Sunday 1 May 2016

So Many Secrets - Recycling an Old Favorite o' Mine

I recycle everything; boxboard, magazines, tin cans (hey - I can craft the *cutest* gifts out of an empty tin can with a pull-tab top...but that's a story for another day, friends) and paper. I am mad for recycling paper. So much so that I have a stack of old, printed manuscripts (which I never really bothered to try to query or peddle in any way) in my counseling room. Now, I'm a scribbler when I am in session; I don't necessarily write down anything my client is saying, but it helps me to listen if I can keep my pen moving on the page.

The blank backs of the old sheets of manuscript are perfect for that, and here's the thing: for the last several years I haven't thought of these stacks of paper as anything other than that: scrap paper.

But then I flipped a sheet over the other day and started reading it. And then the next page. And the page after that. And, and, and....

It was kinda good.

So I started thinking 'What if...?' (and I'm here to tell you: when a writer starts thinking 'What if...?', gears start squeaking, steam starts rolling, and the little conveyer belts that live in their heads start churning out thought after thought after thought.) And so....

My old novel, So Many Secrets is paranormal romantic mystery which reads very raw right now (hey, it was written 10 years ago, in '05. I've evolved a little since then) but has excellent bones and what's more? Reading the old draft hit me right in the nucleus accumbens - that is to say the pleasure-centre of my brain - and suddenly I was right back there, crafting this story and experiencing the sheer, heady joy I felt when I wrote it.

I just had to return to the world I'd created within the walls of So Many Secrets. I wanted to renew my acquaintance with the many characters who live in that story. Be amid the setting (orchard bloom time in the fruit-n-vineyard country of the Okanagan Valley in Canada's beautiful British Columbia), and what's more, I wanted to impart what I've learned in ten+ years as a writer onto this plot and its people. And as a result....?

I've started a companion blog to this one - the link is on this page - and I am hanging So Many Secrets up in weekly chapter installments for anyone who thinks that perhaps the following circumstance is one they might like to be pulled into:

As a retro-cognitive, Natasha can see the past - but she keeps her ability to herself. As a cop, Owen has a dirty history - but he keeps his mistakes deeply buried. Distrust sizzles, for each senses all the other has hidden - but when vengeance reaches out of the past to threaten their mutual friend, Natasha and Owen are forced to set suspicions aside, combine all they are capable of, and uncover So Many Secrets

Here's the link if you so choose to read. Enjoy! And, as always, Peace All

Wednesday 30 March 2016

(Just An Old Sweet(?) Song Keeps) Georgia On My Mind: Southern Gothic Ballads & A Trip To The Deep South

There is a mystique about America’s deep south as compelling as it is repellent. Southern hospitality is legend, yet the southern States do not seem like somewhere that would necessarily welcome outsiders beyond the superficial surface of sweet tea, fried chicken, and “Well, bless your heart”. Any of the South’s deeper (muddy) waters (off the Tallahatchie Bridge)—the waters of its deep-veined history, its turbulent pride, and its impassioned reactions, seem as if they are guarded like the secrets in an old, long-standing family—where relatives despise each other, but distrust a stranger even more. Where the entire clan seethes with the resentment of being unfairly judged and wholly misunderstood by the masses.

Or at least that’s the way I imagine it.

In a couple days I’m headed to Georgia, but prior to that the only time I’ve spent in the American South is when we took a trip to Orlando—and theme parks alive with manufactured magic are thrilling, yet hardly a good representation of the South I’ve read about in literature, seen on film, and, mostly, gleaned impressions of by listening to the dark, Southern gothic ballads I grew up hearing on the radio, tiny ears pricking and peeling through the static, greedily drinking in The Ode To Billy-Joe, The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia, and then later, in my teen years, Alan Jackson’s Midnight in Montgomery, a track that still makes me want to flick all the lights on and slip on a sweater to answer the uneasy chill on my arms.

