do no editing as you’re writing that first draft. Think of writing as the good part of what you do in the bedroom. Writing is sex. Editing/re-writing is making the bed. Do not try to do both at the same time. They are distinct activities.  Or so I’m told.

I like the suggestion by Philip Pullman that you need to substitute the word writer for the word plumber and then see if you can justify something as ridiculous as Writer’s Block.  Do plumbers want to go to work every day and deal with #@#$. Of course not! They just do. Of course fixing a drain seems a little more straightforward to me than creating something from scratch that people will want to read. I mean, you don’t want plumbers getting all creative on you now do you? But there’s that resistance persisting again.

The other surprise to me, in the process of writing this thing that I’m working on (or not working on as is the case currently) is that structure is more important than just about anything else. The foundation is important. Who knew? It’s not just for carpenters.

This is a shock to someone whose modus operandi is stream of consciousness, a way of being that seems to work well for Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but not so much for the rest of us.

Structure will make the difference between helping the reader, giving them a map, comforting them, and allowing them to feel like they are a part of something or feeling, instead, like you have just led them into one of those corn mazes, they’ve been in there for hours, they’re getting frustrated, dehydrated, and bored and they can’t find their way out. Pretty soon they’re screaming or they’re wrecking the corn maze hedge. They don’t want to play. Book closed. Take it back to the library.

Readers don’t want to feel like that. I know. I’m a reader. I want to feel that I’m with my best friend and we’re having the best day of our lives, the most interesting conversations. We’re going somewhere we’ve never been before and damn it’s long overdue. Maybe we’re even learning something along the way. I want to feel like I’m on a journey. I don’t want to know all the answers up front. I want to feel a little different in some way by the time I crawl back into bed that night. I want to keep my memories that were created throughout the day, with me. I might even enjoy mulling them over again if they creep into my consciousness the next day and the day after that. That’s the experience you’re aiming to create when you write a book. Maybe not exactly, but something along those lines.

Laundry. Dishes. Grocery shopping. The Artist’s Way. Morning papers. Getting enough Vitamin D. Convincing myself to find a real job. Trying to figure out how I could move back to Salt Spring. Envisioning my probable homelessness. What to do to celebrate yet another birthday whipping around again at warp speed. Wondering if I’ll ever meet a man who’s interesting to me ever again, and vice versa.  These are all consuming my creative energy to an inordinate degree.  It’s like the blank page is trying to tell me something except I need a braille translator.

Can you relate?

Here are some suggestions by 13 writers for overcoming that non existent writer’s block thing.

When the writing wins

BookAuthor Brian Payton, the writing mentor for the 2012 nonfiction writing group at the SFU Writer’s Studio, of which I was one of nine members, has just released, to wide critical acclaim, his novel, The Wind is Not a River. 

It’s an entirely different experience reading a book written by someone that you know, however superficially, than it is to read the book of an author you’ve never met.

I know the tone of Brian’s voice, the rhythm with which he speaks and his dry humour. I can hear that voice in the book. I know the most minimal details about his life (because he is such a private person) and when I read things in the story that resemble the most minor of facts that I know to be true about his life, I wondered which small details in the book might represent some aspect of his life as well – if at all.

I could feel his inner strength, the peace with which he carries himself in the world and how faith, a faith that has had prominence in his life, finds a place as well,  in the story’s telling.

At SFU, every second Tuesday, we’d sit at the end of three tables pushed together in that horribly cramped room on the second floor of SFU’s downtown campus. Ten people would squeeze in to workshop the writing of four of our classmates in the three hour, biweekly sessions.  Halfway through the session,  Brian would provide snippets of insight during short talks that focused on some aspect of craft, as well as his own wrap on each of the pieces submitted that week, after we’d each taken a turn at providing our own.

