Thursday, January 31, 2008


Lenora came smiling to work today.
She had just seen a couple of sundogs.
Maybe they bring us warm weather, she thought.
It really can’t get any colder.

I looked up sundogs to learn what they are,
Sun angling low through ice crystals they say.
No experts would claim they predict better weather.
But I just couldn’t tell Lenora.

There are times when it’s easier to hope if you don’t have all the information.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


I never expected to hear myself saying
That I wish I could climb 230 stairs.
I never expected to hear myself saying
That my morning starts with climbing 230 stairs.

But habits can change, discipline takes hold.
Now it’s too cold for walking, dangerously cold
The fourth straight day it has been this way.

Even though my morning now starts in a warm car
That brings me directly from home to the office
I hear myself whining, hoping that next week
my mornings will start with the upward imperative
Of getting to work as I did last week,
Climbing 230 stairs.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


I’ve been thinking about the journey a story travels on its way to becoming a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. I’ve been thinking about all the changes it goes through before it gets to the point of being told on a stage with a roomful of people clapping as you finish telling it. I’ve been thinking about the journey traveled by one particular story of mine.
One afternoon in 2002 I was presented with the gift every storyteller hopes to receive: something extraordinary happened to break the pattern of my otherwise ordinary life. I got locked out on my second-floor balcony. There, within my very own life, was a story seed. It was the perfect invitation to create a future story, the story of how I got down from there. I knew it would be a story, even as I stood on the balcony, marooned and wondering what to do. But I did not know what would happen next, or how it would end. I most certainly would never have foreseen the story it would become over the next six years.
Two hours after the story began, I was telling it to John and Grace, though not the version of it I now tell. I told them everything that happened. At that time I was simply venting, pouring out a torrent of feelings, seeking their comforting soothing words. I was hoping their listening ears would help me learn to laugh about it.
Though many stories get lost in the rush of every day life, that story was a keeper. I told it to Ruth when she asked how my day had been. I wrote it in the letter I emailed to David. My colleagues listened to it when we shared Monday morning coffee. A new acquaintance heard it when she visited my office and said, “What a lovely balcony you have!”
Every time I told that story it seemed to change just a little bit. It all depended on who was listening. For John and Grace it was an explanation of why I was late. For the office visitor it was all about the things that can happen to you when you have a balcony just outside your office. It could pop up anywhere. I never knew when to expect it.
I first noticed a theme for the story when I heard myself telling it at the Alzheimer Society Caregiver Training Program. It came out spontaneously when the caregivers were talking about how difficult it is to ask for help. The balcony story was a story about something that happened to me when I tried to call for help. I presented it in that context. It was such a good fit that I told it again the next time I trained caregivers.
Though the ‘getting help’ version of the story had served me well on two occasions, I didn’t tell it at the third caregiver training session. I can’t say why I didn’t tell it. Maybe I was getting a little bored with it, or maybe I didn’t think there was enough time. Maybe I thought my colleague must be getting tired of hearing it. At any rate, I was ending my session, dismissing the caregivers, when my colleague interrupted me. She asked the group to stay for an extra few minutes. She made me tell the story. She said I must have forgotten to tell it.
That’s when I really began to appreciate the importance this story could have. It had been a venting vehicle for me. It had entertained my friends. Now—told in the context of learning to ask for help--it had become a vehicle for education. In the years that followed I told it many times, long versions and short. While preparing a carefully timed version to tell during a public lecture for McMaster University in 2007, I was struck by the degree to which it had changed. It was now the product of embellishment and pruning.
Embellishment had given it theme, language, characters and detail. The story had been taken over by the theme that presented itself at every opportunity. It had become a story about swallowing your pride and asking for help. Though the helping theme had emerged when I was telling it to caregivers, it stayed in the story for all audiences, not just for caregivers. Some language that was never used in the original tellings had taken a central position. Even the shortest versions now contained balcony words, unusual words like Juliet and Rapunzel. Characters had developed. I, the unfortunate heroine, had become a proud and independent sort, hampered by an inherent tendency to be flaky when faced with an emergency. The first responder on the scene, a man I never actually met, had become a reluctant and enormously relieved hero nearly undone by his fear of not being adequate for the job of rescuing a damsel in distress. Even the story itself had changed. It had yielded to storytelling artistry, had taken on repetitions that may or may not have actually occurred. . I was a little surprised when I realized that I would no longer be able to vouch for the truth of some of my favourite details if I was asked to tell the story under oath in a court of law.
Pruning had altered the story as drastically as embellishment. It built the narrative tension in the story, changed the ending, and banished the original hero. . The events that happened during my final half hour on the balcony had completely disappeared from the story. This was particularly perplexing, since those events had seemed so important, so central when I spilled them out to John and Grace in the first hour after the trauma. But they seemed to offer little value for the audience, and when I tried to include them, the story rose to a crescendo in the middle and tailed off disappointingly. It took a while for me to realize that they did not relate to the theme.
The human casualty of the pruning was the campus police officer who rescued me. I feel a bit sorry for him, since he should have been the hero. He was the one who got the phone call from the first responder. He was the one who brought the key and unlocked the front door. He was the one who climbed the stairs to my office. He was the one who unlocked my balcony door from the inside so that I could get back into the building. He was the one who tried to assess whether my trip to the balcony had been an accidental locking out or a potential suicide. He was the one who ultimately let me rush off to meet John and Grace instead of making me stay behind to fill out an official incident report. Had it not been for his key, I might still be out there on that balcony.
What a tragic hero he turned out to be! Poor fellow. He was the hero on the day when I was marooned on the balcony, but his involvement was ultimately condensed into one brief sentence. The story I tell to audiences ends about thirty minutes before he arrived. He was eliminated with all the other details from the last half hour of the balcony story. Like those other details he was pruned out because he didn’t add anything to the theme. Nevertheless, his last chance for fame has not been lost. For in this story, where pruning is a subject of great significance, that reliable campus cop with the master key has an important place. The very last sentence is about him.

