April Stories

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 Inside cover of The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

In April, I read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life alongside a collection of essays by Joan Didion. Most days, I woke up with a writer shivering inside a flimsy cabin on Haro Strait and went to bed beside a writer waiting with suspicious Haight-Ashbury hippies.

I finished The Writing Life last week, pushing the book into the library receptacle as if sliding a friend’s hand-written journal under her door, and I hope to never finish the Didion book.

I read them at the moment when my husband lost his job (one of 130 employees laid off and sent home) and lost his dog (a fifteen-year-old English Cocker Spaniel who never recovered from surgery). I read them for the sixth month of rain in Vancouver, putting dents into my training plans and anti-depression armor. I also read them as I start writing projects with new goals, topics and formats.

It’s an intense time with loud exhales and quiet lunches, so Dillard and Didion are ideal companions. Reading them promises a moment in the shadows of wise and precise observers. They go slowly, appreciating the meaning or detail that amount to a day. Their words never speed into a reckless sentence, never cut off other ideas or turn without a signal. There are no hashtags. I don’t scroll.

Their printed words pull and follow each other in an orderly way, simultaneously paving and driving a road through the massive pile-ups of a typical day. Their licenses are faded, leathery from decades of work;  I am the only person to care if my learner’s permit blows away.  I sit in the backseat, studying their beautifully constructed sentences and paragraphs, trying to keep up with their tempos and themes, looking out to see mailboxes at the edge of gravel driveways, dogwood branches stretched over dark ditches, and two boys who stop running as we drive by before accelerating onto the freeway.

Yes, we tell stories in order to live. We also read in order to live.

Another Thanksgiving

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Being a U.S. citizen living in Canada with my Mexican husband means that our months overflow with holidays.

Last month, I celebrated Thanksgiving with the rest of Canada. Today I follow on social media the United States as it progresses from Turkey Trotting-Macy’s Day Parade viewing-baking-asking for cooking help on Facebook-traveling-eating-filtering Instagram posts-watching movies-watching football-eating-resting-drinking to sleeping. On Saturday, husband and I will have our own Thanksgiving dinner since we are going to his office’s winter holiday party tonight.

I love that my current life provides these opportunities to learn about and experience new national and cultural holidays. It also requires me to coherently explain U.S. holidays and their customs to my inquisitive husband.

I still am looking for a good rationale to justify marshmallows on Thanksgiving sweet potatoes other than they are sweet and gooey.

Though it’s a regular day in Canada, my cultural DNA motivates me to think about the many people and things I am grateful for this past year, and two activities come to mind.

I relied on writing (personal and professional) and running to keep me strong and optimistic while adjusting to this new life of freelance writing, marriage, and immigration. I am grateful for how the two activities combined into a single tonic for my mind and body that often felt queasy from all of the changes.

I also am grateful for how running lets me be a better writer or at least provides the excuse to take a break. Nick Ripatrazone beautifully writes about the link between writing and running in his recent piece for The Atlantic. It’s a terrific, encouraging read with many profiles of and quotes by authors who run. The piece itself is like a long run along Vancouver’s seawall with sudden, stunning views:

“Through running, writers deepen their ability to focus on a single, engrossing task and enter a new state of mind entirely—word after word, mile after mile.”

“Why do writers so often love to run? Running affords the freedom of distance, coupled with the literary appeal of solitude. There’s a meditative cadence to the union of measured breaths and metered strides.”

-Nick Ripatrazone, Why Writers Run

I am grateful to celebrate Thanksgiving every day I open my laptop and pull on my running shoes.

My Desk Is A Ladder

Blog Title1Saturday afternoon, Joseph and I assembled my desk that had been in storage since February. I had not thought much about being without a dedicated personal writing space, all 6 x 2.5 x 1.8 of it, for nine months.

After packing up my apartment in Seattle and heading to Vancouver, I found writing-friendly places everywhere: my husband’s desk draped with a bedsheet to preserve his stuff; cafes down South Granville Street;  our dining room table; the coworking space Suite Genius for weekly “office” hours; benches along False Creek; picnic tables outside Hillcrest Community Center after a swim;  YVR airport lounge before flights; and Molli Cafe and its tall tables barely wide enough for my laptop and plate of tacos.

My laptop and my freelance writing work allow, sometimes seemingly demand, me to write at various times in different places every day of the week. Every location for writing has its quirks, advantages, and annoyances. I stopped visiting and began living in Vancity thanks to those hunts for coffee, WIFI, and people. They were some of the best parts of this past summer.

I would choose a corner Tim Horton’s with strong internet over a hipster cafe with bad WIFI

But it was not until Saturday when I leaned my desk against the wall, unrolled the lamp cord, and opened my laptop, did I suddenly feel relief and comfort, even safety. My own space. My own space in my new husband’s office in a new city in a new country. One defined place that fosters my writing, that immediately signals the start of the work of writing – no longer taking my laptop into the restroom and or wondering if the wall outlet actually functions.