I’m thinking back to late November 2012 when we were celebrating our wrap-up party at Saskia Wolsak’s fabulous old family home just up from Jericho Beach. Brian was there that night and on the high of having just discovered that a manuscript that he’d been working on for 12 years – on and off – was being bid on by New York agents.  We were in the tiny alcove that Saskia uses as a library as he told us what was transpiring, me peppering him with questions. He’d never once mentioned this manuscript in the preceding year.

So, to finally sit down yesterday, a day when January’s monsoons pelted down horizontally, and hold,”The Wind is Not A River,” in hand, has to rank right up there as one of life’s small but soul satisfying pleasures.

Sure, you might think I’m biased. I’m willing to admit, that might be a very small part of it. But, I also know that more often than not I have trouble reading fiction. More often than not, I’m not drawn in and I don’t finish a book. I rarely sit down and after the first paragraph continue inhaling the words on a page, disappointed that I can’t stay awake any longer or that other life necessities are impinging on me getting to the end of the story unfolding in my hands. I felt that way reading, The Wind is not a River.

First of all, I’m partial to islands.  Sure, I’ve heard of the Aleutian Islands but the name is pretty much the extent of my knowledge. Then there’s the history: a historical battle of huge significance, the only one fought on American soil during World War II and yet, so little wide-spread awareness about the facts.  There’s the secrecy imposed by the U.S. government about what was taking place there. Add in the tragedy of the small population of Aleuts and the ruin to their lives.   And, if that’s not enough, there’s the love story, well, actually, not to give things away,  but there’s more than one love story. The writing is so fluid that it runs off the page in the same way a wind or a river envelops everything that gets in its path.

The journey compelled me to keep reading as fast as I could. What would become of the main character, John Easley, who had already survived the impossible? Who doesn’t love a saga of physical endurance? Add in the courage and improbability of love pushing a wife to act, as only true love can, way beyond the limits of her comfort zone, especially after the regret of words that can’t be taken back.

The tenacity it took to craft this story, the research involved, the writing and re-writing, surely must be on par with that required by the book’s main character and his fictional quest.

Finally, there’s Brian’s ability to call up feminine sensibilities as required. Our almost all-female writing group surely helped with this part. I jest.

The audience for this book is so all encompassing how can it not fly off the shelves?

Buy one. I’m not lending you mine.

Learn more about Brian Payton and his other books off his website.

Watch this six minute interview with Brian on Global Toronto:   http://globalnews.ca/video/1078230/author-brian-payton

Song of a Stranger

It was as if he was sent with metaphors chosen especially for meeting me, even though, of course, he couldn’t know when he left his place that morning who he might meet, if anyone.

I was sitting at a Starbucks down the street from my place, outside on the patio. It was a beautiful day. A cold snap, rare for Vancouver. Watercolour indigo a steady swath above. Sunshine and the overhead heaters warmed my face. The heat off the red brick wall helped conjure up tropical destinations. White Sand. Black Sand. Playa del Carmen. The Big Island.

He walked by me coffee in hand.  Black sunglasses, plastic Aviator style. Shiny black ankle- high, square-toed boots. I’m not always friendly in the city. I stopped greeting strangers as a matter of course within six months of returning from Salt Spring.  As he walked by, I looked up and said it quietly.

“Hi.”

He responded in kind.

“Hello.”

I wasn’t acting on any instinct about him. Just being polite. He sat down to my right and a sideways glance offered me a closer look.  Not sure why I looked. Maybe because he and I were the only ones out there braving the cold which wasn’t actually that cold.

The first words? Might have been about the weather. That’s how these things always begin don’t they? Nothing big. Just an intro, willingness.

“Nice out eh?” I said.

He looked over at me. “You’ve got a small window,” he said. “Between now and 2pm. After that it gets really cold.”

He put his hand against the brick. I did too and he was right. Campfires. Barbecues. The kind of straight-on heat that burns but in a good way. He had an accent. Eastern European? His words seeped out rhythmically as if he were talking a jazz tune.

