Once upon a time…
Events, readings and a writer’s hope
- June 2016: A finalist for The Writers’ Union of Canada Short Prose Competition
- May 2016: One of seven writers to do a public reading at closing of Diverse/City Exhibit
- May 2016: Delivered a nonfiction workshop on memoir writing with Esmeralda Cabral at Lit Fest New West: Mining personal artefacts as the foundations for memoir writing.
- April 2016: An exhibit: Diverse/City exhibit at Anvil Centre with Eryne Donahue based on an excerpt from My Perfect Friend, one of my original nonfiction stories.
- February 2016: Participation in the TWS Reading Series at The Cottage Bistro, where I read my nonfiction piece, Diagnose that!
In Good Company
During 2012, I was a student in The Writer’s Studio, a part-time creative writing program at Simon Fraser University that allows writers to announce their commitment to writing as an important part of their identities.
I was one member of a community of 30 other writers in that year, and a much broader Writer’s Studio community. We attended guest lectures by published writers such as Writer’s Studio founder Betsy Warland as well as Timothy Taylor and Evelyn Lau to name a few.
Our writing was workshopped by the other members of our cohort and by a published writer who facilitates the various genres.
In October 2012, we published Emerge, an anthology of our writing, and hosted its launch. We also performed readings around Vancouver at local cafes including the Cottage Bistro on Main Street, an ongoing hub for readings of Writer’s Studio alum.
Author and nonfiction writer Brian Payton was the mentor for the narrative nonfiction group in 2012. His novel, The Wind is Not the River, garnered him a major advance from a New York Publisher in December 2012.
In 2014, I was in a manuscript class with six other writers facilitated by poet, novelist, activist, and associate director of The Writer’s Studio, Wayde Compton. Wayde’s most recent publication is The Outer Harbour. His activism is associated with the Hogan’s Alley project.
Mostly I write nonfiction…
Here’s a story I wrote about the experience of travelling to Finland in the summer of 1981 to meet a family I’d never met, to work as an Au pair. In fact, all I ended up doing was hanging out with their daughter, Johanna, two years my junior. Her English improved immensely. My non-existent Finnish? Not so much!
Midnight Sun Introductions
Just a short article in The Vancouver Sun called Youth on the Go. I cut it out. Licked stamps. Weeks later, a paper full of Times New Roman pecks from an old-fashioned typewriter arrived back through the front door mail slot. The choice of words and sentences were a charming jumble of the style that only ESL learners can craft.
It was Friday, June 13, 1981. My ticket read YVR to HEL with HEL being short for Helsinki. As the crow flies, 7,525.29 miles. Off to meet the Kuisma’s. Father Veikko. Mother Paula. Their only kid, 17-year-old Johanna, two years younger than me. I was a virgin traveller. Literally. Waving goodbye to my parents, my eyes filled wet to the brims but did not overflow as I walked down that airport hallway, heading into the Scandinavian unknown.
Itinerary: Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and finally Montreal’s Mirabel. Massive turbulence somewhere over Saskatchewan. I was white knuckling the armrests. Six o’ clock and not even out of my whole damn world in a country.
Arriving in Montreal, passing time, I witnessed a scene that encapsulated the absoluteness of a feeling I’d always had of Them and Me. I watched a beautiful blonde-haired woman, whom I guessed to be in her late twenties, receive an enormous send off from friends and family. I compared that whirlwind of love and laughter to the quiet glances and few words spoken between my parents and me. Not even a kiss goodbye. It just wasn’t their way.
Finally at 10:30 pm, Finnair boarding. White linen. Silver cutlery. Coq au vin. Endless evening. I don’t believe I slept at all.
Felt like hours, or was it days? Then the searing white light of those plastic window shades raised without inquiry or apology over Greenland, and the sickly sweet spray of perfume from the Polyester granny squished in beside me. She had the window seat and she was taking the time to get ready for the eventual descent. Her baloney arms flopped out of the jersey fabric of her dress and draped over mine exacerbating my situational claustrophobia.
I felt slightly noxious from the long long trip and from anticipation of meeting these strangers I was about to spend a few months with. There was no turning back. The lingering sweetness of granny’s well-meaning, early morning misting hadn’t helped.
Zombie-like I walked off the plane, only slightly aware of the whoosh of families surging forward all around me. Masses at the starting gates of their own summer destinies.
I looked hesitantly around the waiting room until I spotted them. Or more accurately, I spotted IT. A hand-made sign with my name and CANADA in capital letters scrawled like a scream across the front. CANADA was held high by a man, strong and handsome, tall and tanned. His blond-haired, teenage daughter, skinny as all get out in her powder blue overalls, stared openly.
What had she got herself into? I was sure she was thinking the same thing as I was.
“Everyone speaks English in Scandinavia.” That’s what friends had said, reassuringly, before I left. But Finland isn’t like the rest of Scandinavia. And they didn’t. Speak English. Not really. Johanna had the basics. Veikko had hello and goodbye. Paula was Finnish speaking through and through.
Arm gestures. Smiles. Mimes. Contortionists. A rising anxiety about the finality of my arriving.
We walked out of the small airport and down black pavement towards a two door, aqua marine-coloured Toyota Corolla. Later, I learned that it was the first car that Paula and Veikko had ever owned. They were in their forties then. I’d soon find out they were a fit as you’d expect. No problem with putting an early morning 10k run to bed.
A quick maneuvering onto some motorway and an hour or so later, we pulled into an above ground parking lot closed to the street by a black iron gate. Somehow we made our entrance into a small apartment on the second floor above. I have no recollection as to how we got there. Stairs? Elevator? I couldn’t say.
