Sunday, May 24, 2009


Peace on Earth is what we want. I have always said that peace begins at home. There are times when I wish I had not said that, home being a most difficult place from which to work on it.
We were 2 hours drive away from home when we got the long distance call that began the adventurous test of our capacity for neighbourliness. Mark was on the line. “A robin is building a nest on the platform at the top of a veranda pillar. Shall I knock it down before she gets too far along?”
“No,” we said, without the slightest hesitation. We like to think of ourselves as the kind of people you’d want to live close to. The veranda pillar is, admittedly, pretty close to the veranda, where we spend hours every day walking, sitting, eating, planting and tending the planted pots. But we are kind of fond of robins, and we figured the robin would soon get used to us.
It was the Monday of the May long weekend. Normally we would have been out on the veranda for most of that day. But it was snowing and blowing, not an outside day at all. So instead of rushing home we visited a while longer, then made our way slowly home.
By the time we stepped out on the veranda, nest evidence was present on the tops of four pillars. This, surely, would be the test of principle for our live-and-let-live intention. Large as it is, could the veranda possibly be big enough for all of us? The answer, we concluded, in spite of, or maybe because of our peace-loving nature, was “No!”
We decided to knock down the nests. It was the only sensible thing to do. We reasoned that it surely would stop snowing some time soon. Then we would be out on the veranda for hours every day, walking, sitting, eating, planting and tending the planted pots. We would be entertaining guests, hosting large parties. Nesting robins want peace and quiet. How, we wondered, could we possibly do this in the presence of eight protective robins sheltering the precious contents of four nests. It was all wrong. It could not happen. To our way of reasoning, something definitely had gone amiss in Robinland. A news flash had obviously been erroneously circulated. “Free Veranda Space Available For Nesting!” it must have proclaimed. At that time we did not yet know that nesting robins, having found several similar places in close proximity, will begin more than one construction project, then settle on one to finish.
Robin’s nest bashing would have been out of the question for us back in the days of our innocence. But experience has hardened us. Robins, we have discovered over the years, are not the passive singers we believe them to be. Once they have a nest, the concept of peace on Earth goes right out the window. For several summers we tended the back flowers and raspberries while enduring the verbal taunts and dodging the stunning air manoeuvres of the robin family that housed its nursery in the supports under Mark’s balcony. We were sad the year they abandoned that nest—well, sort of sad—and sort of proud that we hadn’t evicted them. We like to think of ourselves as the kind of landlords who wouldn’t evict a family with new babies. We know how stressful pregnancy and child raising can be.
If our robin-related innocence was compromised by the defending-the-nest-near-the-raspberry-patch incident, then it was truly shattered by an attack which David endured one morning while out on a before-work run through our former neighbourhood. One minute he was jogging down a sleeping residential street, the next moment he was dodging a robin-shaped projectile that seemed to be headed straight for him. It missed, then aimed again. It missed. On the third pass the robin bonked him on the head. He acknowledges that the offending robin is now very likely dead. He admits that he may unwittingly have shocked the robin, may have inconsiderately passed very close to a nest. Still, he has found that level of robinesque aggression difficult to forgive. The possibility of making several daily trips at close range past four robin families was not within his power of imagination.
We would have knocked down the nests that very evening had it not been for the snow, and the bitter cold, and the biting wind that drove us to huddle under blankets on the couch. As it turned out, there was no need to knock down four nests. Next day, when we got home from work, only the original nest remained. The other three had been cleared away. The robins had done it. “You said you’d be willing to keep one,” they reasoned from their pillared home. And we had to admit that one nest was a lot better than four. That was last Tuesday.
Yesterday was Saturday. It had stopped snowing. It had stopped freezing at night. We had taken to spending several hours a day out on the veranda walking, sitting, eating, planting and tending the planted pots. Our resident parents-in-waiting, calm through the freezing week, were less pleased about the change in the weather than we had hoped. This is a bit of a disappointment, given that we are likely to be in close proximity for the next four weeks or so.
With nearly two weeks to go before hatching day, we have already begun to feel like aliens in our own land. In our defence, let me declare here and now that we have not intentionally caused a moment’s worry to them. It’s time for trips out to the veranda to assess the need for coats, to eat outdoor lunches, to plant flowers, to weed and water. So we walk innocently along the veranda. Swoosh! We call out to each other. Swoosh! We raise a watering can. Swoosh! At this very moment I suspect the robins are meeting with lawyers to explore the legality of issuing us an eviction notice.
Under these circumstances neighbourliness is not as easily achieved as it’s cracked up to be. So we are now tiptoeing along the veranda, or walking gingerly on the sidewalk just below. We’re speaking more softly. One imagines that we’ll soon be whispering over the distant roar of traffic so as not to wake the babies. We are not entirely without other options either. Possibly by the end of this week we’ll be using the back alley as a less direct route to the front door. Peace loving people that we are, eggicide is not currently worthy of consideration.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


