toasting toast

Can we please talk about toast?

I think we NEED to talk about toast.

More than ever.

It’s come up as a subject at my house and with a friend or two in the last little while and I think that’s no accident, because there are no accidental toast conversations. There’s a reason it’s knocking on the window of my psyche.

Toast is sanity.

And comfort.

Not to mention that a well toasted piece of bread is something you remember for possibly ever.

For example, those people in the country, that farmhouse we visited, me and some friends when I was a teenager. One of my friends knew them, said they wouldn’t mind if we dropped by unannounced. It was late, something like 8:30 or 9 p.m. (even then I had an abbreviated sense of ‘late’). It was a couple, a man and a woman, much older than us, they might have been 40, and whether or not they minded us popping in at the wee hours wasn’t apparent. They welcomed us, put the kettle on, and made toast. I remember that little plate with six or eight or maybe ten slices, buttered, on the table of this almost rundown farmhouse kitchen. I can’t remember how it tasted, what stays with me is simply that they served toast. It seemed such an odd thing– why not cookies or a slice of cake, muffins, crackers and cheese? And yet… it was perfect. It was possibly all they had on hand. And it was something. And they wanted to offer something. And it was perfect.

But that’s not my first memory of toast. The first would be the cinnamon toast my sister taught me to make.

Simple recipe:

SLATHER gobs of butter on toasted bread.

Sprinkle heavily with brown sugar and cinnamon.

Take to big fat overstuffed chair.

Settle in to watch Gilligan’s Island.

In some elementary grade we were asked to write a short essay on How To (do something). Then we each had to stand and read what we’d written. I stood. I began with the title: How To Toast Toast. Before I’d read more than a line or two I noticed kids were laughing. I kept reading, happy the piece wasn’t as dull as I’d thought but when I was done the teacher had a kind of tsk tsk look on her face. How was it possible to toast toast she wanted to know. The implication being I hadn’t thought carefully enough about my subject before I launched into the writing. It actually took me a minute to understand everyone’s problem with it and even then all I could think was how is that more important than these valuable directions???

When my sister moved out to what I thought was a wonderfully derelict furnished apartment that she entirely Lysol sprayed, the kitchen had one of those ancient toasters with ‘wings’ that come down and you lay the bread in, toasting one side of it at a time. It had a thick cord wrapped in frayed black fabric and it felt a little like taking your life in your hands every time you used it but it made the BEST toast ever.

Sometimes, if the stars are aligned just so, you can stumble upon a diner that makes toast almost as good as a winged toaster.

Fast forward decades to the hills above Penticton, B.C. where once upon a time lived a man with a donkey and a mill, who made such exquisite loaves of sourdough that when toasted could make you cry and we stuffed our suitcases with it and have forever called it, and any good toasted sourdough since… donkey bread.

So many other tidbits… the love you can express with a heart-shaped piece of toast, for example. TOAST FINGERS, or soldiers as they’re called in the UK where I first encountered them. And speaking of the UK, the way they do so much ‘on toast’ that toast should have its own food network.

A British friend has only recently informed me that there is something called a toasting fork. People use it for marshmallows and sausages as well. But I wouldn’t. I would dedicate such a noble stick solely to bread because I trust said friend who assures me that done properly there is no better way to toast toast than this.

Yes, that’s right, I said it, Ms. Thingy from whatever grade that was and who will forever be part of my toasted memories.

yellow cup

Yesterday a cousin sends pictures of alpine snow heavy on branches, mountains, rooftops, and me here in the rain feeling snow envy, sending a message back to her… “A slice of heaven!” I write and forget my laundry on the line and then this morning I open the blinds and see snow heavy on branches and rooftops and the morning light is just starting and I put the kettle on and go out to the porch, my laundry frozen and me here in coat and boots and a bright yellow cup, lemon balm tea as the sun rises through a slice of heaven.

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this is not a review: ‘sixpence house: lost in a town of books’, by paul collins

Paul Collins is an American who claims some connection to the UK via parents who are British (but have lived in the States a long time; he doesn’t say how long). In any case he and his wife leave San Francisco with their young child and move to Hay on Wye in Wales, the ‘town of books’ and home to the Hay Festival.

