I’m Not Dead; Only Sleeping

Last month I promised to get back to my writing.  The subject matter is usually memoir. Here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago about my younger years. Based on the conversations I’ve had over the last couple of days I thought this might be the one to share.

We rarely know someone’s story.

 

I’m Not Dead; Only Sleeping

Camping isn’t fun.

If we hadn’t slipped into Canada I would’ve been warm and comfortable. But just how comfortable can you be living in a car with three other people?

We’re at the Banff National Park. It’s known as a tourist destination and famous for providing guests with a taste of wilderness in the Canadian Rockies. I couldn’t have cared less. We were only passing through, a pit-stop of our life on the lam. Probably on the move to dodge the police or debt collectors. It was my childhood norm. Every step we made back then was based on how close the authorities were and how visible we had become. This time, we’d snuck out of Boise and were winding our way back to Vancouver. Crossing state lines was good, but crossing the US/Canadian border was a better way to disappear. Years ago, passports weren’t required and few questions were asked. I was happy to be heading back to my real home. Everything and nothing was better in Vancouver.

I thought of it as a cold safety net.

Winter months and living in a car is best if you’re in California or maybe Texas. You can sleep outside. I remember the joy of stretching out on the car hood. Florida wasn’t ever a good option. Hot, humid and too many bugs. Miami insects feast on sweat. Homelessness in Florida has no redemptive qualities. Everything smells. Food stored in the trunk rots, and ice doesn’t exist. Even parking next to Disneyworld didn’t make Florida better. Goofy and his friends weren’t going to help us.

Our old Cadillac was parked close to the campfire. Tourist season was over and no one cared that we were there. The plan was for me and my little brother to sleep around the fire so my mom and step-dad could be in the car alone. This scheme had worked well in the past. I remember watching the fire burn down, knowing it was too cold. There were no sleeping bags to zip up around us, and only layers of the few clothes we still owned.

Night noises are scary. You have no idea what was lurking out there in the forest. Every sound was a wolf or bear or beast that would pounce if we fell asleep. We were children with imaginations and fears. Why were we expected to sleep outside and fend for ourselves? Why were our parents special and able to stretch out and be warm? Sure, they needed to be on top of their game tomorrow. This life required nerve and compromise.

And maybe just a good night’s sleep.

I made the decision to knock on the car window. Most of me wanted to stay by the fire. Sleeping inside a car with three other people was chaotic and stifling. The noise was bad, my step-father snored, and all the other breathing sounds drove me crazy. It always became too stuffy. People fart. There was no easy answer.

My brother followed my lead. He was small and had no voice. The car and life on the run was his norm. He wasn’t haunted by abuse, but he did know hunger. This was all he knew. I never minded sleeping next to him, and I know he huddled close to me for warmth. We all craved a good night. But most of me just wanted to be away from these people.

I would’ve given anything to be alone.

I don’t make any noise when I sleep; breathing so shallow that I hardly move. An old boyfriend said he often thought I was dead. My stillness scared him. Back then neither of us knew I learned this trick when I was young. It was a way to be invisible and hide.

I wanted to be alone but knew that’s where the real threat was

Sometimes my step-father’s cons went well and jobs panned out. We didn’t always need to live in a car.

That’s when my step-father would sneak into my room at night. He’d crawl into my bed. I wasn’t able to hide. It didn’t matter that I pretended I was dead. He plotted his perversion so well. I would’ve rather faced any forest creature ready to pounce and maim. Against them I had a chance. Against my step-father I was helpless. Alone in a bedroom I had no defense.

The only thing that saved me was my hate.

How can we make someone decide where safety is? And where the dangers hide? Outside, on the edge of a forest, or inside a family home? The answer to a safe haven should never ever be a car or the street. We should be better than this.

There was no easy answer back then. Eating, sleeping, being cold, and surviving. It was our reality. My norm. We have a way of adapting to the worst circumstances. Everything is relative. Listening to my step-father’s snores in the car was much better than hearing him open my bedroom door.

Sleeping outside in Banff would have been so much better. I remember looking out the car window at the dying fire and thinking a normal family would be having fun singing campfire songs and cooking hotdogs and s’mores. A normal family would be happy.

I didn’t sleep that night but I wasn’t cold.

The next day the sun was shining and we carried on our way. During the light of day I could pretend the next night would be in a hotel and include a warm meal. We even laughed during the day and my brother and I played road trip games. I spy with my little eye. I fantasized about buying a Winnebago where I could seemingly have the best of both worlds; a way to flee the police and never be touched.