There are generally more options available to us than we initially imagine. I try to remember this, though all too often I forget. So I was particularly thrilled to receive this piece of indisputable evidence by email from Cousin Trudy just the other day. She wrote: “”I went to get Andy a birthday cake on Sunday morning (lame duck me never bakes them anymore) at the Co-op because I like their frosting the best. They didn't have any regular slab cakes left, only fancy little designer cakes but I asked them if they had any slab cakes hiding in the back. The guy said no and I had tragedy written all over my face - so there's a little conference behind the counter and another fellow says "well...we have this one...that didn't
get picked up yesterday..." and pulls out this crazy cake that looks like three stacked presents with a tiny plastic picture frame present on top and says
I can have it for $xx.xx instead of the $59.99 that it normally costs. So I bought it.””
Now you might think the family would object, but this was not the case. “”Trevor thought it was absolutely hilarious that I would buy someone
else's cake and that we should do that all the time.””
And what was the nature of this cake—a cake so inconsiderately abandoned? “”The top layer was green and the next was yellow (all layers are half white and half chocolate on the inside) and the bottom layer is blue. It turns your teeth blue so there's no pretending you didn't just sneak another piece of cake.””
How often do we pine for options? Out there in the world on this very day there are wives and mothers, fathers and maybe even brothers who are wondering how to show their love with the perfect birthday cake. Standing in front of bakery counters they look at the slab cakes, believe they’ve seen everything available and settle for something ordinary. More’s the pity. Just think of what wonders might be available—even deeply discounted in the back!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Have you ever noticed that one of your problems has gone into retirement? A problem can do that you know, retire like a worker entitled to a rest, give over its responsibility for the daily grind of things a problem has to do. Sometimes, without even giving notice, a problem will stop showing up on time, extend its routine vacations, start leaving early, get totally tired of making you miserable.
I haven’t been accustomed to labeling former problems as retired problems, but I do like that descriptive language. When people retire they aren’t gone forever. They continue to exist, only they don’t interact with the place the way they previously did. It gives me a lot of hope, knowing that problems retire, that they do quit, that they don’t stay forever, even if they’ve been around a long long time.
A problem might retire, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone. Just as retired employees continue to know their way around the office long after they have surrendered their keys, retired problems know how to find vulnerabilities in your life. Perhaps that’s why I felt more than a little cautious at last’week’s narrative therapy workshop when David Epston asked us to consider offering up our retired problems as demonstration models for his interviewing techniques. It seems to me that you ought to be careful about opening the door to a problem that has retired, moved itself out of your life, absented itself from your daily consideration. Opening the door to such a problem is a bit like inviting a reformed burglar back into your apartment. Having been there before, chances are he knows you keep the cash in your sock drawer. It’s a bit like blowing on the ashes of last night’s fire. If there’s even a bit of spark there, the fire might just rekindle. Yes, you have to be careful around retired problems.
I spent some time on the weekend examining the problems of my life, wondering which ones have retired, which ones are in the full bloom of active employment, and which among them might be persuaded to take early retirement. It wasn’t always easy to tell the difference. This lack of clarity was mildly disturbing to me. Being able to tell the difference ought to be an important power of discernment for those of us who make a daily practice of examining other people’s problems.
Amid the wondering I did have two comforting thoughts. The first is that most clients I see in counselling are pretty good at identifying the retired problems and warning me off lest I try to bring them back into active employment. “”I have dealt with that,”” they’ll say. “”I didn’t come here to go back there.”” mI have learned to respect this knowledge and govern my actions in accordance with the warnings.
The second comforting thought is that I have good tools at my disposal. I am not as cautious as I used to be when it comes to re-examining retired problems. Where once I might have worried that the memory would bring a return of the misery that accompanied the problem, I have found that the misery of a truly retired problem seems to keep its distance if you summon the problem with hope tools. Ask a person to tell you a story about something that turned out better than expected and there’ll be a retired problem in there somewhere. Ask a person to tell you a story about a time of being utterly surprised in a good way, and the story will generally be about something that might have been bad.
Narrative therapy is often said to be the archaeology of hope, so it naturally interested me to see what kind of process David Epston would apply to retired problems. He did not disappoint me. The process was fun to watch. Problems were brought forward in a moment of private conversation with him. We spectators were not privy to those brief chats. Rather than show us the problem that was brought forward, he neglected it to death. In fact, he showed no interest at all in the problems themselves. His interest was kindled by, and drawn to the proud moment at which any given problem was known to be truly retired. By showing a keen interest in that moment of recognition, in its setting, in the people who needed to know about that moment, he grew the story of the moment until it took on the celebratory trappings of a true retirement party. No self-respecting problem dared show its troublesome face after such a large retirement party.
Narrative therapy as practiced in this way is indeed the archaeology of hope. This is why it provides such a comfortable foundation on which to rest the tools of hope-focussed practice. The hope it exposes is solidly grounded and generally implicit. It is the feeling of hope though the feeling is not explicitly named as hope. Building upon this, the hope-focussed practice of the Hope Foundation is also the archaeology of hope. It unearths the feeling of hope, then adds a system of labeling so that the hope becomes named and explicit.
There is hope in the certainty that a problem can retire. Beyond that, there is additional hope in knowing that a retired problem, skillfully restored to conscious awareness, can be useful as a support to the hope that future problems might join it in its comfortable retirement.

