Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

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Hacksaw Ridge

I can’t remember when I first heard the story of Desmond Doss, the Seventh-day Adventist conscientious objector who won the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War Two, but like a lot of Adventist kids, I heard it pretty early. Now his story is the subject of a big-budget Hollywood movie, directed by Mel Gibson. Other people besides Adventists are seeing the story of this man who showed amazing courage in saving dozens of his fellow soldiers under enemy fire — without ever firing or even carrying a weapon himself.

This story has been told many times and many ways, and there is an excellent documentary (“The Conscientious Objector”) about Doss already. But a feature film, complete with special effects that bring the battlefield to all-too-vivid life, does add something that a documentary or book can’t do. It’s one thing to know that Doss brought 75 wounded men to safety by lowering them by ropes, one by one, over the cliff at Hacksaw Ridge while he and they were under enemy fire. It’s another thing to see it re-enacted, to feel the visceral terror and sheer effort that must have taken. Reading or hearing about what Desmond Doss accomplished told me that the man had tremendous courage; watching it made me feel what that must have cost him, and left me in awe. But what I loved most about this movie was how it subverted our expectations of what heroism in a movie (and, by extension, in real life) should look like.

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Love, Hope, Optimism, Cake

lovehopeoptimtismcake2I started baking a lemon blueberry cake at about 10:30 last night. I was going to bake while watching the U.S. election returns. Then in the morning I planned to throw on my Hillary Clinton T-shirt, take my cake to work, and celebrate the election of the first woman president of the most powerful country on earth.

Obviously, things did not go as planned.

The cake was baked anyway. I brought it in to work as a consolation cake. And I couldn’t put on the Hillary T-shirt (which I’d ordered online and arrived yesterday, just in time to wear triumphantly the day after the election. Sigh). Going through my extensive collection of graphic tees, only one seemed to have the message I needed today: my rainbow-hued shirt with the Jack Layton quote about love, hope, and optimism.

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A Comfortable Pew

pewcushionsThis is a conversation (reconstructed, I can’t remember the actual words except for the three key words in the title of this blog post) that  I heard reported to me years ago. It took place between two people of my parents’ generation, both of whom had grown up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. One had stayed in it; the other had left:

Person Who Left: I’m quite happy with my decision to leave the church; we find a great blessing from attending our local Anglican church.

Person Who Stayed: You’re just happy belonging to the Anglican church because it doesn’t demand anything of you — it’s a comfortable pew.

How those words have stayed with me … the phrase “a comfortable pew,” spoken with a mixture of censure and envy by someone who was a lifelong member of the Adventist church but often found its demands burdensome. Coded into that phrase was the tension — so prevalent in my extended family growing up, and in my circle of friends and acquaintances even now — among those of us who grew up in our tight-knit community: the tension between those who left and those of us who stayed.

The implication in that phrase was that if you left the church, it was because you found it too hard and you were looking for something easier, more convenient. A comfortable pew on Sunday morning in a less demanding church, or maybe no pew at all … maybe your own sofa on a Sabbath morning, drinking coffee and doing the crossword instead of subjecting yourself to the hard discipline of going to church.


After 51 years attending church (and I mean that quite literally; I was born on a Saturday and I think my parents took me to church pretty much the next Sabbath), I finally got tired of sitting for over an hour on hard pews, and made myself (and Emma, who reached this decision much earlier in life) a couple of comfy pew cushions, pictured above. They’re great. They have increased my enjoyment of church and my sermon tolerance about 100%.

I am still sitting in the same pew I have been sitting in virtually all my life, more or less. It is now, at least literally, a more comfortable pew. In some ways it’s a more comfortable one metaphorically, too; in other ways, less so.

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30 and not-yet-out


Me in my first teaching job in 86-87 — a snap from the Kingsway yearbook

I started teaching in September 1986, three weeks before my twenty-first birthday. I taught high school English and History at Kingsway College, a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school in Oshawa, Ontario. I was young and naive and did everything wrong, but it was the beginning of a lifelong journey as a teacher.

When I walked into my classroom at The Murphy Centre this September, it marked the thirty-year anniversary of the first time I stood in front of the classroom as a teacher.

For a teacher here in Newfoundland, that anniversary has some weight. For a long time the set-up for teachers with the public school board here in the province has been “thirty and out,” meaning that after 30 years of teaching, you can retire and draw your full pension.

