Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Hero Takes a Fall

As humans, we have a disturbing tendency to idolize other human beings, a precarious position to put them in as we may forget they are as fallible and flawed as we are. Often, this creation of idols and heroes leads to inevitable disappointment, as we learn our "heroes" may not be quite what we believe them to be.

Recently, Darby Allen, the RMWB Fire Chief who stewarded the emergency response  during the wildfire in 2016, was the subject of an article that depicted this regional "hero" in a new light - and not a flattering one.

While a court case is outstanding, some of the facts are known, including that Chief Allen was fired from the City of Calgary prior to his arrival here, and the circumstances surrounding his dismissal appear to be directly related to the complaint of sexual harassment from a female employee. There are still plenty of questions that remain unanswered, such as if our municipal leadership knew of this past when he was hired, if they did know prior to his being hired why this was not factored into that decision and of course if any similar complaints occurred during his time here. Perhaps those answers will one day be revealed, but in the interim what we are left to ponder is the concept of heroism.

I must admit that even in 2016, I struggled with the concept of Darby Allen as a hero. That's not because I had any knowledge of his past or any particular disagreement with his actions during that time, but rather because I didn't quite understand how his individual actions led to the badge of hero. He did his job, as many did during those days, and while he became the "face" of the fire, his calm and measured voice in videos reassuring panicky residents, I felt that tagging him as a hero was a bit dismissive of all the others who showed equal, if not greater, heroism: the firefighters on the front lines, the RCMP officers who dealt with residents as we evacuated in a panicked state, the folks who provided evacuees with food and water and gas and places to stay, the people who rescued pets, the people who opened their cars to other fleeing and frightened residents, and every single one of us who pulled together during what was likely the most difficult experience of our lives. Those, I thought, were everyday and real heroes, but they were nameless and faceless and not in daily videos, and so their acts of heroism, while noted, did not lead to the kind of  public accolades Darby received. If we reflect deeply we also may realize that the label of hero is one we affixed to him, not one he chose; so if someone we have decided is a hero then disappoints us, is the blame on them - or us?

And the evaluation of the job he did during the fire depends on who you talk to, of course. Some think he was a hero; some do not, and much depends on what they experienced and their individual perspective. But the real challenge is that there is great risk in identifying any one individual as a hero, as when we discover that our "heroes" are imperfect our bitter disappointment is often magnified.

Over the last few years (and through some difficult times) I have learned some disappointing but fundamental truths. People can have brilliant minds, but house dark hearts. People can be talented and accomplished professionals but be deeply destructive leaders. And people we deem to be "heroes" may well be deeply, deeply flawed.

And it is because at the end of the day we are human. We are all subject to the same traits: and some of them lead us to heroic acts of courage while others take us down dark paths.

When our heroes take a fall, we should  perhaps not look more closely at them but at ourselves. In our rush to proclaim them as heroes we often fail ourselves, as we are set up for that deep disappointment when we discover that our heroes are, in truth, simply humans after all.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Here’s Your Sign: Welcome to the City of Fort McMurray

This sign.

In May, 2016,  this sign was destroyed during the massive wildfire this community will never forget. I recall coming back when the long evacuation ended and realizing the sign was gone and sadness washing over me. The loss of this sign troubled me far more than I ever thought it could, and I still miss it even today.

Maybe it’s because it was so reflective of Fort McMurray in all its quirky “wrongness”. Fort McMurray ceased being a city when amalgamation took place in 1995 (yes, 25 years ago in April of this year). And even the look of the sign was a throwback to the days when Fort McMurray was smaller and didn’t concern itself with grandiose placemaking signs. No sir, a sign made of items that looked like they were dragged out of the boreal forest was just fine with us, no need for your high-falutin’ graphic design work (I mean, look at that font! It makes me grin every time).

So, here’s the deal. In my heart, I want this sign back. Not an updated version, not one with the error corrected, not one that’s part of some grand signage scheme so it looks like all the other signs in the region.