Friday, May 15, 2009


Narrative therapy guru David Epston observes that we know what we intend to do, and we try to know what we do. But, he asks, how do we know what what-we-do does? An interesting question that. How do we know what what-we-do does? How can we find out.
Every so often you find out by accident what something you did did. If it’s a really good day, a truly spectacular day, a so-far-beyond-great-that-you-can-hardly-stand-it day, then what you had intended to do might actually be what you did do. Only thing is, it might take a long time to find it out.
I am standing in a coffee line when I am approached by a woman who attended a hope workshop a long time ago, maybe ten years or so. “I just wanted to tell you,” she says, “that you predicted something accurately in my life. You said you believed I would run a marathon. Since then I’ve run four marathons.”
She appears to be very happy about it, so I catch up her happiness and stand there smiling with pleasure. I don’t remember the day or the story exactly, but I do recognize the probable truth of the story, since it contains ‘the language of I believe’. The ‘language of I believe’ is one of my favourite tools for conveying, or offering, or instilling hope. I often teach ‘the language of I believe at hope workshops for professional helpers. So it is reasonable to believe that we had a conversation about her hope, which was to run a marathon, and I likely asked her a few hope-focussed questions, and then I probably said I believed she could run a marathon. It’s a sequence repeated hundreds of times, a hope-focussed sequence that once required discipline, something that now happens automatically.
Then she says, “I was wondering how you knew it was a reasonable hope.”
A reasonable hope, hmmmm! That’s a toughy. Reasonable hopes are so hard to distinguish from unreasonable hopes when you look at the facts, or what you believe to be the facts. You can really get hung up on the facts.
Still, I no doubt decided it was a reasonable hope, reasonable enough to believe in. And though I don’t remember the story itself, I have to say that I would have thought it a reasonable hope because she had told me she was hoping to run a marathon. That’s enough to make it a reasonable hope, the fact that she was hoping it. And if she was hoping it, then, given the contagious nature of this thing called hope, I probably started hoping it also, hoping it strongly enough that I could say I believed she could run a marathon. Conversation will do that, spread hope and fan it up until you can honestly say you believe something.
The funny thing about this kind of conversation is that it serves to fan the flame of hope in the person who brought the hope forward in the first place, and that feeling of hope leads to thinking it through, and that feeling and thinking together alongside relating to someone who believes you can is just enough to change your actions. Next thing you know, you are running a marathon, or four marathons, if that is what you had hoped to do.
And isn’t it funny how the person who fanned up your hope hot and bright enough so as to change the way you were acting—isn’t it funny how that person can walk away without remembering the story, though it stays with you?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


