Rocky – March 2002 – January 2, 2014

I don’t know what was the exact day in March when our Aussie cattle dog mix was born. We adopted him from the Skajit Valley Humane Society in Washington in September of 2006 and brought him home. He’d been in the shelter for so long–8 or 9 months–that we got him for a reduced price. The dogs were two to a kennel at that point, and in spite of the wonderful, obviously caring folks who worked there, there was feces in most of the kennels; they just couldn’t keep up with the work load.

I remember bringing him over the border; we were asked to show his rabies-shot update papers, and we did. We were asked his breed. And then the border guard stuck his head through my window, took a long look at the big black-and-white-trimmed dog lying on the back seat, looked at me sharply, and said “Thank you for giving one of our dogs a home,” and waved us through. For $80, Rocky was ours.

At the time, I’d had steady employment with a non-tenure-track teaching position for about 4 years. Income was not large, but relatively stable. I have three sons. I have regular-type payments and cost of living. We’d fostered a friend’s dog for the four previous years until they owned their own home and then she returned to them. And my youngest sons really wanted another dog.

Fast forward almost two years, and my employment changed. I decided to head back to school. Since that time, income has been typical of most artists. I cobble together something from all the bits and pieces I can do as a writer and teacher and editor. It works; I’m not complaining.

But this morning, after a week and a half of various symptoms and ailments, I found Rocky had passed away in the early hours of the morning. I’ve never experienced a dog dying naturally. It was shocking. I didn’t feel prepared. Though when I thought about it, I realized he was doing his best to let us know how he was feeling. Not eating; reluctant to return to the house after being outside. The vet says that his dingo side wanted the return to the wild of the outdoors, and yes, I’m inclined to agree, and find that comforting.

My husband’s first comment was that Rocky died as he lived: never wanting to be a bother to anyone. Just content to be around. Have a pat, a scratch. A walk was something to get excited about. The odd snack or pig’s ear to crunch. When my dad came for a visit, Rocky would quickly recruit him for a ball throw. He wasn’t a purse dog–or whatever it is they’re calling those pampered fluff balls. There was nothing fancy. A bed, as his bones aged, yes. And I did always buy good, healthy food, as I do for all in my family. That’s not a luxury to my mind; it’s a living expense that comes before paying for BC Med.

He never was ill. Didn’t require regular vet visits. Loathed going to the groomer for fur or nails. Encountered a skunk a couple of times this past summer–and that required baths–but really…well, here’s the thing about Rocky: he was the ultimate poor-people dog. What a thing to say. But for a couple of self-employed artists, who do not have medical, dental, pension-plans, etc…he was the perfect dog.

Today, he was supposed to have a lengthy vet visit. I’d already manged to get a urine sample from him a few days ago (!), and it had been tested. But today was post-holidays, and the let’s get-this-sorted time. The vet had sent along some idea of what the cost would be, so I could plan. The bill was going to be close to $500. I don’t have it, really, but it was necessary, to know what was wrong and plan accordingly. And I was planning.

And then Rocky decided it was time. Or recognized that it was. And after discussion, the vet reassures us there really was nothing we could do. Had we discovered the illness earlier, he would have gone through all that he hated and feared; the poking and prodding. He would have been miserable. And the outcome would be the same albeit with more pain.

I find myself thinking that we won’t have another pet in our home until I have a settled income, until I know for sure that at any given moment I can walk into the vet’s office and demand top-o-the-line tests and treatment.

And here’s the thing: my youngest son has spent most of his 14 years with a dog in his home. He is compassionate. Partly, I think, because most of his years he’s shared his home with a furry being.

I grew up in the 70s. That was a different time for pets. And I’m not saying we should return to that, but the current time makes me uncomfortable. Or aspects of it. The aspects that say that it’s okay for four-footed folks to prance in 6 sets of rhinestones, while east side kids, and even west side kids, go without breakfast.

