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

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.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Princess and the Thugs

Any sane person knows you should never, ever check the “available for adoption” pages at the local SPCA if you are a pet lover. Generally speaking I have fairly strong resistance to these pages, but last month a photo and description caught my eye as the cat featured was remarkably unusual.

“Catya”, as she was then called (sigh, the inevitable cat pun) was listed as a 5 year old Siberian Forest Cat. Now, Siberian Forest Cats aren’t exactly common. In ten years working in vet clinics I only ever saw one, and kittens of this breed can fetch an astonishingly tidy sum. These cats are also known for their personalities, and so I was almost in a daze as I found myself in my car, which seemed to be driving us to the Fort McMurray SPCA.
And there she was in the cat room, holding court like the feline royalty she is. Soft meows and ferocious purrs emanated from her perch, where she would allow admirers to touch her (but not pick her up, as that is pushing the limit of her highness’ patience I quickly learned – admire the cat, yes, pick up the cat, no). I texted photos of her to a dear friend and to the Intrepid Junior Blogger, both of whom asked when I was taking her home. So of course I filled out the application, and within a matter of days “Catya” – now renamed Tsarina Nikita as befits the little monarch – came home.

Now, lest you forget I do have two other resident cats, both males and both quite comfortable with the status quo. Sirius and Smaug are the Felix and Oscar of the feline world, with Sirius being the slightly neurotic but fundamentally very orderly Felix. Smaug, who has gained an impressive 6 pounds since his arrival home from the SPCA (an “unsustainable” weight gain, his vet admonishes me) is the dishevelled, somewhat slovenly but deeply lovable Oscar. These two have a remarkable relationship which involves all out occasional bouts of kitty MMA in the bathtub, slow seething running battles of paw swipes and teeth-filled chomps and deep and intense grooming, cuddling and sleeping sessions which run for hours. They are brothers in every sense, completely different in physical appearance and personality but completely devoted to each other – and then the Tsarina arrived.
I think they were, at first, stunned. Neither of them would look at me for a couple of days, as they both seemed to know I was somehow responsible for this new family member. They were curious but in a “when is she leaving kind of way”, planting themselves in front of the slightly open laundry room doors where she was safely housed on the other side. They were immediately bitter that she ate Fancy Feast while they were doomed to food purchased at the vet clinic (very expensive food designed to keep Sirius from developing urinary tract infections and peeing in the sink, as once has happened).

When I began to allow them to mingle with each other one thing became quite clear: Tsarina viewed the boys as street thugs, little ruffians not really worthy of her time. She is a very affectionate cat, but her level of interest in the boys has so far settled at the point known as “tolerance”. If they come too close there is a small royal hiss, and when Sirius approaches her she will walk away while quite deliberately hitting him in the whiskers with her long fluffy tail.

Other things the Tsarina does not like includes the family dog (poor Cassie – this makes 2/3 cats who are terrified of her, and Sirius just beats up on her) and the ferrets (these she finds completely baffling and gives a very wide berth). She does love treats, lousy grocery store cat food, being brushed and me.
The one thing all the cats have in common though is their place of origin – the Fort McMurray SPCA. I don’t know Sirius’s story, but it is evident he was at least partially an outdoor cat as he still yearns to escape outdoors on occasion (and once in awhile succeeds, only to be distracted by things like leaves and snow and quickly recaptured and returned to prison – his name Sirius Black fits him well as I suspect he sees me as a Dementor who holds him against his will some days). Smaug was obviously loved at one point as he doesn’t even like the outdoors, and an open door holds no interest for him whatsoever (but he will throw himself at anyone who comes through it, like when he greets the pizza guy by rolling on his back in his “rub ma belly” pose). Both Sirius and Smaug were picked up as strays though, and never reclaimed by their owners, a fact which both hurts my heart and makes me happy because it meant they were there for me. Tsarina had a family, and apparently when it dissolved she and her sister were surrendered to the SPCA, and her sister was quickly adopted while Tsarina, a bit older, had to wait a bit longer.
Regardless of how they ended up there, the Fort McMurray SPCA provided my trio with a safe place to be until they could find a new fur-ever home – which in their case just happens to be with me. My little gang of three – the princess and the thugs – are only a small number of the thousands of animals the SPCA helps in our community every day. I am deeply grateful to them for the work they do, and even more I am profoundly thankful that I now have this little furry family. And if you happen to be looking for a new furry family member, I recommend the Fort McMurray SPCA, where you can find a new friend - and become their fur-ever home.