Monday, January 28, 2008


Life is a garden of story seeds,
Many would benefit from nurturing
All of them wait to be noticed
Some of them can be exceptional.

The biggest, the smallest,
The shortest, the tallest,
The fastest, the slowest,
The highest, the lowest,
The briefest, the longest,
The thing that smelled strongest,
The hardest, the easiest
The kindest, the sleaziest,
The funniest, the saddest,
The goodest, the baddest,
These are the starters of story seeds.

If you remember something from long ago, you could be harboring a story seed.
If you can’t wait to tell somebody what just happened, you could be harboring a story seed.
If you hear your voice telling something several times, you could be harboring a story seed.
If something is turning over and over in your head when you want to be sleeping, you could be harboring a story seed.
If your family members sigh and roll their eyes when you get onto a topic they recognize, you could be harboring a story seed.
If you wrote something down in a journal, or a notebook, or a letter, or a blog, you could be harboring a story seed.
If you get wind that your spouse or your child has been repeating something you said, you could be harboring a story seed.
If you just noticed something you never noticed before, you could be harboring a story seed.

All of us harbor story seeds, but storytellers tend to be more adept at growing them.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Collecting stories is a bit like making snowballs. You start out with something very small, and pretty soon you have something larger than you ever imagined. So it is with the Braille 200 Stories Project, a little idea growing fast.
Only 24 days have passed since our initial announcement started to make its way across Canada. A volunteer committee was soliciting stories from people whose lives have been touched by Braille. We would use the stories in our celebration of Louis Braille’s 200th birthday. I established an email address for story submissions and said I’d be the story coordinator. I expected business to be slow, since blind Canadians are not linked by any formal communication system. They communicate through various list-serves focussing on topics that range from Old Time Radio to recipe swapping to computer program support. Their teachers touch base at conferences.
But business has been brisk. In those first 24 days I have received 24 stories. There’s a grandmother in Moncton learning English and French Braille so she can read out loud to her bilingual grandchildren. An Ottawa woman recalls how she put Braille labels on more than 200 bones of a skeleton so that she could learn their names and locations. A simultaneous language interpreter from Quebec describes how he uses Braille to study documents submitted in advance of conferences. Betty from Vancouver recalls how, as a child she was able to read Braille after the lights were turned out. One morning, at 3:00 AM, her mother found her crying in the bathroom because she was reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin and eva had died. There’s a note from a deafblind teen-ager in Calgary, and another from a boy who came to Canada from Kosovo, speaking only Albanian when he arrived.
I am pretty much humbled at the privilege of holding such a collection in my keeping, and a little frightened about what will happen as the snowball continues to grow. I remember being a kid, pushing and laughing and nursing my snowball, not wanting to stop rolling, even when the ball grew too heavy to lift. Story collecting has become a nightly routine of relationship building, of answering emails and encouraging people to garnish their great ideas with language and detail. . The results of this attention are amazing. I am beginning to think that a writing instructor’s job must at times be very rewarding.
As for Louis Braille, whose 200th birthday is a little more than eleven months away, I think he can count on a pretty good celebration in Canada.