Ballads—which are both story and song—somehow also imprint themselves on the brain like tiny movies. Perhaps it’s the accompanying music that helps cast such vivid pictures. Consider, for example, the hum of the cello in The Ode To Billy-Joe, lending such a foreboding undercurrent.  Then an entirely different tenor in Midnight in Montgomery, where the violin whines in a way just as mournful as the song.     

Lyrics too paint the pictures of these short, haunting stories, and this more than anything makes the writer in me want to sweep my hat off and bow down low to the song writers. For not only were these folks imprisoned by the rhymes that would ultimately give their ballads rhythm (thus limiting, vastly, the words they had to select from), they were also charged to use the most powerful actions and images possible in order to draw the most vivid story. Yet look at the result. Bobby Gentry lets us feel the sultry Mississippi heat on Choctaw Ridge, smell the lunch Mama’s been cookin’ all mornin’—now pass the biscuits, please. Seriously: have any of you ever heard The Ode To Billy-Joe, or The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia, and not had a little movie playing in your head?

I didn’t think so. I for one could see those small, bloody footprints at Andy’s house every time I heard The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia. I am pleased to say I still do.

But back to mood and atmosphere and the secrets these Southern Gothic Ballads imply linger within that muggy geography, secrets as oppressive as the choking heat and ones that seam the very edges of the land together—from its swamps to its moss-laden oaks—stitching them tightly away from prying eyes. There is more than just mystery in these ballads, there’s menace. Billy-Joe’s suicide, Hank Williams’ drunken recklessness, Little Sister’s confession to (and seeming pride in) double murder (Andy and her sister-in-law; one body, she boasts, that’ll never be found)…these are heavy hitting incidents. So very much at odds with the gospel-singing, God-fearing, respect-your-elders with a yes ma’am or no ma’am portrait of the South we’ve been fed to accept as the cultural norms of the region.

Yet…it is also this very incongruence that makes these ballads’ lyrics stay with us decades after they drop from the Top Forty, and also what lends to the South seeming to be somewhere mysterious, a place where passion, pride, and peril are all insidiously woven together to create disquieting sorts of questions like the ones that lurk between the lines of lyrics, questions that haunt our ears late at night when the room falls dark and our eyes drift shut and we wonder….

Why did Little Sister kill Andy and her brother’s wife? Was she avenging his honor? If so then why didn’t she speak up instead of letting him hang?  Was she in love with Andy herself? But how could that be when she—near sneeringly—says he didn’t have many friends, implying that he didn’t deserve any, either? Will she take her dark secret to the grave?  


Why did Billy Joe jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge? What had he and our narrator tossed off the bridge before his suicide? What does she know that she is not saying? She hadn’t been aware he was suicidal, that much is clear in her shocked immobility at the lunch table, and yet…she knows something. What is it?

So many secrets. So many questions. Such a tempestuous area filled with such an enigmatic culture and impassioned, prideful people. I am in thrall with this place that yes, hold its secrets, yet also seems to be somewhere that allows for the romanticizing of all the melodrama—both real and imagined—within its borders.

I feel lucky to be headed to the deep south of the USA, and to be able to add Atlanta to the list of fascinating cities I’ve visited. I think I’ll load my iPod with a few appropriate tracks for the trip, lyrics that curate the area and advise me to:    

“….just hear that whippoorwill
See the stars light up the purple sky,

Feel that lonesome chill
'Cause when the wind is right, you'll hear the songs, smell whiskey in the air
Midnight in Montgomery, they’re always singing there…”

– Alan Jackson

Friday 5 February 2016

Sounds vs. Silence: Listening To When You Need To Talk (It's Harder Than You'd Think)