A childhood dream. A childhood fantasy. All make-believe.

Now I’m old and have survived. I love Disneyland and even Disneyworld. I love going for long drives. I love the sound and smell of campfires. I hate people that snore. I’m often cold, but know I can put on a warm sweater and turn up the heat.

Today I’m happy to sleep alone, with the door locked, and my demons dead.

I barely breathe at night, and if you lay next to me, you might think I’m dead.

I’m only sleeping.

 

 

Be Creative

My boss inspired people. He genuinely thought the people around him could come up with good ideas. He expected us to step up. It was not an option.

I remember the day he told me to think of four ideas that could be made into Kokanee Beer radio commercials. He gave me the weekend to think. On Monday morning I gave him the list and was shocked that by the end of the week one of those little ideas was now a script and soon became a commercial and was heard on the radio.

When a creative genius has faith in you, well, you start to believe in yourself. My boss taught me not to be afraid of those little ideas in my head. I got to spend almost 20 years of him expecting me to be creative.

Last week I watched an old Kokanee television commercial. One of the little known spots from the year we traveled the province filming unusual people that drank Kokanee.

We spent one day in Victoria following a garbage man.

Me and the Labatt Beer client “on set”

Weeks later, back in the edit suite, we started to pull together shots to make some sense of what the commercial could be. It’s a lengthy process. Luckily I was the producer and was a part of every step of the production. I sat in the edit suite along with the creatives.

For some reason… and most likely because we were driven to “be creative”, I started to sing the old “Spiderman” cartoon song and replacing the word spiderman with garbageman. It was funny. It made us laugh. My boss liked the idea. Kokanee and Labatts liked the idea.

Very quickly the music rights were bought, recording studio booked, musicians and singers hired, and then finally the spot was finished and aired. (A little bit of a producer’s nightmare, but I was used to the process back then. It was my job and I loved it.)

Kokanee Commercial

My boss inspired people. He changed my life.

my boss

He taught me to never be afraid of that little voice inside your head.

You never know what it might become.

you never know

 

What’s next?

It was a year ago today. I sat at my desk and wondered what the hell I would do now. For two years I had chased after a dream and that had ended in failure. I lost out and wasn’t picked for a board position I’d coveted for a very long time.

Sitting at my desk and writing my goals for 2018 left me with only one thought….

What now? Or more to the point, what’s next?

Little did I know what 2018 would bring?

I’m not one into platitudes and the old “when one door closes…” doesn’t sit well with me. I take more of the stance that if something goes wrong you’re allowed to feel like crap. You are allowed to crumble. I’ve been there and was certainly feeling that way a year ago.

My trick is to sit with the loss and wait. You don’t have to be still. You don’t have to give up. But you might need to be very patient.

Wait and listen. Contemplate. Sometimes when you are still the best ideas appear.

And you all know what happened next…

It only took two months for the idea to be handed to me. It was a very big idea. Something I had never dreamed of. It was daunting, but I gave it all my heart, followed the best advice, worked my ass off with the help of a ton of people and won.

What a difference a year makes.

So how did your 2018 pan out? Hoping for something better in 2019? Trust me when I say you have no idea what the future will hold.

Whatever you do, stick with what makes you happy. If something inspires you; stretch out. But don’t ever compromise your best side. Make sure that you always carry your integrity with you. And don’t sell yourself short.

You never know what will happen. You never know what’s next.

And that leads me to my most impactful part of 2018.

I met some pretty incredible people during that eight month campaign. Smart, funny, powerful, humble and with hearts bigger than you could ever imagine. New friends that I would never had crossed paths with if not for that crushing defeat a year ago. New friends that have my back and helped push me forward. New friends that picked me.

These people have been the best reward.

What’s next? I can only imagine.

 

A Legacy

It’s been months since I’ve posted a blog…

Lately I’ve been thinking about legacies. This might be because I heard a great deal about political legacies during the latest civic election. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Harry Leslie Smith’s twitter feed. Harry’s son wrote about his father’s last days and is now carrying on with Harry’s message.

Most likely I’m thinking about legacies because Dec. 6, 2018 was ten years since my Dad passed away.

Dr. Art Barker’s legacy inspires me and I’ve been wondering what inspired him.

Who inspires you? What inspires you?  Are you inspired? I’ve come to believe it’s so much easier to go through life when you’re following a worthwhile legacy.