Friday, March 4, 2016

How I Overcame my Skepticism and Found a Most Unexpected Cure -CranioSacral Therapy

I think it would be fair to describe me as a skeptic. Once upon a time I was quite a staunch skeptic, unwilling to pry open the fortress of my mind to even consider believing in things that seemed doubtful, but in the past few years some experiences have softened the walls of the fortress. There was the time I realized that massage therapy is not simply a hedonistic pleasure but can in fact be critical to health and well-being (and why I am now faithful about my monthly deep tissue massages - insert shoutout to my beautiful and talented massage therapist Kayleigh at Achieve Wellness!). There was the time I bought an essential oil diffuser and oils from Saje, completely dubious about their potential but desperate as I was having trouble sleeping, and discovered that on nights when the diffuser was used I slept well, while when the diffuser was off so was my sleep pattern. And then there was the discovery of adult colouring books, something I laughed at initially but that has resulted in a small stash of books and crayons, perfect when I need to think of something other than deadlines, press releases and paying bills.

And so it was that this journey has led me to be more open to new ideas and experiences, like when the lovely Heather Thomas sent me a message asking if I had ever tried CranioSacral Therapy. Now, I probably would have declined had the offer come from anyone but Heather, as I was deeply doubtful of the potential value of this practice, at least as it relates to me. Heather however is the kind of gentle soul you only encounter rarely in this life, and so I said yes even when my skeptical mind was chiding me.

That would be how I ended up at Heather's home and under her attentive care one evening. Unlike the massage therapy I have come to know well, this was therapy in which all my clothing stayed on while I laid flat on a massage table. As opposed to the deep tissue massages to which I have grown accustomed, this was about light touches. And it was about a connection between the practitioner and patient, too.

Heather could tell my body was dubious as we worked through the stages of the therapy. What intrigued me though was that she was attuned to everything I was feeling, even accurately assessing that I was feeling pressure in my sinuses at several points, something I did not tell her but she somehow detected. What was most interesting though is there were things I had not told Heather, and that I had not expected would be addressed through this unusual therapy of which I had been so doubtful.

I had arrived that evening with the beginning of a headache, a storm cloud gathering just behind my eyes. I had been having a number of them recently, likely related to my eye disease and perhaps even eye strain due to seeing the world through only one eye. I could feel it forming and I had almost cancelled the appointment, but I decided to carry on to see if the headache would lessen or worsen with the therapy.

Even more than that though I had arrived in Heather's home with a case of exhaustion that my essential oil diffuser could not seem to cure. For over two weeks I had been experiencing nightmares, ones of the kind I had not endured since childhood (or maybe ever) and that were increasingly robbing me of sleep as once I had awoken from them there was no settling back into slumber.

The nightmares were dark and frightening, but the most troubling part was I could not remember any details of them, just flashes of feelings of fear. For over  two weeks they had plagued me, and I was, to be honest, becoming terrified they intended to be permanent residents in my head.

But as Heather was performing the therapy, as the series of light touches she performed moved around my body and began to centre on my head, the most extraordinary thing began to happen. The dark storm cloud in my mind, that headache that had been forming, grew tighter and smaller, almost like a tightly wound ball of black yarn. And then, suddenly, I could feel it leaving through the top of my head and disappearing, just gone - and so was the headache.

After the therapy I felt not only refreshed but renewed in a way I could not quite explain. I felt slightly light-headed, and the headache that had been building all day was completely gone. I thanked Heather and headed home, and before long was in bed, expecting what had become my usual 2am wake-up from a nightmare.

Except that I woke up the next morning at 7:00 am when my alarm went off - no nightmare. And the most astonishing thing is there have been no nightmares since, a streak of two weeks of nightly terrors ended it seems by the very practice I had been so skeptical about.

Was that black ball of yarn my headache or was it something more? When it disappeared did it take my nightmares with it, whatever deep dark "thing" it was? The nightmares had appeared out of the blue with no apparent cause and I could not tell their origin, but I know one thing: they stopped when I saw Heather for CranioSacral Therapy, an outcome I certainly did not anticipate and still find hard to believe, except that I lived it.

