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

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!

Friday, January 29, 2016

Whatever Floats Your Boat - the Peter Pond Paddle with FMPSD

There are offers you get you just can’t refuse. And when you are asked if you want to serve as a judge for a cardboard boat building competition involving local students, you’d be a fool to say no.

That would be how I found myself with a pencil and clipboard in hand last week as I served as a guest judge at the Peter Pond Paddle cardboard boat building competition hosted by Fort McMurray Composite High School. In addition to some teams of high school students there were teams of younger students from the south-side elementary schools in the Fort McMurray Public School District. The event was designed not only as a team challenge but as a way for the older students to connect with the younger ones, and for everyone to have fun in a day spent building – and then testing – their cardboard boats. There was even a last-minute addition of a team of teachers, who insisted they should build a boat too.
The judging part was fairly quick as my fellow judges and I evaluated the teams on things like team work, the strength of their construction, the design they created beforehand (and if they followed it) and the cleanliness of their work space (this was an interesting one as some were so tidy you would never guess boat building was going on while others looked a bit like an explosion at a cardboard and tape factory).

All photos courtesy of FMPSD

But once the judging was complete the real fun began, as it was over to the Syncrude Aquatic Centre pool to test the boats.
Let’s be clear. I am a writer and not an engineer, and I must say I learned a great deal about building cardboard boats that day. I don’t want to give too much away as I know this may become an annual event, but I will say that in cardboard boats size DOES matter and bigger is not necessarily better.

Amid cheers and shouts and laughter and clapping the teams selected one member to get into the boat and attempt to paddle it from one end of the pool to another. Some boats made it a few feet before meeting their demise, while some never quite left the dock, folding up quickly and quietly and enveloping their hapless captain. In the end only two boats made it all the way intact – one from the Composite High School students and one from the Beacon Hill Bears.
All photos courtesy of FMPSD
Confession time: the Intrepid Junior Blogger began her education as a Beacon Hill Bear. In fact we choose the school, and for six years I drove her there every day as it was not the school designated by our neighbourhood bus route. But there was something about the school, the staff, the teachers and the culture that we loved, and so we made that trek every single day regardless of the weather. I must admit I was rooting for the Bears team, so when their boat was the first to make it the length of the pool I likely cheered louder than anyone.

And about that boat from the teachers? Well, let’s just say they weren’t expert boat builders either. As their boat began to flounder about ¼ of the way across the pool I found myself shouting things like “Try harder!” and “C’mon, you aren’t even really trying!” and tee-heeing to myself in some sort of twisted latent revenge for all those years of gym classes when I failed to climb that bloody horrible rope thing that they made everyone try. I loved my teachers then and I have such respect for teachers now, but I must admit I am not above a bit of trash talk when it comes to “encouraging” them in the same manner I was once encouraged (and no, I never made it to the top of that damn rope, and no, the teacher’s boat never made it across the pool, either).
But at the end only two boats remained, and the final challenge? See how many team members could fit into each boat before it sank. While the Composite team gave it a good try, it was the Beacon Hill Bears who managed to fit three people in their boat and still keep it afloat, although it was taking on water at an alarming rate towards the end.

All photos courtesy of FMPSD

The aftermath of the day was a lot of wet cardboard, a lot of sore throats from shouting and a lot of smiles and laughter as even those who saw their boats sink had had a raucous good time while doing it. It was definitely out of the norm for their average school day, and it was more fun than I have had in ages.

The winning Beacon Hill Bears team!
All photos courtesy of FMPSD

The second place Composite High School team!
All photos courtesy of FMPSD

There are likely people who question the benefit of events like this for students, but to me they are so clear as to be immediately obvious. It encourages the kids to work as a team, it allows them to connect with peers from other schools, it shows them that learning can be fun and it reminds them of the practical application of such skills (if they are ever on a deserted island I can guarantee none of them will ever consider building a life raft from cardboard, for instance). The sense of team spirit and camaraderie was unmistakable, and the pride in both the students and the teachers was evident. And to be honest, I was both proud and delighted just to be there.