So, this would be it. I’d be done, finished, retired with a full pension while I’m still young and healthy enough to do lots of writing and travel, or even take up a second career. I’d be livin’ the dream.

Except I’m not. Not living that particular dream, the one where I retire at age 50.

In order to get “thirty and out,” you’d have to have been teaching in the public school system here in the province for all those years, consecutively. I think if you take maternity leave, that time counts towards your years of service, but other than that you have to have been working all that time. And that’s not what my career path has looked like.
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Celebrate and Mourn

Yesterday, two young women in their twenties captured the attention of Newfoundlanders. 23-year-old swimmer Katarina Roxon returned home from the Rio Paralympics with a gold medal to a hero’s welcome and a highway named in her honour. And 20-year-old Hailey Baker took her own life several months after a highly-publicized car accident that was clearly no accident but a cry for help.

I’m not sure why these two young women’s faces are juxtaposed so strongly in my mind, except that their names frequently turned up within a few minutes of each other in yesterday’s news. And maybe because I teach young adults and I’m the parent of two young adults, I never stop thinking about both best-case and worst-case scenarios.

Best case: your child, born with a physical disability as well as a stunning natural athletic talent, overcomes all hardships, perseveres through difficulties, and brings honour to her country while achieving personal success.

Worst case: your child, struggling with mental illness, spends years seeking help and support through the health care system, and finally dies by her own hand, one more victim of mental illness.

Two young lives: both beautiful, valuable, full of potential. Like so many others. One an inspiration, the other a tragedy.

What’s the takeaway here? Why does the image of those two faces side-by-side haunt me so much? Is the lesson that maybe it’s easier, maybe society offers more support, if you’re born with part of an arm missing than if you have borderline personality disorder? Maybe. Some people have both physical disabilities AND mental illness. Some have neither, and still struggle.

I also know you can’t simplify people into representatives of groups. Not every physically disabled person is going to win a Paralympic gold medal, and why should they? Katarina Roxon is an athlete and presumably would have been a great swimmer with or without a left arm. As a disabled person, her job on earth is not to be an inspiration for the rest of us. She’s living her life: it just happens to be one that involves having a gold medal around her neck.

Not every person with mental illness dies by suicide (thank God). But too many do. And too many of those, like Hailey Baker, feel (and their families and friends feel) that they’re not getting the help and support they need when they go looking for it in our health care system. There’s a message for the rest of us there, for sure, and it seems that Hailey Baker, after media attention focused on the story of her car accident, wanted to share that message the world. But again, Hailey didn’t live her life intending for its end to be a lesson to the rest of us. I’m sure that’s not what those who loved her wanted for her.

Young lives lost too soon break my heart. Young people accomplishing great things inspire me. But everyone lives out their own story, and almost everyone has a team of family, friends, teachers and others supporting and cheering for them. Some stories feature mountaintop moments like Olympic medals — most don’t. Some stories end tragically and too soon — most don’t (again, thankfully).

I guess my only lesson here is: cherish the young people you love, whether they’re your kids, grandkids, students, neighbours, whatever. Help and support them when they need it. Cheer for their successes and share their struggles, if they’ll let you. We can’t always know why one person’s story is an inspiration and another’s is a tragedy. Maybe most of us, at any moment, have the potential to be either, especially those who are still young with so much of the tale still unwritten.

This week we celebrate Katarina,  and we mourn Hailey. And we celebrate and mourn the young people we love. We hope for the best; we fear the worst. We don’t stop loving and cheering and crying.


The (Part-Time) Writing Life

It’s the second of September. Summer holidays are over and new school year begins next week.

So, that happened.

I have mixed feelings about September. I regret the passing of warm summer weather, which I love so much. Long afternoons for hiking. Weekends swimming and canoeing at the cabin. Being able to walk at night in a short-sleeved T-shirt, eating ice-cream. I love summer.

That said, I also love teaching, and I look forward to seeing last year’s students and meeting new ones. I like my job enough that I don’t dread September, but I always want to hang on a little longer to summer.

I think most teachers feel that way. But for me there’s the added twist that, from September to June, writing novels is my part-time gig, sometimes downgraded to my hobby. Teaching’s what I do full-time, the job that occupies many of my waking hours and brings in a steady paycheque.