As a skeptic it can be hard to accept that we might have misjudged or prejudged something. I was wrong on massage therapists, essential oils, colouring books and it seems I was wrong about CranioSacral Therapy too, as there is now no doubt in my mind that there is a benefit to it. Even while my mind and body were doubtful and resistant to the therapy it was in some way working - and working well enough to cure the nightmares that had gotten to the point where I was finding myself dreading sleep.

So, even if you are a skeptic like me I hope on occasion you take a risk and step out of your comfort zone. I would suggest CranioSacral Therapy is a good one to try, particularly with someone like Heather who can talk you through the process so you understand what is happening and help you to overcome your own skepticism. Sometimes our biggest barrier is, in fact, ourselves. Go with an open mind, and see what happens. After all, isn't that what life is about?


Monday, February 29, 2016

What Does it Take to be The Good Survivor?

When Tito Guillen, director of a new local short film, contacted me to offer an advance screening of the new project I leapt at the chance, of course. One of the primary qualities necessary to be a decent writer is a deep and relentless curiosity about everything, but especially about the things your friends have been up to. So when he sent me the link, I watched the film intently. Not once, but at least three times, because once the curiosity was sated I found so much more I needed to grasp.

"The Good Survivor" is  the local film that won a $10,000 Telus OPTIK grant thanks to a voting process that allowed members of the public to vote for films they wanted to see funded. The concept in itself was intriguing, given a cast of locals like Steve Reeve Newman of Mix 103.7 FM radio fame and up-and-coming young performer Dylan Thomas-Bouchier. Both of these individuals are gifted actors in their own right, but I was intrigued to see how they would work together, and how they would work Dylan's cerebral palsy into a screenplay about a challenging post-apocalyptic world - one filled with zombies.

Of course zombies are quite popular right now, given television shows such as The Walking Dead that have taken zombie culture to new heights. But The Good Survivor is less about the zombies and more about two very different characters who come together in a world filled with them - and one of the characters has what we have long traditionally viewed (and even called) a handicap.

I have had the opportunity to speak to Dylan about the filming, and I know it was an arduous ordeal for all of the cast and crew given that it was filmed in the winter and they were exposed to the elements for long periods of time. For Dylan it was on occasion particularly challenging, which is perhaps what has given rise to an astonishing performance that so captured me I had to watch the short three times to let it sink in fully.

This is not to diminish the roles played by anyone else, including the talented Steve Reeve Newman who looks a bit Grizzly Adams bear-like and who evokes the crankiness one would expect of someone who has been fending off hordes of zombies (and carries a secret inside them too). The supporting roles are equally well portrayed, but there is no doubt young Dylan steals the show as he fleshes out a character that is not only more than his "handicap", but is also perhaps even far more interesting and compelling because of it.

The short is filmed so well, particularly given the inclement weather conditions, and the directing is crisp and precise. The special effects are suitably gory, and the storyline is thoughtful as it explores what it takes to be a "good survivor", which in the end may not be about traditional survival skills at all.

The short film has now had a few public screenings, and even more people have had the opportunity to experience what I was so fortunate to get a sneak peek at. The reviews continue to be strong, and there continues to be interest in both the project and a very unique storyline that didn't shy away from the reality of "handicaps" but instead stared right into them.

This week The Good Survivor enters into a new phase of voting. You can view the film online and then you can vote for the project. A top winner from Alberta and a top winner from BC will be selected through a combination of votes, social media presence and a jury of judges to go to the next level of mentorship through Telus / NSI and an invitation to the Banff Media Festival to further the development and careers of the filmmakers.

The support of the community continues to be critical to ensuring The Good Survivor not only attracts new audiences, but furthers the development of a group of individuals who have already produced a remarkable short film, made in challenging circumstances and featuring a storyline that is not only unusual but compelling.

Over the past few years the art of filmmaking has truly taken off in our region. Thanks to individuals such as those involved in this project, Wood Buffalo and Fort McMurray are becoming part of the Canadian filmmaking presence, an amazing achievement that has occurred in a very short period of time. It is entirely due to thoughtful, professional products like this one, which marry a popular concept (zombies) with a solid storyline that explores what being a good survivor really means, and the true nature of our handicaps, whether they are physical or emotional.

I sincerely hope you will take the time to view the film and to vote for this group of filmmakers and this project, one which proudly reflects our community. Watch the film, and then vote to ensure this group of local filmmakers has the opportunity to further explore their craft while also representing our community on a national stage. Help The Good Survivor to thrive and move onto the next step - and take pride in fellow community members as they follow their dreams.