We are not entirely sure why.

There he, Collins, meets a number of local village folk including Richard Booth, the chap who started the whole bookstore thing (at one point there were something like 70+ book shops in this wee town) and is madly eccentric, a terrible businessman but brilliant book lover. Collins magically gets a job working for him for (I’m not sure how long… he’s vague on dates) and (surprise!) eventually leaves Wales to return to the States.

In there somewhere is a flimsy attempt to buy a house [in Wales]. Which never happens for one reason or another and mostly, I would assume, because Collins and his family have no desire to stay. This is never stated outright but by virtue of how things transpire, or don’t, how the whole adventure that was supposed to last forever is suddenly over and he’s just glossing over the fact that they’re dashing back to the States, well, it smacks a bit of a) a realization that they aren’t cut out for Welsh village life, or b) that this was all a half-hearted effort at best, a sort of stab at ‘A Year in Provence’, something to write a book about if all else fails. I lean toward option (b) because it really doesn’t feel like he ever gives the place a chance.

Worth reading?

Not a complete waste of time. He writes with some humour and until the part where they up and leave (a schmaltzy return to America by the way, on a British passport for some reason and the U.S. immigration officer giving him a seriously hard time and TELLING him that he is an American and that he should be travelling on a U.S. passport… all a little over the top)… but until this daft and sudden ending, in the interval when you are still being lulled into thinking they might be sincere about making a go of it, it’s not the worst read.

While he notes many comparisons between life in the States and life in this tiny Welsh town, much of this is presented as isn’t it all so quaint and quirky, in a way that caters to mostly to an audience who rarely if ever travel far from their homes or are even aware, via books or other means, that life outside their universe (i.e. in other countries) is indeed different. And pleasantly so.

That said, there a few lovely bits throughout.

On remembering: “It is hard to know just how many times we have been exposed to a word, a face, an idea, before we have it.”

Litter in Literature: “The only civilian is a single forlorn custodian, who stands with his rubbish stick at the ready. He is waiting to spear the first crumpled crisps packet that flutters out of some pensioner’s string bag.”

Fun Fact: Phyllis Pearsall is the creator of the London A to Z map. She moved to London in 1935 after a divorce, thinking to become a portrait painter. “And so she did; but of a place, rather than a person.”

Wisdom: “No situation is so dire that it cannot be interrupted for tea.”

Trivia: The English tit bird “discovered that if they pecked through the foil cap on milk bottles, they could suck down a cream feast so sumptuous that they could barely stagger away afterward…” (bottlecaps were duly redesigned)

Warning: “To look for a specific book in Hay is a hopeless task; you can only find the books that are looking for you, the ones you didn’t even know to ask for in the first place.” [There is only one new-books bookshop in the town of Hay.]

Reading recs: Mercy Philbrick’s Choice, written by Helen Hunt Jackson, who was friends with Emily Dickinson. Published while Dickinson was still alive and unknown… “an extraordinary fictional portrayal of artistic isolation…”

On a VERY interesting moment in publishing history: Collins talks about a No Names Series put out by Thomas Niles (Publisher), “which published new works by writers like Jackson, Louisa May Alcott, and Christina Rossetti anonymously, allowing the works to stand or fall in review columns on their own merits. It is hard to imagine hype-hungry publishers undertaking such a  project today.”

Comparisons: Lots of comparisons with American and UK life, media, TV, radio, literature, values, ways of conducting oneself (shouting ‘Hi’ in the street isn’t done, for instance). Of a British TV game show he writes about prizes like egg timers and frosted drinking glasses. [Oh I would love such a frosted glass!]

On magazines: the difference being that U.S. home décor mags look like no house that exists, all lighting and staging, while British décor mags have actual lived in rooms, comfortable untidiness included.

Very funny riff on showers. Collins remembers showers as a child in the U.S. where he’d pretend he was flying a single jet plane, rain whipping into the cockpit, being pounded by enemy water canons or riot police, etc. and wonders what children in the UK imagine… “Perhaps they pretend that they are standing under a rusted and leaking pipe in an unlit boiler room. Or that someone is weeing on them from a great height.”

