Hypergraffiti

Where I spray-paint my thoughts…


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Merry Recycled Christmas

Hi friends, family, and … foes? I hope I don’t have any foes reading my blog. Maybe a few fans (of my books, not of me). But mostly friends and family.

Almost every December, this season brings on some reflection, some deep thoughts about the meaning of Christmas, the culture wars at this time of year, or just what it means to be living in a family, raising kids, being a person at this time of year. Some years there’s no new brilliant thoughts so I just recycle the old ones. I’ve been blogging for ten years now, so here are some of the things I’ve reflected on in past Christmases, for your reading (or re-reading) pleasure:

fleshFrom 2004,  before I even started this blog, a piece I wrote (reprinted here in 2011), called “Flesh.” Something I’ve been thinking about for many, many years, about how Christmas is about Incarnation, and how God-in-Jesus meets us in the frailty of human flesh.

In 2007, I was a little less serious. “Eight Songs A-Sucking” was my most popular blog post ever in terms of number of comments, because everybody likes to rant about the Christmas songs they hate.

lightChristmas 2009 I was back to reflecting on the meaning of the Incarnation, with “Light.” Again, these are thoughts I’ve been turning over for years — I wrote an article similar to this back in the late 80s — about how we celebrate Christmas at the winter solstice, even though Jesus almost certainly wasn’t born then, and the symbolic significance of light-in-darkness at this time of year.santa-vs-jesus

In 2010, Santa met Jesus for a showdown! No, not really. I just used my Christmas blog space that year to explore the idea of Santa and how he fits (or doesn’t fit) into the Christian story of Jesus’ birth, and the celebration of Christmas for Christians today.

adventcandlesTragically, in 2012, one of the worst mass shootings in US history occurred just a couple of weeks before Christmas. Getting ready for a season of joy and celebration as we were confronted by news of the Sandy Hook massacre left me with some thoughts on “Advent Tragedies.” The season of light can be a dark time.

2013 was the year my mom passed away, and I reflected on how hard it is to be merry and bright when you’re still mourning a loss. My Christmas post that year was titled “Merry-ish.” It’s about my approach to handling grief and celebration at the same time.doctor_who_capaldi_3010171b

I think I was watching a lot of Doctor Who in 2014, because when I had another try at grappling with the mystery of the Incarnation, the post was titled “Time Lord of Gallifrey, Now in Flesh Appearing.” How is Jesus like, and not like, the Doctor?

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Finally, last year in 2015, a lot of people could relate to my post “Broken,” in which I had an argument with my almost-grown son about the Christmas service at church, then went to church and reflected on how broken we all are. 


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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.

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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

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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.
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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.


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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.

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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.
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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.