Retreat

If you’ve been to Calgary, chances are you’ve been to Banff. I’ll never forget the first time my husband and I drove towards the mountains, enveloped by one of the most beautiful horizons in the world, on a highway littered only with ‘wildlife crossing’ signs. Since then we’ve been back several times, and as promised, we’ve spotted many furry friends along the way. But it wasn’t until this month of this year, at the Banff Centre for the Arts, that I finally came toe to toe (toe to hoof?) with a deer.

A few deer, in fact. It was my last day of a writing retreat and I was walking along the wooded trail into town to get some fresh air (and fresh fudge). A small, furry herd was grazing in the middle of the narrow path, without care or concern for my dire fudge needs. Since I’m super nature-y, I knew just what to do: text my husband who would know what to do.

Me: Do I walk by??? I don’t understand.

Husband: Should be fine

Me: They won’t move!!!

Husband: Just don’t be between baby and mother 

Me: *eye-rolling emoticon / photo of deer who, like my husband, were unmoved by my contempt*

Husband: Very pretty and calm. Breathe it in.

The idea of doing a writing retreat at the Banff Centre became a dream of mine the minute I learned there was such a thing as a writing retreat at the Banff Centre. It seemed like the most incredible thing. Five serene, inspired days in the mountains with nothing to do but write. (And eat and drink, because, writers.)

Last fall I finally found the courage (and resources) to make that fantasy a reality, and I registered for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta winter writing retreat. Characteristically, I then spent the following few months fantasizing about how to back the hell out of it.

It loomed so large, the overwhelming idea of my ‘retreat.’ This experience was something for serious writers, not unserious me. I wouldn’t measure up. I wouldn’t belong. But when that February departure day finally came, I packed my laptop, my notes and my gym clothes (unused) and with a little gentle nudging from my husband I headed off to Banff. It was serene. I did write. I definitely ate and drank. It was one of the greatest privileges I’ve been afforded as a writer, serious or not.

When I came across the deer on the trail, I was genuinely hesitant to keep moving forward. It was too steep to go around the herd, I was too underdressed to stand there all day in the frigid mountain air, and, frankly, I really wanted that fudge. So I walked, slowly, towards the animals until they parted just enough to let the frumpy human through. I made it to town, bought some fudge, and sent my husband my favourite apology emoticon for my previous profanity-laced texts.

On my walk back to campus, the deer were gone. (Or they were in the trees? I don’t know much about deer.) I stopped on the trail in my tracks, in the same spot as my previous impasse, and looked around.

Years ago, I could never have imaged we’d still be living in Calgary, that I’d be writing professionally again, and that I’d have my chance to attend a retreat in Banff. I stood there in the snow and decided to let myself believe that I belonged there. And then, after I ate all my fudge (sorry, family) I decided to breathe it in.

Note: Yes, those were my husband’s actual texts. No, I can’t be sure he wasn’t high.

(Not so) Slow and Steady

From the day you became a parent, you’re either waiting for time to speed up (When will they crawl? When will they walk? When will they talk?) or for time to slow down (Stop growing! Stop changing! CRAWL BACK IN MY BELLY!)

The rapid, relentless progression of childhood leaves me breathless. The minute I start to feel comfortable in my parenting role, the ground shifts beneath my feet and I’m behind again. What’s that? It’s fun, you say? You could find it fun, the way a cat finds it fun to chase a laser around the room. In this case I’m the cat, my parenting goals are the laser, and my kids have already moved on from the game while I’m still trying to land on the little red dot.

I couldn’t tell you what has made us so incredibly busy in the last couple months. School, schedules, stomach bugs (enough with the stomach bugs!) plus a myriad of other excitements and challenges. The pages in our full family calendar have flipped by even faster than my daughter grew out of her back-to-school clothes. (Seriously, STOP!) But I can tell you that I’m working very hard to keep up. I haven’t gone for a good long run in a little while, or even a little run in a good long while, but my parenting fitness has been given a strenuous work out lately.

Parenting isn’t a sprint, or even a marathon. It’s psychological Ironman. It’s emotional CrossFit. It’s sometimes, literally, Formula 1. (We’re late for hockey, people!)

And just like my measly 5K performances, I’m actually grateful to hit my less-than-perfect personal best. Which means we’re not first, we’re not last, I’m on the verge of collapse, but we’re happy. Winded, confused, and hungry… but happy.

Harry Potter and the Half-Witted Parent

I swear I even Googled it. “When can my child read Harry Potter?”