Having living in the UK for several years, I read such pithy comments on the doings with affection, being reminded of both the charm and the charming eccentricities of British village life. 

That said, the ending was ridiculous and left me feeling like the Emperor was buck naked. Like the whole thing was a planned exercise, a process he went through simply in order to get the material to write a book. Which of course people do all the time. But the best of those books reveal something important or surprising gleaned in the process, something that changes or enhances their lives or world view. The problem with this book is that the author seemed to take next to nothing from the experience.

Except a book. (Of pithy observations that really have nothing to do with ‘getting’ a place.)

What really boggles my mind is how, as a writer, you derive so little from the experience of living in a town of bookshops, a town that is wholly dedicated to books and readers and writers, and has a few other notable qualities as well...

Overall, feels like a bit of a missed opportunity for the author. As well as his family. As well as the reader.

and just when

When you’re out in the garden feeding the birds and saying good morning to the solstice day and you look through the cedars and see a bit of pink and you wonder if it will turn cherry red because the sunsets and sunrises have been so brilliant recently and you decide to head to the lake just in case

and just when you think it might get pinker the sky clouds right over and goes grey grey grey

but you stay because there’s no one else there except in the distance a woman and a small dog who you eventually pass and you both say good morning and you think you should have said happy solstice and just when you’re kicking yourself for not, along comes a guy with a terrifying looking large dog who also says good morning and this time you say it, happy solstice, you say and his face is mostly hidden by a hoodie but you can see he has a beard and a moustache and the dog is muscular and on a short leash and then the guy smiles very big, and says yeah

and you have the feeling this is the first he’s hearing of it and you decide to walk right to the end where the big rock sometimes gets swallowed by waves, the rock where you sometimes leave a small stone as a gift for whoever, for the universe itself, and just when you decide that if you find a heart-shaped stone you will leave that as your solstice gift, you look down and see a huge one frozen into the sand

and you pry it loose and it’s cold and you’re not wearing gloves so you move it from one hand to the other until you get to the big rock and en route you see a daisy but you have no hands to take a picture so you decide you’ll do that on the way back

but then you get distracted by a still smoking bonfire as if maybe someone was there before sunrise on this day of light… which is lovely but better if they’d left less of a mess

and this thinking about litter is distracting and just when you realize you’ve passed the place where the daisy would have been and you’re thinking it’s too bad you missed taking the photo because who will ever believe you saw a daisy on a December beach

you find a rose

and then a chrysanthemum

and so on

 

and you would like to wonder how they got there but really you don’t care because you are more delighted with the gift of them to you, than whoever they might have belonged to before

and you find beach glass in all three colours and there is, not exactly, driftwood, but it will be one day, and you remember how your dad made lamps and tables out of it and just when you realize it’s impossible to see any version of the stuff without thinking of him

you remember growing up on the other side of this lake, coolers filled with potato salad, lawn chairs and learning to swim, walks with your mother to pick rose hips for tea from bushes that grew wild near the beach and your dad gathering stones to build rockeries, and you think how you could never have known or guessed then that one solstice morning you would be walking on the opposite shore thinking about any of that

and the sky is still wonderfully grey.

a december story, involving a hamster (and, of course, miracles and snow)

It’s the 1980’s.

I’m working in Edmonton in a small office downtown. There are only three of us, one of whom is almost always on the road. Which leaves me and Wendy.

It’s the middle of December.

At lunchtime I take a walk. I notice it’s starting to snow.

I duck into a five and dime, possibly a Woolworths or similar, the kind of store where the shoes are next to the tablecloths which are next to the vacuum cleaners which are next to the gift boxes of Black Magic chocolates.

I find myself in the pet aisle where there is a sign announcing Free Hamsters. All you have to do is buy a cage with an exercise wheel, a water bottle, a supply of cedar chip bedding material, food, and a food dish, and they throw in the hamster for free. Seems too good to be true, but IT IS TRUE. And so, some minutes later, I’m back outside carrying a hamster in a cardboard box in one hand and a giant bag of all its worldly possessions in the other.

The snow has picked up.