Tough questions. Should only financially-comfortable people have pets? What about the enormous number of folks who’ve had to give up animals all over the States, post-recession? The numbers are horrific. But then I found the numbers of shelter animals in Washington State shocking in 2006, when we were looking. Kids who lived with marginal incomes have much to gain from sharing a home with an animal. There’s a kindness in a home with pets. There’s also a sense of protection. In a home where a parent is at work for long hours, a pet can be not just a comfort, but a responsibility that can bring about so many positives.

Maybe there wouldn’t be so many animals in shelters if folks with less-than-steady incomes could take one home, and know that, in an emergency, they can seek out some assistance from the shelter in the future. I think of the homeless folks who have a dog to share their lives. How many times have I heard comments about “I don’t know why THAT person has a dog.” But the companionship is something I do understand.

These are tough questions. And they go further than this, don’t they?

I’m finding it challenging to write about this today. So I’ll stop now. But will welcome your comments and thoughts. Wondering about the possibility of setting up a bit of fundraising for folks to manage to take care of pets.

Rocky, thank you for sharing your undemanding life with us. I’ll keep with me the feel of your deep fur in my fingers, and your simple happiness to be with people, even people who never had a rhinestone for you.

 

Dance — next

So I came to the end of my lyrical/jazz year. And in the last week, mid-June, the local Flamenco school had a demo. A friend invited me, and I went.

What is Flamenco about? It’s from the south of Spain. It’s about gypsies. It’s about living in caves and having only small spaces to dance from…so it’s about keeping your energy closely to you. Controlling what you let out. Drawing it back in. It’s about a stable core.

The arm movements amaze me. Even now, after five classes, the arms of this dance stun me. They are empowering. Just as a warm-up, even. I think I could spend an hour waving my arms around. Then reaching, and pulling in energy. Thinking of those who dance from wheeled chairs…this would be so good.

Then it’s tough–the footwork. The counting. Understanding the music and the inter-workings of guitar, drum, singer, dancer; the hierarchy. The signalling/language.

So I’m out on my back deck with my nailed shoes, working through mechanics. When I’m sure my backyard neighbours are ready to kill me and stuff me under a tree, I go out to the front step.

I’ve so appreciated the challenge of the dance of the past year. The young dancers were kind; they put up with me, the crone, flapping around. I loved the energy of the teacher! She’s a wonder. It does not rest with her that I always felt “outside.” It might be an age thing, yes. But it’s also something else. A settling in me as to what life is at 49. I like this age thing, truth is.

In writing for young people, there’s always some thread in the story about coming to understand who you are. But we are always changing. As I age, I’m not going for breadth. That time is over. That’s the 20s and 30s even. Now it’s time to go deeper. I think I’ll be able to do something with that with Flamenco.

Even though it still scares the hell out of me–asking my body to say anything. I’ve so relied on words.

 

 

dance — an update

Two classes left before Christmas break. (See my August post, if you’re wondering what this is about.)

There’s a pattern to trying the new. Week One, there’s a straightforward anxiety…and age brings to that the knowledge that you’re allowed to look like an idiot at that one point! Which is a relief. But even if you are an idiot, it’s good to be an idiot who is trying.

I followed the dance steps as best I could…but the turns that we did that first class were ‘outside’ turns, which always feel very awkward to me in my left-handedness. (Left-handeds spin naturally clockwise on their right legs…at least, that was my experience in my brief time in figure-skating–also “old” at 13/14.)

So I wimped out on the turns! Wimped out in week two, too. And that second class doesn’t come with the “first-time-and-allowed-to-look-like-an-idiot” card. I had to ask why am I doing this, and what do I want from it? What is the worst that can happen if I put myself into a turn? Stop halfway? Keep going? Go until I’m dizzy and fall over? What would happen if I fell over? What would happen if I laughed about it…and WHY am I so serious?? Ah. Maybe that’s the question.

Week Three. I felt like quitting. I’m in a class with two young women who have danced forever, and are now in college and want to keep up one night a week for fun. The town I live in is so small that it is impossible to run a true “adult beginner” class…because no one will be in it. Except for me, it seems. And I don’t want to drive into the city. Can’t justify time and gas when there’s something in my community to work with and support.