Our most precious resource in this town is not oil, regardless of what anyone says. Our most valuable resource is our people, and perhaps most especially our youth who have their entire future ahead of them. This resource is the one in which we should take both the most pride and the most concern, because it our youth have the opportunity to change our world. While they may not do it by building cardboard boats, they will do it through the skills they are acquiring at such events and every single day in our schools.
My thanks to Kevin Bergen, principal of Fort McMurray Composite High School for the invitation to be a judge, to the FMPSD for always doing what’s best for kids (including all the years they did what was best for mine) and most particularly to the students who welcomed me into their day. I smiled a lot, laughed like crazy and learned that cardboard is not the best boat building material in the world. So really, it was one of the best days, ever!

All photos courtesy of FMPSD

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Let's Talk, Fort McMurray

Let’s talk, Fort McMurray.

The year is 2016, and we are now open to discussing so many things we used to shun. We talk about gender orientation and sexuality. We talk about intimate medical issues, including the right to die. We talk about some of the most sensitive, the most delicate and the most difficult topics, and yet we still struggle sometimes to talk about something that touches most of our lives: mental illness.
I don’t know about you, but mental illness has touched my family. After the death of my mother I went through an intensive year-long depression that was profound and deep and dark and infinitely frightening. I thought I was Teflon when it came to mental health, despite knowing that my family history of mental illness stretches back for generations. When I realized – finally – that I was struggling with depression I was genuinely stunned because I had always been convinced it would not – could not! – happen to me.

Nobody is Teflon, and nobody is immune from mental health issues. The number of people who struggle with anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness is staggering. The number of attempted suicides is terrifying, and the number of completed suicide devastating.
I have watched friends grapple with the loss of a child to suicide. I have watched others attempt to secure help for family members who have threatened or attempted suicide. I have seen the huge gaps in our support system for children, youth and adults who have mental health issues. And I have realized how much we need to talk.

Right now we are facing a turbulent time in our country, with an economy that is uncertain. That uncertainty can become a huge contributor to stress, anxiety and depression, and while it is always important to be cognizant of our mental health it may be more imperative now than ever.
The statistics regarding mental illness are something we need to not only discuss but share openly. We need to have open and frank conversations about mental health, not just today but every single day. We need to have them in our homes, our schools, our places of worship, our coffee shops and our workplaces. The stigma we have attached to mental illness must end. It is 2016, and the time for stigmas is over.

You don’t need to be an expert to talk about mental health. You simply need to care about the mental and physical well-being of the people around you. And you need to understand that you are not Teflon, and you are not immune. I am living proof of that reality.
Let’s talk. And if you aren’t talking already, let’s start today. And let’s talk tomorrow, too. And the day after that. And every single day. Let's talk, let's advocate for better and stronger support for those with mental illness and let's be there for each other. Because trust me, some day we may need them to be there for us - and nobody knows this better than me.

You can find more information and resources at:

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Time to Listen

Like everyone else who heard it, I was horrified when I heard the news coming from La Loche, Saskatchewan. I have been to La Loche, as I grew up in Saskatoon and had been there on occasion when I was much younger, and I have known people from La Loche. Even if I had not, though, my heart would have ached for the people of a small community where everyone knows everyone, and where this kind of tragedy cuts deep and hard for every single resident.

There were people who asked if I planned to write about La Loche, curious as to what I might say. And to be honest all I can say is very simple: there is a time to speak, and a time to listen, and this is a time to listen to the people of La Loche, and all the communities who face challenges similar to those in La Loche.
Over the past few years I have had the privilege of spending time with some First Nations elders. What I have learned from them is the importance of opening your heart, your mind and most importantly your ears, and listening to the voices of the people who know what they know through first hand experience.

Middle class white people like me can opine on and on about La Loche and other First Nations communities, and some of us even have some experience with them – but we have not travelled that road or lived that life, and the time has come for us to simply shut up and listen, not speak to hear the sound of our own voices.
I have spent time in First Nations communities in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario. While I am cognizant of some of the challenges they face I am in no way familiar with them enough to even hint at having an opinion of any sort. All I can do is grieve with them over this most recent loss, and open my heart, my mind and my ears.

