Friday, July 25, 2008

They Would Have Accepted Nothing Less.

Despite being a child of the 50s, growing up during the woman's movement, I'm still a product of my parents generation. They raised me by the standards of the times, and though I often tried to shake those ideals, they're part of who I am today.

My father was the breadwinner, my mother the homemaker. By the time I came along they had already lived through a world war, stood in line for bread, and bought things without the aid of credit. During my teens I looked upon their philosophy and beliefs as old fashioned. Today, I can't help but wonder who I would have become without them.

My mother sang and entertained during WWII, performing primarily for Canadian troops. She was a quiet, shy woman, and until I saw her at the piano, I couldn't imagine her performing in front of large crowds, particularly lonely soldiers. Give her a piano, a microphone, or a guitar, and she transformed herself. Long into my twenties, friends would crowd around her, angling for the best spot.

Her artist abilities didn't end there. Every five years or so, she'd remodel out farmhouse kitchen into a modern, hip space. Soon afterward, neighbours would have her over for consultations; in those days it was called
coffee. She sewed her own clothes and ours, tended to flower and vegetable gardens, and cornfields taller than my 6'3 father. She made quilts, baked her own bread, canned, hooked rugs, and crocheted flowers that ended up looking like carnations. When her youngest turned thirteen, (me) she began work as the night janitor for a private golf and country club.

The day after school was out, mum would load up our old '53 Pontiac and drive us 40 miles to Everglades, outside the city of Mission. While dad worked, visiting us on weekends, mum, along with three other mums, would set up our campsite and four tents, and cover the entire area with tarps roped to the trees. It didn't matter if it rained the entire summer, we were protected from the elements. On weekends, along with the other fathers, dad would arrive with supplies. After dark, when the campfire danced under a sky filled with stars, the guitars and banjos were brought out. The sound of them harmonizing together was wonderful. His voice was a mixture of Ray Price and Dean Martin. She sounded like one-third of the Lennon Sisters.

The idea of keeping house while dad worked was commonplace; I don't remember her ever complaining. We'd watched
Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show on our 20" black and white television. And as it was with those TV mums, we were my mother's life. Continuing her career after marriage never entered the equation. The janitorial job came later because it didn't interfere with her day job as wife and mother. If asked why she didn't continue her career, she'd frown and say, "Who's going to feed the cattle at midnight, get you kids ready for school, or take care of you when you're sick?" When I was a teenager, I told her that excuse didn't cut it any longer. She smiled and said, "Joylene, I'm too old now."

October 16th, 1999, my mother passed away. Though I know she wanted to see the new millennium, I suspect she was too tired to live longer. Her life had become one long road of debilitating pain. Near the end, she had to give up her independence and move in with us. Her once full life was squeezed into a 14 x 16 space just large enough for her TV, bed, dresser and night tables.

More often than not, she said I was lucky to be born when I was. I had no restrictions on who I could be. I could raise a family, have a career, or do none of the above. I had choices. She didn't get her driver's license until she was fourty-five because no one told her she should. Still, in 1966, she drove from Maple Ridge to Winnipeg. Nobody told her she couldn't.

When my dad died and I started writing what I hoped would be his story, my mum took it in stride. She said I was a born story-teller. When I was two years old and company would drop by for evening visits, I'd entertain everyone by telling tall tales. I'd stand on the hearth and rock sideways from foot to foot. Though my enunciation needed work, she said I had a nice rhythm to my incoherencies.

Today I'm a storyteller slash writer slash wife and mother. I'm the self-published author of the suspense thriller Dead Witness. I'm the author of five yet-to-be published novels. I was raised by a woman who knew her place, but wanted more for her children. I was raised to believe I could do anything; I could be anyone. I was also influenced by her fears and misgivings.

In any given week, I deal with bookstore owners, editors, publishers, agents, reviewers, lawyers, newspaper people, printers, distributors, bookkeepers, accountants, other writers, and readers. I studied at Simon Fraser University where my English professor told me to go home and have babies because I would never make it as a writer. I've worked at jobs where my male counterparts earned more wages for doing the same job. I experienced the growing pains of menstrual cramps, the agony of giving birth, the depression of a hysterectomy, and the onslaught of menopause. There are days when I am overwhelmed by the complexities of life. And marketing my novel has thrown me out of my comfort zone.