How does a dance class work? First half hour–at least–is grueling warm-up. Without the past year of yoga, I’d be dead. I’m still dead. By the time we start the second half hour, my core is lying on the floor, doing floppy-wristed sign language: “Why??”

And the next fifteen minutes is spent in moving back and forth across the floor, working on steps and jumps. I watch the young dancers go ahead of me, and then I’m partnered with the teacher, usually with a simpler version. I am grateful for the fun nature of the teacher, and for the acceptance of the young women. I will say that: each week I am grateful for that.

The final fifteen minutes is time to dance. That is Terror Time. And yes, week 3 was the make-or-break. Some thoughts about this: turn off the critical mind. Stop thinking about what EXACTLY I’m doing, and do what I see the others doing…except I know mine doesn’t look like that. Oops, turn that off. Because I do think and over-think. I live in my head. How useful is the head? Not very, more often than not.

Week 5 I didn’t feel well at all and stayed on the couch…and missed it! That was a turning point. Then twice this term the two classmates have been ill or unable to make it and I’ve ended up with one-on-one time. That has helped my over-thinking, and given me time to know that THIS is what is happening in a step. And caused me to feel more confident in the watch-and-follow of the other weeks.

So almost made it through the term. What stands out? My need to focus COMPLETELY for the entire hour, on NOTHING BUT DANCE. At the same time, as well as focusing, I need to let go. An image of two reins to guide a horse comes to my mind…so this simultaneous focus and letting go works in tandem.

Writing was like that, at some point—the focus thing. As an artist who has been practicing for years, it is critical to remember this. But it has all the slipperiness of meditation. Maybe “clear focus”–no slippery stuff–can be the goal.

I asked one of the dancers this week, about her need to focus. She said she’s been in competition, and found herself thinking about what’s for dinner. Muscle memory, she says.

But my focus wavers, and I’m suddenly on the wrong foot. There’s a short-lived rush of humility, then the push to keep going, find the right foot. Hear the music over the sudden roar in the ears; care terribly and not too much. Forget the head and feel it.

word-free art

 

 

 

 

 

I made the trek into Free Flight Dance School, into their summer registration time, along with a number of moms, signing up their little daughters.

I didn’t dance as a child, even though I longed to. I didn’t take a dance class ever until my mid-twenties when I quit smoking. (Dance was my reward.) It was at the Kay Armstrong school on Broadway. How fortunate! To take classes with Kay and with Bob in their last year teaching there. It was a sad day when they closed. They had a special way of teaching adults; they taught as if we were children. (Bob even using a conductor’s baton—or what was it?—to tap on errant body parts: “tuck this in,” “turn this out.”) When the school closed, I tried Goh Ballet, but adult students were only fundraisers there; altogether it was just another exercise class. And how I loathe the gym. That was my short-lived dance time.

Now I’m old(er) and it has taken a huge effort to drop twenty pounds this past year. Part of that has been a result of taking a weekly dance class with my friend, Susana. This ballroom-hybrid (for lack of better term) has been a doorway.

I awake at five to write, and my evenings tend to be muddy-headed time. But week after week, when I dance, I clear my head. It’s astonishing to me that remembering steps and, more significantly, I suspect, remembering sequences, does something to my brain.

And I think: how often have I told students who are blocked, “Find an art form without words, and go and watch. Better yet, partake. Do this often enough, and it’ll push words right up and out of you.” Art is about story-telling, so the forms with no words tend to “force” story.

I’ve done this myself: sat listening to jazz music, then gone home and written. But now I’m at the ‘better yet, partake’ time.

Post-dated cheques are in, registration form filled. I have the shoes. Not sure what to wear. But I’ll be there, the second Friday of September, 6:25 sharp, for the adult lyrical/jazz class. I know I’ll be more nervous than any of those little girls in their classes. I know there’ll be steps that I’ll need to do over and over again before the mud clears. And then the next Friday I’ll have to do it all again. I know that dance makes me feel very much on the student end-of-things, makes me feel insecure…and old because I can hear my child-voice so clearly. It has so little to do with my writer self, and yet is so connected, too. And when I’ve gone over and over steps until my body begins to remember better than my mind, and we’re dancing as a group–when you can stop counting with the music–then something happens. I’m not sure how this is going to be, with the change from Susana’s group, where I feel secure and among friends, to lyrical/jazz. The New.