I hope people across this country, those of us who have not grown up in communities like La Loche, do the same and listen instead of speaking right now. I hope we hear what is being said by the elders, the youth, the adults and the leaders of those communities. I hope our governments are listening too, because they need to hear what they are being told by the people who live in these communities and who are the experts in this regard.
If I learned anything from the elders I am so honoured to know, I have learned there is a time to speak, and a time to listen. This is a time for people like me to listen and learn. Heart open, mouth closed. Just listening.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

What Does a Champion Look Like?

Have you ever wondered what a champion looks like? I mean, not a champion athlete or a champion race horse, but a community champion and local hero? This week you have an opportunity to get a glimpse of a few of the community champions and heroes we are so privileged to have in our region, and today I wanted to dedicate this blog post to them.

The annual Mayor and Council Toast of Champions is an event designed to recognize outstanding individuals in our region. Every year members of our community nominate other members for this acknowledgement, and this year it was both my pleasure and honour to provide letters of support for some of the nominees. To be honest I love writing these kinds of letters as it allows me to personally acknowledge these individuals and what they mean both to me and to our community, and I am so very proud of them. When the list of nominees was revealed I was pleased to see many names I know, as well as some I do not, because it means our community is vibrant and healthy and rich in the very resource that never changes in value: people. While the value of oil may dip and dive, the value of our people remains strong and indicative of the true nature of this remarkable community.

While only some of the nominees will "win", each and every one of them deserves tremendous gratitude and recognition for what they have contributed to our communities and our region. Today I want to share a few words about the ones I happen to know personally, and what they have meant to me and my life:

Bill Bertschy - What can one say about someone like Bill? I met Bill initially through work but he quickly became a friend and mentor. Bill's quiet and gentle nature hides the heart of a bear, and he is one of the kindest and wisest people I have ever known. His work with youth and adults alike has changed many lives, and his leadership has changed our region. He is undoubtedly a true community leader and someone I am so very honoured to have in my world.

 Candace Sturgess - While I don't know Candace as well as I know some of the other nominees, I have watched as she worked in her home community in Anzac to improve the quality of life and provide new opportunities for the residents of that incredible community in our region.Wife, mom, business owner, active community member and leader - one busy lady who is making one big difference, and someone we can all look up to.

 Dutche Iannetti - I met Dutche through work and am amazed at his genuine commitment to the baseball community of this region, and in particular to the youth who enjoy this sport. Dutche, as everyone knows, has been the driving force behind the exciting new WMBL team that will arrive in Fort McMurray this summer, and his dedication to this has been amazing to witness. It will be a true pleasure to be there when the team steps onto the diamond for the first time, because I will know Dutche is the reason it happened at all.

Joanna Torguson - Founder of the Fort Mac Hand Crafted Market, Joanna is one of those remarkable people who creates an entire community within a community. The Hand Crafted Market has developed an entirely new outlet for crafters and artisans in our community, giving them a place to not only showcase their products but their talents. Joanna saw a niche that needed to be filled, and so she did what community leaders do: filled it.

Kelli Stewart - How do I even begin this one without getting all gushy? I love Kelli. I love her enthusiasm, her passion for her craft (dance), her bold attitude and her mentorship of all the children and youth with whom she interacts. There are people who have made my life better from the moment they entered it, and Kelli, who entered it holding a small kitten she had just rescued from a dumpster in true Kelli-fashion, is one of those people. I always knew Kelli would accomplish great things, so this nomination comes as no surprise to me or anyone who knows and/or adores her. Just mark me down as a fan.

Kelsey Granick - One of the great joys of my life has been meeting the incredible youth in our region. Kelsey, who I first met in Fort Chipewyan, is one of those youth. When Kelsey was in Fort McMurray for an FC Edmonton soccer clinic I even had the opportunity to sit down with her and her mom and interview her, one of my favourite stories I've ever written for Connect Weekly. Kelsey is a role model for other youth, a leader in her community and really just a remarkable young women with an amazing future ahead. I am so delighted to see her being recognized as she is so very worthy of the recognition, and I know that first hand.

Michelle Thorne - Some people just live and breathe their art - and Michelle is one of them. She is at the forefront of our thriving arts and culture scene, with a strong presence in the performing arts including a co-founding role at an independent local theatre group. Her enthusiasm, her spirit and her genuine passion for her art have made her a community leader and it is a pleasure to know her, even if only a little bit, just to witness that up close.

