Grow Your World … and Yourself

Did you ever ask yourself how water got onto the surface of our planet? I expect many of you already know. But I did not. I wandered into the living room one day when my husband Roland was watching TV. Much of our water, a voice-over was explaining, was released from inside the earth by volcanoes. It came out in the form of steam and formed clouds. Then it rained for hundreds of thousands of years. Not forty days and forty nights. Hundreds of thousands of years! It still brings tears into my throat to think about that. And not the “Oh, in Vancouver it always rains” kind of tears. No. These are tears that begin to acknowledge how much bigger and broader and longer and deeper “being” is than I. That can feel like an enormous relief.

I tried to grow up in a small world, I think, to contain myself and my surroundings, make sense, maintain control. It was a small, safe, slightly snobby world. Even though I traveled to the Netherlands four times before I was twenty-five, and lived in Ontario, Mexico, Montreal and Switzerland in my twenties, I still tried to keep my world small, especially here on the West Coast, in Vancouver. Whenever I came home, I settled back into West Point Grey, venturing downtown sometimes and to Kerrisdale and Kitsilano, but that was about it.

When I was five, I started kindergarten. (I had attended a wonderful preschool with one of the best teachers I have ever encountered, Pauline Wenn. She is now a professional storyteller.) But at the age of five, with kindergarten, formal schooling began. Almost immediately, I decided that it was best to conform. My father had always eaten the core along with the apple and I had done that too, with pride. In kindergarten, I stopped. I observed carefully how others ate apples, (the right way, I assumed) and followed their lead. At about that time, I started collecting moments of burning shame, when I was caught in a spotlight, my ignorance or other failings revealed to others. I locked those moments in a deep dark vault, and any time I opened it, even a crack, they all came tumbling out together. Horrors like the time I walked into the wrong classroom and starting to hang up my coat, and the time I came late one day because I believed that we were starting at ten o’clock that morning, not the next. They don’t bother me now. But they did for years and years and years.

Ironically, while my focus today is a writer’s need to live large, to let in the other, to look beyond her nearest horizons, everything in a writer’s experience is significant. None of us is unique, and, unfortunately, most children learn about shame early and carry it with them their whole lives. Yet, all experience, narrow or broad, is potential material, and even deeper than that, all experience informs our writing if we let it. So, while I encourage all writers to look beyond their own four walls or their own block or their own neighbourhood, we also need to look the other way, inside ourselves. A writer could never venture beyond her own bedroom, and still create a worthy body of work. We all know of some who have. I, however, am not made of the same stuff as an Emily Dickinson. I need broad as well as deep.

When I was nine, my parents tried to expand my world, inside and out, by enrolling me in a school on the east side of Vancouver, at 15th and Commercial Drive. The New School, it was called. The year was 1970 and the school was known as a free school, although it cost money to go there. I remember baking bread at a teacher’s house, going camping on Salt Spring Island and sneaking off with children who were more sophisticated than I to play spin the bottle in the basement, but I don’t remember learning anything in the way I thought a person was supposed to learn at school. I was not aware that that school was stretching me and opening me up to a larger world, but it was. It did. Anyway, to me that school was far, far away. We had to drive across the city every day to get there. For grade five, I transferred to University Hill Elementary School, back in the safe, small world of West Point Grey.

Then, when I was 31, I met Roland, my husband to be. He lived in Marpole. Marpole! I believe that my nose constricted a little at the thought of that neighbourhood, which I suppose I thought of as slightly seedy. Remember, I used the word “snobby” earlier. And he had spent the bulk of his childhood in Surrey, not too far from Whalley, in a house with a turret that his father built with his own hands from stones collected off the property. They called it The Castle. It is gone now. The first time Roland mentioned Whalley, I asked him what that was. I still remember the look he gave me. I ended up living with him in Marpole for more than ten years (and liking it), and now we live quite a distance east of that East Vancouver school where I spent grade four. My world continues to expand! Roland and I explore the Lower Mainland by bicycle. Discovering each new area is exhilarating.

In the early years of our relationship, Roland showed me Vancouver by boat, all three arms of the Fraser River, False Creek, English Bay, Burrard Inlet, Indian Arm, and then beyond Vancouver, across to the Gulf Islands, to Victoria, up the inside of Texada to Desolation Sound, up the east coast of Vancouver Island to Campbell River and beyond. The world is different from the water.

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Sarah at 17

My sister, Sarah, helped me to expand my world as well. She lived almost a decade, the last years of her life, on Vancouver’s downtown eastside. She was a sex worker. She was addicted to heroin and cocaine. I didn’t like how she lived and I didn’t like where she lived. She was murdered in 1998. And after her death I had to go into her world and talk to people there to try to find her. I found out that almost all my preconceptions were wrong. The downtown eastside stopped being scary and became human. Sadly, as is too often the case, I learned what I needed to learn when it was too late to benefit Sarah and me in our relationship. But it was not too late for all I learned to inform my writing. That is a glorious benefit of this work: nothing comes too late or is too terrible or too painful to be useful to us as writers. Nothing.

Yet, in my life as a writer, I have kept my world smaller than it needs to be as well, I think. I have a writer for an aunt, Jean Little, who has written many, many books for children. She has been a marvelous mentor, but I wonder if I have turned to her at the expense of other relationships. Until recently, when I thought of showing my writing to anyone other than Aunt Jean, Roland or a prospective editor, I was flooded with anxiety. Yet, I was an editor for eight years. In various capacities, I have conferenced with many, many writers about their work. And since 2008, I have been teaching writing for children and teens at UBC. In those classes, we workshop students’ writing, and I have discovered the power of that process.

Recently, I have stepped outside my anxiety to share my own writing with others while it is still raw, and that process has made possible my most recent book, Rabbit Ears. I was helped along the way by Cynthia and Glenda (in the very early stages), but Rachel and Lori (further along the way) , by Christianne and one of the brilliant book clubs at her Lyceum, and by Kerry and Raven in the final and critical stages. Opening up to others allowed me to tell a challenging story much, much more effectively than I would have otherwise.

At my book launch at Kidsbooks

At my book launch at Kidsbooks

It may seem trite to say that we should always be open to whatever is around us, near and far, that we should strive against judgment rooted in ignorance or inflexibility, that we should live in the moment, that spot where time and place meet, the only spot from which we can look and listen and learn (and write). It is far from trite, however, to do all of that, to be open, to remain flexible, and to reenter the present moment whenever we sense ourselves straying.

I am thankful to my father for teaching me that I could eat the core of the apple if I chose (although I should mention that I have heard that there is cyanide in apple seeds…), to my sister for bringing so many wonderful people into my life, to my students for reminding me how much all of us can learn from one another!

And I am thankful to the fires of the earth for releasing its ice, and for the blessing of those hundreds of millennia of rain.