When we entered the suite, I recalled thinking, Oh, they weren’t kidding. It was the smallest apartment I’d ever seen. Just four rooms. Only a short entrance hallway, the only hallway separating the rooms, the rest of them smack up against each other wall to wall.
Johanna introduced me to her mother, Paula. Feeling shy and awkward, I smiled, executed a Finnish hello, “hyvää päivää,” and shook her hand.
When I spotted the kitchen table, I realized she must have stayed behind to put the last minute touches on some sort of Finnish delicacy that she’d slaved over all afternoon.
When she placed the dinner on the table, boiled potatoes steaming beside what looked like small pieces of liver awash in milk, oily pools floating on the glistening surface. I gulped back a gag reflex. It wouldn’t do to have a diplomatic faux pas so early in our togetherness. Still, I had to think of SOMETHING.
“I’m sorry.” Hands gesturing. “Really not hungry.” “Long, long flight.” Could she even understand me?
After dinner, in spite of my exhaustion, we were on the move again. Second wind.
It was a special time of year: Midsummer’s Eve weekend, the very important Scandinavian festival of the summer solstice. We piled back into the Corolla and headed out of the city. Traffic, almost at a standstill and three lanes deep, squeezed onto the highway, cars weaving their turns like a mechanical hair braid. The entire city of Lahti appeared bent on some emergency exodus.
Johanna and I were stuffed into the small back seat. She sat beside me, straight and happy, like a gypsy, her budgies in their silver cage propped on her lap for the journey. I sat silently, taking it all in, the humour of the situation not lost on me in spite of it being hour 49 or so of my enforced alertness.
We were headed to their cottage in Asikkala. My bleary eyes scanned the scenery as we passed small evergreens, red barns, frigid black lakes and sloping hillsides.
By the end of the summer, I’d carry with me the memory of at least one, 100 yard dash out of the ubiquitous sauna where swarthy Finns sometimes swipe at each others backs with vasta, the Finnish name for silver birch leaf wands, that when thrashed against a human back emit the most astringently fresh aroma.
When we arrived, about an hour later, down a quiet, empty lane, cloaked on either side by tall skinny trees with white bark and round leaves waving silver in the wind, we burst into the meadow, where the barn and the cottage sat waiting. It was breathtaking. It was also very far away from everything. There were no neighbours in sight. Just country quiet and the cool, clean air of rural dusk inhaled.
What the hell? Look at this place. What am I going to do HERE all summer? Help me God. It wasn’t even day two and I was praying under my breath. Turns out, we weren’t spending all summer here. Just most weekends.
Finally we bedded down. Me in a small back room, beyond tired, and yet still unable to close my eyes, a state aided by the interminable daylight.
At some point, I finally dozed off only to be awakened in a frightful start by urgent cries from the kitchen where Johanna had bedded down on a cot.
“Aiti! Aiti!” This was pronounced I EE TEE. I EE TEE.
Why was she yelling?
What was she saying?
I heard shuffling and shushing as Paula tried to quiet her down.
“Mother. Mother.” I’d learn the next day, that’s what she’d been squealing.
I lay my head back down and left reality for oblivion until I awoke again to silence. I had no idea what time it was. I had no way to know how much time had passed.
It was as bright as early morning.
I pulled back the covers, got out of bed ever so gingerly and tip-toed across the empty kitchen. Johanna’s cot was empty. Where was she?
Was it morning yet? I had to pee. I’d peeked around the wall that led to the living room where I thought Paula and Veikko were sleeping. They weren’t there either. There was nobody around.
I crept down the front steps of their idyllic country cottage and and all these years later – 35 years to be exact – I can still feel the rawness of my soles on that dirt-pebbled path. The red barn where the outhouse was lay straight in front of me, a mere 30 metres or so ahead. I can picture the blue and red green slices of the dart board with its bulls eye that would help wile away some of the quieter afternoons to come. The poster of a gorgeous model with flowing brown hair was beckoning me from inside the barn.
It was the lightest of nights. My heart seemed to be beating in a weird staccato time in the land of the Midnight Sun and I’ve never forgotten the feeling I had as I headed down that path. Mist was shrouding the green fields that lay like a fairway to my right, evergreens in the distance, enough of them to trick me into thinking I might actually still be in Canada, that this might all just be some strange dream.
As I’d learn the next day, Johanna’s yelling that first evening was to ward off the encroachment of a tiny, grey mouse, the same one that I’m pretty sure visited me many an evening throughout that long, hot summer in that cottage in Asikkala in the quiet Finnish countryside.
I recall stopping to observe my surroundings, fully aware of what a beautiful postcard the scene would have made. There I was. A young woman in a light summer nightgown, stepping tentatively down a gravel path, red cottage dotting the background, and the dusk of an evening bloated with blues and mauves, greys and greens all around.
I’d never felt more alone. I’d never felt more free.
Sometimes I write poetry…
In the West End
stilettos running on cement
are all it can take
to crack my
talking heads on TV
the other side
of the wall
A Harley’s engine
the clock radio grows
a neon mind of its own,
spoons with worry
to fit inside quiet
at half past four.
Waiting for sleep
when you can’t
The Rocky Mountaineer’s First Winter Train
What better place
to fall in love
than on a train
as if freshly painted
across history’s path
boulders boasting legends
and your brown and steady fingers
stroke a silver flute
delivering feather notes soft as clouds
swinging in time
to the clicking
of the tracks.
I liked it much better
when you and I
and your words waited
like a secret
inside the mailbox.
as warm as your smile
and a hug
scrawled on white envelopes
some even made of
Thanks for reading.