Seville Kwan - While I only know Seville lightly on a personally basis, I have come to know her a bit more through my work on the Wood Buffalo Communities in Bloom committee. Much like our committee, Seville shows clear commitment to making our community and region bloom, not only through her professional role but through everything she does in our community as a volunteer. Seville is another one of those people who take leadership to a new level, and who is a role model all of us would do well to follow.

Fort McMurray Filmmakers Association - Oh, these five. What on earth can I say about these five people? They had an idea, and then unlike so many who talk an idea to death they ran with it, creating an incredibly successful organization in a remarkably short time. They are talented, they are skilled, they are dedicated, they are enthusiastic - and they are the kind of people we all wish we had in our community. We are lucky enough to have them in ours, and I am even more fortunate to call them friends, because each of them has enriched my life in some way. I consider them more family than friends, really.

There are a number of other nominees as well, and I encourage you to view all of them. While I do not know the others well enough to comment personally on them, I know enough to know that if they have been nominated then they have had an impact on the lives of others and made this community a better place for all of us. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, with a diversity of experience and skills, and each and every one has contributed to this place we all call home. Each and every one is, of course, a champion and deserving of that recognition.

Take a look, Wood Buffalo. If you have ever wondered what a champion looks like, now you know. They are the people all around us, every single day, and how very lucky we are to have them indeed!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Extraordinary Time, Extraordinary Measures

It was a small post, not really something designed to attract a lot of attention but I saw it as I scrolled through my Facebook feed. No flashy graphics, no marketing hype – just a simple request from a local business asking for customers to support them. In some ways it was more a plea, really. It was an extraordinary post, but it is coming at an extraordinary time.


While it was not flashy it was certainly attention-grabbing as this small local restaurant is surely not the only local business concerned for their survival at this time in history. The economic downturn has hit us all in some way, and small businesses are likely some of the hardest hit as discretionary spending drops and they struggle to pay their employees, keep their lights on, and stay afloat as their revenues diminish.
For those who have been here as long as I have, or far longer, it is not something new. I recall after the last dip in our economic fortunes (one far less severe than this one) how I looked around when it was over and some of the businesses I had always valued were, quite simply, gone. The economic pressure and stress was too much for them, and some of the ones I had been quite loyal to quietly closed their doors and drifted away into memory.

For these business owners, though, it is incredibly painful. As someone who worked in small businesses for a very long time I know how the owners and staff devote themselves to these enterprises. These are often businesses that began as dreams and the owner was courageous enough to take their dream to reality. Losing a business for them is not just an economic loss, but the death of those original dreams.
When that last economic dip occurred I remember coming out of it and seeing those lost dreams and wondering what I could have done to prevent it. I recognized that some will fail despite all efforts, but I realized that if it ever happened again I would need to do whatever I could to help support those that had meaning for me.

For me right now that means shopping locally as much as possible. The lure of online shopping is omnipresent, but if I can support a local business I will, and if I can get something here instead of in Edmonton I intend to do that, too. The reality is that those big box retailers down in Edmonton can weather this storm, but the small local businesses don’t have the kind of clout behind them and they need our support to keep afloat right now. I have always enjoyed those trips to Edmonton, but focusing any spending I do locally is investing in my own community right now, and it is just one small thing I can do to ensure the viability of those businesses I would like to still see around when we do see an uptick in our economy.
For myself, the economic reality hit home when the weekly newspaper for which I have written for almost four years found itself unable to continue to pay freelance writers due to declining revenues (a common concern right now in the world of newspaper and magazine publishing). Content in the paper would now be generated by one person, a very competent one, but the paper would lose some of the community voices that made it unique and that had made me a fan of it in the very beginning. When the editor called to relay the news that I was, in essence, being laid off, of course I was disappointed and saddened, as the Connect Weekly has been a huge part of my life for the last few years. It was the first publication to offer me a regular place to write and a paycheque to go with it, and whenever I asked for more work (like when my personal life was turbulent and I needed something to occupy my mind) or less work (when I began a new career in communications), the people at Connect always said yes. Over the years the ownership of the paper has changed, as have the names of the people at the helm in the roles of editorial staff, but my feelings about the paper have never changed. It was the place that gave me a start, that allowed a novice writer to hone her skills while making mistakes, to develop her craft while occasionally bungling things and simply an opportunity to write. I knew it was a decision they had not come to lightly or easily, just as with all the businesses finding themselves in a similar position and that have faced difficult decisions during this time. What could I do to contribute in some way to help Connect, a paper that has come to mean so much to me, and far more than a paycheque, through these difficult times?

