Friday, January 10, 2014

Blackout Blessings

The recent power failures showed me how dependent my family is on screen time. We were positively twitchy without our Netflix and e-readers to entertain us, our Internet news to inform us, and our Facebook and Instagram feeds to hashtag our experiences and share it with people far away.

The blackout made me contemplate how simply people must have lived when darkness came at four in the afternoon and could not be chased away with lamps. The blackout revealed to us again and again the kindness of our neighbours who checked in on us to make sure we were safe. The water running from our sinks was frigid, but it reminded me that at least our water is clean and potable, something that 780 million people around the world do without, according to data from the World Health Organization and UNICEF. Thanks to the blackout, I remembered how flattering candlelight is, how pleasant old paperback pages smell, and that keeping some processed food in the house is not a terrible idea when your stove and microwave don’t work. Hello, beautiful Oreos!

We told ourselves these things to foster an attitude of gratitude and to get us through a very boring, and shivery day. Events like these can have a humbling, medicinal effect on our busy, privileged, first-world lives. It forced us to just be with one another and to experience quiet, which we don’t always realize is in short supply these days.

Then the electricity returned and instantly our hiatus from the modern world was over. We ran as fast as we could to our I-Pads, cellphones and laptops. We luxuriated in hot showers, baked bubbly, fragrant meals, and slipped back into our comfortable bubble of safety and warmth. It’s easy to forget how quickly Mother Nature can pop that bubble should she feel like it. It’s easy to forget the struggles of the developing world when surrounded by the comforts of our own.  It’s easy for us to forget to be quiet and still, until dramatic circumstances make us take the time to count our blessings and realize how very lucky we are.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Absolution from your Resolutions

Picture has NOTHING to do with article. Unless your New Year's Resolution is to do more swashbuckling.

Published in The Packet

I scrolled through my Facebook feed and saw the following quote: “In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.” This quote, wrongly attributed to Buddha, resonates with me this New Year when so many of us get busy writing resolutions that we’re convinced will change our lives for the better. I love working towards a goal, so I’m not one to discourage resolution making, but have you noticed yourself making the same resolutions year after year and completing them with little to no success? Last year, I realized that I’d had the same three goals on my resolution list for about eight years. It made me wonder if it’s time for to gracefully let go of the things not meant for me.

Maybe I’m not meant to run a marathon. Maybe I’m not meant to play the guitar proficiently. Maybe learning to salsa dance is never going to happen, and maybe, just maybe, that is okay. Maybe the current iteration of myself is perfectly fine the way it is.

Accepting yourself completely as you are right now can feel dangerous and even subversive. Society has conditioned us to believe we should constantly strive to learn, grow, and better ourselves as best we can. I grew up part of a generation that was told over and over again that if you work hard, you can do anything. But that’s not actually true. Nonetheless, if we aren’t trying to lose weight, or gain knowledge, or work harder we’re considered lazy, unacceptable, and stagnant. So we make these promises to ourselves that we never keep, only to berate ourselves and carry the burden of our failures from year to year.

I told my mom I was ready to gracefully let go of things that I’m not meant to have. She said I was misappropriating Buddha just to get out of doing things that are hard. I tried to explain that there is a tenuous difference between giving up on something and letting go of something. I think it has to do with the emotion you feel when releasing yourself from a self-imposed obligation, and the circumstances surrounding your decision. Or maybe it is just semantics.  The phrase letting go is so much nicer than the phrase giving up. It sounds more thoughtful, as if you are choosing to discontinue an action instead of succumbing to frustration.

So how do you know if its time to let go of some resolutions this year? Ask yourself how you really feel about not completing your resolution this year. Does not meeting your goal fill you with shame or levity? If you feel shame, it’s probably time to delete the words “I should” from your vocabulary and take action steps towards meeting your resolution. But if getting rid of your resolution gives you an exhilarating sense of freedom, you know that your priorities have shifted and it’s time to chase a new dream, or to be content with your life as it is this moment.

As the Buddha actually said, “A mind unruffled by the vagaries of fortune, from sorrow freed, from defilements cleansed, from fear liberated—this is the greatest blessing.”

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

2013: The Year of the Shark

Published in The Packet

CBC News Newfoundland and Labrador is asking their audience to vote for the most prominent stories of 2013 on their website. I don’t follow the news nearly as much as I should. This is an especially embarrassing fact to admit in a newspaper column. So I spent some time scrolling through the CBC’s list of headlines, trying to get a taste of what I’d missed this year. The headlines represented a multitude of political drama, crime stories, and environmental issues. But my favorite of them all was this gem: Moose Eating Shark Rescued in Newfoundland Harbour.

Surely there has never been a cooler headline. The first three words of it alone bring to mind images of an epic shark and moose battle with gnashing teeth versus clashing antlers. Would this battle occur on land or at sea? Are sharks a viable solution for the island’s overwhelming moose population? And how on earth does a person go about rescuing a shark capable of taking out a moose?