You can watch the short in the video below, and just below that is the link to vote for this project. If like good short films, if you love people who have passion for their craft and if you want to see others in our community have the opportunity to attain their dreams and goals, vote now for The Good Survivor - because this group of filmmakers? Well, they have shown all of us just what it takes to not only survive, but rise.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Glimmer of Light

I had a strong suspicion this latest trip to Edmonton was going to be a challenge when the bus I was riding in broke down just outside Wandering River. We limped into that small town, and there we sat for three hours to wait for another bus to finish our trip to the city where I would see my corneal specialist, something I have done frequently in the past year and a half. The new bus finally arrived and we got on board, hours behind schedule but finally under way, and I thought the trip should now go smoothly – right until the next morning when the taxi I was riding in on the way to the corneal specialist broadsided another vehicle that had failed to stop at a stop sign.

Oh, the taxi driver tried to avoid it, stomping on the brakes, but the roads were icy and there was just no escape. I watched as we drifted, seemingly in slow motion, into the side of the other car, and then we spun around a couple of times for good measure before coming to rest in a snowdrift beside the busy street. The driver and I were unhurt, thankfully, but the omens were clear: this trip was doomed.
A new taxi arrived and ferried me to the specialist’s office with time to spare, as I always arrive early and then end up waiting as one always does for physicians. I quite like my corneal specialist, one of the best in the province I am told, although we met under rather inauspicious circumstances in an emergency room as he used medical grade crazy glue to seal the hole that had developed in my cornea, the result of years of an eye disease that had weakened that fragile bit of flesh. Like a punctured tire, my cornea was leaking and he needed to plug the hole, which he did with great precision and great success.

As I sat in the big chair I assumed it would be much like our previous visits – some concern over the increased pressure in my eye, a reaction to one of the medications I must use to control the inflammation, and a determination that I still had no vision, obscured due to the glue that sits squarely in the middle of my cornea and clouds the world.
This time was different, though. The specialist, concerned about the ominously high pressure in my eye, asked if we had ever talked about enucleation.

Now, other people might not even understand what that word means, but I knew instantly. I have never come so very close to vomiting on someone’s shiny black wingtips, as what my specialist was now proposing was not the corneal transplant we had discussed but rather the removal of my entire left eye.
His reasons were sound. The increased pressure meant that I was likely developing glaucoma in that eye, which would eventually diminish any vision I might have once the glue was removed. And we could not be sure how much vision still remained, given that despite medications the pressure had remained absurdly high, although he acknowledged this may have been in part due to an inability of the usual instruments to measure it properly due to the glue. An enucleation would end it all – the pain, the suffering, the uncertainty, the years of medication, the endless round robin of medical visits. No more eye problems. In fact, no more left eye.

We discussed it at some length, me doing that thing I do when I am actually dying inside but pretending to be completely rational and logical and dispassionate. When I left his office it was with the directive to make a decision, removal of my eye or a corneal transplant which may not work, may not result in any vision and which may end in removal of the eye in the end regardless.
I wandered around a local mall in a daze, buying things I cannot even recall wanting or needing but just having to do something to not think about the decision. It was not until very late that night, when I could not sleep, that I faced my demons. I laid on my bed in a darkened hotel room, the only light coming from the screen of my laptop as I read on and on about the procedure of removing an eye and the development of an artificial, or prosthetic, eye.

What I learned would have been quite fascinating had it not been quite so personal. The art of making prosthetic eyes is exactly that, an art often handed down from generation to generation. It is far less science and far more craftsmanship as the artisan molds an eye to fit the socket and then painstakingly hand paints it to match the other eye. Thanks to advances in the technology artificial eyes can even move to mimic the other eye, lessening the effect of a “wandering eye” that is clearly fake to any observer. There are only a handful of such artisans in the country, I learned.
But as I sat there, late at night, all I could think was how we come to places in our lives we never expect to be. I never, ever anticipated I would find myself in a hotel room hours from home contemplating having a piece of my body removed. I would have never imagined myself learning about prosthetic eyes not because it affected someone else but because I needed to know how one cleans them and how long they last.