I called the editor and told them I would like to continue to contribute to the newspaper on occasion at no charge to them, providing one of those voices that would otherwise be missing and perhaps lessening their load just a little bit. I realized there isn’t much else I can offer – but if I can offer the skill I have and if it helps them in any small way then I will know I have done what I can to help a business that has over the years always been there for me.
Sometimes what we have to offer is not monetary in value, although it is a skill that can be monetized. I have always and will continue to offer to provide writing and editing services to social profit organizations that need the help, and I will continue to do so during this time when they are pinching those pennies ever tighter to ensure the maximum amount goes to those they serve. And on occasion I may offer to help those businesses I hold dear, with either my advice or my skills, because I want them to survive and because some day when they weather this storm I anticipate they will find themselves in the position to once again pay people like me even if they currently cannot do so. And I will spend my cash locally, supporting the businesses and dreams of my fellow community members. We are, in the end, in this together, and my primary goal is to see them ride out the storm with the rest of us.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Each and every one of us will determine what those measures mean to us and what we will do during this extraordinary time. For myself it means making those choices I know I can live with and feel good about, including my commitment to shopping local and giving of the skill I have to help others during this extraordinary time. There is no right and wrong answer during times like these, just answers that resonate with each of us and that allow us to feel like we are contributing to our community during a difficult time. Extraordinary times, my friends, are what build communities just like this one. This isn't the first and won't be the last we will weather - I am truly just grateful we have the opportunity to do so together.

Monday, January 11, 2016

We Can Be Heroes

I awake at about 2 am, unable to sleep for whatever reason. It has already been a restless night, another in a row of restless nights as I struggle with some of the same demons we all face in the dark at 2 am.

I grab my phone to check the time and find myself checking Facebook instead, finding my timeline filled with posts that knock the wind and the sleep right out of me.

David Bowie, age 69, is dead.

Perhaps I'm asleep and dreaming, I think. You see in my head Bowie and I have always had this deal: I would keep him in my heart and head as my hero, and he would keep on living. But while I've held up my end of the imaginary deal it seems cancer (fuck cancer!) has stolen his ability to keep up his.

I never met Bowie, of course. The first time I heard a Bowie song I was likely about 12, the child of a farming family who found themselves living in the city. My parents were good people, solid and loving and kind, but admittedly I was not entirely like them and I always knew it. I was offbeat, a bit discordant, different in a way I couldn't define and they didn't really understand, although they loved me just the same. In those fragile preteen years someone told me it was okay to be different, to be unique, to approach life with ferocity and wring every drop of experience out of it.

It was Bowie.

Growing up in a small prairie city wasn't always easy when you were different. I was the girl who didn't fit in, the one with funny colored hair and strange clothing. People were either intrigued or appalled by me, but the joy was that I just didn't care because Bowie had shown me that what they thought didn't matter. I could be me, true to myself, and that was, in fact, everything. It was the only thing.

As Bowie changed over the years so did I. I was never one of those rabid fans, never owned every album or every t-shirt. I didn't want to kiss him, didn't want to be intimate with him, wasn't a hopeful groupie and wasn't in love with him. I didn't want to be him - I just wanted to be like him, to have his courage and his swagger and his confidence and his utter indifference to his detractors. And I always knew he was there, doing his own thing just as I was doing mine, and the world was spinning right on schedule.

His influence affected every part of me - the friends I chose, the men I loved, the things I held precious. He showed me I could befriend those people others thought too weird, love those who danced to their own rhythm and believe in anything I wanted to believe. 

And as I continued to grow older I began to realize that I would likely truly begin to feel old when Bowie died, as I recognized he was a bit older than I and likely to die before I did.