Admittedly, I was a little selective with the search results. Like when you Google “How bad is yelling at your kids, really?” and scroll until you find an article titled, “I yelled at my kids and they turned out fine!” By Dina Lohan.

Some search results suggested that yes, indeed, my seven-year-old daughter might be old enough to read Harry Potter. She had been asking me all year to delve into his world, having heard about Harry Potter from some (possibly older?) school mates.

I was tempted too. I was an avid reader when I was young, and I just couldn’t wait for my daughter to experience getting lost inside a world within a book. She was already reading some chapter books that I thought were pretty poorly written. Maybe it was time for some first rate material? What’s the harm? So at the beginning of the summer, I ordered a gorgeously illustrated version of The Philosopher’s Stone and settled in to re-live the magic with my willing, wide-eyed daughter.

Of course I’d read the books before. But somehow the scarier, murder-y details of the story had since escaped me. Dead parents? Abusive caregivers? Attempted infanticide? All within the first chapter? I started getting nervous. I became uncomfortably and acutely aware of every age-inappropriate paragraph and passage as we read deeper into the story. But I did my best to make it sunny. Raindrops and roses and whiskers on kittens… We forged on to the fun stuff, and soon enough she was hooked. It was literally magical.

We read a chapter as often as we could, and she was just. so. into. it. I was impressed at how much she was able to retain, and when my husband would pop his head in the room to ask if it was any good, I would chuff at him in my best (still bad) Hagrid voice, “NEVER-INSULT-ALBUS-DUMBLEDORE-IN-FRONT-OF-ME!”

Because it was good. It was very good. Until it wasn’t. I’m not sure at what point the image of He Who Shall Not Be Named seeped into her head, but it did and it stayed there. When we finally reached the end, she was simultaneously smitten by the wizarding world of Harry Potter, and irreversibly, inconsolably terrified. Not exactly the result I had been hoping for, but probably one I could have predicted.

On a particularly bad night, I peeked over at my husband as our oldest daughter lay shaking between us, and I whispered, “I think I goofed.”

He said, “Don’ look at me, it was yer daft plan.” (His Hagrid voice is better than mine, which is surprising since he’s never read the books.)

Since then, things have improved. Luckily, as with most dark arts, my daughters love for the story has overpowered her fear. She’s hooked, and even hopes to be Hermione for Halloween. (Note to self, order costume early this year.)

I made it clear from the beginning that we would have to wait before we read the next book in the series. Harry Potter is a process. A wonderful process, a sometimes scary process, and one that we will be returning to soon. When the time is right.

Left, to my own vices

One of the less snooze-worthy aspects of my husband’s job in business, or projects, or business projects (I’m joking, I love you, you’re the best!) is that he gets to travel for work. I say gets to, but he’s not exactly fond of these once or twice monthly meeting junkets. He works long hours. He misses us. And sometimes the hotel pool is really, really cold!

But it’s true, things can get rough when one parent is physically and mentally absent, and the other is pacing his hotel room in Houston wondering why his wife isn’t answering her phone. (I kid! I’m very responsible when I must be.)

This week has been one of those weeks, and it’s given me reason to reflect. So here are three things I’ve learned while my husband’s out of town:

1. My other half motivates me to eat well. Don’t panic, I’ve been feeding the kids very well while he’s away, but I’m surviving (thriving?) on copious amounts of coffee and kettle corn. And I don’t hate it. But I should probably eat a vegetable or two. Soon.

2. My other half keeps us feeling safe. The night is dark and full of toddlers, who sometimes have night terrors. Things get a little out of hand when my husband is away and us four scaredy-cats are left all alone. It’s windy, it’s rainy, and the bravest one of all is my three-year-old, who would probably be pretty useless in a fight with a ghost. Let’s just say we’ve been sleeping restlessly. In the same bed. With the lights on.

3. Without my other half, my days are pretty full. When you have to do everything, nothing gets done. Yes, yes the kids are fed and well-enough rested, but my writing? It’s about as abandoned as I feel when my husband travels for work. (I’m joking! I love you! You’re the best!)

Tonight is the first chance I’ve had to review some notes from an awesome Blue Pencil session I had at my recent writing conference. During the session, I met one-on-one with an author who edited an excerpt of my manuscript and he gave me some pretty invaluable feedback. His best advice? Finish it. Which I will attempt to do tonight, in the dark, in between handfuls of kettle corn and bouts of fear-induced trembling.*

Also? Come home soon.

