Thankful for ice cream and inspired by a comment my mom once made to me over the phone, I share a rare foray into (very) short fiction. Happy Thanksgiving!
It was the first warm Tuesday in May, and Willa thought that a special occasion enough to buy herself a large vanilla ice cream from Spalding’s Dairy after work. She walked away from the counter and out onto the street cautiously, careful to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk, least she step on one and break her mother’s back. She sat down on a wooden park bench in the haphazard way that only Willa can sit, pulled out her phone, licked her cone, and then dialed Granny Gallant’s number.
“Willa!” the old lady exclaimed when she answered. “Faye just set me up with something called call display. Can you imagine? I knew it was you before I even answered.”
Willa stifled a giggle, licked her cone again, then launched into a description of the absolute mess Doris Daly’s daughter had left in the changeroom at work.
“Granny, she pulled thirty swimsuits off the rack, not a word of a lie,” Willa explained, stopping now and again to lick her cone. “I swear it took us-”
“Are you eating soft ice cream?” Granny Gallant asked, cutting her off.
“Umm, yes, how did you know? Willa replied.
“You just sounded so happy dear. I knew it couldn’t be anything but.”
A trimeric is a new-to-me poetic form (check out the link for its four simple rules). I’ve had a note in my phone for a few weeks titled “Things I Miss,” with just one entry underneath: The Wish Book. This fall nostalgia was a perfect jumping off point. Now, on to the poem!
Our world moves so quickly, I swear I blinked, now I miss
The Wish Book’s extraordinary knack for inspiring intense Christmas fantasies
The perpetual tick tock of Grama & Grampa’s old clock
A rare announcement of, “Tonight you can rent a movie”
The Wish Book’s extraordinary knack for inspiring intense Christmas fantasies
Maybe a faux-leather-teen-furniture-collection-purple-bean-bag-couch could really be mine?!
Better circle it in red sharpie and rearrange my bedroom to make space, just in case
The perpetual tick tock of Grama and Grampa’s old clock
imperceptibly thrumming beneath the surface of our day, constant and comforting
but come bedtime, despite no change in its decibels, suddenly remarkable
A rare announcement of “Tonight you can rent a movie”
meant piling in the van, then browsing Movietown’s displays of VHS tapes
with judicious enthusiasm. Flubber or The Land Before Time? Mom says we can get both!
The more I read and listen to things that inspire me, and the more disciplined I become in terms of writing regularly and thus allowing creativity to flow, the more ideas I have that literally light me up from the inside out. I’ve always loved stories and am fascinated by the art of memoir; the untold multitude of wisdom and lessons that we each carry, but don’t always share because
a) it’s not the right time
b) it’s not polite and we’re afraid of upsetting someone
c) we don’t want to seem self-centered by talking about ourselves
d) we’re afraid to be vulnerable
But I want to hear those stories. I want to learn the lessons you’ve learned. I want to see the human side of you that your likes on Facebook are never going to show, and I want to help share those stories and lessons because other people desperately need to hear those things too.
We’re wired to connect through stories, and especially in the divisive world we live in, where people seem to see things in black or white, conservative or liberal, pro-pipeline or pro-environment, and forget that those positions are not mutually exclusive, and forget that the people on the other side of the spectrum are still good people, we need to get honest and raw about sharing the things that connect us and make us human.
To start, I asked people to share the advice that they’d give their younger selves if they had the opportunity, and it’s so interesting to see the big themes that become apparent, even just from these five entries. And since I always maintain that a good leader will never ask someone to do something they aren’t also willing to do, I’ll start things off, inspired by the words of Ann Lammott,
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
“If I could give my younger self one piece of advice, I’d say STOP IGNORING GIANT RED FLAGS. When he can’t afford his own vehicle so he “borrows” yours, takes it for a drunk joyride, wrecks it beyond repair, and then has the sociopathic audacity to LIE about it, or gives you gas station Mackintosh’s and a T-shirt he won for yelling the loudest at the strippers for Valentines Day and genuinely believes that you should consider yourself lucky to have him, save yourself a whole lot of trouble (and set yourself up to actually have fun in university) and DUMP HIM!”
“If I could give my younger self one piece of advice, it would be to take every opportunity to be adventurous; whether it was out of my comfort zone or not.”
“If I could give my younger self some advice, I would say, always trust your intuition, and as important as it is to get things accomplished, it is okay to have a break.”
“If I could give my younger self a piece of advice, I’d say know your SELF WORTH, listen to your instincts and leave what/whom no longer serves you before you fall victim.”
“If I could give my younger self one piece of advice it would be to trust your gut instinct. The best decisions I made happened when my gut instincts told me everything would be worth it, no matter how much the unknown and new experiences scared me.”
The idea of “narrative medicine” can be understood in two ways. The first, a verb, is something for doctors, a way of practice that recognizes that the experience of an ill patient is important in medicine. Good ole’ Merriam-Webster defines a narrative as, “a way of presenting or understanding a situation . . . that reflects . . . a particular point of view or set of values.” So, in other words, the patient’s story about their symptoms or illness becomes just as important as the symptoms or illness itself because it reveals a wealth of information, and also shows their humanity. As Dr. Rita Charon, Founder of the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University, says,
to recognize, absorb, interpret, and be moved by the stories of illness
is to practice medicine with narrative competency. It’s all about building on the belief that stories are our lifeblood and the way in which humans make sense of the world, and applying that directly to medicine. In fact, I’ve heard it argued that the human need to tell stories is really one of the facets that makes our species unique.