This sign.

The sign that made me smile every time I came home after a long trip, the sign that was wrong and yet so right in every way that mattered, this sign that was destroyed  by the fire but barring that fact would likely still be standing today.

I want this sign. As a reminder of the past, as a replacement of what we lost, as some small “in your face” to the fire that broke our hearts but that failed to break us.

This sign. How I miss it.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Return of the Muse

In 2016, just weeks before a massive wildfire changed our lives forever, I made the decision to "close" McMurray Musings.

It was not a decision I made lightly; I had invested not weeks or months but years into this blog, pouring into it every possible effort in order to try to capture the faintest glimmer of the place I had come to love.

And, as occasionally happens, over time it had come to feel more like work than pleasure; more like something I "had to do" rather than "wanted to do". And so, with only a mild twinge of regret, I said good-bye, with the caveat that I would continue to blog at another site that would allow me a broader range of expression, beyond the confines of the borders of this community.

The trouble though is that what was in my heart - what begged to be let out in words - was this community.

Things have changed since April, 2016. The economic downturn - which we hoped was a blip - has continued. The fire that tore through our community changed our landscape - and our hearts. And time has marched on. And just as our community has changed, so have I.

One thing has not changed, however. My love for this community, while tested and tried, has never lessened. In fact, I think it deepened, as during that long evacuation - the month that felt like a year - I was forced to re-evaluate my connection to this place and the people it holds.

And during that re-evaluation, I recommitted to this community. I will admit at times it has faltered; I have feared for our future and for what is in store for us, as I have seen other resource communities buffeted by change they cannot control. But time and time again, I remembered why I was still here: because this is where my daughter grew up, and I want other children who grow up here to be as proud of their home town as she is.

Over the last four years, I wrote sporadically in that other blog, touching on my life here but also on other themes. But over time I learned that I missed this blog with an intensity I had not anticipated; I missed telling the stories of our people and places and events. I missed being able to share my life in Fort McMurray, Alberta, a place so deeply misunderstood, mis-characterized and mislabeled by those who have often never even seen it.

And so, here it is. The muse has returned, although in truth she never left, not physically or emotionally. At one time I thought I needed to distance myself from McMurray Musings, because I was more than that; but over time I have come to realize that while I am more, I am still McMurray Musings too, just an older, and hopefully wiser, version.

In the future of this blog - however long that might be, as I have learned that things change too quickly to commit too firmly - I hope to write about the things that made me love this community: the people who live here, the history, the beauty, the quirks and oddities and the things that make us who we are. And I will touch on our troubles too - the things that divide us, the issues we face and the challenges we have to meet, because I have never suggested Fort McMurray is utopia; it's just another town on the face of a very large planet, and like the rest it is not perfect (but it just happens to be perfect for me).

I hope you will consider joining me for this adventure. I considered redesigning the blog - changing up the colour or the photo or the logo - but in the end this is the classic McMurray Musings look. I am not sure I am still the classic Triple M, though, as I have learned a few things over the last four years (good things, bad things, funny things, awkward things, things I didn't need to know, things I wish I didn't know, whatever).

So pull up a seat. Maybe I will make you smile; maybe I will make you laugh. Maybe you will agree with me or maybe you will be angry with me; whatever the outcome, I accept it, as I have so missed being able to share the story of this ever-amusing, ever-changing and ever-baffling place I am so very proud to call home.

And, so here we go. Again.

Friday, April 29, 2016

McMurray Musings: To Everything There Is A Season

To everything there is a season.

Just over five years ago I sat down, opened my laptop and tapped out the very first entry onto this blog. I could have never predicted what would happen next.
I believed it would be a bit of a lark, a small adventure in writing that a few people would read and that would quietly fade away over time as my attention – and theirs – was diverted by other things.

I did not know, and could not have known, that it would change my life.
Five years, over 1000 blog posts and countless memories later, I am most certainly not the person I was when this blog began.