I couldn’t tell how old he was. Maybe sixties. Barely there stubble on his chin and cheeks; kinda sexy. He didn’t bother to take off his sunglasses. He was drinking a venté-sized coffee. At least I’m guessing it was coffee, lots of milk, bit of sugar perhaps. He didn’t seem the kind to order a special drink.

A song from the sixties –Downtown – was piping out of the sound system.  That song took me back to the dining room of the house I grew up in. I can’t hear that song and not recall my sisters’ love of that song – the Petula Clark version. I imagined them buying the vinyl 45 in downtown Vancouver. They’d drag out that blue and white record player and plug it in. They’d remove the shiny black plastic disc from its sleeve, place it carefully onto the raised platform and then lift the needle encased in its white plastic arm and place it flatly over the thin silver totem that spun wobbly in the middle.

“Must have been  the late 60s?” he asked. “Motown?” “Detroit?” “Detroit a model city back then,” he said.  “Motor city.”

I didn’t think I’d ever met anyone who’d been to Detroit. I asked him why he had.

“My extended family lived just outside of Chicago,” he said. “Went through there all the time. The music. The cars dealerships.  Jimmy Hoffa.”

“Did you know it just went bankrupt?” I asked.  “Not sure what that means exactly.”

“Officially, you mean? Officially bankrupt?”

“Yeah, officially,” I said.

“It means services gone. Pensions cut.  Everybody leaving. Everybody who can that is.”

Then he changed the topic.

“I worked in shelters for a long time,” he said.  “The other week. I came across this homeless lady on the street. Outside the pharmacy down there. Guess they called the cops. It’s like when two parallel universes collide. When realities are so far apart that one thinks they’re helping the other but the other, the one who seems to need help, doesn’t understand, doesn’t know why someone’s bothering with them.  The police officer can’t really comprehend what might have transpired for the person to get them there and first thing this police officer says to the woman,  “I’ll take you to a shelter. “‘

“And the homeless woman, she’s staring at the cop wondering why this cop is bothering her. She doesn’t want to go to a shelter. Why would she?  Why can’t she just stay, just live her life.  It’s still a free country isn’t it? They are so far removed from each other’s realities that they have nothing to offer each other. Sometimes it’s like living in a parallel universe. Writing can be like that as well,” he said.

I hadn’t told him that I was a writer.

“Are you a writer?” I asked him.

“I used to write,”he said. “I used to have an urgency. Not so much anymore.”

“Only a writer would ever say something like that,” I said. “Nobody else would even think about that kind of thing or have that kind of experience.”

“I used to urgently scribble everything down,” he said. “Now, I  just don’t have the ambition. I like the ideas. I like the thoughts that arise. That’s the beauty more than the writing. Imagination: using it.”

“That’s what life’s like when you’re on a journey. You can be on a journey or you can be comfortable,”he said.  “You can’t be both.”

“Take people out of their cars, and out of their offices, strip away their titles and their routines and the majority would be lost; wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. They wouldn’t be able to handle the hours stretched before them and yet, we look at them, those of us observing, some with envy, some with disdain, and assume that because they have some place to be, that they’ve got it all figured out. It’s good to remind ourselves that they haven’t figured out anything more than you and I. Probably not. They haven’t figured out those things that are going to be critical in old age, to that place we’re all headed.”

“My thing, what I try to do now, is just be. I try to find a way to find the contentment, regardless of where I am. Forget the past. Don’t get stuck. Let it go. It keeps you back in a different type of parallel universe that never turned out to be no matter how badly you wanted it. Don’t go to the future either. Just be right now. That’s all there is to work with really.”

“I haven’t been content for too long in my life,” he said.

“Me neither,” I said quietly.