I don’t share this story looking for sympathy. I suppose I want people to understand that this is how life works – full of surprises of every kind, including the ones that find you staring into the dark in a hotel room as you think about whether or not to remove your eye.
And it was there in that dark that I turned on the flashlight on my cellphone and moved it around the air, trying to see if I could detect the bright light from it. I closed my good eye and used only the “bad one”, the one that has been through so much over the past sixteen years.

The light was above, and then below. Top left, bottom right. I could not see “things”, but my poor beleaguered eye, despite the glue and the pressure and the corneal scarring, was picking up shimmers of that light like a homing beacon.
And it was then that I decided, just as I was so very close to saying it was time to end the suffering and simply remove it, that I had to try the transplant. Maybe it would not work, and maybe it would still end in that prosthetic eye. It certainly meant more pain and suffering and medical visits and an uncertain future, but what I knew was that my left eye had not yet given up – and so nor could I.

This spring I will add my name to the corneal transplant list. In 6-9 months I should be the recipient of a new (well, more accurately new-to-me) cornea. And in short order I will know if I have any vision in my left eye.
There are many lessons here, and much to write about. I want to explore the lack of medical specialists in northern communities like ours, as an ophthalmologist would have likely been able to detect my impending corneal perforation and prevented all of this. I want to explore the artistry of artificial eyes, as even if I never find myself owning one there is a fascinating tale to tell on those, their history and their future. I want to explore the process of corneal transplants, including the wait time and why more people do not donate their corneas and other organs. And I want to write about what it is like to travel through the peaks and valleys of a chronic illness, including the deep dark chasms where one finds oneself late at night in hotel rooms far from home, pondering decisions no one should ever need to ponder.

Today though I share this simple story, of a night where I faced the kind of decision you never think you will face, staring into the darkness until I saw the flash of light coming from my cellphone, telling me that as long as there is a glimmer of hope there is no option but to forge on, not give up. As long as there is just a shimmer of hope – just the faintest bit of light – then we must try even if there is a chance we will not succeed. Perhaps that is the lesson I needed to learn most of all.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Invincibility of Youth

The news was both shocking and tragic. A group of young adults had somehow entered the Canada Olympic Park in Calgary overnight, and taken their own toboggan down the bobsled run. Undoubtedly it was conceived of as a great prank, a moment of teenage enthusiasm for what was also undoubtedly a bad idea. The tragic part is that they had no idea how bad an idea it would turn out to be, as they hit a gate on the way down the run, injuring several and killing two of the young adults.

I read it with horror, as I have my own teenage charge in my life and while she exhibits generally good judgement I know how young adults can be. I know this because I was one once, and a reckless one at that. But my horror on reading this news was compounded by the adults who also read it and shared it on social media calling the young adults in question "morons", "idiots" and "stupid".

All I could think was there but for the grace of god/luck/whatever deity you choose, go I, as there is no way I should have survived my young adult years.

Show of hands: how many of you did something stupid as a young adult? This can range from getting into a vehicle with someone you suspected might be intoxicated to street racing to trespassing to the variety of other things that seemed like a good idea at the time. How many of us did things that could have ended in serious injury or death?

I see a lot of hands, people.

Mine are both in the air. I think back to the times my best friend, who was from a small town in rural Saskatchewan, and I went "bump riding" with her friends, which meant taking the back country roads at top speed in fast cars to "get air" and feel like we were flying, if just for a moment. I think back to spinning donuts in parking lots while taking turns lying on top of a car, hanging onto the roof racks, the car increasing in speed every turn. I think back to all the times we trespassed on private property to pull pranks (ever heard of tipping cows?) and all the times we made decisions that now stun me in their complete lack of understanding of potential consequences.

How easily we could have been injured. How easily we could have died. I remember the times I felt my grip on those roof racks loosening, fearing I would fall off, but never thinking about what would or could truly happen if I did. We were so lucky.

We were so lucky, until the moment we were not. For my friends and I that luck ended one summer night. I was at home hours away while my small town friends were at a bush party just outside their town. There was alcohol, I'm sure, and there were a lot of kids, and there were dirt bikes, and then there was a collision between two dirt bikes on a gravel road. Two were killed. One lingered in a coma for months. One was badly injured and disfigured for life. They were in Grade 12, and I was in first year university.

Our belief in our own invincibility ended that night. Many things ended then, including a slow dissolution of that friendship I had treasured. We all changed forever in the seconds it took for two dirt bikes to collide on a back country road. None of us were ever the same again. I have shared that story with my daughter in the hope that she would understand the consequences of such decisions, but then again she is young and like me at her age I imagine she believes she is invincible. Such is the reality of youth.