Yet as I lay in bed trying to absorb - no, just understand - the news of his death I didn't feel old so much as I felt grateful. Without Bowie I wouldn't be who I am today. Without Bowie I doubt there would have been the years of activism, the funny coloured hair, the bold move across the country to a city I had never even visited (Toronto), the crazy experiences and stories or any of the people - very different people, most of them - that have filled my life and continue to fill it to this day.

And to some degree I feel like I failed to hold up my end of the deal too, as while I've always held him as my hero, as years and time have marched on perhaps I have allowed the weight of the world to settle on me and forget how Bowie told me it was okay to be different, to be bold and to take risks just because I am me. I see glimpses of it now and then, flashes of the young girl who listened to Bowie sing and realized that she didn't have to be like everyone else. I see it in my resolve to stand up for what I believe, even when others think it is wrong, and in being unafraid to be the one different voice in the crowd, knowing that it is okay to be that voice as long as the voice is truly mine. I see it when I refuse to change my views to suit the conformity of others. But I wonder if maybe there are too few glimpses now of that girl, and perhaps there should be far more. (I'm sorry Bowie - I'll work on that)

I grew older, just as Bowie did, and now his death has reminded me of the impact his life had on me - and millions of others. I know many others had their own relationships with him, some far more intimate than mine, but I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge how he touched my life - more than any other performer, musician, artist ever has. Perhaps more than almost any individual ever has.

David told me we could be us, just for one day. He said we could be heroes, just for one day. But I think by one day he meant for our entire lives, because thanks to him I've been me for as long as I recall, and he's been my hero. Even death cannot sever that, because I will be me until I die, and David? Until the moment I follow him into the long dark night that awaits to eventually enfold us all, he will be my hero, showing me the way.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Thoughts on "Unbreakable Bo", Fort McMurray and the Alberta Government

I suspect if one were to stop at a certain spot in Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa today you may hear a small noise. Should one press their ear to the ground at this spot I imagine it would sound a bit like a whirring noise as the inhabitant of the grave in question is likely spinning at a fairly rapid rate.

Who is currently rotating in this fashion and why? I would venture it is Tommy Douglas, someone I consider a Canadian icon and hero, and founder of the concept of universal health care in our country. And why is he spinning in his grave? Most likely due to the news that a Canadian and Albertan citizen, denied funding by the Albertan NDP government for experimental treatment for an aggressive and deadly form of cancer, has just learned that he has been accepted into a clinical trial in Maryland – and that the American government, not usually known for generosity in their health care system, will apparently be funding at least a portion of his treatment.
Before I go much further I should make some points abundantly clear:

1.       I am deeply relieved and delighted that Fort McMurray firefighter Bo Cooper has been accepted into this clinical trial and that he will be the recipient of some funding through the American government

2.       I am deeply proud of our community and how it has come together to raise an astonishing amount of money in an incredibly short time frame, despite the economic climate and the challenges we have faced

3.       I believe this story is one of the most incredible I have ever witnessed and will carry it with me forever

4.       I am also, quite frankly, angry as hell.
Bo Cooper is 26 years old, born and raised in Fort McMurray. He is also a firefighter – you know, the guys who risk their lives to save us when our lives are in danger? Bo is now on his third round of a fight with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, and his last hope is the still-experimental but incredibly promising Car T Cell Therapy being developed and clinically tested in the United States. When Bo’s Canadian physicians began to point him in that direction there was only one problem: the Albertan government, which we elected less than a year ago on a platform of change, declined to fund the American treatment.

Oh, they gave the usual bureaucratic reasons. The treatment was still experimental and not approved in Canada. There wasn’t “enough evidence the treatment is safe or effective” (this despite some reports coming from the USA trials of success rates approaching 90%). They “empathized” with the family.
Cold comfort given the fact that the Albertan government appeared to be fundamentally okay with sentencing a 26 year-old man to death.