In July and August, I’m a full-time writer.

That’s not to say that I write eight hours a day. Does anyone? I don’t think I could even imagine writing eight hours a day! I don’t have the attention span for that. But during the summer months, I define myself primarily as a writer. It occupies the space in my time and thoughts that normally gets filled up with teaching.

Now that my kids are older teens with their own activities and summer jobs, my summer mornings almost all started the same way. By eight o’clock most mornings, I’d be in my favourite chair at my favourite coffee shop, enjoying this view.


Most days this summer, the work that occupied me was editing the manuscript of my novel Most Anything You Please — either in hard copy or on the computer. Sometimes the task of the day was research or writing new sections — or even writing a bit on a whole new project.

Usually in the afternoon I’d go do something else, like running messages or going for a hike, but there were some lovely afternoons in July when the weather was perfect and I had a hard-copy manuscript to go through (meaning I could work outdoors without worrying about computer-screen glare). Then I moved my office to the back yard and enjoyed this view.

As September brings cooler temperatures and more rigid schedules I often find myself wondering: would I enjoy being a full-time writer year round? Would life without a day job be as appealing when the afternoons involved cold winds and slushy sidewalks instead of scenic hikes and backyard lemonade? A life in which I have leisure to write as much as I want is always linked, for me, with sunny days and long warm evenings. It’s much more appealing to get away with writer friends for a four-day retreat to put in some intensive final edits on a book (which I also did this summer) when you’re enjoying a lovely country house with sunshine pouring in through the windows, or working on deck with the sight, sound and smell of the ocean to accompany your efforts.

I also wonder if I’d have the focus and discipline to make my time productive if I were writing full-time, year round. It seems like a no-brainer that more time to write would produce more and better writing, but maybe the discipline required to cram my creative work into my spare time ten months of the year, with just two months to focus on it full-time, is actually the only thing allowing me to get any work done. I’m very easily distracted and I’m a great time-waster, especially since they went and invented the internet. Maybe with more time to write, I’d just waste more of it on social media, or playing games of Lexulous online.

It’s not a decision I’m likely to face anytime soon. Maybe in six years or so, when both these teenagers have gotten themselves some kind of a college education and (perhaps) moved out, I’ll think about life as a full-time writer — but for now, that paycheque is pretty essential, so I think I’ll keep showing up to work from September to June, and writing in the moments in between.

Summer, I’ll miss you.


Seven Things Newfoundlanders Say in Summer

We have lots of summer traditions in our beautiful province. Some people go camping, some people go trouting, some go out cod jigging during the food fishery, some go to the cabin and drink, some just go to the cabin (like us). But the one tradition that unites all Newfoundlanders throughout the summer months is talking about the weather.

Of course, this tradition also unites us all the rest of the year. But summer weather offers some unique things to discuss.


It was a large day when I went hiking in Maddox Cove earlier this week. And who’d want to live anywhere else?

First, some terms and definitions:

Summer: Never mind what the calendar says: if a Newfoundlander tells you something’s happening “in the summer” they mean it’s happening during the months of July and/or August. June does not count, although some may stretch the definition to include the last week of June after school gets out. And if you were going to do it during the summer, it had better be done by Labour Day. September is nearly always a very pleasant month here, but nobody considers it part of summer.

Hot: This term has a different meaning in Newfoundland than in some other parts of North America. In other places it is common to complain about “the heat” or “how hot it is,” usually when temperatures get above about 32 degrees Celsius (90 Farenheit). As this never occurs in Newfoundland, “hot” weather is not something to complain about (with rare exceptions noted below). “Hot” means any temperature between 20-30C (about 70-85 F) and it is what we hope for, long for, plan for, enjoy when we have it and curse when it doesn’t come.

There are numerous other terms relevant to Newfoundland summer (e.g. mauzy, RDF, “a large day,” etc.) but those will have to wait for another entry.

There are some comments you’ll hear accompanying particular weather patterns during the “summer” months here. To understand these comments you need to know that while statistics will tell you that 59% of Newfoundlanders are Protestants, 37% are Catholics and 4% either have no religious affiliation or follow another recognized world religion, there is a deeper reality. 100% of Newfoundlanders also practice a more ancient, atavistic religion. We do not exactly worship, but we certainly acknowledge and fear, the Weather Gods. We rarely speak of them, but these nameless, faceless deities control our lives, and much of our conversation is directed towards appeasing them, praising them, and, most importantly, assuring them that we never take their rare moments of generosity for granted.