But I was raised to believe I could do anything. And even today, when I'm partying alone at my own pity-party, I swear I hear my mother say, "Joylene, you're stronger than this."

I like to publicly thank my mum for preparing me for an often unreasonable and cruel world. She believed in me. Today I see women who are pioneers, leaders in their given professionals. I watch Oprah and rival in the successes of extraordinary women; frightened, beaten women who fought against discrimination and abuse and became trendsetters, innovators, and mentors. Mentors, like my quiet, unimposing mother. I'm in awe of the women of my generation for good reason. They command attention in every facet of life: art, literature, science, and music. They find themselves outside their comfort zone, yet perhaps because they had a mother in the wings who believed in them, they keep their head held high.

I'm hearing the same horror stories that perhaps you are: that this younger generation of women, the 13 to 18 years old, are falling prey to the belief that they're here solely to serve males. I don't know if it's a case of journalists focusing attention on what is actually a minority; but regardless, it's sad note. And while I am the mother of sons, I'm also the grandmother of eight, four of whom are girls. I pray that when all is said and done, we prove that our mothers and grandmothers didn't survive their hardships in vain. They not only passed on the torch, they lit it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Being Published Changes Things.

My daughter-in-law called tonight to congratulate me on the release of my novel Dead Witness and the subsequent interview in The Prince George Citizen. Then she said something that I'm just now pondering.

In the paper's interview, Mr. Strickland asked about my other manuscripts; I've written five, three of which are in various stages of editing. Although my daughter-in-law and I have known each other for years, she was surprised by how little she knew of my books. She had to read the interview to find out, and remarked that I never talk about myself.

I replied with what seems a trivial answer now, "I didn't want to bore you."

Did I at one time discuss my writing with someone other than another writer? Excluding my best friend? I think so. If someone asked. In fact, I'm sure I did... I think. But with the mother of young children, who -- if she isn't running ragged chasing after them -- is working full time at as a medical receptionist? Probably not. The girl has barely enough time to sit down.

Her statement has raised an issue though that I've never considered until now. Do I find it difficult to share my passion?

That old saying that writing is a solitary act... well, it's true. The next time you're visiting with a friend, try writing your Christmas newsletter. You could do both, but I doubt either would be up to par. Writing requires concentration, patience, stamina. A writer needs to draw from within. You can certain learn to write anywhere; I'm at the dining room table with the TV on in the forefront, a beautiful full moon shining diagonally across the lake and into our picture window, and my dog Bandit on the floor next to me snoring. To write effectively you need to pay attention. Actually, you want to pay attention.

Unless you're working with other writers on a collaboration or joint venture, writing is something writers do alone because it's personal.

I'm evading the issue. Sorry.

Prior to publishing Dead Witness, I chose to not speak of my work for what I'm sure was a good reason. Until I could say equivocally that my manuscripts were publish-ready, having family, friends, and readers read them left me stuck somewhere between terror and ... -- even after publishing I'm still not sure what it was? Publishing my novel changed me. I took what I considered a well-written manuscript and turned it into a book. Cover et al. Writing is not and has never been a hobby. And while I am NOW a published writer, I'm not a better or worse human being. Just different.

If I chose to keep my stories a secret, I suspect it's because they were transforming from a "What if" idea into a well rounded story. In the same way that one doesn't appear half-dressed in public? Or half-naked?

I didn't deliberately exclude my family and friends from my passion for writing, I stayed silent because ... after all this, I'm still not sure. Embarrassment? I hope not. Possessiveness? Mmm.

Then again, my first 10 drafts were pretty rough; maybe the answer is: an act of kindness.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Is loving an animal supposed to be heart-wrenching?

Every once in awhile life gets in the way of writing. And it makes you stop and think about stuff other than... well, writing. Last week my neighbour called. She works nights so we don't see each other as often as I'd like. She's one of those special people, the kind that would give you her last loaf of bread or cup of coffee. A genuine person. Someone I liked right from the start.