Friday, January 25, 2008


I set out to list 15 of my favourite words. I was surprised at how easily they came. Spectacular
I was out of time, though not out of words. Audacious was definitely a must for the list, which force me to extend the number to 16, rejecting perplexed which ought to have made it, ignoring awakened which definitely belonged there, rebuffing amazing in spite of its protests, discounting succinct due to space limitations. That’s when a research inquiry assailed me, implying a hypothesis, surprisingly salient.
The question is: To what extent does my list of 16 favourite words account for the varience between my high preference for storytelling and my lower preference for writing funding proposals and academic papers?

Thursday, January 24, 2008


If I could be granted a wish about stories
I’d wish for my stories to be healing stories
Because healing stories can heal me and others,
A laudable purpose for stories.

Each healing story would contain a struggle
Which is kind of a shame if you don’t like struggling?
But if life insists that you struggle anyway
You might as well make a story out of it.

And each healing story would point to a process
Of worry and wonder and noticing options
Rising to a place of high excitement
That you never imagined when you started.

And each healing story would linger long after
A future companion to bring inspiration
Remembered because of its masterful telling
Magnetic and sparkling with passion.

I have discerned that great skill is required
To develop the language and raise the excitement.
And I have been told by some masterful tellers
That it takes a long time for a story of struggle
To travel the gauntlet of process and options
That transform a struggle into a healing story.

So I have been eating more vegetables lately
Because experts say vegetables will make me more healthy.
And excellent health is a thing I will need
If I’m to become the wise old woman
With the power to turn my humdrum life
Into a collection of healing stories.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


There are many nice things about Victoria’s Hotel Grand Pacific, but the thing that stands out for me is the ducks—live ducks—dozens of live ducks—ducks of various sizes and colours—quacking up a storm and frolicking in the water features just outside the front door. The guests watch them. Children delight in them! The hotel employees clean up after them. The groundskeeper brings his wife down on the weekends to see them. Channel 62 on Hotel TV features them.

“Where do they sleep?” I asked the groundskeeper on our last morning in Victoria. I felt I could not leave without knowing for sure. After dark there was no sign of them anywhere. I half expected him to tell me they had rooms on the 13th floor.

”Over at Esquimalt,” he told us. Apparently they just fly across the bay before dark. They are perfectly free to do this, seeing as how they are wild ducks, not subject to contractual obligations. Still I can’t help but wonder what kind of night time accommodation is acceptable to ducks who spend their days at a 5-star hotel.

Monday, January 21, 2008


We packed for our trip to Victoria
Enough for three days and three nights.
We packed in a purse and a book bag
With each of us taking a backpack.
Our friends wondered, “Where is your suitcase?
How can you be taking so little?”

We went there with jackets and sweaters
With gloves, shirts, pants, socks, shoes and underwear,
With swimming suits, hair brushes, toothbrushes,
With toothpaste, two kinds of shampoo,
Deodorant, painkillers, cold pills,
Prescriptions and wallets and nail clippers,
Two digital recorders with earphones,
CD player, CD’s and books,
With playing cards, credit cards, dental floss,
Keys, pens and a Braille-writing slate,
Two cell phones with power adapters,
And a housecoat with soft woollen slippers.