When you are a counselor or a therapist and you make a living off of helping people, you are, first and foremost, a listener. And you become good at it. You hear the nuances in tone, read the shifts in body language, and can often sense tears before they start.  You are a confidant, you are a refuge, sometimes you are even a sage.
This skill spills over into your personal life. Listening becomes your default setting; you’re so used to doing it that you often don’t even know you’re doing it, and so it is not unusual for people—all people, not just your clients—to lay their troubles at your feet, deliver confessions in hushed whispers, confide dreams with blushing cheeks and in a halting tone lest you laugh at them (yet you never do. You are a counselor.).
When you listen for a living or, perhaps a better distinction: when living becomes listening, you can forget to talk. And there is a sweeping sort of irony in hearing the secrets of so many while your own go unspoken—even the things that are not particularly confidential. After all, no one can hear while you are listening. The stage is not yours, and you are used to that.
Until you are not.
Last night I had a conversation within which I was asked a reflective question solely about myself, and the query was not perfunctory—the person asking genuinely wanted to know, and what’s more, the question was not close-ended; it was an invitation to talk.
My first reaction—and I am a little saddened to admit it—was surprise. To be given the floor was so unexpected. Counselors are life’s teleprompters, we occupy the stage in a more unobtrusive way than most people, so when someone finds us—and not just what we can do for them, or help them with—but US, as individuals, to be the subject they want to discuss….?
It should not feel so foreign; a personal conversation should, after all, be “personal”, yet the fact that I buoyantly rattled off a five-minute long answer to a simple open-ended question, tells me that the dialogue I shared was far more meaningful—and necessary—than I knew that I needed.
Sometimes we don’t know we’re parched till we’re given a cold glass of water. We don’t realize that the fulcrum has been pushed so far to the edge that now our internal balance beam resembles a ramp (and nasty stuff gets dumped from ramps).  We don’t see that our role has become our reflex and that as such we have trained ourselves—and the people in our personal lives— to always put us in the ‘listener’s chair’ first.
I challenge anyone in the helping profession who reads this to actively remove yourself from the listener’s chair for just one night. In turn I challenge anyone who loves a helper to put yourself in the listener’s chair for just one night.  The impact it will make to talk instead of listen, and listen instead of talk, will be worth any discomfort. Just…try it.

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Trauma, Fiction, and The Supernatural - Breaking Hymn, My New Novel

The novel I am about to query to agents (okay, let me be brutally honest: the novel I am currently nitpicking to death because I am actually TERRIFIED to pitch it to agents. Rejection sucks HARD, friends. Courting ‘No’ is never a pleasing endeavor, this I promise) is ostensibly my favorite piece of work to date. It is a heavily romantic, supernatural mystery that takes everything I’ve learned about trauma in the 20+ years I have been a social worker and gives it a dark, other-worldly twist.

      Can trauma go to the dark end of the paranormal spectrum? Answer carefully—for it’s a possibility that may not be as far-fetched as you think. I’ve worked alongside therapists and counselors for years, and a common denominator among us all have been a small, yet consistent, cache of stories that recount the unexplained; supernatural occurrences that seem to be derived from the pain of the psychologically wounded. Trauma, it would appear, can be represented by the mind, the body….or the spirit.


      Perhaps it’s because trauma is a compilation of such powerful feelings: a pain-shock-and fear combination which, when mixed up like a cocktail, can gut a person’s psyche. Re-write their whole future. Trauma derails the heart and the mind, and it is the single most impactful thing that alters what we in the therapy biz know is the mind-body-spirit trinity that comprises every human being under this sun.

      But…is trauma powerful enough to be an energy unto itself…?

      Andrew, the hero of my novel (which I call Breaking Hymn, but my beta readers insist that I call The Summit’s Shadow) has lived a life that’s been loss-upon-loss. He’s had experiences he refuses to disclose. He was once witness to the immediate aftermath of a gruesome suicide that polluted his sacred place of solace and innocence back where he grew up in the Canadian Rockies. In fact all that he’s lived through there, in the place he’d love to still call home, chased him out, away, and into the profession of law enforcement—a call of duty that’s far more self-punishment than any sort of noble mission to serve and protect (after all—one needs to know how to serve and protect oneself before one can competently expect to do it for others, right?).  Andrew has a sullen temper, a sharp mouth, and…a broken heart. I absolutely loved crafting this character and, over the lengthy course of time it took to tell his tale in all its high-concept (that’s a fancy writer-term that means complex) glory, I came to know him as a social worker would know her client. And to care for him, deeply. Andrew’s Happy-Ever-After was a triumph wrought through tears and laughs and many, many exclamations of “Holy crap! I can’t believe he just said that!”