“Sure, a few years. I lived up north. Lived in a small town up north and at first I thought, this is it. I’ve found what I’m looking for. All nature and isolation. Nice enough people I guess. And then just two years in and I began to think, What am I doing here? How  is being here helping me develop as a person? And, that’s when I knew that I had to get out of there. So I left and it took me a long time to figure out what was next. I eventually ended up working in emergency shelters.”

I didn’t wonder immediately, but later I wondered if he’d ended up living in one himself. Is that how he’d come to work there? I didn’t ask.

“Thought I might find some pearls of wisdom there,” he said. “At least more than some other places where I’d have to spend the day to get money. And I did, occasionally, but mostly I found people who didn’t want to change; islands unto themselves.

“I asked him where he was from, originally that is.

“ I usually say I’m from a place where the cathedral is over there, history up the ying, yang, Mozart and other composers as neighbors. I used to walk down the street back home and sometimes I’d sit down on a bench and think, Mozart walked here. Mozart probably sat on this bench. I think I’ll sit myself down and see if any of his inspiration might still be left here. It might seep up from that bench into me. So what if I had potato soup for breakfast as a kid. So what if there was no such thing as no fancy coffee. Where’s the inspiration in that? I can walk down to the next Starbucks, and the next, and the next  and have the same coffee there, the same experience, the same food. I can warm up but where am I? How has the experience added anything?”

“Sometimes it’s good to be in the wilderness. Sometimes climbing Mount Everest, even when you’re in the city, is going to take you where you need to be.  I used to want to climb Mount Everest. Now, I go to Hollyburn. I find a spot that feels right and I sit down and I take it all in and it doesn’t matter whether it’s Everest or Hollyburn.  I’m thinking and observing, being a part of a place, just the same way I would be if I was at Everest because, in a way, I am there – especially if I’m in the moment.”

“I went to university for a few years,” he said, changing the topic again. “I wanted to take Paleontology. I didn’t know that you had to believe in Evolution. Nobody said I had to believe in Evolution to pass a Paleontology exam. It took me about four or five years to recover from university. Now that I’m older I realize none of that stuff matters.”

“Well, what do you believe?” I asked, not picking up the obvious.

“Creation. I believe in Creation,” he said.

I didn’t say a thing. Who was this guy? Was he Jesus? Is that how it works? Does Jesus show up dressed like a regular dude? Jesus as shape-shifter?  Was I in some old episode of that TV series, Touched by an Angel? Was there a hidden camera? Imagine if it were true. Think about what it might be like if Jesus could just decide each day where he wanted to touch down. And of all the gin joints in all the world he found me, in Starbucks no less. Was he lost, too?  This ain’t Jerusalem, I’d think to myself, sarcastically.  But maybe all the same to him. They don’t call him the Holy Ghost for nothing. Now here he was, right beside me, because I was one of his blessed children and he could feel the need. “You’re on a journey, every journey important in the seeking. At least, you’re paying attention. You’re still asking questions. Is that what Jesus would tell me?

We’d spent more than 45 minutes talking. I was freezing. I needed to go home, needed to pee.

I stretched out my hand and told him my name.

“Really nice talking to you,” he said and grabbed my hand as well.

“Bystrich,” he said.  “Parents called me Bisquick when they were in a hurry.”

He laughed at the memory.

“Tell me your name again,” I said. “Can you spell it for me?”

“Bystrich. B. Y. S.T.R.I.C.H.”

He spelled it out as if he’d just hummed a song we’re all singing aren’t we?

Serendipity and Speaking of Mothers

I’m a huge proponent of paying attention to serendipitous events when the little tinker bells get set off. Ding. Ding. Ding.

Much of  Sunday and Monday of this past long weekend saw me deep into a story that I’ve been working on about my mother.  I was re-writing it trying to add more depth, pulling seams that might unravel buried moments in time.

Now pay attention. Here’s where serendipity comes in. A few days ago, I noticed an event that was happening at River Market that had something to do with storytelling and healing. There was a workshop component. It said that it was a fundraiser for the businesses that were lost to the recent Columbia Street fire.