The University of Alberta has a herbarium that houses pressed specimens of over 800 plants that grow in Alberta. It also contains collections made by an untold number of scientists over the years. Tucked away as it is in the botany wing of the Bio Sciences Building, a building so perplexing in design as to render it barely navigable without compass and cell phone, I had neither heard of it nor noticed it. Now that I do know about it, the fact that we have a herbarium inspires me. I like to know we have it. I like to think of all the work that went into assembling it, the vision that created it, the painstaking detail of plant collection and identification. We need plant cataloguers in this world. Without their work, how would we know what we have, what we have gained, what we have lost?
I learned about the herbarium in a counselling session, happened upon it by chance while doing the work I so often do, trying to get depressed people to think of the world as a fascinating place full of possibilities. Like any other daily work, talking to depressed people gets tedious at times, tedious and repetitive. On the worst days it can be downright mind-numbing. People with depression expect to talk about bad things. That’s what they came for, isn’t it? And that’s what we counsellors get paid to deal with, isn’t it? The bad stuff, the rotten stuff, the tragic stuff, the garbage. What do people bring to counselling? They bring all the stuff they want to get rid of, the feelings they need to dump. It can be too much at times. There are days when my office gets too small to hold me plus all the nasty feelings people dump there.
Depression is a nasty thing. Not only does it take away the fun, but it also takes a lot of other desirable things. Get yourself a stiff bout of depression, keep it around for a few years and you’ll find that there’s no joy either, no satisfaction, no pleasure, no pride. The picture of the world loses its potential for wonder, for diversity, for detail, for the richness of perspective.
It’s an occupational hazard all counsellors have to face, the over-abundance of bad feelings, the scarcity of good ones. Various solutions are suggested in the literature, getting counselling yourself, keeping up your professional development, finding pleasure outside you work. We all find it helpful to take a break, to leave, to be somewhere else for a while, to hope that like unpleasant odours, some of the feelings will dissipate while you’re out of the room.
Self-serving as it may sound, I like to fight the negative feelings by doing everything I can to make sure that my work is fun. I sometimes wish we had more respect for fun. Oh, all of us like it. Most of us seek it. And yet, so often a little cloud seems to hang over it. Now that we’ve had our fun, let’s get on with the real work. Let’s get a consultant in to plan half a day of fun for the staff—if we can find the time between meetings. In a perfect world, the world I want to work in, work would start with fun, continue with fun. Nobody would ever say we had to get back to work because we were having too much fun. That is how I came to learn about the herbarium in a counselling session. The moment the word was mentioned, I could sense that I was about to have some fun.
Even for us fun-lovers it’s not easy to have fun working with people who are depressed. This is what depression does. It takes a picture of the world using a special lens that shows you the world with the fun filtered out. Stand beside depressed people, see the world through their eyes and there’s simply no fun there at all. If, like me, you are the kind of person who wants fun, you’ve got to find ways to have it, ways that make sense in the context of the work you are doing, ways that can be defended from a professional perspective. Paying attention to what the clients are saying is a simple strategy any professional can support. So when the word herbarium was mentioned, I was on it like a fly after honey.
I like the word herbarium. It has a rhythmic quality to it. It’s a little bit exotic. What’s more, it refers to plants, always a passion of mine. Once the word had been mentioned I couldn’t let it go. Here was a chance for discovery, for inspiration. Here was the possibility of having fun. If you show a high level of interest, a person who has worked in a herbarium can tell you many things, what it holds, how it works. Other counsellors might say it was time wasted, focus misappropriated, attention diverted from the real issues and presenting problems. Generous academics and experts in compassion fatigue might label it self-care. I call it fun, plain old fun.
Because depression is so troubling to all the parties it touches, we counsellors are ever on the look-out for effective ways to deal with its devastating effects. It’s a skill set we all need. Recognizing my need for fun alongside deficiencies of skill, I used to hope my sense of humour would help me find the fun in counselling depressed people. I tried to write a Master’s thesis on the topic. Years later I am aware that sense of humour has helped, and I am also somewhat surprised to see that curiosity and interest in the world have played an important role in supporting my mental well-being, maybe even more important than sense of humour. Sense of humour has its limits. Curiosity, so far as I can tell, has none. Powered by abiding interest and a desire to learn, you can take counselling to places you never expected it to go. You can enter the daily lives of your clients, visit the places they visit. Though they may be suspicious and reticent when you begin, they sense your genuine interest. They too become interested, interested in things that seemed humdrum and tedious only moments ago, insignificant through the filter of depression. Before they know it they have become your tour guides, showing you their world, answering your questions, elucidating points of special significance. Depression has a hard time standing up in the face of such activity. Temporarily derailed, it gives over to fun, to inspiration, fun and inspiration shared by both parties.
From an insider’s perspective, depression makes the world seem dull. From a counsellor’s perspective on a weary day, depressions tend to look the same. If you’ve seen a thousand of them, it’s hard to distinguish one from another. Today I look around my office, this emotional dumping ground, this crowded space where so much sadness, anger and disappointment has been shed. How much of the grim story detail do I remember? Mercifully, not much. The detail has dissipated into the air.
What I do recall in greater detail are the new learnings. Engaging and captivating, they stand out clear, bold and inspiring. Not only are they a support to my mental health, my discoveries have done double duty. They have made a contribution to the emotional well-being of others. Somewhere in Bio Sci there’s a herbarium. It’s been there for a while, but I just discovered it. Now that’s something to celebrate!