It is so easy as an adult to look at the actions of young adults and call them idiotic or stupid or moronic. We fail to remember our own young adult years, perhaps. We fail to understand that young brains have not finished developing, and make decisions adult brains would consider far differently. We forget what it was  like to feel invincible and immortal, to feel like we were flying and could never fall to earth.

Today I learned the young adults killed in Calgary were twin brothers, leaving behind grieving parents, a sister and a circle of family and friends who must have loved them dearly. When I saw their photos my heart hurt so deeply, taking me back to the morning over thirty years ago when I got a phone call telling me two friends had been killed in a dirt bike accident. I felt no compunction to pass judgment on their actions then and I do not today. Instead I feel nothing but sorrow and sympathy.

Perhaps - just perhaps - we could put aside the impulse to condemn the actions and remember what it was like to be young. Failing that perhaps we could simply understand the sort of grief others are experiencing right now.

Compassion is a gift we can give freely - it costs us nothing. I simply hope we can be rich in compassion, my friends. The world could use far more of it and far less condemnation. I believe each and every one of us hopes for compassion from others.

There but for the grace of God and/or luck go I. That, my friends, is the beginning of the road to compassion. I hope we all consider travelling it.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Getting Through the Tough Times - Together

It has become the rather large elephant in the room now. While I have seen a lot of discussion regarding the price of oil, the downturn in the economy, the drop in house prices and the layoffs we have already seen and those we fear, I have seen far less discussion on the impact this is having on our collective mental health.

There is no denying that economic and financial stress creates an atmosphere of anxiety. It is almost palpable on occasion, and I think we tend to tiptoe around it as we are quite busy putting on our “warrior faces” and being brave in the face of adversity.
And we have every reason to be brave and proud, too, as we have continued to show the generosity of our community and our desire to help others, as evidenced by the amazing fundraising that has taken place here in the last few months. But to ignore the elephant in the room is to invite trouble, because there is no doubt there is fear in our community over the current state of things.

There are those who will likely think even acknowledging it is a mistake, as it could seem pessimistic when we need to remain optimistic. The truth is that I am very optimistic about our long-term future, but I also acknowledge we have gone through, and likely will go through more, rough patches on the way to that future. And we need to both recognize them and offer our assistance to those who are going through rougher patches than we are.
I am seeing a lot if it on social media. Moms worried about grocery bills and squeezing every dollar. Dads selling the recreation vehicles they acquired when times were good. And there is a sense of anxiety that underlies it all, a fear of the unknown or a dread of what we expect. It is contagious, too, as the uncertainty affects us all.

So, what can we do in times such as this?
It’s quite simple: be there for each other. This is the time to reach out to people even if you never have before. Check in with your family and friends to see how they are doing, of course – but go a bit further and reach out to your colleagues and your neighbours, too. It’s okay to not have a solution to their worries – they won’t have one for yours, either. But sometimes just having someone listen to our fears has the remarkable ability to lessen them, shrinking that elephant down to a manageable size. If they are truly struggling and their mental health is being affected perhaps suggest some of the many resources available to help. And maybe throw in a simple act of kindness; wheel their garbage bins back in place after the trucks have been by for instance, or shovel their sidewalk in addition to yours.

Right now, when people are fighting battles about which we may know nothing, the smallest acts of kindness may have deep and profound impacts we cannot even imagine.
Words of encouragement are never out of place. Try to be hopeful even in the face of darkness. Be the one who offers the kind word, be positive and just be there for the others in our community who are struggling. And if you are the one struggling? I am reaching out to you, and ask you to reach out to me, or someone else, and simply share what’s going on with you. Share that elephant with someone else and watch how it gets smaller. I promise it will.

I have always believed and still maintain that we live in one of the most remarkable communities in this country. Community strength is not judged by how we treat each other when times are good, though. It is determined by how we support each other when times are difficult. This is a time when we can truly show that strength, by being there for each other in ways both large and small. We can still be positive and optimistic and acknowledge the challenges we face – and help each other through them.
We live in a remarkable place. Now let’s be remarkable for each other. And let’s get through this. Together.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

What I Learned on the Way to One Thousand

It was a few posts ago when I realized I was approaching a bit of a milestone number in this blog. Today, after writing this blog for just under five years (as of this spring), I hit the 1000-post mark. It's almost a bit hard to believe, as when this adventure began I had no anticipation I would make it to 100 posts, let alone ten times that, but here we are.