Wendy is only slightly amused when I explain my good luck at stumbling upon a hamster sale, and not at all impressed. Turns out she doesn’t like hamsters. Wendy is a country girl who puts such things under the heading of ‘varmints’.

Sometime later that afternoon Wendy says How are you going to get it home? She means on the bus. Because the bag of supplies and the cage and the cardboard box is a lot for a crowded bus. Plus she says, it’s snowing like crazy.

Moving the hamster from box to cage would make things a lot more manageable. Problem is… I don’t like the idea of touching the hamster and neither does Wendy.

Miracle Number 1: Fred Goodchild, a restaurateur from a few doors along, who has come in to see about his account. He says the snow’s so bad things are shutting down, which explains why no one else has been in that afternoon to see about their account.

On a whim I ask Fred Goodchild if he will move my hamster, some of the cedar bedding, and all of the accoutrements into the cage.

Which is how my hamster comes to be christened Fred.

By the time we leave work the snow is a full-on blizzard. The streets are more or less empty of traffic, the buses are running very slow if at all. If it were just me I’d stand outside and wait in line but in my new role as a hamster mother I realize there are responsibilities I hadn’t counted on. In other words, I’m not at all sure how long or at what temperature a hamster actually freezes.

It feels wise to get a cab instead.

[I should mention that I’d recently applied for and received my first ever credit card, the timing of which is miracle #2, which is no small detail as the story unfolds]

There’s zero chance of hailing a cab on the street so I walk to the nearest hotel, where the doorman tells me the wait is a minimum two hours.

And that is how Fred and I come to spend the better part of our first evening together in the bar of The Four Seasons Hotel, me drinking fine brandy and tea and eventually ordering a cheese plate and salad, bits of which I lovingly shove through the wires of his cage on the seat next to mine.

I have no memory of anyone commenting on Fred’s presence or complaining about the squeaking of his exercise wheel. No one asks us to leave (miracle #3). Nor do I recall even thinking it odd to be dining with a hamster in the swankiest joint in town.

A cab finally comes. I pay with my shiny new credit card. It’s a long slow ride but we make it home safely (which feels like miracle #4). I set Fred’s cage on a table in my living room in front of a painting I think will give him a sense of the outdoors and where we can watch reruns of M.A.S.H. and Mary Tyler Moore together.

And we do.

And I think what in the world is better than to be home safe and warm, me with a belly full of brandy and cheese, a hamster and his squeaking wheel, the air scented with cedar shavings.

Such was the magic of a stormy night in Edmonton in December.

[I’d like to add that I was young and not yet given to thinking about the sadness of hamsters being imprisoned, though I do like to think I liberated him from life in the pet aisle. It’s something. And his cage was eventually upgraded and I learned to touch him and hold him and even though all this was before the invention of googling how to make a hamster ultra comfortable I do believe he had a contented life inasmuch as a hamster living an unnatural life can be content. That, and we’ll always have The Four Seasons…]

big fat book of flowers: stay/go? (a process)

It takes up a lot of room.

I never look at it.

No idea where I got it, how long I’ve had it.

But it’s about flowers so every time my hand reaches to pull it off a shelf and place it in a thrift-shop-bound box, it whispers but I’m about flowers… don’t you want to know about flowers flowers of the world??

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Sure. And so my hand goes back to minding its own business.

Until the next time.

Which is this time.

This time I take the thing off the shelf. I open it. And in between its massive pages are countless pressed leaves and wildflowers. They are countless because I haven’t bothered counting them. There are many. Every few pages, more. And they’re in lovely condition. I consider making greeting cards, then quickly come to my senses.

Some of the leaves look like marijuana. (I did say I’d had the book a long time.) But, nah, I’d have remembered that, right?? Oh. Wait.

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I google pictures of marijuana leaves and I see that no, mine have only five ‘petals’ not seven and they’re not serrated. (Also no cheesie stains on the pages, so that concludes that bit of research.)

It’s possible that the book came with the pressed flowers already in it, given that it likely came from some second hand/thrift shoppy source. It’s possible this is the first time I’ve ever opened it and noticed them. So much is possible.

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I consider keeping the book because of the dried flowers until it dawns on me that this is a stupid reason to keep a book whose only role all these years appears to have been to press flowers and questionable looking leaves.