Monday, May 11, 2009


Free-lance journalist Mari Sasano has done a great public service. She wrote about her depression at a time when she was not fully in its crushing grip (Why I'm Glad I'm Depressed, The Edmonton Journal, May 4, 2009). I believe there are many people who will find hope in her optimism about the future, set boldly alongside her admission that depression might some day pay her an unwelcome visit.
Writes Mari, “”I've been through this enough times to know that it's just something to get through. And I've always gotten better. Depression is like winter; it's, well, depressing, but every day you're in it, you're closer to spring. It's part of a process, and may in fact be necessary for flowers to bloom.””
Of the bad days Mari writes, “”I used to wish I was stable and able to get along in life like everyone else -- the neural-normatives, I call them. Depression has kept me from holding down a normal job: try telling an employer that you have to stay home because you're despondent. It doesn't fly. I am often so tired I need to sleep in the middle of the day. Or I can't stop crying. I need proper diet, sleep and exercise if I'm going to be in top condition. And then there are the relationships that have crumbled under depression's weight. It's not easy for me to live with, but at least to me it's familiar and I know what's going on. It's not always pretty, that's for sure.””
There are two kinds of people who need to read writing like Mari’s, people who are depressed and people who care for them. Both kinds of people struggle to keep hope alive on the worst days, the days when cheering up seems impossible. We need evidence that there is reason to hope on the bad days, even if a cure remains elusive.
People who struggle with depression need to read this kind of writing because there’s nothing so satisfying as hearing about the experience of somebody who’s been there. Professional opinions are valuable, but only to a point, the point as which the professional runs out of good, fast-working solutions. That is the point at which sufferers find hope in noticing that others have suffered and struggled and still been all right somehow.
People who treat depression need to read this kind of writing because we so seldom hear from people when they are feeling okay. They come to us at their worst and leave us when they start feeling better. After all, why do they need to bother coming when they feel better?
All of us need to be reminded about the things that work. Of the quirkiness that often helps, Mari writes, “”I would say that depression makes me a happier person, because I don't take being not-depressed for granted. I know that there are things that can make me happy; I study them and try to find other ways to keep myself sane. I know to monitor my moods and to appreciate every one of them, because they are all precious. Even the crappy ones.”” Easy for her to say. If I say it, it sounds trite, even condescending. Only somebody who’s been there can get away with saying such a thing.
And there’s the sticky issue of mental health meds. When I feel particularly discouraged about depression, I cheer myself up by thinking how my view of mental health medications has changed over the years. As a young social worker I firmly believed that any life problem worth its salt could be solved without adding chemicals to the mix. In those days I thought good counselling could fix anything. If I couldn’t fix things I assumed one of two things. Either I wasn’t smart enough yet, or the client was simply not trying hard enough. That’s the kind of thinking that kept my hope going in those days. These days I appreciate a broader perspective. I take seriously the remarkable power of medications to improve situations, and I also respect the fear of being dependent on medication and the shame of needing it, not to mention the side effects of being on it. I find myself offering hope that you don’t have to be on meds forever, and then offering the notion that there still is hope if you do have to stay on them in order to keep your life functioning reasonably well.
Of medication Mari writes: “”once I was diagnosed and put on antidepressants, I could tell the difference between the brain's mighty chemistry and real problems. I could sense the nuances, brush off what's just a bad mood and concentrate on, say, developing closer friendships and working on being better. Now that I'm off my meds, it's amazing. The range of emotions I used to have is back, and I can still tell the difference between a bad neurotransmitter day and true life crises. You have to respect the brain; those with no mental-health issues will never know how tenuous is the balance of brain chemistry we rely on, just to understand our world.””
Well said, Mari. I couldn’t have said it better.

