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With grateful remembrance, 11/11/11

11 Nov

I’m so proud that my parents and father-in-law served in the Canadian Armed Forces during WWII. Here’s my thank you and tribute to them in honour of Remembrance Day 2011.

When my father enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in July, 1942, my parents decided to marry immediately, before he went into basic training. They’d been engaged for over a year, but had postponed their wedding because of the war, and also because my mother would have to resign from teaching once she married. But now they couldn’t wait any longer. As my mother told me, “The future was so uncertain. Nobody knew if there’d even be a tomorrow.”

My parents married on a Saturday at my grandparents’ farm. On Monday morning my mother accompanied my father to Toronto’s Union Station to see him off. Along with hundreds of others in the bedlam that was Union Station that day, they wept as they parted, knowing they might never see each other again. 

After my father’s train left, my mother wandered around the city, lost and bereft, unsure what to do. Then she marched to a recruiting office and signed up for the RCAF (Women’s Division). She too was now in for the duration.

My father was sent overseas, but he couldn’t disclose exactly where. His letters were censored and took weeks to arrive. Meanwhile my mother was posted to Halifax. She worked at Operations Headquarters, plotting ships in the harbour. Directions were given her through earphones, by someone she couldn’t see, who addressed her in code. It was all top secret.

Here’s my mother, second from right, with her RCAFWD friends. And here’s my father, somewhere overseas. In the photo with the bicycles, he’ s on the left and that’s his brother on the right.

As for my father-in-law, he served in the militia from 1932 -1939. He was then on active service with 48th Highlanders of Canada and Canadian infantry Corps, stationed at Camp Borden as an Infantry instructor until 1945. With increasing responsibilites and hard work he rose to the rank of Lieutenant. As a civilian after the war he continued a life of service as President of his Legion. An active participant in school Remembrance Day activities, he also promoted a Legion bursary for graduating high school students. And he wore a kilt again to play in the Legion Pipe Band.

Here’s a memorial to him, part of the Newmarket Veterans Walk of Honour.



My parents and father-in-law were lucky to survive the war when so many thousands didn’t. But because of all who served, whether in the Armed Forces or as civilians working for the war effort on the home front, I’m even luckier. I’ve had the privilege of living in a free and democratic country my whole life, and so far have never experienced war.

I can only hope that my children and their children and their children’s children will be so blessed. I am very grateful to those who served in the past and those who do so today. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

May the whole world someday live in freedom and peace.





Heart of YA Darkness

21 Jun

As soon as I read that now infamous Wall Street Journal article “Darkness too Visible”, which slammed Cheryl Rainfield’s Scars along with much of today’s YA fiction, I rushed to get her book. I’m sure many others did too. 

In my day there were no YA books to give an innocent high-school girl insight into things that parents and teachers didn’t want to talk about. I was stuck with what were then considered scandalous adult books, so dangerous to a person’s morals that the London Public Library didn’t keep them on the open shelves. Instead such books were hidden in a back room and adorned with “restricted” labels, lest they fall into the wrong hands.

You had to be over eighteen to read Fanny Hill, Candy, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Lolita or In Praise of Older Women. You had to fill out a special request form. The librarian had to approve your request, and then you had to endure public shame as she checked out your risqué choice.

But lucky me. As a teen I worked at the library after school and on Saturdays, so had easy access to those evil books. I never told anyone at the time, but I’m ready to admit now that I “borrowed” those books when no one was looking. That’s right. I didn’t ask for permission, since it would have been denied. Instead I sneaked the books home, hidden under my coat.

So as not to incriminate myself, I didn’t even stamp the books’ pocket cards with a due date. Oh, the guilt! I can assure you that to a dedicated library page such as I was, that felt almost as wicked as wanting to read those books.

And read them I did. 

After that I quickly became, to quote that WSJ article, “one who seeks out depravity”. I began to write heartwrenching poetry full of angst, moons and roses. I shortened all my skirts and sometimes went braless. A couple years later I took up with an older man and dropped out of university.

Eventually, I fell even farther from the nice southwestern Ontario United Church girl I’d once been. I became the kind of woman who reads edgy YA books and attempts to write them!

My forthcoming YA novel, How to Tend a Grave, Great Plains Teen Fiction, Spring 2012, is full of unpleasant stuff that might upset some people: prostitution, vandalism, teen pregnancy, miscarriage, death.