The desk is not fancy. It is wedged, like the frame of a new condo building downtown, between chester drawers and short cabinets. I turn right and can see the rising Vancouver skyline, straight and see a happy yellow wall, and left the doorway out. Just five pieces of wood, the desk is two skinny side planks with three open shelves bolted between them, the bottom shelf being the widest and where I work. The middle and top rungs will eventually hold notebooks, an old dictionary, and pens.

I want to keep my desk uncluttered. It’s easier to climb that way.

This Is Not A Hill

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When I first ran up this road in Stanley Park, I struggled to breathe. My lungs and legs burned. I doubted that I would reach the flatness of Prospect Point, doubted my decision to try this triathlon thing. That was me five years ago running the BMO Vancouver half marathon when the climb to and over Prospect Point was the most cursed section of the course.

About a month ago, in the final weeks leading up to IRONMAN 70.3 Cabos, I completed six up and down repeats of this hill (plus run warm-ups and 6:20 sprints at the end). There was some discomfort, but I mostly felt the hot satisfaction inside my gut for seeing my legs and arms move in good form. My training through the spring and summer was paying off, and completing the race under the Mexican sun seemed possible, satisfying, even enjoyable.

Thanks to my improved physical fitness, the hill is no longer a hill.

Instead, other hills spread in front of me.

It is not the hill of doubt about my decision to shift my career sideways and launch a freelance writing service in my early 40s.

It is not the hill of summer loneliness that left a canyon each day, swelling up in the afternoons after the rested mornings, crumbling when the busycookingcleaningbrushingmyteethtakingdogoutgoingtobed evenings started.

It is not the growing hill of financial worry every time I do my budget.

It is not the hill of boxes entombing my books, my family photos, my stuff from Seattle, all now stacked in our living room.

It is not the hill of never-ending steps and jumps to Canadian permanent residence.

It is not the hill of sadness with its mean switchbacks of depression when Luddo, my canine companion, stumbled and fell close to death.

One of the reasons I love triathlon is its requirement to physically and mentally push yourself to make yourself better. In the past, its training had been my way of injecting challenge and growth into my day.

Now, triathlon is a comforting refuge with its predictable pain and needed endorphin rush. Its hill is no longer my hill.

Some days, when I ungracefully and doggedly scramble over the professional and personal changes stacked  around me, I wish I could go back five years to that churning burn of Prospect Point.

To feel relief by seeing a definite peak, feeling solid wherever my feet land, stopping my running, walking a bit, and catching my breath.

My Miami to Los Cabos Layover

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Today we travel from Vancouver to Los Cabos with a layover in Los Angeles. We are at LAX now, watching planes and drinking coffee.  If all goes as planned, the husband and I will complete the inaugural IRONMAN 70.3 Los Cabos on Sunday…and the sweaty race day could not come sooner.

For the past seven months in Vancouver, I have been training (swimbikerunstrength) for the Baja race, launching my freelance writing service, adapting to married life, and becoming a resident of Canadaland. On top of all that, I slipped in and out of my depression, gained an awesome writing client, mourned the passing of a cousin, and turned down two months in Toronto with the husband to care for a sweet but sick dog.

The past year has not followed the tidy initial plan I journaled about on my balcony those sunny afternoons in Seattle of last September.  Did I overestimate my capacity to handle all of the logistic, financial, and emotional changes? Yes. Did my inclination to say “HELL YES, I can do this” finally show dangerous consequences? Yes.  Did I escape into the pool and on the road to experience satisfaction and happiness from the triathlon training? Yes.

Last year at this time, I was flying alone into Fort Lauderdale to race the IRONMAN 70.3 Miami (both Los Cabos and Miami races are held the same weekend) as a personal reward following sixteen years employed by Philanthropy Northwest. Then, I was not sure, but I wanted to shift my career and lifestyle to something that would allow me to combine my passions and interests. It would be great, I thought, if I could find a way to write, train, and travel while making a living.

Across the table in the airport lounge, the husband adjusts his earbuds, and I plan to begin a project for a client on the flight to San Jose del Cabo. I realize now that Miami was the start to this new career, new country, new marriage, and Los Cabos is a perfectly-time comma mark in this year of change. In this journey from Miami to Los Cabos, I have changed more than an address, crossed more than one border, and had a very long layover.

What Terry Fox Knew

I ran by the Terry Fox Plaza in front of BC Place last Sunday.

Terry Fox Plaza

Terry Fox Plaza

The memorial for the Canadian hero consists of four bronze sculptures representing the iconic image of Terry, curly hair and simple shoes, running with a thin prosthetic leg towards you, approaching you along a road.

Sunday was the 35th anniversary of his starting the Marathon of Hope, a cross-country run from Newfoundland to Vancouver he planned to raise awareness about cancer. An earlier diagnosis of cancer in Terry resulted in the amputation of his right leg.