I had planned to go for a walk to mark the anniversary of Dad’s passing. To be alone with my thoughts and take some time out of this busy life to settle my heart. I had done my traditional Salvation Army Santa Shuffle and dedicated the race and donation to him. Thursday night, the exact time of his passing, I would be silent. It’s been one hell of a year and I wanted the time to contemplate my next step.

Then I heard Dad’s voice. His message was loud and clear. “Step up, you’ve got a job to do.”

So instead of a walk I attended the Vancouver Park Board meeting at the Killarney Seniors Centre to meet with the Presidents of all the local Community Centres. It was a good evening with valuable conversations about the future and where we wanted to go.

I know it’s what Dad would have expected from me.

Maybe more important, I realize it’s what I expect from me.

And that might be the legacy.

Dad’s life wasn’t perfect. He made lots of mistakes. But at his core he was a kind man and cared about the patients. I watched him pay special attention to the seniors around him. I know he was their advocate. I watched him make them smile.

The last time I saw Dad I made him smile… maybe he was passing the torch.

A worthwhile legacy we could all follow.

Yes to David Sedaris

The trick is to say yes.

When given an opportunity, even if it scares the crap out of you, say yes.

So, on Sunday night, when David Sedaris asked if I would join him on stage to say a few words during his event at the Vogue Theatre, I said yes.

Then I panicked.

Stepping into David’s quirky world was going to explode my brain. Of course he would invite a complete stranger because she happened to mention she was running in the next civic election. Doesn’t every casual conversation at the pre-show book signing lead to such suggestions? And why not, we both care about parks, seniors and litter. Well if you know David, he cares more about litter than almost anyone. But, it’s also on my agenda for my candidacy so made sense. Who doesn’t want a clean park?

As David led me backstage, he explained that he’d introduce me before he started his reading, I could say a few words, and then he would continue with his show. He even asked where my seat was to make sure I could easily get back to it.

Yes, simple… but I was still panicking.

I was pretty sure I could come up with something to say, but my bigger concern wasn’t that it was scaring the crap out of me, but that I thought there might still be crap on me.

You see, as I was waiting outside the venue, before the doors opened, a bird did a flyby and let loose. My friend and I got spattered. It was disgusting but made me laugh. How crazy and random. We were the only ones in the line that got hit. Luckily we made a dash into a nearby pub and cleaned ourselves off. But I was still worried that I’d missed a glob.

And now I might be on the stage at the Vogue Theatre, talking about my political candidacy, and the audience would only notice some unpleasant stain.

Lovely.

Luck was on my side. Just before the event was about to start the sponsor nixed the idea. No way was some woman that David just met going to be allowed on stage to speak. This was not going to happen.

Instead, I got to just enjoy the show and David’s hilarious story telling. I saw the irony that this was also going to make a funny blog. Bird crap and all.

And it all started because I said yes. Of course I did, it was David Sedaris. Wouldn’t you?

 

My Political Life

Blonde Again

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

On my last blog, I explained that I was going back to Scotland to celebrate turning 60 because I did the trip to mark my 50th birthday.

For months I’ve also been remembering what and who I was when I turned 40. Funny how big birthdays can get you reminiscing about the past. In 1998 I was just retired from my full time job at the ad agency and making my way with a new career. I was dealing with people and my surroundings in a different way. I was evolving into an adult.

Part of the shift was becoming a personal trainer that would opt to shave her head to support a client going through chemo. Why not? It was only hair and a perfect way to make a mark about how I wanted to support my clients and how I wanted to live my life.

Years later I wrote a story about the experience.

 

Bald

Today I am a forty year old bald woman.

Yesterday I had long black hair down to my shoulders.

Today I notice my ears are too big for my face.

Yesterday I looked like everyone else.

Today the wind on my bare scalp chills me to the bone.

Yesterday I still had all my hair to hide behind.

Today people stare at me.

Yesterday I walked into my hairdressers and had my head shaved.

The first step was to cut the bulk of my long hair with scissors.  I was spellbound sitting there watching my reflection as my cherished locks fell away.  The next step came as he used the electric razor for a close crop.  You could now see the shape of my head.  Thank God I had no strange lumps and bumps.  That would have been too much!  Then finally the razor blade to finish the job. There were no tears, just the reflection of a forty year old bald woman looking back at me.