As most know I lean left politically. In fact I grew up in NDP Saskatchewan and am proud of that fact, as I believe it helped to shape who I am. One of the things I believed always true of the NDP is a commitment to compassion and the value of human life, but in the case of the Alberta NDP it appears I miscalculated gravely.
I emailed Sarah Hoffman, our AB Minister of Health, one month ago. I have yet to receive a response to my email, and in our Twitter interactions she basically put the blame on her team for the delayed reply, as well as indicating it “takes a village”, one of the most absurd things I have ever read coming from a government minister. The Ministry of Health has a “village” of well-paid communications professionals who apparently cannot respond to emails in a timely fashion, and if I were to do similar in my professional role I could and should be fired. But then again fobbing off responsibility appears to be her style, as when questioned about the decision to fund Bo Cooper’s treatment she indicated these decisions were reviewed by a panel of doctors who needed to make the decisions, and not her.

Except there is one problem: we didn’t elect a panel of doctors. We elected Ms. Hoffman and her colleagues to make these decisions, including on occasion perhaps even going against the panels of experts and making decisions that are brave, bold, innovative and compassionate. After all, that is what one would expect from a government of change.
But there is no change here. Ms. Hoffman made the same kind of tired, bureaucratic decision lacking in compassion that many Ministers before her would have likely made. No bold strides here, no courage, no willingness to show compassion to a 26 year old man (not much younger than the Minister herself, incidentally).

To say I am disappointed would be mild. I am outraged. The American government is helping to fund the treatment for an Albertan that his own government denied. There are those coming out of this looking like heroes: Bo, his family, his friends, his colleagues, this community, all those who have fought for him and now the American government. There is one entity coming out looking like the villain, and it is our own provincial government, the one we elected on the promise of change.
I sincerely doubt you would find one Albertan who would begrudge using some of our health care dollars to fund promising, if experimental, treatment for a 26-year old man with his entire life ahead of him. To make such a decision would be compassionate, brave and forward thinking – and apparently completely beyond our government.

A cynic might say the government refused the funding because this is Fort McMurray and there is no political gain to be made from funding the treatment of Bo Cooper. However I think what should be clear is this could happen to any of us or our children, and we too could find ourselves denied assistance from the very government on which we rely. The sentence of death they pronounced so glibly could one day be directed at any Albertan, and should we not have the kind of amazing community support we have shown for Bo Cooper the outcome could be a very different one indeed.
I believe in happy endings. I am steadfast in my belief that Bo Cooper, “unbreakable Bo” as he is called, will triumph. I believe his wife, his parents, his extended family, his friends, his colleagues and this entire community will celebrate when he conquers this cancer yet again and becomes the new success story of a treatment that will quite likely become standard instead of experimental if results to date are any indication.

There will be a huge welcome home party when that moment arrives, but there is one group who will not be invited to attend. The NDP government will be shut out in the cold, just as they shut out Bo, his family and this community when they declined to fund his treatment. I can guarantee that nobody in this community will ever, ever forget how they turned their back on one of us, because in doing so they turned their back on all of us. And in Fort McMurray? Well, we have generous spirits, warm hearts, compassionate souls….and very, very long memories.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Climbing the Mountain with NorthWord

When people ask me about the first time I was published – really published, not online – I refer back to days long ago in Toronto when I briefly wrote for a pet-focused newspaper aimed at the urban core of that city. It was a natural fit, as I was managing a veterinary clinic at the time and I was immersed in the world of pets and creatures large and small. When I stopped writing for that paper, though, there was a long hiatus, and the next time I was officially published was in the local literary magazine NorthWord.

I remember submitting to NorthWord, almost breathless as I did not anticipate my efforts would be successful. After all, it was the first piece I had submitted for publication in decades, and while I had found some degree of both success and satisfaction in blogging submitting to NorthWord was different. It was, after all, a blind submission, with my name stripped from the document and the guest editor only seeing the words I had written and not the name attached to it. I will always recall receiving the email advising me that my piece had been selected for publication, and I will never forget holding that issue in my hand, seeing my name in print and savouring it like a small morsel of sweet victory, as it felt like I had truly achieved a goal.
Since that time I have been published dozens of times, some in NorthWord and now in other publications, but nothing will ever replace those initial feelings of seeing my words in a magazine that showcases the work of some of the finest and most accomplished writers in our region. It is with great pleasure and anticipation then that I move on to another phase of my career as a writer, as now I will serve as the Guest Editor for the next edition of NorthWord.