The experience also resulted in his personal commitment to instill hope in others living with cancer by doing something incredible, such as running across Canada. At the age of 21, he ran 5,373 kilometres (3,339 miles) before the cancer returned, forcing him to end the Marathon of Hope after five months. The story of Terry continues to inspire people today, and the foundation set up in his honor has raised over $650 million dollars for cancer research and generates an unlimited amount of global awareness about cancer.

“I’m not a dreamer, and I’m not saying this will initiate any kind of definitive answer or cure to cancer, but I believe in miracles. I have to.” Terry Fox

I ran by the memorial for appreciation and inspiration.  Terry started his Marathon in 1980 without the aid of an ipod or GU — while recovering from cancer and running with a basic prosthetic leg. He ran without the benefit of the information we easily have now about proper gear, hydration, and training for an endurance run. I wonder if any one then knew how such an effort would impact his body.

I wonder if not knowing all of that made it easier for Terry to go forward with the run.

In my current world of launching a freelance writing service while trying to stay healthy, it’s easy to either be complacent with the advantages of this moment or ridiculously freaked out about the risks. It’s easy to obsess about my running plan or be despondent when my Garmin drops its reception on 12th Avenue.

It’s easy to read one more blog about freelance writers writing as freelancers for freelance writers wanting to be freelance writers. It’s easy to find a podcast proclaiming the latest myths, truths, to-dos, things to avoid, secrets, common sense, thought leaders, and accidental entrepreneurs about launching a small business.

It’s easy to not move forward with too much information.

I then run past Terry Fox’s memorial facing towards his final destination of Stanley Park, and immediately feel that my moments without gratitude ignore opportunities, my moments with hope create more opportunities, and my moments of not knowing bring me the most satisfaction.

Plucking My Greens

Re-directing my career away from a nonprofit executive to a freelance writer is built on a messy mix of faith, ambition, and ignorance. Having started about nine months ago, I am now in the phase of trusting in the long process and hard work necessary for being a freelance writer.

New and scary things, as expected, are knocking at my door.

CNYGreensInspired by ceremonies I watched during the Chinese New Year Festival in Vancouver’s Chinatown, I offer my personal version of the tradition “cai quing”, meaning “plucking of the greens.”  In the custom, businesses hang green vegetables outside their storefronts to be “eaten” by wandering troupes performing the lion dance in colorful lion costumes. Red envelopes holding money are tied to the bunch along with fruit. Happiness and good fortune in the new year are granted to the businesses when the lions decide to “pluck” the greens and envelope down after an acrobatic and lively dance.

Every day, I open my front door, stand on a chair, and hang my bright green lettuce (who am I kidding? it would be dark green organic kale) above the entry. The loud and impatient Freelance Writing Lion arrives, sniffing the following leaves of effort to decide if they are worthy enough to grant me one more day:

  • Time: I spend approximately three to four hours each day writing. My daily schedule includes 15 minutes of personal journaling, one hour of drafting and editing posts for my blog, and the remaining time on any freelance writing projects.  If not, I use the time for personal writing practice. I end the day with a quick journal entry about my day’s accomplishments and misses.
  • Entrepreneurship: I am transferring to my own career those skills developed from building and leading a scrappy nonprofit organization, securing funds and resources, and constantly selling another organization’s promise. Understanding that I am starting my own small business is incredibly helpful in organizing my priorities, time, energy, and budgets.
  • Engagement: My writing has no external value until it engages others. I can write hours and hours, but if no one reads, comments, or shares my products, I cannot expect to generate one client or paycheck. This is a big leaf since it also includes connecting with clients, readers, peers, and thought leaders to find out what interests them.
  • Reading:  Right now, the leaves of reading are similar to random arugula in this bunch. The more I write, the less I read. I skim Twitter, scan blogs, scroll Instagram captions, and look at Facebook and LinkedIn posts, but I don’t read. When I do, my mind asks:  Why I am not working on my freelance business? Who do you think you are? What am I doing to generate a client? 
  • Improvement: My writing skills are good, not great. There is so much more improvement needed for my grammar, spelling, style, voice, and vocabulary, and every day, I spend time bettering my writing skills to be more competitive in this global marketplace.
  • Marketing: Though I daily research opportunities, this is the wiltiest leaf in the bunch. I rationally accept the necessity of broadcasting my freelance writing services, but I am too cautious in seeking clients and gigs. If my kale bunch is to not become my only meal for the day, I must market my services more intentionally and confidently.

Getting this chance to re-direct my career to my passions of writing, travel, and triathlons is incredible, and I hope that my efforts bundled together with a band of gratitude will satisfy the Freelance Writing Lion.

If so, I trust that my business will be so successful that I can add a little red envelope filled with discretionary cash to the kale bunch.

Until then, I wonder if the Lion takes Visa?