Four women were presenting. First up. The founder of Royal City Writers who is the speechwriter for the president of UBC. Next? A doctor who is an actor and a film maker. Then, an actor/writer/producer and the founder of something called the Mothership Stories Society who happens to be a New Westminster resident. And last, Elee Kraljee Gardiner, host of Thursday’s Writing Collective in the Downtown Eastside, and a woman who must have huge amounts of energy given all that she’s involved in.

When Marilyn Norry, the founder of Mothership Stories Society got up on stage to speak,  I couldn’t believe it. Everything she was speaking about was relevant to what I’d just spent the past three days focused on. I realized that she’s the one who developed the idea that grew into two books and a play that I’d seen in North Vancouver last year at Presentation House; a play that had eight actors performing stories written by women who were telling their mothers’ stories. Serendipity with a capital S!

gordandIasbabies(Of course I’m the redhead on the right)

When it came time for the breakout groups, I sat in on hers. Three other women were in the group. I kept thinking that I had met one of the other women before but couldn’t place where that might be. Don’t ya just hate that?

Turns out she’s a scriptwriter for television. So, okay, there’s no way I would have met her related to that. She was wearing a red Baywatch jacket which she said, they were told, they could wear anywhere they wanted as long as they never wore it to a beach anywhere in L.A.  because someone might mistake them for a real lifeguard.  I thought that was funny.

There’s no way I know this woman and yet she seems so familiar to me. She grew up in New York and has lived and worked in L.A. Now, she lives in New West and in her words, I wouldn’t trade this place for anywhere…”  She’s lived here four years.

We exchanged cards and decided that it was a great idea to get together as a way to keep focused on continuing with the exercise.

So, New West, I’m opening my mind and getting rid of the “attitude” towards you.  Childhood was another lifetime ago. That was then. This is now. You’re not Salt Spring. That’s painfully clear. But, it’s been two years already. Since I’m here, a little acceptance and a little participation is long overdue.

As an aside, here’s something I wrote about my mother after she passed away.

If you’re interested in writing your mother’s story, Marilyn Norry hosts workshops.  You can put your mother’s story right onto the Mothership site. 

Heart Attack False Alarm

I thought I was having a heart attack on Saturday night. There is only one thing worse than thinking that you’re having a heart attack and that’s having a heart attack. Just guessing.

It might have been the fried calamari that I devoured at The Libra Room where I was earlier in the evening. Or the three drinks. Or just general anxiety, but I was woken up out of a sound sleep with a feeling of congestion that moved to full blown pressure and pain right in the middle of my chest. There were no other symptoms. I tossed and turned. Surely it would go away. I was freezing. It was getting stronger. I waited 15 then 20 minutes. I became really alarmed. The clock said 1:49 am. But, that wasn’t right. I’d forgot to rewind an hour in honour of daylight savings. I got into a yoga pose on my bed. Maybe that would help. Why would I think that?

I got up. I paced. I pushed my hands against the middle of my chest. I picked up the phone. Should I? Shouldn’t I? I put the phone down. I picked up the phone again. Female. Over 50. Sedentary. Women’s heart attacks unique. The script was running in my head. Would I rather be dead or proven wrong in my self diagnosis?

I can’t stand going to the doctor, let alone calling an ambulance. I picked up the phone one more time. Do you know how hard it is to call an ambulance for yourself?

Police? Fire? Ambulance?

Ambulance.

For which city?

New West!

“Do you have any baby aspirin?” asked the woman on the phone. She sounded a little frightened.

How would I get them to her? I thought.

Nope. Tylenol. Ibruprofen. Will those do?

“No. Stay on the line. Don’t hang up. If something changes, let me know. The fire truck’s coming.”

Holy mother of Mary. Firemen? In my apartment? Would you look at yourself? I have firemen coming into my messy apartment while I’m wearing checkered flannel pajama bottoms. That should have been the first clue that I wasn’t actually having a heart attack. I suspect people who are having a full blown heart attack aren’t especially concerned with fashion.