Saturday, May 09, 2009


If you ever need a story for a particular purpose, you only have to ask a few storytellers for suggestions. I really must declare, with no reservations, that storytellers are the most generous networkers I have ever found. Here’s a story to prove it.
When Edmonton’s Food Bank asked me for a fund-raising dinner keynote, I wanted to tell stories about sharing and celebrating with food. I had one story of my own—a tale about a woman who would only help the food bank if they would accept her dried beans rather than the canned beans they were asking for. It was a relevant story, but hardly inspiring standing there all alone. I needed something more.
I asked some local storytellers for suggestions. They sent a smorgasbord from which I chose one from Renee Englot, a Thai riddle about a man who searches for a daughter-in-law by asking eligible women how they would use a large fish to feed a family for a long time. Though various candidates suggested ways of preserving the fish, the winner said she would cook up the fish with many vegetables, excellent spices and lots of rice, then share it with her friends and neighbours so they would remember her if ever her family was hungry. It was a great story, and I knew there must be more. So I kept searching.
I put out the word on the Healing Story Alliance mailing list, Its members sent me a buffet of ideas. The one I used came from Rita Paskowitz of Omaha Nebraska. It’s a heaven and hell story about people with very long arms. In Hell they are starving, trying to feed themselves with arms too long to reach their mouths. In Heaven they are flourishing, using their long arms to feed each other. With this variety of offerings, I thought I had finished searching.
But the bounty continued. A few days later I received a note from Jackie Baldwin, moderator of a website called Story Lovers World Story Lovers world has a huge number of stories and books of stories indexed by topics. She drew my attention to the food section. It’s like going to a story Super Store. There I found a little story about a dying man who woke up, knowing he’d gone to Heaven because he could smell freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Noticing that he was in a room very much like his own, he climbed out of bed, made his way to a kitchen like his own, and found hundreds of cookies, some in containers, some cooling on racks, some in the oven and some waiting to go in. Tentatively he reached for a warm cookie. Bam!! A spatula struck his wrist. His wife cried, “Don’t touch those. I’m baking them for the funeral.” With that, I truly had enough stories to meet my needs.
I ended the presentation with the hope that Edmontonians would be as generous with food as storytellers are with stories—and I meant it too.