I was then a married stay-at-home mom of an eleven year old daughter. I hadn’t really written in years, and I had, to a great extent, lost touch with who I was.
Today I am divorced, with an active career in communications and media relations. My daughter will turn 17 this year and has begun looking at universities. And now I write not only for pleasure and passion but for pay.

How things can change in just five years!
This blog was the catalyst for those changes in my life. In the course of writing it I learned so very many lessons. Some were fairly easy. Some were difficult. And some were painful.

Someone said to me recently that they had no idea I had been going through a divorce while I was writing these posts, and I suppose that was because for the most part I had kept that part of my life out of the blog. And that was by design, not accident.
While this blog was about my life in Fort McMurray, it also became a blog about Fort McMurray. I had inadvertently created a personal brand (realizing this the first time someone introduced me as McMurray Musings, as the blog name had now become a persona). I had created a niche, but as anyone who has spent time in a niche knows, on occasion it can become a bit cramped and crowded when the chance has come to grow.

Over the last few months I took inventory of my life. I thought about the person I was when this blog began, and who I am today. I thought about all the opportunities this blog has given to me, and all the things I have learned. And I thought about all the growth I had experienced, and one realization was crystal clear: I had outgrown the niche I created in this blog.
Today will mark the final McMurray Musings blog post. I have no intention of quitting writing or blogging, and you can find my new website at the link below. I will on occasion still write about Fort McMurray, but the time has come to write about other topics, too; like the divorce I never wrote about, like realizing your child is almost an adult, like life as single woman and like the very human existence we all experience.

While I recognize I could write about those things in this blog I realized I wanted this body of work to stand alone. This blog was always dedicated to tales of Fort McMurray, of my life here and the adventures of life in a northern town. To change direction on this blog would be to damage the spirit in which it began five years ago, and in which I have taken pride ever since.
I owe so much to all my readers, including even the ones who sent me hate mail as it toughened me up to the point where I am rarely bothered by anything anymore. The experience of writing this blog and sharing my life in this manner prepared me for my subsequent adventures, and I would not change one single thing about the experience. I hope some of you will come along for the next adventure and follow my work on my new website, which includes a new blog as well as a showcase of my freelance work. But for those of you who choose to end the journey here, I have but two simple words: thank you. Thank you a million times over for coming along on the ride at all, whether you read every single blog post or only once in a while.

To everything there is a season, and this spring season is the time to say goodbye to McMurray Musings. I will always carry McMurray Musings with me, as that persona and brand became an integral part of who I am – but it is time to move on to the next phase, and the next chapter. I do so not with sadness, but with excitement, and with deep gratitude for all this blog has given to me – far more than I ever gave to it, to be honest. And I do so with joy, because being McMurray Musings for five years has been an incredible gift – and it made me ready to embrace being Theresa E. Wells, communications and media relations professional, freelance writer - and yes, a blogger, too.
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven; this is a new season and I have a renewed sense of purpose. I am, at the end of it all, simply so very grateful to have shared this adventure as McMurray Musings with you.

Thank you – and in the future you can find me at:

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Why I Climb the Mountains With NorthWord - and How You Can, Too

It'a hard to believe the end of March is almost here. Perhaps it is a sign of my age, but time seems to go so much faster now, the days and weeks of 2016 already melting away as rapidly as the snow on those days when we have had glimpses of spring. And as the end of March approaches so too does the deadline for the next edition of NorthWord magazine - an edition for which I happen to be the guest editor.

I wrote in this blog before why I had chosen the theme I selected for the issue: "Climbing the Mountain." Submissions, the name of their author removed as is the practice of NorthWord to ensure the focus is on the piece and not the person who has written it, have already been rolling in and it seems the theme I chose resonated not only with me.

The offer to serve as a guest editor for an edition of NorthWord was an easy one. I have been submitting to NorthWord for some time now, and it has become the place where my more personal and introspective pieces of writing end up, as they don't quite fit with my other writing outlets.