I know mostly that something that terrifies me so much is something I need to do. Finally.

 

Thank you

This showed up in my mail. A thank you card and chocolate, in a lovely little fat envelope. Completely unexpected, for something I’ve done in the past year. Something I’ve quite forgotten about. Wasn’t expecting for it to be acknowledged like this.

I nibbled the chocolate happy face, and wondered about email and snail mail and cards and thank yous, and the time we take to say “thanks.”

Made me think about the way people hold doors open for others in NYC–how that really touched me last time I was there. Made me realize that somehow, in our West Coast craziness (how did we EVER get the rep for being laid-back?) I’ve forgotten to do that, to shoulder check and see if someone’s behind me. To pause.

How to make a big difference.

a question of intention in writing

I received this from a writer friend:

In my writing group we were discussing how writers start writing. Do they start with an intention as in an overall theme statement?

My thoughts go to Arthur Miller, who said that if he knew the theme to the work before being two-thirds through, the work was suspect. He felt he shouldn’t know. Writing is an act of exploration.

I think this: no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.

I remember finding those words of his, and feeling a deep sense of relief (how we don’t trust ourselves!) because I’d always felt some guilt over not really knowing/ understanding my path when I began to work on a project.

When I talk with school groups, the subject of “planning” comes up. It ALWAYS comes up. Teachers are particularly eager to hear this. If, in the Q&A time, the question hasn’t come up from the students, then the teachers ask it. Of course, they are confident that I will give some cred to the words they’ve been repeating since September: plan, plan, plan.

As a young person I was one of those students who would quickly write the entire book report or project so that I could back-track and write the dreaded “outline” on schedule…then pretend to write the longer piece afterwards. I could not write an outline until after the project was complete…or at least the first draft. (Yes, teachers DO love me when I talk about re-writing. Re-writing IS writing. Planning is something else.)

I will say: MANY writers can and do plan, and it works well for them. Or they’ll plan to a certain degree, or point in the story. Fair to say, too, that for certain genres there are types of planning that do not interfere with “exploration.” A mystery, for example, might take a certain shape, but the elements of character development can still be discovery.

My books have begun with an historical question or a question about something in our society that is poking at me with something sharp (here, I have to go with caution), a title (yes, all on its own), an image, a fleeting glimpse of a character who puzzles me. Perhaps most often, a setting. Mud Girl was all about the setting to begin with. For me, if the first element of a story to enter into my mind is the Theme, then I become very anxious about it.

This may be because of my background. I grew up with dogma. I try hard to avoid dogma. Perhaps for a writer who has grown up in another way, working with a controlling theme from the moment of genesis is comfortable. But for me, it isn’t. In fact, in the last few weeks I’ve abandoned a project whose “theme” came early on. Too early. And I’ve been wrestling it back to a place of “discovery” since. I’ve moved on to another project. After 172 pages.

Maybe it’s a question of why we write. Back to those school projects: as children and early-year uni students, we write to study others’ words. We are not taught or guided to find our own thoughts. No one seems to think about this possibility…until grad school. So, all the “planning” takes place. You can plan when you know–or want to think you know!–exactly where you’re going.  Imagine if we told students to “write until you discover something new about yourself or the world.” It would be a challenge in the 22 minutes allotted in the lesson plan. But this should be the point in writing, in painting, in dancing, and creating music.

Some writers talk about taking that “theme sentence” and writing it in big letters and hanging it over their workspace. Reminding themselves what it’s all about. Maybe. Maybe that’s what your story is all about. Is that what writing is all about? Is it ALL your story is about? Might you go zooming to that place…and miss something on the way?

What do you want from writing? From your practice of sitting at the desk?

I’ll be interested in your responses. I hope someone disagrees. Or something. I have no idea where this will go. Let’s see.