How many would stare disbelieving
At our house overflowing with bounty
And scoff when I said we were striving
To pack light for a trip to Victoria?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


If you wanted me to tell a hopeful story, so that I would feel a little spark of hope, and you helped me tell that hopeful story by asking me to tell you about a time when I was utterly surprised in a good way, this is a story I might very well tell you. It happened just yesterday.
My cousin in Calgary sent me a letter. It was delivered in a most unconventional manner. Its delivery was funded by the proceeds of a stamp. Its path was guided by an address and postal code. A letter carrier delivered it right to our house. The family gazed at it in wonder and we opened it to see what could possibly be inside.
It wasn’t the annual Christmas letter. We didn’t expect it to be, since the annual Christmas letter arrived in late December. It wasn’t a wedding invitation. It wasn’t a check or a bill. No photographs were enclosed. On closer inspection it turned out to be—imagine it now—just a letter! It started Dear Wendy. Please believe me. It’s a long time since Canada Post delivered me a letter with no pictures, Christmas greetings wedding invitations, receipts, checks or bills inside—unless you count the charitable solicitations, and letters from insurance companies saying they wouldn’t be paying the full amount of our claim. It was such an unusual occurrence that I felt compelled to tell my sister and my workmate that I had been blessed with such a letter.
My cousin and I have some things in common. Both of us love humour. She is a cartoonist who, so far as I know, has never been employed as a cartoonist. I love to write, though I’ve never turned it into a moneymaking proposition. Both of us have relied on our moms and their sisters to bring us together for special occasions. And now that our moms and their sisters are no longer around to do that, both of us have been wondering what we can do to make sure we don’t lose each other. Both of us are pretty reluctant to take on the job of planning a huge family reunion.
But she is one up on me now, having utterly surprised me in a good way. And I definitely will reply to her letter. First, though, I will have to make a decision. Should I engage Canada Post, or send an email?

Friday, January 11, 2008


January 11. According to the people who keep track of these things, the sun here in Edmonton will set 7 hours, 51 minutes and 45 seconds after it rises. Makes for a pretty short day really. But the day has already lengthened by 24 minutes and 27 seconds since it reached its shortest point three weeks ago. And it will grow another 15 minutes and 12 seconds by the time next Thursday rolls around.

The change has been uneven. So far we’ve gained Only 2 minutes of precious morning sunshine, while the evening light has grown by 22 minutes. But this is the week when things begin to change. This is the week when the morning sun begins to pick up speed. It will have gained six minutes by next Thursday and soon it will be taking on two minutes a day.

I shall try to remember to notice all this when I get to thinking that things don’t change much.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Royal Mandarin oranges
Size of cherry tomatoes
Each of them divisible
Into ten perfect sections.

Sweet exotic flavour
Everyone stops to look at them!
A miniature reminder
Of the impact of little things.

Monday, January 07, 2008


Opportunity knocks often. Sometimes we answer. Other times, we simply aren’t available. Apparently I was unavailable when I was in first-year university. I had a roommate in Kelsey Hall. She and I had much in common. We were both Alberta farm girls. But though our families had lived only 100 miles apart, we might as well have been raised in different worlds.
I was Cookson, she was Ewaniuk. My world was the world of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, English trifle and scones. Her world was a Ukrainian world of funny sounding words. Some of those words stood for foods I had never tried and did not wish to try. Those were the days when I had never tried pizza either, let alone Greek Salad. When my family went out for dinner, something we rarely did, and only did when we were travelling, we dined on hamburgers, or pancakes, or maybe Chicken Chow Mein and fried rice. Jeannette and I were good friends while we studied. But we didn’t teach each other very much. It was truly a missed opportunity.
Friends drift apart when they don’t see each other. We drifted apart. And so I was more than a little surprised to get a call from Jeannette and Orest. They had seen an article by me in Our Canada magazine. They had seen David on TV answering question about the municipal election. They wondered if we would join their traditional Ukrainian Christmas eve party.
Thirty-six years have flown by since I first heard the names of those weird-sounding foods. During that time the foods have shaken off their foreign cloaks. It is not unusual for David and me to sit down to a dinner of pyroghy from Safeway and tiny cabbage rolls lovingly made by our friend Jane ward. Summer days often find me making my own borscht. So we went to this party with empty tummies and willing taste buds.
I was more available this time. We were curious. It warms my heart a little to notice how multicultural we have become, to see that distant worlds, living side by side, have moved across the boundaries. Jeannette and Orest are proud to be leaders in preserving their family traditions. They taught us about some of their family customs and traditional symbols. What’s more, I was surprised to discover that I knew somebody else at the party. One of my high school friends is a distant relative to Jeannette.
Everyone was impeccably gracious to those of us who don’t speak a word of Ukrainian. That evening made me notice how much richer I am for having moved past the time of thinking that roast beef and Yorkshire pudding represent the only normal kind of food. You can love English trifle and also love borscht. It’s mostly a matter of custom.