*Did they REALLY need to make a new Blair Witch movie? It’s been 17 years and I’m just getting over the last one.**

**I’m not really over it. I will never not be terrified.

Apply yourself

Just one year ago, I polished off my applications for writing programs at the Humber School for Writers and the Alberta Writers’ Guild. I was accepted to both and chose the latter. I even received my notice of acceptance for each on the very same day. It was thrilling.

And it must have made me feel pretty damn good about myself. I must have thought, “Damn, Shannon! You have this application thing DOWN!” because when it came time to apply for another wonderful writing opportunity this week, I goofed. I totally goofed. I won’t go into details, but it comes down to the golden rule of DOING ANYTHING: I didn’t read the instructions.

Unfortunately, I realized this little (big) error just minutes after I hit send, submitting my slightly tone-deaf-but-hopeful application to the adjudicating bodies who will read my application and surely ask themselves: Did she read the instructions?

Sigh. There were several parts to the application so I’m daring to hope that my one little (big) goof is shadowed by the strength of the application as a whole.

The way I see it, I have three options. I could change my name. I could send the panel a couple of LOLs and maybe a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Or, I could just sit, wait and hope for the best.

I’ll let you know what I decide.

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#LiveActionSlush rush

I don’t like to be brave. I don’t even like pretending to be brave.

When I was kayaking with my kids this summer, an army of earwigs invaded the crowded hull of our tiny, tipsy vessel. I didn’t notice until we were far from shore, and my daughter didn’t notice at all. I calmly picked them off her lifejacket, one by one, successfully avoiding her screams and our eventual death-by-earwig. That was me pretending to be brave in a life-threatening situation. But when my life isn’t threatened by earwigs, I don’t like to be brave.

So it was a bit out of character for me to submit the first page of my work-in-progress for a Live Action Slush. This weekend I attended an amazing local writing conference, When Words Collide, and some of the must-attend sessions were the Live Action Slushes. During these sessions, writers (anonymously) offer their first page to a panel of authors, who read the submissions aloud to the entire room and then critique them. The idea is to learn how well (or not well) your first page would do in an editor’s slush pile. The panel gives their feedback after each page is read. Since the submissions are anonymous, the writers in the audience don’t have to identify themselves. (Some do, because they’re masochists.)

Sounds fine, you say? What’s the big deal? Well, what if that panel of experienced, empathic authors was actually a panel of 9-15 year-olds, who were much less empathic, much less patient and much more particular with their tastes. Kids know what they like, and what they don’t. Also, imagine that this panel of young, discerning readers had been instructed to raise their hands during each anonymous reading if they’d completely lost interest.

Yeah. That’s the panel I chose for my very first Live Action Slush. I entered the conference room, placed the first page of my Middle Grade novel on the anonymous pile of papers, and took a seat to await my fate.

These kids weren’t messing around. Hands were raised, plots were questioned, and when the 13-year-old on the end said, “I like the writer’s use of exposition in the opening paragraphs,” I knew I was in way over my head. Had my body not been numb with fear, I would have crawled up the aisle towards the table and slipped my page out of the slush pile. But then, I heard the opening line of my story being read for the next round of judgement, and I knew it was too late.

I won’t bore you with the details of my immediate, physical reaction to hearing my page being read to a panel of kids in a room full of writers. Let’s just say it was akin to sitting in a kayak full of earwigs. What I really wanted to do was scream, but I sat there silently, calmly, practically motionless. (Any person in the room could have guessed that I was the author, though, since I didn’t exhale for three and a half minutes. Luckily, blue is my colour.) When my page was finally read, the kids had their fun.

The good news is, none of the young panelists raised their hands to signal that they didn’t like it. In fact, they did like it. They said so! Their feedback was articulate and positive and useful and once I saw them smile, things didn’t seem so scary after all.

In fact, it was kind of fun. And not just the kind of fun that people say is fun, but is not actually fun, like kayaking, but a real, honest-to-goodness thrill.

I may even do it again next year. Actually, I can’t wait.

*I do like kayaking, a lot, but only the earwig-less kind.

Summer sixteen

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Photo: Shirley Lynne Photography

I’m not sure if packing for a family of five has become easier, or if I’ve just become numb to the entire process. Tomorrow we leave for our yearly pilgrimage to the East Coast, and even though I’m not quite ready to go, I’m more than ready to get there.

In many ways, it’s been a super sweet 2016. But in others, life feels a little unsure. We have lots to be grateful for, lots to look forward to, and lots of hard work ahead (gulp!).

In the meantime, there’s packing to do! Today, on our wedding anniversary, my husband reminds me that all we need is each other. Which is good. Because I have a feeling I won’t get around to packing much else.

Happy summer! x