 

 

final “short report” on Book Week

Oh, it’s TOUGH to write short!

How can I evoke “magical week” in short? I’ll try.

Snapshots:

small town libraries that feel to be so much a “hub” of their community;

teens thinking—seriously—about careers in arts (oh, can’t put the sound of buzzing bursting minds in a photograph!);

pre-schooler in jammies and train slippers, out for an evening in the library;

round, round, wondering eyes, and dozens of hand-made, wrought with thought, Thank you cards;

bank employees, leaving their stations, sitting on the floor like schoolchildren gathered for a story;

pot-luck lunch and rattly taxi disguised as a family mini-van;

gathering of young people faces together with my cousin and my grand-great-aunt, listening;

VIA rail, passing towns, passing lolloping cows, and a lone chicken walking through a wood, passing children with grandpas waiting to wave at the train–yes, three children     with grandpas (they still do that!);

You CAN fit a big old chunk of this country into a snapshot—don’t ever think you can’t.

What does it mean now, now that I’m home? I pack up a box of books and send it to a school in Kapuskasing, and feel a Connection. I sit at my lone, early morning writing time, and feel a Purpose. Readers have faces and hands and hearts.

Humbly: Thank you for the reminders, all of you, for each reminder.

 

 

Caroline Adderson and I arriving @ Ottawa airport

 

 

 

 

St. Mary’s water tower…

 

 

 

 

Bearskin airlines plane from Timmins to Kapuskasing–no arguing about who gets the aisle and who gets the window seat!

last day: Book Week in Ontario

Kapuskasing. A magical word to me as a child. Where my Mom was from. Where there was Family. Great Grand-Mere. Great Aunts and Uncles. Twelve of them. And cousins and cousins and cousins.

It meant so much for me to be there. My cousin met me at the airport (after a 14-seater plane ride! with ROARING engine) and in the morning (frosty!!) we went to the school. Right by the front door was an AMAZING display of visuals from The Cul-de-Sac Kids! (And funny: someone had placed a training-wheels bike right next to it, which connected completely with my presentation!)

For lunch, the teachers had a pot-luck. And I had a conversation with a music teacher about…what else…arts careers! and how to sustain them..seems to have become a theme of the week: follow your passion and it will work. Had the same conversation with the newspaper reporter who came to interview me after the second presentation of the day. The students–two groups of grades 1-4 and 5-8–were terrific, with more Good Questions.

And to close the day, a trip to the local branch of the TD Bank! Who makes it all happen. So we had a quick read.

Magic happens in many forms. Often, money has nothing to do with creating magic. And other times, money has so much to do with it! If you know me, you know that I’m a hippie who doesn’t think well of the directions that business ethics often take. So when I acknowledge and say huge positives about an organization or business, it’s Big Stuff for me. So here: Thank you, thank you TD Canada Trust for what you do for children’s literacy, literature and book and story creators in this country! Thank you for a most magical week.

And thank you to CCBC–the Canadian Children’s Book Centre–and Monica Winkler, for administering and organizing, Canada Council (funding readings for public), and also all of the teachers and librarians who volunteer to organize on their ends. And Niki, driver- extraordinaire! And my cousins, Lorraine, Pauline, and Gaby, for driving me to presentations.

And all the young folks who listen, ask, learn, READ, and write! Keep on rocking in a free world!

Thursday, May 10 the adventure continues

Had terrific fun with grades 1 and 2, talking up more “Funny Writing” and then grades 3 and 4 “Re-VISION-ing.”

And sold every book I carried in the doors. And left a few unhappy that there weren’t any left! PLEASE go to your local bookstore and ask for THE CUL-DE-SAC KIDS. And you can let them know the ISBN.  That’s the little International Book Number on the back of the book by the funny little barcodey thing: 9781896580999. It MAKES MY DAY when someone goes to a bookstore and ORDERS the book (because then the folks who own the bookstore know my book is out there…THANKS!)

Any school with a picture like THIS in the office has to be a good place… Thanks for a great morning, K-W Bilingual School (Kitchener)!