In which case, mission accomplished.

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And so, today, after a flip through its alphabetical pages, as I look for honeysuckle on a whim and can’t find it because it’s listed under ‘C’, then morning glory, also not findable under the letter you would expect to find it (who can live like this?), I realize that despite its pretty pictures and informative text and the backing of the Royal Horticultural Society, this book is not for me. Oh, I understand the point of naming things in Latin, but I still find it annoying.

Book (and herbaceous contents) thrift-shop-bound.

Feels good to be decisive.

pick your moment

 
 

The moments I cherish most aren’t all sunsets and crickets on a summer evening, the silence of a winter forest or mornings in the kayak because there are nothing but cherishable moments then. It’s this moment I cherish most, the one I might so easily have overlooked, me leaning against a blue pillow, writing in green ink, my cat nearby on a brown blanket, looking at me with increasingly sleepysmilingeyes; the contentment of ginger tea in a rooster mug, Anam Cara waiting to be opened at random for a sliver of random magic, of inspiration…

…as if the ginger tea and cat’s eyes weren’t enough.

 
 
 

this is not a review: ‘a walk in the night’, by Alex la Guma

I read a review about this book, a slim collection of short stories, ordered it from my bookseller then let it sit on my shelves for a couple years. Coming across it the other day I’d forgotten whatever the review said that originally invited me to buy it and because So Many Books To Read, I thought I’d give it purpose by sending to a friend who collects African literature.

I had a little note all written and ready to tuck inside, the brown paper ready to wrap it with and then… well, maybe I’ll just have a quick flip through first.

And just like that, in the blink of an eye, or after the first story, I loved it.

Why?

Because it’s not what I expected.

I expected stories of apartheid and while, yes, these are stories of apartheid; how could they not be? Not the least because Alex la Guma was a freedom fighter against apartheid to the point he had to flee his own country in 1966. He went to the UK where this book was published two years later. So, yes, there are stories of oppression but what surprised me in the most eye-opening and beautiful way are the stories of what it is to be non-White in South Africa. Which of course includes apartheid but is so much bigger than anything, no matter how horrendous, that can be imposed upon a population. It means the resilience of people and the attitude of care and compassion toward each other; it means love and families made of blood and of choice. And it shows that apartheid was not only race based, but class based.

‘The Lemon Orchard’, tells of a Black man who is led by a group of White racists through an orchard (the details of which are exquisite; you are there in the orchard as they walk, aware of the fragrance, the fruit… the juxta-positioning of this with the action and the dialogue is powerful)… walking to the outer reaches of an orchard, where they intend to punish (kill?) the Black man for being ‘cheeky’ in his response to a White man. The ending isn’t what you might expect but it’s exactly this element of ‘the unexpected’ that keeps me reading.

Another story, ‘A Matter of Taste’, finds a Chinese man and a Black man, both hobos, sharing a cup of coffee from a precious few grounds they scavenged. They’ve made a fire next to a railway line when a White man appears from the woods looking thin, hungry, and bedraggled, much like themselves. The coffee is stretched to three as they make up stories about the best meals they can imagine eating and then they imagine eating them.

‘Blankets’ is about a Black man who’s been shot and takes refuge in a lean-to that smells of urine and rot, where he’s covered in blankets that are no more than rags and smell just as bad. Then a paramedic comes, a White face looks down at him and they get him into an ambulance where he’s covered in clean blankets, real blankets, and it’s at this moment he realizes the difference between one social class and another.

Little gems, every one.

All of which to say… I’ll have to buy another copy of the book to send my friend. I’m keeping this one.

workshops at the shelter: aka, what we write about when we write about avocados

The rule is this: write fast. No thinking allowed, no revising, no stopping. The rule is to write fast and only for a few minutes at a time. It’s important not to wander into the everyday stuff that takes up all the space in our heads. Especially now. For the length of this workshop we are not given over to thoughts of everyday muck, nor do we dwell on the why of why we live in a shelter— why they live in a shelter. I’m a volunteer. I can go home.

They choose their own notebook, their own journal for the writing exercises. People donate dozens, all of them in a variety of colours and sizes, and this is a big part of the workshop, this gift of blank pages. They take their time choosing, some have difficulty with decision.