One of the great joys of Guest Editing, other than the primary joy of having the opportunity to read the work of other fine writers, is the ability to choose a theme for the edition I will edit. I spent a great deal of time considering the theme, as many sprang to mind – but in the end only one theme would do, because it is perhaps the theme that intrigues me the most.
“Climbing the mountain”

What does this mean, you might wonder? And where does such a theme come from, given that I am someone who grew up in the midst of what is arguably the flattest landscape on the planet (Saskatchewan)? It comes from a life-long fascination with mountain climbers.
Ever since I was a very young child and just starting to read independently I was fascinated with those who climbed to the tallest peaks in our world. As I grew older my interest in them grew, too. I have most likely read every book ever written by extreme mountain climbers, about expeditions gone right and those gone wrong, watched every documentary…and yet with no intention of ever climbing a single one of those mountains.

Over time I came to recognize it wasn’t actually the mountains themselves that fascinated me, but the nature of those who chose to climb them. Mountains such as K2, while not the tallest but perhaps technically the most difficult, claim the lives of approximately ¼ of those who attempt to conquer it – so who would choose to climb such a mountain, when 25% of those who try to tackle it die?
I read the books, scouring them for some sort of clarity on the character of those who climb mountains. I read of their exploits, lost fingers and toes and lives. And as I read I too was growing older, and while I was not climbing Everest I began to discover that mountains can be powerful metaphors, as my life began to lift and heave just as the continents did when they gave rise to the mountain ranges on our planet.

The death of my father, followed by the death of my mother just three years later. A 24 year marriage that ended not in the world of “happy ever after” but divorce. An eye disease that instead of lessening over time simply grew into a cavalcade of new problems, each one worse than the last.
The true moment of clarity for me was when my corneal specialist, desperate to control the ever-increasing pressure in my diseased eye, wrote a prescription for an oral medication designed to control pressure in the body. I remember walking to the pharmacy, looking down at the prescription and deciphering his physician’s scrawl and laughing when I realized the irony.

Diamox, the medication used to treat glaucoma for decades - and the drug of choice to prevent altitude sickness, used by extreme mountain climbers all over the world.
I had met my mountain, and I had the prescription to prove it.

The pharmacist and I laughed together when I came to pick up the filled prescription, as he was expecting an extreme alpinist, someone with tales of Everest and Annapurna. Instead he was the recipient of tales of viruses that attack the cornea, glaucoma surgeries and medical grade crazy glue plugging a hole in a cornea – not quite the tale he expected, to be certain.
The truth is that my interest in mountain climbers was in their journey, not their destination. It was about how they got to the top – or failed to do so, and what they learned along the way. And what I began to understand is that sometimes we choose the mountain, as extreme mountain climbers do, but sometimes the mountain chooses us when life throws an obstacle (or two, or a few dozen) in our path. Each and every one of us must find the courage to climb our individual mountain, whether it is a literal or figurative one, and each and every one of us has a mountain climbing tale.

The resiliency and resourcefulness I have always admired in extreme mountain climbers exists inside each of us, sometimes dormant and only tapped into under the most dire of circumstances. We are all mountain climbers.
It was with this in mind that the theme “Climbing the Mountain” began to take shape. It was the desire to see others share their stories of their mountain climbing adventures, no matter how large or how small, no matter where they found the mountain or where the mountain found them. It was the hope to give the opportunity to writers in our community – long-time writers, new writers, published writers, unpublished writers, confident writers and quivering-in-their-boots writers – to pen tales about the mountains that surround each of us every single day.

The deadline for submission is March 30. Just as with my submission long ago, all I will see as the Guest Editor is the words, and not the name of the author. I cannot begin to express how excited I am to serve at the Guest Editor for the 15th edition of NorthWord and to read the tales I hope you – yes, YOU! – will share with me and with the world. Tell me about your mountain, or about a mountain you would like to climb – or one you hope to never have to attempt. Send me your poems, your short stories, your non-fiction tales. And then, when it is published, come climb the mountain with me as we explore all the mountains, the ones in our heads and the ones under our feet. Let's climb the mountains together.