Today I visited my bald client with breast cancer.  She is bald from the chemo and was excited about my gesture to shave my own head to support her journey.  Today she quietly tells me she can’t stand to look at me because it reminds her how sick she is.  She doesn’t want to look at the face of another bald woman.  I am banished.  She tells me to leave and not come back.

Yesterday I was a person embarking on a symbolic gift for a friend.

Today I am a forty year old bald woman.

This piece not only told the story, but helped me find a way to share my life and experiences.

I became a writer. I found my voice.

If I wanted to say something, I would tell you a little tale.

So there was no better way to explain to you the reason why I look like this today.

It really shouldn’t come as a big surprise to the people that know me best.

And face it, there’s something cathartic to reflect about what it means to turn 60. What I’ve learned, what I care about, and what doesn’t matter at all.

Doing this while being blonde just makes me laugh.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

 

VanCityPenguin

They laughed. And not just a little giggle, but a full belly laugh. Then others laughed. I don’t think I’ve ever done something so simple to make so many people laugh.

How could I not do it again and again?

And just like that @VanCityPenguin was born.

It started as a little joke to do on one of my morning walks. Along with all the other pictures I took, I added in a few penguin shots. The technique took a little while to master. I must have looked pretty ridiculous down on the ground attempting to get a good angle to frame his funny little body.

Soon I got better at taking his picture. It was during a sunset at False Creek that I took some photos and showed a few people that were passing by. They immediately looked out to the water to see where the penguin was. When I revealed the little guy, now hidden away in my pocket, they laughed. Too many wanted copies. I discovered the hilarious power of VanCityPenguin. The next day my penguin friend had a Twitter and Instagram account.

Going public meant he could make even more people laugh. And we could do it together on my walks all over Vancouver. A much needed incentive to get me out the door to search for some of the city’s best locations.

The concept seemed perfect.

Since I’ve already proclaimed 2018 the Year of the Penguin this seems like the next logical step.

So far he’s seen some pretty interesting places, met some new friends and attracted some impressive followers.

Who knows where it will lead? As long as people keep laughing, I will keep taking his picture.

at the Olympic torch lighting

snow in Vancouver

watching the sunset

Return to Scotland

Ten years ago I made the decision to walk Scotland’s West Highland Way and Great Glen Way to celebrate my 50th birthday. The half-century celebration was a 297km solo trek through the Highlands. Starting near Glasgow, and ending in Inverness.

overlooking Loch Lomond

The walk took 13 days, then I headed to Aberdeen to meet some very distant relatives. It was a first for me… actual blood relations! A joy few adopted people get to experience.

distant distant distant relatives

My goal in going to Scotland was to dig deeper into my roots. To go and find out more about who I am.

Luckily all that happened and my 50th was a complete success.

This year I turn sixty and plan to once more make the journey.

Even now I still think back to the day before I left Vancouver.

Dad was slipping fast. His mind was faltering. He knew I had opened my adoption papers, had found my birth family and was heading to Scotland to discover more. He wanted to help. He promised to pay for my flight. It’s one of the main reasons I was able to go.

Two things happened on the last day I saw him before I left. Actually three things happened.

I showed him my itinerary and the messages from some of the Third family clan in Aberdeen. I talked to him about my plans and the excitement.

As I talked about meeting these people he got teary eyed and said, “Remember you will always be my daughter. I will always be your father.” Up until that point I hadn’t realized the distraught this trip could carry for him. I told him he was my Dad and that would never change. I hope he believed me.

Then I showed him the bill for the flight and reminded him in the gentlest way of his promise to pay for it. He said of course, and went to his den. I waited. He came back and said his wife wouldn’t give him the money. He handed me his wallet and said I should take all the money inside to help pay for the trip. I opened it and found 23 cents. My heart broke.

I told him I’d already paid for the flight and he needed to keep his money to buy some coffee. Dad laughed, he loved cups of coffee. I lie very well.

As I left his home I told his wife what happened. She offered nothing.

I headed back to work and my last client before the trip.  He was a kind man with a very successful business in West Vancouver. His father had recently passed. We were pretty sure our Dad’s knew each other from years ago. There was a connection.

I told him what had happened. I was relying on Dad’s help and that had now disappeared. I cried. He seemed to understand. He was a very kind man.

As we finished the session, I was packing up my gear and he disappeared into the other room. He came out and handed me a cheque for the full amount of the airfare. He said my Dad wanted me to have financial help with the trip and he was in a position to make it happen.

I cried again. He hugged me and told me to have the best birthday celebration.

I did. And I never forgot how I got there.