For the writing, we use visual prompts and random words, things like cuticle, dragon, avocado, and the women always go Avocado? For fuck’s sake, we’re running for our lives, do you know how hard it was to leave, to come here, to not have the first clue about what happens next, because we don’t know what to do because all we’ve ever known, all we’ve ever been told, is that we’re stupid and worthless and all we’ve ever done is give away our power because we believed, still believe, we’re stupid and worthless, because we’re deflated, broken, so fucking broken, and because he threatens suicide unless we come back, threatens to kill our dog, mess with our kids, he’ll find us he says, so why the fuck are we writing about avocados when all we can think about is what’s happening to our dog, because we couldn’t take our dog, we didn’t have a choice because this was the day we had the strength to make the move and it might not come again and so we just ran and it doesn’t make sense to be writing about avocados when all we want to do is cry, to replay it all over and over in our minds, the way it started, the way it was only emotional in those days, he has a temper, sure, but he loves me, he loves the kids, he always says he’s sorry, and how this time was always the last time, the last black eye, the last broken arm… he promised, he cried, he begged, because he’s really just a teddy bear underneath, he is so in need of love and we need to be needed, what else do we have? And you’re telling us to write about avocados? Why? Tell us why.

This isn’t what they say out loud, no one person has ever said it all out loud, but it’s there with every new group, in the expression on their faces, the impatient tap of a foot, the slump of their boredom, the question why?

And so I tell them: I don’t know… let’s see why.

And remember, I say, write fast, don’t think, don’t revise, and I’m amazed, every time, that they pick up their pens and begin.

And what happens is that avocados take them to the colour of a sweater they once loved or hated, which reminds them of the aunt who knit the sweater and that freezing night it rained and they all played Clue and somebody made popcorn with sugar instead of salt… and it goes on from there.

And this small memory always comes as a big surprise as they break the cycle of everyday thoughts, even for a short time. Not only that but they often tap into a part of themselves they’ve never shared with anyone because they didn’t think it was important.

And this is where the magic happens: when they read their work out loud and realize people are listening and laughing and crying and for a moment it occurs to them that they matter, that they are so much more than their present circumstances, so much more than what they’ve been told they are.

And so the woman with missing front teeth writes about shelling peas during a time of severe abuse, how the garden was her refuge. Another remembers her mother’s stew pot, the colour and texture, the smell of pork and cabbage, the way it felt to warm her hands on it. She says she hasn’t thought of that for twenty years, been too busy on the streets, making a living.

The woman who writes about leaving home at thirteen, the way she pauses and looks up to see if you’re shocked and how in that half second you can see that thirteen year old kid in her eyes.

A woman who was working as a trader in the NYC office of Merrill Lynch on 9/11 writes about how she left the building minutes before the plane hit, how she remembers bodies falling. She has the idea she made eye contact with some of them. She had a life until then, she writes, a career. But after that she fell apart, nightmares, survivor guilt; she took refuge in drugs. She’s all bones now and her face is scarred and covered in scabs. She says one of the great things about the shelter is that no one cringes when they look at her. She says that this group, the writing, the sharing of stories is the first time she’s felt joy, the first time she remembers smiling in years.

A 31 year old woman with six kids tells us about something called fricot, a New  Brunswick comfort food, and a former journalist with a black eye gives instructions for making a no-fail pot roast she swears will melt in your mouth.

The young woman with seven kids who has driven across the country.

The 17 year old who writes about praying for a baby so she’ll have someone to love her.

The woman who writes: I remember the soft hum my mother makes while baking.

The woman who writes: I want to acquire the skill of being able to say the difficult things.

The one with pink hair who writes about peace…peace be with you, she writes, peace out, I wish I had a piece of blueberry pie.

The teenager who writes about arriving at the shelter at one in the morning, alone and scared and how the next day was her birthday and how the shelter staff and residents surprised her with a cake that afternoon and how she’s still in awe that anyone could be so nice.

And the woman from India who, through an interpreter, tells us about a happy childhood, playing tennis, her mother’s cooking and the mango tree outside her bedroom window and then how, in Canada, she was essentially a prisoner in her home, beaten by her husband, not allowed to go outside or talk to anyone for six years.