I managed to buzz them in and answered the door. First words out of my mouth? “I’m sorry.” It didn’t matter that I might be having a heart attack.  I’m still Canadian. We have a reputation to uphold. Let’s get the apology out up front and quickly.

They got right to work. Shortly after arriving, more people came in. It was like a party. I’m not sure I’ve had so many good looking guys in my apartment at one time. No, I’m positive. I haven’t. The advanced care paramedic unit arrived next. Crikey! I knew I should have shaved my legs. A guy is sticking those white tabs on me that hooks me up to a portable EKG machine. I’m beyond humiliation at this point.

Their leader, a woman, is barking questions at me. I don’t know about you but as someone who pretty much exists mainly above the neck, when people ask urgent questions about where you feel it and how it feels, I have to think about it for just a minute. I’m not so in tune with my body that I can answer that definitively and quickly while under stress. It might as well have been calculus.

Finally a third team, the regular paramedics, show up. They’re taking me to the hospital. I ask them if I can get dressed. They cart me off. It’s practically empty in there. I’m seated almost on top of a guy who’s lying on a stretcher in a neck brace. I’m so close to him I’m almost breathing on his forehead. I imagine the warm rush of garlic from the calamari I’d eaten earlier wafting over him. They take me to the waiting area. It’s uncharacteristically empty.

“This shouldn’t take too long,” said the paramedic. Famous last words. Right up there with “I’ll call you.” I wait and I wait. The waiting room was empty. A nurse comes in and takes my blood pressure. Takes my temperature. A woman with incredible skin does another EKG. The nurse comes back and hands me a jar to pee in and two wipes. I look at those packages. What are those for? Are those for me? Have they no toilet paper? Why do they think I’ll know what to do with these? I wipe the jar with them.

“The doctor won’t be too long,” says the nurse.

I wait and I wait. An hour passes.

“I think he’s in trauma,” she says. So am I, I think to myself.

Another hour passes.

“Actually, I just saw him in front of a computer,” she says. Another 20 minutes pass.

Finally, I just get up. “Maybe I’ll just leave,” I say to the nurses. “False alarm,” I say.

“It’s up to you,” says the one with the long black hair. “I can’t tell you exactly how long he’ll be. He’s the only one on right now.” I look again at the empty waiting room.

Another 30 minutes passes. I was torn then. I felt like I was on the phone with Telus or Rogers or maybe Shaw. I was trapped. I didn’t want to hang up. I didn’t want to lose my place in line. Maybe hospitals need that callback feature. I went back to my chair. Pulled on my coat. Leaned against the wall. Closed my eyes.

Where else would this happen? Could you ever go to a restaurant and have them look at you, size you up, and not bother to serve you because, well, look at you, you’re not starving. You can wait. Look at that guy over there. He’s only 110 pounds. He’s emaciated. Nope. That would never happen.

I mean, I have great sympathy for hospital workers but there’s a limit. Where was the doctor? Was he having sex in a supply room? Was he napping? Was he playing that popular video game, Metal Gear?

Yes. I get it. I wasn’t an emergency after all. Sorry to disappoint. I’m not going to heaven or hell tonight. Thankfully, I won’t be forced to witness my entire life flash before my eyes. Still, I’d rather not sit in a grungy waiting room at 3:00 am, especially when it seemed like a slow night. Was there a whole other ward hidden to me that was lined to the rafters with puking, cancerous, heart attack, super bug degenerating Canadians on their deathbeds?

Finally, a guy walks in. I can’t stop staring at his shiny bald head. I wonder if he’s actually just pretending to be a doctor. He asks me a few questions, the kind he could have easily stolen from Grey’s Anatomy. He pushes on my stomach and says something about gall bladder. Ultrasound. Wait here for a piece of paper. He’s gone.