You see here in the blog I am McMurray Musings, a persona and not a person, created long ago when this blog began. In most of my other work I am the freelance writer, focused on the topic or the tale, and preferably ones not about me but about others instead. In my professional work I remove my "self" entirely of course. And so it is in NorthWord that you find the real me, because it is the place I have found where I can express the inner thoughts and feelings that do not fit anywhere else, It is perhaps the place where I have allowed myself, as a writer, to be the most vulnerable.

I suppose in some sense that is part of climbing the mountain, too. As someone who has been fascinated with extreme mountain climbers for her entire life, I find I am always interested in the routes we take to climb our mountains. There are so many different ones, just like those faced by those who climb the world's extreme peaks, each one with positive and negative facets. And in the end we, just like those climbers, choose our routes, put on our packs, and begin the climb.

Mountain climbers are like writers in one key way: they come back from their journey with stories to tell. It's part of the thrill, really, not just climbing the mountain but sharing the adventure with others, the moment when we reached the peak or the moment when we knew we never would and turned back instead. Just like mountain climbers, writers have a need to tell their stories, to share them - and that is where outlets like NorthWord come in.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to both contribute to NorthWord and to now serve as the guest editor of this next edition. It has been a chance for me to grow over the years as a writer, and now to experience serving as an editor. I will always be grateful to have had a place to be not McMurray Musings, not the "freelancer", not the "communications professional", but Theresa, the person who has written in NorthWord of her parents and of her divorce, of her heart opening and her heart breaking. This is what NorthWord has been to me. It has allowed me to share the tale of climbing those mountains.

The deadline for submissions is midnight on March 30. It is not too late to share your tale of mountain climbing, whatever your mountain has been. Perhaps you have never written anything before, and perhaps you have. But you have a story - we all do - and this is your chance to tell it. Please take the chance - and climb the mountains with me.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Spring in The Mac

There have been times over the past 15 years when I wondered why, exactly, I was choosing to continue to live in Fort McMurray (or, as I call it in the title, “The Mac”, which is a nickname borne from affection - if it bothers you then perhaps you take the formal name a wee bit too seriously, as nicknames can be all about fond sentiment).

This wondering of mine often happens during the dark, dreary days of winter. The soft white snow, which seemed so beautiful in December, fails to inspire the same feeling in February. It seems the cold is never-ending, and the snow will never stop.
And then there is suddenly a day, when the sun begins to shine and the snow is glistening in a certain way. I can hear the drip-drops of snow turned liquid outside my door, and I see a difference in the way the birds are behaving. They feel it too.

Spring is on the way.
There may be more blasts of snow, more gusts of wind and more cold nights, but that day holds the promise of warmer weather to come.

Those are the days that remind me why I live here, despite the long dark nights of winter. It isn’t just about the seasons, either, but the continual promise of this community. We have dark times, but there are always those moments, the glimmers of hope, that remind me of our collective future and better days ahead for all of us.
It’s why I choose to live here in Fort McMurray. It is a choice I have made not once, but time and time again whenever an opportunity to leave has presented itself. Fort McMurray, Fort Mac, the Mac – it gets into you somehow, making you realize that while it is not perfect it is in the imperfections that you find the true beauty.

Today the sun is shining, and the snow is glistening. We have been through another winter, and we have seen some hard days in the last year. There will, undoubtedly, be more ahead, blizzards of both the winter and economic variety. But days like today, days when the sun is bright and the snow glitters, remind us there will be good days ahead, too. We just have to keep the faith, and know that they will arrive.
Better days are ahead. There is no doubt.