Sunday, January 06, 2008


Any normal hostess would have given the two of us the last unreserved table for four and told the couple behind us that they would have to wait. But this was not a normal hostess.
“I have a table for four,” she said to all of us. “Would you mind sharing it?”
Silence hung heavy among us. I suppose we did mind a little, the way you mind such things, not for any discernable reason except that you don’t just sit two unintroduced couples at a table for four. If one of us had said we minded, the deal would definitely have been off. For an awkward moment nobody said anything at all. Then we all agreed to share the table. The hostess promised separate bills.
We tried to be two separate couples, but it’s hard to be strangers at a table for four. We were David and Wendy from Edmonton. They were Lil from Edmonton and Joe from Sherwood Park. Lil knew our neighbours, and our former neighbours. She knew our house too, had always wondered what it was like on the inside. Joe had camped in many American cities. Lil once took a very long road trip across Canada and the US.
The hour flew by. In the end, we sort of had to wonder why any normal hostess would have sat one couple at a table for four, and told the other couple to wait.

Saturday, January 05, 2008


“What did you do over Christmas?” they’ll ask when I am back at work on Monday.
I will sigh, and think, and say, “Not much,” and we will discuss the mail.
What did I do over Christmas? I’ll wonder. And then I’ll remember that we celebrated our 34th anniversary at home, and Mark’s birthday at the New Asian Village, which will remind me that we had a greasy diner breakfast with Ruth, a Chinese lunch with Jean, and sherry and coffee and liqueur chocolates with the Ennises while we admired their new look. And then I’ll recall playing Hearts at Donna’s Christmas eve, and Olympics at John’s Christmas Day, and Court Whist at our house on Boxing Day, not to mention Phase 10 Rummy at our house on New Year’s Day, as well as occasional games of Scrabble, backgammon, and Honeymoon Whist. Which will remind me that we played Ruth’s Rummy with the Merretts while we practised the music for the singing and storytelling program we put on at their seniors meeting two days after New Year’s. Which will remind me that I played the music for two church services and attended two others, and went to a concert on New Year’s Eve. We did last minute shopping, and post-Christmas reshopping. We climbed the hill with Mark and Ruth on Christmas morning and delivered coffee and treats to people on the inner city streets. We climbed the hill again and did a two-hour downtown scavenger hunt sponsored by the Edmonton Journal. We didn’t win anything, but we saw the art gallery, the fireplace at the Matrix Hotel and the brand new YMCA. We watched Million Dollar Baby and I read three books. We bought a new living room rug and tried to teach the cat not to scratch it. We lost the dog in the park and searched in worry until he was returned safely by a neighbour who was on his way to do a radio feature on beer. I’ll be recalling that we attended a traditional Ukrainian Christmas eve celebration on January 6 in Vegrebille, and took down our tree, and started dreaming of a spring holiday.
But when they ask what I did over Christmas, I’m pretty sure I’ll say, “Not much.” I’ll even think it’s true!

Friday, January 04, 2008


Yesterday I sang an old song with my long time friend Amy. It felt like a very old song, but not as old as I am sure I would feel if I had been around since 1707, which is the year in which Isaac Watts published the words. And it isn’t the oldest song to roll off my tongue in recent weeks. Lo How A Rose was written by Michael Praetorius in 1609. Next year that marvellous song will celebrate its 500th birthday.

I wonder if either of these men imagined that his songs would be heard in the 21st century!