So you can totally see why I was excited to read Scars, a book so lurid that The Wall Street Journal had warned the world about it.

Well, what a surprise! Scars is not at all the dark, damaging horror I’d expected. Brave would be a better word. Uplifting would be another. Yes, it’s true that the book deals with difficult subjects, but in a positive, life-affirming way. Plus there’s hardly even any profanity!

All good YA books offer at least a sliver of hope, but Scars beams it out. And at the heart of Cheryl Rainfield’s dark story you’ll find love and light.

Sorry, WSJ, but anyone seeking depravity will have to look elsewhere.

As for my own moral decline brought about by “restricted”  books, just so you know, I reformed, destroyed all my terrible teenage poetry and went back to school. I wear underwear most days now. And I returned those books to the library.

Okay, yes, I returned them in secret. But would a girl who’d been irredeemably corrupted by her inappropriate reading material have bothered at all?


a first draft kind of hike

3 May

First drafts make me crazy. I’m a reviser. I’ll happily spend days cutting, developing and shaping a story. But how to produce a has-potential-but-needs-work ms in the first place? Even with characters, setting and plot in mind for a new project, a blank screen is so intimidating. I’m always tempted to shut down and go hiking.

Besides revising, I love to hike. There’s something about the physical effort that frees my mind and leaves me open to fresh ideas in a way I rarely am at my desk. One of the many reasons I appreciate living part of the year on Vancouver Island is the abundance of great hiking trails – up mountains, through rainforests and along ocean beaches.

My husband and I are day trippers – we haven’t yet done the West Coast Trail or anything that strenuous. But we do like a challenge, and discovering places we’ve never been. Recently we went looking for Ammonite Falls, outside of Nanaimo, near Mount Benson.

As we walked I thought about why I dread writing first drafts. I think it’s because they always begin so well, but then somewhere around the middle everything goes to mush. The urge to hit delete and switch to another project is overwhelming. Anything would be better than this stupid, contrived, derivative, unpublishable nonsense I’m wasting my time on.

The route through the forest to Ammonite Falls is just over 5 km roundtrip, easy at first and then more rugged, with lots of ups and downs and stuff like rocks and tree roots to trip over. Hmm, kind of like trekking through a first draft.

Around Mount Benson, a popular hiking and mountain biking spot, there are many trails, but few signs. We could easily get lost. Yes, we had a map, but maps aren’t perfect. Hmm again. Kind of like trying to stick to an outline or notes for a first draft. Helpful, but not foolproof.

We decided to follow the sound of rushing water. Our view of the falls from the trail was breathtaking. But for the best photo op, we had to descend a steep, slippery slope, with the questionable help of a frayed rope tied to tree roots. Scary! 

I began making my terrified way down. Though knotted at intervals for gripping, the rope was so wet and muddy it was painful to hold on to. I wanted to give up and turn back. I felt the way I do when I’m struggling with a first draft. Like, ohmigod this is such a bad idea why am I doing this it will never work I’m such a loser I need chocolate.

For first drafts, I try to use a technique known as freefall. Don’t overthink, don’t edit, just write. But here, freefall might literally be the end of the story. At the very least I’d land in the wild water with broken legs. Wimping out seemed my best option. And yet, other folks had made it and were admiring the view. I didn’t want to miss my chance, so held on tight and slithered down. Eventually, shaking, swearing and covered with mud, I reached my goal. 

Ammonite Falls, so named because of the fossils in the layers of rock below Benson Creek, is lovely. All misty and sparkling in the sunlight, the cascade looked like something out of a fairytale. I kept expecting to see magical creatures frolicking on the rocky shelf behind the falling water, or splashing in the clear green pool below.   

What a setting! I’ve never written fantasy, but if I ever do, places like Ammonite Falls will definitely be featured. Hiking is so inspiring.                                                            

It’s also enlightening. Here’s what it showed me about first drafts:    

Go somewhere you’ve never been before.                                      

Follow the sound of rushing water.

Take risks.

Trust your instincts and skills. 

It’s okay to get dirty.

If freefall won’t work, hang on tight.

Be brave. But just keep going, one foot in front of the other, word by word. 

And one more thing: hauling myself back up that cliff was way easier – more like revising.