And what a ride it has been. I couldn't even begin to summarize what I have done, seen and written about thanks to this blog. If asked to do so I would have to tell you to just go read the posts, as it's all there in black and white - but while I cannot summarize all the events I can summarize some of the things I have learned over those one thousand posts. This summer I will celebrate a milestone birthday, and it is likely I will share some thoughts on what I learned on the way to that number, too - but that's for another day. Today is the day to share what I learned on the way to one thousand.

Beginning a blog is easy. Continuing a blog is hard.

Anybody can start a blog. It is actually quite easy, given the ease of use of many blog platforms and websites. The hard part isn't the beginning - it's keeping it going. Over those one thousand posts I can't count the number of times I considered ending the blog. There were long stretches when I didn't blog, and times when I wondered why I bothered - and yet I kept coming back to it. Maybe it's because I'm stubborn and maybe it's because I hate to quit anything, but I suspect it's mostly because I simply enjoy the entire experience of blogging. But if you begin a blog and don't enjoy it I can almost guarantee you won't continue it, as the blogosphere is littered with abandoned blogs that were once vibrant and active and are now quiet ghosts where nobody posts anymore. They are silent witnesses to that fact.

If you are passionate about your topic, the blogging is easy. If you aren’t passionate, don’t bother. People know.

In the very beginning I knew I had to write about things I care about, because people can spot a lack of authenticity. Even if they don't realize they are doing it they can still sense it, and they will not connect with your writing if they think it is insincere. Blogging about things you don't care about is a painful chore and completely absurd because blogging is the one place where you should feel free to write about whatever you actually care about. If you care about a topic the words come easily - if you don't it's a bit like herding unruly cats that you don't even want to herd.
Write about what you love. Or what you hate. Nobody wants to read about ambivalence.

Ambivalence is boring. If you don't love it or hate it, why bother writing about it in a blog? Nothing says "don't read me" like a title that reeks of ambivalence. Even worse though is that writing about ambivalence is boring. No wonder people quit blogging. If your own topics don't excite you, then there really is no point because they won't entertain anyone else, either.
Write for yourself. Finding an audience is awesome – but your first audience is always you.

I always assumed the only regular reader this blog would have would be me. I think that assumption gave me a lot of freedom to write for myself and about myself, because it was always about my life in my community. When it attracted readers I was a bit stunned, but I knew what attracted them was what I was doing, so I wasn't about to change it. This blog is about our community, to be certain - but it's about the adventure of one resident in this community: me. I am the one common link between all one thousand posts.

If you don’t have a thick skin and you are sharing your opinions you need to grow one. Pronto.

If you don't have a thick skin you might want to blog about something safe, like cupcakes. I don't imagine there are many cupcake culinary controversies, although I could be wrong on that. But if you are going to write a blog and share your opinions be ready for those who disagree with you. One of my most profound moments was talking to a class of young students about blogging and having them ask how to handle it if people thought what they wrote was "stupid". After I got over the initial heartbreak that they even knew to ask that kind of question I told them that I handled it by being confident that my thoughts and opinions have as much value as anyone else's, and that I didn't worry overly about what other people thought of it. If you write what is true to you, you won't feel much need to defend it. The haters can get stuffed. Or start their own blog. 

Don’t be afraid to be you. Even when you are terrified.

I think it was the moment when I realized it was my blog that I began to own the hell out of it. Yep, those are my words, my thoughts and my opinions. That's even my picture there to the right of this post. So I was going to be me in this blog, 100% of the time. What would be the point of being anyone else?

Know when to hold ‘em. And when to fold ‘em.

Kenny Rogers wasn't just singing about cards, you know. Sometimes blogging is about knowing when to hold 'em - the stories you wish you could tell but know that you can't, and knowing when to fold 'em - the topics you know you have to shelve for a bit. I often quip that some stories will be saved for the eventual book I will write and people always laugh - but it's no joke as of course there is a book, just one that will come out after I have left town some day. Or maybe published posthumously just to be on the really safe side. The stories that made it to this blog are really one half of the adventure this has been, and some day I will tell the other half. Just not today. Thanks Kenny - I know when to hold 'em!