From a selection of visual prompts that I bring in and place on the table… a button, Canadian Tire money, a stone, a crayon… a woman picks the bar of soap and, in tears, describes the hugs of a grandmother who smelled of Ivory. And in another workshop, on another day, another woman picks the same bar of soap and writes about how when she was five or six, her father asked her to have a shower with him, and how it turned out to be… in her words… not a normal shower. She reads her piece without emotion, the only tears are ours.

The woman who chooses the stick and I immediately think how ridiculous of me to bring a stick. You never know what will trigger bad memories, but a stick? That pretty much screams poor choice. And yet. The woman who chooses the stick writes about how one day in the park with her kids her son picked up a long thin branch and at home snapped it into four pieces and said This is us, we’re broken, but we’ll always fit together. She still has the pieces and writes how she plans to mount them on the wall above everyone’s bed if they ever find a home.

I bring the stick to another workshop and the woman who chooses it writes about the beauty of trees without leaves.

This is the part I never get used to. These women who’ve just done possibly the most difficult thing they’ll ever do, leave their homes, almost always with nothing, their abuser’s voice still ringing in their head, telling them if they walk out that door I’ll kill you or someone or something you love, and it will be your fault they say. They won’t be accountable for what they do. You’ve been warned, they scream, it will be your fault.

And yet… they write about the beauty of trees without leaves.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that even though they don’t know each other and will only share bedrooms, the kitchen, the TV room and smoking area in this shelter for a few weeks, a couple of months, they have an uncanny ability to feel each other. I marvel at how they know exactly what to say and when, or when to do no more than silently pass a box of tissues down the line.

One afternoon, close to the end of a workshop, after we’ve been writing and sharing stories for an hour and a half, I put out the visual prompts for one last exercise. A woman who has an easy laugh and leans forward to hear the stories of others, chooses a red feather and writes about a daughter who committed suicide two months earlier. No one in the room had any idea. She smiles as she reads, knowing how her words will affect us but wanting somehow to keep it light, to not become a downer. Her daughter, who is now an angel, she writes, loved to collect feathers and had this idea of maybe opening a shelter for women called Free to Fly.

And the woman who can’t decide between the prompt “I remember…” and “I believe” so I decide for her, I suggest she use I remember and she groans and starts writing and when she’s done, she drops her pen and covers her face, her shoulders shake with tears and I say how sorry I am, that it was a stupid prompt, that I should have given her I believe instead and she says, no, that she needed to do this, she needed to see it, she says, to remember, and then she reads out loud all the remembered things, the smell of her mother’s Exclamation perfume, her child’s birth, the love, the song, the dance, the chardonnay, the pain and the hunger, the strength she needed, the power her ex held, the day she changed, she remembers the money, she writes, the death, the rebirth. I remember never forgetting.

The women named Dylan and Raven, Cheyanne, Sue and Brenda, some of them tough as they get, who cry when they write about lilacs.

And the women not mentioned, and those who have yet to leave their homes, who stay because he is her family, because For Better or For Worse. Because to leave is failure; because she came from a broken home and doesn’t want her kids to come from the same place. Because she will be seen as pathetic for having stayed so long so it’s better to stay even longer and not let anyone know.  Because she looks fine and manages to function even though she is so messed up emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically she can’t even see straight but still, it’s easier to hope than leave, so she hopes he will be in a good mood today, and when he isn’t… it’s too late again.

And the youngest of women, no more than a girl, who chooses a dark brown feather and writes about the elders looking down from the eagle’s nest, how grateful they are to those who have come after them, who continue to tell the story of their people. She can hear them, she writes…

I can hear them. Can you?

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This essay originally appeared in The Malahat Review,  (Summer, 2018)
The shelter’s writing program has not been running since covid. I think of the women often, the women who make the hard choice of coming here to save their own lives, who with other women and children build a community, and who eventually create a new world beyond these safe walls… who knows where and how.
I think of those who because of covid no longer have easy access to safety.
I think of them often.
And I miss writing with them… and talking… about avocados.

♦♦