  1. “It don’t look like we’re going to get no summer at all this year.” This statement is made during any stretch of cold, foggy or rainy weather that occurs before we get a stretch of warm, sunny weather. Newfoundlanders can start saying this as early as mid-June, conveniently forgetting that every June of their entire lives has been cold, foggy and rainy. If this pattern, also known as “caplin weather” after the small fish who allegedly like it for spawning, persists into July, this comment will become more frequent and doleful, reflecting the deep-seated belief that some year, summer will actually not arrive.The phrase suggests a fatalistic acceptance of the Weather Gods’ whims, assuring them we will be able to handle it if they withdraw summer entirely. If the fear that we’ll get no summer at all persists for most of July, we will likely make news headlines across North America with our tongue-in-cheek response (see the “arrests” of weathermen Snodden and Sheerr in July 2015).
  2. “Well, that was our summer.” Invariably said by someone on the evening of the first July day the temperature hits above 20F and the sun shines. See above-noted deep-seated fear that summer will not arrive. This is immediately followed by the fear that it will only last one day. Again, the goal is to make it clear to whatever shadowy powers control the weather that we know we’re lucky to get even one good day.
  3. “This is our one good week, I s’pose.” Any stretch of good weather (i.e., sunshine and temperatures above 20) will elicit this response. Again, it is considered bad luck to express any optimism; we must always assure the Weather Gods that we know they are capricious and their favour is fleeting.
  4. “Sure the summer is over after Regatta Day.” Regatta Day — to the best of my knowledge, the only weather-dependent civic holiday anywhere — is the first Wednesday in August, or the first fine day after that. (Two caveats: this only applies to the St. John’s area, and in this case “fine” means not sunny and warm, but calm and windless, which is even less likely in St. John’s. The Regatta is a rowing race, although the attendant carnival on the lakeshore is a bigger attraction than the races for many townies).
    The common belief that summer ends on Regatta Day insulates us against disappointment in case of a cold, rainy August, and assures the Weather Gods that any nice days we do get in August will be treated as a gift rather than a right. No sense of entitlement here!
  5. “We’ll pay for this next winter.” This is said anytime three good days have occurred consecutively, and reflects the believe that the Weather Gods, as vengeful pagan deities, will exact payment in the form of an unusually harsh winter.
  6. “My blessed, we’ll die with the heat.” While some Newfoundlanders, myself included, refuse on principle to ever complain about our rare hot days, others will utter this type of statement as soon as the temperature hits 25C (77F) — or the humidity makes it feel like it’s above 25. Vigorously fanning themselves and moaning as they toss about in bed, they will profess themselves anxious for the chilly weather that will be back all too soon.
  7. “Sure, who’d want to live anywhere else?” A perfect Newfoundland summer day is one where the temperature is in the low to mid 20s (that’s the 70s for you Americans), the sun shines in a cloudless sky, and a gentle but steady breeze blows, keeping the air fresh. (Here in St. John’s that kind of day is always accompanied by a breeze from the southwest; I’m not sure if different wind directions bring good weather in other parts of the province. I didn’t do Geography in high school).
    That probably sounds idyllic to those of you who live in hotter climates, doesn’t it? We get maybe (in a good year) 21 days like that a year — that’s three weeks, but not three consecutive weeks. 21 or so days scattered throughout the months of July and August. Sometimes one comes early, in June, or lingers late in September. So that perfect summer day sounds idyllic to us, too, during the other 49 weeks of the year when it’s cold, rainy, and foggy.
    But here’s the great thing about Newfoundlanders: we have terrible memories. When that one beautiful day comes along, even if it’s been preceded by two solid weeks of fog, we forget that we were ever miserable. And we get out and enjoy it. You will never see more happy people outdoors in shorts and tank tops than you will on a warm day in St. John’s. And at the end of a perfect day, whether we’re around the campfire or the barbecue, sitting by the lake or on our back deck, we’ll sigh and say, “Sure, who’d ever want to live anywhere else?”The Weather Gods may hate us most of the time, but at least they can’t say we’re ungrateful.