When I finally leave, the nurses say goodbye to me in unison as if I’m a relative leaving on a long trip and they’re WestJet flight attendants. I walk home. A homeless guy approaches me. It’s now about 5:00 am.

“Do you know what time it is?” he asks.

I think it’s about 3:30, I tell him in  my disorientation.

“No way. It can’t be that early,” says the poor guy, thinking he’s can’t possibly have five more hours of aimless wandering before he can grab a coffee.

And you know what I really think? I think he may be right.  I think it may be later than we all think.

Meet Pauline Johnson through City Opera Vancouver

He called her and she said sure she’d do it. That’s what Charles Barber said about asking Margaret Atwood if she would be interested in working on a chamber opera  about Pauline Johnson with Vancouver composer Tobin Stokes. There was no hesitation said Barber, describing Atwood as easy to work with and so incredibly smart, way smarter than you might even imagine.

Well, no, I thought. I think we all think she’s pretty smart.

220px-Tekahionwake_ca_1895image from Wikipedia

The event was part of the  Heart of the City festival in Vancouver’s downtown east side hosted at the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum and Archives (which I didn’t even know existed), just around the corner from the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Gardens. The festival runs to Sunday, November 3.

As we’d discover, each of the four people seated at the front of the room  have been working together on a new chamber opera (that means a smaller, more intimate opera) for City Opera Vancouver about the late great E. Pauline Johnson or Pauline Johnson to most of us. The “E” stands for Emily, which was her mother’s name.

If you’re Canadian, you, at the very least, are familiar with the name. Pauline Johnson. Poet. Performer. Mohawk chief as a father. English immigrant mother. She travelled around Canada, the U.S., and Britain entertaining, reciting her lyric poetry, playing up her half blood ancestry. She was an independent woman, way ahead of her time, travelling on her own when women just didn’t do that and living between 1861 and 1913.

She paddled her canoe in the waters between Coal Harbour and Lost Lagoon. Born in Brantford, Ontario. Lived a comfortable life as a child in a large house on the Grand River called Chiefswood that she spent the rest of her life missing and romanticizing. Never married (rumour has it her heart was broken)  but she had many suitors as they would say back then, and one special one whose photo she kept in a locket that she never removed.

She died penniless in a rooming house on Howe Street, looked after in her last days (when she was suffering the horrors of breast cancer at a time when there was no treatment) by the women of IODE. She is the only person to be officially buried in Stanley Park, with a monument north of the Teahouse or Sequoia Grill. You’ll find it if you really want to.

You can read the definitive biography, Flint & Feather by Charlotte Gray.

We met the opera company’s artistic director, Charles Barber, the director of Pauline, Norman Armour, who is the director of Vancouver’s Push Festival. We heard from the composer, Tobin Stokes, and the young opera singer, Rose Ellen Nichols who is to be Pauline Johnson on stage.

Nichols hails from Sechelt and the Sechelt Band and grew up fishing and hunting with her family. She couldn’t really explain how it is that she went from a simple rural childhood to moving to the city at 17 and then getting involved in Opera at UBC but she did say that like Johnson, she has always felt that she has felt torn between two lives – one back at home and the one she now lives in the city.

It was fascinating to be able to sit and hear Barber talk about what it takes to develop and stage this new opera (budget: $300,000), for five nights in May 2014. The event will take place in the York Theatre,  the newest addition to  The Cultch.

The group had just spent the day workshopping with Margaret Atwood in attendance.

It was interesting that Barber knew so many of the people in attendance on a first name basis; people who live in the downtown east side and who have probably attended other events at Carnegie Community Centre.

The premiere of  Pauline is set for May 15th and run for five days. But here’s the thing. There’s a performance (no costumes) set to run at Carnegie Centre on November 29th from 7-9 pm. It’s open to the public. The goal is to get feedback from an audience.

Are you in?