Thursday, May 07, 2009


Cousin Trudy wrote from Calgary to tell me about her latest passion—a virtual farm on Facebook. ”I have crops, livestock, orchards and buddies and daily responsibilities to keep it all running smoothly. No manure and I let the livestock run amok all over the section. Well until yesterday when I painstakingly laid down a white rail fence perimeter including the barn and then clicked each cow, pig, donkey and horse into the pen. They seemed
confused and some walked right out through the fence in a phantom-like manner.
Checking the farm this morning (like any good farmer would) it was pleasing
to see that all of them were in the pen except for one pig and maybe I missed him in the first place.”
The moment I read that email I loved the idea. A virtual farm! How interesting is that? Then, the more I thought about it, the more puzzled I became. There’s really no accounting for the things that interest us. I sat back, pondered that escaped pig, contemplated the anticipated chore of rounding him up on the screen, read again about the farm and asked myself, ”Why would anybody spend valuable time doing that?” A reasonable question I’d say, but then, look who’s asking!
I may not be spending much time rounding up virtual livestock for fun, but I do have to admit that I too have a bit of a passion problem. Storytelling has been consuming quite a few hours I never intended to give it. Take, for example, the current story, a work in progress, a cluttered little collection of ideas that will ultimately have to be sorted, measured and snapped together like Lego blocks. I started thinking about it in September. It’s due for a telling in June. I know it has already had far more attention than it deserves, so why is the call to tinker with it so compelling?
Trudy says, “We never know what, who, why, when we will discover a passion.” I would add to that,”we never know in advance just how much time it will actually take.” It’s a good thing too, or we might never start anything that has the unlikely potential to thrill us. Take the dragon story, for example, a story on a topic that never interested me much—dragons. I wouldn’t be telling a dragon story if I had not signed up for the June story café (the theme for that café is Here Be Dragons.) I wouldn’t have signed up for June if the story café did not usually conflict with choir practice (choir is probably also a passion, but in a pinch it can be justified as a service performed for the betterment of the congregation.) We are past the choir practice season by June. Dragons it had to be, so I embraced the Internet in a quest for dragons.
I found plenty of dragon stories, but none interested me much until I came upon a legend, the legend of the dragon boat. The story concerns a river suicide and a failed rescue by fishermen. That happened in 300 B.C. But it did connect to my current life.
If you stand in our driveway on warm summer nights—cold ones too—you can hear the throbbing drum beats that synchronize the strokes of the dragon boat paddlers. These are the racing enthusiasts who ply the river half a block away. Legend has it that The races and festivals of today are extensions of the ceremonies that commemorated the failed rescue.
Once I got to thinking about connections, one thing began to lead to another. Breast cancer survivors often race in dragon boat festivals. Before long I was reading the history of breast cancer treatment and searching libraries for references to a phenomenon I once read about in a novel—surgery races involving really fast surgeons. (It happened in the era before the advent of anesthetic, when surgeons brought along several hefty men to hold you down.) Speed was everything in those days. I didn’t find the information I was looking for, so I sent out a call for help to the wise storytellers who monitor the messages of the Healing Story Alliance. Nobody on the network responded with the information I was seeking, but some unnamed soul passed my request along to Liz Towill, a dragon boat racing breast cancer survivor in Vancouver. Liz didn’t have the information either, but she did direct my attention to a recent story about an almost-suicide-victim who was pulled from a river and then rehabilitated by a boatful of breast cancer survivors who were practicing for a race.
Now it’s May. Just one more month to settle this story into something that can be confined to fifteen minutes. It won’t be easy. Like all passions it will take a lot of time. The thing about stories I think I might tell is that they have a tendency to wander in and out of the fences, like virtual livestock on a fantasy farm. ”Why do we bother?” I ask Trudy.
Trudy gives no opinion on the storytelling issue, but she says a fantasy farm gets more respect than a Barbie collection. Then she adds that for the people who ask "why" in their blank expressions we have only to shoot back a defensive "why not!"

Monday, May 04, 2009


I was booked a long time ago to give the keynote address at the annual conference of dental hygienists. I wanted to say no, but the request was made with such genuine interest in hope, such confidence in my ability to make it meaningful, that I heard myself agreeing to do it. Deep down inside me I felt the threat, a tiny trickle of fear with the power to wash away the entire dike of my confidence. It was the fear born of an infrequent flosser.
Let me say in our defense, for I know I am not alone in this, that we infrequent flossers are not all cut from the same cloth. Some of us don’t choose the floss-deficient life. The life chooses us. It positions our teeth close together, packs them in tighter than bus riders in rush hour. Try to slide a dental string between bus riders in rush hour! You’ll see just how difficult it is. The string will stick. Then it will fray. Then it will snap downwards causing pain and maybe even bloodshed.
Some days I decide that being an infrequent flosser is a choice I am not prepared to make. On such mornings I take a deep breath, pull out a length of waxy floss, cut it on the little cutter and start the painful procedure. Five minutes later I am off to work with gums oozing and fuzzy floss shards huddling amongst my molars.
”Do you floss?” asks the hygienist when I go for the regular cleaning. (I’d be happy to skip the cleaning, but the dentist never offers this possibility.)
“Sometimes,” I reply with a clear conscience. She has to believe me. I am certain she’ll find the shards among the bacteria to prove it. They take a long time to decompose.
With my history weighing a heavy burden on my heart, I prepared for the dental hygienists conference. Pre-conference intelligence had already informed me that 267 of them would be crammed into a ball room awaiting my proclamations on hope. I was, understandably, afraid to open my mouth. But then I received an unexpected gift.
The gift was delivered in the parking lot outside a grocery store where we stopped for milk on our way home from the blood donor party. It is a small store with a small parking lot. Some of the spaces are reserved. One is reserved for people who like broccoli. That one was full. One is reserved for people who eat all their vegetables. That too was full. One is reserved for people with a sweet tooth. Several cars were jammed into that one. But there was one empty space, reserved for people who floss daily.
Under other circumstances the results might have been disastrous. But on this night I was particularly lucky. Not only was I with David, a daily flosser generous enough to let me share the parking space, but I also had been given the opening paragraph for my speech.