Photo by Lisa Widerberg, courtesy of Flickr

Sunday, March 13, 2016

What I Learned on March 14

For a very long time, March has not been a kind month for me. Three years ago in March, one of my favourite aunts, Auntie Rose, passed away. Seven years ago - on March 14 - we buried my mother. Ten years ago on this same day my father lost his battle with cancer (oh, the irony of losing them both in the same month, just three years apart, and being back in that cemetery not only to lay flowers at his grave on the anniversary of his death but to place my mother there beside him - how that twists the knife in my heart). And then, this past week, was the almost overwhelming news that a beloved community member - and my friend - had passed away.

Perhaps it is no wonder March 14 has become a day of reflection for me. For many years it was a day of distinct and keen loss, still sharp and fresh, but over time as the pain has dulled I learned to take this day to remember not only the lessons each and every person I have lost taught me, but what I learned from losing them.

When I lost my father to his long, slow and painful battle with lung cancer perhaps the most important thing I learned was during his final days. As he lay in palliative care, his mind still sound and active even as his body was failing, I learned what matters in the last days of your life. He spoke of his children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, friends and memories they shared. What he never spoke about was his work, not from when he was a farmer, not from when he operated a grain elevator, not from when he worked in building maintenance when we moved from the country to the city. He didn't talk of the jobs he accomplished or the ones he left unfinished. All of those fell away, because in the end? They didn't matter.

What matters in the end is those you love and those who love you, not the work you did or did not do.

Losing my mother was a very different experience. A phone call from my sister, the news of an "incident", and just a few hours later I was on a plane headed to the city I grew up in. The conversation I had had with my mother just a few days before would be our last, even though neither of us knew it. She never regained consciousness and she died in the ICU as I held her hand tightly, overwhelmed by how much I loved this woman. I didn't know our time together would be cut so short - she was in relatively good health despite her age, and I was complacent. I wish I knew then what her death taught me.

Life is fragile and uncertain. Every day might be the last, and every conversation might be the final one. Make sure you say the things you want to say, the words of love and gratitude. Never take the future for granted, because when it is too late, it is quite simply too late.

Ah, Aunt Rose. She was a true Alberta Rose. I recall admiring her as a child for her teased up, jet black hair, something I now realize was rather Priscilla Presley-esque. She might have been a rural girl, but she had an air of glamour around her too, with good taste in fashion and make up. She was opinionated and smart, too, a potent combination for someone like me to be around.

Stay true to who you are. Aunt Rose never lost the jet black hair or the interest in fashion, and she remained opinionated and vocal for her entire life. She was an Alberta Rose, with a soft and feminine exterior and a solid steel interior. It is okay to be both.

The freshest loss of course is that of Vilia Tosio, someone I came to know in this community as our paths crossed often and we forged a friendship based on mutual respect and admiration. Vilia was never afraid to be bold, to say what she believed, and to advocate for those who needed it. For Vilia those in need were the mothers and infants in our community, and the love and attention she gave to them was returned in abundance. She impacted our community, thousands of lives, and people like me, who watched her with quiet awe as she did what she did without fanfare, applause or, often, recognition.

Do what you do because you love it. Do it because you believe it needs doing. Do it because you can do it, and because you can be the change you want to see in the world. And do it even when no one is watching, because you are not doing it for applause. In the end, you are doing it for the ones it will benefit, and because you know it is the right thing to do.

There are many more lessons I have learned from each of these people, and in the case of my parents they are, of course, the reason I am who I am today. A friend who read one of my Facebook posts this past week sent a message saying my parents would be proud of me, and perhaps they would be - but as I sit here today I think instead of how proud I am of them, of Rose and of Vilia, and how very grateful I am to have had them in my life at all.

Loss is painful - there is no changing that reality. But it is painful because of how much the people we love mean to us, and what they have meant in our lives. I would far rather experience the pain of their loss than saving myself from it by never having known them at all. How lucky I am to feel this sense of pain, because it means I had the chance to know them - and now I carry part of them with me forever, in the things they taught me.

For a very long time, March has not been a kind month to me. But as I grow older I focus less on the unkindness, and more and more on my gratitude for a month - and a life - that has been full of incredible people and lessons learned, sometimes even through tears.