The second understanding of narrative medicine, a noun, is something for everyone, a way to craft art out of the chaos of life, no doctorate required. This understanding sees writing as a type of therapy – one that is cheap and uniquely accessible. Writing is a powerful tool that is almost always at our disposal: a pen and a piece of paper are literally all that is required. I mean, even a carpenter’s pencil paired with a Tim Horton’s bagel wrapper will work (I say this because I once had an English 30 student hand in an exit slip consisting of such a combination, I kid you not). Writing doesn’t discriminate.
The act of writing allows us to re-order, rearrange, and re-imagine our experiences, shaping them into stories that carry the meaning we choose to assign as we re-tell them to ourselves, and others. Remember that bit a few paragraphs ago about humans needing to tell stories? I’m sure we have that need because there are so many feelings, negative and positive, swirling around in our brains, and thus in our bodies, that we get overwhelmed, and therefore don’t actually make time to feel. Sure, we know they’re there, but dealing with those feelings is hard work. And I don’t say that sarcastically, it really is. It’s so much easier not to, so a protective barrier goes up in the form of keeping busy with everyday life.
I get it. Pretty soon days, weeks, months, or even years have gone by. But if that protective barrier remains in place, and feelings are not allowed some sort of release, some exit, they will fester, and we will, I firmly believe, become ill as a result. Writing is one activity that allows that barrier to be broken down. We need to write in order to reflect, and to re-connect with ourselves. We need to write to release feelings and. to make sense of our experiences. We need to write ourselves out of the darkness.
The verb understanding of narrative medicine attempts to make medicine patient-centric, with the goal of healing. But the noun understanding of narrative medicine can be just as healing, even without a doctor. There is something so powerful about taking control of what has happened to you, and owning it by shaping it into your story. As Dr. George Zaharias says,
The power of language should not be underestimated.
Since becoming a mom I’ve come across a lot of rhetoric on the internet bemoaning the current social structure in which we are expected to raise our children in North America. Case in point: Scary Mummy, Motherly, Romper, and the ParentMap have all published pieces about this topic in the last two years. Parents are, in many cases, physically isolated and far removed from friends and family, or just expected to be completely independent, which makes this whole parenting thing even harder than it needs to be, and I can speak from experience here. Staying home alone with my baby all day while on maternity leave, away from my village, often made me feel stressed, scared, and inadequate.
I’m referring to the way of life inherent to relatively small, relatively contained multigenerational communities. Communities within which individuals know one another well, share the joys, burdens, and sorrows of everyday life, nurture one another in times of need, mind the well-being of each other’s ever-roaming children and increasingly dependent elderly, and feel fed by their clearly essential contribution to the group that securely holds them.
When asked by several well-meaning people in Vermilion why the heck I’d ever want to move back to Beaverlodge, I wish I could have expressed myself as eloquently as Beth Berry. The impression of the town they received while passing through on the highway while on the way to somewhere else is so very incomplete. I wanted to come home so I could have my village. With my people. Where I belong.
I think an example explains what I mean when I say where I belong better than anything else: last Tuesday I took my toddler to morning family swim.
We’re greeted with a friendly “good morning” from a young lifeguard – I taught her level 4 at the old outdoor pool many years ago; I distinctly remember that she was the only swimmer in her level during that particular set of lessons, listened exceptionally well, and spent a lot of time working on back glides while clutching an old yellow flutter board across her chest.
Shortly after, a young mom wearing a black one piece brings two boys, one school aged and one preschool aged, into the leisure pool – She doesn’t live here and doesn’t know me, but I know how she fits. Her mom taught me English 30-1, (and my mom English 30-1!) and inspired me to read more, write more, and to become an English teacher.
Soon, another lifeguard appears, wearing a vibrant Speedo in a kaleidoscope of colours, smiling widely and carrying a giant basket filled with plastic bath toys to set on the edge for my son – I worked with her when I used to lifeguard at this same pool, and she’s a dear friend with one of the largest, most genuine caring hearts I know. She stayed up all night dancing at my wedding.
At that moment, an older lady wearing a skort and carrying a fancy Canon camera comes in through the side entrance and perches herself on the edge of the hot tub, snapping photos of a very pregnant girl splashing in the shallows with a toddler – My old gymnastics coach who taught me to be strong on the uneven bars at a very young age, and her daughter, my old babysitter, who used to let my brothers style her hair, only to have them tie it into horrible little knots.
Then, another mom arrives on the scene, and two excited kids follow her out of the change room on foot, while a nervous one-year-old stays glued to her hip – it’s my third cousin on my Grama’s side, with her two youngest plus another third cousin’s little guy. Since “Auntie Debbie’s busy,” she’s babysitting for the day.
Finally, a third lifeguard comes on deck for a shift, red uniform, sandals, a beard – Another cousin, a little further removed, and, this time, on my Grandpa’ side. My toddler smiles and him and waves, saying “hi!” as we float by on the lazy river.
In that same Motherly article, Beth Berry also explains the benefits of the village, saying that
Village life fostered a sense of safety, inclusivity, purpose, acceptance and importance. These essential elements of thriving were built in.
So, while on the surface, our morning experience at the pool seemed to be nothing more than an hour of family swim, to me, it was a powerful confirmation that the decision to move home was, overwhelmingly, the right one. One day, many years dow the road, I hope my son can look around and take stock of his own collection of connections, pause for a moment to appreciate the incredible bands of family, friendship, sport, education, and volunteerism that literally bind a small community together, and feel that he to, has found his village.