I knew as soon as I heard her voice that something was wrong. She asked if my husband was home. He wasn't. I said, "What's wrong?" then waited for what I knew would be bad news. There's a voice that people inevitably use when they're hurting. Even if they try hard not to, you recognize the pain. I've looked into the face of someone smiling and seen it.

But this was over the phone; that's how clear her pain was.

"Cajun can't walk."

"Ah, shit." Not exactly the comforting words I meant to say.

Cajun, a beautiful Louisiana Catahoula Leopards, who acted more like a cat than a dog, had been ailing off and on over the winter. Her legs had given her trouble, and I hadn't seen much her during the Spring. For years she'd been coming over to flirt with our dog; for the past 5 it had been Bandit, who was tied up because he didn't know the words: Stay home.

Bandit had a major crush on Cajun, so much so that I think she relished taunting him. She'd park herself just outside the range of his 50' run & smile seductively; I swear. Sometimes, while he had his leash stretch so tight his eyes bulged, she'd wave her butt in his face, then stroll off as if she had better things to do than waste her time with a virgin.

For years, we've been counting on Cajun to keep tabs on the neighbourhood. She'd confront a bear, cougar, fox, without hesitation. Yet, children could climb over her or under her without fear. Many visitors would remark on what a gentle dog we had. We'd answer, "You obviously mean our neighbour's dog, Cajun, not our rambunctious Syberian Husky, Bandit?"

Cajun's mum said. "I think she's had a stroke. I need some help getting her into my truck." Then her voice cracked.

I swallowed the lump in my throat. In my mind's eyes I saw Cajun struggling to stand. She had a sense of grace about her, and so I knew not being able to stand would have caused her great embarrassment and fear.

I felt helpless. No husband meant the two of us would never get her in the truck by ourselves.

My neighbour said it was okay, she'd call another friend. I added something about, "I hope Cajun's okay", but even then I sensed the worse. I hung up feeling hopeless. Then I did something strange. I cried. I tried going back to work, reminding myself that Cajun wasn't our dog. Sure she thought her yard and the two between us belonged to her, but she never ate here. Though she did stay the night once. We experience a lot of electrical storms during the summers; Cajun hated them. One night when her mum was working graveyards, Cajun was outside enjoying the late evening sun. Our son usually went over just after dark and let her into her house. Unless it had been an especially hot day. Then she'd stay out and sleep under the stars.

This one particular night the storm hit fast and hard. The thunder was so loud, I was sure the windows would break. Cajun came to the balcony door and worked the screen door open with her nose. I heard the noise and peeked over my bedroom loft in time to see her curl up on the floor beside our son who was asleep on the sofa bed. When I looked down the next morning, there she lay on the bed with her legs straight out and her back pushed up against our son's, who by this time was pressed up against the window. Neither one of them had seemed to mind sharing the bed.

The day after Cajun's stroke, I called my neighbour, but she wasn't home. I paced, then finally walked out to the road to see if her truck was there. It wasn't. On the way back to the house I decided that was a good sign. And it was until our son reminded me that she worked afternoons. It was another day before I found out from our other neighbour that Cajun had passed on. That evening, Cajun's mum emailed to say she'd been with her when Vet gave her the final injection.

Gads, even as I type this I'm getting emotional.

What is it about pets that makes us feel so vulnerable? I've lost my fair share of companions, and during all those times I've wondered if it's some cosmic joke that the average age of a dog is only 14 years. I look at my mother-in-law and worry that something might happen to her dog before my mother-in-law passes. She's 92 and still raring to go. Her small dog is 5. Cajun wasn't our dog, but she was special. Like a neighbourhood mascot. Seeing her stroll through our yard was as common a sight as watching the leaves turn every Fall. It was a vision of comfort and ... I'm not sure what. I'm still trying to remind myself that she wasn't our dog.

We bring these lovable little creatures home, then if we're pragmatics, (as I seem to be turning into) can only hope for a decade of companionship before it's time to say goodbye.

It doesn't seem fair.

This is the closest photo I could find that resembled Cajun.