When everyone loves what you write, you’re a genius; when they hate it, you’re Satan.

The best part is when some people think you are a genius while others think you are Satan. But on occasion almost everyone will think you missed the mark or messed up or are channeling the underworld. It can be quite the pendulum swing, but it can also be quite entertaining. Besides the hate mail that comes from being pegged as Satan can be an awfully good read.

Even people who think you are Satan might continue to read your work, if only to prove to themselves that you are indeed Satan.

One of my favourite encounters was with someone who said they hated everything I write but who continued to read it to confirm how much they hate everything I write. Who can argue with that kind of logic? It's sort of like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer every day to remind yourself about how much you hate being hit in the head with a hammer. One can only be amused by this, and I am.

Sometimes you are very right. Sometimes you are dead wrong.

You will not always be right. And it's okay to admit your errors. But you should never feel forced to acknowledge you are wrong, because if you feel forced then it's quite likely you don't instinctively feel you are wrong at all. And that should be your clue that maybe you aren't wrong. It's also okay to stick to your guns if that's what your instinct says.

Don’t let opportunity slip past you.

The blog has presented me with so many opportunities! Some I was offered and some I sought out - but if opportunity comes knocking you need to consider answering the door, even if you are wearing pyjamas and haven't had a shower and your hair is a mess. You don't need to say yes to every opportunity, but make sure you consider them as they arise. What you don't want is to regret not even thinking about them.

Let yourself be surprised. Every single time.

I can still recall the first time someone complimented me on a blog post I had written. I was so surprised. Pleased, of course, but surprised. And it still happens, every single time. I feel almost awkward and shy when someone compliments something I have written. Proud but humbled. It's the strangest feeling in the world, really. Now when they tell me they hate it that's much easier as that never happens to my face but typically in an anonymous email, which usually heads right into my deleted items. But when they come to me and say, directly, what my words meant to them? Oh man. I get all weird inside, even one thousand posts later. I don't think that will ever go away.

You eventually find your niche.

When this blog began I went to absolutely everything. As the quip goes I would attend the opening of an envelope. Now people will occasionally comment on not having seen me around as often, and it's probably true as it took me some time but I found my niche - my place in this community and in my world. I don't go to as many events, but you can be sure when you see me at one that this is a place I have identified as part of my niche and a part of my heart. It took going to everything to realize where I wanted to belong - and to find where my heart really is. I love this community and I love this region, but I don't need to be everywhere and at everything to do it. I invest in those things closest to my heart and others invest in the things closest to theirs - which is how communities are built, really.

Nobody will learn more about you than you will through the process.

 Sometimes people comment about how much they know about me through this blog. The truth of course is that they only know what I have revealed and shared, and it is, as with any of us, the tip of the iceberg. This blog may have allowed others to experience Fort McMurray through my eyes, but nobody learned more about me than I did through it. I am not the same person as I was one thousand posts ago (thank goodness - how dull it would be to not allow experience to change you!) and I won't be the same person one thousand posts from now that I am today. This blog - the experiences I have had, the people I have met, the lessons I have learned, the changes I have seen both in our community and in me - taught me more about myself than any other process in my life ever has. 

You have a voice.

Every person has a voice. How you use it is entirely up to you. Every single person can develop a platform from which to share that voice. How do I know this? Because I did it. One thousand posts ago I was a stay-at-home mom without a blog and no public voice. Nobody handed me a platform to share my voice: I created it. That means anyone can do the same thing. I am living proof.

And finally...

One thousand posts. These one thousand posts changed my life. Yes, that is in italics because it is true and worthy of note. If you have been reading them, thank you. I appreciate that more than you will ever know. In the end though I wrote these one thousand posts not for you, but for me. Every single post, every single experience, every single person, every single comment, every single note of encouragement or email of condemnation - they changed me and my life. I don't know if these one thousand posts had any impact on the life of anyone else or on this community, although on occasion I like to hope they did, but I do know they had an impact on mine and that my life would not be what it is today had I not written them.

So what did I really learn on the way to one thousand? Gratitude. To this community, to my readers, to the people who invest in this region the way I do, to my friends, to my kid...just gratitude. Thank you for being there on the way to one thousand. Today I celebrate one thousand - with thankfulness for all I learned along the way, because being McMurray Musings has been one of the best adventures of my entire life - and it ain't over yet!