Of course anyone who read the article beyond the headline knows that what happened wasn’t nearly as dramatic as I was envisioning. The shark in question was a Greenland shark, which spends most of its life scavenging for food blindly because parasites feed on its corneas. Poor shark! The article said that Greenland sharks eat rarely, and when they find food, they gorge themselves to suffocation. So this shark didn’t actually attack a moose.  On Nov. 16, the shark found a moose carcass floating in the water, choked on it, and then washed to shore in the harbour by Norris Arm North. Two men yanked the carcass from its throat and pushed the shark back into the water, where the shark took a moment to catch its breath and then went back to its blind scavenger existence. The article left me feeling embarrassment for the pitiful, parasite-ridden shark.

I was surprised to find another shark headline on the CBC list: Great White Shark Equipped with GPS Makes Species’ First Known Visit to Newfoundland. On Oct. 29, Lydia the 2,000 pound, 14-foot white shark took a swim in Placentia Bay, at a time of year when most sharks of her species are heading south. Maybe Lydia has heard how beautiful Canada is in October. As of Dec. 6, Lydia was just south of Newfoundland according to non-profit organization Ocearch. Researchers suspect she’s sticking around for the December and January births of 50,000 Grey Seal pups. The best part of the article was the comments section where irritated Newfoundlanders let it be known that this shark activity was not unusual at all. 

“It is ‘surprising’ that a senior scientist from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries is not aware that the waters off southern Newfoundland are at their warmest this time of year due to the clockwise rotation of Atlantic currents,” one commenter said. “Perhaps he should take the time to call someone in Marystown.”

“Careful,” said another commenter. “All that work by PETA to save the seal and this seal eater just moved in. This ought a get their attention.”

Voting for the CBC’s top stories of 2013 in Newfoundland and Labrador ends on Dec. 18. There are many pressing political and economical headlines to vote for on the list, but I am a sucker for the sharks.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Five Things I Learned from National Novel Writing Month

I devoted all my spare time last month to finishing NaNoWriMo, which I talked about in this post. I met my goal of 50,000 words with two days to spare! I was giddy. I thought I'd share some of the things the NaNoWriMo experience taught me.

1. Some days it was particularly hard to generate words, but the best way to continue making progress was to just keep typing even if my writing veered away from where I anticipated it going. Originally, I thought I'd write an adaptation of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen aimed at young adults. It quickly veered into a murder mystery with Harlequin romance tendencies. I just went with it. I am not as creative as I thought I was. I spent a lot of time just staring into space and wondering why nothing novel or interesting was entering my brain. I took comfort in what Anne Lamont calls "The Power of the Shitty First Draft" and reminded myself that no one was going to read my stale thoughts. That more than anything else helped me move forward.

2. I am not an evil genius. I am bad at murdering people. I'm bad of hiding evidence. I am bad at getting rid of bodies. Even if it is all imaginary. I will not be plotting any murders or committing crimes in real life any time soon, not just because of my own ethical and moral reasoning, but because I'm clearly too dumb to get away with it.

3. I learned that I know practically nothing about everything. My google history is a testament to my lack of knowledge: I had to look up information on grief counseling, forensics, trucking, farming practices, weather patterns in Montana, RV parks, immigration reform, popular hairstyles of the nineties, classical piano, how hypothermia works, the lifespan of parrots, kitten mills, Hans Christian Andersen, famous wrestling moves, and highway sound barriers.

4. I learned that you can develop school girl crushes on your characters. I fell head over heels for one particular character in my story. I actually felt a little guilty spending so much time in my head with him, as if I was somehow cheating on my husband. Weird, right?

5. NaNoWriMo saved me MONEY. I took no trips to Walmart for random project supplies. I only went to the grocery store when we were out of milk, and I did not cook for most of the month so I didn't have to buy special ingredients. I'm embarrassed by how much money I saved by not leaving the house. Maybe I should continue neglecting my family and spending every free second I have in front of my laptop, since it seems to be the fiscally responsible thing to do. :)

I enjoyed spending time writing everyday. I'm taking a little break from it this month, but I look forward to rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting in the hopes that this little brainchild of mine will one day be readable to someone other than me.

American Thanksgiving vs. Canadian Thanksgiving

Published in The Packet

I celebrated Thanksgiving with some American ex-pats living in Newfoundland, last week. I was asked if I prefer the American Thanksgiving to the Canadian Thanksgiving. As long as I get some pie, I’m thrilled with both. Here’s why:

I like the way it still looks like fall when its time to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving. Is there anything more glorious than October in Canada? I don’t mind traveling long distances to be with friends and family, when the trip is made so beautiful by the surrounding foliage.