      Because Andrew Gavin was the character I joked with my crit group that I “couldn’t take anywhere”; a loose cannon who didn’t know (but has learned—a bit) how to be remotely appropriate.

      And yet…knowing his history, would you cut him some slack? Here’s his pitch:

The iconic archetype Mrs. Robinson meets The Sixth Sense in The Summit’s Shadow, a 120k word supernatural romantic thriller, a high-concept ghost story with a twist.

Detective Andrew Gavin knows he’s haunted—by violence, trauma, and a horrific suicide—still, it’s only when he’s suspended from the force and returns home to the Rocky Mountains that he comes face to face with his real ghost. The Dead Boy has always been Andrew’s anxiety-induced delusion—until the apparition is no longer just his. When the Dead Boy appears to, and seduces, Andrew’s childhood sweetheart Elizabeth, the specter makes it clear that he’s always been real—and angry. Shocking Andrew further, the thing slithers into the life of a young boy Elizabeth adores, a kid who appears gravely ill, and insists that Andrew knows why the kid’s dying.

It’s specter vs. cop in a race to save the boy’s life, and The Dead Boy knows that every solution hinges on secrets Andrew just cannot tell. Yet Andrew believes the truth will destroy him—and most certainly will defeat any new chance he might have with Elizabeth. The Dead Boy, though, knows that every secret revealed will allow him, the specter, to once again walk amidst the living…


      And here, on page 22 of this manuscript-I’m-too-chicken-to-pitch, is a short segment that goes where Andrew’s emotion is, always just rippling beneath his surface of stoicism and sarcasm. In this scene he has walked his sister (Shaynie Grace, the heroine from my previous novel, Divinity & The Python) down the aisle…

…“So,” he said. “How many chickens are we sacrificing for this gig, anyway?”

    His sister slugged him, and her Goliath shifted so the guests could not see. Andrew laughed but as he held her hand out every memory flashed, right back to the day his mother had brought the wee pink bundle home, crouching down low so he could see. “She smiled at me, Mama! The baby smiled!”

    “Oh, Andrew. Shaynie Grace is too new to smile.”

    She’d been wrong. Shaynie Grace had smiled. On that day and every one after. He’d been her hero. She was his little friend. And he’d never been good at anything, but he had been good at protecting her. So now….give her away? But I’ve lost so much.

    Their gazes met and for a moment he wasn’t sure if the tears there were hers or just a reflection of his in their identical eyes. “I love you, Andrew,” she said, hushed.

   Good Christ. He wanted to bawl….’

I cried a million times writing this novel. I laughed a million times more. The experiences that shaped this character and the trajectory of his narrative drive are so incredibly typical of things we (therapists, not writers) hear in the counseling room, that I’m not too proud to say that sometimes Andrew’s story, and certainly his history, broke my heart.

      I hope his novel gets the opportunity to break a reader’s heart too. I’d love to be told that someone cried for Andrew. Rooted for Andrew. Hell, I’d love to hear someone swear out-loud for Andrew (and he’d love that too. One of his many dubious charms is a potty-mouth begging to lick soap).

      I would love to hear that someone (because there are so many someones, too many someones) with their own fractured past at last felt they could bravely recount it—because they have seen Andrew’s story and know trauma can be healed.

Peace, all

b.r Jan 2015

Monday 21 December 2015

Getting - And Giving - At Christmas

Seek and ye shall find? Or whine and ye shall be reminded why your life and every breath in it is a gift?

I was sincerely out of Christmas Spirit today—hell, I could barely scrape up a smile that didn’t look like a sneer, much less any sort of goodwill to my fellow man. I felt put-upon, undervalued, invalidated and then, to top it off, I felt deeply insulted and a whole bunch affronted.