I also appreciate Canadian Thanksgiving’s flexibility. Have your meal on Monday, but if that’s not convenient you can have it on Sunday. Or skip it since the whole celebration is optional here in Atlantic Canada. If you’re not a fan of turkey and you want to chill out alone in bed slurping Ramen noodles, more power to you.

I feel that celebrating Thanksgiving in October gives me permission to start celebrating Christmas earlier than I would in the United States. I can start listening to my Christmas music without getting stink eye from the “respect the turkey folks” in the U.S., who believe it is sacrilegious to put up a Christmas tree before the turkey comes out of the oven. When I eat the last bite of my American Thanksgiving meal, a starting pistol goes off for the Christmas season. The mad scramble of shopping, decorating, and event planning overwhelms me. I hate to feel rushed. With Thanksgiving in October, I have space to breathe before the rush and merriment of the Christmas season begins.

Lastly, Canadian Thanksgiving isn’t laced with guilt.  The meal is simply a harvest celebration, not a marker of the life-saving cross-cultural feast that eventually devolved into Native American genocide. Gorging yourself doesn’t seem to be the norm here in Canada, so I don’t feel guilty about the ridiculous excess of calories taken in at Thanksgiving. This year, my guilt surrounding American Thanksgiving is ratcheted up even further when I think of the number of people who have to work on what is supposed to be a national holiday, so that 33 million shoppers gain access to the Thanksgiving sales even earlier.

Which paradoxically brings me to something I love about American Thanksgiving- Thanksgiving Sales! It may sound sad, but one of my fondest Thanksgiving memories is my husband and I camping out in front of a BJ’s Wholesaler after eating our Thanksgiving meal. He wanted to be the first in line to buy some ridiculously discounted television he’d saved for.  We weren’t married yet, and I realized just how madly in love I must be to choose this man’s company, over a comfortable night’s sleep in my childhood bed.

I love the pageantry surrounding American Thanksgiving. The Macy’s Day Parade, the volunteer projects, the football rivalries and even the silly paper pilgrim hats all make me smile.

Of course, I love the food. Although Canada and the U.S. share fairly similar menus, I love the added sweetness in our meals that comes from the marshmallows on our sweet potatoes and our more custard-like pumpkin pie.

I love that Thanksgiving is a four-day weekend in the United States. Thanksgiving in the United States is a bit harder to opt out of because there is nationwide social pressure to participate. The effect of the long lines at the airports and the backed up highways isn’t always negative. I find a cheerful camaraderie develops between us, because we’ve all had the shared experience of coming together with our families and friends to experience the highs (mashed potatoes, hugs, time-worn traditions) and lows (bloating, politically incorrect tirades from distant relations, cancelled flights home) of this wonderful feast.

This year I’m thankful I got to do it twice.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

NaNoWriMo Time!

Published in The Packet

The number of locally written and published books stacked in Newfoundland gift shops astounds me. It seems that Newfoundlanders always have a story to tell, and that the history of this province is a gold mine for the amateur novelist.

If you harbor secret literary aspirations, there is no better time to try your hand at novel writing than November. National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo for short) kicked off on midnight of October 31st. 

NaNoWriMo is an internet-based creative challenge designed to get people writing. A work of writing is considered a novel when it reaches 40,000 words. NaNoWriMo encourages participants to spend each day of November writing approximately 1,600 words per night. By the end of November, they’ll have a 50,000-word manuscript. There are 180, 138 writers from around the world signed up to participate this year, as of this article’s deadline.

Participants enter the NaNoWriMo challenge by logging in to and creating a profile. Each day they update the word count of their work and add it to the website. Beginning November 25, participants can submit their novel to the website and have it validated. The site will officially count up their words and if they’ve met 50,000 words, it will declare them a winner.

The goal of the project isn’t necessarily for the writer to produce a work that wins a Pulitzer Prize. Fear of failure keeps many prospective writers from ever trying to write a novel. NaNoWriMo celebrates quantity of words instead of quality of words. Participants don’t feel self-conscious about what they are writing, because all that matters it that they write.  There is no backtracking, no editing, and no worrying allowed. This serves two goals. The first is to help writers develop the discipline to write everyday, which is the only way to really hone their craft. The second is to help writers get a first draft completed. Once that draft is complete, they can edit it at their leisure until it becomes the masterpiece they’ve envisioned.

Yes, you might write a lot of crap. Yes, you might produce a manuscript that spends the rest of it’s life collecting dust on a shelf somewhere. But you’ll have experienced the thrill of pushing aside your inner critic and creating for the sake of creating.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll write the next Water for Elephants, which best-selling author Sara Gruen wrote during NaNoWriMo. Only instead of a traveling circus, your story might be set right here in Newfoundland, feature a protagonist resembling your great grandmother, and a mystery involving the railway station, and…why are you still reading this? Go get started on your novel!