Oh woe-is-freakin’-me. Someone please cue the violins.

Life—or, maybe more accurately, this effervescent thing we call Spirit—has a way of executing a wake-up call just when we’re drowning in the stench of our own pathetic pity pit, don’t you think? And when the Spirit speaks, it rarely—for me, anyway—takes the form of a candy cane, a gingerbread man or a lit up Christmas tree. Just when I think I have become as caustic and cynical as I can possibly get, The Spirit always seems to bitch-slap me with silence…and it is then, upon some inwardly/outwardly driven reflection, that I come face-to-face with true giving and getting, and what they feel like when they touch the heart.

Such as…

Getting:  A text message first thing this morning from a friend whose loved one has suddenly landed—and will remain—in the hospital for Christmas…meaning that she will now be celebrating (if we can call it that) there too. We swapped messages all morning, then shared a phone call late this afternoon as she was traversing the QEII to head home, wrap up work and plans and life before traveling back to the Hospital, several hours north on the highway, where Christmas won’t smell like stuffing and gingerbread and spruce trees but instead like antiseptic and boiled & bland cafeteria offerings.  We discussed her concerns. Fears. Possible solutions. And it was a gift, I think, for both of us; to recognize that our age and stage creates so many similar circumstances, worries, questions-with-no-answers and, thank God, absurdities that we can at last collapse in laughter over.

Because life is serious. But it’s so damn ridiculous sometimes, too. And laughing is a gift that feels good.

Giving: A little container of peanut butter balls and eggnog fudge to the Edson Friendship Centre because as simple as it may sound, it is the highlight of my day to work out in their gym—where I am greeted by happy smiles, and enveloped by a kind and welcoming mojo I have felt at EFC ever since I was a brand new social worker some 20-odd years ago.

I am so grateful there are still places in this world that you just know, intuitively, are pure-of-heart.

Getting: A picture posted on my facebook wall of my novel for sale in a retail shop in eastern Alberta. My sales are slow and my marketing has been a process akin to climbing up Everest (with no Sherpa in sight) yet to hear my friend tell me she felt “so proud” to see my book on sale in a store flooded tears into my eyes.

I’ve been given the gift of my novel in print, something so very many talented writers, by virtue of a subjective business, may never see. I am grateful—and humbled—by this profound, thrilling experience.

Giving: My time to my 12 year old who came to the gym with me today (here we are when she conquered her first triathalon)

There will soon come a time when it is no longer cool to work out (or go anywhere, really) with Mom, but for now she is my shadow, and everything I do seems to be something she holds in far higher regard than it deserves to be.

I’m my daughter’s role model. I think she deserves a little better than a sneering scrooge.

Getting: A girlfriend who, more accurately titled, is actually the soul-sister the Spirit gave me more than a decade ago. She is my confidant, my litmus test, and, thankfully, she is often also my conscience. (Because I can assure you I need one more often than not). When life gets a little too ridiculous or crazy, or insulting, I can always count on her to listen, redirect, and pull my humor up from the depths of the pit it has fallen in.  I don’t know what I’d do without her, and it hurts too much to imagine my life without her in it—so I won’t.

In a life spent in loneliness by far, far too many people, my circle may be teeny-tiny…but the people in it are so much more amazing, and brilliant, talented and compassionate than any I deserve. I love them all with every cell of my heart.

Is it too cheesy to end with a meditation? Mind if I do anyway?

Today I was bitter and hateful and cynical and fed up. I felt forsaken and used and judged harshly. And then….

And then silence, and within it sounds slowly resonated and I heard—

Voices as familiar as my favorite songs.

Laughter that sounded the way being young used to feel.

Rock and roll in my ears and the whirr of the bike spinning beneath my feet as I sweat and catch the eye of my youngest, pounding out stress and energy and life on the treadmill and then…

And then silence again, and within it the deep, soundless resonance of being grateful for getting. For giving.

For being aware of both in a way that allows me to say "Amen".

And "Peace".